Sunday, August 26

Why some people are so upset with Michael Vick

Dogs may be known as man's best friend, but for most of their owners, even that lavish sobriquet appears to undershoot the mark. Fully 85% of dog owners say they consider their pet to be a member of their family, according to a Pew Research Center survey.

And most cat owners (78%) feel the same way...

Nearly six-in-ten (57%) of all adults in this country own a pet or pets of one kind or another, with dog owners (39% of all adults) outnumbering cat owners (23%) – and owners of all other pets trailing far behind, the Pew survey finds. More whites (64%) than blacks (30%) or Hispanics (39%) have a pet....

Friday, August 24

Not very likely

Accordint to Kip Viscusi via Bryan Caplan ,
[T]he median number of deaths from domestic terrorism in the coming year will be zero, and the mean number of deaths in the coming year will be 50 - "or about half the number of motor-vehicle related deaths per day."
Caplan adds,
If Viscusi is right, it's safe to say that we're annually spending more than a billion dollars per life saved. Good grief!

Sunday, August 19

Wood pulp in your Twinkie

Not to long ago, a Chinese journalist reported that bāozi 包子 were being made (and sold) in China with cardboard soaked in caustic soda as an ingredient. Soon after, Beijing TV issued a retraction and apology, but some people in China continued to believe that the story was true.

Then I started to read Twinkie, Deconstructed. Chapter 12, "Cellulose Gum", covers the conversion of wood into food-grade pulp, which like cotton seed fibers is bleached in a warm caustic soda solution, which is then further processed, including being treated with toxic substances like extremely caustic lye and sodium monochloro acetate (a hazardous, toxic substance). Finally, what was originally wood or cotton is converted to cellulose gum, which replaces fat with its "moist, glossy, fatlike texture, without contributing a single calorie because cellulose gum is not digested." (I haven't had a Twinkie in decades, but after this book, I want to try one.)

So did the Chinese reporter misunderstand something, and were the bāozi harmless? Or did the bāozi makers misunderstand the making of cellulose gum? Not long ago, Ariana Eunjung Cha of the WaPo wrote In China, Farming Advances Lie Fallow
China's vast network of food research centers and laboratories churns out mountains of papers on the latest farming techniques and technology. Their work on chemical use, pollution risks and genetically engineered crops is considered to be among the most advanced in the world. The Ministry of Agriculture keeps close tabs on the developments, constantly issuing new advice and new regulations based on the research.But the information doesn't reach the peasant farmers.


As the country has grown, the government is losing control over how the latest scientific ideas are communicated and applied in the countryside. There poverty is still widespread in contrast with the growing wealth of urban China, and there have been tens of thousands of violent protests in recent years...

The Chinese government has also published numerous research articles to help farmers and food producers maximize profit, including pieces about various kinds of cheap additives that can boost the protein content of animal feed. Some of this research may have been misinterpreted, leading to incidents such as the poisoning of pet food that was recalled in the United States in March.

U.S. investigators think that companies added melamine -- a byproduct of coal burning that artificially inflates protein levels in feed-- to deceive buyers seeking higher-quality feed. The Chinese government portrayed the practice as the scheme of two rogue companies. But the idea actually may have been sparked by state-sponsored research.

In 2003, the Chinese academic journal Feed Review published an article with information on how to boost the protein content of animal feed by mixing in unconventional industrial ingredients such as melamine.

The recommendations by authors Zhang Li and Zheng Zhongzhao were for animals with more than one stomach, such as cows, that can convert such substances into protein. But chemical dealers may have promoted the practice for pet food, even though cats and dogs do not have that ability.

A recipe for bāozi ("Steamed Buns") from The Chinese Kitchen by Deh-Ta Hsiung (St. Martin's Press; January 2000; ISBN: 0312246994; PB)

Makes about 24 buns
Preparation time about 1 hour, plus up to 1 1/2 hours rising time.
Cooking time 15-20 minutes

