Published on 3 Apr 2015
Wednesday interviews at a cutthroat Hollywood agency.
April 23, 2015
April 20, 2015
Last month, Elizabeth Nolan Brown reported on another case where the “interstate commerce” excuse is used to justify federal charges for a purely intra-state activity:
Until 2010, Oregon entrepreneur Lawrence George Owen, 73, owned one restaurant, eight strip clubs, and two adult-video stores in the Portland area. At these businesses, Owen installed ATM machines in case customers needed to take out cash. With that cash, customers could do an assortment of things — tip dancers, buy food and drinks, leave the establishment and go grocery shopping. And sometimes, customers used the cash to privately pay some strippers for sex.
Now Owen faces federal charges for “conspiring to use interstate commerce” in promotion of prostitution.
The charges are the results of a nine year joint-effort by Portland’s vice squad and the FBI. Between 2006 and 2009, undercover Portland police officers arranged for 18 acts of prostitution with dancers at three of the clubs. After that federal agents took over, searching Owen’s businesses and the homes of his alleged co-conspirators and seizing $843,000 in cash.
Owen, it should be noted, was living in Mexico most of this time. He is currently on a U.S. Marshall’s hold in a Portland jail, after being detained by federal agents in late February.
You might be wondering how Owen faces federal charges if all of the alleged prostitution-promoting took place in Portland. Promoting prostitution is only a federal crime under certain circumstances, such as when the perpetrator transports or coerces an individual across state lines for prostitution purposes. Using mail, telephone calls, or other “facilities of interstate commerce” in service of prostitution will also do the trick. But the FBI has no evidence that Owen enticed or transported strip-club employees from outside Oregon, nor that he used mail or telephone calls to help facilitate their prostitution efforts.
When the FBI wants to make a case against someone, however, they’ll find a way. In this case, the FBI decided that ATM machines count as “facilities of interstate commerce.”
April 18, 2015
Tim Harford‘s latest column on tobacco, research, and lobby money:
It is said that there is a correlation between the number of storks’ nests found on Danish houses and the number of children born in those houses. Could the old story about babies being delivered by storks really be true? No. Correlation is not causation. Storks do not deliver children but larger houses have more room both for children and for storks.
This much-loved statistical anecdote seems less amusing when you consider how it was used in a US Senate committee hearing in 1965. The expert witness giving testimony was arguing that while smoking may be correlated with lung cancer, a causal relationship was unproven and implausible. Pressed on the statistical parallels between storks and cigarettes, he replied that they “seem to me the same”.
The witness’s name was Darrell Huff, a freelance journalist beloved by generations of geeks for his wonderful and hugely successful 1954 book How to Lie with Statistics. His reputation today might be rather different had the proposed sequel made it to print. How to Lie with Smoking Statistics used a variety of stork-style arguments to throw doubt on the connection between smoking and cancer, and it was supported by a grant from the Tobacco Institute. It was never published, for reasons that remain unclear. (The story of Huff’s career as a tobacco consultant was brought to the attention of statisticians in articles by Andrew Gelman in Chance in 2012 and by Alex Reinhart in Significance in 2014.)
Indisputably, smoking causes lung cancer and various other deadly conditions. But the problematic relationship between correlation and causation in general remains an active area of debate and confusion. The “spurious correlations” compiled by Harvard law student Tyler Vigen and displayed on his website (tylervigen.com) should be a warning. Did you realise that consumption of margarine is strongly correlated with the divorce rate in Maine?
April 14, 2015
You’ll notice some corporations are quick to climb onboard certain social causes. Because reasons:
My absolute favorite example of corporations using social causes as cover for cost-cutting is in hotels. You have probably seen it — the little cards in the bathroom that say that you can help save the world by reusing your towels. This is freaking brilliant marketing. It looks all environmental and stuff, but in fact they are just asking your permission to save money by not doing laundry.
However, we may have a new contender for my favorite example of this. Via Instapundit, Reddit CEO Ellen Pao is banning salary negotiations to help women, or something:
Men negotiate harder than women do and sometimes women get penalized when they do negotiate,’ she said. ‘So as part of our recruiting process we don’t negotiate with candidates. We come up with an offer that we think is fair. If you want more equity, we’ll let you swap a little bit of your cash salary for equity, but we aren’t going to reward people who are better negotiators with more compensation.’
