Archive for January 2005

My Desire for Tort Reform Does Not Mean That I Deny Malpractice Exists

I have written a lot on my frustration with the tort system.  If I had to summarize my issue in one sentence, it is that the system has moved away from assessing damages against parties truly guilty of substantial negligence or malpractice and has instead shifted to granting payouts to the injured, charging whoever happened to be nearby with deep pockets with the cost (see the tort thought experiment here). 

The result in this current system is that the innocent at best get high insurance premiums and at worst have to fight for years against ridiculous suits.  At the same time, the truly harmed fail to get compensation in a system clogged with BS claims, and the worst, truly bad doctors continue to practice.

But, as I said in the title, just because I am passionate about the tort system being broken does not mean that real damages aren't occurring.  For example, this story via Kevin Drum about medical interns:

In New York City residents routinely begin their day at six or seven in the morning, work twelve hours, then stay on call all night. In a practice that I think is particularly cruel, they typically don't get home until noon the following day "” several hours after morning rounds.

I have never, never understood why having interns practice medicine while sleep-deprived makes them better doctors.  This is fraternity hazing, plain and simple (not to mention cost reduction for hospitals).  I find it astounding that this practice still exists today, with the complexity that is modern medicine.  Astonishingly, most doctors seem to support this practice.  I find it even more astonishing that some smart attorney's haven't found a way to bring suit against hospitals for the plainly dangerous practice.  It is a great example of what I said above about what is wrong with the system - OB's are getting sued every day for birth defects they had no power to correct or prevent, but hospitals get away with this clearly dangerous practice?


Reason has more here.  They make the interesting point that doctors support this hazing because it is a way to deter doctors from the field, in the same way as does occupational licensing, thus raising salaries. 

Dan Rather Replacement

Apparently, CBS is still mulling over candidates to replace Dan Rather.  Apparently, they have reduced the candidates of a "short list" of the people who might improve ratings over those garnered by Rather.  Unfortunately, this criteria has limited the list to ... just about everybody.  While this and other articles bandy about candidates, I still think my list was pretty good:

Improve ratings approach #1:  Finally get rid of the pretense that anchors are journalists rather than pretty talking heads.  Hire Nicolette Sheridan, or maybe Terri Hatcher.  Or, if you feel CBS News deserves more gravitas, in the Murrow tradition, how about Meryl Streep?

Improve ratings approach #2:  Go with comedy.  Bring in David Letterman from the Late Show to anchor the evening news.  "Tonight, we start with the growing UN oil for food scandal.  Uma - Anann.  Anann - Uma."  Or, if you want to segment the market differently, how about Tim Allen and the CBS News for Guys.  Or, if CBS wants to keep hitting the older demographic - what about Chevy Chase - certainly he already has anchor experience from SNL.

Improving Credibility Choice:  No one in the MSM really has much credibility left after the last election, but there is one man who would bring instant credibility to CBS News -- Bob Costas.  CBS should hire him away from NBC, like they did with Letterman.  Make him the evening news anchor.  Heck, if Bryant Gumbell can make the transition to the news division, certainly Costas can.

Become the acknowledged liberal counterpoint to Fox:  Hire Bill Clinton as anchor.  Nothing would generate more buzz than that hire, and he is at loose ends anyway (and think about all those wonderful business trips away from home...)  If Bill is not available, try James Carville.  I might even have to watch that.

Let the public decide:  Forget making a decision, and just create a new reality show like ESPN's Dream Job to choose the next anchor.  Each week the 12 finalists can be given a new task.  In week one, they have to pick up incriminating evidence about the President at a rodeo.  In week 2, they have to forge a believable set of documents from the early 70's, and survive criticism from about 10,000 bloggers.  They can kick one off the island each week based on the viewers votes.

CBS, and in fact all the network news programs, have a problem which caused me to rename them from the Tiffany network to "the Buick network":  Their median age news viewer was born while Hitler still ruled Germany.  As I wrote in that article,

It turns out that the network news programs have exactly the same problem, though none of them profess to be worried, despite the fact that the networks are losing share to competitors at a much faster clip than are US auto makers. reports that the median age of an ABC News viewer is about 59, of an NBC News viewer is 60 and of a CBS News viewer is over 61.  Everyone who is younger has switched to cable, switched to the Internet, or switched off altogether.

More here.

The Check is NOT in the Mail

I have not asked my wife yet, but she certainly must be proud today to be a Harvard (B-school) alumna today, given recent comments by Harvard President Larry Sommers:

The president of Harvard University prompted criticism for suggesting that innate differences between the sexes could help explain why fewer women succeed in science and math careers.

My gut feel, though, without having talked to her, is that the annual giving check is probably not in the mail.

By the way, I do think there are innate differences in the sexes - it is almost impossible not to see this having raised kids of both genders.  It is also fun to joke about women and math skills - I joke with my wife all the time.  However, I am not speaking as the representative of the leading university in the country.  Mr. Sommer's remark is pure supposition, without any real research behind it (he admits as much).  That said, given that he is in charge of an educational institution whose job is to push people of both sexes up to and beyond their potential, it was a stupid statement from the wrong person.

