30 April 2013

Waiting Means Happier Brides But More Spinsters

This study tested whether the timing of first sexual intercourse in adolescence predicts romantic outcomes in adulthood, including union formation, number of romantic partners, and relationship dissatisfaction. Participants were 1,659 same-sex sibling pairs from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, who were followed from adolescence (mean age = 16 years) to young adulthood (mean age = 29 years). The timing of participants’ first sexual intercourse was classified as early (at age 14 or earlier), on time (between the ages of 15 and 19), or late (at age 19 or older).

Compared with early and on-time age at first sex, late age at first sex was associated with decreased odds of marriage or nonmarital cohabitation and fewer romantic partners in adulthood. Among individuals who had married or cohabited with a partner, late timing of first sex was associated with significantly reduced levels of relationship dissatisfaction, even after controlling for genetic and environmental differences between families (using a sibling-comparison model), demographic outcomes in adulthood, and involvement in dating during adolescence.

K. Paige Harden, "True Love Waits? A Sibling-Comparison Study of Age at First Sexual Intercourse and Romantic Relationships in Young Adulthood", 23 Psychological Science 1324-1336 (November 2012).

Islamic Fundamentalism Kills

The 2011 Somali famine killed an estimated 260,000 people, half of them age 5 and under . . . The aid community believes that tens of thousands of people died needlessly because the international community was slow to respond to early signs of approaching hunger in East Africa in late 2010 and early 2011. The toll also was exacerbated by extremist militants from al-Shabab who banned food aid deliveries to the areas of south-central Somalia that they controlled.
From here.

Somolia is a country with about 10.1 million people.  Roughly one in ten of its pre-school aged children starved to death in 2011. The only disaster or disease outbreak in U.S. history with a comparable impact was the Spanish flu of 1918.

In al-Shabab controlled territory, the number of pre-schoolers who starved to death was probably closer to one in five.  This group is Somolia's version of the Taliban, imposing strict Islamic fundamentalism on the people it rules with its roughly 14,000 soldiers.

Map showing territorial gains made by al-Shabaab from January 31, 2009 to December 2010; the period when a civil war against the Transitional Federal Government commenced (from the link in the paragraph above).

While the East African drought of 2011 was unavoidable, the deadly consequences of that drought in Somolia in 2011 were mostly a result of its ongoing civil war.

29 April 2013

Marriage, Murder, Videophone and Television

* Early Wednesday morning, Colorado will have its first civil unions.  Polling showed that this measure providing for marriage in all but name under state law, had 70% public support.  May 1st will likely be one of the biggest days for weddings in state history.  It is a step that makes the entire gay rights movement more secure because any effort to repeal the law will have to confront the vested interests of those already married. 

Those planning outdoor weddings should plan on relocating to indoor venues.  There is wet snow in the forecast.

* Rhode Island has adopted a gay marriage bill, becoming the last of the New England states to permit gay marriage.  Pennsylvania is the last holdouts in the Northeast without either gay marriage or civil unions.  Alaska is the last Pacific State holdout.  Nevada, Colorado, Iowa, Wisconsin, and Illinois are states in the nation's interior with gay marriage or civil unions and President Obama has largely tipped the balance at the federal level in favor of gay rights, although there are some loose ends to resolve there.

I have little doubt that Colorado will amend its state constitution to allow for same sex marriage sometime in the next few years, probably via a citizen initiative as too many Republicans in the Colorado General Assembly oppose it for the change to be introduced via the legislature at this point.

No state that was formerly a part of the Confederacy has civil unions or gay marriage.

Laws regarding same-sex partnerships in the United States
Same-sex marriage1
Unions granting rights similar to marriage1,2
Legislation granting limited/enumerated rights1
Same-sex marriages performed elsewhere recognized1
No specific prohibition or recognition of same-sex marriages or unions
State statute bans same-sex marriage
State constitution bans same-sex marriage2
State constitution bans same-sex marriage and some or all other kinds of same-sex unions

1May include recent laws or court decisions which have created legal recognition of same-sex relationships, but which have yet to enter effect.
2See the article on
same-sex marriage in California for the status in California. [A lower court invalidated a measure overturning California's stance permitting gay marrriage.  It was appealed and the U.S. Supreme Court recently heard oral arguments in the relevant case and have not decided it on the merits at this point.  The outcome is quite uncertain.]

From here.

* Chris Haney, 26, a bartender at the Gothic Theater was shot and killed at about 3 a.m. on Saturday at the Denny's at Sante Fe Boulevard and Alameda in Denver.  Two suspects, Robert Bernal, a twenty-five year old man and a juvenile, have been arrested.  It isn't clear if the man was a bystander caught in the cross-fire or the intended victim.  (I was unable to find the story, which appeared prominently on the first page of the Denver and West Section of today's Denver Post on the newspaper's website even using its search function.)

He is survived by a wife and a five year old daughter.  He lived nearby.  Until recently, so did I.  The story strikes me as notable because I go to that Denny's now and then.  In particular, in the two or three rare occasions that I needed to get out of the house to blow off steam and keep myself from saying something rash after an argument with my wife, that was where I would go.

* I had a second successful Skype-Facetime communication from my home with the assistance of my children.  Even though this technology has been anticipated as a logical outgrowth of prior technologies for eighty years or so, actually having home videophone technology is still pretty cool.  It works well enough that I suspect that it is only a matter of time before it replaces in person depositions and hearings for many purposes in the court system, and in meetings with rural or homebound clients.

* Echoing a previous post about how far forgotten broadcast TV is, a company that sells digital antennas has run a full page age proclaiming how amazing it is that "federal law" allows you to get "Free TV channels with no cable, satellite or internet connection and no monthly bills" simply by buying their $49 antenna.  The silly ad lists every ZIP code in Denver as a place you can get it if you "immediately call" their 1-888 number.  Broadcast television has definitely jumped the shark.

25 April 2013

Living Alone Sucks

Few things are more wretched than being single and unattached, or married and separated, at least on those evenings when you are home alone without children.  I do not subscribe to Satre's maxim that "Hell is other people" on this score.

Coming Attractions: Doing The Work Of "Second-Rate Minds" (i.e. "The Book")

It is a melancholy experience for a professional mathematician to find himself writing about mathematics. The function of a mathematician is to do something, to prove new theorems, to add to mathematics, and not to talk about what he or other mathematicians have done. Statesmen despise publicists, painters despise art-critics, and physiologists, physicists, or mathematicians have usually similar feelings: there is no scorn more profound, or on the whole more justifiable, than that of the men who make for the men who explain. Exposition, criticism, appreciation, is work for second-rate minds.
G.H.Hardy, A Mathematicians' Apology (1940), available here (via Quantum Diaries Survivor).

I am in the early stages of writing (with a collaborator who will be a co-author) a short, trade non-fiction book meant for an audience of educated non-specialists.  So, I anticipate that I will be devoting significant efforts to it over the next twelve months or so.

"The book" will be less technical and academic than academic journal articles or a magnus opus like "Albion's Seed" or Gibbon's "Rise and Fall."  But, won't be a textbook or comprehensive primer either.  Instead, it will be more along the lines of popularizations of the current state of knowledge about the topics it discusses with significant original analysis and introspection exemplified, for example, in books by people like Malcomb Gladwell and Jared Diamond (or less famously, bloggers like Peter WoitMarkos Moulitsas Zúniga  and Tyler Cohen).  I am also drawing to some extent on the trend towards recognizing a class of unaffiliated academic investigators and public intellectuals that the Internet has made possible.  Relative to journalist efforts, this will be the stuff of feature articles and op-ed page essays, rather than straight news reporting.

The mission statement of the book is basically to find a more prominent place in the never ending "national discussion" for some important but under appreciated facts, developing trends, and analytical perspectives that too often are ignored in favor of conventional wisdom.  We think we provide a perspective that isn't reflected in any of the "conventional wisdom" accounts of the topics we will discuss.  This matters.  Perhaps the greatest threat to modern industrialized societies today are those that arise from "group think."  It is important to enough end participants in the discussion, but it is even more important to maximize the number of alternative perspectives expressed in those discussions which the collective audience to this national discussion can weigh and when complimentary, synthesize into an overall approach.

