Friday, October 31, 2008

If you think the stock market is bad...

With the stock market losing over a third of its value in the last year, it's sort of becoming generally accepted popular opinion that, "Wow, we sure are lucky that whole 'privatize social security' thing didn't pan out." Al Franken is even running a commercial in which he proudly proclaims that he will "fight any attempt to privatize Social Security."

Gee, thanks, Al, for promising to guarantee a rate of return of, at best, 2%! Good thing social security wasn't privatized in 1965:

If you invested $100 in 1965 at Social Security’s rate of return, today you would have $254.91. But if you invested that $100 in the market, today, even with the current down market, you would have $4,135.92.

Source: Cato@Liberty

Freedom Is Unrestrained

Wisdom from a Japanese T-shirt via

See, Sarah Palin. Freedom is unrestrained, even if it results in the "MSM" portraying you in a bad light.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

The Wisdom of Crowds

One of the big reasons I favor markets over central planning is that humans are prone to error. In an abstract sense, if you put all your eggs in one basket (i.e. central planning), errors (which are inevitable) have the potential to be magnified such that they affect many more people than just the decision makers themselves. However, when power is devolved towards the individual (i.e. markets), errors are more localized around the person making the error.

The former system makes change slow (everyone has to agree to try something, then everyone has to deal with a failure), while the latter system makes rapid iterations possible: person A tries something and it doesn't work, but person B, not burdened by the error created by person A, tries something else that does work and is able to spread his/her good idea. Hence the wisdom of crowds: many people trying many different things leads to the emergence of a couple of really good ideas, while the bad ideas are allowed to fail gracefully.

Anyway, blah blah blah with all the philosophical stuff. These words by Arnold Kling sum everything up:

However, we see a shift in power from markets to government as adverse nonetheless. Individual political leaders have less knowledge than is aggregated by markets. They face perverse incentives. And they pervert the incentives of others. Witness today's economy, in which everyone is asking not how they can create wealth but how they can get their share of a bailout.

Image from here.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Abuse of Power

This video makes me both sad and outraged at the same time. As hard as it may be to see, every dog owner should know about this tragedy in order to (1) be aware of what cops on power trips will do to dogs (and humans, by the way), and (2) take any necessary precautions in order to protect your dog.

Via The Agitator.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Marketizing Health Care

More of this, please:

Radiology has long been at the forefront of telemedicine, and now it is paving the way into another area of medicine...auctions! Enter Telerays radiology auction service, where batches of studies are auctioned off to the radiologist with the lowest bid. That doesn't sound very reassuring until you read through the company's reassuring credentialing process.

The radiologists are recruited from across the US in what appears to be a win-win proposition. For physicians, the Telerays system allows for as much or as little work, when and where they want, while simplifying billing arrangements. For hospitals, it adds access to radiologists, including sub-specialists (that may not be available in a smaller center) while potentially allowing for cost savings as well.

Dr. Jay Parkinson approves.

Image from here.

Jacob Weisberg Incurs the Wrath

Jacob Weisberg wrote an article called "The End of Libertarianism" and set forth a wrath of libertarian rejoinders. I think Weisberg's final passage summarizes how he really feels:

The worst thing you can say about libertarians is that they are intellectually immature, frozen in the worldview many of them absorbed from reading Ayn Rand novels in high school. Like other ideologues, libertarians react to the world's failing to conform to their model by asking where the world went wrong. Their heroic view of capitalism makes it difficult for them to accept that markets can be irrational, misunderstand risk, and misallocate resources or that financial systems without vigorous government oversight and the capacity for pragmatic intervention constitute a recipe for disaster. They are bankrupt, and this time, there will be no bailout.

It was nice to see that I wasn't the only one whose blood boiled upon reading this egregious straw man of an argument. This being the internet, however, Weisberg's flimsy contentions were soon shredded by an all-star cast of libertarians.

Radley Balko: As I mentioned this morning, what gets me is this notion that libertarian ideas have been tried, and failed. That’s not the case at all. This administration has denounced libertarians at every turn. Its ideas come largely from the moral right and from the neconservatives, two groups wholly at odds with libertarianism.

