Category Archives: history

How Trinity Western University (unintentionally) promotes divorce

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Trinity Western University has been in the news recently, as law societies in Ontario and Nova Scotia voted to not recognize lawyers trained at the religious university’s soon-to-open law school. These two law societies – like your blogger and the vast majority of Canadians – recoiled in horror at the university’s community covenant (“covenant” is just a fancy way of saying “contract”) clause forbidding students from having sex outside straight marriage.

While discriminatory and immoral, TWU’s policy is not illegal. If I understand correctly, several years ago the Canadian Supreme Court agreed with the BC Civil Liberties Union that, as a private university which does not receive government funding or subsidies, TWU’s right to a discriminatory code of conduct trumps attendees’ right to sexual equality. (After all, people can choose not to attend that university.) Part of the ruling apparently included the statement that the Court found no evidence that TWU’s 21st-century-BC sexual ethics actually affect the behaviour of their 21st-century-AD graduates, once they enter the “real” world. Which is comforting, and de-fangs some of my concerns.

So, while I find its policy abhorrent, legal precedent tells me TWU must be allowed to have their own law school. On the flip side, the ruling also means that an atheist group could found the “Richard Dawkins Law School” with a community covenant forbidding students from engaging in religious practise, as long as they don’t take public funding either. (In a terrible case of “do unto others…” Dawkins has argued that religion is a form of mental illness, in the exact same way religious fundamentalists have argued that homosexuality is. While the guy’s a scientific genius, he’s as religiously illiterate as the people he rails against.)

As a semi-related aside, the Moral Majority movement started when the US Federal Government threatened to withdraw tax-exempt status from Bob Jones University, a religious college which forbade interracial dating. Until the year 2000. Which was forty-five years after Rosa Parks refused to move to the back of the bus. As recounted by the Episcopal (Anglican) priest Randall Balmer, the Moral Majority’s founders quickly realized that – this being the 1970’s, not the 1870’s – no one would fund a group committed to keeping black boys away from white girls. So they made abortion their central issue.

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The Innovator’s Dilemma, Toyota edition

280px-1st_Toyota_Prius_--_07-28-2011

This car — yes, this car — has impeded Toyota’s electric efforts

My post on how The Innovator’s Dilemma explains why Toyota lags in electric vehicles — and how Kleiber’s Law explains there’s nothing for them to worry about (yet), is now up on GreenCarReports.

While the Tesla stats were cooler to have dug up, and will probably enjoy a broader readership, this particular piece was more gratifying to write; the Innovator’s Dilemma is a fairly well-known concept in business circles, but there’s a tendency to incorrectly think that all industries get changed and disrupted quickly. To adapt from yesterday’s screed, the world of software changes a lot more quickly than the world of stuff.

And Kleiber’s Law probably (partially) explains why.

The GCR article had to be edited down, and some of the rejected detritus included this little comparison of hybrid and EV adoption rates below. Think of it as rounding out the “complete and unabridged” version of the article.

Note: I thought electric vehicles would have roughly the same adoption rate as early hybrids, figuring that greater sales due to a broader product selection from various manufacturers, would be offset by lower sales due to the higher sticker price. Boy, was I wrong. :)

Though I might claim that gov’t rebates “distorted the market” (in a very positive way, mind you) I’m not so egotistical as to be unable to admit to mistakes, so I’ll file that for future learnings… after taking this quick religious diversion. :)

A quick religious diversion

On the topic of “complete and unabridged” versions, people who peruse the Christian scriptures (the “New Testament”) will notice that the Gospel of Mark is a lot shorter than the Gospels of Matthew and of Luke. This is most likely due to the fact that back in the day, there were two standard scroll lengths: a short one, and a long one. Kind of like how we have letter paper (8.5″ x 11″) and legal paper (8.5″ x 14″) today.

Mark, chronologically the first of the three to be written, was written on a short scroll, and Matthew and Luke wrote on the longer ones.

A more interesting case is that of the book, Acts of the Apostles, commonly credited to Luke — whose name almost certainly wasn’t Luke, because people tended to assign famous works, to more famous people. The same tends to happen in our modern era — for instance, this British revocation of the American Declaration of Independence  is commonly attributed to John Cleese, though he didn’t write it.

Acts exists in two commonly-circulated versions, one about 10% longer than the other. While this is less impressive “genetic variation” than one finds in other texts — the Buddhist Dhammapada has more variants, possibly because it was translated into multiple languages early on, before anyone with overarching authority tried to establish a “canonical” version, as happened in Christianity. There, someone identified by scholars as “The Ecclesiastical Redactor” (possibly Polycarp of Smyrna) created a standard edition fairly early on. There are many reasons for hypothesizing this, not the least of which is that essentially all manuscripts available to us share the same abbreviations of key terms (from memory, Theos is abbreviated Ts and Iesous is abbreviated Is).

All of which is a phenomenally long-winded, trivia-filled way of saying that the text appended below would form the “10% longer” version of my GreenCarReports article.  It originally was included before the paragraph “The Innovator’s Dilemma – why Toyota’s tepid on electrics”.