Of course, as a side benefit, we are also buying a ticket for us in the fame and fortune lottery of trade non-fiction writing, and if it is successful there could be successor books along the same lines.

"The book" will not primarily consisting of original research, which I leave for people who have salaried professorships, research assistants, and university resources.

Instead, "the book" will seek primarily to explain the works of others, popularizing concepts and facts that are now familiar only to those at the cutting edge of professional expertise and academic research. Of course, we will go far further in terms of synthesis, connecting of the dots, and analysis than what would be appropriate in some other forums in which I publish or write like Wikipedia article contributions, continuing education courses, bar journal articles for practicing attorneys, and legal briefs. It will be more like the occassional academic conference papers that I write every few years, but with a broader scope and intended for a more general audience.

I come to this from the perspective of someone active in politics all of his life, who actively practices law, and who has intermittently been a journalist (in addition, of course, to being a blogger before the terms was even well established).  My collaborator is a novelist and free lance writer with a solid practical experience and academic background in addressing public policy issues.

Our motives are at least as rooted in the political tactics of movement politics and "saving the world" as they are in raw economics.  While books are "old school," they are still a very effective platform for influencing the national discussion and sowing the seeds of ideas in the heads of bright people who will find their own ways to apply.  At any rate, they are effective relative to posts at a couple of blogs that are currently well into the long tail, or the discipline or industry specific academic or trade publications that similarly have only a small audience, even if that audience is an elite and influential one. 

From my perspective, good ideas mean nothing unless enough of the right people are aware of them, consider them in their professional and political lives, and apply them.  The book will help bridge the gap between what somebody knows and what lots of people know about these topics.

For example, many of the currently influential mathematics of fractal dimensions and chaotic dynamics that emerged in the late 1800s was virtually overlooked by all but a few specialist graduate students in obscure academic journals (some available only in Russian) that failed to illustrate how these ideas could be applied or incorporated into other works, until Benoît Mandelbrot took the lonely road of reinvigorating the field starting in the 1960s that only really took off when his ideas started to be popularized in the trade press in the 1980s and early 1990s.  Once people knew that these concepts were out there, however, professionals and academics in disciplines from physics to engineering to economics to mathematics to information technology and beyond started to incorporate these ideas into the crowded math and statistics canon of concepts taught to undergraduates and first year graduate students in math and science disciplines (most of which was well established before the United States adopted the Bill of Rights).

At this point, "the book" has a working title and overall theme, a lot of research and very rough draft writing for many of the chapters (although without a final determination on which chapters will stay and which will go, or on how they will be organized), an overall sense of where the book will fit on a range from very journalist to very academic, a sense of what some of the core subtopics will be, a general sense of what steps will be taken in the writing and marketing process, an agreement in principle on how tasks will be allocated between the co-authors, and an understanding about how the economics and division of credit will be addressed.  But, the devil is in the details and a great deal of the work still needs to be done.

In the interest of building up dramatic tension and allowing the ideas to gel and to be modified in the course of the writing process, I won't be providing much detail on the specific substance of what will be in the book until much, much later.  But, I will note that posts at this blog and its companion blog, Dispatches from Turtle Island, are and will continue to be one important source for the initial core of supporting facts, academic research, government reports, and analytical constructs that will be systematized, expanded upon and updated in the book.

At any rate, if you notice a reduced volume of posting over the next many months, part of this may be because my available creative capacity is being diverted to "the book." 

Stay tuned.

24 April 2013

Too Clever By Half

$1 = 100¢ = (10¢) ^ 2 = ($0.10) ^ 2 = $0.01 = 1¢.

From here.

Obviously, this is wrong.  But why? 

A correct answer that exposes the subtle error can be found in the comments at the linked post.

A Question Of Regulatory Priorities When It Comes To Terrorism

The question of what sort of laws and policies are necessary to prevent terrorism, or at least to make it harder to carry out terrorist acts can be a difficult one that requires careful balancing of the public interest in security against personal civil liberties. 

For example, questions regarding whether there should be some legal authority for preventative detention of suspected terrorists without the probable cause necessary for a criminal arrest, and involving the targeting of U.S. citizens and their companions who may be innocent to be killed with armed drones, can be hard ones.

But, as the examples below illustrate, many aspects of the existing set of laws and policies on these subjects defy common sense.  Seemingly very serious threats are regulated quite lightly, while other aspects of American life that pose far lesser threats to public health and safety are sometimes regulated much more strictly.

Mortars Are Easier To Buy Than Sudafed, Oral Contraceptives Or A Gun

In the United States, you can buy a mortar and mortar rounds over the counter (although not the full strength version, although it contains some gunpowder and easily modified to replace firework colors with more gunpowder), over the counter, for $100 with nothing more than a merchant's voluntary decision to take a copy of your ID.  No license, no permit, no background check, no entry in a centalized database is required.
One of the suspected Boston Marathon bombers purchased two large reloadable mortar kits from a fireworks store in New Hampshire, an executive with the pyrotechnics company said Tuesday.
Tamerlan Tsarnaev paid $199 cash for two “lock and load” kits, each of which contained four tubes and 24 shells, said William Weimer, vice president of Phantom Fireworks. Such kits cannot be legally sold in some states, including Massachusetts and California.
It takes a background check to buy a gun from a retail vendor and certain groups of people are not legally allowed to buy them.  You are required by law to show ID and be entered in a centralized database to buy Sudafed (an allegery medication that can be used as an ingredient to make methamphetamines).  You need an actual doctor's prescription to buy oral contraceptives that have fewer health risks than asprin.  But, none of that is required to buy your own artillery set, or the gunpowder needed to charge these rounds to full military strength.

Of course, there are some people in the United States who have been banned from possessing and using small mortars for a while as recently as a month ago.  Those would be U.S. Marines.

People On Terrorism Watch Lists Can Legally Buy Guns And Routinely Do

The United States also has a national terrorism watch list that is routinely used to prevent people from getting onto commercial airplanes even after their possessions are carefully searched by TSA officials.  But, people on the national terrorism watch list are still free to buy firearms even when the background check done for someone purchasing a gun from a retail vendor shows that they are on it.  On average, five people on the national terrorism watch list buy a gun each week.
Under current laws, if a background check reveals that your name is on the national terrorism watch list, you're still free to walk out of a gun dealership with a firearm in your hands — as long as you don't have a criminal or mental health record.
Data from the Government Accountability Office show that between 2004 and 2010, people on terrorism watch lists tried to buy guns and explosives more than 1,400 times. They succeeded in more than 90 percent of those cases, or 1,321 times.
I recognize that the national terrorism watch list has flaws.  The grounds for putting someone on it are very flimsy, and the process for finding out that you are on it or getting yourself removed from it are flawed.  This tool needs to be fixed.  But, the notion that it should be easier to buy a gun than to get onto a airline after TSA inspection of your baggage is pretty problematic. 

While Michael James Barton, a former counterterrorism official during the Bush Administration quoted in the linked story argues that the constitution protects gun purchases but not travel, there actually is a well recognized express protection of the right to engaged in interstate travel without undue interference.

While one justification for allowing people on a national terrorism watch list to buy guns is that this avoids tipping them off while allowing the federal government could follow up on gun purchases by people on a national terrorism watch list, there is no indications that it actually does so, or even that it has sufficient resources to do so.

It is also widely acknowledge that there a huge holes in the background check requirement to purchase guns in many states making it easy in practice for felons and people with restraining orders against them to actually buy guns in practice, that many people barred from buying guns are not routinely stripped of the guns already in their possession when a background check trigger kicks in, and that the background check database is woefully incomplete, particularly with regard to keeping track of people who have been committed for mental health issues - something that pending legislation in Congress with widespread support, even from gun rights groups, may change.

Knives On Planes Almost O.K.'d, Shampoo And Toothpaste, Not So Much

Then again, until yesterday, the TSA was planning to permit passengers to carry knives on commercial flights (of the same size as the box cutters used in the 9-11 attacks) (as well as "ski poles, lacrosse sticks, billiard cues and up to two golf clubs").  

It still has no plans, however, to discontinue its ban on carrying regular sized shampoo and toothpaste tubes or bottled water in carry on luggage, or its requirement that all abled bodied adults have their shoes X-rayed before flying unless they have a pre-approved safety clearance.

