Traveling Atomist

Purpose one: writing a travelogue to describe my various trips.

Purpose two: muse.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Suspension of Disbelief




In Toy Story 3, there is a scene in which Mr. Potato Head mounts a tortilla, as part of escaping from the day care center.  I remember the first time I saw this, there was a brief moment where I thought, "a tortilla?"  I quickly went along with it, though.  If I'm already accepting animated toys, why not an animated tortilla?

I watched Olympus Has Fallen this weekend.  Ostensibly, it is more realistic than Toy Story.  There is no magic in it and it features no superheroes.  There are no animated objects.  The technology they use is perfectly feasible.  Yet, I found my disbelief surfacing again and again.  The initial accident is pretty contrived, and it gets worse from there.  It is not plausible for the attacking plane to take out two jet fighters so easily.  It is not plausible that every single security agent in the Korean detail was a terrorist.  It is not plausible for the army's response to take so long.  It is not plausible for secret service agents to all eagerly run into machine gun fire, and in general mount such a feeble and uncoordinated defense.  The whole Cerberus program is ridiculous, and if it was a real program, the security around it would surely have been designed better.  Why have the only three codes in the minds of people that are all part of the cabinet and thus often together?  Would the president make such poor choices in the face of national destruction?  Why was a brute-force attack successful in such a short time? This whole subplot is particularly jarring, because it seemed unnecessary to the overall story line.

The suspension of disbelief is a function of the strength of the story and the characters.   Pacing and setting matters too, because it dictates if our attention wanders and if we buy into the universe in which the narrative takes place.  It is fascinating that the actual factoid we are expected to accept matters hardly at all.  The devil can be a talking serpent, Hamlet can be the prince of Denmark, toys can think, discuss and act. 

I would love to hear about your own examples of suspension of disbelief, either where it worked in a way that astonished you later, or where it did not work at all.



Sunday, August 17, 2014

The Atlantic

The Atlantic is one of my favorite magazines. Although it is liberal, its focus is on publishing interesting articles about culture and current affairs from a mix of writers.  There is a good example from the June issue.  William Deresiewicz reviews two books on American literary novels.  In the article, there is such a fantastic quote that I had to share it:


Buell is a person, one should say, who uses terms like cracker, redneck, and white trash without self-consciousness or irony, which makes his moral teleology all the more repulsive—his assumption (and it’s hardly his alone) that all of history has been leading up to the exalted ethical state of the contemporary liberal class.
If you are curious what Deresiewicz means, you need look no further than Paul Krugman.

(Maybe you are curious why I, of all people, should be against derisive comments about politicians, but of all the critical adjectives you can apply to the creeps, stupid is not one of them.)

Monday, January 27, 2014

White House Whoppers

Our presidents are not known for their honesty.  They are politicians, and they lie.  Habitually.  George H.W. Bush gave us his phony tax pledge.  Clinton's name is almost synonymous with deception.  The younger Bush factually misrepresented the state of WMDs in Iraq and played subterfuge about indefinite detention and Guantanamo.

Obama misled us about the consequences of his healthcare law. It was such a stupendous lie that he won an award for it. He deserved it.  Full disclosure: I lost my health insurance due to ObamaCare, and I was happy with my plan, and I am upset about losing it.  Even before this happened, however, I was dismayed at how often and how audaciously Obama lied to us.  Here are several other instances, in no particular order:

1. There is no disagreement that we need action by our government
This is something he said during the debate about stimulus in 2009.  He may not have been aware of the intense controversy unfolding at the time, in academia, by pundits, on the street, about the wisdom of fiscal stimulus, in which case he must have been completely out of touch with people across the country.  I consider it more likely that this was purely rhetorical.

2. We will close Guantanamo Bay and restore the write of habeas corpus
In his defense, he did make a weak attempt at closing Guantanamo Bay, but it is still open, prisoners are still water-boarded there, and his administration have fought even harder for indefinite detention than the Bush administration did.

