Never Be Afraid Of Making A Mistake

Belaboring this point undermines it, so I will be as brief as possible.

Robert Murphy lost a bet with David Hendersen. The reason everyone is talking about it is because Brad DeLong decided to make sour grapes of it.

But there are no sour grapes for Robert Murphy. He writes five points about the bet this morning on his blog, and the number one point was: "I screwed up." Before writing that post, he also elected to make a few self-effacing jokes, including one at DeLong's blog, and one on his own Facebook page.

For Henderson's part, he writes:
I have the following 3 goals in betting about economics, not necessarily in order of importance: (1) to test my own understanding, (2) to cause the person on the other side to reconsider his beliefs, and (3) to have fun and make money. In this case, I think I've achieved all 3.
There is plenty for laymen like me to learn when two extremely intelligent economists disagree, take a bet, and offer insight into what they think happened. But what we should really learn from this bet is that extremely talented people can and do make mistakes - in fact, they make them all the time, and in many cases, publicly. It's humbling, but it's not bad.

There's nothing wrong with making mistakes. How many failed inventions did Thomas Edison attempt? How many times did Isaac Newton attempt to prove the Fundamental Theorem before he finally succeeded? How many Olympians have won every single race they ever competed in?

Mistakes, failures, unproductive ventures, and so on... these are all the product of a life lived productively. Nothing ventured, nothing gained. It's easy for many of us to spend our whole lives on the sidelines, never attempting much of anything, never taking a risk, never taking a chance, always playing it safe and keeping our mouths shut in fear of saying something that doesn't pan out the way we thought it would.

But, in the spirit of New Year's Resolutions, I hope that all my readers understand that nobody - no matter how intelligent or talented they may be - bats 1.000. Nobody does everything right, all the time. Life isn't about avoiding mistakes, it's about learning from them.

Life your 2013 - and your whole life - with integrity and intellectual courage.

On Taxes And Delusions

Skimming through John Cochrane's recent blog post on what qualifies as "tax reform" these days got me thinking. (Always dangerous when I start thinking, I know...)

While the whole concept of "the fiscal cliff" is a cheap rhetorical cliff, as Sonic Charmer The Crimson Reach so nicely keeps illustrating, the government's solvency problem is a real one, and an important one, and one that needs to be fixed. It is probably unnecessary to provide readers with a laundry list of the potential threats associated with not keeping the government's fiscal house in order, so instead I will simply say that using the rhetoric of a "fiscal cliff" will prove to be a major political mistake.

Why? Because when ordinary, every-day, paycheck-cashing, Breaking Bad-watching Americans watch the fiscal cliff come and go without witnessing a major catastrophe, it will be that much more difficult for any politician anywhere to convince the people of the United States to acquiesce to a major change in the way the government spends money and generates revenue. By casting the debate as a doomsday scenario, the people - assuming they actually believe worthless, lying politicians - will come to expect a doomsday. When that doomsday fails to occur, they will simply go on about their business as though the underlying issue itself is trivial. It's not.

Having said all that, I would like to highlight two delusions regarding taxation. Please note: this is a blade that cuts both ways, so pay attention. You might just learn something.

The Right And Its Delusion
For a long time now, the rightist politicians have been trying to get people to swallow the idea that cutting taxes on businesses "spurs economic growth." The logic here is that the government can create so much economic growth that the increased taxable income will more than compensate for the decreased tax rate, like thus...

( tax rate ) x ( taxable income ) = tax revenue

If tax rate = 20% and taxable income = $100, then tax revenue = $20. If tax rate = 10% and taxable income = $100, then tax revenue = $10. That's bad. But, if tax rate = 10% and taxable income rises to $500, then tax revenue = $50 > $20.

Okay, so we all understand what the rightist's claim is, right? This is not "trickle-down theory," this is simple fiscal math. Rightists aren't trying to take over the known universe, they just think that if you can "make" taxable income go up by lowering taxes, then we'll get more tax revenue and fix the debt problem. Get it?

There are two problems with this particular delusion:
  1. Problem #1: Let's assume the rightists are correct. When government expenditures are more than the total size of national income, it is extremely unlikely that futzing with the tax rate is going to produce a large enough impact to fix the debt problem.
  2. Problem #2: Let's carry the rightist's logic to its ultimate conclusion. Just reduce all tax rates to 1%. Problem solved. Not only would we be paying less taxes, but the deep cut to all tax rates would have the benefit of instigating a new, futuristic Utopian age of economic growth the likes of which society has never seen before.
That last one is important. If cutting tax rates "stimulates growth," then logically the only sane course of action is to reduce tax rates to 1% on all things and watch the economy explode. That 1% should be ample to pay off the debt completely by "growing us out of our debt," and we'd also have the benefit of hardly paying any taxes at all.

Of course, this concept violates The Laffer Curve, which implies that it really is possible to reduce the tax rate so far that you fail to optimize tax revenue. (That's the left's critique-du-jour of tax rate reductions.) But that just begs the question: Why do we want to optimize tax revenue? Why do we want the government to be rich on tax money?

This brings me to...

The Left And Its Delusion
So we all can hopefully agree that cutting taxes doesn't magically "stimulate the economy," whatever that means. You can't just reduce tax rates and expect economy to happen. That's stupid, right? Ha ha ha. Isn't it funny. Stupid rightists.

...Which means we can probably raise tax rates as high as we please, and it won't hurt the economy at all! Right? After all, Warren Buffett says he's willing to pay more taxes. And frankly, if my tax bill went up a couple hundred bucks - maybe even a thousand bucks, let's go hog wild - my life sure wouldn't be over. So hike the rates and pay off the debt. Problem solved. Aren't we smart, being the smart leftists that we are? We're smart! (Stupid rightists...) We have it all figured out.

Well, actually, no. That's not how it works.

While you can't "grow the economy" by reducing tax rates, you sure can hurt the economy by raising them. A proper explanation for this would be excessive. Just ask yourself: Do you spend more money when you have less money to spend? Do you spend the same amount of money when you have less money to spend? How about when you have to spend more money to get the same amount of stuff (because the out-of-pocket price, including taxes is higher)? Do you buy more stuff, less stuff, or the same amount of stuff when the price you have to pay is higher?

Okay? So don't tell me that tax increases don't harm the economy. Warren Buffett may not buy less milk and bread if we tax him at a steeper rate, but he will definitely buy less of whatever he buys most. For bajillionaires like him, most of what he buys consists of (a) investments and (b) charitable contributions.

So if you want the rich to invest less and contribute less money to charity, then go ahead and raise their taxes. But you are not allowed to live in a delusional world in which you get to pretend that raising taxes doesn't have a significant impact on the economy. That's stupid.

Welcome To Stationary Waves, Where We Deal In Reality
The reality of the government solvency problem is that you can't fix it by fiddling with tax rates. You can't reduce rates to the point that we "grow our way out of debt" (stupid rightists...). You also can't increase rates - not even the rates that apply to bad, evil guys like rich people - to the point that you can cover all the warring, policing, welfare-stating, and economy-commanding suddenly and magically becomes affordable.

Folks, let's not be naive. We live in a big, diverse world in which there exist sundry countries, having sundry tax regimes. There are countries that have bafflingly "progressive" tax regimes. There are countries that favor the rich above all others. There are countries that have flatter tax regimes.

What we see when we look at all the many countries and tax regimes out there is variety. That is to say, there are poor countries with progressive rates, and rich countries with progressive rates. There are poor countries with (comparatively) flat rates, and rich countries with flat rates.

So the reality is that fiddling with tax rates is not a magic bullet capable of making unaffordable things affordable. Fiddling with tax rates is not a special recipe for economic growth or low income disparity.

Fiddling with tax rates is a way to make our lives more or less expensive, depending on which way we move the rates. That's it. You can't pay for ObamaCare with a sufficiently high or low rate. ObamaCare is unaffordable at any tax rate. You can't pay for multiple, decades-long military occupations and murderous drone strikes with a sufficiently high or low rate. Imperialism is unaffordable at any rate. You can't balloon the civil service into a hideous, bureaucratic Hydra with a sufficiently high or low rate. Bureaucracy is unaffordable at any rate.

Therefore, let us not live in these silly delusions any longer. Let us not go around believing that the economy is starving to death solely because the Left has strangulated the rich with high tax rates. Let us not go around believing that the government is starving to death solely because the Right won't allow us to "make the rich pay their fair share."