Hybrid history and the plug-in path

Plug-in electric vehicle enthusiasts have exchanged many a high-five over the fact that in the United States and probably elsewhere, plug-in adoption rates have thus far surpassed hybrid adoption rates. Here again, context is valuable.

In the first four years of hybrid availability in the United States (2000-2003) oil was cheap, and consumers could choose between three hybrid vehicles — two small (the Prius and the Civic Hybrid) and one even smaller (the Insight). These were sold by Toyota and Honda, who shared about 17 percent of the automotive market between them.

In retrospect, it’s unsurprising that electric vehicles are being adopted faster, given the greater awareness of our environmental challenges, higher oil prices improving the cost/benefit equation, government incentives, and — perhaps most crucially of all — widespread automaker participation.  

By the four-year anniversary of the Nissan Leaf and Chevy Volt’s December 2010 retail debut, ten carmakers will offering production plug-in electrics stateside: BMW, Daimler (Smart), Ford, GM, Honda, Mitsubishi, Nissan, Tesla, Toyota and VW.  (Fiat is excluded from the preceding list, as the 500e is a compliance car available only in California.)

These automakers control about 75 percent of the US auto market, and by December 2014 their product offerings will range all the way from subcompact commuter cars to SUV‘s. To adapt Alfred Sloan’s old phrase, there’s now a plug-in “for every purse and purpose”. Fierce competition has already resulted in lower prices, which will only accelerate sales volume, which will itself improve economies of scale.

The witless wisdom of Shai Agassi

dunning_kruger_effect by AddAttack

Dunning-Kruger effect graphed by AddAttack on DeviantArt.

LinkedIn has an “opinion leader” piece from Shai Agassi, founder of bankrupt car-battery-switcher Better Place, telling carmakers how they need to respond to Tesla’s success. Who better to give them advice than a guy who raised $850 million for an ignorant, impractical, impossible business model, then drove his company into the ground?

Inviting Agassi to share his clearly-witless wisdom about the auto sector, would have been like inviting André Maginot — architect of the not-so-great wall of France — onto the post-World War II lecture circuit to talk about the future of warfare.

Pre-fisking preface: about Agassi

Before we get to the meatless bones of his commentary, we’ll start with a bit of background about Agassi. From Wiki, he seems to’ve been a very successful software entrepreneur. He may even have been the Michael Jordan of enterprise software — the thing is, Michael Jordan knows that no one wants to hear him talk baseball.

Unfortunately, being so impatient that he didn’t want to wait two more years to become the CEO of SAP, Agassi resigned. Alas, power bends judgment as surely as gravity bends light, and he decided he was destined to remake the auto industry.

Agassi’s clueless enthusiasm — let’s treat Smart cars like smartphones! — makes him a textbook case of the Dunning-Kruger effect, which basically states that:
– people who’re experts at something, know they’re experts;
– people who’re non-experts, know they’re non-experts;
– and people who lack the faintest clue, are so ignorant of their very ignorance that they think they’re experts too.

It boggles the mind that LinkedIn would list a guy who proved himself so catastrophically wrong, as a “thought leader” — what’s next, NPI (new product introduction) advice from Sergio Zyman and Brian Dyson, the men who brought you New Coke?

Pre-fisking preface: the business world’s Kim Kardashians

Of course, LinkedIn brought Agassi in not because of insight, but eyeballs. Or as the TV world calls it, ratings. LinkedIn’s “thought leaders” don’t need to have a track record of success, they just need to draw traffic to the site. And while LinkedIn might have snagged some deep thinkers, one rather imagines that most successful businesspeople are too busy, you know, running successful businesses, to pen puff pieces.

Which means the content providers will inevitably be attention-hungry, less-successful entrepreneurs: the business world’s equivalent of reality-TV stars. Except that reality-TV stars know they’re not A-list actors, while these entrepreneurial remoras seem to think they’re sharks. Again, Agassi might well be a software shark; but when it comes to cars, he’s chum.

Pre-fisking preface: channelling Tom Friedman

Agassi’s piece is so breathlessly definitive in its vacuousness that it looks to’ve been ghostwritten by Thomas Friedman, the New York Times’ opinion columnist most famous for the book The World Is Flat, written in his signature algorithmically-reproducible writing style.

To his credit, Friedman isn’t just a billionaire’s daughter’s kept husband: he has a unit of time named after him, the six-month-long Friedman unit — “F.U.” for short — for the fact that for two-and-a-half years he insisted Iraq would turn the corner in the “next six months”.

People wanting a cortex cleanse from Friedmanisms (e.g. “suck on this“, “hyperconnected“) are well-advised to read lots and lots of Matt Taibbi of Rolling Stone, whose signature anti-Friedman diatribes are the epic essays Flathead, and Flat N All That, the former of which is the source of the cartoon “The Moustache of Understanding” below. (click to embiggen)

friedman

That done, let’s turn back to Mr. Agassi’s titular wisdom from this LinkedIn post.

Three lessons from a highly ineffective founder

“Some of the most serious reporters concluded that Mr. Musk should throw his doors open and share all his secrets with the current carmaker. Tesla had already partnered with both Toyota and Daimler, so one should assume they shared some secrets with those market leaders.”