Ordinary People In The U.S. Are Allowed To Own Tanks With Operational Weapons

There are several hundred to 1000 private tank owners in the United States according to the Wall Street Journal.  The tank can even have live weapons if the owner obtains the functional equivalent of a concealed weapon permit (although obviously, tanks are not themselves concealled weapons).
A tank in the U.S. can have operational guns, if the owner has a federal Destructive Device permit, and state laws don't prohibit it. The permit costs $200, and the applicant must swear he hasn't been a "fugitive from justice," "adjudicated mentally defective" or convicted of "a misdemeanor crime of domestic violence." A local law-enforcement official, usually a sheriff or police chief, has to sign off on the application.
Tanks generally aren't street-legal, so owners usually drive them off-road or on other private property. Some say local authorities sometimes make exceptions for parades, a quick test drive or a trip to the gas station.
There Are 488,065 Privately Owned Legal Machine Guns In The United States

Incidentally, while private ownership of fully automatic weapons (i.e. machine guns) is highly regulated, it is possible for a private citizen in the United States to get a permit to own and possess one, and there are quite a few such permits are outstanding (488,065 as of 2012 up from about 240,000 in 1995).
There were 30,220 registered machine guns in Virginia as of March, according to figures compiled by the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
That's more than any other state in the nation.

Florida and California, with far larger populations than Virginia, ranked second and third in the number of registered machine guns, with 29,128 and 28,774, respectively.

Nationally, there are nearly 500,000 registered machine guns, according to an annual report compiled by the ATF. . .
Private citizens who want to legally own a machine gun face a lengthy approval process. Meeting the standard requirements for gun ownership — including no felony record, no psychiatric commitments and no domestic assault convictions — is just the beginning.
After passing a background check, applicants must submit their photograph and fingerprints to be used in a registry maintained by the ATF. Also required is a signed statement from the chief law enforcement officer in the locality where the applicant lives, stating there is no indication the machine gun would be used illegally.
Like tank ownership, the requirements that must be met to legally own a machine gun are similar to those for a concealled weapon permit in many states (although in Colorado and a many other states, a concealled weapons permit is easily available after a brief training course to almost anyone who can legally buy one).

There is no indication that the officials who have to sign off on permits to own tanks with operational firearms or machine guns have access to information regarding whether or not the applicant is on the national terrorism watch list which they can then use as a cue to investigate for themselves.

Also, keep in mind that once a permit is issued in one local jurisdiction where a local sheriff may be lenient in granting permits to obtain a firearm, nothing prevents the machine gun owner (at least for all practical purposes) from taking the machine guns to a new jurisdiction and using them there.  This is a list common denominator system of regulation.

It is worth noting, however, that many privately owned machine gun owners have multiple machine guns, so the number of privately owned machine gun owners is significantly smaller than the number of private owners of machine guns.  But, with that many machine guns in circulation, the risk that one could fall into the wrong hands, for example, via burglary or a relative who gains access to a legal owner's gun safe, is real.

The Second Amendment Is Unique In The World And Only Recently Enforceable In The U.S.

The United States is the only country in the world with constitutional protections for the right to bear arms.  Several Latin American countries that once copied the U.S. and had similar protections have repealed those protections in the last half-century.  It has been more than a century since a new constitutional protection for the right to bear arms was adopted by a country. 

Moreover, while the Second Amendment was adopted in 1791 as part of the Bill of Rights, the first time that a court determined that it created an enforceable individual right against the federal government (at least in the case of ownership of handguns for self-defense) did not come until 2008 in the case District of Columbia v. Heller, 554 U.S. 570 (2008).  The question of whether that right was enforceable against state and local governments, as well as the federal government, was not resolved until the case of McDonald v. Chicago (2010).  Before 2008, the not fully resolved but majority view was that the Second Amendment was a collective right that prohibited the federal government from banning state militias, rather than an individual right to bear arms for personal self-defense.  McDonald v. Chicago made clear that the Second Amendment was not primarily just a federalism protection.

Even those cases and precedents decided since 2008 have upheld many gun control laws, including all current nationally applicable gun control laws, as reasonable regulations of the right to bear arms.  The laws struck down have overwhelmingly been nearly complete bans on handgun ownership enacted by big city municipal governments like the one struck down in the original Heller case in Washington D.C.

23 April 2013

I Am A Zero TV Household

A recent Huffington Post article on Zero TV households captures me and my motives for not having one (or a landline telephone) to a T.  We are the future.
Some people have had it with TV. They've had enough of the 100-plus channel universe. They don't like timing their lives around network show schedules. They're tired of $100-plus monthly bills.
A growing number of them have stopped paying for cable and satellite TV service, and don't even use an antenna to get free signals over the air. These people are watching shows and movies on the Internet, sometimes via cellphone connections. Last month, the Nielsen Co. started labeling people in this group "Zero TV" households, because they fall outside the traditional definition of a TV home. There are 5 million of these residences in the U.S., up from 2 million in 2007. . .
Last year, the cable, satellite and telecoms providers added just 46,000 video customers collectively, according to research firm SNL Kagan. That is tiny when compared to the 974,000 new households created last year. While it's still 100.4 million homes, or 84.7 percent of all households, it's down from the peak of 87.3 percent in early 2010.

Nielsen's study suggests that this new group may have left traditional TV for good. While three-quarters actually have a physical TV set, only 18 percent are interested in hooking it up through a traditional pay TV subscription. . . .

More people are raised with the power of the Internet in their pocket, and don't know or care that you can pull TV signals from the air for free. 
"They're more aware of Netflix than they're aware over-the-air is even available[.]" 
As one Zero TV household member explains, TVs have also grown to be ridiculously complicated (something that I can attest to from similar experiences):
"I'm pretty tech savvy, but the TV industry with the cable and the television and the boxes, you don't know how to use their equipment," he says. "I try to go over to my grandma's place and teach her how to do it. I can't even figure it out myself."
Why pay for a hundred stations full of crap (often redundant crap) that you can't watch when it is convenient for you to watch, if you can even manage to figure out how to work the damn thing and censor out the crappiest of crap stations like shopping channels and channels that you don't actually subscribe to anyway.

Price absolutely is a consideration, however.  And, Netflix runs a very tight ship.  According to my dead tree newspaper this morning, it made a profit of just $2.7 million on revenues of a bit more than $1 billion, a profit margin of 0.27% or so (and this comes on the heels of a loss twice as large). Amazon has similarly skinny margins despite massive market share.  Those companies provide what they do at very close to cost.

Comcast, Direct TV and Dish, I am certain, make considerably fatter profits relative to their revenues.

What is the useful life of an investment in intellectual property?

The Bureau of Economic Analysis is trying to determine the time period over which to amortize investments in cultural intellectual property investments, for example, in books, movies, and music recordings for purposes of GDP accounting.  To do so,  they are measuring the time periods over which these asset classes from a given year of production generate returns in real life, and fitting this to a model in which the return on the asset class declines by a specific percentage each year (it isn't clear if the BEA is using straight line depreciation or iterating a percentage decline each year from the previous year's value).  The results:

Music recordings: 26.7% per year
Television shows: 16.8%
Books: 12.1%
Movies 3.8%
Miscellaneous: 10.9% (e.g. "theatrical play scripts, stock photography, greeting-card designs, etc.).

On a straight line depreciation basis, this would give a movie a useful life of 26 years, miscellaneous cultural properties about 9 nine years, books about 8 years, television shows about 6 years, and music recording about 4 years.  A percentage reduction each year would never get quite to zero and would also reach say 1% or less, considerably more slowly.  The post at Slate by by  doesn't source his figures, so its hard to tell.

These numbers seem quite low to me (i.e. my intuitive estimate of the rate at which cultural investments depreciate would be higher), but all of these numbers make two points very clear. 

First: Existing copyright law protection time periods grossly exceed the typical time period in which the vast majority of the economic value of an intellectual property asset is realized, even if you look at entire asset classes which weight the time period of economic returns heavily towards the rare mega-successful works with longer shelf lives.

Second: Different kinds of cultural properties protected by copyrights actually have very different useful economic lives.