Like the towels in hotels are not washed to save the world, this is marketed as fairness to women, but note in fact that women don’t actually get anything. What the company gets is an excuse to make their salaries take-it-or-leave-it offers and helps the company draw the line against expensive negotiation that might increase their payroll costs.
April 13, 2015
In the Telegraph, Alan Tovey looks at a British ship-breaking firm trying to retain some of the market for dismantling decommissioned ships of the Royal Navy:
A British family firm is fighting to end the forlorn sight of once-proud Royal Navy warships being torn to pieces for scrap on foreign beaches.
Swansea Drydocks is vying for the contract to break up three decommissioned British frigates. The company is hoping to beat foreign competition — primarily from Turkey — to win the tender to recycle unwanted Type 42 destroyers HMS Edinburgh, HMS Gloucester and HMS York.
However, Swansea Drydocks Ltd (SDL) says it is facing an uphill battle on the soon to be announced contract because of cheaper labour costs abroad as the Ministry of Defence’s disposal arm looks to award contract — as well as less onerous environmental controls in some non-EU countries.
Last year the company won the contract to scrap Type 22 frigate HMS Cornwall, a deal the MoD said had to go to a UK ship-breaker to show this country had the ability to dispose of vessels. This was so the Navy’s fleet of decommissioned nuclear submarines can be recycled in Britain to safeguard the technology they contain.
But other than HMS Cornwall, few other from Royal Navy ships have been scrapped in the UK.
April 11, 2015
It’s not nice to call someone a welfare queen, but this is a case where it’s hard to find a more accurate way of putting it:
America’s biggest welfare queen is someone you’ve probably never heard of. She’s Hispanic. She’s been living off other people’s hard-earned tax money for years. And she’s gotten rich doing it.
Her name is Iberdrola. She’s a Spanish energy company that has invested in U.S. power facilities. And according to the advocacy group Good Jobs First, she’s raked in more than $2 billion from Uncle Sam in just the past few years.
Good Jobs First maintains a subsidy tracker where you can look up which companies are getting rich from public funds. It recently issued a report on “Uncle Sam’s Favorite Corporations — the companies that have gained the most from federal grants, special tax preferences, loans, and loan guarantees.
The biggest beneficiaries (“by an order of magnitude”) are Bank of America, Citigroup, and other major financial institutions that were bailed out during the 2008 financial crisis. The Federal Reserve, the Troubled Asset Relief Program, and so on threw trillions of dollars at U.S. and foreign banks in a desperate effort to stabilize the financial system. It worked. In many cases (though not all), the institutions repaid the money. In some cases the federal government actually earned a profit.
But hundreds of other companies have raked in billions of dollars in direct grants. Along with Iberdrola, NextEra Energy, NRG Energy, Southern Company, Summit Power, and SCS Energy all have reaped more than $1 billion in federal largess, often receiving payments through programs meant to boost renewable energy. At the same time, many coal companies have taken huge sums from Washington through grants and coal production tax credits. So, as with farm programs—some of which subsidize farmers to farm more and some of which pay farmers to not farm at all—Washington thwarts its own objectives by subsidizing both renewable fuel sources and the fossil fuels they’re supposed to replace.
April 8, 2015
At Forbes, Tim Worstall reports on a staggering misconception among Americans about what corporate profits amount to:
A wonderful little find by Mark Perry. Something that helps to explain quite why so many completely ridiculous economic ideas and public policies manage to gain traction. The problem is that the average person just doesn’t understand the economy at all. No, I don’t mean economics, or the abstruse arguments about whether we should use monetary or fiscal policy. But just the basic raw numbers of what’s actually going on out there. As Perry goes on to point out this, well, let’s not beat about the bush here, let’s call it what it is, this ignorance of the universe they’re inhabiting by the average person out there is what keeps the economic demagogues in business.
Here’s what Perry found:
When a random sample of American adults were asked the question “Just a rough guess, what percent profit on each dollar of sales do you think the average company makes after taxes?” for the Reason-Rupe poll in May 2013, the average response was 36%! That response was very close to historical results from the polling organization ORC’s polls for a slightly different, but related question: What percent profit on each dollar of sales do you think the average manufacturer makes after taxes? Responses to that question in 9 different polls between 1971 and 1987 ranged from 28% to 37% and averaged 31.6%.