3. This is the most transparent administration ever
There is no evidence for this whatsoever.  Pure bluster.

4. FISA is transparent
There is no way to dress up this one as other than a pure, blatant, old-fashioned deceit.  (What if he didn't lie?)

Monday, October 28, 2013

Even a Street-dog Has Lucky Days

Storms around Boulder Creek always blows down lots of branches and small trees.  Last night was no exception.  Some branches had hit around my driveway, about a foot from my car.  There is not a scratch on it.  Rare, but sometimes even I get lucky.


(The title is from a Japanese proverb.)

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Buy a Bicycle for an African

I have become reasonably convinced that Government Aid to Africa is hurting more than it is helping. Some of the larger private aid charities are so big that they have some of the same problems. I used to adopt children through Plan USA, but that organization grew to a point where I felt it was as much about the marketing and promotion of themselves and the executives. So I stopped.

In the meantime, I came across this smaller group that makes bikes for African school-children, health-care workers and entrepreneurs. This strikes me as far more useful. For just $134, they can equip an African with a bike. Mobility is important for an economy, and these bikes drastically improves the range and speed of the people riding them. They have the advantage over mechanized transportation that they cost much, much less to operate.


It's difficult to find the best way to help, but I feel pretty good about those bicycles.  It probably doesn't hurt that I love bikes!

Monday, February 4, 2013

Doing the Office Space Routine on my DVD Player

In Office Space, there is a famous scene, where they violently take apart a printer that entirely deserved it.



 

I did the same to my JVC DVD/BD player.  (An XV BP1, if you must know).  I did it for much the same reason.  This junk failed to play about half of the Blue Ray discs I popped into it.  Yet, I can get over that.  What really irked was that the player quite often would refuse to open the drawer and let the disc out.  It would just stay hermitically sealed.  That experience was reminiscent of the scenes in Office Space where they are pulling on the paper in order to get their printed page.

I finally had enough.  I took the player outside and used a sledgehammer on it.  I freely admit, compared to Peter, Michael, and Samir, I am a rank amateur.  Still, the experience was oddly deliberating.

Friday, January 4, 2013

Scientific American Fail

Happy New Year, dear readers.

Early in 2012, I bought a copy of Scientific American.  I must have been a little desperate for reading material, because it is down quite a bit on my list of magazines I pick up.  This particular copy was a good case in point why.

They had an article, "Stars to the Rescue," about celebrities doing various projects to promote science. Never mind that the brand of science promoted is the same pop-version of it that Scientific American itself promulgates. 

What struck me was the next article in the printed magazine, on the very same page.  Picture below.  That article was about online tracking.  Was it a cogent piece about the pros (personalization) and cons (loss of privacy) of online tracking?  Did it contain any information to readers about the underlying technologies and the various reasons organizations might want this data?  No and no.  Instead, it was a narrow-minded piece of hysteria fanning the flames of paranoid privacy hawks.

I found this accidental juxtaposition ironic and wanted to share it.



Sunday, August 12, 2012

Keynesian Stimulus and Japan's Lost Decade

Two historical examples of fiscal policies that Keynesians like to point out are the US in the 30s and Japan in the 90s.  I have already looked at the 30s, and the numbers did not suggest a Keynesian conclusion to me.  I am speaking here of the Keynesian theory of stimulus spending. 

Today I will look at the numbers for Japan in the lost decade, supposed to be almost exactly the 1990s.



The chart above shows Japan's government consumption, both in absolute terms and as a percentage of the economy.  All numbers are from stats.oecd.org.  The prime minister at the time purported to be Keynesian, and as the cart shows, they did increase spending significantly throughout the decade.  Total spending, in inflation-adjusted Yen, grew by about 50% during the decade.  As a percentage of the economy, government grew from 31% to 39.5%, spiking at 43% during the 1997-98 Asian crisis.  I am sure some Keynesians will say that no single year constitute a model Keynesian stimulus, but I have heard some of them claim that the Japanese economy supposedly got better when the government was keeping up spending.  Let us look at this claim next.
This chart shows GDP growth; unemployment; government consumption, change over year earlier; and taxes, percent of GDP, change from year earlier.  These measures are all in percent, so that enables us to compare them in one chart.