Rates that seemed appropriate yesterday no longer seem appropriate today. That which was a fair share yesterday is no longer a fair share today. Ask yourself: Why? What changed?

What you find when you ask that question is that the major variable affecting both economic growth and government solvency is government expenditure. The government is spending more than it takes in. The government is spending more than our economy generates in a year. This is the real catastrophe. We citizens can no longer afford to suffer delusions about how this can all be fixed with tax reform.

We don't need tax reform. We need spending reform.


Rhesus Pieces: Crapa Cabana

Today I am happy to finally upload a Rhesus Piece that is more than just pure improv. I have a composed piece for nylon-string guitar, bass, and Ghanese gourd shaker.

This latter instrument was a Christmas gift from my sister, who also did me the delightful favor of giving me an Aulos soprano recorder and an Indian flute. Look for any and all of those instruments, coming soon to a YouTube channel near you!

In the meantime, enjoy the shaker as it accompanies acoustic and bass guitars in this weekend's upload: Crapa Cabana.



2012 Year In Review

This being the last Friday of the month, I thought I would take some time to look back at the year 2012 and re-cap some of the fun we've had. I'll split this into categories so that we can better follow along.

New Music 2012
All said, 2012 was an extremely good year for new music. We heard some great new releases from some very strong musical acts.

In May, I picked up a copy of Big Wreck's new album, Albatross. For my money, this was the best album release of the year. Each and every song on that album offers strong vocal and instrumental performances, brilliant songwriting, and a sound that can only be described as epic. While I have been gradually losing my taste for well-written pop/rock songs, Ian Thornley and the rest of the band managed to prove that great, new rock music is still possible, even if the music world as a whole is losing its spirit of creativity and originality.

In June, I found myself at a Coldplay concert, as they toured the world in support of their Mylo Xyloto album. I was never a big fan of Coldplay, but the concert was legitimately awesome. It was a fun way to remind myself of the joy of going to major arena concert. I hope to do a little more of that in the coming year.

In August, I purchased both the new Rush album and the new Steve Vai album. Both were good albums, but only the Rush album can be considered excellent. In fact, despite the kind words I had for the Vai album at the time, I haven't spent much time listening to it since August. A couple of weeks ago, I was driving in the car with my wife, and happened to put The Story of Light into the CD player. She became frustrated and angry at the first track, which drags on and on with a Russian-language spoken word vocal that offers the average listener nothing in particular. That track is truly unlistenable, and has prevented me from getting through the whole album more than once. The same can be said for "John the Revelator." Ugh.

But the Rush album is fantastic!

Then, toward the end of August, I received my copy of Hotcakes, by The Darkness, in the mail. It is the best album that band has yet recorded, and topped only by the Hot Leg album Justin Hawkins released during The Darkness' break-up/hiatus. I have spun that disc to death and will never get tired of it.

Finally, December marked the release of the first new Soundgarden album since 1996, King Animal. I've only had a few weeks to digest this one, but I can tell you that it is every bit on par with the rest of the band's body of work.

All said and done, though, Big Wreck absolutely dwarfed the competition this year. Album of the year goes to Albatross.

New Movies - 2012
While I had written a few movie reviews earlier, I started regular movie reviews in June of this year, with my review of the movie Prometheus. That is probably apt, since it is a prequel or re-boot of the old Alien movie franchise, and the running theme of movies for the past couple of years has been: reboots, rehashes, prequels, remakes, and so on. Movies, like music, are an artform that is suffering from either a true dearth of creativity or a blatant rejection of it.

In fairness, I watched many movies this year that I did not bother to review. In some cases this is because I watched so many in a short span of time that I simply didn't have time to provide a review of each. In other cases, the movies simply weren't worth reviewing; they were neither notably good nor notably bad.

So it should come as no surprise that my pick for Movie of the Year is a Hindi movie called Cocktail. For all the movies that were released this year, only Cocktail stands out in my mind as being, not just memorable, but memorably pleasant. It was a funny movie, a dramatic movie, a romantic movie, and I left the theater feeling genuinely happy about what I'd seen.

Books Read - 2012
If you've been reading my book reviews, you know that I don't keep up with new releases. I am not particularly fond of novels or books about current events. The book world is not one of my interests. That's not to say I don't love books - I do. But I quickly lose interest in "quick reads" or books that don't require much thought to digest, and so the vast majority of new releases pass me by without my giving them a second thought.

One of the best books I read this year was a brief History of Bangladesh, which I picked up shortly before moving back to the United States because I wanted to gain a deeper understanding of Bangladeshi culture. That book delivered in droves. It is a bit of a remarkable undertaking because the history of Bangladesh is relatively unknown. In part, this is because the vast majority of the population is illiterate, and therefore unable to record history. In part, this is also because the history of the country has been re-written so many times by so many politically motivated people that it is difficult to get the real story from anyone at this point. This book, however, manages to cut through a great deal of the misinformation and shed real light on a fascinating and young-though-ancient region of the world.

But by far the biggest surprise of my book-reading this year was the largely unknown and forgotten 1920s novel The Driver, by Garet Garrett. This book tells the story of a man driven to become a captain of the railroad industry at the turn of the century. It describes his difficulties, his determination, his ultimate success, and the public opinion that surrounds him at each stage in the process. It is a book written with intelligent prose and a clever sense of humor the likes of which are virtually unknown in today's novels. I read this book on a lark, and found I simply could not put it down. I downed it just a couple of days, and loved every minute of it.

So, nearly 100 years after it was written, I am choosing The Driver for Book of the Year.

Some Final Thoughts On 2012
It was a big year for me. Looking back through my posts, I find that I received well over 40,000 blog hits this year, which is fairly unprecedented when compared to previous years. Whether this is because the spam-bots have zeroed-in on me, or because I am actually writing something worthwhile is yet to be determined. I like to think that I offer reasonably entertaining - albeit occasionally very long-winded - content to the blog-reading community.

Personally speaking, I intended 2012 to be a year of herculean music output. Perhaps I fell short of herculean, but I have managed to work my way to the point where I am publishing music regularly on my YouTube channel (please subscribe). I have a new camcorder on order and in transit to my home, so you can expect the quality of my videos to improve dramatically - and perhaps also their regularity. I also have a few surprises on the horizon, but I'm still working on those, so mum's the word for now.

I moved from Canada to the United States halfway through the year. This was part of a long-term plan my wife and I concocted a few years back, and I'm happy to have made progress on such a significant change. It is very good to be back to the United States, but I must admit that the political climate here is much worse than what exists in Canada. Following US politics, particularly during a tumultuous election year, has been remarkably depressing.

Add to that the fact that my attempts to run another marathon have all run aground, either due to injury, scheduling conflicts, or an aging body that complains almost vociferously when I demand that it do the things that it found easy in the days before my diabetes diagnosis. Disappointingly, I have been forced to adjust my perspective on fitness in response to the physical barriers that have placed themselves in front of me.

Furthermore, despite my being able to regularly attend to my blog, I haven't made much headway on my writing projects since the last few times I published articles.

Therefore, despite many wonderful changes for the better, there is yet room for additional improvement. But we all knew that was the case, didn't we?

It's a feature, not a bug. If you're inclined to make New Year's resolutions, now is your chance to identify those things that diminished the quality of your 2012 and make them better in 2013. To that end, I recommend the approach taken by my sister: Don't take on a huge fix-yourself project; instead, make your New Year's resolutions something fun that you want to look forward to all year long.

For myself, that will involve doing more writing, recording additional music, going on another exotic vacation, and stepping away from politics a bit.

As for my readers, I hope you had a wonderful 2012. I'd like to thank you very much for reading my blog, and I genuinely wish that your 2013, like mine, will be the best year of your life. I hope you will join me, in spirit, in a toast at midnight on New Year's Eve to everything human beings are capable of when they dedicate themselves to living with virtue, courage, thoughtfulness, and optimism.


Advice To Gun Control Advocates

So, gun control.

I have avoided writing about this because, let's face it, we've heard it all before already. The current debate is no different than any of the other debates we've ever had on gun control, and the outcome will be more or less the same as all the previous debates. Perhaps we will end up with another ban on assault rifles. I repeat, another ban. Or, perhaps the so-called "gun lobby" will have their way instead and the current legal regime with respect to guns will escape more or less unchanged.

One thing is for sure: We are all arguing about it again.

Now, I have a suggestion for those of you who are in favor of gun control. Maybe - just maybe - you'd gain more traction with your friends, colleagues, and family members if, rather than arguing for a legal ban on whatever, you simply argued that people should voluntarily eschew assault rifles.