Is this hypocritical on my part - criticizing Mr. Sommers for something I have done myself?  No.  Here is an analogy:  Its may be fun for all of us to joke about French military prowess, or lack thereof (Q:  Why are the streets of Paris lined with trees?  A: Because the Germans like to march in the shade) but it would be absolutely wrong for the president or the state department to do so in any public venue, because they are representing our country in an official capacity.  Mr Sommers is representing Harvard University, and to suggest publicly that half his student body is biologically incapable of being successful in a substantial part of his University's course work is stupid and irresponsible.


Virginia Postrel comes to Sommers defense here and here.  She argues that Sommers did indeed have quite a bit of good analysis behind him, and that those of us who criticize him are being politically correct and hindering academic inquisitiveness.    Hmmm, maybe.  I have a lot of respect for Ms. Postrel, so if she says I am missing something, I am willing to think about it some more.  However, I will say that all I saw in the write-ups was data that women are underrepresented in math and science related careers (duh) and speculation but no evidence that this may go beyond socialization to biology. 

I still have trouble buying the biology thing.  For two reasons:

  • The distribution of careers data is loaded with social factors that are really, really hard to control for.  Based on the same data, you might come to the conclusion that blacks are biologically less suited to be corporate CEO's or that men are less suited to being nurses or flight attendants.
  • We are in the middle of a radical change with women and education.  A wave of women more comfortable with educational and intellectual achievement in general is moving through the system.  It is therefore dangerous to read data ahead of the wave - say with 30 and 40 year olds, since everything will change when the wave rolls through. 

How do I know there is such a wave?  If you graduated high school 20 or more years ago, look at the picture of the honor society in the yearbook.  Likely as not, the picture will be mostly boys.  Now go to just about any high school and look on the wall.  Taking my kids to chess tournaments and the like, I have been in a lot of high schools lately, and it is not at all unusual that the pictures of the honor society are ALL girls - not more girls than before, but all girls.  Then, take a look at college enrollment and the huge influx of women there.  Yes, for various reasons, these women may still not be choosing careers in the sciences, but you can't tell me that they are somehow biologically less prepared to do math.

UPDATE#2:  I really did not intend for this to be such a long post, but there is another good defense of Sommers here at Asymmetrical Information.  Apparently most of the left is explaining the "gap" with bias rather than biology.  Which is funny, because I thought much less about bias but rather personal choice - that for a variety of reasons women were not choosing math/science careers.  Anyway, the post from McCardle had this humorous observation:

Interesting, isn't it, how many of the liberals proclaiming that it's utterly ridiculous to think that a department running 95% leftists might be, consciously or unconsciously, discriminating against those of a more right wing persuasion, find it completely obvious that if a physics department is 80% male, that must be because they're discriminating

lol, anyway, no more.  I have decided to cut Sommers some slack, in part because I obviously don't have all the facts, and in part because I am sympathetic to him since I know for a fact that Harvard University is somewhat less governable than, say, Haiti. 

How's the Snow?

This headline today on the front page of the AZ Republic (our crappy local paper with the worst sports section of any major paper):

79º vs. 0º WE WIN

You never have to shovel sunshine off the walk
I am not sure what the motivation was for this headline, but I guess its nice to live in a big city where the news is slow enough that this can dominate the front section.  A bit more:
It's sunny. It's January. And it's almost 80 degrees outside.

In official meteorological terms, what we're experiencing is "a strong area of high pressure aloft."

In simpler terms, it's "this is why we live here" weather, which on Tuesday produced a Chamber of Commerce high of 79 degrees. That's just 1 degree shy of the record for the date but a full dozen degrees above normal.

See more of our weather forecast here (no registration for this one).  Have a nice day.

Outsourcing to Your Customers

So what does valet parking, soft drinks, and firewood have in common?  More in a second.  First, some background.

We have had a problem over the last few years in our California campgrounds.  We sell a lot of firewood to campers, usually in bags of 6-8 sticks.  We are having difficulties getting a good, inexpensive firewood source in the Owens Valley.  We can find a bunch of people who will deliver stacks of firewood by the cord for a very good price, but only one person in the valley bags the wood.  As a result, the bagging step alone is effectively costing us between $1 and $2 a bundle, which is a lot for something we sell for $5-$6. 

In kicking the problem around, we considered what is becoming an increasingly common approach - if bagging is labor intensive and costly, lets see if we can outsource that step to our customers.  Outsourcing to your customers has been around for a while, but has gotten more popular of late.  Many furniture and equipment makers have been doing this for years, by outsourcing final assembly to customers.  While some of this is to reduce shipping costs, part of the benefit to manufacturers is that they save on assembly labor.