One thing to be careful about is that the slope at any given segment matters less than the distance from 0.  The last good year of the Japanese economy, 1989, is included, and the GDP line drops dramatically from there.  That just means the economy stopped growing, it did not actually shrink until the 97/98 crisis. 

Taxes are included in the chart, though it stays within 1 percent of change over the previous year (except for 1992).  Apparently the Japanese government did not pursue tax relief or revenue-based austerity over the period.  Without making a comment about the effectiveness of that, it is a bit fortunate from an examination standpoint, because it is then an important variable that is held almost constant.

I make three observations from this chart:

1. Government spending growth does seem to lead to some nominal GDP growth.  It is not a silver bullet: it did not seem to help much in 89-90, where I would have expected stimulus to be most effective, from what the Keynesians tell me.  Neither is it required: Japan's economy had some of its best years from 2004-2007, though government spending levelled off.

2. Japan's attempt at stimulus was enourmously costly, yet its best year gave the Japanese a paltry 2.8% economic growth.  For this, the Japanese government grew permanently from ~30% of GDP to ~40% of GDP, and its debt to GDP ratio went from ~20% to ~80%.  Despite all this increase in spending, the economy never did as well as it had done in the 80s, and neither did it achieve consistent growth.

3. Most importantly, the unemployment rate did worst during years with the most spending.  Unemployment rose steadily during the 94-95 years, when the initial stimulus spending kicked in.  It then levelled off when spending slowed to a more reasonable 1% in 97.  As the 98-99 stimulus spending took off, unemployment went up with it.  Not until spending growth slowed after 2003 did unemployment start to come down, slowly. 

Even if unemployment had stayed neutral, the tradeoffs seems dubious, at best.  With the third point above, one of the best arguments normally presented in favor of stimulus spending seems to be exactly on its head.  If we take the Japanese example as a case in point, stimulus spending is a terrible idea.  Of course, it is possible that this period is not a good example of stimulus spending, but then Keynesians need to stop using it as their poster boy.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Hurry Up and Enjoy Life

I was driving in San Francisco the other day and came up on a lady who was driving badly: a good 10 MPH below the prevailing speed and with her signal persistently flashing.  I could tell by the hesitant maneuvers of those around her that I was not the only one who found it troubling.  She then made a terrible lane change (see option #2).  I was already a bit impatient from other bad drivers that day and could not resist the temptation to honk at her when I was finally able to get past.

A couple of lights later we were backed up.  She caught up with me and pulled up alongside me with her window rolled down.  I rolled down mine as well so she could say her piece.  She asked me -- politely, to her credit -- to slow down and enjoy life more.  Somehow, capitalism was also involved.  I'm fairly certain bad driving and bad logic does not always go together, but I do see a pattern where those defending bad driving does so with poor logic. 

I have heard and read this many times, verbally, in shows, in magazines, etc: in order to enjoy life, it is necessary to go through it slowly.  I fail to understand this premise.  How is speed related to enjoyment, in either direction?  It is true that some experiences are best at a slow pace: enjoying a well-prepared meal, spending a quiet evening with good friends, watching a whale migrating from a lazy sailboat.  Not all of life consists of these types of scenarios, though.  Many other pleasures are best with a potent mix of endorphins and adrenalin: winning a race, watching an intense movie or play, sex

Further, I am curious about a philosophy that says optimizing your waiting time at red lights is something to strive for.  Sure, there is a speed in the fast end that increases risk and aggravation, but there is also a speed in the low end that makes it seem like you are driving in slow motion and are getting nowhere fast.  The trouble is that these brackets are different for all of us.  The attentive drivers and the polite ones understand this and act accordingly.  A poor one invents philosophical excuses for being a nuisance.

Personally, I make no excuses for aiming to minimize the cost, in time and pain, of my transportation.  Anticipation accentuates pleasure, but efficiency increases its volume.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Spring in Denmark

It is the first spring I have experienced in Denmark in many years.  The sun is shining, the birds are singing, the flowers are blooming, and the ducklings are out.  I had forgotten how nice a time it can be here.


