Friday, May 09, 2008

Japan is experiencing one of the perils of adopting a Westernized, resource-heavy lifestyle: a population explosion of trash-picking varmints. Specifically, in their case, crows, whose nests on power lines have become a cause of repeated power failures, including one that recently shut down the bullet trains. And the Times reports that

The crow explosion has created a moral quandary for Japan, a nation that prides itself on nonviolence and harmony with nature, because culling programs are the only truly effective method of population control.
Well, the pride in nonviolence may be a new development, since World War II. (Or were all those samurai swords meant as conversation pieces?) But back then, the Japanese homeland was never invaded, and now, the crows are on their turf. So, city governments are setting out baited traps, and power companies are sending out uniformed crow patrols. And the crows are fighting back:
In Kagoshima, they are even trying to outsmart the Crow Patrol. The birds have begun building dummy nests as decoys to draw patrol members away from their real nests.
Well, after all those years of humans putting up scarecrows, turnabout is fair play.

It could be worse. The crows are displaying intelligence somewhat superior to the average Nigerian 419 scammer, but they haven't figured out what the infrastructure they keep wrecking is actually good for. Yet. When they start pirating internet service... watch out.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

There's no reason for Hillary Clinton to stop running for president. Harold Stassen never had to stop running either.

Brad DeLong, a professor at Berkeley, sent a letter to the faculty senate chair asking him, in modest, reasoned terms, to have someone look into whether it's the best idea for John "Torture Memo" Yoo to be employed at the school as a teacher and role model for new young lawyers.

The same blog post has Academic Senate chair William Drummond's response:

Creating the panel you recommend to examine Prof. Yoo’s conduct would be defamatory on the face of it. Besides that, there’s the practical problem of finding committee members with the expertise you outline.

On the second point, Drummond clearly doth protest too much: another pseudonymous Charles has fun listing numerous qualified committee members from Berkeley's own faculty.

But consider the first: can merely raising questions be defamatory? Well, the questions are being raised, regardless. If Drummond really thinks they're unjust, and that his faculty member is being maligned by them, I can think of worse ways to deal with the situation than convening a few of his colleagues to investigate the matter, say how they're unjust, and provide a half-decent defense.

But Drummond doesn't want to do that. It's almost as if he knows damn well what would come out of that kind of inquiry, and he just doesn't want to hear it.

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Meanwhile, in Brazil, Linux is becoming very popular. Why? Well, one reason is that the Windows license on a home PC costs something like 10% of per capita income. That's not for the computer, just the software license. Several major Linux distributions are free. And that would make even more of a difference in the even poorer countries which are being targeted by the One Laptop Per Child project.

Which explains why, after a shakeup, OLPC leadership is now talking up a Windows port. Gotta get those kids hooked early. If they get the notion that it's permissible, or even desirable, to tinker with the system at every level to solve third-world problems that no first-world denizen would never anticipate, why, then... they'd never learn to appreciate the advantages of Windows.

Whatever they are...

Monday, May 05, 2008

Hillary keeps on bringing the stupid. Her latest:

"We're going to go right at OPEC," Clinton said, on a last-minute campaign swing ahead of Tuesday's Indiana and North Carolina primary clashes against her Democratic rival Barack Obama.

"They can no longer be a cartel, a monopoly that get together once every couple of months in some conference room in some plush place in the world," Clinton said, sparking cheers in a crowded fire station.

So, what's going to stop them?

Clinton has said she would amend US anti-trust law to allow the US to confront OPEC...

The Yale law school grad is proposing to somehow make US antitrust law binding on foreign governments. A bold stroke --- but so was the Charge of the Light Brigade. Does she, perhaps, have a backup plan?

... and also promised to tackle the group through the World Trade Organisation, if she is elected president.

So, let's consider. What the WTO can do, if one member accuses another of unfair trade practices, is authorize trade sanctions. The usual thing is that the victim (apparently, us) gets to raise tariffs on the miscreant nation's products. But since our only major import from most of these countries is oil, that would amount to raising the tax on gas (and other petroleum by-products), which she just proposed to lower. So, perhaps she's got another idea?

Well, an alternative sort of trade sanction might be to slap some kind of export duty on whatever it is that these countries buy from us. Which would either punish these countries, if they kept on buying from us --- or punish our exporters, as the OPEC members went on to buy whatever-it-is from somebody else. Like, say, France, whose president has been going on international trips lately with an entourage of CEOs hunting up business, including a much-publicized trip a few months back to the oil patch.

She's got a gun with a laser sight, and two of her toes are already gone. Stop her, before she shoots again!

More: Hillary supporter Sen. Robert Menendez on MSNBC: "Thank god that we don't have economists making, necessarily, public policy...". Gee, I wonder what Ben Bernanke would have to say about that?

By the way, OPEC countries are only producing 40% of the world's oil at this point, and many of them, including the biggie, Saudi Arabia, don't seem to have a whole lot of spare capacity. And the non-OPEC 60% are widely assumed to be pumping flat out. Economists, with their confusing, elitist, chardonnay-sipping discourse about "supply" and "demand", might suggest that there isn't a whole lot anyone can do under these circumstances to lower the price. But Hillary knows better. She learned the value of courage and firm resolve facing down those snipers in Tuzla...

Sunday, May 04, 2008

And now, my disappointments with Hillary:

This morning, George Stephanopoulos began his televised interview with Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton by asking if she could name a single economist who supported her plan for a gas-tax suspension.

Mrs. Clinton did not. “I’m not going to put in my lot with economists,” she said on the ABC program “This Week.” A few moments later, she added, “Elite opinion is always on the side of doing things that really disadvantages the vast majority of Americans.”

Look. This isn't hard. The supply of gas over the summer is basically fixed; refineries are running flat out, and can't quickly add capacity. Retailers won't respond to more demand by selling more gas --- because they can't. So, what does happen? They keep raising the price of the stuff they have until they can no longer sell it all. So, for lack of any other rationing system, the free market effectively rations the stuff by willingness to pay. And, as Paul Krugman explains:

... if the supply of a good is more or less unresponsive to the price, the price to consumers will always rise until the quantity demanded falls to match the quantity supplied. [Emphasis added.] Cut taxes, and all that happens is that the pretax price rises by the same amount.
The plan won't save ordinary folks a dime. And some of them aren't fooled:

Stephanopoulos turned the mike over to a woman who said she supported Obama and said she makes less than $25,000 a year.

"I do feel pandered to when you talk about suspending the gas tax," the woman said, adding: "Call me crazy but I actually listen to economists because I think they know what they've studied."

So, what of Hillary herself? She's touting a plan that's nonsense the way Dubya's war plans were nonsense; the reasons it can't work are widely acknowledged facts which aren't seriously disputed by anyone with relevant knowledge.

Perhaps, after days of publicly touting this proposal, she still doesn't know she's selling snake oil. Or maybe she knows, but doesn't care. But either way, in now flatly rejecting the very notion of expert advice (to the astonishment of some experts who thought they were advising her), she has left the reality based community.

Note: last paragraph edited late; the point was getting lost. Also, I'm a bit uncomfortable with the argument here because there are points --- like so-called "Washington consensus" policy on the economic management of developing countries, where there is at least a rough consensus among economists that I'd dispute. But in those cases, you can find prominent experts, like Joseph Stiglitz, who dispute the consensus. This is confusion of a different order. She's just getting simple sums wrong, and blowing smoke when called on it.