Catching Up: Sports Edition

The Phillies are finally winning. After a dismal start, we’ve started winning regularly, and sometimes even convincingly, in the last two weeks. Standing at 11 wins this month, we go into tonight’s series opener against the Braves with a better April than the last two years. (Ten wins in each of the previous two Aprils.) Considering how close we’ve been at the finish line the last couple of years, maybe that will be the difference and there will be playoff baseball this October.

It couldn’t have come at a better time, as the Redskins botched this year’s draft. First-round pick¹ LaRon Landry will hopefully become a productive star. His demonstrated talent suggests he will. I hope so, as a fan, but he is not what we needed. I understand the desire to draft talent, but we have a gaping hole in our defense on the line. The Redskins brain trust should’ve addressed this early and often over the weekend. At least Landry will get to showcase his talents when the other teams have infinite time after every snap to find open receivers.

¹ We whiffed on the few remaining picks we had, as well.

Catching Up: Miscellaneous Edition

News flash: kids are creative at circumventing the rules. Some are using iPods to cheat on tests, and administrators are pissed enough to ban iPods for all. There’s no need to rehash the details because anyone with a third-grade intellect could’ve predicted as much. Instead, consider a student who’s just a little bit smarter than her leaders in the school system:

Kelsey Nelson, a 17-year-old senior at the school, said she used to listen to music after completing her tests — something she can no longer do since the ban. Still, she said, the ban has not stopped some students from using the devices.

“You can just thread the earbud up your sleeve and then hold it to your ear like you’re resting your head on your hand,” Nelson said. “I think you should still be able to use iPods. People who are going to cheat are still going to cheat, with or without them.

I’m not advocating a policy open to cheating, merely stating the obvious. As we learned with prohibition, and we’re (not) learning with the drug war, people looking to do what’s prohibited won’t stop just because it’s prohibited. Mostly, prohibition just harms the innocent from going about their innocent ways. Duh.

In light of one Michigan legislator’s recent plan to use taxpayer funds to purchase an iPod for every student in the state (now defeated), what can we conclude?

Next, this story on the likelihood of regulatory approval for the proposed Sirius-XM merger provides an elementary but useful finance lesson.

“The merger faces a very tough road at the FCC, where the public interest test applied by the commission is inherently subjective,” [Craig Moffett, a senior analyst with Sanford C. Bernstein] said. “In Washington, ‘subjective’ is codeword for ‘political.'”

The decline of the companies’ stock, analysts say, has less to do with the merits of the merger than with its prospects. They cited the political climate in Washington, where lawmakers have grilled Sirius chief executive Mel Karmazin about antitrust concerns during four hearings on Capitol Hill, as the driving force behind Wall Street’s pessimism.

When the two companies announced the merger, both share prices inched up. As time has gone by, and the process rent-seeking kicks into gear, expectations of success declined. This has brought the share prices below the pre-merger levels. Pre-merger, the likelihood of an unannounced merger held prices at one level. The benefits of a merged company improved the analysis, providing better information in the process. Now, the prospects of two companies without any chance of merger takes that piece out of the shares.

As much as I hate what’s happening to the Sirius share price, markets are efficient.

Catching Up: Virginia Tech Edition

I don’t have any desire to delve into the political issues arising from the shootings at Virginia Tech beyond the issues I already discuss here. With that in mind, two issues are driving me nuts from the fallout.

Because the murderer at Virginia Tech wrote violent stories, violent stories must now become criminal, regardless of the First Amendment:

Told to express emotion for a creative-writing class, high school senior Allen Lee penned an essay so disturbing to his teacher, school administrators and police that he was charged with disorderly conduct, officials said Wednesday.

Lee, 18, a straight-A student at Cary-Grove High School, was arrested Tuesday near his home and charged with the misdemeanor for an essay police described as violently disturbing but not directed toward any specific person or location.

Such a story might signal a problem that will lead to mass murder. Ban it. Are people really this stupid and oblivious to the evidence that violence in literature and movies and television and theater overwhelmingly does not lead to acting out that violence? The answer appears to be yes, which is a reflection of our desire to ban anything and everything that might be bad, no matter how small the risk actually is. We’re only two weeks beyond the tragedy, yet we’ve already learned the wrong lessons. Brilliant.

I know what happened at Virginia Tech will always follow the school, no matter how much good happened before or happens in the future. It’s human nature to remember the awful more than the good. I realize that my years of happiness with Virginia Tech and being a Hokie are personal, not national. I accept that and won’t try to fight human nature. But I’m not ready to idle away as pontificators misuse language for their agenda.

