February 1, 2012

The wonders of selection, or why it now takes you an hour to find “just the right item” at the store

Filed under: Economics, Liberty — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 11:59

Monty (who just joined Twitter) linked to a Reason article on the glories of choice we have available to us in the western world. Monty’s comment:

The glories of capitalism, as expressed in the salty-snacks aisle of the supermarket. When you have a surfeit of a good or service, the value-add stops being the utility-value of the good and instead becomes esthetics or status. That’s why rich people drive Rolls Royces and Ferraris instead of Toyotas and Fords. As cars, they all do pretty much the same thing and in pretty much the same way; but the value-add of a Ferrari lies in aspects not directly related to the utility value of the vehicle. You can say the same about nearly any other commodity class, from clothes to electronics…to snack foods.

And the A Barton Hinkle article he links to:

But you don’t have to research the past 50 years of product flops to make the case. Just check a vending machine. There you will find every possible combination and interpolation of snack food. In the potato chip category alone — we don’t have time to look at crackers, cheese puffs, corn chips, or cookies — one finds not just barbecue- or cheddar-flavored chips, but chili cheese, cool ranch, ragin’ ranch, habanero, cheddar jalapeno, hot sauce, honey cheese, creamy chipotle, Mediterranean herb, and ketchup-flavored chips.

It’s obvious what’s going on here. Like every other industry, America’s snack-food makers live in deathly fear that the other guys are going to come up with the next “disruptive innovation” first, so everyone is trying to innovate as fast as they can. The poor sots in middle management have been told next year’s raise depends on producing X amount of revenue from new products. But there are only so many truly new products you can think up. Answer? Combine existing products the way you choose from a Chinese take-out menu: one from Column A, one from Column B. …

This seems to be the method at Hammacher Schlemmer — the fine folks who bring you must-have products like the bath mat/alarm clock and the remote-control pillow. It seems to work for them. So why not try it with snack food? Pickle-flavored potato chips, that’s why. Who needs all that ridiculous junk? Your basic potato-flavored potato chip was good enough for our ancestors and by gad sir, it should be good enough for us.

Or at least this is my attitude when standing before a vending machine. Whisk me into an office-supply store, however, and the tune suddenly changes. I am among those who have a weak spot — call it a fetish, call it an obsession — for school supplies. Pens, especially.

Arson victim now being dragged through the courts for defending himself with firearms

Filed under: Cancon, Law, Liberty — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 11:26

Canadian prosecutors have a strong aversion to the idea that people should be allowed to protect themselves, especially if firearms are involved:

Just when was Ian Thomson guilty of unsafe storage of a firearm? Mr. Thomson is the Port Colborne, Ont., man currently standing trial in a Welland, Ont. courtroom after he and his home were attacked by firebombers in August, 2010. (That’s correct, in the topsy-turvy world of Canadian criminal justice, Mr. Thomson and his home were the ones attacked and yet he is the one on trial.)

Having dropped other more serious charges — such as dangerous use of a firearm — because they concluded there was no reasonable chance of winning a conviction, Crown prosecutors have nonetheless bullied ahead with unsafe storage charges against Mr. Thomson.

One can only speculate on the Crown’s motives, but many prosecutors are so opposed to private citizens owning guns and, especially, using guns to defend themselves, their loved ones or property, that it is easy to believe prosecutors are running Mr. Thomson through the ringer in an attempt to discourage other homeowners from following his lead. They have conceded they cannot get a conviction against the retired crane operator and former firearms instructor for shooting at the three men who were trying to burn down his house with him in it, but perhaps they are hopeful their decision to drag Mr. Thomson through months of emotionally draining and expensive court proceedings will cause other homeowners to conclude armed self-defence isn’t worth the hassle.

Update: An already strange case appears to be getting stranger, as the judge needed to adjourn the court to allow time for the lawyers to figure out just what the law actually says:

Canada’s laws on the storage and handling of guns and ammunition are so complicated that a veteran judge needed to adjourn court to allow two experienced lawyers more time for legal arguments and a search of case law to help parse and dissect them.

It was a dud of an ending after two days of trial in the case of Ian Thomson, a 54-year-old Port Colborne man who fired three shots from a legally owned gun to scare off three masked men who were firebombing his secluded farmhouse while one threatened: “Are you ready to die?”

And the crown displays a remarkable lack of firearms knowledge:

Mr. Mahler said Mr. Thomson was “less than forthcoming” and “secretive” when police arrived. He suggested Mr. Thomson even picked up the spent shell casings from his porch and hid them in his bedside table.

Seeming confused, Mr. Thomson said he didn’t understand.

“Didn’t they fall to the ground?” Mr. Mahler asked, apparently thinking shell casings from a .38-calibre revolver were ejected from the gun with each shot.

“No,” said Mr. Thomson as the crowd of gun advocates watching from the public gallery chuckled and guffawed at Mr. Mahler’s mistake.

Spent shells from a .38 remain in the gun’s cylinder until it is opened and they are removed. Mr. Thomson took the casings out at the same time he opened the gun to reload it, which was at the bedside table, where the casings were when police arrived, he said.