The benefits of that position are:
  1. No one would accuse you of wanting to take their rights away.
  2. A large majority of gun owners already agree with you.
  3. You might actually stand a chance at talking someone out of purchasing an assault rifle, whereas if you threaten to take their right of ownership away, that person is more likely to hurry and buy an assault rifle before the ban goes into effect.
  4. You demonstrate a little good faith, and a keener interest in affecting positive change rather than merely enforcing your will on others.
Remember the "temperance movement?" How much more effective do you think it would have been if, rather than arguing for a Constitutional ban on alcohol, they had merely promoted voluntary sobriety? (Faithful Stationary Waves readers can draw parallels between this and my own position on illegal drugs.) We could have saved ourselves a lot of crime and punishment had Prohibition never happened. But everyone - and I mean everyone - can come together and agree that responsible drinking is a better choice than irresponsible drinking.

You don't need to be backed by the law to impact society for the better. State your creed and live by it. Take every opportunity to promote your point of view, but keep in mind that a truly persuasive person can convince me to do something reasonable if he himself is being reasonable. I will think twice about doing something potentially destructive if you give me a reason not to do it.

But why would I ever pay attention to someone who threatens to call the cops and have them arrest me if I don't do what they say? "Force and mind are opposites; morality ends where a gun begins."


Have Things Gone From Worst To Worst-Ever?

NBC News has the story of the "deadly storm" that has been causing severe weather across the country for the last couple of days:
A powerful storm system that erupted Christmas Day, slammed the Gulf Coast with tornadoes and blanketed nation's midsection with snow, headed for the Northeast on Wednesday, spreading blizzard conditions that slowed holiday travel.

The death toll rose to six with car accidents on snow and sleet-slickened highways in Arkansas and Oklahoma.

The storm hit my neck of the woods yesterday, and we were "blessed" with a white Christmas. Around here, snow is never so bad that the cold alone kills. Typically what happens is that the roads get icy and slick, and people continue to drive like morons anyway, resulting in widespread, self-induced destruction. Here's an example.

So perhaps "deadly storm" is a bit of a misnomer, especially since we are accustomed to hurricanes and tornados in this state. Maybe calling a big winter storm "deadly" is going a tad too far. There are, after all, many thousands of deadly car accidents every year. Just because a particular set of car accidents were indirectly caused by winter storms doesn't mean the storm itself kills people or even damages their cars. Ultimately, we are talking about human error here.

Perusing my Google News feed, I see some pretty spooky headlines warning me of impending doom: HW Bush Spokesman Says Ex-President's Fever Is Rising, David Gregory Is A Law-Breaking Monster, Bizarre Texts Could Be A Sign Of Stroke Or Other Health Problems, and the list goes on. We're not just talking about weather, we're talking about a deadly storm. We're not just talking about gun control, we're talking about monsters. If someone sends you a funny text, don't laugh too hard, because they might be having a stroke. And by the way, George Bush's fever is rising!

Text messages, political debates, fevers, and even storms all seem a lot stormier these days, don't they?

Well, I have some more bad news for you. Things just went from worse to worst ever! That is, according to Google Trends, things have been getting worst ever pretty steadily for the last ten years or so. Consider the following graph:
Let there be no doubt about it: There is a decidedly upward trend here. If you don't believe me, then by all means repeat the analysis on your own. The CSV file is freely available on Google Trends.

We now have irrefutable, data-driven evidence that things aren't just worse than they used to be. No, instead of worse, they are worst. And it's only getting worst than worst from here on out!

Here at the nadir of human society's long and painful march to the bottom of hideous, black, grimy pit, it may be worthwhile to pause a moment and ask ourselves: Are things really as bad as they seem?

Or, perhaps, has our perspective on things changed? Sometimes a storm is just a storm, a fever is just a fever, a bizarre text is just a bizarre text. Sometimes the newsman isn't giving it to you straight, he's sensationalizing it. He's selling ads, and you're buying.

But don't take my word for it.

Jumping Rope

While recovering from a nasty bout of tendonitis these days, I have been using a jump rope as my primary means of cardiovascular exercise. The benefits of jumping rope are seemingly endless.

One of the best things about it is that it requires a miniscule investment (perhaps about $20 if you really want to go fancy). The only thing better than an awesome workout is one that you basically do not have to pay for. Jump rope fits the bill on that level. You don't need a fancy gym or expensive equipment for a jump rope workout, you merely need a length of rope heavy enough to swing over your head repeatedly. It's great!

Also great is the fact that jumping rope takes up almost no space whatsoever. If you have high ceilings, you can do it in your home. Otherwise, you can do it in your front yard. If you live somewhere cold and snowy, you can clear the snow off a small patch of sidewalk and you're good to go. If you're travelling, a jump rope fits easily into a bag or suitcase of any size - it takes up about as much room as a tube of toothpaste or a can of shaving cream. Naturally, this also means that you won't have to waste precious storage space in your own home on a jump rope. It will fit in any closet or cupboard, no matter how small.

What I have yet to mention is how great a workout it is - perhaps one of the best forms of cardiovascular exercise you can get. What's so great about a jump rope workout? Not only does it elevate your heart rate and get your lungs pumping, it also requires movement from your arms, legs, and abdominal muscles. It is truly a full-body cardiovascular workout. Not bad for $20.

Of course, like any form of cardio exercise, you'll need to put in the time. As great a workout as jumping rope can be, you still have to spend time doing it, and once you get comfortable with the basic motion, your body's quest for economy of motion will enable you to slack-off, sometimes without even knowing it. Luckily for you, Stationary Waves has you covered. I now present...

A Stationary Waves Guide To Jumping Rope - Beginners
If you're "new" to jumping rope (meaning, if you haven't tried it since grade school), you may find yourself badly uncoordinated. This justifies a slightly different initial approach to jumping rope.

First, accept that you will "trip up" a bit. You won't smoothly and flawlessly glide over your rope as it whizzes around your body. You won't be a pro. Come to terms with this early and don't feel bad when you trip. Just keep going. The purpose of what you're doing is to get a cardiovascular workout, so don't stop until you're done.

Second, prepare yourself for how difficult it is to learn a new form of cardio. When you attempt your first jump rope workout, you will be exhausted because you're not used to it.

Therefore, I recommend starting with 15-20 minutes of jumping rope. You may find this easy or you may find it difficult, but just get through it. That should be your initial goal. It doesn't matter how you do it, it doesn't have to look pretty, and you don't have to force yourself to go rapidly. Again, the goal is to just complete the workout any way you can.

Once you've done that a couple of times, you will probably start to feel more comfortable, and you can increase the length of your workout as needed.

A Stationary Waves Guide To Jumping Rope - Intermediate
Here's a great workout I do to keep myself interested for a full 45 minute jump roping session.

The four basic jump roping motions we are going to use in this workout are as follows:
  1. "Standard," single-jump, feet together jump-roping
  2. Same as #1 above, but slower - add a hop in between each major jump while the rope is travelling over your head.
  3. "Running-in-place," or jumping from one foot to the next each time you jump over the rope
  4. "Skipping rope:" Same as #3, but add a little hop on the same leg you just jumped on while the rope is travelling over your head.
The reader will note that there are two "fast" motions and two "slow" motions. This makes for a perfect interval-style workout.

Here's what you do: Set your timer for 30 minutes, 45 minutes, or however long you plan on jumping rope. Begin with motion #1, and continue that way until you miss the rope. When you start again, perform motion #2 as a recovery of sorts. Continue that way until you miss the rope again, then move to motion #3 for as long as you can go, until you miss the rope. Then recover again with motion #4.

Repeat this process as many times as you need for the full workout. You will find that at the beginning of the workout, you will spend more time in the recovery phases because these motions are easier to perform. As your body tires, though, you will find yourself missing the rope even during the recovery motions, and sometimes only after a jump or two. This means that you will eventually reach a point where you are spending more time jumping quickly than jumping slowly.

It really works. It's a great workout.

A Stationary Waves Guide To Jumping Rope - Advanced
As you develop your jump-roping technique, you may find the above workouts insufficient. The way to approach an advanced jump rope session is much the same as you would approach any other form of cardiovascular exercise: either increase the time you spend jumping rope (do it for 60 minutes, as opposed to 30, for example) or increase the rate at which you jump.