For example, last week, the editors of the Wall Street Journal analyzed “Blacksburg’s Silver Lining”:

In the wake of an event such as Virginia Tech, our system moves heaven and earth to figure out what went wrong and how to make sure it doesn’t happen again. This of course is what we did after September 11 and after the botched response to Hurricane Katrina.

Here’s what’s really unnerving about this inevitable “process”: In June 2000, the Bremer Report of the National Commission on Terrorism described virtually everything we needed to know about preparing for the kind of attack that occurred in September 2001. Similarly–and you can guess what you’re about to read–in 2002 the Final Report and Findings of the Safe School Initiative, conducted by the Secret Service and the Department of Education, told us virtually everything we need to know to prevent a Virginia Tech.

…for the purposes of stopping another Virginia Tech

After Blacksburg,…

Virginia Tech is a school, not an event. Blacksburg is a town, not an event. The murders at Virginia Tech, in Blacksburg, were the event. If you can’t get this right, I won’t listen to anything else you have to say. (Not that the editors provided anything worth adopting, choosing instead for the expected dismissal of rights in favor of the appearance of safety.)

Kip mocks such language and the results of such abuse here, then here and here.

Catching Up: Food Edition

I didn’t expect to be away for this many days. I’ve been pre-occupied, so Rolling Doughnut has taken the hit. You know the rest, so I’ll just get to a recap of some news items of interest lately.

I first read about proposed changes to chocolate standards via this entry at A Stitch in Haste. From a few days later than the original story Kip linked, the Washington Post summarizes the changes, which would allow “chocolate” to include other vegetable fat in place of cocoa butter and still be called chocolate. (There’s a story in the FDA’s regulation of such, and the politics of this apparently rent-seeking change, of course.) If enacted, this change doesn’t bother me because I like dark chocolate exclusively, even before I limited myself to it through veganism. It simply tastes better. And I care enough to look at ingredients. To the people like me who care, this change will mean little.

For example, it doesn’t harm me as a chocolate lover/buyer if Hershey’s can start calling Whoppers “chocolate”, even though they already contain no cocoa butter. I’m not their customer. I’ll venture a guess that most chocolate buyers don’t have an especially refined palette for the difference. I’m not judging in that; I don’t have a refined palette for many things, so little nuances escape me.

We’re all different. The market for fine chocolate, or real chocolate, will determine how important this change is if it’s implemented. That’s enough. Besides, I’m more up in arms about the fact that companies like Hershey’s advertises its products as “dark” chocolate when it has milk in it.

Next up, following the recent pet food scare, several thousand hogs destined for human consumption appear contaminated with the same chemical (melamine) because they consumed the contaminated pet food. The risk to humans is allegedly small. I don’t eat pork, so I don’t care, mostly. I do find this fascinating:

A maximum of about 300 of the animals may have already entered the human food supply, but the rest of the hogs have been quarantined and are slated to be euthanized, Agriculture Department officials said.

It’s good to know that if animals become tainted, they’ll be euthanized. Humane treatment for the sick is decent. What about the millions of hogs who aren’t sick? Here’s an example showing how hogs are slaughtered. (Warning: Link has graphic pictures.)

Officials emphasized that the human health risks of eating pork from animals fed the contaminated food are very low. The decision to keep those animals off the market — and to reimburse farmers for the losses — was made in the interest of extreme prudence, they said.

If the hogs ate contaminated feed, that sounds like a tort in which whoever bought the tainted feed could sue the feed producer for the damage done to the hogs. Why should the government taxpayers foot the bill for such negligence?

Once a regulator, always a regulator.

I’ve been mostly away from my computer and the Internets over the last few days as I take advantage of some of the better freedoms from being unemployed between contracts. I expect to post regularly in the coming weeks, but finding a new contract is obviously my first priority. Just so you know.

In the meantime, I have a two related items clogging my aggregator, so now is a good time to clean them out. First, the call for regulation is never too far from any success.

But now, precisely because of its success, it’s fair to ask if Google should be barred from furthering its dominance through acquisitions or collaborations. At issue are the recent purchases of YouTube, the leader in online video sharing, and DoubleClick, the leading broker of online advertising; in both instances Google used its gusher of profits to outbid rivals. There are also new joint ventures with Clear Channel, the giant radio broadcaster, and EchoStar, the satellite television operator.

Consider this: There may never have been a Google without the government’s antitrust suit that prevented Microsoft from crushing upstart rivals. By the same principle, isn’t it time to begin restraining Google to increase the odds another Google will come along?

