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May 15, 2010

standard & poor's: evil

I am not a flack, nor have I been one, so I don't want to cast aspersions — they pay their taxes! they love their kids! — but this is such a load of hooey that it is galling that it was given voice.  The inciting incident is an amendment to the fiscal reform legislation by Senator Al Franken, whereby financial rating companies would no longer bid for ratings assignments, but be assigned them randomly.

It seems logical.  Prevent ratings companies from jockeying for business, and then maybe the incentive to rate dishonestly is removed.

And then this is the statement of Standard & Poor's (from the story of the Franken amendment):

“Credit rating firms would have less incentive to compete with one another,” the company [S&P] said.  “This could lead to more homogenized rating opinions and, ultimately, deprive investors of valuable, differentiated opinions on credit risk.”

If there's anything that should not be differentiated, it is opinions on credit risk, or at least that's the lesson I'm taking away from the past twenty-four months.  Not only should a rating not be subjective, it should not be subject to the highest (or lowest) bidder.  Just because, you know, that's what ratings are for.

Actually, if anyone is to be held to account, it would be the news organization that reported this with a straight face and without the rejoinder, "Of course that does not make a lick of sense."  I'd say the name of the news organization, but come January they're going to have a kinder, gentler paywall, so let's let the honeymoon continue.

But, Standard and Poor's flack: sorry for calling you out, but that's just mendacity with an extra dose of evil.

Posted by mrbrent at 9:50 PM

May 14, 2010

what are you people looking for?

Update on the gripping topic of phrases that were searched and then led to a visit of this site: while I've gone into before the unending appeal of "matt taibbi shirtless", I'm starting to see a phrase that could be a worthy rival: "warren ellis racist".

I have no idea if the searcher(s?) are looking for evidence of racism on Ellis' part, or Ellis' thoughts on racists, or if a "racist" is a specific thing, a mcguffin in one of Ellis' fine works of fiction.  But it has the faint whiff of crazy, so I'm all for it.

This will of course lead to the inevitable "warren ellis shirtless".

Posted by mrbrent at 10:19 PM

voyager 2 on line three

This is a kind of fun we don't often get when reading the science news:
NASA's Voyager 2, which is touring the outer reaches of our galaxy, suddenly began to send back messages to Earth that scientists cannot interpret.  A German researcher believes those sounds may come from aliens.

To be fair, that's a pretty awesome lede because it's transposing a bland story (technical glitch in V2's telemetry) with the comment of a German scientist wholly unrelated to NASA and the V2 mission.

But the official NASA line is that "Voyager 2 suddenly began transmitting data in a completely different format" and otherwise functioning fine, which opens up enough imaginative possibilities that if our German outlier scientist did not exist we would have to create him/her.

Posted by mrbrent at 11:18 AM

galbraith on zero-danger deficit

While I as a grown-up with grown-up responsibilities understand that debt is bad and paying as you go is the straighter, narrower path, what I do not understand is the visceral panicked loathing of the national debt by that certain subset of conservative Republican that freaks out about those kinds of things — I guess "tea partier" is the generic term these days.  I understand that the government should tend towards fiscal responsibility, I am unable to fathom why anyone would be moved to take to the streets with screamy signs and rudeness because YOU'RE BANKRUPTING OUR CHILDREN or whatever.

First of all, I have a pretty healthy sense of division between myself and my government.  We are two separate entities, and our fates are not always married.  Keep the clean water coming and fill the potholes up and I'm pretty OK.  Second, the obligation to abide by "fiscal responsibility" is one not shared by our most responsible and admired citizens, Big Business, where leverage is sprinkled like commas and bankruptcy just means a really vigorous debt restructuring.  So if this does not apply to the greatest of our oligarchs, why should it apply to our government?  There is some dog-whistle here that I'm not discerning.

Which is why I found this interview with economist James Galbraith very interesting, as he claims that there is no danger in running a deficit:

What is the nature of the danger?  The only possible answer is that this larger deficit would cause a rise in the interest rate.  Well, if the markets thought that was a serious risk, the rate on 20-year treasury bonds wouldn't be 4 percent and change now.  If the markets thought that the interest rate would be forced up by funding difficulties 10 year from now, it would show up in the 20-year rate.  That rate has actually been coming down in the wake of the European crisis.

So there are two possibilities here.  One is the theory is wrong.  The other is that the market isn't rational.  And if the market isn't rational, there's no point in designing policy to accommodate the markets because you can't accommodate an irrational entity.

Again, macroeconomics is not one of my super-powers, but the concept of systemic irrationality is one that I've wondered about — a kind of sentience in markets that enables it to behave in unpredictable ways, specifically in the self-interest of the market.  You know, you could cite the recent crash as evidence against that, but then I could cite the recovery as evidence of.  Not saying anything is the truth here, just that thinking about new things is fun.