Service industries have started to get into the act of late.  Banks have been outsourcing teller functions for years via ATM's.  Most fast food restaurants have outsourced soft drink cup filling to the customers.  Grocery stores (and now Home Depot) have hopped on the bandwagon, providing self-service checkout for those who don't want to wait in line.

What all these examples have in common is that they seem to meet with customer acceptance if they provide some sort of value to the customer(short-circuiting lines, easier drink refills, the right amount of ice in the cup) , and not just cost-savings to the company.

Which brings me to the examples that really irritate me - of companies outsourcing their payroll to me.  [Note, I am a libertarian -- please do not interpret the following as a call for government action!]  Tipping, in its purest form, is a way to reward exceptional (meaning - beyond the standard or expected) service.  Unfortunately, restaurants and other service establishments have twisted this act of reward and generosity into having customers pay the wages of their staff.  Restaurants are simultaneously increasing tipping expectations (from 15% to 20%+) while requiring tips on more and more occasions by building them automatically into the bill.

The event that brought my irritation to a boil the other day actually happened valet parking my car at a restaurant.  As background, the establishment charged $4 to valet park your car.  Now, I am not a socialist, so I accept that value is not driven by cost but rather by what I am willing to pay for it, and I was willing to pay $4 to avoid having to walk a few blocks from the free lot  (those of you from Boston or NY are wondering what the fuss is about -- a valet parking charge of any amount is virtually unprecedented in Phoenix, at least until recently).

So I paid my $4, and then I saw the sign:

"Our employees work for tips"

What?  You mean I just paid your company $4 for what amounts to about 5 minutes of labor, and now you are telling me that in addition, I need to pay your employees' wages for you too?  This is pretty nervy - I mean, other than a percentage concession payment they are probably making to be the parking company at that location, what other costs do they have?  I didn't want to hurt the young guy actually doing the parking, but for the first time in years I didn't tip the valet.  That little sign turned, for me, an act of goodwill into a grim obligation, extorted from me by guilt. 

Which brings me back to firewood.  In outsourcing bagging to the customer, I did not want to tick off our customers like I had been angered by similar steps, so I set two criteria for my managers and any plan they came up with:

  • It had to save a substantial amount of money, some of which we could pass back to customers as a price savings
  • It had to offer the customer more value - a better product somehow.

The plan my managers hit on was to purchase a number of small milk crates that customers could fill with wood for the same price as the old bag.  These crates would hold a bit more than the old bag, so customers can get more wood for their money.  In addition, customers can pick out their own pieces of wood from the stack.  This is actually something that has been requested in the past - some customers complained the bags had too many small sticks, some complained they had too many large sticks.  Now people can get what they want.  We will try this out in a few sites to see what customer reaction is, and, perhaps more importantly, to see if we can hold on to our milk crates without them walking away.

More Distrust of Individual Decision-Making

I thought I had written myself dry on this topic with this long post, which got a lot of nice links around the blogospere.

However, this article by Michelle Cottle quoted approvingly by Kevin Drum is such a great example of government-as-mom fascist control of individual decision-making that I had to link it:

As a nation, Americans are apparently too stupid (or stubborn) to recognize that Big Macs and Big Gulps aren't the foundation of a healthy diet, but thanks to several gazillion dollars in direct-to-consumer drug advertising, we all consider ourselves experts in pharmacology.

....No matter what kind of qualifiers, disclaimers, and helpful tips Merck scrawls across Mevacor's box (or, more likely, crams onto a package insert printed in type so tiny it will make your eyes bleed), a fair number of self-medicating geniuses will think that the best way to prevent heart disease is to take two Mevacor for every six pieces of fried chicken they plan to eat that night. Don't laugh. It will happen and happen frequently.

It must be so wonderful to be in Ms. Cottle's shoes, to have your life so absolutely perfectly put together that you have both the time and the superior intellect to take over my life as well.  In two short paragraphs, she manages to highlight a number of statist tendancies that it took me thousands of words to describe.  At the same time, she makes a hash of my categorization scheme by simultaneously combining traits of three of my four categories, including Nanny's (you can't be trusted with your diet), technocrats (we can make more informed medication choices for you than you can yourself), and socialist-progressives (you are merely an zombie reacting mindlessly to advertising).  Wow.

Zooms from Space

I find these NASA animated zooms from space down to a single building or landmark to be totally addictive.

New Floor for the Atrium

As promised (threatened?) here is a report on my home improvement project from this weekend.

We have a small (about 10x15) atrium area in the center of the house.  We have never really been happy with this area, and wanted to develop it as a sitting area when the weather is nice out.  We put in a ceiling fan and ordered some relatively inexpensive furniture, which of course won't get delivered for decades.  However, we were dissatisfied with the floor.  The original owners had a dirt floor, but the plants all apparently died.  They then laid in brick paving stones in the atrium.  Today, many of these paving stones are cracked and water stained, but I did not really have the energy or the money to dig them up and start over.