It’s easy enough to look at the first paragraph and point out that YouTube doesn’t make any money. No one is certain how, or if, Google will make money from YouTube. There are theories, but theories don’t equal revenue without creativity, work, and luck. It’s a little premature to assume that this acquisition will result in further revenue growth. We could also simply look at the reality that Google is buying Internet successes rather than creating them.

The second paragraph, though, is more instructive. The phrase “may never have been” is hardly persuasive. Maybe the government’s antitrust suit helped, but we can’t know. That’s hardly a principle, unless we’re looking to some system outside of capitalism.

Nor do we have any proof that Microsoft’s dominance in its earlier markets translates into future dominance. Microsoft dominated the web browser market by the late ’90s, but its dominance in even that is waning as Mozilla builds Firefox as a product and a brand. More instructive, the web browser market is not the Internet.

Microsoft’s largest foray into the actual market Google now leads was MSN. Microsoft tried creating a closed system so that it could act as a gatekeeper to the Internets. Like AOL, this strategy was brilliant in the early days of the Internet’s public growth. As customers became better accustomed to technology, and technology got easier, the flaws in this strategy became clear. That left searching, which Google is simply better at. When Google stops being the best, customers will go elsewhere. This is the only principle at work.

Next, to demonstrate why we shouldn’t give government regulators more power than absolutely necessary, the FCC wants Congress to further violate the Constitution by giving it the power to censor violence on television.

The Federal Communications Commission has concluded that regulating TV violence is in the public interest, particularly during times when children are likely to be viewers — typically between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m., FCC sources say.

“Parents are always the first and last line of defense in protecting their children, but legislation could give parents more tools,” FCC Chairman Kevin Martin said yesterday regarding the report. “I think it would be better if the industry addressed this on its own, but we can also give parents” help through regulation.

Beyond the obvious arguments that “Congress shall make no law…”, legislation to allow the FCC to regulate violence – including basic television, if the FCC gets its wish – would do nothing to give parents more tools. This is little more than a disguised version of the “for the children” argument used to excuse away most new intrusions on the rights of American adults. I expect the Congress to act on the FCC’s request because Democrats don’t love rights any more than Republicans have the last 200 6+ years. Unfortunately, I don’t have much faith in the courts, although if this finally pushes big television networks to finally fight back, I trust that we could finally see a change. Here’s hoping.

What Paternalism looks like.

The mind-set of a nanny-statist who knows better than you what you need. I’m joining mid-stream, but you won’t miss much. The post deals with prescription drugs.

Second, even professional pharmacists have a hard time keeping up with the huge number of dangerous drug interactions. Some interactions are automatically bad, some become risky with certain medical complications. The libertarian model hardly breaks down if consumers are willing to take risks that doctors are not, but it absolutely depends on consumers’ ability to gauge risks accurately. When it comes to prescription drugs the concept of a fully informed consumer becomes untenable.

So there you have it – what libertarianism really looks like and why, in my view, it doesn’t work.

If someone might make a choice without being fully informed, the liberty to make that choice must be restricted. Okay, but who gets to make the decision?

When I started college, I knew I wanted to be an investment banker or something similar. I spent six years studying finance. Yet, nearly a decade after graduating, I’m still doing software development. I don’t expect to be doing this forever, but I’m almost positive I won’t go into investment banking or any other field that will directly use my finance education. Why didn’t someone step in to force me to make an informed decision? I could’ve saved (saved!) a lot of money and a few years of my time. I would’ve missed two of the most enjoyable years of my life when I got my MBA, but that would’ve been an unfortunate side-effect of getting my life right the first time. Right?

No, thanks. I’ll choose liberty with the possibility that life will go poorly. I believe incentives work well enough to encourage people away from stupidity.

I like not sending excess money to the government.

Catching up on tax-related news, from Monday’s Washington Post comes this column by Shankar Vedantam. Consider:

Economists have long known there are two reasons that people cheat on their taxes. One is that they are poor and need the extra cash so badly they are willing to risk getting caught. The other is that they are rich and have lots of “non-matchable” income — mostly investment income not directly reported to the government — which makes it less likely they will be caught.

Taxpayers in the middle class are the least likely to cheat: They are not struggling to make ends meet, and their income is mostly wages, which are directly reported to the Internal Revenue Service. If you measured the likelihood of tax evasion by income level, in other words, the graph would look like a giant U.

For reasons I don’t feel like delving into (the use of under-reported income estimates among them), he’s wrong. See Kip’s prior analysis here and here for evidence. Instead I want to focus on this “solution”:

Other experts are considering more creative ways to improve tax compliance. One idea is to take advantage of people’s desire to get a refund at the end of the year.