As an aside, it is interesting to note that website IIMDb.com is so credible that it is used to help calculate our nation's GDP.

UPDATE: The source for the article appears to be here:

Capitalization of entertainment, literary, and other artistic originals Some entertainment, literary, and other artistic originals are designed to generate mass reproductions for sale to the general public and to have a useful lifespan of more than one year. For 1929 forward, BEA will capitalize these items, which include theatrical movies, long-lived television programs, books, music, and “other” miscellaneous entertainment.[21] This change will expand BEA’s measures of intangible assets in the NIPAs and help better align the NIPAs with recommendations of the SNA.[22]  
Current treatment The costs associated with the production of entertainment originals are currently classified as expenses that are consumed as part of the production of other goods and services. Therefore, expenditures for the production of entertainment originals do not enter into the calculation of GDP.  
New treatment Under the new treatment, BEA will record the private expenditures associated with producing or purchasing entertainment originals as private fixed investment in the measure of GDP.[23] The production of entertainment originals may span several years. Theoretically, these costs should be recorded as investment when accrued; however, due to practical constraints, BEA will record the value of the investment in the year the asset is released to the public. Entertainment originals are rarely sold in an open market, so it is difficult to observe market prices for these original works. This is a common problem with measuring the value of intangible assets, and in such cases, other valuation methods must be utilized, such as the sum of the production costs (which is used for own-account software and R&D) or the estimated net present value (NPV).[24] Because adequate information on production costs is not available for most entertainment originals, BEA will estimate the value of these assets based on the NPV of expected future royalties or other revenue obtained from these assets, net of any associated sales costs. For investment in theatrical movies prior to 2007, the estimates will be derived using a production costs approach based on movie budget data. For each type of entertainment originals asset, the expected net cash flow of the producing industry will be estimated using revenue and cost data from the Census Bureau’s economic censuses and surveys, numerous trade sources, and databases such as IMDb.com.[25] BEA will assume a 7 percent real discount rate for all asset types and will apply an NPV adjustment factor, a ratio that represents the average NPV-to-current period revenues from new works, to current-year revenues in order to derive an estimate of investment in entertainment originals for that year.  
Estimation methodology. First, total current-period revenue from licensing fees, merchandise sales, ticket sales, and other revenue generating activities for the industries producing the assets will be estimated. Second, the value of sales costs—such as advertising, manufacturing of reproductions, and other marketing type costs—will be subtracted from the total current period revenues to derive net revenue values that capture only the revenues earned on the intangible assets held by the business. Third, these net revenue values will be adjusted further to only include the revenue from the release of new works (that is, the “originals”), using BEA-derived investment ratios.26 Finally, the NPV adjustment factor will be applied to the net revenue value that has been adjusted by the investment ratio in order to derive the current-period investment value of the future revenue stream of these new works.  
Depreciation of newly recognized assets. The depreciation of entertainment originals assets, like the depreciation of R&D assets, will be included in the NIPA measure of CFC. BEA will estimate service lives and depreciation rates for each type of entertainment originals asset based on its net present value over time as described above. The depreciation rates will follow a geometric pattern in which a constant percentage of the existing asset stock depreciates each year. The typical movie, for example, is released in theaters, followed by DVDs, premium television, regular cable networks, foreign television, and U.S. broadcast networks. Based on an analysis of the profits obtained from these successive releases, BEA estimates an annual depreciation rate of 3.8 percent. For television programs, which earn a substantial proportion of their long-term revenue in their first airing, the depreciation rate is 16.8 percent. For music, an even larger portion of profits is obtained in the first year of release, and so the estimated depreciation rate is 26.7 percent. The estimated depreciation rate is 12.1 percent for books and 10.9 percent for theatrical play scripts, greeting card designs, and stock photography. [26] Long-lived television programs include situation comedies and drama programs. Other types of television programs, including news programs, sporting events, game shows, soap operas, and reality programming have much shorter service lives and will not be capitalized. “Other” miscellaneous entertainment includes miscellaneous artwork including theatrical play scripts, greeting card designs, and commercial stock photography.  . . .
The recognition of entertainment originals as investment will boost the level of gross private domestic investment, which will in turn boost the level of GDP. Based on preliminary research, private investment in entertainment originals for 2007 is estimated at about $70 billion. About one-third of the new investment is in theatrical movies, one-third in television programs, and the remaining one-third in the other entertainment original assets." 
22. This change was introduced in a SURVEY article by Rachel H. Soloveichik, “Artistic Originals as Capital Assets,” SURVEY 91 (June 2011): 43–51. See also SNA 2008, 207, paragraph 10.115 and “Entertainment, Literary, and Artistic Originals,” in the Handbook on Deriving Capital Measures of Intellectual Property Products (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD): Paris, October 2010): 150–166. 
23. BEA will not identify any investment in entertainment originals by governments.  
24. The SNA discusses the use of NPV for estimating the value of assets (SNA 2008, 22, paragraph 2.60, 52, paragraph 3.137–138); see also the OECD Handbook on Deriving Capital Measures of Intellectual Property Product, 18, 158–159.  
25. BEA will benchmark its investment estimates to revenue data from the 2007 economic census.  
26. Based on research using trade sources, studies, and survey and economic census data from the Census Bureau, BEA estimates the following investment ratios for the five categories of entertainment originals assets: 51 percent of industry revenue for theatrical movies, 50 percent of industry revenue for music, 37 percent of industry revenue for books, 30 percent of industry revenue for television, and 15 percent of industry revenue for miscellaneous artwork. The remaining revenue is spent on nonartwork costs such as advertising, stamping DVDs, or printing books. The NIPAs record these nonartwork costs as current production costs.
The key June 2011 paper that developed these estimates is here. It notes that:
Before 2005, IMDB.com data—which gives filming dates and production budgets for individual movies from 1900 to 2011[9]—were used to estimate annual investment expenditures. . . .

Theatrical movies and television programs have the longest lifespans.[19] Ten years after the first release, theatrical movies retain 48 percent of their initial value, and television programs retain 35 percent of their initial value. In contrast, books and music earn most of their money in the first 5 years; after 10 years, music retains 19 percent of its initial value, and books retain 14 percent of their initial value.

The main reason for the different lifespans among the categories is consumer storage.[20] Theatrical movies and television shows get most of their money from television licensing. Accordingly, the studios get paid each time a classic movie or television episode is replayed. In contrast, books and music get most of their money from the initial sale. Once consumers have bought a book, they can reread it without paying more money to the publisher. In this paper, only the capital stock of original artwork was measured. Therefore, the reprint rights owned by publishing houses are counted but not the physical books owned by libraries and consumers. The depreciation schedules in chart 4 are based on revenue net of sales costs. Studios, musicians, and authors typically spend a great deal of money advertising their new releases. BEA’s general practice is to treat advertising as a current expense. Because advertising is a current expense, all advertising costs are deducted from revenue for a particular year. As a result, first year profits are much lower than first year revenue. In fact, theatrical movies actually have losses in the first quarter and therefore appear to gain value early in their lifespan. Some might consider advertising a long-lived investment in brand awareness. That treatment of advertising suggests higher depreciation rates for artwork in the first year after release.[21]

9. IMDB reports data for most major movies, with better coverage of recent movies and more expensive productions. The missing data were imputed.

19. The depreciation rate for television programs is still preliminary and may change significantly in the final version.

20. Consumers can tape a movie or television program when it is first aired and then watch it whenever they chose. In practice, very few people use their DVR for long-term storage. Instead, they watch whatever is on.

21. However, the capital value of artwork plus capitalized advertising would be identical to my capital values for artwork alone.

22 April 2013

Degree Inflation

Fifteen per cent of taxi drivers in the US have a degree, up from 1 per cent in 1970. Likewise, 25 per cent of sales clerks are graduates, against 5 per cent in 1970. An astonishing 5 per cent of janitors now have a bachelor’s degree.
Via Marginal Revolution.

UPDATE: The more that I think about it, the more convinced I am that this statistic is more than trivial.  Instead, it has the potential to has consequences of epic proportions.

Societies and organizations in which talented people have their expectations defeated and are confined to positions of little authority, rather than being co-opted are deeply unstable.

