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  • Archive for December, 2014

    Happy New Year

    Posted by Lexington Green on 31st December 2014 (All posts by )

    Anita Ekberg says Happy New Year

    Anita Ekberg joins me in wishing all of our contributors, readers, friends and families a healthy, happy, prosperous 2015.

    Posted in Holidays | 10 Comments »

    The Failure of State Sponsored Capitalism

    Posted by Carl from Chicago on 31st December 2014 (All posts by )

    It is my assertion that over the last few decades since the fall of communism a lack of understanding of how markets actually work has become commonplace around the world. When it was capitalism vs. communism (or socialism, or even fascism), you generally knew where you stood. To wit:

    • Capitalism said that the free market would provide the best outcome for society, while communism / socialism felt that capitalism had to be tempered and / or that key assets should be owned by the state 
    • Capitalism said that government should be small, and stick to a few areas of logical focus such as security and foreign affairs, while socialism / communism celebrated government and government jobs as a way to employ the citizenry and achieve social goals

    Subtly, the growing attraction of jobs that were primarily in the government sector (environmental jobs, education jobs, health care jobs, and outright government work) and the basic thought that you could build a nice, steady career there with assured benefits and pensions while “doing right for the world” became commonplace. These jobs were often seen as “nicer” and “better” than the ruthless corporate jobs that are continually vilified or parodied on television (such as “The Office” or virtually any thriller set in business).

    On a parallel scale, the idea that “State Owned Enterprises” (SOE) could be a significant part of the world economy, and compete effectively with private sector companies, became widespread. Let’s leave aside the companies that fell into the US governments’ hands during 2008-9 like the banks and car companies; I am focusing on the world wide companies, often country “champions”, that are in our midst and whose performance has now been hit with the usual causes of failure of these sorts of entities, including:

    1. Politically motivated investment
    2. Forced government subsidies or protectionist behavior
    3. Corruption
    The “poster child” for this negative outcome is Petrobras, the Brazilian oil company, which is 64% owned by the state.  Petrobras was briefly the 4th most valuable company in the world after their 2010 IPO; now it is barely in the top 100.  Petrobras hits all these typical failure points with a vengeance.  The government forced them to purchase goods and services from inefficient Brazilian suppliers, subsidized their citizens with Petrobras funds, pushed them to invest in deep offshore finds which were risky relative to the company’s capabilities, and finally just engaged in simple corruption to fund their political party candidates.  All of these actions weakened the company and now a downturn in oil prices and a heavy debt load put the company in a seriously bad state.

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Business, China, Crony Capitalism, Economics & Finance, Education | 20 Comments »

    Police Attitudes: Compare and Contrast

    Posted by Jonathan on 31st December 2014 (All posts by )

      

    Gun owners fear Maryland cops target them for traffic stops

    vs.

    Nashville Police Chief Defends Decision Not to Crack Down on Police Brutality Protesters

    Posted in Big Government, Civil Liberties, Civil Society, Law, Law Enforcement | 13 Comments »

    Movie Review: The Imitation Game

    Posted by David Foster on 30th December 2014 (All posts by )

    I recently saw this film, which is based on the life and exploits of the mathematician, codebreaker, and computer science pioneer Alan Turing.  It is very well acted and definitely worth seeing; it’s good for more people to become familiar with Turing’s story and the accomplishments of the Bletchley Park codebreakers.  HOWEVER, the extremely negative portrayal of Commander Alastair Denniston, who ran BP, seems to have little basis in fact. Denniston was a real person, and his family is understandably upset at the way he was misrepresented in the film. Dramatic license is one thing, but if you want a villain, then make one up; don’t turn a real historical non-villainous individual into one.  There have been several articles in the UK press lately about the film and its portrayal of various individuals, especially Denniston:

    Bletchley Park Commander not the ‘baddy’ he is in The Imitation Game, family says

    Bletchley Park ‘villain’ was kind and dedicated, says ex-colleague

    The Imitation Game falsely paints Bletchley Park commander

    The film also could have done a better job at giving credit to the Polish mathematicians who pioneered machine methods of codebreaking, before WWII began.  Also, the film gives the impression that Turing’s friend Joan Clark was the only female codebreaker at Bletchley…this is not true, a very large number of women worked at BP, and some of them were in professional codebreaking roles.  One of these women was Mavis Lever; I excerpted some of her writing about BP at my 2007 post the Bombe runs again.  And it seems that the real Alan Turing, while he definitely came across as a bit of an odd duck, was more likeable than he is (at least initially) portrayed in the film; he has been called “a very easily approachable man” who did in fact have a sense of humor.  There’s a bit too much of “standard character type 21037–eccentric genius” in this version of Turing.

    The above critiques to the contrary, though, you should definitely see the film.  It does a good job of maintaining interest, even for those like myself who are already pretty familiar with the history The filmmakers could have avoided the above problems without harming the film’s impact as drama; indeed, I think there are accuracy-related changes that could have made the film more rather than less dramatic.

    This article compares several of the fictionalized Bletchley Park individuals with the real-life counterparts.  And this piece, by a woman who has spent a lot of time studying Turing and BP, is focused particularly on the character of Turing in real life versus in the film.  Probably makes most sense to see the movie first and then read these links for additional perspective. 