Brink Lindsey: In firing this broadside, Weisberg poses as the pragmatic, empirically minded anti-ideologue. In fact, he is engaging in the lowest and most intellectually trivial form of ideological hack work.

Will Wilkinson: I think Weisberg rightly sees that control over the popular narrative about the causes of the financial collapse could have a big effect on public opinion. And Democrats are about to win the White House together with a robust Congressional majority. So here’s the main chance! The long-awaited dream! The desperate desire! The rightful claim of establishment liberals to the commanding heights is imminent! Now is the time! The sense of entitlement is about to meet title! And the GOP is in utter disarray, having long ago lost any semblance of a coherent philosophy of government. The field is almost clear. Only the utopian punter, holding a tattered copy of Atlas Shrugged, guards the goal line. The embittered professors and graying editors-in-chief cannot bear to wait another season. They will wake to their triumphant dawn. The cry goes up: “Smear the libertarian queer!” And never mind the rules. Bring it, Weisberg.

Jesse Walker: When you don't believe in the heroic corporate chieftain, it should be equally hard to put your faith in that alternative fantasy, the heroic regulator: neutral and public-spirited, always attuned to market failure, constantly prepared to right the ship of commerce. Instead we favor a decentralized system of checks and balances, of which the most important are the checks imposed by an open, competitive marketplace. Not because it's heroic, but because it can ruthlessly cut a would-be hero down to size.

Matt Welch: There is no space in Weisberg's conception of "libertarians" for people like, for instance, me: Not remotely a utopian, not "of the right," never read an Ayn Rand novel, spent high school playing sports instead of reading political philosophy, don't want to do history over (except for Game 5 of the 1986 ALCS), and don't pine for some presumably awful world where everyone shares my political views. (And, I might add, unlike Weisberg, I don't want to convert my political views into increased state power over fellow citizens who don't happen to agree with me.) No, I just think that, all things being equal, capitalism is vastly superior to socialism, government is by definition inefficient, and would be much better off focused on essential tasks, rather than, say, nationalizing hundred-billion-dollar chunks of the mortgage industry, or trying to guarantee that asset prices never depreciate. In my world, at least, not all regulation is automatically evil, just ripe for being gamed by the very interests being regulated, and so better when pruned back.

I think Matt Welch just about perfectly captures my thoughts.

Some Sensible Comments from the Washington Post

From today's Washington Post:

We'll never know how this newly liberated financial sector might have performed on a playing field designed by Adam Smith. That's because government interventions of all kinds, from the defense budget to farm supports, shaped the business environment. No subsidy would prove more fateful than the massive federal commitment to residential real estate -- from the mortgage interest tax deduction to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to the Federal Reserve's low interest rates under Mr. Greenspan. Unregulated derivatives known as credit-default swaps did accentuate the boom in mortgage-based investments, by allowing investors to transfer risk rather than setting aside cash reserves. But government helped make mortgages a purportedly sure thing in the first place. Home prices seemed to stand on a solid floor built by Washington.

That sounds about right.

Via Econlog.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

One More Thought About Economics

Don Boudreaux:

The chief question [regarding the current economic situation] is to what extent are today's problems caused by market forces, and to what extent by government interference with these forces.

In other words, the system we have now (and what we've had for the entire history of the United States) is anything but a free market. That system is a combination of market forces and government interference with those forces; as such, when the system fails, to truly solve the problem, we must look at all components of the system, not just one or the other.

Why I'm Worried

Arnold Kling:

What we are seeing now is the Freddie/Fannie model applied to the entire financial sector. You need a government guarantee in order to be a player. Once government-guaranteed firms are on a firm footing, the equivalent of "affordable housing goals" is sure to follow. That is, government will be bossing capital around to an even larger extent than before.

I have a sinking feeling that misplaced hostility towards free markets (how exactly are our current markets "free?") will lead to policies and regulations that are increasingly hostile to liberty and capitalism. Maybe not...maybe everyone will just agree to make markets more transparent, thereby allowing for a better understanding of risk. But I'm skeptical that things will work out that nicely.