“What some people do when they are doing their taxes is they do a first draft and see how much they are getting back,” said Richard Thaler, a University of Chicago economist who studies how people think about money. “If they owe money, then they do a second draft. They keep finding deductions until the refund is positive.”

Thaler said mandatorily increasing withholding levels so more people get refunds could increase compliance because taxpayers would no longer have to go to great lengths to get a refund.

There are (at least) two problems here. First, the government shouldn’t be in the business of promoting people to engage in irrational behaviors offer interest-free loans. (And yes, by promoting, I mean forcing.) Of course it would help the government to implement this policy. But that assumes that the government is supreme over the people, granting reasonable income policies and so forth. That’s backwards.

Second, if people are willing to “keep finding deductions”, what’s to stop them from being greedy and seeking deductions to increase the positive refund? Does human nature recognize a limit to greed¹ and stop once it gets a little if it can get a lot? If most middle-class taxpayers get a refund, it seems there’s a built-in incentive to cheat. Most probably won’t do it, but that doesn’t mean it’s not there. Fix the incentives by fixing the tax code and the incentive to cheat diminishes.

¹ I’d argue it’s stupidity rather than greed if you’re scheming to figure out ways to get your own money back up to sixteen months later than necessary. But the point holds.

Free speech doesn’t mean it should be said.

In a recent poll Kip asked for input on the worst nonsensical claim to come out of the murders at Virginia Tech. Of the three choices, I voted for the third option, John Derbyshire and Nathanael Blake blaming the victims. Read them both, but I’m going to focus on Mr. Blake’s comments. He had the opportunity to review Mr. Derbyshire’s comments before broadcasting his opinion to the world. Rather than passing, or at least calling out the grotesque implication that the victims didn’t respond correctly to their nightmarish situation, Mr. Blake carried it further.

College classrooms have scads of young men who are at their physical peak, and none of them seems to have done anything beyond ducking, running, and holding doors shut. Meanwhile, an old man hurled his body at the shooter to save others.

Something is clearly wrong with the men in our culture. Among the first rules of manliness are fighting bad guys and protecting others: in a word, courage. And not a one of the healthy young fellows in the classrooms seems to have done that.

If these sentences offered mere speculation, Mr. Blake might earn a pass (barely) because he wrote this on Tuesday, when many details were still unknown, as many are still unknown today. But it’s not mere speculation. It’s a naked assumption that the men did nothing to stop their fates. Bullshit. Even if it happened to be true, and we’ve learned now that it isn’t, it makes no difference. These men and women didn’t deserve to die, whether they died with or without a fight. That’s what counts. It has nothing to do with manliness, for the ability to kick someone’s ass doesn’t make a man. The only male in Mr. Blake’s narrative who isn’t a man is Mr. Blake himself.

For a more thorough analysis, John Cole states the case against Mr. Derbyshire.

Surely there’s an intern who can use Google.

There have been many annoyances from the national and local media this week. I don’t intend to focus on any of them beyond this:

About our name

Our official name is Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, but using the full name is cumbersome. Thus, using “Virginia Tech” is preferable in all but formal uses.

Virginia Tech is used in news releases, feature articles, and publications and on the Web. When using the full name of the university, never use an ampersand instead of “and.” Never use VPI&SU, VPI and SU, VA Tech, or Virginia Tech University.

“Tech” is acceptable after a first reference to “Virginia Tech,” but it should not be used repeatedly or solely.

“VT” and “Va. Tech” are acceptable only in limited, informal situations, such as a news headline where space is tight. Do not use “VT” or “Va. Tech” in body copy, in titles of publications, on signs, or in any formal publication.

To every media outlet determined to continue discussing “Virginia Tech University,” please stop. That school does not exist. Those who know this, and there are many of us all over the country and world, your desire to sensationalize at the expense of even the most minimal amount of research shines through. Is that what you want?

Here’s something to lighten the mood.

I’ve been mostly unable to think of anything other than Virginia Tech this week. Regular blogging will return tomorrow or Friday. For now, I’ll content myself with going to the Phillies-Nationals game tonight instead of watching the media vultures continue to make irresponsible assumptions and conclusions.

Until I can offer more, enjoy this video of The Smoosh. Danielle and I adopted The Smoosh last summer from a rescue organization. The Smoosh was neglected and used mostly for breeding by an unscrupulous individual who found it more interesting to perpetuate a genetic mutation¹ than to respect animals. Anyway, her playful side breaks through her angry disposition sometimes. I captured this over the weekend. Enjoy.

¹ The Smoosh is a Himalayan Munchkin,so her legs are exceptionally short. Her primary difficulty is in properly cleaning herself because she can’t reach parts of her body.