But to go back where we started, what is the cause of the populist deficit-hating rage?  Is it just an excuse to get out of the house?

The interview is two days old, and I haven't seen it splashed anywhere, which means that it needs more attention.  So, to the water coolers, guys.

Posted by mrbrent at 9:58 AM

May 13, 2010

putting a price on words

So I started reading "World War Z" by Max Brooks today, which has been out for a couple years.  It's a novel about a worldwide infestation of zombies, and I'm only 25 pages in, but it's the kind of thing that probably won't help me sleep at night.  I did grow up reading every fucking thing Stephen King wrote, so I'm no stranger to the nighttime howling fantods, but zombies are especially sleep-ruining, so there's that.

And then I put the book down and read this piece, which is all about how writing for money is a thing like rotary phones that someday we will all look back on nostalgically and wonder how it ever happened.

I'm going back to "World War Z" now, because it's less frightening.

Posted by mrbrent at 10:21 PM

roundup tolerance

Agricultural genetic modification is backfiring.  Specifically, a specific strain of seedstock engineered to be resistant to a certain weedkiller called Roundup has enabled Roundup to be used in a widespread and blithe manner.  And now:
Just as the heavy use of antibiotics contributed to the rise of drug-resistant supergerms, American farmers’ near-ubiquitous use of the weedkiller Roundup has led to the rapid growth of tenacious new superweeds.

To fight them... farmers throughout the East, Midwest and South are being forced to spray fields with more toxic herbicides, pull weeds by hand and return to more labor-intensive methods like regular plowing.

So basically Big Agra duped farmers into not only abandoning farming methods that already worked but also into giving Big Agra scads of money for a product whose efficacy was limited to a generation or two, and whose aftermath would leave the farmers worse off than they were before.

Law of unintended consequences: still working.

Posted by mrbrent at 2:08 PM

dunning-kruger effect

Finally the phenomenon that has bogged down the last couple decades in endless reenactments of the Scopes Monkey Trial of has been quantified and named:
Charles Darwin once said, 'Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than knowledge,' and [scientists] Dunning and Kruger seem to have proven this point.  In light of this, it suddenly becomes clear why public debate can be so excruciating.  Debates on climate change, the age of the Earth or intelligent design are perfect real-life examples of the Dunning-Kruger effect.  It beautifully explains the utter confidence of those who, with no expertise, remain stubborn in their views regardless of overwhelming evidence.  It makes you want to shake them by the collar and scream about how stupid they are.  But evidence shows that's not the best strategy.

It is the "Dunning-Kruger effect", which is generally the direct relationship between ignorance and confidence.  You know that second cousin you never talk to you just knows that those Muslims hate America and should be rounded up?  And his supporting evidence consists of, "Oh, I just can tell."  And who thinks that you can easily tell when a Muslim walks in the room because he'll be wearing a turban or whatever you call that thing?  Now instead of struggling to succinctly describe what is moving my second cousin, we can just say, "Dunning-Kruger effect," and use the words we would have otherwise wasted on something better.

Also, with regards to the quote: please suggest a better strategy than shaking.  Mine has been mocking and derision, and that seems to work about as well as shaking.  (Not that I intend to stop the mocking or the derision anytime soon.)

Posted by mrbrent at 12:03 PM

serious sit-down food attack

OK, I was gonna overdo breakfast and then skate lunch, but I went to a grocery on the way in instead, and here's what I'm gonna do: I'm gonna take this can of tuna in oil and this can of garbanzo beans and I'm gonna mix them together.  Then I'm gonna take this package of bruised tomatoes that they were giving away for a buck, and I'm gonna cut the bruises out, and then I'm gonna chop 'em allll up.  And that half baby vidalia onion I've got in the office fridge?  Also will be chopped alllll up.  Then I'm gonna see what loose condiments are running around in the office fridge.  If I'm lucky, there's a lemon.  I don't think I'm that lucky.  Though I ain't gonna complain over some salt and some pepper.  Then mix some more once everyone's in the same bowl.  And then it will be lunch time.

It sounds like I'm being facetious.  I'm not.  My tuna and garbanzo beans and onion and tomatoes are going to crush this Thursday.

I'm sorry to have ruined your own personal work day, but to get ahead in this life, you gotta stay light on your feet, and always go for the tomatoes.

Posted by mrbrent at 10:45 AM

May 12, 2010

meet david cameron

Here's my favorite passage from a piece by Martin Lewis introducing the new Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, David Cameron, to an American readership:
However, though he came from a sheltered background of white, monied privilege, Cameron has had major success in his oft-pronounced claim that he would modernize and broaden the Conservative Party's public face.  Prior to Cameron's leadership, the party's Members of Parliament were primarily white, male and avowedly "straight".  Now, after just five years of Cameron's diversification program, only 97% of the Conservative Party's MPs are white, only 77% are male and a whopping 3% are openly gay.