So economic liberty is in for a rough ride in the coming years (decades?). But I'm confident that, in time, the failures due to whatever increases in government intervention the reaction to the current crisis brings will become evident, trickling down from brilliant academics all the way down to the masses. Eventually pop-economics books will be written that use clever metaphors and narratives to convey the flaws of government intervention to society. So there's hope. As Russ Roberts has said:

So if you love liberty and fear those who would engineer our well-being rather than let it emerge from our free choices, if you love liberty and fear those who would use good intentions as an excuse for plunder, don't worry. We'll have our day down the road. Keep reading and writing and thinking. And don't yell. Above all, smile and hold firm to your principles. They will be remembered and valued when the pendulum swings the other way. It's just a matter of time.

Hopefully sooner rather than later.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

More Input!

This post on speedometers by Tom Vanderbilt got me thinking:

Even more troubling is the speedometer’s dumbness. The device gives a simple reading that lacks context. It tells speed, but it doesn’t convey other useful information. How does the car’s speed compare to the posted limit? How much time is saved by driving faster, and how does it compare to the added fatality risk of a crash (which rises exponentially at higher speeds)?

As Tom hints, absolute speed is just one input that goes into a driver's calculus of how to drive, and it's often less important than other inputs (such as the current speed limit, current and upcoming traffic conditions, current road conditions, or the total trip time based on the current speed). In other words, drivers need more information besides just raw speed to perform the task of driving. And since today's technology allows for the collection of such information, it seems like a good idea for cars to start providing that information. Of course, it's important to avoid information overload, but clearly drivers aren't currently overloaded with information if they can find the time (and cognitive capacity) to talk/text on their phones, put on makeup, eat, read, etc. while driving.

As Johnny 5 would say, more input!

Image from here.

Best Restaurant Name Ever?

If I ever go to Toronto, I want to eat at C'est What. That's where the User Experience Network just had their last meetup.

Image from here.

The Ultimate in Slothfulness

I randomly stumbled across this workstation setup while searching for some image at work the other day and thought, "this is exactly what I've been looking for."

Imagine being able to waste time on the internet without even getting out of bed!

Friday, October 17, 2008

Canada Gets All the Good Stuff

Man, Canada's on a roll. First there was the suggestion that Canada bail Iceland out of its current troubles by basically adopting it and making it a new province. Then this article about how Canada's banks have largely avoided the current crisis in America and Europe. And now this:

Following a meeting in Quebec City, Canada’s prime minister, Stephen Harper, and President Nicolas Sarkozy of France, who is the president of the European Union as well, are expected to sign an agreement for preliminary negotiations meant to create a trade pact between Canada and Europe that would be even more sweeping than the North American Free Trade Agreement.

And the killer part of the deal:

If adopted it would minimize barriers in services, include sales to government, open up the air travel market and allow skilled Canadians and Europeans to work across borders without visas.

How cool would it be to be able to just be like, "Yeah, I think I'm going to move to Paris for a while, then maybe Amsterdam, then maybe I'll come back and work in Toronto or Vancouver. Oh, what's that American friend? You need a Visa to work in Europe? Huh...seems archaic."

Image from here.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

I Hope Obama Knows Better

I saw this ad on TV tonight and found it quite disheartening:

As Matt Welch put it in the Hit & Run liveblog of the debate:

Obama's sinophobia could qualify him for a contributing editor slot at The Weekly Standard...

Does Obama really have to resort to such jingoism? More frighteningly, does Obama actually believe in the validity of the protectionism the ad implies?

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Really? WTF?

I thought of this idea after seeing some McCain-Palin signs around my neighborhood and thinking: "Seriously?" So I mocked up a quick version of it. I'm thinking of having some lawn signs printed...I wonder how many people would put one of these in their yard? Here's the real one, by the way. And in case you need reminding, here are Sarah Palin's greatest hits:

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Facebook Tips

I recently saw someone use the "♥" symbol on Facebook and was wondering how they did it. Windows character map says the shortcut key is "U+2665," but this isn't very helpful. Where's the "U" key? Typing a capital-U and then 2665 doesn't work. So how do people do it?