The history of the American labor movement can be seen as a story of talenting management grade talent being shut out of management due to a lack of social class and education and finding other means to exert their influence until more meritocratic and need blind admissions processes were developed in higher education.

A great deal of radical Islamic activity can be fairly attributed to the huge class of educated (often in theology) but unemployed young people in Islamic petro-monarchies feeling a deep need to do something that makes a difference with their lives.

This also recalls that bad old days during World War I when aristoratic officers continued to send huge numbers of rank and file soldiers to their deaths irrationally climbing out of trenches to storm machine gun nests that was an acid bath to class relations in Europe for decades to come.

Of course, it also has to be bad for society to so profoundly underutilize the intellectual resources we as a society have available to us.  A mind is a terrible thing to waste.  And, if you waste it after that mind has gotten a degree, it is also a profoundly expensive form of waste for everyone who participated in paying for that degree. 

Rhyme Of The Day

April showers bring snow ploughers.

- repeated by my children from an unknown source, and aptly summing up today's repeat snowy weather in Denver.

420 Shooting Suspect's Image Released

The man identified in the image above is the police's leading suspect in an incident at about 5 p.m. on April 20, 2013 during which shots were fired into a crowd at a pro-marijuana rally at Civic Center Park in Denver as corroborated by multiple eye witness identifications. 

Three people received non-life threatening gunshot wounds as did the dog of the male victim who was shot in the leg.  Two of the injured received leg wounds (one white man and one woman who made it across 14th Street towards the Denver Library Central Branch before being treated), while juvenile was grazed by a bullet and walked to a local hospital where the juivenile sought treatment.  A number of additional shots may also have been fired. Chaos broke out when the shots were fired and people fled.  A former Army medic in the crowd treated the man who was shot and police officers came to the aid of the adult woman who was shot.

A second African-American man who was dressed in a gray hoodie and a light blue baseball cap is also a suspect according to the Denver police.

Authorities have not publicly identified either individual by name.

One witness expressed the belief that the shooting was gang related and the city has tentatively given Denver's gang task force the led role in the investigation, but the motive for the shooting was unclear and revives painful echos of the recent bombing at the Boston Marathon.

UPDATE: Police have identified but not released the name of the suspect above, and says the following about the second suspect:

"Detectives believe he is an accomplice to another man, who has been described as black, about 6 feet tall and 180 pounds. He was wearing a light blue baseball cap and a gray hooded sweatshirt during the shooting,"

UPDATE TWO: A "person of interest" has been interviewed and not arrested by Denver police, apparently the man originally sought as a suspect (with the implication that the person described as an "accomplice" may have been the actual shooter).

A Cocaine Addiction Toggle In Rats

Researchers can now, not only cure cocaine addition in rats that had received gene therapy, they can also cause non-addicted rats that have received the gene therapy to become cocaine addicts, by directly manipulating neurons in their brains with lasers. (Source for linked story: B.T. Chen et al. Rescuing cocaine-induced prefrontal cortex hypoactivity prevents compulsive cocaine seeking. Nature. Vol. 496, April 4, 2013.) 

The study revealed what kinds of brain changes (epigenetic changes that increase the current required to trigger certain neutrons) in what part of the brain (the prelimbic cortex) are associated with compulsive cocaine addition and how that could be modified.

The ventromedial prefrontal cortex (PFC) in the rat brain illustrated above includes the infralimbic and prelimbic regions in the rat brain.  In this study the prelimbic part of the PFC was implicated in cocaine addition.  Source: Figure 1 of Controlling stress: how the brain protects itself from depression Trevor W Robbins Nature Neuroscience 8, 261 - 262 (2005).

The details of the research also highlights the fact that even regular cocaine use does not make everyone an intractable addict.  About 70% of the rats could kick the habit without having lasers zapped at their brains.  Most people either believe that a single use of cocaine turns almost everyone who uses it into an instant addict, or believe that anyone with enough willpower can kick the habit.  The reality is that neither is true.  Most moderate drug users of cocaine and other addictive drugs can kick the habit with enough motivation.  But, some drug addicts can't, even when powerfully motivated to do so.  Different people are more or less prone to addiction and other research shows that this propensity is one of the most strongly hereditary behavioral traits known to exist.

The methods used in the most recent study described below are fascinating, but have a distinct mad scientist flavor to them. 

I've also highlighted the portion of the technique that uses gene therapy, as this key and tricky element of the process is downplayed in the report.  The gene therapy allows epigenetic effects to be triggered with lasers, rather than more conventional means like the ones that give rise to the cocaine addition in the first place.
Scientists know that when certain neurons fire less frequently in the prelimbic cortex, a brain region that handles impulse control and reward-driven behavior, a person’s self-control can decrease. But researchers didn’t know whether using cocaine chronically could make the neurons drowsy to begin with, and whether that sluggishness could also promote drug use in spite of ill consequences.
Billy Chen, then of the National Institutes of Health, and colleagues trained rats to take cocaine. The rats learned to press levers to receive a dose of drug through an IV. After about two months, researchers started giving the rats shocks roughly one-third of the time when the animals pressed the levers. Most of the rats stopped taking cocaine, but about 30 percent continued. These were compulsive cocaine users, says coauthor Antonello Bonci, a neuroscientist at the NIH’s National Institute on Drug Abuse.
Then the researchers sent electric current through neurons in an area of the rats’ prelimbic cortex that links to other brain areas involved in drug-seeking behaviors. Neurons in all cocaine-using rats were less likely to fire in response to the currents than cells in rats that hadn’t taken cocaine. And compared to noncompulsive cocaine users, the compulsive users’ neurons needed almost twice as much current to fire. That means that the long-term cocaine use likely reduced neuron firing, especially in the compulsive users.
To find out whether those sluggish neurons in turn caused the compulsive behavior, the scientists turned to a technique called optogenetics, which uses light to turn neurons on or off. The researchers injected the rats with viruses that inserted light-responsive molecules into the lazy neurons. When the researchers used lasers to stimulate the neurons in the compulsive rats, the rats pushed the levers one-third as often. The same experiment on rats that hadn't been shocked had no effect.
The researchers then reversed that experiment, using lasers again but this time turning off the neurons in the non-compulsive users. Those rats started pushing the levers for cocaine almost as frequently as the other rats had.
This process, even if it could be replicated in humans, is not a trivial thing.  It involves both targeted gene therapy and brain surgery. Gene therapy in human is largely experimental even though its use for research purposes in animal tests is well established.  Brain surgery is always an expensive and high risk treatment tool.

There are positive aspects of this particular treatment and make the risk and expense worthwhile for a condition as potentially devistating as a virtually impossible to overcome kind of cocaine addition.  The treated area of the brain does not actually have to be cut or otherwise mutilated.   The treatment might be reversible if the wrong brain tissues are accidentally triggered on or off.  And, this is a precision manipulation of only a tiny part of the brain in a case with a well understood mechanism.  In contrast, many forms of biophysical mental health treatment seem to work, but physically maim large areas of brain tissue in an irreservible way (e.g. lobotomy), and/or have a mechanism that is ill understood (e.g., lithium treatments, lobotomy and electroshock therapy). 

On the other hand, physical manipulation of brain tissue that could cause harm to other parts of the brain might be necessary to allow the virus injection and laser to be placed properly, and this would be a very expensive treatment in humans.  Also, it isn't obvious that future use of cocaine couldn't reverse the process and cause a relapse.

One also wonders, in passing, what diabolical use might be put to a technique that could cause drug addition before someone even uses the drugs.  Intentionally addicting someone to a drug is already used as a control technique in the human trafficing trade.


21 April 2013


Derogatory slurs constantly evolve. 

A new one I heard for the first time at a large soccer tournament, was used by a mix of Latino, Asian, black and olive skinned Southern European boys to describe another group of freckly, light haired, very light skinned white boys.  The word:


(The Urban Dictionary lists it as sense number twelve for the word).

19 April 2013

Boston Manhunt Probably Over

Authorities appear to have located and pinned down the second suspect in the Boston Marathon bombing (the first having been killed in a shootout with police) hiding in a boat behind a residence in Watertown where a search has continued all day and a "shelter in place" direction had just been lifted.  A resident venturing into his yard after the all clear noticed something out of place in his back yard and notified authorities.