No, Tesla didn’t share secrets with Toyota and Daimler; they negotiated contracts to develop the battery systems for the California-only RAV4 EV compliance car, and the Smart Electric Drive. This is readily-available information; it’s taken me longer to type this paragraph, than to look it up!  Can a software guru be Google-illiterate?

“Imagine for a second that car companies are like yachts racing in the ocean. While the entire industry represent yachts jostling for position along a similar course, Tesla’s catamaran diverged from the pack, and all of a sudden seems to be gaining tremendous speed.”

Here’s a perfect Friedmanism – first off, a catamaran is not a yacht. If it’s in the race, then the opening sentence should say “boats racing in the ocean”. Next, the writer tries to express the idea that the Tesla catamaran has “raced ahead of” or “broken from” the pack. But “diverged” implies a detour; a wrong turn; it implies Elon Musk’s ship is accelerating in the wrong direction. What began as a promising simile has crashed on the rocks of impaired grammar. Editor…! — is there an editor in the house??

1. An electric car is an object of desire

All cars are objects of desire! That’s why companies invest so heavily in advertising and branding – to make them into objects of desire! The only person in the auto industry who ever treated cars as commodity products, was the guy who thought he could the manufacturers to build all their vehicles off a generic-enough design template to make it easy for him to switch the batteries!

Instead of deciding on “what environmentalists will be willing to give up to drive electric”— such as having only two seats in the back of an odd shaped car — Tesla decided to build a car that supersedes all buyer’s expectations.

First off, Tesla doesn’t target environmentalists, who frankly aren’t wealthy enough to afford luxury sedans. And “two seats in the back of an odd-shaped car” ? This is a throw-back to the EV1, which was fifteen years ago. That’s so long ago, they didn’t just release a movie about how it got killed, they released a sequel! Two years ago!

There is one (1) two-seater plug-in car available in the US today: the Smart Electric Drive, which looks exactly the same as a regular Smart. Why, it’s the very vehicle that Tesla used to work on with Daimler. (The current Smart Electric Drive is a 100% Daimler product.)

And there are at least nine plug-in cars on the market today that seat four or more people, and all of them look like normal vehicles. Well, except the Mitsubishi i-MiEV, which looks normal in Mitsu’s home market of Japan. One of these normal-looking electric vehicles, the Chevy Volt, has won Consumer Reports’ award for highest customer satisfaction two years in a row, implying that yes, Shai, Olde Economy carmakers know how to meet buyers’ expectations with electric vehicles.

Seriously, claiming that Tesla is the first carmaker to discover that the secret to EV’s is to exceed customer expectations, is as ludicrous Italian Renaissance doctor Realdo Colombo claiming to be the first person to have “discovered” the clitoris in the 16th century — as if it was a faraway continent! How much of a bubble would Agassi have to live in, to think that after a hundred years featuring such iconic zillion-selling vehicles as the Model T, the VW Beetle, and the Toyota Corolla, it took until Tesla for anyone actually, finally get it right?  It’s a statement so stunning in its Valley-centric, navel-gazing ignorance, as to be mockworthy.

Oh, and one last thing – “supersede” means “to take the place or position of”. Tesla did not build a car that “took the place” of buyer’s expectations. It built a car to “sur-pass” or “ex-ceed” buyers’ expectations. Presumably, the spell-checker caught that sur-ceed wasn’t an actual word and suggested “supersede” instead. Furthermore, all carmakers already exceed their customers’ expectations, though most of them aim for lower price points than Tesla did with the Model S. It’s one of the reasons why they manage to sell so many more vehicles than Tesla does.

The lesson: Design a car that provides car buyers with the possibility of upgrading both battery and software, while retaining the car [over twenty years]. Such a possibility will enhance the resell value of cars, and in doing so could drastically reduce the monthly lease new buyers will face at the dealership.

I’m going to go out on a limb and say that Shai Agassi probably doesn’t drive the same car he’s owned since the first World Trade Center terrorist attack (1993). It’s hard to imagine that someone who tried to be part of the auto industry would be so blissfully oblivious to the fact that people’s car needs change over time. (How many university students buy minivans because they plan to drive their future tween-aged kids around town, twenty years hence??) But then, this is a guy who thought it wouldn’t be a big deal to convince the world’s major automakers to all change their designs, for his benefit.

Batteries are “Exponential Technology” – they benefit from reduced cost, improved storage and longer life with every generation, all of which are compounding year over year. Exponential technology is the most disruptive force that hits incumbent industries.

Every technology improves exponentially, because of a little phenomenon called the experience curve that applies in almost every manufacturing endeavour. Including internal combustion engines. There’s also the fact that batteries improving at 8% per year (at best) are far less disruptive than microprocessors doubling in speed every eighteen months. More broadly, rules from the world of software don’t always apply to the world of stuff. Our author should know this, given that his great success at SAP prepared him for … even greater failure with Better Place.

More broadly still, if he believed batteries were doubling in speed every eight years, what the hell was he doing trying to set up a battery-switching based business model??  The improvements in battery technology would have been a “disruptive force” that would’ve soon torpedoed Better Place, if he hadn’t sunk it himself, first. More likely, he started Better Place because he didn’t believe batteries would progress very fast — and rather than admit he was wrong, he glosses over that point. The reader’s ignorance is his bliss.