Turns out (as I found here) there are some really easy ways to get some basic symbols. These shortcuts might not work in all applications and/or fonts (they won't show up in Verdana), but they work in Facebook.

  • Alt+1: Non-filled smiley face (☺)
  • Alt+2: Filled smiley face (☻)
  • Alt+3: Heart (♥)
  • Alt+4: Diamond (♦)
  • Alt+5: Club (♣)
  • Alt+6: Spade (♠)
  • Alt+7: Dot (•)
  • Alt+8: Square with hold (◘)
  • Alt+9: Non-filled ellipse: (○)

Friday, October 10, 2008

Too Many Houses, or Not Enough Residents?

One of the many causes of the current financial situation is an excess of housing supply. During the real estate boom, developers speculatively built houses in anticipation of eager home buyers buying their dream home now that they could finally (or so they thought) afford it. As we now know, that plan didn't really pan out.

One perspective is that there are too many houses. Another perspective is that there aren't enough residents. Solution? Get more residents (i.e. increase immigration limits). The genius economists at Marginal Revolution seem to think this a good idea, as does Lee Ohanian, an economist at UCLA:

We should encourage the immigration of prime-age individuals. Beginning in 2007, net immigration fell to half of its level over the previous five years. Increasing immigration would increase the demand for housing and raise home prices. And note that the benefit would be immediate. Home prices -- and the value of subprime obligations -- would rise in anticipation of a higher population base. The U.S. particularly needs highly skilled workers. These workers not only would purchase homes, but would generate higher living standards for all Americans.

I actually favor lifting all caps on immigration and letting as many people come to America as want to, but letting more skilled workers in (you know there's a shortage when the annual application quota for high-skilled workers is filled on the first day applications are accepted) seems like a very politically-palatable way of increasing immigration and helping the economy.

Image from here.

No on Prop. 8!

I don't live in California, but I think the defeat of Proposition 8 (which would ban gay marriage in California after it was legalized in a Supreme Court decision) is super important for equality and, more generally, liberty in the United States. If the government is going to be in the business of sanctioning relationships between adults, it shouldn't discriminate between which relationships are valid and which aren't.

You might think that a defeat of Proposition 8 is a shoe-in...after all people in California are pretty liberal and open-minded, right? According to Andrew Sullivan and Mike Riggs, however, that doesn't seem to be the case, as support for Proposition 8 is growing.

That's why I donated to "No on Prop 8" here. I happened to have been in San Francisco for work when the Supreme Court decision legalizing gay marriage was announced, and the local news stories of couples that had been together for 30 years finally having the chance to make their relationship official were truly inspiring. To paraphrase Michelle Obama, I was finally proud of my country.

Image from here.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Business Arrogance

I have a mixed opinion of "business thinking" and its many adherents (presumably anyone with an MBA). On one hand, I have a lot of respect for people that can get products into the marketplace in a timely manner despite any lingering imperfections in the products that the designers and engineers might otherwise deem unacceptable. On the other hand, the arrogance of executives and other like-minded business-thinking people can often be very annoying. Take this example of a JetBlue executive taking his company's brand reputation for granted, vi Mark Hurst at Good Experience:

Some analysts have voiced concerns that this might not be the best strategic move; here's the reply, an instant classic:

Edward Barnes, JetBlue's chief financial officer, says the airline isn't worried. "You can't underestimate the brand," he said.

You can't underestimate the brand. It raises an obvious question: What brand?

Mark goes on to clearly illustrate how JetBlue's service has deterioriated, and I agree with him that, with the attitude of its CFO, it's only a matter of time before the brand's image begins suffering serious damage. Maintaining a positive brand image (by creating a positive user experience) seems to require constant vigilance lest suffer a regression to the mean at the hands of business arrogance.

Image from here.