So there is a party less diverse than the Republican Party?

According to Mr Lewis, PM Cameron is what they call a "tosh", or what we would call a silver-spoon piece of shit.  (Or at least what I call, I guess.)  And it may seem too early in the Tory/LibDem administration to start injecting matters of class into British politics, remember that Tories are the very living embodiment itself of class issues.  As is Labour, to be fair.  Let's just say that by my understanding if you are standing in the United Kingdom, you are already soaking in the class issues.

And I think it's fair, if not fun, to take a gratuitous shot at a man who intends to beef up income inequality, all while doing a serviceable Tony Blair imitation.

Posted by mrbrent at 12:30 PM

oh that funny arizona

Man, if I was a state, I would so not want to be Arizona.  I know, it's a dry heat, but this dry heat must do something terrible to your brain, like make you racist:
The state already hates Mexicans and teachers with accents.  But to really clean things up, yesterday a law was passed that bans schools from teaching "ethnic studies" and classes that encourage the overthrow of the US government.  Really.

OK, so Arizona legislatures have complex and difficult-to-excuse ideas about ethnicity, but they are stupid on top of that, as they have forgotten the first rule of being crypto-racists: if you are racist out in the open, then they deduct a "crypto" from you.

Posted by mrbrent at 10:52 AM

May 11, 2010

village voice punches back

This memo is getting some play in certain publishing circles — not necessarily always a good thing, but this is a fascinating artifact.

Backstory: Foster Kamer, writing for the Village Voice, referenced the genitalia of James Dolan, owner of Cablevision and all the things Cablevision owns, so Dolan pulls all of Cablevision's ads, and then asks other companies that do business with Cablevision to do the same.  It works, and Village Voice will be down a million bucks this fiscal year.  Kamer apologizes, and then VV editor-in-chief Tony Ortega publishes the memo:

And all this because Jimmy Dolan didn't like a joke that mentioned his (metaphorical) dick. That not only wasn't about his sex life, but wasn't really even about him.

For this, he tries to cause serious harm to the Voice.

Well, we have our work cut out for us.

Jimmy Dolan is obviously trying to get our attention. And I'm of a mind to give it to him.

So Kamer, stop apologizing for writing such a great dick joke, and let's get to work.

Yes it is all very inside baseball, and it's attracting interest largely because Ortega takes some shots at some other media outlets, which certainly makes the workday go faster.  But it is very nice to see a print media outlet (and one that is high on the deathwatch list) get all up in an advertiser's face.

And James Dolan is free to advertise with whom he chooses, but it notable that Dolan, owner of other media outlets like Newsday, clearly does not believe in the wall between advertising and content.

Posted by mrbrent at 12:02 PM

tramp down the dirt

So Kevan and I have been having an email conversation over the issue of how to succinctly explain the long list of sins of Margaret Thatcher to a young Thatcher fan, and I think where we arrived is that the succinct explanation would very closely resemble the succinct repudiation of the Ronald Reagan legacy that we Yanks would employ.  So now we know.

But what was interesting enough to actually share was this — given the correlations between Reagan and Thatcher, I wondered if Thatcher was as popular amongst everyone but the left wing as Reagan was.  Because I did not know, and found it hard to believe given how reviled a figure she is.  Kev's answer:

Thatcher truly divided the country. Some truly loved her, and thought she was a breath of fresh air, for the following reasons:

Industry was foundering: partly because bad management (mainly class based, which meant Directorships where handed out to old schoolmates of the board, rather than any business experience), and partly because of Union militancy*.

(*Union militancy was belligerent, and saw itself as opposed to government rather than merely representative of its membership.)

The industries nationalised by the Labour Party after the war were notoriously inefficient, as were the local authorities.

The country was coming to terms that it wasn't actually a superpower anymore.

Hence, Thatcher set about dismantling the whole lot.  Everyone could see that it needed to be done, but the country divided on HOW it should be done.  The Thatcherites saw the harm social harm being done as mere collateral damage, partly in the regions which were unaffected (the south).  The rest of us were appalled at her belief that anyone who didn't agree with her was actually treacherous (in her own words "the enemy within").  Added to her opportunist warmongering in the Falklands, Britain became bullish and brutalised.

Thatcher appealed to the snobs who liked to think that society should be divided.  If you can't compare yourself favourably against those less well-off than yourself, how else can you feel superior?

As my conversation with colleagues on Friday proved, there are those that do not understand why Thatcher is REVILED, that believe that she did the right thing.  I find it difficult to trust anyone who thinks like that.