Of course, if he’d had enough time to collect expended brass — in the dark — before police arrived, it doesn’t support the idea that the police were going to be timely in arriving after he first called 911, does it?

The “Iron Lady” was not good for women

Filed under: Britain, Government, History — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 11:06

Barbara Kay on the “failings” of Margaret Thatcher (that is, not advancing the cause of women in a way that organized feminists would have preferred):

The “Iron Lady” is, of course, not only a sobriquet for Margaret Thatcher, but the title of the wonderful new Meryl Streep biopic about the former British PM. Bagnall’s predictable answer is that no, Thatcher was not good for women: “She did not pave the way for other women, as they had every right to expect her to, since she was one of them.”

Bagnall’s stated beefs are that Thatcher urged women to leave the workforce, and only nominated one woman to her cabinet. Well, so did unions of that era ask women to leave the workforce — to open up more jobs for men. And Thatcher’s appointments were based on who was good for Britain, not who was good for women.

Politically, Thatcher despised tokenism (“I owe nothing to women’s lib,” she once said), but it is true that personally she preferred men to women. This was made clear in the film by the non-judgmental tenderness the older widowed Thatcher lavishes on her negligent son (who rarely visited, but inconsiderately telephones her from South Africa at 3 a.m. English time) and the casual verbal cruelties Thatcher tosses at her attentive, under-appreciated daughter.

I think it’s Thatcher’s lack of fellow feeling for women that’s really bugging Bagnall and other feminists. How could Thatcher not like women if she was “one of them”?

I daresay it’s for the same reason most of us hold prejudices about the opposite sex. I don’t think most gender antipathy is rooted in doctrine; I think we drift toward doctrines that confirm our lived experiences. So in spite of (fictional) Thatcher’s protestations to the doctor attending her in her old age that she prefers “thoughts” to “feelings,” Thatcher’s bias toward men sprang directly from her lived experiences and the feelings they engendered (pun intended).

University tuition and lower-income student access

Filed under: Bureaucracy, Cancon, Economics, Education — Tags: — Nicholas @ 10:40

In the Globe and Mail (which seems to be having web authentication issues lately), Stephen Gordon points out that lowering university tuition costs won’t actually address the problem it’s supposed to:

There is a well-documented correlation between family income and university participation rates: people from the top quarter of the income distribution are roughly twice as likely to go to university as those from the bottom quarter. An implication of this imbalance is that the population of people who are attending university is far from being representative of the population as a whole: university students from the top quartile outnumber those from the bottom by a factor of 2 to 1. This imbalance is both the problem and the reason why the problem is so hard to solve.

Reducing tuition fees will do very little to close the gap between university participation rates in people from the higher and lower ends of the income distribution. The direct costs of university — tuition and books — account for only a quarter of the total costs (source), and financial considerations explain roughly 12 per cent of the gap between PSE participation rates of youths from upper- and lower-income households.

[. . .]

A far cheaper, more equitable and more effective way of increasing access to universities is to concentrate public funds on providing support to students in financial need (this group also includes those who have debt problems). But these measures would benefit only a minority of students who are already going to university, while tuition cuts would benefit all students.

Student lobby groups such as the CFS have a mandate to represent the interests of all current students, and this group does not include those who might have gone to university if more financial support were available. They have little interest in targeted programs — see, for example, the CFS’ reaction to the Ontario government’s tuition rebate for students from families earning less than $160,000/year.

Frank Furedi on the fast-growing “religion” of Atheism

Filed under: Media, Religion — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 09:30

It’s no longer just a lack of belief in a deity: it’s taking on the trappings of an actual religion, complete with high priests, saints, and heretics:

Where atheism was once depicted as a dangerous and subversive creed, today it is often portrayed as an enlightened outlook that perches on the moral highground. But what is often overlooked is that the growing cultural affirmation of atheism has been paralleled by a big transformation in its meaning.

It is important to note that, historically, atheism was not a standalone philosophy. Atheism does not constitute a worldview. It simply signifies non-belief in God or gods. This rejection of the idea of a god could be based on scepticism towards the notion of a higher being, an unwillingness to follow dogma, or a commitment to rationality and science. But whatever the motive, atheism reflected an attitude towards one specific issue, not a perspective on the world. Most atheists defined themselves through an assertive identity, whether they called themselves democrats, liberals, socialists, anarchists, fascists, communists, freethinkers or rationalists. For most serious atheists, their disbelief in god was a relatively insignificant part of their self-identity.

Today, in contrast, atheism takes itself very seriously indeed. With their zealous denunciation of religion, the so-called New Atheists often resemble medieval moral crusaders. They argue that the influence of religion should be fought wherever it rears its ugly head. Although they demand that religion should be countered by rational arguments, their own claims often verge on the irrational and hysterical. Of course, there has always been an honourable atheist tradition of irreverence and irreligious contempt for dogma. But today’s New Atheism often expresses itself through a doctrinaire language of its own. In a simplistic manner it equates religion with fanaticism and fundamentalism. What is striking about its denunciation of fundamentalism is that it is frequently made in the dogmatic, polemical style of those it claims to oppose. The black-and-white world of theological dogma is reproduced in the zealous polemic of the atheist moraliser.

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