Quote Of The Day

One morning’s natural calamity has delivered tens of thousands of new VICTIMS. Should we be surprised to see the casualty figures climbing rapidly, as we bid-up our collective transnational guilt? Cynically, bodies mean dollars right now.

The body count has grown in direct proportion to the ever-increasing promises of AID. In the same day that Colin Powell appeared on media defending MY country’s contributions and promising more, the body count climbed from 25,000 to 35,000. In the ensuing three days it seems the number has coalesced around 110,000, a four hundred percent increase from the initial reports. Add in the predicted deaths from typhus, cholera et al and we should just figure for a million plus dead.

It’s funny (in a “spooky” way – to quote Dame Edna) that countries have developed, overnight, an accurate census-taking capability when, even now, they don’t have roads, pharmaceuticals, or sewage treatment plants in their major, and uneffected cities.


Steve’s comment, left in response to Ginny’s post Borlaug & Egeland, has been echoing eerily in my ears these last few days as I’ve watched the ‘death toll’ skyrocketing in Indonesia and beyond. Perhaps I’m too cynical for my own good, but it appears to me that Natural Law is at work here: namely, when you reward something, you get more of it. In this case, body counts that are rising exponentially as each day passes. At current rates, I wouldn’t be surprised to see the entire population of Asia dead or homeless within a month.

It also seems Mr. Egeland’s comments have also had their intended effect. We now have Americans racing to ‘prove’ how generous they are and nations competing with one another to see who can provide the highest percentage of aid. Which brings me to another quote:

Generous deed should not be checked by cold counsel. ~Tolkien

Good advice, under the circumstances. Let’s provide all the aid we can, however suspicious the numbers are. The actual numbers aren’t important right now. People need food and clean water to drink. Bodies need to be gathered and buried. Many people are suddenly without homes. Let’s get those things taken care of. But let’s distribute the aid and help based on the experienced eyes and assessments of reliable organizations, not local bureaucrats, whom I trust not at all. They, I suspect, simply want control of as much of this money as they can get and as quickly as they can manage it. For them, this catastrophe is a windfall. For the bureaucrats, dead bodies are a cash crop.

And yes, I include the UN in that group.

BellSouth Update

A report of problems with BellSouth’s Internet service prompted me to check whether BellSouth fixed a privacy problem that I reported earlier. Sure enough, the problem appears to have been corrected. That’s good news.

My impression of BellSouth’s Internet operation is that they are competent technically but have bad customer-service. When I used their “business” DSL service I had a lot of difficulty getting connected and configured, but once set up everything worked reliably.

However, in the beginning, when I needed help, I found that almost every interaction with their sales and support people was a time-consuming ordeal. The sales person promised a grossly unrealistic installation date, and my subsequent calls for technical assistance required me to escalate almost every conversation through a hierarchy of incompetent reps until I reached someone who could actually help me.

It wasn’t difficult to infer that the main problem was the way BellSouth measured its employees’ performance for compensation purposes. In hindsight it seems obvious that the sales rep who misled me about my installation date was being paid in part based on how many new customers she signed up. She probably had an incentive to do whatever it took to convince me to become one of her statistics, even at the possible price of my later dissatisfaction. Since getting new DSL service from any ISP was, at the time, a matter of at least a month, one of the easiest ways to sway prospective customers would have been to promise, on a Friday afternoon, installation by the following Tuesday. And so she did.

Similarly, the tech-support people invariably asked me, formulaically at the conclusion of every phone interaction, whether I was satisfied that they had provided “excellent service.” In almost every case I was not, but the timing and manner of presentation of the question was so loaded as to make it difficult to say anything other than “yes.” By that time I wanted mainly to get off the phone, and the unspoken promise of the tech person’s boilerplate question was that a negative or ambiguous answer would elicit additional questions, maybe some time on hold while one waited for a supervisor, perhaps a burdensome online questionnaire, etc. (Not to mention that the deliberate, almost sullen tone in which the question was asked gave just a hint that a “no” answer would get the rep fired and his children would starve.) I eventually figured out how to game the support system and get the help I needed quickly, but the experience left a bad taste in my mouth, especially given that I was forced to pay premium rates under BellSouth’s business plan merely to get static IP. So when I decided to drop one of my ISPs it wasn’t difficult to decide which one to cancel.

