Archive for December 2004

Re-Discovering a Couple of My Favorite Writers

A while back, I went through my semi-annual cleaning and de-entropification of my bookshelves.  In doing so, I found several older books that I wanted to re-read.  In particular, books by John MacDonald and Alistair Maclean caught my eye.

As I have re-read these books, I have found that a number of my friends are not familiar with the authors, which is a shame.  Once an author dies and stops writing books, they kind of fall out of the public consciousness, unless you are Lawrence Sanders and have a post-humus "ghost" writer.

Now, I am not one to poopoo other people's choice of books.  In fact, I am very familiar with the look of disdain I get from time to time as I am reading Tom Clancy or Steven King or even Terry Pratchett from someone who is shocked I am not reading Sartre or some other Faulkner-esque book that is gravid with meaning.  However, I will tell you that not knowing these two authors is a lost joy, and an opportunity to have some real fun reading.

John MacDonald may not be known to most of the current generation, but he is to current writers.  More modern novelists than you can shake a stick at have grown up influenced by MacDonald's prose.  The place to begin is with his Travis McGee books, which are fabulously well written in addition to being fun to read and good mysteries to boot.  Any one will do, but if you have a choice, you might try the Long Lavender Look (all of the McGee books have a color in the title)., which is consistently rated as one of his best.  The Deep Blue Goodbye is the first of the series. I like Pale Grey for Guilt, because you see a little of MacDonald the Harvard MBA coming out, but other die hards don't like it as much.  MacDonald was very prolific, and has written a number of other great books you might know better from movies and TV, including Slam the Big Door, Cape Fear, and Condominium.

Alistair Maclean is a different kind of writer.  While his prose may not be as beautiful as MacDonald's, before there was Clancy or Crichton or even Ian Flemming there was Alistair Maclean.  Maclean is best described as a writer of great adventure stories.  My favorite is Where Eagles Dare, which actually is an awesome movie as well.  A close second is Ice Station Zebra.  Both of these share in common a lot of action and a ton of twists and turns - those who were confused by Mission Impossible need not apply.  Other great books include Guns of Navaronne, Breakheart Pass , Puppet on a Chain, HMS Ulysses, and Fear is the Key.  Breakheart Pass was particularly good, with a great story set in the old west, and Puppet on a Chain is perhaps his very best taut suspense novel, though it is about the only one on the list that was not made into a movie.

Why Aren't There More Private Schools?

Why Aren't There More Private Schools?  This is a conversation my dad and I have had any number of times - as he has sat on the board of a number of public and private schools / districts and I have, given frequent moves, oven shopped for schooling for my kids.

The first, perhaps most obvious answer is that there is not that large of a market, because few people can afford to pay two tuitions for their kids (i.e. public school tuition via property taxes and then a separate private school payment).  But, I think that that answer is wrong.  This country is tremendously wealthy, both on average and at the top end.  Most really good private k-12 schools are oversubscribed -- with competitive entry requirements and long waiting lists.  We have all heard stories about New York City schools where you have to practically go straight from the act of conception to the admissions office to have a chance to get the kid in.

I have my own experience with this, in many cities, but take Seattle for example.  In the east side suburbs, their are 3-5 high quality private elementary schools, and for the most part, they are all way oversubscribed.  One of them admits something like 6% of applicants.  And charges $10,000+ a year for kindergarten and more for later years.

What other industries are there where 94% of the demand for a $10,000+ product goes unmet by new entrants?  And unmet for decades, not just in a short period of mismatched capacity?  Just look at iPods - how many people jumped into the market with copycat products when they saw the popularity of this product, and Apple's inability to keep up with demand?

But what really got me thinking about this problem was when I moved back to Phoenix.  Despite having my kids in some of the best schools in every city we have lived in, the absolute best is, of all places, here in Phoenix.  How do I know it is the best?  Well, my son went to kindergarten at this Phoenix school, and then we moved to Seattle for two years.   In Seattle, we went to what was supposed to be about the best elementary school on the east side -  Gates sent some of his kids here, as did the McCaws, and many other people who could afford any place they wanted.  At the end of second grade, the school told me my son could have skipped second grade, which means he could have skipped first grade there too.  In two years, he never learned anything more than he learned in one year of kindergarten in Phoenix.