That’s simply a ridiculous belief. Plain howling at the Moon crazy. The capital share of the economy isn’t that high and the capital share is made up of a great deal more than just profits (depreciation, rent, interest and so on as well as profits). There’s just no way that this is anywhere near true. As Perry goes on to point out:
According to this Yahoo!Finance database for 212 different industries, the average profit margin for the most recent quarter was 7.5% and the median profit margin was 6.5%.
April 7, 2015
At Slate Star Codex, Scott Alexander recently reviewed David Friedman’s latest revision to his 1973 book, The Machinery of Freedom (sometimes called The Machinery of Friedman by libertarian wags). Scott wasn’t totally sold on Friedman’s proposals, but he posted several highlights from the book, including this discussion of how the US government was persuaded to regulate the railroad industry and then the airlines:
One of the most effective arguments against unregulated laissez faire has been that it invariably leads to monopoly. As George Orwell put it, “The trouble with competitions is that somebody wins them.” It is thus argued that government must intervene to prevent the formation of monopolies or, once formed, to control them. This is the usual justification for antitrust laws and such regulatory agencies as the Interstate Commerce Commission and the Civil Aeronautics Board.
The best historical refutation of this thesis is in two books by socialist historian Gabriel Kolko: The Triumph of Conservatism and Railroads and Regulation. He argues that at the end of the last century businessmen believed the future was with bigness, with conglomerates and cartels, but were wrong. The organizations they formed to control markets and reduce costs were almost invariably failures, returning lower profits than their smaller competitors, unable to fix prices, and controlling a steadily shrinking share of the market.
The regulatory commissions supposedly were formed to restrain monopolistic businessmen. Actually, Kolko argues, they were formed at the request of unsuccessful monopolists to prevent the competition which had frustrated their efforts.
It was in 1884 that railroad men in large numbers realized the advantages to them of federal control; it took 34 years to get the government to set their rates for them. The airline industry was born in a period more friendly to regulation. In 1938 the Civil Aeronautics Board (CAB), initially called the Civil Aeronautics Administration, was formed. It was given the power to regulate airline fares, to allocate routes among airlines, and to control the entry of new firms into the airline business. From that day until the deregulation of the industry in the late 1970s, no new trunk line — no major, scheduled, interstate passenger carrier — was started.
The CAB had one limitation: it could only regulate interstate airlines. There was one major intrastate route in the country — between San Francisco and Los Angeles. Pacific Southwest Airlines, which operated on that route, had no interstate operations and was therefore not subject to CAB rate fixing. Prior to deregulation, the fare between San Francisco and Los Angeles on PSA was about half that of any comparable interstate trip anywhere in the country. That gives us a good measure of the effect of the CAB on prices; it maintained them at about twice their competitive level.
In this complicated world it is rare that a political argument can be proved with evidence readily accessible to everyone, but until deregulation the airline industry provided one such case. If you did not believe that the effect of government regulation of transportation was to drive prices up, you could call any reliable travel agent and ask whether all interstate airline fares were the same, how PSA’s fare between San Francisco and Los Angeles compared with the fare charged by the major airlines, and how that fare compared with the fare on other major intercity routes of comparable length. If you do not believe that the ICC and the CAB are on the side of the industries they regulate, figure out why they set minimum as well as maximum fares.
April 3, 2015
April 1, 2015
Published on 1 Apr 2015
Watch this behind-the-scenes video on the making of our Custom Bench Planes.
March 31, 2015
In the past (when I watched more TV than I do today), I often wished for cable services to be unbundled, so I could just access the channels showing things I wanted to watch. The bundles always seemed to be carefully constructed so that I had to select multiples to get each of the channels I liked. It seemed obvious that my cable bill would be much lower on that basis. But, I was probably wrong then, as Megan McArdle points out:
Here’s the truth: You don’t want your cable to be unbundled. You just want to pay less for it.