Sad Guys on Trading Floors

Sad Guys on Trading Floors is a brilliant site that just combines stock images used to accompany a story about the current financial crisis with clever captions. Here are two of my favorites:

Seriously guys! Five dollar footlongs at Subway! It’s a fantasic deal! BUY BUY!

It suddenly occurs to Roger that he should’ve ignored his dad and gone to Parsons after all.

Via Free Exchange.

Easy-to-understand Explanation of Current Financial Situation

From Reason's Hit & Run:

George Mason University economist and author Russell Roberts, who blogs at the always interesting Cafe Hayek, sat down with to talk about the nation's shakey economy and the government's bailout plan.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Design for Engagement

Via Boing Boing and the Putting People First comes the story of some interesting research by Dutch psychologist Christof van Nimwegen.

In "The Paradox of the guided user: assistance can be counter- effective," van Nimwegen asked two groups to perform the same tasks. The first was allowed use a computer; the second group only got a pen and pencil. The second group executed all tasks faster and performed substantially better. In addition, their solutions to complicated problems were more creative.


Van Nimwegen says much software turns us into passive beings, subjected to the whims of computers, randomly clicking on icons and menu options. In the long run, this hinders our creativity and memory, he says.

I don't think there's anything wrong with allowing people to format a document without exerting too much cognitive load, and I don't think that using wizards to guide users through otherwise-complicated software tasks will turn humans into a bunch of Wall-E-style consumers. They may learn less about the software and have less situational awareness about the task (writing documentation?) they're completing, but doesn't that at least create the potential for users to spend more time doing value-added work instead of writing administrative documentation? I don't want to waste cognitive capital on writing a report; I want to spend that cognitive capital on thinking of new solutions or connecting disparate pieces of information, things I wouldn't use Word for anyway.

I think the lesson here is that interfaces should not be designed to take the user out of the equation entirely, but rather to keep the user engaged in order to optimize the human value the user brings to the equation. So keep the boring, administrative, and easily-automatible stuff out of the hands of users and use the interface to facilitate rich, value-added interaction.

Image from here.

The experience is the product

"The experience is the product." I read this sentence (or something like it) in a book at Barnes and Noble one time (I can't remember the name of the book) and it has stuck with me ever since. I certainly agree with the sentiment; the "product" isn't just the gadget; it's the packaging, the price, the place where it's purchased, and of course the user's interaction with it.

So when I came across this post at Medgadget listing the winners of the 2008 Ig Nobel prizes, the one for Nutrition caught my eye:

NUTRITION PRIZE. Massimiliano Zampini of the University of Trento, Italy and Charles Spence of Oxford University, UK, for electronically modifying the sound of a potato chip to make the person chewing the chip believe it to be crisper and fresher than it really is.

Don't just design the flavor, also design the "crunch!"

Likewise, this post on NOTCOT gets at the same idea:

The internet is a buzz with rumors on the latest “viral” video of Dan Aykroyd showing us his new Crystal Head Vodka in a gorgeous glass skull...Apparently it is made by Diamond Estates Wines & Spirits Ltd, out of Newfoundland water triple crystal filtered through herkimer diamonds (aka double-terminated quartz crystals)! Really the story is just great though, and the video and bottle make the experience priceless...

Of course, using specially-designed bottles to differentiate a commodity product are commonplace (why do you think the Coke bottle looks so unique?), but adding a whole myth (replete with a video) takes things up a notch.

Whether it's research into how humans judge the quality of a product or marketing designed to sell a product, it's important to consider the holistic experience of the user.

Images from here and here.

Homemade Alka-Seltzer

A couple months ago, I made one of the smartest purchases of my life and got a SodaClub FountainJet carbonation machine (the thing on the left in the above picture). I'm pretty sure it's already paid for itself with the money I've saved from not buy bottled carbonated water, plus it allows me to make homemade Alka-Seltzer. I love Alka-Seltzer, but it's expensive and I always seem to run out of it.