So average your future cost estimated down heavily and plan for profits to come after volume goes up the s-curve instead of focusing all your calculations on the first batch of cars.

They already do this!!  Development costs for new vehicles run in the hundred of millions — the Volt topped a billion dollars — so the fact that new product launches don’t bankrupt “Olde Economy” automakers kind of implies they know how to amortize development costs over years’ worth of vehicle sales. It’s the height of arrogance for a man who didn’t know how to price his own auto industry product, to lecture established car manufacturers on how to price theirs. He’s a naked, failed courtier raving about his clothes. (I’d’ve called him an emperor, but he hasn’t enjoyed a modicum of auto-industry success.)

The lesson: If you launch a new category, consider very seriously launching it under a new brand with a whole new experience. Direct sales will allow incumbent carmakers not only to control its brand experience; it also translates into a lower per-unit cost of sales once volume starts to pick up. Ask Apple…when you have a differentiated product, you want a differentiated destination store for people to come and experience it. If you do it right, the retail value per square foot beats the rest of the industry – by a mile!

One wonders if Agassi was using a team of ghostwriters and there was a shift change, because earlier in the article it’s (correctly) noted that “mass-market carmakers should probably never try to repeat Tesla’s model – in making cars or in business model. What works for Tesla will not work for GM, and most likely be value destructive for any mass-market incumbent.”

And yet several paragraphs later, it’s recommended that mass-market carmakers repeat Tesla’s model of direct sales because, “if you do it right, the retail value per square foot beats the rest of the industry – by a mile!”. Did he not proof-read his own article? Does he care? Is this a secret homage to Harry Frankfurt’s classic, On Bullshit?

Mass-market incumbent automakers have a massive advantage over Tesla in their omnipresent bricks-and-mortar stores, which give them direct reach and presence in tens of thousands of locations around the world. No one in their right mind would give this up — but then, no one in their right mind would champion or fund a battery-swapping company for cars. (Tesla’s situation is different, as their proposed swapping stations can be run at a loss – they aren’t a company profit centre. Better Place’s swapping stations were intended to be profit centers.)

The analogy with Apple fails as well; before the Apple Store, there were Apple “store-in-store” locations at Best Buy and other retailers. The automobile analogy would be to have a separate part of a showroom dedicated to a manufacturer’s electric vehicles. Dealers already dedicate different areas of their showrooms to various vehicles, and the sales person’s job is to help people find the vehicles they want. Besides, the showroom model is working pretty damn well for electric cars — Nissan is having trouble maintaining Leaf inventory at dealers, because it’s selling so fast!

In brief…

While LinkedIn may have thought Shai Agassi would make a great auto-sector “thought leader” — he’ll draw readers as surely as Kim Kardashian (somehow still) draws viewers — they would do well to recognize that they didn’t land themselves an automotive Steve Jobs; they got themselves a Steve Ballmer instead.

Software updates are flu shots

Syringe

A nice metaphor for software updates.

Flu shots attempt to immunize people from the influenza virus, by exposing their immune systems to small doses of weakened or dead virus molecules. The idea is that this gives the immune system a “practise run” with a less-dangerous version of the influenza virus the patient might run into, later that year.

The situation is complicated by the fact that there are countless strains of flu, because the virus isn’t actually very good at copying itself accurately. When people with the flu sneeze, the viruses they expel will have already mutated from when they contracted it. To use the scientific jargon,

“…each daughter virus has an average of 1.34 to 1.52 mutations! The superfast mutation rate of influenza is what fuels its ability to evolve and adapt, overcoming the immune system’s method of recognizing old pathogens.”

Software updates — anti-virus updates in particular — serve much the same function: they create a moving target, which hopefully stays a step ahead of software viruses, which can take control of a computer in much the same way that parasites can “hack” their hosts, and change their behaviour.

Parasites “hack” human behaviour too — toxoplasma gondii is a well-known example — with all the collateral implications for the concept of free will. In addition to a host of terrible diseases, the parasite may make people more likely to take risks, not unlike what it does to rats. (Infected rats seem to behave more recklessly, among other things losing their fear of cat odours: getting the rat eaten is a way for the protozoan to get back into a cat, its favoured host species.)

On a personal level, given the “don’t-try-this-at-home-kids” characteristics of my investment strategies since we adopted our cat, I wonder if I’m one of the roughly one-third of people who host this “friend”-with-benefits…  :)

And just as a flu shot gives our immune system a chance to develop antibodies which will detect and defeat the flu strains to which we’re exposed — as well as close mutations — updates give our O/S or software the ability to neutralize the viruses / trojans / malware which they target, as well as any closely-related variants which run closely-similar scripts.  (If my understanding is correct.)

This is probably a good time to remind readers that the historical/mythical Trojan Horse was not a big wooden horse, but more likely a wooden battering Ram. Switch mammals and you get a wooden battering Horse, then add a few hundred years for legends to accrue in a Greek society which lost all its siege-warfare skills — seriously, they were hopeless besiegers — and you can see how tales of a wooden Horse ending a siege could be re-imagined as some sort of horse made out of wood.