     

    Posted in Britain, Film, Germany, History, Society, Tech, War and Peace | 17 Comments »

    Can China Liberalize in Time? Keep Your Eyes on Shandong

    Posted by T. Greer on 30th December 2014 (All posts by )

    This post was originally posted at The Scholars Stage on the 27th December, 2014. It has been re-posted here without alteration.

    Shandong is the red one. 


    Map by Uwe Dedering. Wikimedia.

    Things are looking up for President Xi Jinping. Arthur Groeber sums things up well in a challenge he recently gave China File readers: “Name one world leader with a better record.” [1] Mr. Groeber has a point. All those who predicted that the Hong Kong umbrella movement would prove an impossible crisis for President Xi have been proven wrong. The protestors are gone, but Xi is still around, signing energy deals with Russia, launching new international development banks, and even shaking Shinzo Abe’s hand. He has restructured the Chinese Communist Party’s most important policy bodies, and if the recently concluded 4th Plenum Communique is anything to judge by, more reforms are coming.  One domestic rival and crooked official after another has fallen to his anti-corruption campaign, which having felled 200,000 “tigers and flies” is now tearing into the once unassailable PLA. To top things off, sometime this summer Xi Jinping’s countrymen began calling him “Big Daddy Xi.”[2] The term is a compliment: President Xi is now the most popular leader on the planet.

    Aesop’s portrait of Xi Jinping

    “The Frogs Who Desired a King”
    Illustration by Milo Winter (1919). Wikimedia.

    For all of these reasons and more Xi Jinping is considered to be the most powerful leader China has seen since the days of Deng Xiaoping. Yet the real test of Xi Jinping’s power isn’t found on the foreign arena or in struggles to cleanse the party of graft.  Grand standing on the international stage and stoking up nationalist feeling is not hard for any leader–especially in China. The attempt to centralize the Communist  Party of China and purge the corrupt from its ranks is a much more impressive display, but in many ways this entire campaign is more a means than it is an end. What end? An obvious answer is that the good President pursues power for power’s sake, as leaders the world over are wont to do. But there is more to it than this. This man did not attain his high position through will-power alone. He was selected to accomplish a job that needs doing. And while the frogs may regret crowning the stork to be their king, it is worth our while to ask why the frogs desired a king in the first place. [3] In China’s case the answer is fairly simple: If Beijing does not want to see its own Japan-style “lost decade” then economic reform is needed, and it is needed urgently. Xi Jinping has been trusted with the power to reshape the Party because that is the kind of power that is needed to defeat the vested interests that stand in the way of economic liberalization.

    I won’t get into a full discussion of why reform is so urgent here–if you are curious I strongly recommend Michael Pettis‘ September essay, “What Does a ‘Good’ Chinese Adjustment Look Like?” which lays out the essential points in detail. More important for our discussion is the pace and scale that these reforms take. The 2013 Third Plenum was devoted to this question;  financial analysts have been abuzz ever since discussing how well the Plenum’s directives are being implemented. Of particular concern are the financial happenings at the county, city, and provincial levels. It was infrastructure spending by these governments that rode China through the recession, and that effort has left many of these governments over leveraged and left others liable for a host of non-performing loans. Reforming this system is necessary. It is also difficult, for it means slaughtering the favorite cash cows of powerful men and forcing China’s wealthy and connected to face the risk inherit in their poor investments instead of shifting losses to the state.


    Two views of China’s local debt, by province.

    Taken from Gabriel Wildau, “Half of Chinese Provinces deserve junk ratings, S&P warns,”
     Financial Times (20 November 2014)


     Any attempt to liberalize markets and end China’s financial repression must start here. By extension, any attempt to assess the power Xi Jinping has over the Party must also start here. We will know that Xi Jinping has the level of control over his country that everyone says he does when local government finances see substantive reforms. Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in China, Economics & Finance | 8 Comments »

    The Dark of the Year

    Posted by Sgt. Mom on 29th December 2014 (All posts by )

    The longest night, the shortest day, the turn of the year – and I think likely the oldest of our human celebrations, once our remotest ancestors began to pay attention to things. They would have noticed, and in the fullness of time, erected monumental stones to mark the progression of the sun, the moon, the stars, the seasons, the light and the dark and all of it. The farther north and south you go from the equator, the more marked are the seasonal differences in the length of day and night. Just north of the Arctic Circle in the year I spent at Sondrestrom Greenland, those mid-summer nights were a pale grey twilight – and the midwinter days a mere half-hour-long lessening of constant dark at about midday. It was an awesome experience, and exactly how awesome I only realized in retrospect. How my ancestors, in Europe, or even perhaps in the Middle East, would have looked to the longer days which would come after the turning of the year; the darkness lessening, sunlight and warmth returning for yet another season of growing things in the ground, and in the blessed trees, when the oxen and sheep, and other domesticated critters would bear offspring. And the great primitive cycle of the year would turn and turn again, with the birth of the Christ added into it in due time.
    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Anglosphere, Britain, Christianity, Civil Society, Deep Thoughts, Europe, Germany, Holidays, Human Behavior, Islam, Religion | 6 Comments »

    Black Lives Matter

    Posted by TM Lutas on 29th December 2014 (All posts by )

    It should be a bipartisan truism that black lives matter both in word and in deed. Unfortunately neither party gets it right. The Democrat sin is to not act as if black lives matter. The Republican sin is not to speak as if black lives matter. All in all, I find the GOP error less disgusting and wrong but it is wrong.

