Thursday, January 31, 2008

Ryugyong Hotel

I came across this Esquire article on what has to be one of the weirder hotels I've ever seen. Surprisingly (or maybe not surprisingly, given how weird it is), it is in Pyongyang. The part that is mind blowing to me is that its construction was supposedly consuming about 2% of the North Korean GDP! To put that in persective: 2% of US GDP in 2005 would have been a burn rate of $250 billion!

I can't help but think of Kim Jong-il in Team America. That Wikipedia picture is so dope.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Books That Make You Dumb

Sure, a bit of a facetious title, but check out this interesting informal analysis. Ben will surely find something to smile about there (the school listing, as well as the author's origin)...

Monday, January 21, 2008

Talk About A Roundabout Route..

Check out the crazy back story of the new Chief Economist at the World Bank (from Marginal Revolution):

Justin Yifu Lin, apparently soon to be named the World Bank's chief economist, has one of the strangest CVs you could imagine. Lin was born in Taiwan but in 1979 while serving in the Taiwanese army he defected to China by swimming from the island of Kinmen in Taiwan to Xiamen in China. Embarrassed by the defection of a rising star, the Taiwanese army listed him as missing. Lin left behind a wife and children who (it seems) didn't know what had happened to him.

Lin rose quickly in China receiving a Master's degree in Marxist political economy from Peking University in 1982 and in 1986 a PhD in economics from the University of Chicago (!). According to the Taipei Times, Lin's wife learned that Lin was alive while he was in the United States and they were reunited in the U.S. where she also earned a graduate degree before both returned to China. Lin has since become a well-published economist.

I see movie.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Tell It, Hitch..

Amen to this rant against leveraging of race and gender...

In unrelated news, Salt Lake City has been pretty nice!

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Wine for Texans..

It looks like getting wine shipped directly from out of state wineries to end consumers in Texas is likely to get much easier with this ruling!

Busy Software Industry Day

Hot on the heels of the Sun/MySQL announcement, it seems Oracle is buying BEA (although I think this has been long rumored in coming). I wonder what is to become of Oracle's J2EE application server offering -- does it live on, targeted at a different market segment than WebLogic...or will they be combined?

MySQL Bought!

Wow. Sun just bought MySQL. I wonder if/how this will change their offerings? Back when I had occasion to mess with such DBs, I was partial to PostgreSQL anyway; MySQL was kind of toyish as DBs go at the time. It didn't even have subselects, and was not even fully ACID compliant, making it great to back a website, but not anything putting a premium on transactional integrity or needing more sophisticated SQL constructs. This has been addressed in more recent years, and maybe Sun's new ownership will result in MySQL moving upmarket (at least in a paid variant, perhaps).

More detail in this MySQL AB blog entry.

Landsburg on Globalization..

It seems everyone else is mentioning this piece in the NYT today by Steven Landsburg, which discusses the appropriateness of special government action to address workers whose are eliminated or moved to a lower cost geography. It was framed in terms of all of the candidates' economic talk in Michigan (my home state, Mom & Dad are still there) ahead of this week's primary. Michigan's economy pretty much totally sucks (I'm from near Flint!): 7.4% unemployment...the worst rate in the country, by a pretty substantial margin (only AK and MS are in the sixes).. Often heard in coverage of the Michigan primary was talk of the 'one state recession' that Michigan has been experiencing.

While access to the NYT editorial pages is now free, you still have to log in, so I'll include the content below as well:

What to Expect When You’re Free Trading



IN the days before Tuesday’s Republican presidential primary in Michigan, Mitt Romney and John McCain battled over what the government owes to workers who lose their jobs because of the foreign competition unleashed by free trade. Their rhetoric differed — Mr. Romney said he would “fight for every single job,” while Mr. McCain said some jobs “are not coming back” — but their proposed policies were remarkably similar: educate and retrain the workers for new jobs.