There were people that voted for Thatcher who then looked away when she exploited their mandate in her butchery.  Many Tories disliked her, but felt they needed that callousness to even old scores.

Basically, the fact that people's rancour at her memory is still so strong indicates just how wounded the nation feels following her legacy.

But yes, there are areas of the country where she is still perceived to be Good Old Maggie.

That does sound an awful lot like Ronald Reagan, but on a different canvas.  So now I know a little bit more than I did yesterday.  Someday I'll have to explain something uniquely American to Kevan, like exceptionalism or mobility chairs.

Posted by mrbrent at 10:11 AM

May 10, 2010

big content

Cory Doctorow on Big Content's Depraved Indifference:
...But they [Big Content] are indifferent to the point of depravity to the totalitarian, censorious and restrictive consequences of DRM, filters and liability.

They aren't moustache-twirling supervillains.  They're greedy, blinkered provincials and hypercompetitive macho bullies who are unwilling to look past the short-term benefits to the consequences.  They think only of how things will work, not how they'll fail.

Admittedly, I am mostly linking this up so that "Big Content" gets repeated enough to become the agreed-upon jargon we will use to refer to the three surviving entertainment multinational conglomerates (or rather, the three surviving wholly-owned by telecom/cable/ISP entertainment multinational conglomerates).

And Doctorow is right — Big Content is not trying to kill their own industry by creating a copyright police state, it is just too short-sighted to realize that that is what they are doing.

Posted by mrbrent at 3:04 PM


Good news: not only is the modern Republican Party tearing itself apart, but it is doing so in a most entertaining fashion.  The Maine GOP, home of such Conservative firebrand senators as Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, has been taken over by Tea Party-All-Nighters, which has resulted in a rewritten official platform which reads like something that someone like me would write as a platform and then submit to "Shouts & Murmurs" and wait by the mailbox for that difficult couple weeks for the form letter.  Which might not be the case if I could only write as good as these TP big-wigs:
a. Discard political correctness, make public the declaration of war (Jihad), made against the US on 23 Feb 1998, and fight the war against the United States by radical Islam to win.

The tortured syntax alone is grade-A funny.

There's some other great stuff in there, like walling the borders, abrogating heinous UN treaties like Rights of the Child and the Law of the Sea, and returning to the principles of Austrian economics (which surely must be some dog-whistle I'm not familiar with).  Speaking of dog-whistles: namedrops of both Thomas Jefferson and Ron Paul?  Check and double-check.

This is truly the legacy of Karl Rove — the whack-job social conservatives were baited for so long for George W. Bush votes that it was inevitable that they would become all self-aware like SkyNet.

Posted by mrbrent at 11:40 AM

kevan in the uk

Guest post!  In response to my questions for the subjects of the crown, Kevan from Nonstopshoebox was kind enough to dash off a note that should go a way towards describing just how the mechanics of the British general elections looked from the ground, which I am reprinting in part:
Ironically, the Iron Lady was a topic of conversation at work this morning, between us normal people and two colleagues who actually voted for her and thought that she had not been treated fairly by history.  I just trotted out the line;

Q. What are they putting on Thatcher's grave?
A. A dance floor!

Note: the notion of this joke is the very topic of Elvis Costello's Tramp Down the Dirt.

As for the election itself, all I can say is that we had a high turnout (around 70%) and the voters elected a hung parliament.  In short, none of the parties inspired anyone enough to earn power.

Why not?  I think British politics slow lean towards the centre right has strangled any thought and purpose in our politics.  The high turnout indicates an endorsement of democratic government, but the lack of ideas has led people put their X next to their habitual party.

After 13 years of New Labour the Tories should have walked it, but their policies aren't actually that different, so Conservatism didn't represent change.

What the British like is conservative politics and a welfare state, and it's effectively what we've had since 1950, when the Tories took over what the Labour Party had built after the war, and soon realised that they would not be allowed to deconstruct it.  Even Thatcher, who despised any form of welfare, left the NHS well alone, such was the taboo.

Anyway, what happens now is someone (probably the Tories) will cobble together a "government" which will limp along until October, and then we'll have to do it all again.  Ho Hum.

And I'll add that, as the coalition government has not yet been agreed (as of Monday morning), corollary to the concept that Downing Street should reflect the will of the voters is the verifiable fact that a distinct majority of British voters did not vote Tory last Thursday.

And I'd still like to know the one- or two-sentence comeback to a fervent young Thatcherite, along the lines of, "Ronald Reagan's belief that government was the problem was the single most destructive bit of American persuasion in the second half of the 20th Century, and everything that is wrong now lies at his feet."

Posted by mrbrent at 9:22 AM