    In 2013, 14,196 people were murdered or became victims of non-negligent manislaughter. Not all law enforcement forces collect racial statistics so out of the 12,253 murders with race of victim attached, 6,261 were black victims. This is the largest racial grouping of all. The US population is 13.2% black. 77.7% of the country is white.
    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Civil Society, Crime and Punishment, Politics, USA | 26 Comments »

    Renting Vs. Buying

    Posted by Carl from Chicago on 29th December 2014 (All posts by )

    In the 2007-9 real estate boom and debacle here in Chicago there was a wave of newly built condominiums that swamped the market in River North, River East, the South and West Loop, and even Downtown. For a while the new buildings could do no wrong and then that disappeared into a pool of foreclosures and difficult times for condominium associations as they had to deal with vacant units and those that refused or were unable to pay assessments.

    In the 2012-5 period, that same area of Chicago has seen an enormous influx in new buildings, but this time it is different – they all seem to be rental units. Everyone seemed to learn the same lesson; condominiums can be hard to unload in a down market and the prices are highly variable (units sold for fire-sale prices during the nadir and condominium developers lost their shirts if they were holding inventory during that time), so let’s go with renters instead, who derive consistent returns for the building owner and lender.

    For a bit I even thought I’d try to put my condo on the market since prices have gone up. I figured I’d just rent for a while and not be exposed to future downturns. But as I looked around for equivalent value to my current condo in terms of location, views, bedrooms and bathrooms, I noted that I’d be paying $4500+ / month for an equivalent space, if I could find it at all (inventory of larger condos in modern buildings in good walkable areas was in fact very low). That just seemed crazy.
    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Chicagoania, Real Estate | 10 Comments »

    Posted by Jonathan on 28th December 2014 (All posts by )

    knish nosh

    Chicagoboyz contemplate the mystery of choice.

    Posted in Photos | 5 Comments »

    Autocomplete: Threat or Menace?

    Posted by Jonathan on 28th December 2014 (All posts by )

    “I’m losing my house.”

    A friend of mine sent me this text message when I was on my way to meet her. Fearing the worst, I called her. She told me she had just left her house and was on her way. Her fancy new cellphone’s predictive-text feature had changed “leaving” to “losing”.

    This kind of thing seems to happen a lot these days.

    Posted in Deep Thoughts, Personal Narrative | 6 Comments »

    The new “Islamic State” and its troubles.

    Posted by Michael Kennedy on 26th December 2014 (All posts by )

    The Washington Post is worried that the “Islamic State is failing as a state.”

    Services are collapsing, prices are soaring, and medicines are scarce in towns and cities across the “caliphate” proclaimed in Iraq and Syria by the Islamic State, residents say, belying the group’s boasts that it is delivering a model form of governance for Muslims.

    The Muslims have never been much at governing. In the early days after Muhammed and his nomadic warriors conquered much of the Middle East, the people pretty much governed themselves as the Arabs were better at fighting than governing.

    The “Golden Age of Islam” was from the rule of Harun al Rashid to the Mongol conquest, in 1260 to 1300. The Sack of Baghdad, which ended the “Golden Age”, occurred in 1258.

    Although the Abbasids had failed to prepare for the invasion, the Caliph believed that Baghdad could not fall to invading forces and refused to surrender. Hulagu subsequently besieged the city, which surrendered after 12 days. During the next week, the Mongols sacked Baghdad, committing numerous atrocities and destroying the Abbasids’ vast libraries, including the House of Wisdom. The Mongols executed Al-Musta’sim and massacred many residents of the city, which was left greatly depopulated.

    The Golden Age of Islam had been chiefly carried out by Christians and recent converts (mostly involuntary) who translated Greek classics into Arabic. It was mostly a fiction created in the 19th century.

    The metaphor of a golden age begins to be applied in 19th-century literature about Islamic history, in the context of the western cultural fashion of Orientalism. The author of a Handbook for Travelers in Syria and Palestine in 1868 observed that the most beautiful mosques of Damascus were “like Mohammedanism itself, now rapidly decaying” and relics of “the golden age of Islam”

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Current Events, History, Human Behavior, Iraq, Islam, Middle East, Obama, Terrorism | 39 Comments »

    25 Stories About Work – Unions in the Service Sector

    Posted by Carl from Chicago on 24th December 2014 (All posts by )

    I was recently on a plane doodling and thought of some funny / interesting stories from 25+ years of working and traveling. So I decided to write them up as short, random chapters of a non-book with the title of this post. Hope you enjoy them and / or find them interesting. Certainly the value will be at least equal to the marginal cost of the book (zero)…

    The Midwest, early 1990s

    When I was first starting out as an auditor I worked in Wisconsin at an electric utility. In your initial jobs as an auditor you were given the least interesting assignments, such as plant accounting. Assets like generating plants don’t usually change much in value from year to year so reconciling the plant assets was a job for the lowliest accountant.