There are two other interesting things about this Phoenix-area private school, beyond just its excellence:

  • It is by far the cheapest we have ever attended, less than half what we paid in Seattle and well under the average per-pupil spending in public schools
  • It is for profit - not a charity or foundation.  It has no donations, government grants, endowments, etc.  It runs itself for profit, it is inexpensive, and the education is great.

The school is not perfect -- it has a strong focus on academics, without the big theater programs or art programs or photography classes you might find in a large public school, so we have to supplement that stuff outside of school.  But my point is, why aren't there more schools like this?  Why aren't people jumping in to fill this market?  This is more than of academic interest to me.  I am a big supporter of school choice, but to support choice you have to believe that private schools will be created to meet the new demand vouchers would open up.

Thus it is with great interest that I saw this post at Marginal Revolution about the barriers to starting a private school.  They link this article from the Reason foundation.  The Reason Foundation argues that a lot of micro-regulation, particularly zoning, limits private schools, especially when zoning boards are dominated by people who have an interest in protecting public schools from competition.

In the context of my Seattle story earlier, by the way, note this proposal that came out a while back to actually ban private school (and church) construction in large parts of the county that Seattle is in. 


There were several responses to this along the lines of 'so what - everyone has to navigate basic permitting processes'.  That may be, but my experience is that zoning is stacked against private schools, even before you consider the proposed total ban on private school construction described in the article I linked above.  For example, in the Seattle eastside suburbs, one private school that needed to move to larger quarters was unable to find a site within a 20 mile radius where they were allowed to build a private school.  Residential zoned tracks did not want more traffic from a school, and they were not allowed to have a school with little kids in most commercial zoned tracks.  The point is that private schools face permitting hurdles that go beyond what most businesses face, and, as I mentioned earlier, most zoning boards are packed with people who have a vested interest in not allowing new private schools to be built anywhere.

Penn Jillette on Censorship

Penn Jillette, a very entertaining guy and a very interesting libertarian, is interviewed in Reason about censorship in America.  Jillette criticizes what needs to be criticized, but, at least as important, he recognizes that this country is still way ahead of the rest of the world.  Jillette has this way of criticizing while still remaining optimistic and positive that I like a lot, and is a refreshing change from the hate-America crowd.

My Favorite Howard Hughes Story

Given the recent fascination with the upcoming Howard Hughes biopic, as well as any number of other articles on his life (this article covers some of the more eccentric parts left out of the movie)  I remembered my favorite Hughes story. 

Howard Hughes loved watching movies at night.  Now, this won't seem too odd to most of us, since many people, myself included, have spent a few late nights watching an old movie on cable or on the DVD player.  However, Hughes had a problem.  He liked to watch movies of his choosing in his own room on top of the Desert Inn in Las Vegas before anyone had dreamed up HBO or the VCR. 

Hughes was not daunted by this small problem.  This is the man that bought the Desert Inn when they threatened to evict him.  So, Hughes bought a local TV station.  Each week, the TV station would publish its weekly schedule, including the movies it planned to show each evening;  however, it seldom followed this schedule, because each evening Howard Hughes would call his station and tell them what movie he wanted to see, and that would be what they broadcast.  So, in a sense, Howard Hughes invented pay per view TV, though his version was kind of expensive.  Also, the TV station apparently got a lot of complaints for never showing the movie listed in the TV guide.

Wow - 2004 Quote Roundup

Tim Blair rounds up great quotes from 2004.  He may have spent more time on this one post than I have on my blog for the whole year.

I Have a Better Idea

From comes the story that the anti-tort reform Center for Justice & Democracy is upset about this bit of legal immunity:

Many farmers use anhydrous ammonia as fertilizer, because it provides vital nitrogen nutrients to the soil. The combustible material is produced in Louisiana, and then shipped to the Midwest on barges or through pipelines, and then stored on tanks on farms. However, ammonia is also useful for making illegal methamphetamines, and thefts are a regular problem. (KOMU-TV, "Law Officers Fight Ammonia Thefts", May 19). If a thief injures himself tampering with an ammonia tank, should he be able to sue the farmer for the injury? Three states, Kansas, Missouri, and Wyoming, say no, and provide immunity for those who store, handle, or own ammonia equipment from suit by thieves. Legislatures are considering the issue in other midwestern states.