  • For the dough:
  • 1 tablespoon sugar
  • 2 teaspoons dried yeast
  • 10 fl. oz. warm water
  • 4 cups (1 lb.) self-rising flour
  • Dry flour for dusting
  • Filling:
  • 6 dried Chinese mushrooms
  • 14 oz. pork (or lamb or beef)
  • 3/4 cup (3 1/2 oz.) bamboo shoots, drained and chopped
  • 1 tablespoon finely chopped scallions
  • 1 teaspoon finely chopped fresh ginger
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon sugar
  • 1 tablespoon light soy sauce
  • 1 tablespoon rice wine
  • 1/2 teaspoon sesame oil
  1. Dissolve the sugar and yeast in the warm water for 5-10 minutes until frothy. Sift the flour into a mixing bowl, then gradually stir in the yeast mixture to make a firm dough. Knead for 5 minutes, then cover with a damp cloth and leave in a warm place to rise for 1-1 1/2 hours.
  2. To make the seasoned filling: soak the mushrooms in warm water for about 45-50 minutes, then squeeze dry and discard any hard stalks. Coarsely chop the mushrooms, meat and bamboo shoots. Mix with the scallions, ginger, salt, sugar, soy sauce, wine and sesame oil. Blend thoroughly.
  3. Knead the dough on a lightly floured surface for about 5 minutes, then roll into a long sausage. Cut into about 24 pieces and flatten each piece with the palm of your hand. With a rolling pin, roll out each piece into a circle about 4 in. in diameter.
  4. Place 1 tablespoon of the filling (sweet or seasoned) in the center of each flattened circle of dough, then gather together the edges to meet at the top around the filling. Twist to enclose the filling. Stand for at least 20 minutes before cooking.
  5. Place a piece of wet cheesecloth on the rack of a steamer, arrange the buns 1 in. apart on the cheesecloth, cover and steam vigorously for 15-20 minutes. Serve hot.

Saturday, August 18

Overlooking the Bible's moral problems through self-deception

Eliezer Yudkowsky writes:

Back in the old days, saying the local religion "could not be proven" would have gotten you burned at the stake. One of the core beliefs of Orthodox Judaism is that God appeared at Mount Sinai and said in a thundering voice, "Yeah, it's all true." From a Bayesian perspective that's some darned unambiguous evidence of a superhumanly powerful entity. (Albeit it doesn't prove that the entity is God per se, or that the entity is benevolent - it could be alien teenagers.) The vast majority of religions in human history - excepting only those invented extremely recently - tell stories of events that would constitute completely unmistakable evidence if they'd actually happened. The orthogonality of religion and factual questions is a recent and strictly Western concept. The people who wrote the original scriptures didn't even know the difference.


Not only did religion used to make claims about factual and scientific matters, religion used to make claims about everything. Religion laid down a code of law - before legislative bodies; religion laid down history - before historians and archaeologists; religion laid down the sexual morals - before Women's Lib; religion described the forms of government - before constitutions; and religion answered scientific questions from biological taxonomy to the formation of stars. The Old Testament doesn't talk about a sense of wonder at the complexity of the universe - it was busy laying down the death penalty for women who wore men's clothing, which was solid and satisfying religious content of that era. The modern concept of religion as purely ethical derives from every other area having been taken over by better institutions. Ethics is what's left.

Or rather, people think ethics is what's left. Take a culture dump from 2,500 years ago. Over time, humanity will progress immensely, and pieces of the ancient culture dump will become ever more glaringly obsolete. Ethics has not been immune to human progress - for example, we now frown upon such Bible-approved practices as keeping slaves. Why do people think that ethics is still fair game?

Intrinsically, there's nothing small about the ethical problem with slaughtering thousands of innocent first-born male children to convince an unelected Pharaoh to release slaves who logically could have been teleported out of the country. It should be more glaring than the comparatively trivial scientific error of saying that grasshoppers have four legs. And yet, if you say the Earth is flat, people will look at you like you're crazy. But if you say the Bible is your source of ethics, women will not slap you. Most people's concept of rationality is determined by what they think they can get away with; they think they can get away with endorsing Bible ethics; and so it only requires a manageable effort of self-deception for them to overlook the Bible's moral problems. Everyone has agreed not to notice the elephant in the living room, and this state of affairs can sustain itself for a time.


The idea that religion is a separate magisterium which cannot be proven or disproven is a Big Lie - a lie which is repeated over and over again, so that people will say it without thinking; yet which is, on critical examination, simply false. It is a wild distortion of how religion happened historically, of how all scriptures present their beliefs, of what children are told to persuade them, and of what the majority of religious people on Earth still believe. You have to admire its sheer brazenness, on a par with Oceania has always been at war with Eastasia. The prosecutor whips out the bloody axe, and the defendant, momentarily shocked, thinks quickly and says: "But you can't disprove my innocence by mere evidence - it's a separate magisterium!"

Is the Academy liberal?

What do you think?

I actually filled out a questionnaire that included a question about this, and I wasn't sure whether to label myself liberal or conservative. Certainly not a moderate!