    At the time the records for this plant were kept on what we called “13 column” yellow paper. I never thought about it until today but 13 columns was obviously chosen so that you had 12 individual months plus a thirteenth column for totals. The client’s records were partially computerized but some items (such as the plants built in the ’70s) were done manually.

    The guy who ran plant accounting was old, irascible, and disliked a young kid like myself who asked a lot of questions. They also were frustrated because ever year a new guy (or girl) took a look at the plant accounting records, since it was an entry level job, so they had no continuity and had to re-explain everything (badly) each year.

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in 25 Stories About Work | 18 Comments »

    Christmas 2014

    Posted by David Foster on 24th December 2014 (All posts by )

    Newgrange is an ancient structure in Ireland so constructed that the sun, at the exact time of the winter solstice, shines directly down a long corridor and illuminates the inner chamber. More about Newgrange here and here.

    Grim has an Arthurian passage about the Solstice.

    Don Sensing has thoughts astronomical, historical, and theological about the Star of Bethlehem.

    A wonderful 3-D representation of the Iglesia San Luis De Los Franceses. Just click on the link–then you can look around inside the cathedral. Use arrow keys or mouse to move left/right, up/down, and shift to zoom in, ctrl to zoom out.

    Vienna Boys Choir, from Maggie’s Farm

    Lappland in pictures…link came from the great and much-mourned Neptunus Lex

    Snowflakes and snow crystals, from Cal Tech. Lots of great photos

    A Romanian Christmas carol, from The Assistant Village Idiot

    In the bleak midwinter, from The Anchoress

    Rick Darby has some thoughts on the season. More here.

    A Christmas reading from Thomas Pynchon.

    The first radio broadcast of voice and music took place on Christmas Eve, 1906. (although there is debate about the historical veracity of this story)

    An air traffic control version of The Night Before Christmas.

    Ice sculptures from the St Paul winter carnival

    O Come, O Come, Emmanuel, sung by Enya

    Gerard Manley Hopkins

    Jeff Sypeck on a winter garden

    Posted in Architecture, Christianity, Holidays, Music, Religion | 6 Comments »

    A Christmas-appropriate Poem from Rudyard Kipling

    Posted by David Foster on 23rd December 2014 (All posts by )

    (may not seem like a Christmas-appropriate post based on the first 2 stanzas, but read on…)

    “Gold is for the mistress — silver for the maid —
    Copper for the craftsman cunning at his trade.”

    “Good!” said the Baron, sitting in his hall,
    “But Iron — Cold Iron — is master of them all.”

    So he made rebellion ‘gainst the King his liege,
    Camped before his citadel and summoned it to siege.
    “Nay!” said the cannoneer on the castle wall,
    “But Iron — Cold Iron — shall be master of you all!”

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Arts & Letters, Christianity, Holidays, Poetry | 12 Comments »

    The Christmas Eve Radio Broadcast of 1906

    Posted by David Foster on 22nd December 2014 (All posts by )

    …a case study in the difficulties of finding historical truth.

    On Christmas Eve of 1906, a few shipboard radio operators–listening through the static for signals in Morse code–heard something that they had never before heard on the radio, and that most had never expected to hear. A human voice.

    The first voice radio broadcast was conducted by Reginald Fessenden, originating from his experimental station at Brant Rock, Massachussetts. After introducing the transmission, Fessenden played a recording of Handel’s “Largo” and then sang “O Holy Night” while accompanying himself on the violin. Fessenden’s wife and a friend were then intended to conduct a Bible reading, but in the first-ever case of mike fright, they were unable to do it, so the reading was conducted by Fessenden as well.

    Fessenden’s radio work at this period was based on a high-frequency AC generator (alternator), an electromechanical device created by Ernst Alexanderson of GE and modified by Fessenden.   The signals were generated at somewhere around  45-80khz.  (Low frequency compared to today’s normal radio, where the AM band starts at around 500khz; high frequency compared to the 50-60 hz that AC generators normally produce.)  The Alexanderson machines were expensive and very large–broadcast radio on a commercial scale was not practical until the introduction of the vacuum tube for both transmitting and receiving, several years later.

    The italicized story, which was the subject of a post I wrote in 2004, has apparently been accepted in radio and electronics engineering circles for many years: in fact, in 2006 there were commemorative events of the broadcast.  More recently, though, the story has been challenged:  James O’Neal has done considerable research on the matter and concludes that the Christmas Eve broadcast never actually happened,  based on lack of contemporaneous evidence (logs of other radio stations, for example)  among other factors.  He argues that Fessenden was no shrinking violet, indeed, he was a publicity hound and would have been expected to do everything possible to publicize such an obviously PR-able achievement…if it had actually happened.  (There is no question that Fessenden did do pioneering work in radio, including speech/music transmission: the controversy deals specifically with the legendary Christman Eve broadcast.)