All economists know that when American jobs are outsourced, Americans as a group are net winners. What we lose through lower wages is more than offset by what we gain through lower prices. In other words, the winners can more than afford to compensate the losers. Does that mean they ought to? Does it create a moral mandate for the taxpayer-subsidized retraining programs proposed by Mr. McCain and Mr. Romney?

Um, no. Even if you’ve just lost your job, there’s something fundamentally churlish about blaming the very phenomenon that’s elevated you above the subsistence level since the day you were born. If the world owes you compensation for enduring the downside of trade, what do you owe the world for enjoying the upside?

I doubt there’s a human being on earth who hasn’t benefited from the opportunity to trade freely with his neighbors. Imagine what your life would be like if you had to grow your own food, make your own clothes and rely on your grandmother’s home remedies for health care. Access to a trained physician might reduce the demand for grandma’s home remedies, but — especially at her age — she’s still got plenty of reason to be thankful for having a doctor.

Some people suggest, however, that it makes sense to isolate the moral effects of a single new trading opportunity or free trade agreement. Surely we have fellow citizens who are hurt by those agreements, at least in the limited sense that they’d be better off in a world where trade flourishes, except in this one instance. What do we owe those fellow citizens?

One way to think about that is to ask what your moral instincts tell you in analogous situations. Suppose, after years of buying shampoo at your local pharmacy, you discover you can order the same shampoo for less money on the Web. Do you have an obligation to compensate your pharmacist? If you move to a cheaper apartment, should you compensate your landlord? When you eat at McDonald’s, should you compensate the owners of the diner next door? Public policy should not be designed to advance moral instincts that we all reject every day of our lives.

In what morally relevant way, then, might displaced workers differ from displaced pharmacists or displaced landlords? You might argue that pharmacists and landlords have always faced cutthroat competition and therefore knew what they were getting into, while decades of tariffs and quotas have led manufacturing workers to expect a modicum of protection. That expectation led them to develop certain skills, and now it’s unfair to pull the rug out from under them.

Once again, that argument does not mesh with our everyday instincts. For many decades, schoolyard bullying has been a profitable occupation. All across America, bullies have built up skills so they can take advantage of that opportunity. If we toughen the rules to make bullying unprofitable, must we compensate the bullies?

Bullying and protectionism have a lot in common. They both use force (either directly or through the power of the law) to enrich someone else at your involuntary expense. If you’re forced to pay $20 an hour to an American for goods you could have bought from a Mexican for $5 an hour, you’re being extorted. When a free trade agreement allows you to buy from the Mexican after all, rejoice in your liberation — even if Mr. McCain, Mr. Romney and the rest of the presidential candidates don’t want you to.

Steven E. Landsburg, a professor of economics at the University of Rochester, is the author, most recently, of “More Sex is Safer Sex: The Unconventional Wisdom of Economics.”

Economist Cage Match

Apparently in response to Bruce Bartlett's long teardown of the FairTax (linked to elsewhere on this site),

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

If You Want A Lesson In Naïveté

...then just go check out some of the foolishness trying to pass as seriousness over on this Slashdot thread, in which the question was posed: "What would you do as President?"

It would be pretty hilarious if there were enough workable or legitimate answers give a positive impression of Slashdot readers, but seems to be all posts by middle and high school aged Ron Paul fanatics (or adults at the same level). I even saw a few posts lauding ideas proffered by Kucinich!

Monday, January 14, 2008

Overblown Income Instability?

Much has been made in recent years of two trends: rising income inequality and rising income volatility. These two are generally mentioned as part of arguments for more progressive taxation, taxing of carried interest as if it were regular income (preventing private equity types from taking the bulk of their compensation at capital gains rates), the sunsetting of the 2001 Bush tax cuts, reversal of the slide in union power, increases in the minimum wage, or anything else the author can think of to take the sharp edges off of capitalism.