Last Friday we were at the Phoenix home show and saw a 12"x12" outdoor wooden interlocking floor tile advertised (they are called "interlocking keruing floor tiles").  The tiles have strips of finished wood that looks like teak (but are keruing, whatver that is) attached to a flexible rubber mat.  See the pictures below for the top and bottom respectively (click on any picture to get a larger version):

Pr_top  Pr_bottom

They can be laid with all the strips running the same way, or, as we did it, alternating for a parquet look.  The tiles were $3.25 each, not cheap but less expensive than alternatives, so we purchased enough to cover the area.  They look pretty good, but not perfect - you can see the plastic milk-crate pattern through the wood strips if you look at the right angle.

Here is the area before - note the water stains and the sand which is filling in big cracks and dips in the pavers:


Here is the floor after about 15 minutes -- they do go down fast.  They just lay on the ground with no adhesive.  The design of the bottoms keeps them from sliding around. 


And finally, here we are mostly done.  The company offers edge pieces that are designed like little ramps so a mat of these tiles can stand alone, but we did not need them since I was filling a depressed space wall-to-wall.  Here is the final effect:


We love the result.  I am just finishing a few diagonal cuts to finish off the last side - these were really the only hard part of the job.  I made them with some careful measuring and a circular saw (got a new one with a laser guide - awesome!)


Anyway, this is not really the kind of thing I normally blog, but this product was something I had never seen before and came out so well and was so easy to put down, I had to share.  Besides, if VodkaPundit can share this (which made me really jealous by the way), I thought I could show my weekend project too.

Dear Pittsburgh Steelers:

Boy, did you luck out.

Even More Niche Blogs

I try to keep on the lookout for odd, niche blogs out there.  Previously I linked to the remote (as in TV remote) blog and the NFL Cheerleader Blog

The niche blog today is the Payphone Project, which is both a photo blog as well as a news site about payphones.  Make sure to look at the pictures, but here is my favorite-- The Antarctic Payphone at Scott Base, Antarctica  (uhhh, anyone here have 426 quarters they can lend me?)


Though I must admit that this one on Lake Victoria is cool:


I actually first ran into this site when I was working in the online directory world at

Update: While I called this a niche, it must be a big niche, because the Payphone Project has competitors (and here, and jeez, here too)

Coming soon: Carnival of the Payphones?

Home Improvements

Blogging is light this weekend due to home improvements.  However, we found a cool new product for our house at the Phoenix home show, and, when I finish getting it installed, I will share some pictures.

More Parking Lot Blogging!

I bet you thought I was kidding here when I said I might pursue my new niche in parking lot blogging.  Not so - here today is an idea from Ross Mayfield:

My uncle was a guru on wall street when I asked him where I should invest my paper route money. He said to visit the parking lots of Silicon Valley companies during the weekend. If the parking lot was full, there was a good chance they were close to a breakthrough or release.

At the corporations I worked for, this would probably just mean that everyone was working on Powerpoint presentation for an upcoming planning conference.  Anyway, I don't know much about Silicon Valley, so I don't know if it will work, but this is an interesting suggestion to use the Internet to gather intelligence:

But with enough mobloggers, a panopticon of performance may be a great leading indicator.  So this weekend I started the Parking Lot Indicatr group and people have taken interest.

Hopefully, the cars are not all there responding to an SEC inquiry.

Charlie's Grandpa Joe is Really Scum

We were watching the old Gene Wilder version of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory on DVD the other day.  This movie choice was made by the kids in anticipation of the new Johnny Depp version coming soon (since Pirates of the Caribbean, my kids are huge Johnny Depp fans).

I guess I really never paid much attention,  but Charlie's Grandpa Joe (played by Jack Albertson) is a real schmuck.  This little boy and his mother slave away for pitiful wages all day to support their four grandparents who are infirm and stuck in bed.  Grandpa Joe has laid in that bed for years, maybe decades, and never once tried to get out and help his family.  But, given the chance to go on a special trip to the Chocolate Factory with Charlie, Joe soon bounces out of bed and dances around the room.  Where was this energy when the family needed a wage-earner?

I don't know if this was intentional or not.  My guess is that this might not have been intentional - the early 1970's were the height of welfare sensibilities, and it would probably have been unlikely that Hollywood would try to include any messages about a slacker dad who failed to support his family.

Update:  By the way, in response to one of the comments, I am mostly just having fun with this.  I love Willie Wonka and am not so much of a Scrooge to turn on the movie because of an issue like this - heck, if I only enjoyed movies I was in complete ideological agreement with, I would have a very small movie collection. 

But, I do beg to differ with the commenter who said that Grandpa Joe provided the best adult supervision of all the parents.   This is actually not true, at least in the factory itself.  When each child pursued their fatal screw-up, in most cases their parents were trying to stop them, however lamely:  Augustus's mom says to stop drinking from the river, etc.  Charlie's Grandpa Joe actually was the one parent (or I guess guardian) who took an active role in encouraging their child into breaking their host's rules (i.e. drinking the fizzy lifting drink). 

I sit here thinking - jeez, am I really arguing about this?  I feel silly, but it does beat arguing about 30-year-old events in the military service of presidential candidates.