The software update / flu shot analogy is imperfect — among other things, genetic variation among life-forms has no software analog — but is probably good enough to be functional. Or at a minimum, drive a bit of thought about the ways biology reflects and refracts itself, in our innumerable human endeavours.

I do wonder if people would be more likely to install and/or update anti-virus software, if it were marketed with a flu shot analogy.

Admittedly, given the nonsensical, false superstitions about vaccinations some people hold (which seem to be a case of people’s distrust of Big Pharma companies metastasizing into a distrust of evidence-based medicine — preventable flu deaths rose by the equivalent of twelve 9/11 terrorist attacks per year in first-world Japan, after mandatory immunization programs fell prey to fearmongering) … software firms might think twice about such a marketing strategy.

The surveillance state is an autoimmune disorder

Reaching into American history, we encounter the saying, “the price of freedom is eternal vigilance”…. in our modern era, we might need to add a corollary, namely that “the price of infinite vigilance, is freedom”.

First, a short medical analogy.

Autoimmune disorders

Autoimmune disorders (Wikipedia prefers autoimmune diseases) occur when the body’s defenses — antibodies — no longer distinguish between healthy tissue and harmful cells. Instead of focusing on the dangerous antigens, they attack the body itself.

Type 1 diabetes is an example, where the patient’s immune system attacks the insulin-producing regions of the pancreas. Blood insulin levels drop, making it more difficult for cells to absorb glucose from the bloodstream, leaving elevated blood glucose levels, and all the associated problems of diabetes.

Multiple sclerosis is another example, where the patient’s immune system attacks their nervous system. Localized physical inflammation occurs, which causes nerve damage, which impairs sufferers’ quality-of-life.

These autoimmune disorders occur on the individual level.

The hygiene hypothesis

In medicine, the hygiene hypothesis suggests that allergies could be thought of as a sort of autoimmune disorder, brought about by excessive cleanliness (!).

The general idea is that our immune systems developed over millions of years in the, um, virulent and filthy conditions that characterized most of human existence until the arrival of modern sanitation. Given this, our immune systems have evolved to be hyper-vigilant.  After all, until recently, even minor flesh wounds could be fatal, if they got infected.

One theory posits that if our immune systems aren’t kept busy fending off microbial, bacterial and viral attacks when we’re young, they overreact when they encounter benign intruders (e.g. pollen), or even healthy human cells, mistaking these for existential threats. It’s the medical profession’s equivalent of the “idle hands are the devil’s playthings” argument…!

The generally agreed-upon workaround is to make sure kids wash their hands before eating and after using the washroom, but to otherwise roll around in dirt, play with animals and so forth. The former steps help keep children safe from more dangerous microbes, while the latter keeps their immune systems busy.

Stranger still, medical researchers are exploring the treatment of autoimmune diseases by deliberately infecting patients with parasites!  Reasonably benign parasitic worms which co-evolved with humans and co-existed with us until the advent of modern hygiene, are introduced to the body.  Improvement comes when the immune system stops attacking healthy body tissue, to focus on beating back the parasites.

Unfortunately, the immune system sometimes resumes attacking the body after it beats back the parasites, meaning that periodic reinfection may be necessary. In helminthic therapy, you don’t take vitamin supplements, you take parasite supplements!

Societal-level autoimmune disorders

I think the recently-revealed excesses of NSA / PRISM / surveillance state can be best thought of as a societal-level autoimmune disorder. Human society has almost certainly become dramatically less violent over time, and that’s a very good thing. Especially for those of us who’re members of ethnic groups who’ve historically been the victims!

Meanwhile, for a roughly fifty-year period in the 20th century, an enormous American security apparatus evolved, to address the perceived existential threat from Soviet Communism — and, uh, stamp out any less-than-solidly-pro-American governments in Latin America and other strategic parts of the world. (We should try to be objective, eh?)

With the threat of Communism now gone, the vast resources of American society’s “immune system” have become focused on terrorists — individuals who can cause damage and suffering, but who cannot and could never pose the kind of existential threat of an invading army. This is a good thing: we want to be safe from those who cause us harm.

But like a white blood cell which indiscriminately attacks other cells in the body — not just the harmful antigens — the NSA has effectively wiretapped everyone in the world. Given that in the normal course of law, courts must be convinced of reasonably-probable wrongdoing for wiretaps to be granted, the NSA is essentially treating everyone as a suspect.

In this sense, its behaviour maps to that of an immune system that has been hijacked by an autoimmune disorder, and is treating the body’s own cells as invaders. The main difference is that the surveillance state exists at the societal level, while autoimmune disorders exist at the individual level.

The price of freedom…

If autoimmune disorders can be prevented and/or treated by allowing the body to be exposed to lesser pathogens, this might hint at the path out of the surveillance state. If citizens accept that to maintain their major freedoms, they must accept that minor acts of violence might succeed, the recently-revealed excesses of the NSA could be curbed. A government which tracks its people’s communications, by the very act of doing so, subtly impairs their freedoms of conscience and expression.

The above is a bit abstract, so I’ll close with a couple closer-to-home examples.

1) Shortly after the 9/11 attacks, George W. Bush made the comment to the effect that “[terrorists] hate us for our freedoms”. In doing so, he both oversimplified and mischaracterized the motives of such attackers, which relate more to the various humiliations of Western colonization, and the despair of resolving or overcoming the injustices they perceive.