Sunday, May 13, 2012

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: The Perennially Impressive Show

Buffy the Vampire Slayer is not only my favorite show, but is so with an impressive margin.  I am stating it that way to emphasize how great Buffy is, not to denigrate other great shows, of which there are plenty.

One reason Buffy is head and shoulders above others is the many dimensions in which it offers entertainment: drama, humor, suspense, action.  It has elements from several themes, including horror and science-fiction.  Because of this broad coverage, I have heard many times people struggling with placing Buffy in a genre.  I do not find that hard at all: I think Buffy is clearly Fantasy.  It contains all the hallmarks of Fantasy, though its setting is contemporary.

Buffy's greatest strength is that despite some of the show's corny fantasy aspects, the drama is incredibly real.  Buffy has a family, she has friends and she has lovers, and they are all life-like, fallible people.  They lie to each other and let each other down and support each other and lift each other up in ways that are more literary than soap or genre.  I find it supremely ironic, but one of the most supernatural shows that have aired on TV contains some of the most plausible character-driven drama.

I recently watched the fourth season (for who knows which time), and the first episode, The Freshman, is a good case in point.  In it, Buffy struggles to adjust to campus life.  The episode serves as a good miniature of the show as a whole.  While Buffy has to deal with real-life struggles, she is also, for the first time since facing the Master in the first season, bested by vampires.  The metaphoric parallels between her real-life struggles and her combats against demonic villains are sometimes pretty thin, but they still work.

I believe all great shows must have great writers.  Buffy gave me a reverse observation of this.  After I had seen it once or twice, the episode "Inca Mummy Girl" became almost boring for me.  I checked the writer to see which other shows he had done and whether I found the same lack of quality.  It turned out the writer had only done that one Buffy episode.  It is not badly written, but it lacks the quirky humor and the edginess of the rest of the show.

I think the best season is the third one, and I may write about that later if the fancy strikes me.  Like most shows, it is best if watched from the very beginning, though.



Tuesday, March 27, 2012

The Most Important Supreme Court Case in 50 Years

This week, the Supreme Court is hearing arguments about the constitionality of ObamaCare.  Tim Sandefur calls it the most important case in 50 years.  I agree with Sandefur that the case is extremely important.  The issue of whether the insurance mandate is a good thing or not aside, this will be a landmark case that determines the scope of what congress can and cannot regulate.  It seems with the Raich and Wickard cases, this is already settled, but ObamaCare goes quite a bit further by regulating not just participation in a market, but even non-participation. 

The case has been heard at several lower courts, with mixed results.  Judge Vinson of the District Court in Northern Florida ruled against ObamaCare.  If you are interested in the case at all, and the legal arguments and precedents bearing on it, Vinson's ruling is a great read, regardless what you think of his conclusion.  He goes over the entire background and the legal arguments from both sides.  The text as linked is heavy with quotes, footnotes and parenthesis, which makes it a little hard to read, but it is worth it.  Here is a quote:

It would be a radical departure from existing case law to hold that Congresscan regulate inactivity under the Commerce Clause. If it has the power to compel an otherwise passive individual into a commercial transaction with a third partymerely by asserting --- as was done in the Act --- that compelling the actual transaction is itself “commercial and economic in nature, and substantially affects interstate commerce”, it is not hyperbolizing to suggest that Congress could do almost anything it wanted. It is difficult to imagine that a nation which began, at least in part, as the result of opposition to a British mandate giving the East India Company a monopoly and imposing a nominal tax on all tea sold in America would have set out to create a government with the power to force people to buy tea in the first place. If Congress can penalize a passive individual for failing to engage in commerce, the enumeration of powers in the Constitution would have been in vain for it would be “difficult to perceive any limitation on federal power”[Lopez, supra, 514 U.S. at 564], and we would have a Constitution in name only.Surely this is not what the Founding Fathers could have intended.