Why do People Back into Parking Spaces?

OK, since I am car-blogging tonight, I will tackle another critical and substantive automotive topic.  Why do some people back into parking spaces?  And further, why are a large percentage of the people who back into spaces driving pickup trucks?  Here I am talking about backing into perpendicular spaces, like at the mall, not parallel parking.  Also, I am not talking about parking at a busy sporting event, where I often back in so that I can more easily pull forward into the inevitable post-gram traffic.

Backing up is at least 10 times harder than going forward.  Just try to drive a straight line backward - you will probably look like someone who is DWI. 

So lets think about parking.  When you are pulling in, you are generally going from a wide area to a very narrow area.  When you are pulling out, you are conversely going from a narrow area to a wide area.  If you did both of these forward, just to make things apples and apples, I think most people would agree that pulling in to the space is much harder than driving out.  So why do people do the harder move (pulling in) the harder way (backing up)? 

I have only had two people even try to give me an explanation for this.  The first was that they had read that most parking accidents happen pulling out of spaces, which is probably true.  But this is sloppy analysis.  I would argue that most accidents happen pulling out because people are backing up.  I would restate this stat as most parking accidents happen when people are backing up.  If everyone backed into spaces, most parking accidents would probably occur pulling in.  The second person told me that "this is how his dad always did it".  That explanation I buy.  I have found a lot of small habits like this that people stick by all their life stem from the way one of their parents taught them.

The only other advantage I can come up with is that backing in / pulling forward out might be safer in very busy lots where pedestrians and cars are constantly passing across the space and there is some danger of backing into them pulling out.  This may be, though I still see people laboriously backing up into narrow spaces at my office, where there is zero traffic in the parking lot.  And none of this explains why pickup trucks do it so much more often than sedans.  I would think that pickups would especially want to head in , since this leaves the bed accessible.



In the picture below, note the one car that is backed in along the line of perpendicular spaces at the bottom - a pickup!

Update #2: LOL - getting more comments on my parking lot observation than my post that questioned why drugs and prostitution were illegal.  I guess I may be finding my niche in the blogosphere.  Parking blogging.  Anyway, thanks to all the backer-uppers out there for the comments.  I have come to the conclusion that maybe I am just a bad driver in reverse.  If I tried to back into a space between two cars, I would probably scratch a car a week.  I do understand that at least that does not hurt anyone, while backing out can indeed hurt someone, particularly small hard-to-see kids.  (By the way, I will think the best of my readers and not assume they are attracted by one other benefit of backing in -- that if you back in and hit a car, it is likely unoccupied and you can make a run for it; if you hit a car backing out, it will be occupied and you are busted).

Review of Volvo XC90 SUV

Five years ago, I probably would sooner have had my head held underwater in a toilet bowl than drive a Volvo.  This probably wasn't a fair bias, but they just looked so unappealing and seemed to embody "uncool" like no other car out there.

Anyway, things have changed, and Volvo is now offering several compelling vehicles.  A few months back I was looking for an SUV to replace my Lincoln Navigator and tote my kids around.  I had several complaints with my Navigator:

  • It was too large and unwieldy around town
  • The fit and finish was terrible.  It started rattling after about 8000 miles
  • At $2 a gallon for gas, its terrible mileage started bankrupting me.
  • Its cargo space was poorly engineered - the seats didn't fold down all the way and the space in the rear was not very usable.


I chose the XC90 for a number of reasons:

  • It was the smallest, tightest SUV with a third seat in the back, allowing me to take up to five kids with me.  No other small SUV's had this third seat - you have to go to Suburbans or Navigators to find another car that has it
  • The rear cargo area is superbly engineered.  Both the back seats fold down flat making a totally usable flat space all the way up to the front seats.
  • The car maneuvers and parks really well, especially with the ultrasonic sensors when backing up.
  • The fit and finish is really nice
  • The car's exterior looks pretty good; its actually remarkably similar to the BMW SUV.
  • The car handles pretty well, particularly with the AWD (all-wheel drive) and is a hell of lot better at cornering than the large SUV's. 
  • Its very safe - it consistently ranks as safest car on the road - not just SUV but safest car period
  • I got a good deal on it at the end of the last model year, though even then it certainly can't be called inexpensive

The car does have a couple of flaws.  The biggest one is the engine.  Both the 5 and the 6 cylinder options are fairly weak.  I ended up buying the smaller engine, because it was cheaper and the larger engine wasn't noticeably more powerful.  The pickup in the car is pretty mediocre, though I would not call it dangerous - there is enough power to get on the freeway without getting smushed.  However, it is disappointing that this small and under-powered engine is simultaneously weak on gas mileage.  I am getting about 16-17 mpg with the car, which is certainly better than my Navigator, but low given how much smaller the car is and how small the engine is.  I would have hoped it got at least 20.  This would probably be the perfect car if Honda or Toyota would make an engine for it (By the way, I heard on the radio the other day that Volvo is adding a V-8 option).