Shots have been fired and the details aren't perfectly clear (most importantly, the question of whether the suspect is dead or alive, and whether any law enforcement officers have been hurt in this final episode of the manhunt), but this drama seems to have a certain conclusion and resolution at this point.

Greg Mankiw Still Out Of Touch

By the way, exceeding $3 million in such accounts is not very difficult for an individual who is financially successful and frugal. Under current law, a self-employed person can put about $50,000 a year in a SEP-IRA. If he does that every year for 40 years, and his savings earn a return of 5 percent per year, he will retire with about $6 million.
From here quoting economist Greg Mankiw.

Call me hopelessly plebian, but in my book, putting away $50,000 a year in retirement savings every single year for forty years and then earning a return of 5 percent per year on that investment, is damn hard.

Even if you are saving the current maximum 25% of your income each year in a SEP-IRA (the limit is 20% for self-employed individuals), you need to be making $200,000 a year essentially from the moment you join the work force after graduating from college (in addition to paying off your student loans).  Even U.S. Supreme Court law clerks taking entry level positions of large New York City law firms, newly minted M.B.A.'s working for investment banks and major management consulting firms, and first year out of residency specialist physicians very rarely make that kind of money.

The median net worth of an American household is about $50,000.  This is also within 10-20% of the median household income.  To make that much of a contribution every year for forty years would be pretty much unprecedented, in addition to being impossible under the law up to the present.  SEP-IRAs were added to the tax code in 1978 with much less generous contribution limits which didn't reach $50,000 until 2012.

Also, the average equity investment return over the period since I graduated from law school in the mid-1990s has been something like 1%-2% per year, or less, not 5%.

So, actually, it is horrendously difficult to mangae to get $3,000,000 in such accounts.

But, Mankiw, apparently, has a different threshold for "difficult" than the average guy.

Denver Is 49% "Post-Christian"

According to a Barna Survey, Denver is 49% "Post-Christian" which it defines has answering yes to nine of the following fifteen questions:

1. do not believe in God
2. identify as atheist or agnostic
3. disagree that faith is important in their lives
4. have not prayed to God (in the last year)
5. have never made a commitment to Jesus
6. disagree the Bible is accurate
7. have not donated money to a church (in the last year)
8. have not attended a Christian church (in the last year)
9. agree that Jesus committed sins
10. do not feel a responsibility to “share their faith”
11. have not read the Bible (in the last week)
12. have not volunteered at church (in the last week)
13. have not attended Sunday school (in the last week)
14. have not attended religious small group (in the last week)
15. do not participate in a house church (in the last year)

Only two other cities outside the Northeast and Pacific Coast had similarly high ratings: Tuscon, Arizona (50%) and Cedar Rapids, Iowa (49%).  San Francisco at 53% was the most post-Christian city in the West.  Albany, New York at 63% was the most post-Christian in the United States of the ninety-six cities surveyed.

If you look at the factors, one doesn't have to be all that secular to fit this definition. 

At least five of the points, like "made a commitment to Jesus", a belief that "the Bible is accurate", "agree that Jesus committed sins" and participating in "a house church", and feeling "a responsibility to "share their faith" are distinctively Evangelical Christian doctrines or imperatives that many liturgical Christians might give the "post-Christian" answer to if asked in a survey.  And, many adults would not have called a religious education function that the attended "Sunday school," even if they had attended it. 

Thus, part of the differentiation regionally is denominational bias in the survey (which explains high number in the heavily Roman Catholic Northeast), while part of the differentiation is an actual regional difference in religiousity.  Thus, while the highest percentages are in the Northeast, the West is probably actually more secular.

One could still be classed as "post-Christian" by the survey even if you have donated money to a church in the last year, have attended a Christian church in the last year, believe that faith is important in your life, have prayed to God in the last year, believe in God and do not identify as atheist or agnostic.  And, not doing something "extra" beyond an ordinary church service every week in a liturgical church is hardly a "post-Christian" position.

Only about a quarter of people deemed "post-Christian" are "highly post-Christian" (twelve of more criteria) (9% overall v. 37% overall who are "post-Christian") - something that is not really possible if you are an even a Christmas and Easter liturgical Christian, although you could be a "none" who sometimes prays, rather than an atheist or agnostic, and fit that definition.  The website doesn't break down this more accurate measure of "post-Christian" status by city.

Coming from Barna, the most interesting thing about the term is that it implies that Christianity is a past that will fade away in favor of a new non-Christian culture in an almost inevitable way.

WTF? (Boston Manhunt)

The Boston Marathon bombing has come to made for television end, and left us in the Greek chorus asking, "what the fuck?"


The bombers appear to have been 26 year old Tamerlan Tsarnaev (the man in police photos seen wearing a black hat), a boxer and Bunker Hill Community College student (in the Boston area) hoping to become an engineer, and 19 year old Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who is apparently a registered student at the U.Mass Dartmouth campus in New Bedford, Massachusetts sixty miles south of Boston and was a honor student in high school.

A posting on a social media site in the name of the older brother included the comments: "I don't have a single American friend. I don't understand them." They are brothers and ethnically Chechen. 

According to Ruslan Tsarni, identified as the suspects' uncle, who says of his nephew Tamerlan's death, "he deserved his." Tsarni added that "they do not deserve to live on this earth."  According to the uncle, the young men were born in Kyrgyzstan.
Reached by telephone in the Russian city of Makhachkala, Anzor Tsarnaev has told The Associated Press that his younger son, Dzhokhar, is "a true angel.""He is such an intelligent boy. We expected him to come on holidays here," the father also said. 
It appears that they moved to the United States around 2001.  The younger said he has lived in the U.S. since he was five years old in one pre-incident snatch of information about him.  Social media of the men suggest Chechen nationalist and Islamist ties.

It appears that the men were at least legal immigrants.  It isn't clear if they had acquired U.S. citizenship, or what other family or ties they had in the United States.  Per NPR:
If anyone says that 19-year-old Dzhokhar Tsarnaev's "character, attitude ... or activities that he did daily" would have indicated he was likely to bomb the marathon or engage in shootouts with police, "they're absolutely lying," says a friend of the fugitive. Zolan Young, nephew of WBUR's Robin Young, spoke with Morning Edition moments ago. He's known Dzhokhar Tsarnaev since they were both in high school.
"I can't emphasize how much a courteous guy he was," Zolan Young said. "This was someone that I could always count on." The last time Young heard from Tsarnaev was during this year's Super Bowl, when Tsarnaev texted him to ask if Young was having a party.
"I'm shocked," said Zolan Young. "This is one of my friends."
"It's stunning," WBUR host Robin Young says of hearing that 19-year-old Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is the fugitive who's suspected of being one of the young men who planted the bombs at the Boston Marathon and now of being involved in deadly gun battles with police. "I had the prom party for that class in my back yard," she says of Cambridge Rindge & Latin High School students, who included Tsarnaev and Young's nephew Zolan.
The fugitive, she says, was "the light of the party ... a beautiful, beautiful boy." But when she saw the photo released early Friday of a suspect robbing a convenience story, she could tell it was him. Young's family has known Dzhokhar Tsarnaev since he was a young high school student and she saw "no sign of this ... no sign." 
We don't know if these men were acting alone or part of a larger conspiracy, although the former seems more likely at this point.

The men appear to have been heavily armed with multiple firearms and explosives in their long running crime spree and flight last night and into this morning.

Another man arrested and stripped naked while questioned at the scene of the flight was determined to be a mere bystander and not related to the plot. He has been released and is not a suspect.

But, "CNN reports it has been told by law enforcement sources that the latest area of Watertown where police have brought in heavy forces and have asked the media to move back is where a possible accomplice of the suspects is located — not fugitive Dzhokhar Tsarnaev."


The motives for the attack remain opaque.

The incident does appear to have been a terrorist incident.  This particular incident seems to blur the line between domestic and international terrorism.  They were 1.5 generation long time U.S. residents.  They would have been fluent in English in the New England regional dialect.  The younger brother, at least, went to a well known Boston high school.  But, they hailed from abroad, the older brother, at least, never really fit into American society, they may have had internationally related motives.  But, then again, maybe they were torqued about gun control, they had enough firearms themselves and could have identified with the issue given the revolutionary legacy of the Chechen kin.