    Comes now John Belrose, who has also done considerable research on this matter and who argues that the broadcast did in fact happen.  Belrose notes that from a business point of view, Fessenden was pursuing radio for point-to-point applications, rather than broadcasting, and hence would have had no reason to devote great effort to publicizing the Christmas Eve event.  I found a much longer analytical piece by Belrose here; he has done further research and continues to believe that the broadcast did in fact happen. The associate editor of IEEE Antennas and Propagation Magazine, where the article appears, finds his arguments persuasive.

    1906 was only 108 years ago, not long in historical time. Yet even for an event so relatively recent, which would have involved several people directly and been heard by several more, and which was relevant to extremely intense litigation around the rights to various radio-related patents, anything near absolute certainty appears impossible to attain.

    In any event, here’s O Holy Night.

    Posted in History, Holidays, Tech | 12 Comments »

    Outsized Perceptions – At Twice Normal Size

    Posted by Sgt. Mom on 21st December 2014 (All posts by )

    When I first read of the survey (one story on it linked here) of how members of the public consistently overestimate the percentage of gays in the general population, I was not terribly surprised. Dismayed, yes – as it appeared that the younger cohort estimated the proportion of gay to straight at almost a third, which I thought would have run slap up against that cohort’s observation of the world around them. The actual percentage is round and about two percent, which tracks with my own real-world observation – but I can hardly blame the kids for assuming a much higher figure, knowing how many media creations prominently feature gay characters. Looking at TV shows, movies, books, games, the celebrity culture … one might very well assume that ‘gay’ constitutes a much larger portion of public space than they actually occupy, on a strictly numerical basis. The various media reflect ‘gay’ at several times their normal size. Like my neighbor’s basset hounds; it’s not that there are many, but the bassets are so very loud, a casual observer might assume that there are many more, based on the racket.
    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Americas, Civil Society, Current Events, North America, Obama, Society, Urban Issues, USA | 39 Comments »

    Clowns, Fools, and Generally Unpleasant People of the Week

    Posted by David Foster on 21st December 2014 (All posts by )

    1) If a report in The Chronicle of Higher Education (excerpted here)  is correct, then Rensselaer Polytechnic president Shirley Jackson seems a little…imperious…in her approach to her job.

    Having created the very model of an undemocratic, corporate university, President Jackson is appropriately imperious. According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, she has a series of rules that are clear to everyone. These include: 1) Only she is authorized to set the temperature in conference rooms; 2) Cabinet members all rise when she enters the room; 3) If food is served at a meeting, vice presidents clear her plate; and 4) She is always to be publicly introduced as “The Honorable Shirley Ann Jackson.” Falling into rages on occasion, she publicly abuses her staff and frequently remarks: “You know, I could fire you all.” In 2011, RPI’s Student Senate passed a resolution criticizing her “abrasive style,” “top-down leadership,” and the climate of “fear” she had instilled among administrators and staff. It even called upon RPI’s board of trustees to consider Jackson’s removal from office. But, once again, the board merely rallied in her defense.

    2) Senator Claire McCaskill, a Democrat from Missouri, blocked the nomination of Lt General Susan Helms to head the Air Force Space Command, leading to Helms’ subsequent retirement from the service. McCaskill assailed Helms’ 2012 decision to grant clemency to an officer serving at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., who had been convicted of aggravated sexual assault.

    Helms used her judgment and her command authority to prevent what she apparently viewed as an injustice, based on her review of evidence in the case.  McCaskill said that the clemency decision “sent a damaging message to survivors of sexual assault who are seeking justice in the military justice system.”  Apparently, McCaskill cares much more about “sending messages” than about justice to individuals. The message that she has sent to all American military commanders is this:  Do not ever extend clemency in a matter where an individual has been accused of an offense which is of particular concern to the Democratic Party, or your career will be immediately destroyed.

    If a governor pardons someone accused of witchcraft, then the governor himself must be a witch.  That seems to be the level of McCaskill’s thinking here.

    Much more about the case at this link.

    3) Ayaan Hirsi Ali is a very courageous woman who was raised as a Muslim and has been attempting, in the face of many threats, to warn the western world about the danger of Islamic extremism.  At an event in Washington, Joe Biden informed her that “ISIS had nothing to do with Islam.”  Hirsi Ali disagreed.  To which Slow Joe responded “Let me tell you one or two things about Islam.”

    4) Speaking of  Muslims…Omar Mahmood, a Muslim conservative who is a student at the University of Michigan, wrote a satire on political correctness, mocking the current vogue for claiming “microaggressions.”  He was denounced by students of  the “progressive” persuasion…”people attacked his dorm room door, egging it and leaving copies of his satirical article with notes on the backs including “Shut the f— up!” and “You scum embarrass us” and “DO YOU EVEN GO HERE?! LEAVE!!” along with various others, including an image of a creature with horns and another one of him with his eyes crossed out.”  Mahmood was also fired from the student newspaper.  He says that “the political environment on campus is radically left-wing and intolerant,” noting that:

    “Almost all student clubs have ‘social justice’ wings… some use violent rhetoric, shameless rhetoric, to promote their ideology, and call it ‘liberation.’ They call it ‘tolerance’ and ‘equality’ and ‘creating a safe space’ — which is all very ironic.”