Seriously, guys, you like bundling. You know how I know this? You seek it out in your consumer products. You want your hotel to give you free Wi-Fi and you don’t want it to charge you by the towel. Many of you go on all-inclusive vacations and cruises. You buy mobile-phone contracts to get a “free” phone rather than pay by the minute. You are constantly — and I mean constantly — complaining that your health insurance is not more comprehensive, even though this would just mean you’d pay more for the insurance. And I won’t even get started on your agonized wails when airlines started charging you to check a bag and stopped providing a “free” plate of congealed mystery meat. You buy books and subscribe to magazines rather than pay by the article or the chapter. You love bundles. What you hate is the size of your cable bill.
Why do you like bundling? Because you don’t want to have to think about it. Oh, sure, there are people who would like to spend their days obsessively managing their minutes, reading and towels in order to save 5 percent, but the rest of us would rather not spend our time worrying about blowing the Wi-Fi budget. So we go for the all-inclusive package.
Now think about cable bundling. The Great Unbundling Fallacy is the belief that if you pay $150 now for 1,000 channels, you ought to be able to pay, say, $25 a month for the channels that you watch. Unfortunately, as with our hotel example, it doesn’t work that way.
In our example, right now you’re paying $150 a month for a large array of cable channels but only watch, say, 15 to 20 of them on a regular basis. In our simplified example, we’ll say that 100 million other subscribers are also paying $150 a month for a large array of channels, of which they each only watch 15 to 20, though not the same 15 to 20 as you. Let’s assume that revenue is distributed to channel operators roughly according to the number of eyeballs they attract, which is basically true — ESPN gets much higher fees than some crafting channel, because many people will subscribe to cable to get ESPN, while few will do so to watch a knitting program.
So what happens when you unbundle? How much do you have to pay for your channels?
That’s right: $150. You aren’t cross-subsidizing the channels you don’t watch, but all those other people aren’t cross-subsidizing all the channels they don’t watch, so you have to make up for that lost revenue. The price for each channel goes up until you’re paying about what you were before. By one estimate, average savings from unbundling would be about 35 cents a month. [PDF]
Update: Fixed link.
March 30, 2015
James Lileks points out that Apple does not get the media attention for being innovative (at least, not just for innovations):
What’s that, you say? You don’t want an Apple Watch?
Let’s talk about that.
People seem obliged to offer substantial, reasoned arguments why they don’t want one — and that seems proof that Apple’s cultural position is enormous. I mean, imagine it’s 1956, and Kelvinator just brought out the new Fido-Matic Fridge that automatically extrudes moist dog food into a bowl at preset intervals. The press wouldn’t say boo. The Today show wouldn’t do a live report from people queued up at the Kelvinator store. There wouldn’t be bitter battles in the letters-to-the-editor section about Kelvinator fanboys falling for the latest gimmick, and besides Frigidaire did that last year.
But Apple invents something, and the world is riven into two camps. Those who desire, and those who decline. The former group is regarded with less interest than the latter, since those who want the Watch are assumed to be devotees of Apple who would pay $199 for a white plastic brick used to prop open doors.
The people who don’t want them — ah, they’re the ones who make for good copy. They’re the rebels now. If I were a New York Times editor, the day the Watch was released I’d run a lifestyle-section story about men in Brooklyn with carefully curated beards who repair 1950s watches, and how this attention to the craft — nay, the art — of timepieces stands as a Contrast, and perhaps a Rebuke, to the overcomplicated Watch the sheep are lining up to get.
“It’s just an honest thing,” the watch-repair guy (Josh, I’m guessing) would say. “You hold it to your ear, you hear it tick. It manifests time in a real way. The delicacy of the movement — it’s almost intimate, to have a machine on your wrist with such precise detail, devoted to just one thing. The time.”
Yeah yeah. Go have a sarsaparilla, hipster. Look: You don’t want an Apple Watch, you don’t. But reject it for the right reasons — and that’s not because it’s another screen that takes you away from dealing with humanity, because that’s not what it is.