Wednesday, August 15

Regulation isn't the answer

China's new revolutionaries: U.S. consumers
In the name of sovereignty, China's leaders for a long time have gotten away with suppressing their own citizens while ignoring the get-gloriously-rich-quick corruption that has thrived in the absence of the rule of law. But, thanks to globalization, China's export reliance on the U.S. market has imported the political demands of the U.S. consumer into the equation. Americans won't hesitate to cut the import lifeline and shift away from Chinese products that might poison their children or kill their pets.

Unlike organized labor or human rights groups, consumers don't have to mobilize to effect change; they only have to stop spending. And their bargaining agents -- Wal-Mart, Target, Toys R Us -- have immensely more clout than the AFL-CIO and Amnesty International in fostering change in China.

Ironically, the United States' "most favored nation" trade treatment for China (and its later entry into the World Trade Organization), which labor and human rights groups so virulently opposed in the past, has become a Trojan horse. China's future is now so linked to the American consumer that Beijing will be forced to curb corruption and strengthen regulation through the rule of law or face the certain doom of its export-led growth.

No sanction is more devastating than consumer choice. Live by the market, die by the market.
So far, so good. But then he promotes regulation.
For consumers to trust Chinese products, they must trust regulation of those products. And regulation cannot be trusted without the rule of law, which doesn't bend to bribery, fraud and quanxi (connections).
By the way, that's "guānxì" 关系, with a "g".

In any case, If the goal is to make products safe, the best hope lies with companies eager to protect their profits
...our options are to (1) rely on the Chinese government, (2) have our government regulate what is brought to the U.S., or (3) let the market figure it out.

The Chinese government has the resources to act. China's $1.2 trillion in foreign reserves is either enough to wallpaper every dining room in the country with greenbacks or, one would think, regulate product quality. But despite China's willingness to execute the occasional official, government agencies at the national, regional and township level are too bureaucratic, or corrupt, to warrant our trust.

Those who advocate regulation by the West as the solution might be smoking unregulated substances. Aside from the obvious point that we have plenty of inspections and regulations of our own to worry about, the opportunity for Western manufacturers and anti-globalization interests to lobby against particular Chinese imports would be irresistible. They would use the new bureaucracy to reduce the general flow of Chinese goods. That would forward their objectives, but the results would be bad overall policy.

Waiting for the market to fix Chinese product quality -- doing nothing -- sounds like an unattractive solution. But the market is already reacting.

Consumers are thinking twice about buying no-name Chinese products with long lists of ingredients. U.S. distributors are checking their sources. Retailers, especially those who stock a lot of Chinese goods, are becoming a lot more concerned about their reputations. And Chinese firms and their partners are investing in brands.
So how long will it take for the market to respond? Less time than it would take for new regulations to take effect.


[According to Harvard Law School Professor Elizabeth Warren and her daughter Amelia Tyagi] for the typical 1970s family, paying 24% of its income in taxes works out to be $9,288. And for the 2000s family, paying 33% of its income is $22,374.

Although income only rose 75%, and expenditures for the mortgage, car and health insurance rose by even less than that, the tax bill increased by $13,086 -- a whopping 140% increase. The percentage of family income dedicated to health insurance, mortgage and automobiles actually declined between the two periods.

During this period, the figures used by Ms. Warren and Ms. Tyagi indicate that annual mortgage obligations increased by $3,690, automobile obligations by $2,860 and health insurance payments by $620 (a total increase of $7,170). Those increases are not trivial -- but they are swamped by the increase in tax obligations. To put this in perspective, the increase in tax obligations is over three times as large as the increase in the mortgage payments and almost double the increase in the mortgage and automobile payments combined. Even the new expenditure on child care is about a quarter less than the increase in taxes.

Overall, the typical family in the 2000s pays substantially more in taxes than the combined expenses of their mortgage, automobile and health insurance. And the change in the tax obligation between the two periods is substantially greater than the change in mortgage, automobile expenses and health-insurance costs combined.

This suggests that the most important change in the balance sheets of middle-class households over the past three decades is a dramatically higher tax burden caused by the progressive nature of the American tax system. In turn it follows that the most effective way of alleviating the household budget crunch would be to adopt lower and flatter tax rates that would reduce the government's take.
"The progressive nature of the American tax system"? That's progress for you.

Monday, August 13

Does it matter where you sit in an airplane?

["Black box" recorders] used to be located near the point where the wings joined the fuselage, the theory being that this was the most heavily constructed part of the plane. Problem was, being heavily constructed, the parts of the plane falling on the recorders often crushed them. Now the recorders are put in the tail section so that, assuming your typical crashing plane goes in nose first, the forward part of the airframe absorbs most of the impact.