    The students who reacted to Mahmood’s satire in this way are not worthy of being university students, or for that matter American citizens, and the administrators of this university should be ashamed of themselves for allowing such a climate to develop.  They won’t be, though.

    Posted in Academia, Civil Liberties, Islam, Law, Leftism, Military Affairs | 13 Comments »

    Macro-History: A Few Books

    Posted by T. Greer on 21st December 2014 (All posts by )

    This post was originally published at the Scholar’s Stage on 14 December 2014. Re-posted here without alteration.

    The last two months were far busier than I expected them to be. I apologize to the Stage’s readers for the lull in posting–more than once I started post or essay during these weeks only to discover that I did not have the spare time to finish it. Now that the Yuletide is upon us my workload is much lighter and I expect to polish up and publish a few of the things that have been sitting in the queue since October.

    Before I get into any of that, however, I would like to make a few book recommendations. Earlier this month Anton Howes—the proprietor of the excellent economic-history blog Capitalism’s Cradle and a PhD aspirant over at King’s College political economy program–asked his twitter followers for book recommendations on global economic history or other related macrohistorical topics.  In the thread that followed something close to 70 titles were recommended.  Participants tried to avoid the obvious choices (Braudel, Pomerantz, Acemoglu, etc.) for other important books that are easily overlooked or forgotten. If memory serves correct I recommended six or seven titles; at least half came from our mutual blog-friend Pseudoerasmus.

    For those interested in seeing the full list without trawling through twitter’s archives Mr. Howe created an Amazon wishlist that contains all the books recommended to him. The list is pretty neat. However, as I reviewed it earlier this week I realized that there are a few titles I forgot to suggest earlier that deserve a place on it. These are my suggested additions and a few comments on why I think they are worth your time:

    Robert Kelly’s Lifeways of Hunter-Gatherers: The Foraging Spectrum.

    (If you are to read one book on hunter-gather lifestyles, living standards, or decision-making models, this should be it. Unlike many cultural anthropologists, Kelly is a committed social scientist not afraid to model human decisions or present falsifiable theories. Also, the book teems with data). 

    Vaclav Smil’s Energy in Nature and Society: General Energetics of Complex Systems and Harvesting the Biosphere: What We Have Taken From Nature.

    (It is hard to dig into one of Vaclav Smil’s encyclopedic tomes and see the world through quite the same lens ever again. Smil has a deep appreciation for the physical stuff that civilization is made up of. He bridges the natural and social sciences with descriptions of human society and economic exchange as flows of energy and material. These books should be in your library as reference works, if nothing else).

    Mark Elvin’s The Pattern of the Chinese Past

    (This book is almost forty years old. It should be outdated, but I have not been able to find a better one-volume introduction to China’s institutional history or the Song dynasty’s “Medieval Economic Revolution”). 

    Fransesca Bray’s The Rice Economies: Technology and Development in Asian Societies.  

    (Both the opening and closing chapters of this book, which discuss the domestication of rice and the “Asian development model,” have been outmoded by newer research. The meat of the book–including a nuts-and-bolts description of rice agriculture in its many forms and a survey of the different agricultural models used to grow rice across East and Southeast Asia over the last two thousand years–is still very useful. Particular strengths are Song China, Tokugawa Japan, and early modern Malaysia).

    William McNiell’s The Pursuit of Power: Technology, Armed Force, and Society since AD 1000

    (I am reading this right now. As is always the case with McNiell’s work, this book is a panoramic presentation of the human past–a bird’s eye view of human civilization, so to speak.  It is both a history of armed conflict and a history of market exchange; his thesis is that neither one of these can be separated from the other. It will make you think).

    Chester G. Starr’s The Roman Empire, 27 BC-467 AD: A Study in Survival. 

    (I reread this book once every few years. It is a slim work and the best introduction to the structure of Roman society and Roman imperial institutions I know of. Read it before you jump into anything on the Roman economy).

    Richard Nisbett’s The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners Think Differently… and Why.

     (This book is not about economics or history. However, I think it is important for people working on comparative history, economics, sociology, etc. to be familiar with the research Nisbett summarizes here. For the last three decades social physiologists have performed dozens of experiments to find out if people from different parts of the world think the same way. Turns out they do not. Travelers have always known this, of course, but now there is a large body of replicable evidence to prove the point. Some of these differences are fascinating. Whether or not these differences are related to economic or technological development in these particular regions is still an open question–but people participating in the debate should be aware of these differences. Often they are not

    This field of study has really exploded over the last decade; hopefully Nisbett will publish a second edition that incorporates this newer research. Readers might also be interested in the longer review of The Geography of Thought I wrote for the Stage last year).


    That is it! This is the time of year people start posting book lists as Christmas gift recommendations. I suppose this list is good as any I might come up with, especially if comparative macro-history is your thing (and lets face it, if you are reading the Stage it probably is. Macro-history is what we do here). 