I Want A Hard Power Switch on My Computer

Most computers today do not have a true hard power switch, meaning that you flip it and the computer loses power.  Most of them have some kind of electronics and software in the middle.  The reason for this, ostensibly, is that Windows used to do really bad things if you just flipped the power off without letting the OS shut down first.  So when all is well, pushing the power switch causes windows to shut down, and then the computer powers off.

The problem is that if the computer crashes bad enough, the power switch won't work, because the software or electronics behind it have crashed or locked up with everything else.  Every few days I find myself in a situation where I am crawling on the floor having to pull the plug out of the wall to reboot, or, on a laptop, having to pull the plug and remove the battery.

Give me my hard power switch back!

Myth of Peak Oil

Note:  I have posted a more recent article with updated data here.

Mises Blog has a good article on the "Peak Oil" meme.  You may have gotten investment solicitations urging you to invest in oil because production is supposedly going to peak in 2006.

Oil production will peak some day.  I do not know when.  I do know that when I was in high school debate in the late 1970's, the topic one year was on resource policies.  I read everything there was at the time on oil supply as well as other critical mineral supplies.  Most "experts" at the time were predicting that oil would "run out" in about 1985 or 1990.  As you can see below, folks who invested in oil in 1980, after a price run-up similar to the one we have seen lately, got slaughtered.


Think twice or maybe three times about this graph before you invest.  Notice that there is no long term trend in real oil prices, even over one hundred years!  To make money buying oil, you have to do it on timing, buying ahead of sharp temporary increases.  And given that we are at the top of one of those sharp increases, can now really be the time to buy?

You can never get all the oil out of a field, and the exact amount of oil you can recover is dependent on how much you want to spend to do it, which in turn is related to oil prices (or expectations of oil prices).  The first 20% of the oil in a field might just squirt out under its own pressure.  The next 20% might have to be pumped.  The next 20% might need high pressure water injection to help it.  The next 20% might need expensive CO2 injection to help it.  If you ask the field manager how much oil was left, he would give you different answers at $20 and $45 a barrel, because he would make different assumptions about how far along this investment curve he would go.

If you are still thinking about investing, do one more thing: Study the famous bet between Paul Ehrlich and Julian Simon:

In 1980, economist |Julian Simon| and biologist Paul Ehrlich decided to put their money where their predictions were. Ehrlich had been predicting massive shortages in various natural resources for decades, while Simon claimed natural resources were infinite.

Simon offered Ehrlich a bet centered on the market price of metals. Ehrlich would pick a quantity of any five metals he liked worth $1,000 in 1980. If the 1990 price of the metals, after adjusting for inflation, was more than $1,000 (i.e. the metals became more scarce), Ehrlich would win. If, however, the value of the metals after inflation was less than $1,000 (i.e. the metals became less scare), Simon would win. The loser would mail the winner a check for the change in price.

Ehrlich agreed to the bet, and chose copper, chrome, nickel, tin and tungsten.

By 1990, all five metal were below their inflation-adjusted price level in 1980. Ehrlich lost the bet and sent Simon a check for $576.07. Prices of the metals chosen by Ehrlich fell so much that Simon would have won the bet even if the prices hadn't been adjusted for inflation. (1) Here's how each of the metals performed from 1980-1990.

A Quick Tort-Related Thought Experiment

Read this story at (you are welcome to try the linked article in the KC newspaper, but take my word for it, the registration is a pain with lots of attempted spamming (you might try bugmenot instead).  Here is the gist:

Car veers into truck's lane...and so a jury has ordered the trucking company, Auction Transport Inc., to pay $22.5 million over the resulting injuries to a young passenger in the accident, which occurred at rush hour on Kansas City's I-435. Mary Coleman's car, allegedly sideswiped by a third vehicle, had careened in front of the truck, but attorneys argued that the truck driver had been "driving too fast in congested traffic and not watching the road." The jury found the trucking company responsible for just less than half the fault of the accident -- a greater share of fault than the allegedly sideswiping driver -- and Coleman for hardly any of it.

So, surprisingly enough, three vehicles involved, two with limited resources and one with deep pockets.  Guess who is liable - the deep pockets of course, despite the fact that he was the only driver among the three who stayed in his lane!

Now, here is the thought experiment.  Move the truck with deep pockets into any of the other two roles.  Imagine first that it was the car that nudged the plaintiff into the other lane.  Imagine next that the truck was the one nudged into oncoming traffic and hit the plaintiff.  In these two cases, if they had gone to trial, who would have gotten the blame?  I would bet you that in either case, the truck with the deep pockets would have been given most of the blame in either of these cases.

So where is the fairness?  Why should blame be based on bank account size, and not actual actions?  Is there anything more than coercive wealth transfer going on here?  Does this constitute justice? 