In either case, a straight-ahead session of jumping rope or an elaborate interval will both suffice for you to get a great workout, provided you are actually challenging yourself.

In the end, it is only the process of challenging yourself that makes for a good workout, anyway.

Happy jumping!


Rhesus Pieces

Merry Christmas and/or Happy Holidays, everybody.

I took the liberty of recording a new Rhesus Piece to celebrate the occasion. This one's called Crib Notes, and features a tiger!



Against Santa Claus

Why do parents teach their children to believe in Santa Claus? Don't roll your eyes at me - it is actually a good question. What good comes of a belief in Santa Claus?

ABC News Weighs In
An ordinary guy named Peter Dacey, responding to the author of this ABC News piece, offers his explanation as follows:
If you don't believe in Santa, no good comes of it, as either you're correct or you're not, in which case have fun forcing your parents to get you all your future Christmas gifts while Santa visits the believers," said Dacey. "On the other hand, if you do believe, the worst that can happen is that you find out you were wrong, and what's the harm there?
Yes, folks, I do understand that this is a puff-piece, not to be taken so seriously, but I still have to wonder what on Earth Peter Dacey is talking about. Dacey reasons that there is no inherent value to knowing that Santa Claus really and truly does not exist, because it's no fun (and, by implication, I suppose less fruitful?) asking your parents for something you want than it is to hold out hope that an imaginary fat man in a flying sled is going to give it to you - and, worse, that if you don't get it, you weren't an adequately "good" boy or girl that year. "On the other hand," the worst part about discovering that there is no Santa Claus is finding out you're wrong.

Dacey wonders what the harm is, but the harm is clearly outlined by Emily Charlton, another respondent featured in the same news piece, right at the beginning:
"I remember feeling embarrassed and upset," said Charlton.
Charlton ran to her mother for reassurance that what she suspected was wrong.
"I will never forget what came next," she said. "She looked at me, and without skipping a beat said, 'Don't tell your brother and sister.' I was devastated. … A huge bomb was dropped on me and as silly as it sounds, it really changed my life.
"The worst part of all was how unceremoniously it happened, it was like one minute I was a child full of wonderment, and in a flash was snapped into a world of non-believing, magic-less adults."
Charlton's parents - like many parents all over North America and elsewhere - elected to place their child in a naive fantasy land, knowing full well that they were propagating a ridiculous fantasy. However much excitement this lie produced in their child early on, the fantasy ultimately resulted in Charlton's being humiliated in front of her friends and devastated by the moment her parents ultimately came clean with her.

She takes it further: she felt her world was an amazing, magical place, until she discovered that her parents had been lying to her all along, at which point the world lost a great deal of its magic.

But The World Is An Amazing Place
The real tragedy in Charlton's experience is that she suffered some real disillusionment as a child, and this was an experience that left a significant impression on her that continued into adulthood. I don't really care about Santa Claus, but it is surely a mistake to deliberately set a child up to be disillusioned, when the whole illusion is supposedly concocted for the benefit of... the children.

Meanwhile, back in the real world (the world in which Santa God does not exist), amazing - dare I say "seemingly magical?" - things are happening all the time. From iPhones to 3D printing to synthetic insulin to dancing robots, the human species is responsible for things that would have been considered utter sorcery just 200 years ago. We have unlocked the power of the atom and used it to power cities. We have sent spacecraft into the depths of space, beyond the threshold of our own solar system. We put a radio controlled car on the surface of Mars and drove it around. We have injected cancerous tumors with tiny specks of gold, and zapped them with invisible rays that made the tumors explode. We have harvested the venom of snakes and spiders and used it to save human lives.

The list of real miracles is infinitely longer and more impressive than the preposterous lies we tell our children about Santa Claus. But we human beings are a warped race of bald apes, who somehow derive greater satisfaction from lying to children for the benefit of the looks on their faces than inspiring those very same looks by the awesome power of truth.

You Don't Have To Lie
Really, think about it. There is no reason to fill your child's head full of lies. The world is sufficiently amazing to generate a real sense of awe in your children. The fact that levitation can be demonstrated in a scientific laboratory proves that, with the right kind of scientific progress, your child could actually be the one to build a flying sled and travel around the globe that way.

But rather than fill our children's heads with the real possibilities of human progress, we have elected to lie to them for years about a cartoonish god-imposter whose only real achievement is fulfilling a child's most materialistic desires.

So, on the one hand, we could tell our children the truth about human excellence and fill their spirits with hope for the human race, and on the other hand we could tell them lies about magic and dash their hopes when their brains are too powerful to endure the ongoing, humiliating dishonesty of it all.

Okay, those are your two choices. Are you really surprised that our children grow up to die in hopeless wars or gun each other down in movie theaters and schools? How dare you feign shock and outrage? You did this.

The God Angle
Not convinced? Then let me step outside of my idiom for a moment and offer you a religious-based argument against Santa.

When your child is very young, you concoct a lie about an inherently good, bearded man who appears in the clouds, who rewards all the good children and punishes all the bad ones. A few years later, you tell your child, "Just kidding! It was all a big, dumb lie that I told you just to see the look on your face as I pretended to perform miracles that no one will ever really be able to perform! But you figured it out, grew up, and came to realize that no such thing is possible! But I love you anyway!"

Do you this kind of thing nurtures your child's belief in God? Don't kid yourself. A child whose dreams of Santa-God get dashed early on is a child who grows up ever less-likely to fall for that kind of thing ever again.

So, here's a pro-tip: If you want to raise your child to believe in God, maybe you shouldn't engage in a big dress-rehearsal for atheism.

Back To Peter Dacey
Now back to Dacey's question: What good comes from not believing in Santa Claus? Well, I've listed a few highly positive things already: (1) A better appreciation for mankind's really amazing accomplishments, (2) Preventing your child from experiencing a wholly unnecessary and emotionally jarring disillusionment, and (3) If you're so inclined, a better likelihood that your child will actually grow up to believe in something.

(Remember, folks, here at Stationary Waves, we are against theism, but very much in favor of belief as expressed in the old Ayn Rand adage, "Ideas matter.")

Like the ancient Greeks, and pretty much everyone in the known universe, I believe that truth is inherently valuable on its own merits. What a child gains from the truth is the ability to see the world as it really is, the ability to trust their own observations without an irrational "magic world-view" that constantly advises them against what they can see in front of them with their own two eyes and the power of their own minds reasoning about the physical evidence.

More importantly, though, by electing not to lie to your children about Santa God, you also help foster a higher level of trust between you and your child. You spare them Emily Charlton's emotionally jarring experience of having to realize that one of the things that made her happiest in her short life was all a big lie that her parents had told her.

And that's why I'm against Santa Claus.


No News Is Good News

It's a slow news day today, folks. Apparently the world was lying pretty low overnight, on the off-chance that the world was coming to a crashing halt today, as mistakenly implied by some dead, 7000-year-old astronomers. Oops.

And I haven't been thinking much, philosophically speaking, over the last week. In part this is because I've been swamped at work, and in part because I haven't come across anything lately that has inspired me to think anything "new."

I've been writing lots of music, and coming up with some great ideas for my next videos, but have not had time to upload anything new since Sunday.

So, instead, I'm just going to link you to a wonderful piece of music I discovered on Google Play the other day:


Ayn Rand Quote Of The Day: Beyond Polemics

I haven't done these in a while. Today, the Ayn Rand page on Facebook offers the following quote from Atlas Shrugged:
So long as men live together on earth and need means to deal with one another—their only substitute, if they abandon money, is the muzzle of a gun.
I have written elsewhere (see, for example, this post) that the most apt criticism against Ayn Rand is that her writings were too polemic to win many converts. Admittedly, this criticism seems a little silly in consideration of the fact that Ayn Rand has won more converts than most ideologues out there today. Still, for many of those not convinced, they seem to be reticent about signing on to a belief system that forces people to choose between two stark unpleasantries, such as in the above quote, which may imply to some that we must choose between being money-grubbing versus being gun-toting.

Let's try to sift through Rand's polemics on this.

First of all, you'll have to start by taking my word for it that what Rand really meant to say is that when it comes to human interaction, there are only two options: war and peace. Either we cooperate with each other voluntarily to get what we want, or we coercively force other people to give us what we want. There is no third possibility in this case, since any form of of coercion, regardless of how gentle it appears to be, or how much you dilute it with niceties, is still coercion.