I find this hard to argue with, unless of course you are a tort lawyer and want to sue over anything any time.  In fact, I have an even better idea.  I propose the following law:

Citizens shall be immune from any suit for injuries or damages incurred by someone committing a crime against them.

Happy Holidays

Hope everyone out there has a fantastic Christmas, Hanukkah, Ramadan, Winter Solstice, New Year, etc. (did I get everyone?)  We try to do something different each year for our holiday card.  Here is this year's.


I realized from fellow Arizona blog Speed of Thought, in their link to my post (cool, am I a moonbat?) that I left out Kwanzaa.  Oops, I hope there are not protesters outside my door.  Next week I plan a post on Kwanzaa -- I have zero problem with people making up a new reasons to celebrate, since life is worth celebrating.  However, I will look at the 7 values celebrated by Kwanzaa and consider whether these 7 values are really helping African-Americans (hint:  think socialism).

By the way, Speed of Thought has a very moving image here.

Trying to Delete People From Our Holiday Card List

Every year we do this strange dance when it comes to deleting people from our Holiday card list.  My job each year is to print out the labels from last year so my wife can edit them.  In the process, particularly since we move so much, we always add about 10-20 new names and delete about as many.  So the cards went out a few days ago.

Each day, though, I get a few more from my wife to mail.  My wife doesn't tell me why we need to send a few more, but I know.  You see, we have received a card from one of the people who we took off the list.  Having received their card, we therefore must (?) send them a card in return.  This seems nuts to me.  The implication of this process is that there is no way for anyone to get dropped from a card list unless both parties mutually, without coordination, decide to drop the other in the same year.  So, inevitably, our list just keeps getting longer each year.

By the way, don't miss this year's letter here.

Is Global Warming Advocacy Killing Science?

I worry that global warming advocacy has crossed the line from science to religion, such that data counter to the basic mantra is considered heresy rather than scientific discourse. 

In my review of Michael Crichton's new book, I said I was sympathetic to his global warming skepticism but that I thought his characters and plot were over the top and he was too heavy handed with the polemic, which hurts any action novel.  Maybe I was wrong:

We have to offer up scary scenarios, make simplified, dramatic statements, and make little mention of any doubts we have. Each of us has to decide what the right balance is between being effective and being honest.

- National Center for Atmospheric Research (NOAA) researcher and global warming action promoter, Steven Schneider

More here from Arizona Watch.  I do disagree a bit with using the Nature Conservancy as a proxy for all environmental groups.  Though they advocate things I don't agree with, the vast majority of their funds go to actual preservation rather than political advocacy (unlike Sierra Club or others).  They are actually one of the better examples of trying to use private voluntary action rather than the government to reach some environmental goals.

I have written more on Kyoto here.  A good recent article in TCS by George Taylor talking about the panic around arctic temperatures is here.

Carnival of the Vanities #118

The Carnival of the Vanities is up at Ravenwood.  Don't miss my post on the 60th anniversary of the great Phoenix-area German POW escape.

6-year-old Protesters

Here is a scoop for a few folks out there:  6-year-olds do not have the reasoning ability or a sophisticated enough view of the world to be polical activits.  However, they are, given their lack of sophistication, perfect subjects for political indoctrination and great pawns for media-savvy advocacy groups looking for a little airtime.

I saw this story on Fox News today about a group of 2nd graders manipulated by their activist public school teacher and the Rainforest Action Network to protext at Chase Manhattan in New York against logging and oil drilling.  Apparently unable to get anyone with a high school education or a adult reasoning level to support their cause, the RAN turned to first and second graders:

"I celebrate the world, I celebrate the rainforest, and I care [about] the reality of what is happening with my students, which is only fair, and I let them make their own choices," said teacher Paula Healey.

Right.  Six-year-olds are in the perfect position to formulate their own opinion on sophisticated issues.  Even if the kids did have adult decision-making faculties, I would bet a gazillion dollars that Ms. Healey never brought any contrary opinions into the classroom, exposure to which is necesary for most of us to "make their own choices".

This is entirely inappropriate at this age in the Public Schools.  In my mind, this is just another reason for school choice - if there are parents who disagree with me and consider it a good use of a first grader's time to carry a picket sign about issues s/he can't possibly comprehend at a NY bank, then they should be able to send their kids to a school that so specializes, but the rest of our kids can be left alone to learn trivial stuff like math and reading.