Some of BellSouth’s deficiencies were caused by inadequately trained service people, but I think the main problem was bad management. By using the wrong customer-service metrics they created incentives for employees to waste customers’ time rather than solve problems quickly. At least that’s what I think was going on. Does anyone have a better explanation?

Quote of the Day

From Dennis Prager, one of my favorite op/ed writers:

Wish No. 2: The ACLU will create a leftist Boy Scouts.

The ACLU and other leftist groups are highly accomplished at destroying good institutions such as the Boy Scouts. But they rarely build good institutions. So instead of trying to destroy the Boy Scouts — because the Scouts require its members to make an oath to God and country and because the Scouts believe that boys and men who publicly announce they are sexually attracted only to males should not be Scouts — the ACLU should build something for boys in the image of its values. Since it is so easy to destroy, dear leftists, why not try to build? Start perhaps with a Progressive Boy Scouts that will have no oaths to God and will welcome all males who announce they are homosexual. Then one day we will see which Boy Scouts produces better people.

Amazon It Is

Thanks Fred for pointing out this interesting tidbit:

Maud Newton and Mark Sarvas are boycotting Amazon because, according BuyBlue.org, 61% of Amazon’s political donations went to Republicans — whereas Borders gave 100% and B&N gave 98% to Democrats. Seems a bit harsh to me, but I can respect their stance.

I’ve always liked Amazon. Great layout, fast delivery, and good prices.

Borders and B&N always seemed overpriced (both books and food/drink) with limited selection. Nice to browse, but when you need something specific, Amazon (or the local library) is the place to go. Not to mention the wear and tear public browsing causes at Borders and B&N. If I want to buy a new book or magazine, I rather it be new…

So I won’t be throwing my money at Borders and B&N anymore.

Buyblue.org is a useful site. I’ll be sure to use it to check who the big Republican donors are and buy from them.

Laser Laser, Burning Bright

Let’s start with some background first.

Jack Burton sent me a link to this website. With $699.99 US you, too, could have owned a handheld laser powerful enough to burn a hole through a plastic cup, or to put a dot on a cloud or tree miles away.

One of the lasers was used a few weeks ago to illuminate the cockpit of a commercial airplane at takeoff. Nothing happened except for an annoyed cockpit crew, and the plane continued on to its destination without incident. The Homeland Security guys felt compelled to issue a warning about it because they’d be in trouble if something did happen and they hadn’t said anything about it.

Now Prof. Reynolds has a post up talking about the commercial plane, and I’m waiting for an instalanche. (Probably won’t happen.)

As you might guess from my previous posts, I’m very skeptical about a terrorist using a laser to good effect. There seem to be so many problems with developing and fielding a working laser that even the US military doesn’t have one in its arsenal yet. But that doesn’t mean that some experimentation isn’t going on.

The go-to guy for info on the possibility for laser weapons (or even for new developments in military gear) is Murdoc Online. Case in point is this post from last year, where Murdoc points out that the Taipei Times is warning about a laser threat. I don’t think it’s any more credible than Murdoc did at the time.

Murdoc also let us know about an experimental laser system that’s mounted on a Humvee. The idea being to use the laser to destroy roadside bombs. I have no idea if it actually worked as advertised or if it’s something that didn’t pan out. Since I haven’t seen any press releases from the companies which make laser gear trumpeting how the US government is sending them large orders, I’d have to say that it probably is something that won’t be showing up any time soon.

Murdoc also has a post where he talks about simple, cheap laser defense. In all fairness the contact lenses mentioned only work against a specific frequency of laser light, but they would work.

So there you have it. Some idiot decides to use his souped-up laser pointer as a prank and Homeland Security warns of terrorists with Star Wars weapons. I suppose the prankster is happy. After all, even though no one knows who he is, he’s still kinda famous now.

Borlaug & Egeland

Our lives are easy – whether from the perspective of Jared Diamond’s book or our own lifetimes (my brother was out moving irrigation pipe in fifth grade and I was peddling around our village hawking newspapers – stories my children see as quite far from their experience). The deaths from the tsunami are hard to imagine, are horrible. The level of this human suffering seems beyond our ability to understand, to feel.