That last bit is important, because under an Objectivist framework, any ethical system grounded in altruism is necessarily coercive. Why? Because altruistic value systems demand (by definition) that a person sacrifice her own interests for the sake of others; any other course of action is insufficiently altruistic, and therefore insufficiently ethical.

Now, imagine you are being robbed. What is the ethical course of action? By altruism, you should sacrifice your interests (in the form of money, and perhaps your watch) for the interests of others (the robber). The gun is the robber's ethical enforcement mechanism.

Alternatively, he could tell you, "If you don't give me your money, then you are a greedy person and I will damn you to hell." And funnily enough, there are people out there who tell us this sort of thing. Most of them are religious leaders, but a great many of them are socialists. A sizable number of them are religious socialists.

The alternative to this sort of thing is something more like this... Suppose a would-be robber wants some of your money. He could rob you, or he could threaten you with eternal damnation, or he could tax you... Instead, though, he decides to convince you to relinquish your money voluntarily.

He might simply ask you for the money, but if the two of you are strangers, he likely won't get very far with that approach, particularly if he wants a large sum of money. So his best viable option is to offer you something that he values less than the money, but which you value more than the money. If you agree to trade with him, then you are both made better off. You both get what you both wanted.

If not, his only alternative is to rob you (you are forced to give him something, and made worse off for it), or levy moral threats against you (you are forced to either give up your money to reclaim your moral standing, or keep your money and lose your moral standing - either way, you're worse off for it).

So money isn't the only peaceful way to interact with each other, but money and voluntary goodwill are the only two ways people can interact with each other non-coercively. And that's what Rand really meant.

Why Status Quo Is A Net Loss

“The question most often asked is whether TARP was successful,” said Kevin Petrasic, a partner with law firm Paul Hastings LLP in Washington and former special counsel at the Office of Thrift Supervision. “The more important question is did TARP fail, and we do know the answer. It didn’t fail. Where we are now, compared to where we were three years ago, demonstrates that it didn’t fail.”
That is from this Bloomberg news item, appearing in my Google News feed this morning.

It's fascinating, isn't it? We are now in a situation within society in which governmental policies are evaluated based not on their success, but on their failure. That which is not an abject failure is deemed good policy; that which fails miserably is deemed bad policy.

To the very juvenile, perhaps, this kind of slinking, cheap rhetorical ploy may hold water. After all, a prerequisite for the success of any action is the absence of failure. But consider the application of this sort of "logic" to virtually any other sphere of life. (And here, the attentive reader will notice I am channeling Sonic Charmer.)
  • The question is often asked, was my hamburger diet successful? The more important question is did my diet fail, and we do know the answer. It didn't fail. I didn't gain additional weight.
  • The question is often asked, was my strategy for winning the race successful? The more important question is did my strategy fail, and we do know the answer. It didn't fail. I didn't place last.
  • The question is often asked, was my party a success? The more important question is did my party fail, and we do know the answer. It didn't fail. People showed up.
  • The question is often asked, was my cancer medication successful? The more important question is did my cancer medication fail, and we do know the answer. It didn't fail. It didn't increase the growth rate of my tumors.
...and so on, and so forth.

The point here is that if we are setting the bar so low that we are only evaluating policies based on whether they make conditions worse - not whether they improve conditions - we have already failed, and failed miserably.

Why? Because we can achieve the status quo without engaging in any policy response whatsoever. In fact, the status quo is defined to be the state of things in absence of a policy response. See, policies cost money and political capital. They require people to be hired, actions to be undertaken, pencils to be sharpened, electricity to be spent on firing up laptops to develop and implement all the requirements of the policy in question, etc., etc. Policy means that people act, and action always costs money and other resources.

So any policy that achieves the status quo is a net cost to society. Society must pay for the fact that the policy in question was implemented. It is not really "status quo," but rather "status quo for a small subset of factors, and status crap for all those people whose costs were increased in order to make it happen."

Remember this the next time someone tells you that "we have to do something." Remember this the next time someone tells you that the status quo is unacceptable and that anything would be better than nothing. "Anything" always costs something. "There is no such thing as a free lunch," as the economists like to say.

What this means is that policies cannot be evaluated by the lowest available standard, i.e. did they make "things" worse. Every policy ever conceived has a set of costs associated with it, and the only relevant question is whether the policy's benefits more than compensate for its costs. Then, and only then, can the policy be deemed a success.

If a policy just barely compensates for its associated costs, then - and only then - can the policy be said to have "not failed."

The US government provided a bail-out to General Motors to the tune of $418 billion. That money came from somewhere. Somebody paid it. Four years later, those costs - plus interest - have accrued to the US taxpayers. It was our money (our children's future money, actually), and the government annexed it and spent it on a bailout that benefited, not taxpayers in general, but solely those taxpayers connected to the General Motors company. This is corporate cronyism, this is Uncle Sam's good-old-boys' club. And, yes, it cost us all money.

Perhaps one could make that argument - supposing GM's rebound was so significant that it heralded in a new age of revolutionary US automotive innovation, sparking a nation-wide spree of new auto factories and auto industry spin-offs. If $418 billion were enough to buy $1 trillion of permanent automotive growth that affected all taxpayers more or less equally, then perhaps it would have been worth it.

But what we are now being told is that we spent $418 billion of money we didn't really have, which we must now pay back, and, hey, at least it wasn't an abject failure!

Only to bureaucrats does this make any sense.


Study: Burning Fat Burns More Fat Than Not Burning Fat

This article, along with various others that cite the same study, has been making the rounds. It first appeared in my email inbox a few days back, and now I see that it has made the "front page" of Google News' health news section.

The study was very complete. Subjects were divided into three groups: Only-cardio, only-strength training, and a combination of the two. The only-cardio group lost the most weight. The combination group lost a little bit of weight and reduced a little bit of fat mass. The only-strength training group gained weight and lost no fat mass.

So it looks like cardiovascular exercise has finally and conclusively been proven to be "the one best form of exercise, period."

...but wait a minute here. What is this study really telling us?

Recall what I wrote some time ago, in my "Two-Penny Science Lesson" on exercise physiology. The fact of the matter is that aerobic (i.e. cardiovascular) exercise is the only kind of exercise that burns fat, period. Anaerobic exercise involves anaerobic cellular respiration, i.e. using the body's cells' existing stored energy to engage in short-term bursts of physical activity. Never, at any point, is fat metabolization involved in anaerobic exercise. This isn't true as a matter of circumstance, nor is it true "on average." It is true by definition and by the laws of physics.

That is to say, if you are burning fat while you are exercising, then there is no chance whatsoever that the activity you are performing can be classified as "anaerobic exercise." That means: You're not jumping, you're not lifting, you're not sprinting. If you're burning fat during exercise, then you're engaging in cardiovascular, aerobic exercise. That is the one and only possibility.

So Duke University researchers engaged in an expensive, rigorous study on exercise in order to prove that aerobic exercise does what the laws of physics say it does, whereas anaerobic exercise does not.

Gee, thanks, Duke University researchers! You cracked the case!

Next item on Duke's list of studies to perform is a double-blind study that will answer once and for all the question as to whether there is more energy contained in a ball of plasma or an empty vacuum. We await their results with baited breath...


Some Links

  • David Friedman blogs very sensibly about religion when he asks, "Is heaven worth the price?"
  • Steven Landsburg blogs very sensibly about carbon taxes when he remarks, "You name a policy; I’ll find a scenario in which it’s suboptimal."
  • Donald Boudreax and Russell Roberts take a break from blogging very sensibly in order to give the rest of us good recommendations as far as what to read first from Hayek.
  • McDonald's Chief Operational Officer gives his franchisees very sensible advice when he says, "Our largest holiday opportunity as a system is Christmas Day. Last year, (company-operated) restaurants that opened on Christmas averaged $5,500 in sales." After all, sometimes Christmas dinner doesn't work out as anticipated, and you need a Plan B. Also, sometimes making a huge Christmas dinner provides a major disincentive to make even a small Christmas breakfast or lunch, at which point finding a McDonald's with the lights on is a terrific boon.
  • The fact that we live in a world in which paralyzed people can move robotic arms solely with the power of their own thoughts is surely one of the most significant breakthroughs in health science of the past decade.
  • Speaking of health care, drink your milk. You may have heard me say so before.


Why Do Different Smart People Have Different Opinions?