    On the odd chance that macro-history is not your kind of thing, I also invite you to review the books listed in “Quantum Libraries”  and the bolded items in “Every Book I Read in 2013” for some excellent books or novels on history, strategy, contemporary affairs, and other topics discussed here. 

    Are there are any books you recommend for the holidays?

    Posted in Book Notes | 5 Comments »

    Interview with Jeff Bezos — The Obstacles to Technological Breakthroughs (to America 3.0) are more Regulatory and Legal than Technological

    Posted by Lexington Green on 19th December 2014 (All posts by )

    Delivery Drone

    In a recent interview with Jeff Bezos, he notes that drone delivery will be more delayed by regulation than by technological capability.

    HB: Drones. You had this amazing “commercial” on “60 Minutes” last year, about this fantastic future when drones are going to fly out and bring me my package, and it’s going to be right there. Immediately, everybody in the country, and probably around the world, was saying, “Great — when?”
     
    JB: That’s a difficult question to answer. Technology is not going to be the long pole. The long pole is going to be regulatory. I just went and met with the primary team and saw the 10th- or 11th-generation drone flying around in the cage. It’s truly remarkable. It’s not just the physical airframe and electric motors and so on. The most interesting part of this is the autopilot and the guidance and control and the machine vision systems that make it all work. As for when, though, that is very difficult to predict. I’d bet you the ratio of lawyers to engineers on the primary team is probably the highest at Amazon.
     
    HB: Is this a situation where everyone else in the world except Americans is going to get drone deliveries?
     
    JB: I think it is sad but possible that the US could be late. It’s highly likely that other countries will do it first. I may be too skeptical. I hope I’m wrong.

    It is too bad that the USA is likely to be slow moving in making this — and many other types of new technology — available to the public.

    The same will certainly be true about driverless cars, or molecular medicine.

    We are going to need entrepreneur and activists and, yes, even lawyers, who are committed to making new technology available to the American people, with the inevitable disruption of existing relationships and expectations.

    Getting to a better America is possible, but nothing is inevitable.

    There will be many struggles along the way to America 3.0.

    Posted in America 3.0, Business, USA | 17 Comments »

    Posted by Jonathan on 18th December 2014 (All posts by )

    what inflation?

    Chicagoboyz closely monitor all relevant information sources for clues to the direction of Federal Reserve policy.

    Posted in Economics & Finance, Photos | 4 Comments »

    A Critique of Credentialism, circa 1500

    Posted by David Foster on 18th December 2014 (All posts by )

    …from Leonardo da Vinci.

    Leonardo did not attend a university to study the liberal arts, and apparently some of his contemporaries disrespected him considerably because of this omission.  His response:

    Because I am not a literary man some presumptuous persons will think that they may reasonably blame me by arguing that I am an unlettered man.  Foolish men!…They will say that because I have no letters I cannot express well what I want to treat of…They go about puffed up and pompous, dressed and decorated with the fruits not of their own labours but those of others, and they will not allow me my own.  And if they despise me, an inventor, how much more could they–who are not inventors but trumpeters and declaimers of the works of others–be blamed.

    (The quote is from Jean Gimpel’s book The Medieval Machine)

    Posted in Academia, Arts & Letters, Education, History, Lit Crit | 5 Comments »

    Chicagoboyz Commenting Issues

    Posted by Jonathan on 18th December 2014 (All posts by )

    A frequent commenter complained to me that he had tried to post comments and the comments either didn’t appear or he received a WordPress error message telling him that he had tried to post a duplicate comment. I’ve had similar problems myself once or twice. Is anyone else experiencing such issues? Please let me know if you are. There may be a tech issue, perhaps with our WordPress plugins. In that case it would help if I knew the scope of the problem so that I could find its cause.

    Thanks.

    UPDATE: The problem appears to be a browser issue.

    Posted in Announcements | Comments Off on Chicagoboyz Commenting Issues

    Cuba

    Posted by Michael Kennedy on 18th December 2014 (All posts by )

    Obama has announced that he will not only end the trade embargo with Cuba but establish full diplomatic relations.

    President Obama, as he has shown all year, isn’t about to go quietly into the lame-duck night, even with Republicans ready to take full power down the street. With the stunning announcement Wednesday that the United States is set to normalize relations with Cuba, the president is closing his self-termed “Year of Action” with a thunderclap.

    In doing so, Obama is serving notice to new Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell that a sitting president trumps a Congress divided both along party lines and within them. The shift comes about a month after the last time the president thrust his stick into the GOP’s eye, when Obama announced he was unilaterally providing widespread deportation relief to as many as 5 million illegal immigrants.

    I have no objection to ending the embargo, which has been mostly symbolic for years.

    Diplomatic relations is another matter.

    Even the Argentine Pope is involved apparently. Certainly, there is no reason why the Pope should recognize real democracy and freedom after a lifetime in Argentina.

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Americas, Announcements, Civil Liberties, Cuba, Leftism, Obama, Politics | 18 Comments »

    Crude Unglued

    Posted by Grurray on 18th December 2014 (All posts by )

    The big news in the financial world for the past few months has been the dramatic drop in oil prices. Since June oil has lost nearly 50% of its value and is now at a price not seen in over five years during the depths of the recession. Although the signs have been around for a while, the sudden and protracted decline has taken everyone by surprise. We’re now seeing all sorts of explanations, justifications, and ruminations about what it all means.