So finally I decided to try to make it "from scratch" and the results were great. Add 1/2 teaspoon of baking soda to 1 cup of carbonated water plus a couple drops of lemon juice and you end up with something decently resembling Alka-Seltzer. Anectdotally, I think this actually cured my stomach ache (probably what others would call heartburn or gut rot...basically a really acidic feeling) faster than the real thing. Plus, it's way cheaper. A win-win-win!

Images from here, here, here, and here.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Too Funny (and Accurate) to Not Post

I love this flowchart of Sarah Palin's debate strategy:

From Adennak via Andrew Sullivan.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

You are more qualified to be vice president than Sarah Palin

Watch this series of clips of Sarah Palin trying to answer basic questions that most Americans could provide better answers to and ask yourself, how can *anyone* seriously be considering voting for McCain/Palin?

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Private Airports...Finally!

Privately operated (not to mention privately owned) airports have been commonplace in Europe for years, but not so in the US. Until now (finally!). According to the New York Times:

Midway Airport is poised to become the first large privately run hub airport in the country, officials said Tuesday, after an investment group bid $2.52 billion to win rights to a long-term lease, The New York Times’s Susan Saulny writes.

The deal with Midway Investment and Development Company, requires final approval from the Federal Aviation Administration and the Chicago City Council, which is set to vote Oct. 8.

Almost all commercial airports in the United States are owned and operated by local or state governments, and Midway is no exception. But Midway is eligible for leasing because the city applied to the F.A.A. to take part in an experimental program begun about 12 years ago to explore privatization as a means to generate capital for improvements.

Congress has allowed the agency to permit up to five airports to take part in the program, and if the Midway deal is approved, it will be the first.

It's about time America caught up to Europe in this regard. In case you're wondering, here's the list of top 10 airports worldwide. They're all in Asia, Europe, and Africa, and some of the airports are operated by governments while others are operated by private companies. There are currently no US airports (all of which are run by some governmental entity) in the top 10. Maybe Midway's new privatization can change that?

Image from here.


UPDATE: Imeem seems to have changed their interface since this posting (see the comment), and the new version is indeed superior. Way to respond quickly, Imeem!

Ever since I discovered it from reading some article online, I've been a big fan of Imeem. Now MySpace Music basically offers the same functionality, but since I'm used to imeem I plan on sticking with it for the time being. Imeem has been criticized for its clunky user interface, but the one redeeming thing about the site's problems is that they seemed to get resolved (or at least improved) pretty quickly. With their newly-redesigned front page, however, I think Imeem made a minor, yet still annoying, design flaw.

Here's what the page looks like before you've logged in:

After you click the 'login' link (with the yellow box around it in the above picture), the page looks like this:

My qualm is that the button to submit your username and password is labeled "Login," and yet the original 'login' link is still visible (see the yellow box above). When logging in for the first time, I briefly looked away from the screen and when I looked back, I was confused. Which "login" (the button or the link) am I supposed to click on? Was the button there the whole time? Why is the link still there?

I think there's a pretty quick fix for this: just repalce the 'login' link with the 'Login' button after the link is clicked on. Something like this:

With so many seemingly trivial usability issues (like this one) continuing to show up in Imeem releases, I have to wonder if they do any sort of usability testing before launching a new release. As Jakob Nielsen says, you really only need to test 5 users to find a lot of the little things that trip up users.

Why I Don't Like Driving In Traffic

I like driving when there's no traffic, or maybe even light traffic (slow cars are like obstacles). But when there's heavy traffic, especially when there's no way around it, I hate driving. I think the reason goes beyond just being annoyed at how slow everything is moving. I think the thing that really gets me is being forced to drive in a dumbed-down manner. Like it or not, if you're driving in heavy traffic you have to actively participate in the mind-numbing task of driving without any real challenge. Stop and go. Stop and go. Stop and go. I don't mind passively participating in a mindless activity (like watching TV and zoning out) when it's on my terms, but I hate actively participating in a mindless activity when it's not on my terms. It's like brain slavery.

Sometimes all I want in life is to just be able to take a subway (itself a mindless task, albeit a passive one) from home to work.