One of mankind's great vanities is the the presumption that any problem can be solved if we think about it long enough. Part of the problem here is that this is one vanity that serves us very well as a species. No, not merely as a species, but as sentient beings. Being the curious, logical creatures that we are - big, puffy cerebral cortex and whatnot - we encounter puzzles and problems every day of our lives, obstacles that stand in our way of an easier life. And because we have such big, powerful, wrinkly brains, we can easily solve many of these problems and not think too much of them.

The story gets even more incredible, though. Those problems that any one of us finds impossible to solve, can often develop solutions anyway by recruiting other people. Sometimes the creativity, special talents, or simply the different perspective, of another person or two brings with it a missing piece of information or logic that brings the crux of the matter into focus and allows us to solve big problems piecemeal, in cooperation with others.

That is pretty remarkable. Social cooperation applied to deductive reasoning is surely one of the most amazing traits we human beings have. If the story ended there, it would still be a good one.

But the story is even better than that. Sometimes groups of people - even large groups - never end up solving very complex problems, no matter how hard they try. The other incredible thing about human beings is that we remember these problems and record them for the future. Often times, people or groups who live in the future are able to supply in their own time the pieces of information or logic that we never had in ours.

This is breathtaking: Human beings have figured out how to cooperate across time, intra-generationally. In some very famous and revolutionary cases, mathematicians, scientists, and philosophers have been able to solve problems that were first posited hundreds or even thousands of years beforehand. We are truly a most powerful species.

Unfortunately, however, some problems will never be solved by any human being, ever. Forced to give one very obvious example, I can offer this: The question of what exists at the very edge of the physical universe, and what it looks and feels like, and how it can be used, will never be solved by human beings. The physical obstacles are too great. We may, through scientific discovery and a priori reasoning develop a most-likely picture of what exists at the edge of the universe, but we will never really know.

Similarly, some questions of philosophy and ethics will never be solved. Which is the most consistent of all ethical bases? Which is the most logically valid? Or, do there exist other, more accurate ethical systems that yield better results? When two moral causes are put in direct conflict with each other, forcing us to choose between them, which is "the correct" moral cause to put first, and why? How do we answer such questions?

Metaphysical problems often do not have concrete solutions, and never will. In politics and in life, we often find ourselves at odds with each other over the issues. Intelligent people whom we respect a great deal will often times differ from us completely on politics, or religion, or philosophy.

This can be troubling because, as I said at the outset, we humans like to indulge in the vanity that any problem has a solution. This would suggest to us that all the intelligent people of the world, if they think long and hard enough about a given moral issue, will always come to the same conclusion. After all, isn't it just a difficult problem that needs to be solved? And if a solution exists, won't all the intelligent people out there tend to arrive at the same solution, whatever it is?

No, of course not. Two otherwise identical people will place higher values on some things than they will others. The man who likes basketball better than baseball will determine his preference based on underlying assumptions that may differ from the man who prefers baseball. But sometimes that preference will be based on exactly the same assumptions, ranked in a different order.

Knowledge - especially logical knowledge - is not subjective. The importance we place on any one piece of information very often is. For this reason, it is unlikely that all the intelligent people in the world will always agree on everything.

The point here is that, if you find yourself disagreeing vehemently with someone's ideas, it is not because they have a flawed perspective, nor is it because they are missing a crucial piece of information, nor is it because they embrace the wrong emotions or have something wrong with them. More likely, the two of you hold different opinions because you value certain things differently.

Values play an enormous role in shaping our opinions and beliefs. Sometimes, that's the only thing that can be said about why we all hold so many opposing opinions.


Rhesus Pieces: The Slasher

Today's Rhesus Piece is inspired by a lovably evil cat named Shadow. I wanted to convey a bit of a creepy and evil feeling this time around, hopefully I nailed it.

I hope you like guitar solos, because this one's long.


Federal Reserve Policy In One Graph

That is from John B. Taylor, of the Taylor Rule fame. Would anyone like to argue that this will turn out well?

Proponents of things like NGDP level targeting (i.e. Market Monetarism) believe that, in order to enable an economic recovery, the Federal Reserve must credibly increase consumers' inflation expectations. They like to think that the failings of the Fed have been that their policies have not created sufficient expectations about inflation. That is, despite injecting the economy with piles and piles of new money, most people still believe that the "Quantitative Easing" is all very temporary. In their minds, economic actors are merely waiting for the inevitable Fed exit plan to unfold, which will presumably collapse inflation back to "reasonable" levels.

To put it succinctly, the Market Monetarist view is that inflation expectations aren't credible in the long run. We see inflation today, but we don't expect it to keep rising at the same level.

Rather than argue against this point of view, let us take a moment to fully entertain the implications. If all the Quantitative Easing out there has been insufficient to affect long-run inflation expectations, then some Market Monetarists suggest that the Fed must print as much money as is required to make those expectations go up.

Okay, fine. But consider the following illustration...

Let's suppose I say I'm going to give you a dollar at the end of the day. You might buy a coffee on your lunch break or something (half a coffee these days, thanks to inflation). So then I say I'm going to give you five dollars at the end of the day. You say to heck with it and treat yourself to a Big Mac at lunch.

So then I say I'm going to give you $20 at the end of the day. At this point, some of you are going to say, "Alright!" and go to the fancy sushi restaurant across the street for lunch. But, many of you will only start to get suspicious. "Twenty bucks? What's the catch?"

Next, I swear up and down that I'm going to give you $500 at the end of the day. We all understand the value of $500, and we all understand that it just doesn't work this way. Nobody just says, "Okay, everybody, I'm going to give you $500 tonight!" There's more to it than that.

By the time I reach the point where I am promising to give everybody $20,000 at the end of the day, most reasonable people understand that it is not going to happen - even if I have already passed out a fresh $10 bill to each of you.

Now go back to the top of the page and look at the graph. The amount of money the Fed is suggesting that it will inject into the economy is comparable to if I show up at your office this morning, promising to give everyone "a million-kajillion-gazillion-pavillion-cotillion dollars" at the end of the day.

In short, it's a promise so big that I no one in their right mind would ever take it seriously. So if this latest round of Federal Reserve stimulus doesn't work, I would like the Market Monetarists to understand that there is a limit to how far the Fed can push market expectations. The Fed can always print more money, but eventually people reach a point where they start to reason more like how John Taylor is reasoning. They start to think that, if such a policy is implemented, it is too risky to be brought to fruition.

That, or else they start to say, "I see where you're going with this and you are either not serious about creating that much inflation, or you are patently insane and hell-bent on destroying the modern currency system."

Rational Expectations is a very real phenomenon, in my opinion, and a powerful one. But economists need to remember that they are Rational Expectations, not merely Data-Driven Expectations.


Movie Review: Killing Them Softly

Although I'm late to write about it, I saw the new movie Killing Them Softly over the weekend. I hadn't even heard of the movie until a few hours before going to the movie theater. I simply checked local movie listings to see what was playing and when. I was actually hoping to see something different, but when I saw the movie's trailer, I was intrigued. I figured it was one of those dark comedies, like a Quentin Tarantino movie, and it had a strong cast, so I figured I couldn't go wrong.

Well, the movie is certainly dark, and there are comedic moments in passing, but it is a far cry from anything as good as Quentin Tarantino would create. Nearly a week later, my brain is still chewing on it a bit. There is a lot to take in, and the movie is incredibly violent, which clouds the underlying thought process with the stress of having watching something so intense, but I think I've reached the point where I can discuss it somewhat intelligently now.

Ostensibly, Killing Them Softly tells the story of two desperate, small-time criminals in such dire straights that they are willing to take on virtually any "job" (meaning criminal activity) in order to make ends meet. Another corrupt local business owner hatches the idea of robbing a weekly poker game run by the mob. So he pays the two small-timers to rob the game. The rest of the movie depicts the mob's coordinated efforts to patch things up.

And the mob has their work cut out for them. They contract Brad Pitt's character, a hitman, to clean things up, but discover that his ideas of how to do it are a lot messier than they anticipated. The hitman first declares that the poker game's primary organizer has to be killed despite his innocense to spread a zero-tolerance message to the criminal community. Next he brings in additional hitmen of various levels of offensiveness to deal with various aspects of the killing that needs to occur.

Early on in the film, it becomes obvious that we are not simply watching another heist movie, but a symbolic account of the 2006-2012+ financial crisis, and the business and political environment that either contributed to it, or acted to correct it, or both. Throughout the movie, the audience is told that, "in America, you're on your own," and Pitt's character declares in the film's climax that "America isn't a country, it's a business."