This route has been taken by books from academics, like Jacob Hacker at Yale, and also by social critics like Barbara Ehrenreich. Hacker's latest book argues that the top of the economic food chain is shifting all the risk onto the lower rungs of the latter, screwing the middle and lower classes. Ehrenreich is probably most well known for Nickled and Dimed, in which she takes a few bottom of the food chain jobs and then tries to get by (rather unsuccessfully). The income volatility aspect is considered particularly serious, as they write of hordes of Americans struggling to get by, with little to no safety that when they experience a sharp dip in income, they have nothing to cushion the blow (leading to all sorts of bad physical and mental end states).

The interesting bit: the CBO is reporting findings that income volatility has apparently been relatively constant since the early 1980s:
...CBO has now examined the volatility of household income (rather than workers’ earnings volatility, the subject of our study in 2007). The preliminary results suggest that household income is much less volatile than individual worker’s earnings, and that household income volatility has not increased over time — and perhaps even declined slightly. Some other recent studies relying on other data sources have suggested increases in household and family income volatility, but various problems in the surveys used in those studies may be contaminating those results.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Frisky 5-0

I hit on a mention on another blog of a forthcoming paper by Steven Levitt (of Freakonomics fame) and Sudir Venkatesh (familiar to Freakonomics readers as the crazy Indian guy who went into the projects in Chicago to study the street level economics of the drug trade. This piece (yet to be published, but a preliminary copy is available here as a PDF) is about the economics of street prostitutes in Chicago.

Perhaps the most interesting result: there is a lot more crooked officer stuff going on than expected (or at least than I had expected. They figure that roughly 3% of all tricks turned by the average street hooker were freebies demanded by police in order to avoid arrest!

Also interesting (and counter to what everyone else would have assumed): having a pimp is worth it! The girls with pimps had higher per-hour wage equivalents, even after subtracting out the pimp's take.

Friday, January 11, 2008

*Engineered* To Only Live 150 Hours?

This is an interesting piece at Megan McArdle's blog. It's part of her response to some commentary by Tyler Cowen on her piece in this month's Atlantic, "No Country For Young Men." (There is also a Mark Bowden story about The Wire in this month's issue!) It's about the major issues that will arise with the graying of the Baby Boomers. The tangential discussion that followed was about the likelihood of the commercial availability of robots to aid in caring for the elderly, in time for the very creaky years awaiting the just-now-retiring Boomers.

Megan thinks it unlikely, and her post includes an excerpt from an Popular Mechanics interview with the CEO of iRobot (they make the familiar Roomba and Scooba, along with some military robots). The full excerpt in the post is worth reading, but the part that jumped out at me was this:

"Unlike with software, the margins are terrible," he said, citing 56 percent drop-off from software to robotics profits. "And you're building physical stuff. You have moving parts, gears operating in nasty environments. The robots are going to break." Initially, the Roomba was built to last 150 hours before failing, to meet European product standards. But considering how often the vacuum runs, that would have meant just six months of operation.

Uhhh..what? The first generation Roomba had a design life of 150 hours? I'm sure the people who purchased it were completely unaware that it was expected to break after 6 months of regular use. I'm sure this product characteristic was not mentioned anywhere on the product packaging. I wonder how long the current generation Roomba is expected to last?

This is a pretty funny, pertinent piece (and it even has the guy from the Sonic commercials!):

How Is He Not A Laughingstock?

The former boy mayor wants a recount?

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Premature Celebration In Hillary Camp?

When Jen and I were watching the NH results at the gym yesterday, the Hillary camp was effusively ecstatic over their upset (at least versus the polling predictions of the leading 2-3 days). Sure, they were supposed to lose (potentially double digit, even accompanied by rumors of exit strategies), and so they do have something to cheer about.

However, she only won by 2 points. The issue is that the polls (taken with a grain of salt, given their failure to foresee her win last night) show that Edwards voters would overwhelmingly end up in the Obama camp if Edwards were to drop out. Edwards had 17 points last night. Had it been a pure Hillary/Obama head to head, this would suggest that Obama would have walloped her.