Gun Quiz

Unlike many libertarians, I am not particularly rabid about gun rights.  It's just not an issue I am that passionate about one way or another.   I have always thought that the one monopoly the government rightly should have is on the use of force for anything other than self-defense (e.g. military, police & law enforcement, incarceration, etc.)  Given this one monopoly, it makes sense that the government should have some interest in regulating private weapons ownership.  However, we can theorize all day but as long as the Second Amendment exists, the government may wish to limit gun ownership but its ability to do so is severely restricted.

Anyway, the point of this post was really just fun and not philosophy.  Take four states:

  • Connecticut
  • Pennsylvania
  • Texas
  • Florida

Two of these states have concealed handgun carry rates by private citizens 3x higher than the other two.  Guess which.

This is A Much Cooler Map Than Red/Blue Election Maps

Here, via Instapundit, is the linguistic map for how people refer to a soft drink.  Its interesting how you adjust.  I grew up in Texas and called every soft drink a "coke" and now I call it a "soda", which are both the dominant terms in the places I have lived in each phase of my life.   For the record, though, I have never, ever called it a "pop", or as they say in the midwest, a "pahhhp" (click for larger map)


Dude, Managing my Retirement Fund is Like, Way Too Much Stress

In this post on Social Security reform at Powerline (Time blog of the year, congrats guys) they take as a starting point a Sabastian Mallaby article in the WaPo who says:

Privatizing social security would increase stress levels, says Mallaby, because determining where to invest one's retirement money entails making tough choices and taking risks. Thus, Mallaby believes that many, perhaps even most, people would prefer to have the government handle their social security funds as it does now than to "agonize over health stocks vs. Asian bonds."

In this we see two things that characterize liberals and progressives:  "1) distrust of individual decision-making and 2) willingness to accept much less wealth in return for more certainty.  By the way, I have no particular problem with #2 when this decision is made on an individual level.  However, I do have a problem when politicians make this decision at a societal level.  As regards Social Security, I have no problem with people being offered the "let the government continue to keep your money" option as long as it is voluntary.  The Powerline guys have other good comments, read the whole thing.

By the way, I will take a moment for a bit of "I told you so" here.  This "capitalism is too stressful for us dude" attitude is entirely consistent with what I said about progressives and capitalism here.


Here is a nice post on the same topic at Cafe Hayek.

July? Who Can Wait Until July?

Via Instapundit:

THE NEXT HARRY POTTER BOOK, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, is finished, and will be out in July.

Iraqi Gas Lines

I had no idea this is what they were doing, but it is insane (via Marginal Revolution):

THE queue of angry motorists stretches for miles. Baghdad's petrol stations are drier this month than they have been since just after the American-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. Some drivers wait for as much as 24 hours, sleeping in their vehicles. When told that there is no petrol, some have lost their tempers and started shooting. How, asks a furious driver, can an oil-producing country run out of fuel?

Ask an insurgent, and he will assure you that the American army steals the oil for its tanks. Others might blame the lack of capacity at Iraqi oil refineries or the fact that the insurgents keep blowing up the pipelines. But the most important reason is that the government has fixed the price of petrol at approximately zero"”barely one American cent a litre.

I wonder if the problem in the electic power sector is similar.  See the post for the whole article, from the Economist.

Carnival of the Capitalists

Carnival of the Capitalists

Almost to Satirical to be Real

I hope this is a joke, but fear that it is true.  BlogCritics is posting on a Boston Globe article that teachers (presumably not in the red states!) are moving away from correcting papers in red ink because they fear it hurts self-esteem.  It sounds eerily similar to this, which actually is a joke.  I called that story "Almost to Real to be Satire", thus the name of this post.

I wonder if red ink hurts self-esteem more than, say, graduating high school and not being able to read.

We in Phoenix Support Our Troops

Hats off to ex-Arizona Cardinals cheerleeder and Phoenix resident Sarah Coggin for being part of the work to support our troops by visiting them overseas.  And here is more on other cheerleader visits here at the NFL Cheerleader Blog (as I have said in the past, if I could get paid to write that blog, my life would be set).  And shame on you cynics who think that I posted this just to have an excuse to get a cheerleader picture on the front page.  I actually did it to get two cheerleader pictures up:

Sarah1  Joint2

Does the Web Demand New PR Technologies?