    Aside from homeowners in the Northeast who heat their homes with heating oil, the big impact on most of us is the lower gas prices to fill up our cars. If you’re like me, unless there is some big news about it, we really don’t notice fluctuations at the gas pump. However, when prices drop this much, it’s hard not to notice something is up. And in this case, that something is we have more money left over when we pull out. For most of us it’s certainly a good time of the year to have that kind of pleasant surprise.

    A lot of people, unfortunately, don’t see it that way. Some of them think that lower prices aren’t such a good thing. I guess some people can’t get into the holiday spirit.

    The esteemed liquidity expert and chronicler of the debt crisis John Mauldin has just dispatched a report on the oil price’s effects on overall growth. There’s a lot of information here, muddied somewhat by the gratuitous inclusion of the tinfoil hat brigade at Zero Hedge, who’ve never met an economic event they didn’t think was going to cause the collapse of Western Civilization. Here’s the important takeaway:

    Employment associated with energy production is going to fall over the course of next year. It’s not all bad news, though. Employment that benefits from lower energy prices is likely to remain stable or even rise. Think chemical companies that use natural gas as an input as an example.
    I am, however, at a loss to think of what could replace the jobs and GDP growth that the energy complex has recently created. Certainly, reduced production is going to impact capital expenditures. This all leads one to begin thinking about a much softer economy in the US in 2015.

    Thankfully, Mr. Mauldin dismissed the more ridiculous assertions going around that the drop in oil is a replay of the subprime credit crisis, but that does still leave us with a picture of the energy industry facing serious problems. The emergence of fracking has been an absolute boon for those communities sitting on shale oil and gas fields. One would expect their fortunes to be reversed when the price of oil drops.

    One immediate area that is starting to see some signs of life since oil dropped is employment of young workers. Now, kids in retail and entry level jobs may not restore confidence in those who see collapse of mighty industries around the bend. On the other hand, all the consternation lately about the rise of the machines, technological unemployment, and the lack of relevant job skills has a lot to do with companies unwilling or unable to invest in training unskilled and entry level workers because it’s simply not affordable. Kids getting jobs again is definitely a step in the right direction to correcting the mismatch. Except in overly regulated states, that is.

    Unlike every other state in the United States, California increased its minimum wage on 1 July 2014, just as the employment situation was about to improve across the entire country thanks to falling oil and fuel prices. No other state has likewise implemented an increase in their minimum wages during this period.
    By arbitrarily increasing their minimum wage from $8.00 to $9.00 per hour in July 2014, California’s politicians effectively jerked away the prospect of finding employment from its job-seeking teen population at a time when it would have its best chance at doing so in years, while also damaging their prospects for increased future earnings. All by making it too costly for the state’s employers to employ them profitably.

    Which tells us the real danger to growth isn’t the natural movements of markets but the unnatural manipulation from government.

    As for where the rest of the growth is going to come from to offset the decline in energy sectors, if the oil industry existed in a vacuum then there would be something to worry about. However, the fact is they sell to other industries and to consumers who will have more money to spend. Period. It’s not just petrochemical industries either. Car companies and heavy equipment industries and airlines and shipping companies and on and on and on.
    Why some people choose to ignore these benefits and obvious upside is somewhat baffling. Luckily I’m here to let them know: absent some other unforeseen shock, lower prices will definitely and absolutely create more jobs then it will destroy. End of story.

    But what about the energy industry? Surly lower prices will bankrupt it, end the American energy renaissance, and enslave us all to Arab Petro-Sheiks forever, right? It turns out that immense capital intensive projects like oil drilling take a long time and aren’t as responsive to price fluctuations. North American production is still expected to grow in 2015, mostly because there’s no alternative. The easy oil coming from Saudi Arabia that everyone believed was close to or at the peak is still probably running out. Sticking a straw into the ground and slurping up oil was great while it lasted, but it really is increasingly a thing of the past. That’s not a bad thing as new technologies naturally spring up to replace it and introduce innovations that bring the price down where it probably should be in the first place.

    Likewise, high prices encourage the discovery of new technologies that allow explorers to find and recover previously untapped reserves of oil. And high oil prices encourage the development of alternative sources of renewable energy, allowing us to shift away from the use of hydrocarbons altogether. In the graph, we can clearly see how these incentive effects worked to bring oil prices back down in the 1800s and the 1980s. Most likely, these same incentive effects will work to push oil prices lower in the years ahead.

    For years there was manipulation and a geopolitical premium on the price of oil. Now prices are dropping because the market is actually working correctly again. Let’s welcome it and allow it to continue.

    Posted in Uncategorized | 13 Comments »

    Happy Hanukka

    Posted by Jonathan on 16th December 2014 (All posts by )

    I’m going to make a suggestion that you will thank me for when you eat your potato latkes: cranberry sauce.

    latkes

    Posted in Holidays, Photos | 3 Comments »