But if Osama bin Laden hated us for our freedoms, then restricting those freedoms through the surveillance state gives him exactly what he would have wanted! (Political violence — such as terrorism — is successful when it causes the victimized government to bend its policies in the desired direction.) If for no other reason than thwarting bin Laden, it will be important for us to rein in the surveillance state.

2) brings us back to the “pull quote” at the start of the post.

Reaching deeply into American history, we encounter the saying, “the price of freedom is eternal vigilance”. It’s been misattributed to many Great Men in American history, among them Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson, and Thomas Paine, though it seems to’ve been a British actor who first formulated the phrase.

In our modern era, we might need to add a corollary, namely that “the price of infinite vigilance, is freedom”.

[July 25 – light editing to summarize the conclusion at the outset. – Thx for the tip, Bob!]

Wynne-win for Canada! And, is America ready for another white male President?

I welcomed Kathleen Wynne‘s victory in the leadership race for the ruling Ontario Liberal Party this past Saturday, even though I live in faraway British Columbia.   And I do mean far away — seriously, the International Space Station is ten times closer to the surface of the earth, than Vancouver is to Toronto.  (Though that probably says more about how not-so-far-away the International Space Station is to us.)

Wynne is of course lesbian, and her ascent to the Premiership of Ontario — Canada’s most populous province — is a matter of minor national pride, whatever her policies may be, and however effective historians judge her tenure.  Someone’s always got to be first.  [For our dear American readers, a provincial Premier is analogous to a state Governor.]

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The Black Swan’s Thanksgiving Turkey

(originally written Nov 24, 2011.  Part of Great Upload of 2013.)

It came to my attention that Naseem Nicholas Taleb, who authored The Black Swan (surprisingly, not about a ballet dancer, but about financial crises) discussed other avians in his book, among them the Thanksgiving turkey.  Per the Wikipedia page, he seems to’ve co-opted the idea from a turkey anecdote by philosopher Bertrand Russell, whose atheism doubtless led antagonists to brand him cuckoo.  ;)

The abrupt change in the turkey’s situation is part of an argument that it’s ridiculous to project present trends very far into the future, because, well, things change.  Hockey-wise, the Gretzky-led Edmonton Oilers of the 1980’s inspired a high-scoring decade for the NHL.  This was followed by a low-scoring decade inflicted on fans by the New Jersey Devils’ success with the neutral-zone trap in 1994-1995.  (As per the viral video most of you’ve doubtless seen, the Tampa Bay Lightning are going retro with their 1-3-1 system.  Lightning GM Steve Yzerman was part of the Red Wings team the Devils upset in the 1995 Stanley Cup Finals.)

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From housing to plumbing

(originally written Mar 4, 2012.  Part of Great Upload of 2013.)

Readers (regular and irregular both) may know that about six years ago, I was quoted in MacLean’s saying Canadian housing was in a bubble.  So after six long years of looking very wrong, I was delighted to see the right-wing rag run a cover story proclaiming that Canadian housing is in a bubble!  So I’ll dedicate this email to all the stopped clocks out there — twice a day, your time will come!  :)

Like anyone else challenged by a cognitive dissonance between ego and evidence, I naturally prefer the delusion that I wasn’t wrong, just early.  ;)  Having figured prices would fall by 2008 at the latest, I like to think I was only off by an Olympiad, or eight “Friedman units“.  On the more forgiving fossil-record timescale, I nailed it!

MacLean’s take

MacLean’s cites low interest rates and lax lending standards as a (sub?)prime reason for the real estate boom-turned-bubble.  This can kind of be expected, because most people aren’t great with money.  It’s a financial variant of Sturgeon’s Law, which says that “ninety percent of everything is crap”.  Take housing market predictions, for example…  ;)

Given the opportunity to make very bad decisions by enabling financial institutions, most people will do so.  Indeed, the mutual fund industry owes its existence to people’s predilection for sub-par performance!  Of course, most guys who throw their own darts probably do even worse, so the best way to look at mutual funds is probably to see them as a less-damaging “cowpox” to the “smallpox” of DIY investing.  :)

My take

As you’d expect from a left-leaning atheist on an issue like this, I’m with… Jesus, and blame the bankers.  ;)  If people are trying to borrow beyond their means, competent financial institutions are supposed to not make loans.  Of course, fewer loans means lower profits and much lower stock-option-based executive compensation.  (As they say, no good deed goes unpunished.)  By loosening lending standards, bank executives can enjoy kingly compensation; and by the time the crisis hits, they’ve moved on to other pillage-able pastures.  Which explains why cartoons like this make the rounds:

Banks lending / too much damn money / to people, is a haiku microcosm of how Greece came to be in its quandary: it borrowed more than any sane lender could’ve reasonably expected it to repay.  Which is why European governments are trying to work out “bailouts” by which they launder money through Greece to recapitalize their countries’ banks.  The “choose your own adventure” blog entry here does a pretty good job of showing the stalemate.

Compounding the problem, austerity packages are being pitched, which will only make the crisis worse; in cutting public services, austerity measures reduce a country’s GDP (because public-sector activities count towards GDP) meaning debt has to be repaid from an even smaller national account.