Two different inputs recently have gotten me thinking about public relations and the web, and just how far behind the technology curve many PR departments may be.

The first input was a comment I got on one of my posts that I wrote while on vacation last month.  In this post I mentioned that I would be heading for Disney World for our traditional family reunion, but that growing crowds on Thanksgiving week would probably force us to try a different week next time.  I got a comment from someone who sounded like a Disney employee, recommending a better week.  Now, it turns out that it was not a Disney employee, just a helpful reader (one of my loyal 34 or so).  But it got me to thinking.  Are corporate PR departments keeping up with the web?  If Disney was not doing stuff like this, why aren't they?

The second input was this post in Reason's Hit and Run blog.  They point out TIVO efforts to manage the use of the TIVO copyright to ensure that they do not lose the rights to the name.  (Though the article mentions Xerox and Kleenex, my understanding is that Formica actually came the closest to losing its copyright on that name due to overuse as a generic term for, uh, whatever Formica is).  How can companies possibly keep up with their trademark usage on the web?

Back when I worked for a large corporation, we had PR people, either in or out of house, who would provide us with weekly news summaries of where the corporation was in the press.  This was particularly helpful to those of us in marketing, who wanted to make sure we saw all the reviews of our product (so we could use the good ones and refute the bad ones).

In the world of the Internet, this approach seems hopelessly dated.  In the "old days" I used to walk to school 20 miles each day in the snow, up hill both ways  (sorry, always feel like I am channeling my dad when I say "in the old days") the media might have 10  or 15 mentions of our product every two weeks.  Now, on the web, there might be 10 or 15 an hour. Every day employees may be talking about the company in a chat room, customers may be commenting on the company in some place like or in Amazon reviews, blogs may be posting on the company, and authorized or unauthorized vendors may have set up shop to sell the company's products online.

How does  a company keep up with all this?  If I was a large company, I would be actively searching the web for key words associated with my company and competitors, looking for new posts or entries or reviews or even whole websites.   Employees spilling secrets in a chat room?  Need to tell legal.  New web site selling our product? Send it to marketing to make sure they are authorized and are using our trademarks and product descriptions correctly.  Blogs posting on us?  We might want to add our own comment to the post.

What we need is the modern technology version of the clipping service.  The technology would probably be pretty straight forward - a company wouldn't even have to build it's own search engine - it could just take a full snapshot of the Google results one day and compare those results to a search the next week, and look for changes.

Or, better yet, why doesn't Google provide this service to corporate accounts itself?  After all, they do need something to justify their sky-high PE ratio, maybe this would help.  Wouldn't Exxon pay $50,000 a year for this service?  Heck I pay D&B several hundred dollars a year for a credit watch service on my company's credit rating, I would certainly pay some hundreds a year for a PR watch of my small business and my competitors.


One company that seems to be doing something ike this is BuzzMetrics.  Link courtesy of

Demographics of Terrorism

I thought this demographic and psychological study by the Foreign Policy Research Institute (caution:  I have not idea who these guys are) and linked via Little Green Footballs is pretty interesting.

Most people think that terrorism comes from poverty, broken families, ignorance, immaturity, lack of family or occupational responsibilities, weak minds susceptible to brainwashing - the sociopath, the criminals, the religious fanatic, or, in this country, some believe they're just plain evil.

Taking these perceived root causes in turn, three quarters of my sample came from the upper or middle class. The vast majority"”90 percent"”came from caring, intact families. Sixty-three percent had gone to college, as compared with the 5-6 percent that's usual for the third world. These are the best and brightest of their societies in many ways.

Al Qaeda's members are not the Palestinian fourteen-year- olds we see on the news, but join the jihad at the average age of 26. Three-quarters were professionals or semi- professionals. They are engineers, architects, and civil engineers, mostly scientists. Very few humanities are represented, and quite surprisingly very few had any background in religion. The natural sciences predominate. Bin Laden himself is a civil engineer, Zawahiri is a physician, Mohammed Atta was, of course, an architect; and a few members are military, such as Mohammed Ibrahim Makawi, who is supposedly the head of the military committee.