No cause they were fighting for has been announced and no demands have been made by them.  While at least one of young men appeared to support independence for Chechnya and may have had Islamist sentiments, it is hard to fathom any connection between either of these causes and the Boston Marathon. 

They ended up being rebels without a cause, whether they had planned it that way or not.

Their moves after the attack are also mysterious.  With the FBI and law enforcement closing in around them, something that they surely knew from the moment their bombs exploded, why stick around Boston?  Why rob a convenience store when their faces were on the TV news, instead of hiding?  Did they have no place to go?  Could they not have the money to take flight?  Did they only decide to flee after encountering and killing the MIT policeman, perhaps while they were in the course of leaving bombs for another attack?  They did have explosives with them, in addition to multiple firearms, at that point.

The surveillance video from the April 15 bombing and the thin accounts of the older and younger brother we are learning about now seem to cast the younger brother as something of a follower than the older brother as the leader.  Perhaps the older brother, who would have been about twelve when he came to the U.S. in contrast to his brother who would have been just five, and who apparently lacked the American friends of his younger brother, was the man with the ax to grind and the primary motive, while the younger brother may have been more motivated by loyalty to his older sibling.

Perhaps we will learn more in time.

The Wild, Violent End

In events starting after 10 p.m. last night, they robbed a 7-11 in Cambridge, killed an MIT policeman, shot a transit cop, jacked a Mercedes (the passenger was released unharmed at a gas station), and got into a running gun battle with police in which they also apparently released explosives.  The older brother was wounded in the gun battle and removed to a hospital where he died while the younger brother (wearing a white hat in security footage) fled on foot and from their possibly in a brief run in another car in Watertown.  The older brother, of course, was also killed in this course of criminal conduct.  Five people are dead and more who are still in hospitals could die.

Of course, while there is every reason to believe that these men were the Boston Marathon bombers (the older brother was also ID's by a bombing victim who saw him put down the backpack that exploded minutes later), even if they weren't, their crime spree of last night would be enough to tie them to extremely culpable crimes.

If police are right, this pair of young men has killed four people including a child and a cop, critically injured more than a dozen more and injured more than one hundred and seventy people in all (including a law enforcement office they shot) with explosives, robbed a convenience store, carjacked a car while kidnapping a bystander, engaged in gun battles with police and of course, resisted arrest.

The manhunt continues.

Punishment prospects

This case could easily end with the second brother dying, at his own hand or those of law enforcement, or in a flight motivated accident.

If the younger brother is captured alive, there is no doubt that he will be convicted of multiple crimes serious enough to shut him away for the rest of his life.  Massachusetts doesn't have a state death penalty.  A federal death penalty does exist and could surely be applied to this incident in some way, but getting a federal jury in this state to impose it, even in such a heinous case generating national outrage, is not at all a sure thing.  No one would grudge the immense expense of bringing death penalty charges in this case where the law enforcement resources involved have already been immense and the downside for prosecutors of pressing that are few.  Surely, an indictment would start with a death penalty charge whether or not it was ever imposed.

It would be hard to a federal prosecutor in such a high profile case to agree to a plea bargain taking the death penalty off the table, although it might be possible to justify if the younger brother cooperated in letting the world know what happened and why from the insider perspective, particularly if co-conspirators or terrorist affiliates could be identified, making the nation more safe.

Lessons learned?

None of these incidents offer any obvious policy responses.  Whatever cause these men sought to advance, they failed, leaving their cause neither advanced, nor impaired by association.  The CIA and FBI can investigate and try to shut down international and domestic conspiracies, but no one can ever hope to shut down every pair of brothers acting autonomously and without warning signs making deadly weapons with ordinary things that have on obvious weapons purpose.  Even gun powder can be made from easily available more benign components with easily available recipes.  There will always be limits to prevention.  So long as there is no international organized conspiracy to hunt down, we have done all we can on the prevention front. 

Perhaps there is some lesson to be learned about how to investigate and respond to an incident like this, in terms of management of survellience video and cell phone record processing, but basically, the system has worked.  We can't all live in a constant state of paranoia all of the time at ever public event over every forgotten package as if we were in an airport on high security alert.  There are way too many false positives for that to ever work.

I'm not sure that we want to routinize incidents like this by curtailing the probably overkill response of authorities in shutting down all of Boston in this one off city defining event at a time when its scope and seriousness is uncertain.  Good leaders fear underreactions more than overreactions to emergencies.  This touches everyone in the city.  These steps make them all tangibly personally affected, and a lot of Bostonians emotionally, probably need that so that they can legitimately claim that they really were affected by what would otherwise be a mere intangible insecurity and discontent.

We simply need to be tough, move on, and recognize that crazy things happen, once the fugitive and any accomplices are caught.

18 April 2013

Why Was Aria So Popular In Iceland?

Sara Shepard's series of Pretty Little Liars books (and spin off television series) feature a group of four junior high school friends whose grow apart from each other until events in high school cause the blossoming young women to renew their ties in the face of mysterious events driven by an unknown person called "A", the first initial of the young woman who brought the rest of them together until she disappeared after a late eighth grade party without explanation. 

One of those young women is Aria Montgomery, and this post is about her.

This post contains no spoilers that are not revealed in the first few chapters of the first book, and in the first episode of the television show adaptation.

Why A Boston Marathon Explosion Is Not A Texas Fertilizer Plant Explosion

There appears to be video capturing the Boston Marathon bomber, although not yet an arrest. I suspect that the end result will be more Ted Kazinski and less Oklahoma City or 9-11. It also illustrates dramatically that the frequent Hollywood device of secret agencies being able to access all video surveillance in real time and analyze huge volumes of it to find a particular individual is a bunch of bunk.  Notably, the FBI, local law enforcement, and other criminal justice actors are taking the lead role in the investigation and achieving success with it. (Source: ABC News, national website and other news reports.)

An explosion at a fertilizer plant in a small town in Texas, just a few days after the Boston Marathon bombing, killed at least five people and injured more than two hundred, including more than a dozen critical injuries.  The casualty toll was very similar to the Boston Marathon bombing but slightly worse across the board.  Both events involved unexpected explosions of things known to be explosive and a facile utilitarian take on them might suggest that they are equally problematic.

But, the fertilizer plant explosion is far less worrying and rightly so.  Why?

1.  The fertilizer plant explosion was very likely a simple industrial accident caused by failure to exercise reasonable care in running a factory, not an intentional effort to cause malicious harm.  We can see that in part because the fertilizer company suffered great damage to its own property and valued employees in the process that it didn't want, while the bomber will not suffer any harm to himself unless he is caught and his actions clearly show that he was trying not to be caught and probably believed that he might succeed in doing so (even if he was wrong).

2.  There is a balancing act here.  The Boston bomber's motives have no societal value to counterbalance the harm, so it remains a problem.  Producing fertilizer helps farmers make food and an increased ability to make food has societal value - and it is impossible to have a large scale industrial economy that makes our lives much better without taking the risk that sometimes there will be accidents.

3.  The fertilizer plant's owner or its insurance company, will almost surely provide the full amount of compensation determined to be owed to those harmed through the accident according to the dictates of the law and will cooperate within reason with the process of making that determination.  The Boston bomber, if he is caught, will almost surely be unable to provide any meaningful compensation to his victims and will almost surely not cooperate in the process.  This helps balance the scale.

4.  Cynically and politically speaking, the upper middle class and wealthy people who drive the political system in both political parties, work in offices where they don't face these kinds of risks and can choose to live away from potentially dangerous factories without impairing their lifestyles.  In contrast, a Boston Marathon bombing disproportionately impacts those very people living those very lifestyles (and on a bipartisan basis, no less, marathon running is among the least definitively partisan recreational activities out there).

On the other hand, policy measures in response to the fertilizer plant explosion have great potential to make the entire industry safer and reduce future incidents (something that mere regulatory agencies can impose without express legislative authorization, by the way). 