The endgame seems to be that Greece defaults and reverts to its own currency, while everyone else does the duck-and-cover.  After mistiming the Canadian housing market — and fuel cell vehicle commercialization for that matter — I’ll decline to guess when that happens.  ;)  A cheaper currency would cement Greece as a cheap vacationing spot (tourism is one of their biggest industries) and allow them to attract some manufacturing jobs with which to rebuild their economy.

There’re many precedents for thinking that default and devaluation would work.  Iceland defaulted a few years back; its GDP is now higher than pre-crisis levels, and its government debt is now back at “investment grade”!  Argentina also did pretty well after its default in the early 2000’s… and a forgiving of debts (effectively a society-wide default) preceded the rise of democracy in classical Athens.

The march of progress.  And plumbing!

Pessimists might note that we’re not always that good at learning the lessons of history — even as Iceland resurges, Latvia is in a “Shock Doctrine” death spiral.  But here on Team Glass-half-full, I like to think that we do in fact make slow progress.  :)   Consider universal indoor plumbing, which none of us would want to live without.  First invented around 2000BC by some proto-Tommy Douglas of the Harappan Civilization in the Indus Valley, this was such a breakthrough that within thirty-eight centuries London, England — capital of the globe-straddling British Empire — had decided to build its own!  Progress — there’s no stopping it!  ;)

Dinner with the Overclass (II) (“Great Upload of 2013”)

(written April 10, 2012 – part of my Great Upload of 2013)

So I got special, spousal dispensation to go to a mutual fund dinner the other night.  As a thank-you for generating a lot of fees for the company, attendees got dinner (including drinks — pity that I don’t), a pen, paper pad, mints, and chocolate wrapped up to look like a silver bar.  (Milk chocolate; they didn’t spring for the good stuff.  Even financial houses have their limits, I suppose.)  I guess it’s kind of like how some credit cards offer a cash-back option, which kicks back a fraction of the interest their victims clients pay them!

I met my account representative for the first time, as well; and discovered to my great pleasure that I’m taller than him.  (There’s a complex in there somewhere, I’m sure of it. :) )  The funny thing is, I think he was assigned to me because the company thought I was Jewish — the tip-off being when they sent me a New Year’s greeting last September, in time for Rosh Hashanah.  I wonder whether, given the economic strength of the Chinese ethnic minority in south-east Asia, financial advisor types over there send Lunar New Year cards to clientele with Chinese-sounding last names?

Goooooold

Summer came early to many parts of the US this spring; in March, record high temperatures outpaced lows by a 35:1 margin, and a couple states even broke their month-of-April temperature records!  It also came early to the precious metals markets, starting with a suspiciously-instantaneous $50 drop in gold on Feb 29.  (What self-interested seller would unload so much product so suddenly as to crater the prices they can get for it?)  Up ’til then, copper’s curiously-coveted cousins had followed their usual pattern of floating upwards until roughly summertime blockbuster-movie season, leaving me sitting giddily (and smiling Cheshire-ly) in the catbird seat.  Two months on, it feels more like a litter-box.  :)

A couple weeks back, things got so aberrationally low that I even sold the company stock that I bought last year, netting a vanishingly small profit of about $120 after fees.  (Timbits for everybody!  Whee!)  The money was reallocated to a gold-related mutual fund, which promptly moved… floor-ward.  (Timbits offer postponed.)  As pleasing as it is to get stuff on discount, there’s always a twang of regret when you see a lower clearance price, later!  Of course, there’s nothing much to do but wait for the “sale” to end, and regular prices to return.  Such is the nature of the “long game”.  :)

(Note: “buying and waiting for the sale to end” is an astonishingly poorly-advised strategy when it comes to individual companies, but works fairly well on an index-of-companies basis.  While individual companies are prone to bankruptcy, stock indexes tend to bounce back: they tend to include not just weakened companies going out of business, but the stronger ones driving the weak ones into extinction!)

How to miscalculate debts owing…

During the evening, one of the gold-pushing, silver-tongued speakers made a cringe-worthy comment to the effect that the US has a $12 trillion economy, but had outstanding obligations of $100 trillion.  This meme has been making the rounds, and the reader/listener is generally supposed to conclude either that the US dollar is doomed (so they should stampede into gold as a store of value), or that the welfare state is doomed (and so we have to cut taxes on the rich.  Wait, what?).

Here, the magician’s trick is to compare the size of this year’s economy, with the cumulative cost of every expense reaching decades into the future.  It would be as if we told Leo, “our household annual income is X; the cost to raise you for the next 18 years is way bigger, so here’s a copy of Oliver Twist, keep in touch”.  Similar chicanery is used in “tax freedom day” calculations, which overlook the fact that the yin of taxes paid is matched by the yang of public services.

Of course, I shouldn’t be overly critical of the low-taxation philosophy pushed by right-wing American think-tanks and their Canadian franchisees (e.g. the Fraser Institute).  If a recent book is to be believed, one of the reasons Canada even exists today is that when the Americans tried to manifest their destiny in the War of 1812, American hawks refused to raise taxes enough to pay for a proper army, making it possible for a combination of British soldiers, Canadian militiamen, First Nations warriors, and Laura Secord, to repel them.  :)

A toast to low taxes … in America, that is!