March 28, 2015
Charles Stross and Cory Doctorow are both professional writers, both write science fiction and near-future stories along with contributing to magazines and other publications. They both have strong feelings about a new app called Clean Reader, which “sanitizes” eBooks by bowdlerizing the text on the fly to allow sensitive (or neo-Victorian) readers to avoid getting the vapours by being exposed to foul language. Charlie thinks this violates the writer’s Moral rights:
Mangling an author’s text is a clear violation of the author’s Moral rights, an element of copyright which is very weak in the United States and very strong elsewhere (primarily in civil law jurisdictions). (The moral right is the right of an author to be identified as the creator of a work, and for the work represented as their creation to be unaltered by other hands, so that the relationship between creator and created work is clear.) Mangling an author’s text may be legal or illegal in the USA, depending on whether it occurs before or after sale. After all, I can’t stop you buying one of my books and editing it with a sharpie: it’s a physical object and according to the first sale doctrine, it’s yours to do with as you wish. I may be able to legally stop you modifying an ebook, though: ebooks are not sold but a limited license to download and use them is granted in exchange for money — a fine legal distinction that was borrowed from the software business’s tame sharks — and that limited license may permit or deny such usage.
Clean Reader claim to get around this by (a) being a licensed distributor (they provide the app and sell books for it sourced from PageFoundry, a distributor who back-end onto various publishers), and (b) the censorship is performed on the reader device by the reader app, once the book has been purchased and downloaded. There’s a bunch of case law around whether or not it’s legal to do this to movie rentals or downloads, or legal to skip advertisements in recorded programming on your TiVo—it gets murky fast. But let’s suppose they’re right and what they’re doing (“protect the children! At any cost! From naughty words like ‘breast’ and ‘fuck’!”) is legal.
Speaking as an author who deeply resents the idea of his books being mutilated to fit the prejudices of a curious reader’s blue-nosed and over-protective parents (hint: I write for adults — if you don’t think my books are suitable for your or your child’s tender eyes, don’t buy them), what can I do about this?
On the other hand, Cory also hates it but will “defend to the death your right to censor”:
It’s a truism of free expression that if you only defend speech you agree with, you don’t believe in free expression. That doesn’t mean you have to defend the content of the expression: it means you have to support the right of people to say stupid, awful things. You can and should criticize the stupid, awful things. It’s the distinction between the right to express a stupid idea, and the stupidity of the idea itself.
I think Clean Reader is stupid. I think parents who want to ensure that their kids don’t see profanity have fucked up priorities.
I think readers should be allowed to skip my foreword and author bio. I think they should be able to search out their favorite passages and read them out of order.
I think racist readers should be allowed to make an index of “scenes that racists find disturbing,” so that other racists can avoid them. I think those racists are fools and worse for doing it, and I will condemn them if they do. I just won’t say they’re not allowed to do it. A rule that says this kind of list is prohibited would also prohibit a the same list, compiled by anti-racist activists, under the heading, “Scenes with which to annoy racists.”
Shortly after putting this post together on Friday, I got a link from John Lennard to this article in the Guardian:
The Clean Reader app, launched by a couple in Idaho in the US, has announced that after significant feedback from authors, many of whom did not want their work being sold in connection with the app, it has “taken immediate action to remove all books from our catalogue”.
Clean Reader set out to enable customers to, in its own words, “read books, not profanity”. A filter could be applied to ebooks purchased from its online store, which exchanged words that were judged to be offensive with alternatives.
Profanities such as “fucking” and “fucker” became “freaking” and “idiot”, “hell” became “heck” and “shit” became “crap”, according to an analysis of the app by Jennifer Porter. It was not only swear words that Clean Reader scrubbed out of books: Porter, who ran a series of romance novels through the app, found that body parts were also replaced. “Penis” became “groin”, “vagina” was swapped for “bottom” and “breast” changed to “chest”. Exclamations such as “Jesus Christ” became “geez”, “piss” became “pee”, “bitch” became “witch” and “blowjob” was switched with the euphemistic “pleasure”.
Update: Added the link to Cory Doctorow’s post at Boing Boing.
March 25, 2015
Published on 17 Mar 2015
“Anybody that drives around Southern California can tell you the infrastructure is falling apart,” says Joel Kotkin, a fellow of urban studies at Chapman University and author of the book The New Class Conflict. “And then we’re going to give money so a bunch of corporate executives can watch a football game eight times a year? It’s absurd.”