Iowa showed that not all women are blindly lining up behind Hillary (Obama beat her among women in Iowa). Absent that giant guaranteed block, Hillary would be in deep trouble if Edwards realizes the futility of his populist crusade (however inauthentic).

Reality Check on 'Change'

Robert Samuelson has a piece today that is very pertinent for anyone who watched the corny, additional-mandate-laden acceptance (Hillary) and concession (Obama) speeches out of NH yesterday. All Democratic candidates and a few of the Republican ones (Huckabee and Romney, in particular) have taken to overusing the word 'change' (followed by calls for it, and assertions that they will spearhead the charge for change). The article's early lead in drops cold water all over this:

"We will do whatever it takes to make America a better country, to give our kids a better future," says Mike Huckabee, winner of the Republican Iowa caucuses.

"We will deliver for our children, our grandchildren and our great-grandchildren," claims Sen. Barack Obama, the Democratic winner.

"We're going to reclaim the future for our children," says Democratic Sen. Hillary Clinton.

Actually, these are throwaway lines, completely disconnected from reality.

Our children face a future of rising taxes, squeezed -- and perhaps falling -- public services, and aging -- perhaps deteriorating -- public infrastructure (roads, sewers, transit systems). Today's young workers and children are about to be engulfed by a massive income transfer from young to old that will perversely make it harder for them to afford their own children.

No major candidate of either party proposes to do much about this, even though the facts are well-known.

Elaboration follows in the article.

Monday, January 07, 2008

True On A Few Levels

Many of the lemmings above (not all that dissimilar to the Dean equivalents in '04 in some ways) probably haven't seen some darker things from Paul's past, like this.

Friday, January 04, 2008

Unfortunate Hopkins Linkage

I felt compelled to post just now, as my customized streaming music station on Yahoo Music just served up the namesake song for this URL.

I'm glad that National Journal published this exhaustive discussion of the pretty far fetched Lancet study from 2006 (the one claiming > 650k civilian casualties from coalition bombs up to that point; this was over an order of magnitude higher than the several existing estimates). Unfortunately, it also reminded me that the study that appeared in The Lancet was produced by a group of authors primarily based out of Hopkins SPH. Their motives do not look to have been too far beyond reproach..

Thursday, January 03, 2008

The Contest

It's a bit late to mention the contest (as it started in early December), but we are currently still much closer to the start than the finish. The Contest is a weight war shootout between myself, Jen, and my sister.

The span: 12/1/07 - 3/31/08
The metric: percentage of body weight dropped from 12/1/07
The prize: it varies (see below)

If Jen wins, I have to take her on a weekend trip to a city of her choosing (she says it would likely be a city she hasn't yet been to). While we are there, our nicest/most expensive meal will be billed to Laura.

If Laura wins, then Jen and I share the cost of flying her down for an Austin weekend trip.

If I win, then Jen and Laura go together to get some as-of-yet-undetermined thing for my house (art, some small furniture item, a room painted, whatever; something of comparable cost to the weekend trips above).

Laura is maintaining the spreadsheet tracking progress. Weigh in is each Monday morning, with each of us emailing her to report our percentage delta from the initial weigh in.

I have a long way to go (although am actually in the lead, at -1.95%), but didn't backslide nearly as much as expected from all of the holiday eating.

12/1: 195.4 lbs
12/8: 193.1
12/17: 191.2 (my birthday, and also the day we switched to Monday weigh ins; the last day of the competition is a Monday)
12/24: we all decided to skip the Christmas week!
12/31: 191.6 (only +0.4 lbs over the holiday!)

I asserted to Jen that I thought the winner of the competition would be 'at least in the upper single digits.' We'll see. If I were down 8%, for example, that's would leave me almost exactly at 180, which is still pretty heavy by historical standards (but then again, March is not too far away, and -15 lbs is not anything to sneeze at!). Too soon to be picking out the house item just yet...