So, this coming barbeque season, on the bicentennial our southern cousins’ northern invasion, feel free to raise an occasional glass to toast the role that low taxes — another country’s low taxes — played, in the history of how Canada came to be the nation it is today!  :)

Homer (not Simpson) and the Kaopectate Kid

The doctor diagnosed young son Leo recently with the stomach flu — which is colloquial shorthand for a condition which isn’t the flu, per se.  (The most recent editor of the relevant article on the almighty Wiki agrees!)

The Kaopectate Kid

Our medical professional then suggested we give Leo some Kaopectate to soothe his stomach.  So, what is the active ingredient in Kaopectate?  Clay.  Yes, modern medicine’s 21st-century response to our son’s stomach flu … was for him to eat dirt.  (Expert biologists will surely argue that clay isn’t dirt per se, but we ignoramuses outnumber them.  ;)  )

I didn’t realize Kaopectate was a real-life product, never having used it in my youth.  The first time I’d heard of the stuff, I was about twenty, and listening to my brother’s copy of The Sugarhill Gang’s Rapper’s Delight — the fourteen-minute version.  (The song makes Don McLean’s interminable “American Pie” seem short in comparison!)

In Rapper’s Delight — recently rated the 2nd-best hip-hop song of all time by Rolling Stone — one of the MC’s raps about the universal human experience of, um, not enjoying a friend’s partner’s cooking:

“Have you ever went over a friend’s house to eat, and the food just ain’t no good?

I mean the macaroni’s soggy, the peas are mush, and the chicken tastes like wood.”

… a story which eventually culminates with this masterful flow:

“So you bust out the door while it’s still closed, still sick from the food you ate

And then you run to the store for quick relief from a bottle of Kaopectate.”

.

Since I’d never seen a bottle of Kaopectate in my life, I’d always assumed it was urban slang…!

.

The Sugarhill Gang

While The Sugarhill Gang were the ones who brought hip-hop to a wider audience (among other things, Rapper’s Delight opens with the lyrics “I said a hip, hop, the hippie, the hippie to the hip hip hop”) they were complete nobodies.

As chronicled by Wikipedia’s sources, the Gang were the first to record a popular rap record … mainly because they were the first rappers to record (verb) a rap record (noun).  And that was because most rappers — the better rappers, the artists — weren’t interested in recording.

Instead, it fell to a bunch of rank amateurs — no, make that rank-less amateurs — to bring rap to a wider audience.  Better-skilled, higher-regarded MC’s must’ve been horrified to learn that their art — their art! — was being introduced to white America with legendarily-terrible lyrics like:

“…Like a can of beer that’s sweeter than honey,

Like a millionaire that has no money…”

“…It was the best advice that I ever had,

It came from my wise dear old dad…”

.

Rapper’s Delight was probably the first rap song to get censored on the radio as well, with these lines addressed to Lois Lane, in reference to Superman:

“He may be able to fly all through the night,

But can he rock a party ’til the early light;

He can’t satisfy you with his little worm,

But I can bust you out with my super [yep, they went there].”

This was immediately followed by the following example of virtuoso “flow”:

I’m goin’ do it, I’m goin’ do it, I’m goin’ do it, do it, do it.

“Big bank Hank” then brings it all home with the now-cliched lines:

“Just throw your hands up in the air

And party hardy like you just don’t care.”

.

Of course, The Sugarhill Gang weren’t the first to put these lines together (the modern variant of which is “wave them around” like you just don’t care) but again, they seem to’ve been the first to record them.  Like bards of old, MC’s probably kept a mental catalogue of stock rhymes, and “hands in the air / just don’t care” proved popular.  Indeed, Rapper’s Delight is so massively long, that it delivers another variant that fell by the catchphrase wayside.  Partway through, Master Gee raps:

“Then you throw your hands high in the air,

Ya rockin’ to the rhythm, shake your derriere.”

.

Homer (not Simpson)

The fact that the first rap record was brought out by the marginal, unknown Sugarhill Gang — because no rapper of stature deigned to record themselves — opens the delicious possibility that maybe, just maybe, Homer (of The Iliad and The Odyssey fame) was a third-rate rhapsode in his day.

Back in the day, blind bards would go from town to town recounting their stories, entertaining the masses.  If you were a revered poet, you probably did pretty well for yourself (whatever “pretty well” passed for, in that era) and you probably wouldn’t have the drive or need to collaborate with some scribe on this new “writing” technology.  Indeed, you might take offence that someone else wanted to take your exact words so they could try to replicate your divinely-inspired performances… without you!

But if you were a third-stringer who only ever booked the worst gigs in the barren rock-pile that was ancient Greece (and, what with the austerity measures, future Greece*) well, maybe, just maybe, you might indulge some stranger who came up to you asking if you could recite your story, v-e-r-y   s-l-o-w-l-y, so he could write it all down!  :)

————–

* Greek car sales in 2012 were about 60,000.  Greek car sales in 2008, were about 260,000.  Ouch.  As Chris Rock would say, they’re way past Robitussin.  Kaopectate, too, for that matter.  :)