By the way, I continue to say that limiting damages misses the point of what is wrong with the tort system and the malpractice system.  Congress and state legislatures have got to find a way to bring some sanity to the tort process, where legitimately harmed people can still get compensated for damages, however large those damages may be, but otherwise innocent people who happen to have deep pockets and somehow find themselves nearby a legitimate accident don't have to worry about being held at fault.  Babies are sometimes born with birth defects, people sometimes slip on perfectly safe sidewalks, and car accidents are sometimes just that: accidents.  I make this same point over and over here.

Update:  oops, left off the link.  Fixed now

Might "Red Statism" Cause the Left to Embrace School Choice?

After the last election, the Left is increasingly worried that red state religious beliefs may creep back into public school, as evidenced in part by this Kevin Drum post on creationism.  My sense is that you can find strange things going on in schools of every political stripe, from Bible-based creationism to inappropriate environmental advocacy.  I personally would not send my kids to a school that taught creationism nor would I send them to a school that had 7-year-olds protesting outside of a Manhattan bank.

At the end of the day, one-size-fits-all public schools are never going to be able to satisfy everyone on this type thing, as it is impossible to educate kids in a values-neutral way.  Statist parents object to too much positive material on the founding fathers and the Constitution.  Secular parents object to mentions of God and overly-positive descriptions of religion in history.  Religious parents object to secularized science and sex education.  Free market parents object to enforced environmental activism and statist economics.   Some parents want no grades and an emphasis on feeling good and self-esteem, while others want tough grading and tough feedback when kids aren't learning what they are supposed to.

I have always thought that these "softer" issues, rather than just test scores and class sizes, were the real "killer-app" that might one day drive acceptance of school choice in this country.  Certainly increases in home-schooling rates have been driven as much by these softer values-related issues (mainly to date from the Right) than by just the three R's.

So here is my invitation to the Left: come over to the dark side.  Reconsider your historic opposition to school choice.  I'm not talking about rolling back government spending or government commitment to funding education for all.  I am talking about allowing parents to use that money that government spends on their behalf at the school of their choice.  Parents want their kids to learn creationism - fine, they can find a school for that.  Parents want a strict, secular focus on basic skills - fine, another school for that.  Parents want their kids to spend time learning the three R's while also learning to love nature and protect the environment - fine, do it.

Yes, I know, private schools to fit all these niches don't exist today.   However, given a few years of parents running around with $7000 vouchers in their hands, they will.  Yes, there will be problems.  Some schools will fail, some will be bad, some with be spectacular (though most will be better than what many urban kids, particularly blacks, have today).   Some current public schools will revitalize themselves in the face of comeptition, others will not. It may take decades for a new system to emerge, but the Left used to be the ones with the big, long-term visions.  The ultimate outcome, though, could be beautiful.  And the end state will be better if the Left, with its deep respect and support of publicly-funded education, is a part of the process.

Of course, there is one caveat that trips up both the Left and the Right:  To accept school choice, you have to be willing to accept that some parents will choose to educate their kids in a way you do not agree with, with science you do not necesarily accept, and with values that you do not hold.  If your response is, fine, as long as my kids can get the kind of education I want them to, then consider school choice.  However, if your response is that this is not just about your kids, this is about other people choosing to teach their kids in ways you don't agree with, then you are in truth seeking a collectivist (or fascist I guess, depending on your side of the aisle) indoctrination system.  Often I find that phrases like "shared public school experience" in the choice debate really are code words for retaining such indoctrination.

In other words, are you OK if Bob Jones high school or Adam Smith high school exist, as long as Greenpeace high school exists as well?  Or do you want to make everyone go to Greenpeace high school exclusively?

I honestly don't know how folks on the left would answer this question.  Is Kevin Drum hoping that all parents have the choice of a secular education available to their kids, or is he hoping that all parents are forced to have a secular education for their kids?  Is he trying to protect his kids from intrusive creationism supporters or is he trying to impose his beliefs on the children of those creationism supporters?  I can read the article and his fear of creationism either way. 

Putting Politicians Names on Government Forms

I am spending the day filing all our sales tax returns (10 states, 4 counties) and have noticed something about state and county tax collectors and treasurers.  They put their name all over everything.  Take Lake County, Florida.  The sales tax form says "BOB MCKEE" and in little letters underneath that it says "Lake County Tax Collector".  The pre-addressed envelope is to BOB MCKEE.  I have to make my sales tax check to, you guessed it, BOB MCKEE.

Why is BOB MCKEE's name all over this?  What happens when BOB MCKEE retires or fails to get reelected?  Isn't the county stuck with a huge printing bill to replace all the forms and send out new ones?  And, assuming this is an elective office, don't BOB MCKEE's political opponents object to tens of thousands of dollars of free advertising paid for by the county.  Heck, I can't always name all my Congressman here in Arizona but I sure as hell know that BOB MCKEE is the tax collector for Lake County, Florida.  Conversely, I don't know who the head of the IRS is and I certainly don't address my checks to him or her on April 15.