This is not particularly surprising to me.  The "terrorism comes from poverty" mantra has more to do with trying to make a political point (generally to excuse terrorism and totalitarianism and often to blame the US) rather than any particular facts on the subject.  In fact, the description above matches surprisingly well with US domestic terrorists and mass murderers.  Though there is a lot of argument nowadays about this stereotype, Phillip Simpson describes the FBI's serial killer profile (emphasis mine):

He is usually a white male between twenty-five and thirty-five years old, though of course there are teen-aged and elderly serial killers as well. Generally, the male serial killer is at the height of his physical powers, a fact which not only serves him in the practical matter of overpowering victims but also empowers him in the public arena: his strength and apparent potency (and of course, choice of innocent victims) render him an effective media monster. He is also likely to be an eldest son or an only child and of average or above-average intelligence. His childhood may have been marked by incidents of sexual or physical abuse, and his parents may be divorced or flagrantly unfaithful to one another. He usually possesses a strong belief that he is more intelligent and privileged than ordinary people (a belief that only grows stronger when confronted by evidence to the contrary) and thus exempted from the social restrictions that govern the masses. No safe predictions can be made about his economic origins, but as Leyton notes, serial murder in our era is more a crime of the middle classes than of the lower or upper ranges of the socioeconomic hierarchy.

The sexual material may or may not be parallel, though it is interesting to think about in terms of the anti-women male dominance of radical Islam.

12 (Canadian) Days of Christmas

An oldie but a goodie from Bob & Doug McKenzie to get you in the holiday mood, courtesy of Aeon.

Fairly Rich Irony

Apparently blue state Democrats, who a couple of months ago were bashing Bush for his "tax cuts for the rich", have a new-found concern about...taxes being too high on the rich.  Specifically, as in this post on BlogCritics, the AMT is apparently hurting blue state rich folks disproportionately:

There is certainly a measure of rich irony in hearing stalwart Democrat Congressman Marty Meehan fretting (in front of microphones and camera of course) that the Bush administration's future tax policies will hit the well-to-do among his constituents. Says Meehan, "if this tax is not fixed, virtually every four person family in Massachusetts making $75,000 a year will have its taxes automatically increased by the AMT".

Duh.  I have been saying for years that the AMT, particularly without indexing, will soon constitute a huge stealth tax increase.  Which is why I hate this kind of unprincipled partisanship out of the Republicans:

Some Republicans have suggested leaving the minimum tax in place because those hardest hit tend to be in states that did not support Bush, including Massachusetts, California, and New York. "˜"˜It is a tax of people living in "˜blue' states,'' said Grover Norquist, the conservative activist who heads Americans for Tax Reform.

Wrong.  Taxes on the rich, even with recent tax cuts, are unbelievably high, even after the Bush tax cuts.  As I wrote here, the wealthiest 10% already pay 2/3 of the income taxes.  It is time for AMT reform.

This is Even Worse than Publicly Funded Stadiums

I have written a number of times about how I hate public funding of sports stadiums for billionaires.  But, via the Arizona Republic, this is perhaps worse:

Mired in debt, the Insight Bowl is considering leaving downtown Phoenix's Bank One Ballpark unless the postseason college football game receives a public subsidy.

Great - using tax money to fund random college bowl games.  And where does the money go - most of the money does to the participant teams and their conferences which this year are Notre Dame and Oregon State.  Why does Arizona need to subsidize the State of Oregon's athletic programs.  And Notre Dame?  They have one of the largest endowments in the country.  Neither of these teams have any connection to Phoenix or Arizona.

OK, I am being purposefully naive.  The money may go directly to the teams, but the purpose of the subsidy is to get those teams' fans to come to Arizona on the week between Christmas and New Years and buy hotel rooms.  In fact, it is an indirect subsidy of the lodging industry.

Why does the lodging industry have so much power in Phoenix?  People come here anyway, because it is warm - our climate is the best advertising.  And during the week between Christmas and New Years all the hotels are probably full anyway - certainly their rates are the highest of the year, as I have found when family have come to town that week.  And don't even get me started on tax money for this.

If the lodging industry values this stuff, let them pay for it via one of their trade groups.  The city of Phoenix does not advertise my business.  In fact, it does not advertise most of the businesses in town.  Why is lodging the exception?