So pessimism about the filmmakers' perception of the American system runs deep. But the particulars of the film's symbolism are not particularly easy to identify, and one has the impression that it could go many different ways, depending on one's opinion of the financial crisis and what caused it.

For example, it's not clear to me whether the poker game in the movie represents the financial industry specifically or American commerce in general. When I watched the movie, I was largel convinced that it was the former, but having spent more time thinking about it - and considering the depressing pessimism expressed throughout the film - I am now more inclined to believe that the gambling represents commerce. The filmmakers seem to believe that business is a racket.

In fact, every character in the film is a criminal of some kind. Those who aren't thieves and killers are running things from behind the scenes. The wealthy mafiosos - both the ones on-screen and those we never see, who are merely alluded to - clearly represent the political system. But Pitt's character, hired to clean things up while dispensing truth-bombs about the real America, could be seen as either the President of the United States or some behind-the-scenes group of CEOs. It's not exactly clear.

And this, at the end of the day, is the film's Achilles Heel. I could work my way beyond the movie's violence and dreariness. I could tolerate any hackneyed political message the filmmakers could throw at me, even ones with which I disagree. I could tolerate the many implausible situations and the many repulsive characters. But if I tolerate all of that and discover, at the end of it all, that the thrust of the movie doesn't seem to be much more than a dark misanthropy applied to the various players in the American system, then I could have just stayed home and perused the various corners of the social networks to which I subscribe.

So, despite an uncharacteristically strong performance from Brad Pitt, I have to say that Killing Them Softly is unfortunately not worth the price of admission. It's too dark, too depressing, too violent, and above all, too vague. If you're not already depressed about the world going into it, the movie has nothing more to offer you than the filmmakers' own pessimism. Pass this one up, folks.


An Easy Call

If you're in it for the long-term, I humbly suggest that a strong case could be made for shorting Rovio in the Summer of 2016*.

Why? Because, as USA Today reports, the "Angry Birds" franchise will hit the silver screen sometime during the Summer of 2016. That all seems fine and dandy right now, but 2016 is three and a half years from now. What on Earth makes Rovio think that the popularity of the "Angry Birds" franchise will endure for that much longer?

To put this in perspective, this is what Wired called the top 10 video games of 2009 (three years ago):
  1. "Left 4 Dead 2"
  2. "Assassin's Creed II"
  3. "New Super Mario Bros."
  4. "Batman: Arkham Asylum"
  5. "Punch Out!!"
  6. "Uncharted 2"
  7. "Rhythm Heaven"
  8. "Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars"
  9. "Beatles Rock Band"
  10. "Flower"
Now, don't get me wrong, these are all probably great video games. (I wouldn't even know, really, since I don't play video games.) But when was the last time you heard anyone talking about them?

Anyway, count me in as having predicted that this "Angry Birds" film will be a flop.
*Note: Anyone who takes investment advice from me is an idiot.

How I Learned The Value Of Cooking For Others

Last night I was the first one home from work by a long shot and, rather than let that head-start go to waste, I cooked dinner for the both of us. Now, it's not as though I never cook at home, but over the last couple of months, I have not been the primary cook in the house. So it was a refreshing change last night to eat something that I had prepared - not because I am an awesome cook, but simply because everyone who cooks has their own personal culinary idiosyncrasies, and I hadn't experienced mine for some time. I made salmon with baked potatoes and sauteed vegetables. I also stepped out of my usual rut and cooked everything in a different way than I usually do, using different seasonings and flavors for even more of a refreshing change of pace.

Like many people, I enjoy cooking. Unlike many people, I have type 1 diabetes. How does the latter impact the former?

I lived an entire lifetime without diabetes. I vividly remember what life was like for me before I became diabetic. I remember running for 30 miles or more at a time. I remember staying out late whenever I wanted to. I remember coming down with a cold and sleeping it off for a few hours, waking up almost fully recovered. These things aren't long-gone imprints I have of a distant childhood, they are memories from a few short years ago. They are the way I lived my life for three decades. I had a whole system that worked well for me. I had a good routine, a healthy lifestyle, and a body that not only worked well, it worked well above average.

I knew a few type 1 diabetics before I had diabetes. A couple of them were older women, distant relatives in my family, very nice ladies. One of the earliest memories I have of both of them is that, for as long as I can remember, they loved to bake. They would bake cakes and pies and treats of all kind, and then give them away to others, since they themselves could not eat them. I always used to wonder why they did this. I remember asking my mother about this once when I was a child, and she explained that baking treats for other people to enjoy was how these diabetic women liked to enjoy the treats. Because they could not eat sweets, they made them for others.

Frankly, this explanation perplexed me a great deal. When I acquired diabetes myself, I recalled all of this, and I must confess that I still did not understand the appeal. Eating sweets hurts. The better a person understands the human metabolism, the better a person understands that eating sweets hurts normal people about as much as it hurts me. I wouldn't wish that kind of injury on my worst enemies. Why on Earth are these women poisoning their friends with sugar?

In my former life, I was maybe a better cook than I am today. I specialized in Italian food, and I had a number of delicious dishes under my belt. I can cook an excellent risotto, and I am a bit of a pasta expert (who isn't, right?). I also managed a very passable curry, decent lentil soup, rice pilaf, slow-cooked barbecue, and so on. Look, I'm no Iron Chef, but I also didn't find it particularly difficult to cook good food that other people enjoyed eating. My cooking could and did genuinely impress others, when the occasion demanded it.

Not surprisingly, though, a lot of my really outstanding cooking came to an end with my diagnosis, because the food I most enjoyed cooking - and the food I cooked best - was high in carbohydrates and not appropriate for a diabetic's diet. My family was a great help here. They sent me some diabetic cook books and helped point me to new delicacies, lower in carbohydrates. (Perhaps one day I should discuss diabetic cook books in greater detail. I have some strong opinions there in terms of what makes sense and what doesn't, within the diabetic cook book genre.) As time has passed along, I have grown into a new kind of diet, consisting of mostly low-glycemic-index foods that my body can handle a little better than a pile of pasta or a plate heaped with rice.

Nonetheless, when you host a dinner party, etiquette demands that you not force your guests to eat like a diabetic. Most people prefer eating more indulgent foods at parties, especially the people I know. Therefore, from time to time, I have been called on to revive my former cooking habits and prepare carb-heavy meals for other people. This typically involves cooking two separate meals: one for me, and one for everybody else. This usually translates into: I'll cook a delicious, full-course Italian dinner for everyone else, and maybe make a sandwich for myself.

What I've discovered is that cooking all these old dishes that I used to love so much is a rather pleasant experience. I still get to enjoy the aromas of all the foods I used to eat. When I make them, I get to see what impact these foods have on other people, I get to see their smiles. I get to connect with other people on the culinary level again. The conversation centers around what my guests like about their food, rather than on what my dietary restrictions are, and how I must accommodate my body's condition.

In short, when I cook for others, I get every benefit of cooking something delicious except one. The one benefit I don't get to enjoy is the one that puts my body through a proverbial meat grinder, so I don't really miss it. But I quite enjoy the other aspects of cooking my former favorite foods.

I've learned to understand what I could never figure out as a non-diabetic child. Food plays a huge role in a person's social experiences. As a diabetic, one gets cut off from that, unless one makes a point to participate. That's what cooking for other people is all about.


Some Links

  • David Henderson, writing on taxes, makes a more formal version of an argument I made a couple of weeks ago.
  • Speaking of fiscal policy, 76% of Americans favor across-the-board spending cuts. That's over three quarters, in case you're not good with percentages. Somehow, though, I am not sure our governmental masters will cut spending much. A guy can hope, though, can't he?
  • MSNBC and Men's Health conspire to make the claim that running in the middle of the city involves sucking up so much pollution that it impairs brain function. The only problem? The cited study only analyzed 24 people - less than the 30 required to meet the minimum requirements of the Central Limit Theorem.
  • Including taxes and shipping charges, this $49 entry-level mandolin comes to $87. On the other hand, this $79 entry-level mandolin comes to $99. One has to wonder which is the better bargain? The Rogue mandolin is constructed from superior wood, but the Valencia mandolin is manufactured by the good people at SX/Agile/Rondo Music, whose instruments have earned a strong following. I myself have two Agile guitars already, including my fabulous solid mahogany double-neck guitar.

Movie Review: Talaash

This past weekend, I finally got around to seeing the exciting new Hindi movie Talaash: The Answer Lies Within. It can safely be said that the movie lives up to all expectations. It is a great film!