By the way, this is just one example.  I get sales and property tax forms and such from many many counties in 10 states and it is much more the rule than the exception that the person, rather than the office, dominates the letterhead.  Stupid.  And, given the taxpayer subsidy implied for the incumbent, mildly corrupt.

Iceberg Collision

Courtesy of Nature Noted, comes this article on two enormous blocks of ice set to collide in the next week in Antarctica.


As the Nasa site linked above puts it:

It is an event so large that the best seat in the house is in space: a massive iceberg is on a collision course with a floating glacier near the McMurdo Research Station in Antarctica. NASA satellites have witnessed the 100-mile-long B-15A iceberg moving steadily towards the Drygalski Ice Tongue. Though the iceberg's pace has slowed in recent days, NASA scientists expect a collision to occur no later than January 15, 2005.

Is CBS For Executive Accountability or Against It?

Its amazing to me that Andrew Heyward still has his job at CBS.  Many others are asking the same question, including Ernest Miller, Rathergate & Captains Quarters.  The overriding question is this one:

The report clearly shows that the head of the embattled news organization did not perform as one would expect the head of a news organization to perform. Though Heyward clearly realized that there were problems with the reporting on the segment and issued a directive to clear up the matter, he does not appear to have provided sufficient overview or leadership to ensure that his directive was followed promptly and systematically. Instead of focusing on good reporting, as the head of a news organization should, he seems to have been primarily interested in damage control and not following up on his own directive.

Here is CBS's opinion of Heyward's performance in this matter, from Les Moonves:

But Heyward is an executive of integrity and talent, and the right person to be leading CBS NEWS during this challenging time

OK, so their position now is that the subordinates are at fault, and that the leader is not responsible for their actions or for the climate and controls in the organization that allowed the problems to occur.

This is really, really different than CBS's editorial position on OTHER organizations and leaders.  Check out the CBS editorial here on Enron.  Should Ken Lay be held accountable or was he an innocent dupe?  Hah, the editorial jumps right past this question, moving up a notch and asking why the board of directors weren't being held accountable. 

Ken Lay argues that he was duped and didn't know what was going on.  Note that this is his criminal defense - which may or may not work - but it certainly would not have worked to keep his job, even if Enron were alive today.  In Heyward's case, he admits he knew what was going on, but didn't get things fixed.  Heyward had his chance in the first 24 hours to save the credibility of CBS News and he blew it.

Will iTunes kill Albums?

Video killed the radio star (appropriately the first video shown on MTV) but will iTunes kill albums?

I was driving today listening to Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon, which I ripped in its entirety to my mini iPod.  I noticed the iPod staggered a little bit on the song transitions, which are seamless on the CD.

And oddly, this got me thinking about the revolution in digital music and what effect it might have on albums.  Back in the 50's and early 60's, the rock/pop music marketplace was dominated by singles.  A great visual demonstration of that era is the "what's on the flip side" scene in Diner between Kevin Bacon and Daniel Stern, a scene that makes no sense to later generations.  Albums, to the extent they were purchased, were merely collections of singles.

A revolution, at least in the world of rock & roll, began to occur in the mid-1960's.  Many folks point to Sgt Pepper by the Beatles as the first concept album, where the songs hang together in a way that the album was greater than the sum of the parts (note that this had always been true in jazz, and of course classical -- but it was new to the rock/pop world).  Over time, many rock albums were produced that were true albums.  Even when the songs don't follow a theme (as in the Moody Blues Days of Future Passed) or tell as story (as in the Who's Quadrophenia), there are many albums I think of as albums, where I can't seem to enjoy the single when it is taken out of context of the other songs (including Fleetwood Mac's Rumors and Genesis's Trick of the Tail)

Pink Floyd, however, probably pursued the album more than any other band.  Few songs from Pink Floyd albums like Wish You Were Here or Dark Side of the Moon or of course the Wall even make sense on their own, any more than a single chapter ripped from a book will be viable on its own.

Today, we may be on the front end of a trend where the market moves back to singles, as market models like iTunes gain traction and put emphasis back on individual songs that have to stand alone.  My son, for example, does not buy albums - he buys individual songs off iTunes.  The only difference from the 50's is that there are no flip sides.

Or, it may be that we are on the brink of still yet another medium, maybe of third parties mixing together tracks from multiple artists into custom collections, much like people have been doing for their friends for years, but with wide open new distribution channels.

Doctored Han Solo Memos, errr, Evidence

This (Link courtesy Professor Bainbridge) is a pretty funny parody based on a scene from the original Star Wars movie that has famously been changed a couple of times by George Lucas in reissuing the movie.  It is especially funny in light of today's CBS memogate report.  If you don't know the story behind the changes to the movie, they are summarized in the intro page, or you can just dive into the comic by pressing "1".

Geography Quiz

This one is for Europe, but there are others for the rest of the world.  I got 107 of 111.  I mixed up Latvia and Lithuania and got a couple of pieces of the old Yugoslavia mixed up.  I will admit that I guessed at which half of the old Czechoslovakia was Czech and which was Slovakia.