Sitting back there won't help you, though. When you mix stuff in the Cuisinart, you think it matters which end of the banana went in last?

Classic questions: "Which end of the banana went in last?"

Sunday, August 12

The shaky-cam aesthetic

There are sections of "The Bourne Ultimatum" that make the most excessively antsy episode of "NYPD Blue" look like Ozu.
So funny. The first time I saw Ozu's "Tokyo Story", I found the static style suffocating. I like it now, but I image people who love the "shaky-cam aesthetic" would hate it.

How to get people to do it less

...big tax hikes on tobacco have dramatically reduced consumption of cigarettes. This is hardly surprising. Indeed, politicians openly state that they want higher tobacco taxes to discourage smoking, and their economic analysis is correct (even if their nanny-state impulses are not).

It is frustrating, though, that the same politicians quickly forget economic analysis when the debate shifts to taxes on work, saving, investment, and entrepreneurship. But just as tobacco consumption fell when taxes rose, it is inevitable that there will be less productive activity if statists in Congress follow through on plans to hike tax rates on capital gains and corporate income...

Saturday, August 11

How to pay for infrastructure

Even if we assume that maintaining local bridges is a federal project, the involvement of politicians means perverted priorities, and maintenance of existing infrastructure, which has no clear constituency, isn't going to rank very high.

Consider the earmark debate. As the Wall Street Journal recently editorialized, "The $250 million in emergency appropriations now flying through Congress for Minnesota is slightly more than half the amount appropriated to Alaska for the 'Bridge to Nowhere' and 'Don Young's Way,' two of the more infamous earmarks from the 2005 bill."

...One possible solution would be to turn each state road system into a non-profit corporation funded entirely from tolls, not taxes. The stockholders in the corporation would be the road users. They elect a board to run the roads and determine road spending and tolls. Funds cannot be diverted to other vanity projects since all funding belongs only to the road corporation. And the only source for funding would be the tolls, not taxes subject to political manipulation.
Absolutely. The people who use it should pay for it.

Jerry Costello loves congressional pork

Like most congressmen, he cares more about lining his buddies' pockets than he cares about protecting American taxpayers.

This isn't getting much coverage

Tiananmen protest prisoner released. So the fact that the demonstration & massacre occurred doesn't really matter, except to people like this guy.

Thursday, August 2

Raise taxes on pot, heroin, cocaine, methamphetamines...

What happened in 1930 that suddenly gave the repeal movement political muscle? The answer is the Great Depression and the ravages that it inflicted on federal income-tax revenues.

Prior to the creation in 1913 of the national income tax, about a third of Uncle Sam's annual revenue came from liquor taxes. (The bulk of Uncle Sam's revenues came from customs duties.) Not so after 1913. Especially after the income tax surprised politicians during World War I with its incredible ability to rake in tax revenue, the importance of liquor taxation fell precipitously.

By 1920, the income tax supplied two-thirds of Uncle Sam's revenues and nine times more revenue than was then supplied by liquor taxes and customs duties combined. ...

Before the income tax, Congress effectively ignored such calls because to prohibit alcohol sales then would have hit Congress hard in the place it guards most zealously: its purse. But once a new and much more intoxicating source of revenue was discovered, the cost to politicians of pandering to the puritans and other anti-liquor lobbies dramatically fell...

From 1930 to 1931, income-tax revenues fell by 15 percent.

In 1932 they fell another 37 percent; 1932 income-tax revenues were 46 percent lower than just two years earlier. And by 1933 they were fully 60 percent lower than in 1930.

With no end of the Depression in sight, Washington got anxious for a substitute source of revenue.

That source was liquor sales....

So, if the history of alcohol prohibition is a guide, drug prohibition will not end merely because there are many sound, sensible and humane reasons to end it. Instead, it will end only if and when Congress gets desperate for another revenue source.

Wednesday, August 1

Illinois' coming financial implosion

Chris Edwards writes:
The report by the Commercial Club of Chicago begins: “Illinois is headed toward financial implosion–Illinois’ debt and unrecognized obligations have grown at an enormous rate.”

The study puts the state’s pension debt at $10 billion, its unfunded pension costs at $46 billion, its unfunded employee health care costs at $48 billion, and its unpaid Medicaid bills at $2 billion. The total costs that will be pushed onto tomorrow’s taxpayers without reforms is an enormous $106 billion, or $8,800 per every person in the state of Illinois.

As the report notes, the Illinois state constitution requires a balanced budget, but state policymakers are routinely abusing that requirement by financing spending with debt and imposing growing unfunded obligations on future generations.