In contrast, it is exceedingly hard to come up with policies that will prevent future Boston Marathon bombing type incidents.  Indeed, as noted in a pithy way at Mother's Jones and more seriously elsewhere, acts of terrorism in the United States have declined steadily since a peak in the 1970s where systematic records started being kept to the present, with only a handful of blips along the way.  The existing anti-terrorism policies are working, even if they aren't perfect.  The problem of terrorism is not mostly the absolute number of deaths and injuries it causes.  Ordinary, non-terrorist harms (e.g. industrial accidents and prescription drug overdose deaths) dwarf terrorist harms in terms of direct impact.  But, while other harms have many self-regulating aspects to them that naturally try to limit their impact, terrorism allowed to go unchecked can become immensely damaging and the impact on society of greater measures to prevent it can be very costly (witness the daily burdens associated with air travel security).  So, decisive efforts to shut down terrorists when discovered makes a lot of sense. 

Notably, however, there is almost no empirical evidence that military as opposed to criminal justice approaches work better in responding and there is some suggestive evidence that the reverse is true.  Criminal justice reduces the likelihood of a cycle of retaliation and reduces distrust of the authority imposing it, and thus makes citizens more willing too cooperate in helping government to capture criminals.  Criminal justice has a focus on accurately finding out who commited the crime since it operates where an ability to capture an identified and located perpetrator is a secondary consideration.  It works so long as there is near universal support for authority vis-a-vis the criminals and apprehending as opposed to killing the criminal is the usually circumstance.  Criminal justice obviously doesn't work when law enforcement is too weak to apprehend perpetrators who have been identified and located reliably, it doesn't work well when accurately identifying the enemy is not an important consideration, and it works less well when at least a meaningful minority of the population in the relevant communities take the side of the perpetrators rather than law enforcement. As a result, in the absence of a civil war, criminal justice is almost always the better approach for responding to domestic terrorism.  But, the situation may be different in abroad or the in the midst of a civil war. 

Still, even then, when local conditions favorable to a criminal justice approach exist where the perpetrators are located, it is almost always the preferred option, and if it is possible to arrest and remove someone where criminal justice approaches are not viable to face criminal justice in a place where it is viable, this is generally a preferred option to a military one.  Fighting terrorism is ultimately as much about quashing future terrorist acts as seeking retribution for past ones or controlling territory, and that requires public legitimacy which is enhanced by the use of the criminal justice system which is all about making the state use of force against alleged wrongdoers appear legitimate.

Bad Economics, Sovereign Debt, The Irish Mortgage Crisis And More

* Ireland apparently does not have, or almost never uses, a foreclosure process to repossess homes. Instead, involuntary bankruptcy is pretty much the exclusive means of owner occupied residence repossession - at least until this month, when a new insolvency process similar to Chapter 13 bankruptcies in the United States, was put in place. About one in eight Irish mortgages are more than ninety days overdue, mostly as a result of an economic collapse including a 50% drop in housing prices when a housing bubble there collapsed.

This stark difference from the debt collection practices of other countries with a common law legal tradition is notable.  Commentators at the BBC attributed this policy to the weighted political history of unjust evictions by absentee British overlords on the Irish consciousness.   (Source: BBC radio news broadcast heard on radio.)

* The European economy is almost certainly headed into a double dip recession (and a deep one) in the wake of the sovereign debt crisis if it isn't already there. Ireland's sovereign debt crisis has mostly been worked through, but now it has a massive private debt crisis.

The hard question is whether this will slow the not yet quite complete recovery of the U.S. from its financial crisis, or worse yet, plunge the U.S. into a double dip recession. So far, this doesn't seem to be happening because domestic demand is pushing the U.S. economy back, but it is still a serious worry.

It doesn't help that China's growth is slowing dramatically.

China and the E.U. are the two biggest non-U.S. economies in the world and import-export based revenues are important to the U.S.; on the other hand, bleak investment prospects in those countries make make the U.S. more attractive to foreign investors thereby giving the U.S. economy some private stimulus.

* The academic economic study by Carmen Reinhart and Ken Rogoff that was a main respectable justification for austerity policies in Europe and elsewhere turns out to have been deeply flawed in a manner that has created a major scandal.

The increasing consensus of informed opinion led by Krugman and others economic commentators, is that the resort to austerity measures both by U.S. states and in Europe, as well as the failure to the U.S. to take sufficiently bold stimulus measures at the federal level, has made the series of recessions that started with the U.S. financial crisis and continues into the European sovereign debt crisis, far worse.  If macroeconomists had been clear about this fact, which apart from the R&R work didn't have nearly as solid academic support, perhaps this serious misstep could have been avoided. 

Reinhart and Rogoff paper showed empircally that debt loads in excess of 90% of GDP greatly harmed long term economic growth.  But, it turns out to that they reached that conclusion based on spreadsheets that accidentally omitted key data points, mistranscribed data and because they added up the data incorrectly.  They correctly determined that austerity imposes short term pain.  But, they were wrong in concluding that the short term pain of austerity measures imposes immense penalties in terms of long term growth when economies have high public debt levels relative to their GDP.

They weren't the only economists to reach this result, but without this paper, the argument for it would have been far weaker.

If their methodology had been applied without clerical or arithmetic errors, it would have reached the opposite conclusion. The poignant question is How Much Unemployment Was Caused by Reinhart and Rogoff's Arithmetic Mistake?, by Dean Baker (via Economist's View blog):
The most important of these errors was excluding four years of growth data from New Zealand in which it was above the 90 percent debt-to-GDP threshold..., correcting this one mistake alone adds 1.5 percentage points to the average growth rate for the high debt countries. This eliminates most of the falloff in growth that R&R find from high debt levels. (HAP find several other important errors in the R&R paper, however the missing New Zealand years are the biggest part of the story.)
This is a big deal because politicians around the world have used this finding from R&R to justify austerity measures that have slowed growth and raised unemployment. In the United States many politicians have pointed to R&R's work as justification for deficit reduction even though the economy is far below full employment by any reasonable measure. In Europe, R&R's work and its derivatives have been used to justify austerity policies that have pushed the unemployment rate over 10 percent for the euro zone as a whole and above 20 percent in Greece and Spain. In other words, this is a mistake that has had enormous consequences.
This debacle has renewed the debate across a host of academic and scientific disciplines over whether published academic research should routinely include raw data and computer code, something that only rarely happens now.

It has also lead to hand wringing among economists over the sad state of empirical validation in macroeconomics and the lack of consensus in the field.

I personally believe that macroeconomics is a discipline in dire need of a transition from a narrow focus on theoretical models of monetary policy and government spending levels, in favor of a far broader descriptive orientation.

I once went so far as to take the GREs and request applications for graduate programs in economics, but did so only with trepidation because I lacked confidence in the academic discipline's serious problems (ultimately, children on the way caused me to continue practicing law instead of going to graduate school).  I was deeply dissatisfied with the quality of the scholarship in the discipline every since I took an intermediate macroeconomics class at Miami University while I was a senior in high school.

Miami University shouldn't be faulted on this score, despite the fact that the particular instructor in question wasn't very good. I considered the discipline at all, in part because of the excellent teaching I received in my honors microeconomics course the semester before from Professor Gerald E. Flueckiger (who died in 2000, far too early) and an equally able high school economics instructor my sophomore year at Talawanda High School, both of whom powerfully demonstrated the relevance and intuitive power of economic thinking and the potential breadth of the discipline even though it was rarely realized.  

The macroeconomics class I took at Miami University was typical of the discipline and graduate instruction at many institutions in macroeconomics, and a learned a lot in it about mainstream macroeconomic models even though I don't respect them very much.  We used Robert J. Barro's classic equilibrium equation market clearing model based textbook that epitomized everything that is wrong with the discipline but did so competently, albeit with a dry approach that was utterly detached from reality.  Our instructor was humorless trees for the forest kind of wonk, even worse than the textbook he taught from, who was busy fighting subdiscipline battles we were barely aware of over monetary policy in our classroom to the unseen audience of his discipinary peers.

(Full disclosure, I got in "B" in the class, but that was only because I overslept the day of the final exam and only arrived to take it a half an hour late, barely dressed, unshowered, and flustered, a reality reflected in my performance on that exam, but that didn't reflect how much I learned and absorbed from the class.)