When the Inglewood City Council voted unanimously to approve a $1.8 billion stadium plan on February 24th, hundreds of football fans in attendance cheered for the prospect of a team finally returning to the Los Angeles area.
On it’s face, the deal for the city of Inglewood is unprecedented — Rams owner Stan Kroenke has agreed to finance construction of the stadium entirely with private funds. The deal makes the stadium one of the most expensive facilities ever built and is an oddity in the sports world, where most stadiums require millions in public dollars to be constructed.
And while the city still waits to hear if it will indeed inherit an NFL team, the progress on the new privately-funded Inglewood stadium has set off a bidding war between other cities that are offering up millions in public subsidies to keep (or attract) pro-sports franchises to their area.
St. Louis has proposed a billion dollar waterfront stadium financed with $400 million in tax money to keep the Rams in Missouri. And the San Diego Chargers and Oakland Raiders have unveiled a plan to turn a former landfill in Carson, California, into a $1.7 billion stadium to keep the Rams from encroaching on their turf. While full details of the plan have yet to be released, it’s been reported that the financing would be similar to the San Francisco 49er’s deal in Santa Clara, which saw the team receive $621 million in construction loans paid for with public money.
Even the fiscally conservative Scott Walker is not immune to the stadium spending craze. The Wisconsin governor wants to allocate $220 million in public bonds to keep the Milwaukee Bucks basketball franchise in the area. Walker has dubbed the financing scheme as the “Pay Their Way” plan, but professional sports teams rarely pay their fair share when it comes to stadiums and instead use public money to generate private revenue.
Pacific Standard magazine has reported that in the last 20 years, the U.S. has opened 101 new sports facilities and stadium finance experts say that almost all of them have received public funding totaling billions of dollars. Politicians generally rationalize this expense by stating that stadiums will generate economic revenue and job opportunities for the city, but Kotkin says those promises are rarely realized.
“I think this is sort of a fanciful approach towards economic development instead of building really good jobs. And except for the construction, the jobs created by stadia are generally low wage occasional work.”
“The important thing that we’ve forgotten is ‘What is the purpose of a government?'” asks Kotkin. “Cities instead of fixing their schools, fixing their roads or fixing their sewers or fixing their water are putting money into ephemera like stadia. And in the end, what’s more important?”
In The Federalist, Nichole Russell agrees that it is nearly impossible to “have it all” (a real career and a family) … at the same time, anyway:
The conversation about mothers in the workforce seems to be at once continuous and clamoring. Rarely does a working mother nail the problem and solution without sounding too whiny or too arrogant. Yet a recent commentary in Forbes comes as close to any as I have seen recently, complete with some eyebrow-raising admissions. If more men and women — parents and CEOs — viewed this exhausting issue with such clarity, perhaps we could finally work towards a solution.
In the piece, succinctly titled, “Female Company President: I’m sorry to all the mothers I worked with,” Katharine Zaleski recounts how, while employed in high-powered editorial positions at The Washington Post and The Huffington Post, she regularly scoffed at the work ethic of other women just because they were mothers, either mentally or by failing to support the decisions they made related to work and family.
She reveals this penitent anecdote: “I secretly rolled my eyes at a mother who couldn’t make it to last minute drinks with me and my team. I questioned her ‘commitment’ even though she arrived two hours earlier to work than me and my hungover colleagues the next day.”
What’s just as surprising as her admission that she evaluated a mother’s work-related achievements on a different scale than she did other employees is the equally important truth that the workforce isn’t just a tough place for moms because of their male bosses. “For mothers in the workplace, it’s death by a thousand cuts – and sometimes it’s other women holding the knives. I didn’t realize this – or how horrible I’d been – until five years later, when I gave birth to a daughter of my own.”
Zaleski goes on to discuss how she lamented her status as a new mom and employee only briefly before she determined to find a solution, both for her daughter so she wouldn’t feel “trapped” and other moms facing the same struggle. She wound up co-founding a startup called PowertoFly that matches women in technical positions they can do from home.
While many conservatives and liberals alike might call this an abandonment of the feminist theory, I think it actually expresses the heart of feminism — not radical left-wing feminism, but one of the few Oprah gems I agree with: “You can have it all, just not at the same time.”