But consider the expectations embedded in a movie like this. Amir Khan, the film's lead actor as well as its executive producer, is one of the most famous and celebrated actors in India. His production company churns out a seemingly endless string of hit movies, to be rivaled only by Amir Khan's only filmography. (Then again, there is some cross-pollination at play there.) Talaash's brilliant casting doesn't stop there, however. The two principle female leading roles are played by two of the biggest female names in Bollywood: Kareena Kapoor, who takes on a remarkably different-than-usual role as a prostitute, and Rani Mukerji, who has continued her transition from being a young, beautiful starlet to being a serious actress.

What else is new? you might ask. Bollywood movies routinely feature star-studded casts, and the twin-female-lead is a continuing trend in recent Hindi cinema. Talaash, however, ups the ante by piling on huge names behind the scenes, too. The film's song lyrics were written by lyrical legend Javed Akhtar. Akhtar's daughter Zoya - herself a celebratred director - co-wrote the script with with Reema Kagti, and Akhtar's son Farhan - a famous actor, director, and producer - wrote the dialogue and co-produced the film with Khan.

So Talaash has all the makings of a huge blockbuster. It all looks good on paper, but how does it translate to the screen?

Talaash tells the story of a brooding police investigator, Surjan (Amir Khan), probing the details of an unexplained car accident in Mumbai's red light district, killing a famous film actor. As Surjan uncovers more information, what at first appeared to be a freak accident is soon revealed to be a deep mystery touching all corners of Mumbai's seedy underbelly.

Given the twists involved in the plot, it would be wrong to reveal too many more plot details. The marketing machine behind Talaash went out of its way to preserve the mystery throught the film's promotional phase, and I won't undermine those efforts here.

What I can say is that Talaash continues Bollywood's steady march to cinematographic legitimacy. Watching the film affords the audience the experience of watching a fine foreign film, not merely "a Hindi movie." By that, I mean that the occasionally cringe-worthy cliches of Bollywood are well contained in Talaash, while the cinematography, acting, special effects, story and dialogue are all very much worth celebrating. Were I not reading English language subtitles throughout the film, I would have assumed I was watching the lastest Hollywood thriller, not a Hindi film.

I expect Talaash to fare well at the international film awards. Overall, it was excellent. I further expect that films of this caliber will begin making real waves on the interational scene as a broader trend from here on out. Hindi movies are not the quaint cinematic novelty they once were. They are arriving.


Bollywood Reboots: Tere Mast Mast Do Nain

I've added a new Bollywood Reboot to the YouTube Channel this afternoon. Today, it's "Tere Mast Mast Do Nain," from the movie Dabangg, starring Salman Khan and Sonakshi Sinha.



The Impact Of Versatility On Popular Music

Modern pop music is clearly dominated by three principle instruments: (1) Human voices, (2) Guitar instruments, and (3) Keyboard instruments. Virtually all popular music is derived from these three instruments, especialy if we consider the electric bass to be a form of guitar. (I would consider this obvious, since the modern electric bass bears closer constructional similarity to a guitar than to the acoustic, upright bass that once most commonly played the bass role in popular ensembles 50 and more years ago.)

Comparing the increasingly homogeneous modern music to the diversity of popular material that existed prior to about the 1960s can be depressing business from the standpoint of anyone who enjoys hearing something a little different from time to time. But, as I am about to argue, this phenomenon is based in part on the gravitation of people toward these three principle instruments.

The Evolution Of Instrument Popularity
At one point in time, the world's most popular instrument was the saxophone, which is astounding if you consider the fact that it was originally developed as a bit of a novelty. It rose to popularity through its widespread use in military bands, which appreciated its range and versatility when applied to that purpose. Note well that the driving force behind the popularity of the saxophone was the prevailing form of popular music at the time. As music progressed, poor American musicians started applying the saxophone to "Dixieland" music, the precursor to jazz. And, of course, jazz music took saxophones to their highest popularity.

There are some important compositional differences between jazz and military band music, beyond the obvious. Band music, like orchestral music, is typically arranged in such a way that everyone in the ensemble - often a very large number of people - is playing one not at a time. This is why most "big band" instruments are either drums or instruments that play only one note at a time, like saxophones, flutes, trumpets, trombones, etc. Jazz, on the other hand, employs the folk music compositional approach of using "rhythm instruments" (in the case of jazz, these would be the bass, the guitar, and the piano) to "comp" the underlying harmonic structure of the composition while "lead instruments" (saxophones, trumpets, and any other instrument designed to play one note at a time) play the melodies and solos.

Considering the evolution of music from being "big band" style music to being jazz ensembles, it makes sense that with the rise of jazz, there was a rise in the popularity of rhythm instruments, most notably the guitar and the piano. Pianos were always popular in music - perhaps the most popular instrument ever, in a way - but during the early 20th Century, they were large and expensive (both hold true today) and only available to people who had sufficient money to buy them, space in the house to store them, and no intention of moving around a lot. These facts explain why the piano was less popular during the 19th Century than they were in the 20th Century, when incomes rose and permanent housing became more affordable. Thus, between rising incomes and the explosion of jazz music popularing during the 20th Century, the popularity of rhythm instruments also exploded.

How Popular Music Was Affected
Well, all these trends occurring in music between 1850 and 1950 had a profound impact on music in general.

The exploding popularity of rhythm instruments meant, first of all, that people no longer needed to assemble a group of twenty-five fellow musicians to start an ensemble and play popular music. Suddenly, it became possible for a drummer, a guitarist, a saxophonist, and a bassist to be gainfully employed and play all the popular songs that everyone wanted to hear. There was rhythm, there was melody, and there was improvisation. They could even ditch the drummer and the bassist and hire a pianist instead. Or play as piano-saxophone duos. All sorts of small ensemble combinations proved viable in jazz music. So long as there was at least one rhythm instrument and one lead instrument at any given time, there could be jazz, which means there could be popular music.

The impact on popular compositions was this: Music started being composed around chord progressions. The more elaborate arrangements proved unnecessary since even set melodies were extraneous in the jazz world. If you had a chord chart and could improvise, you had everything you need. Even if you wanted to play the many popular vocal songs, you needed only a chord chart and a singer who knew the melody.

Perhaps this fact explains why the 1950s represented the effective twilight years of highly composed popular music. At that point, the elaborate orchestration was limited to the vocalists. As the 50s came to an end, popular music took its final turn toward the rock music we know today. The Beatles showed up singing mostly two-part harmonies and playing only rhythm instruments.

But that, too, highlighted a particular benefit of guitars and pianos: They could be employed as both rhythm and lead instruments. In the case of the piano, it could play rhythm and lead at the same time, by a single person. In the case of the guitar, its unique setup enabled people to employ techniques that couldn't easily be emulated on any other instrument: String bends, slides, and so on.

So, by the end of the 1960s, the only instruments most people cared about were guitars, pianos, drums, and electric bass guitars, which were basically low-range guitars played by ex-guitar players. Hence, the core instruments of popular music had become guitars, pianos, and their derivatives. All any band needed beyond that was a drummer and a singer.

The Final Step
The rise of music amplification finalized the process. Guitars became electric guitars, which started to include a wide variety of special effects. These special effects lent guitars a diversity of timbre not available to any other instrument, and all this over and above the techniques available to guitars that other instruments couldn't employ. Meanwhile, pianos and organs became electric pianos and organs, which became keyboard synthesizers. These keyboard instruments also came with their own array of special effects and timbre changes. Finally, even electric percussion sounds became available to keyboardists. By the 1980s, any sound required of a professional rock band was available on just two instruments, plus the human voice. The evolution was complete.

Just as instrument trends drove compositional trends across the big band and jazz eras, into the rock genre, so have instrument trends continued to impact the way modern music is composed. Every instrument has its own unique "flavor," an approach best suited to it. A keyboard player will write music in a different way than a guitarist, and both will write music differently than a saxophonist or a violinist.

It stands to reason, then, that the diminishing number of popular instruments has lead to an increasingly homogenous popular music palette. Today, if you're playing a saxophone, people expect it to be jazz. If you tried to put a prominent trombone track on the next Rihanna single, people would call you crazy.

Non-guitars and non-keyboards are today only welcome in niche markets: You can play a saxophone, if you promise to only use it for jazz or blues; you can play a violin, if you promise to only use it for country or orchestral music; you can a marimba... Actually, no. You can't play a marimba. It's against The Rules.