So, when a pompous and dry UN guy gets up and says we’re stingy, well, I’m likely to fall back on guilt. I could have put more into our Iraqi fund, I could be putting more into Tsunami relief. The charity to which our family devotes most of its energy is an ivory tower, designer one – setting up exchanges with Czech scholars, encouraging the teaching of Czech literature. But it does good and there is 0% overhead. You notice, these are all “I’s” – we think that way.

Okay, so I’m still on the defense but I am also not too crazy about my tax money’s “good deeds” being funneled through the UN conduit. We are always told to check out charities, to notice overhead – the UN’s percentage seems a bit too high for a good rating. (That’s part of the “I” – we notice things like that.)

But this post was prompted by one of those “good news we take for granted” moments – the “allies” Bush has lined up in his “coalition” are Australia, Japan, and India. And I observe, there he goes, being unilateral again. Australia’s like us – well, some would say “cocky” but we like to think we “honor indiviudualism.” But, let’s think about Japan & India.

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Quote Of The Day

The clear strategic conclusion remains what it should have been long before Coalition troops entered Saddam’s evil domain: No matter how strongly we wish it to be otherwise, we are engaged in a regional war, of which Iraq is but a single battlefield. The war cannot be won in Iraq alone, because the enemy is based throughout the region and his bases and headquarters are located beyond our current reach. His power is directly proportional to our unwillingness to see the true nature of the war, and our decision to limit the scope of our campaign.

[. . .]

No, we can only win in Iraq if we fully engage in the terror war, which means using our most lethal weapon — freedom — against the terror masters, all of them. The peoples of Syria, Iran, and Saudi Arabia are restive, they look to us for political support. Why have we not endorsed the call for political referenda in Syria and Iran? Why are we so (rightly and honorably) supportive of free elections in the Ukraine, while remaining silent about — or, in the disgraceful case of outgoing Secretary of State Colin Powell, openly hostile to — free elections in Iran and Syria? Why are we not advancing both our values and our interests in the war against the terror masters?

Michael Ledeen

Sarbanes Oxley

According to an unsubstantiated rumor, PricewaterhouseCoopers (the largest of the Big 4 accounting firms) has sent one of three letters to the boards of directors of their audit clients with December year-ends. The first says that the company is likely to pass its tests of internal controls; the second that the company could maybe pass if they bust their humps; the third is that they are unlikely to get a clean opinion. The unsubstantiated rumor also has it that as many as one-third of their clients are getting letter number 3 and are truly, deeply unhappy about it. I will be happy to retract this post as the occasion requires, since my source could be blowing more smoke than Pittsburgh in its heyday. We should know shortly.

Social Insecurity

I’m not a fan of big government. Being an honorary Chicagoboy, I think given any task, chances are, the private sector will do it twice as well for half the cost. So obviously, I think Social Security is a joke, and that private accounts are the way to go. Since it’s the Christmas lull, I put some ink to paper, which me being a financial analyst, means putting it on Excel. I did a simple spreadsheet to see how a private account for a baby boomer household retiring in 2004 would have fared against the government. This is based on commonly available information, so is not a fine tuned model, but it’s enough to make my point.

I took the Census bureau’s household income from 1967 to 2003. I assumed 2004 income levels are the same as 2003 for simplicity sake since it’s not available yet. I assumed the current 6.2% Social Security tax rate is the same from 1967 to 2004 also for simplicity’s sake. The assumption is that the 6.2% tax would go into a government administered private account instead of the general pot. I then took the Dow Jones Industrial Average from July 1, 1967 to July 1, 2004, and calculated the compounded annual returns for the private account. I picked the July 1st mid-year point to correct for year-end fluctuations. I based the returns on the DJIA because it’s available. I would have preferred the S&P 500, or a broad market index such as the Wilshire 5000, but they aren’t available. The good is that the DJIA represents the best of American industry such as GE, Coke, and Boeing. The bad is that it doesn’t truly reflect the technology revolution as say the S&P 500 would. But it’s life.

Assume also that after retirement the account shifts to a low risk interest bearing account earning 5% a year on the unused account balance.

According to their website, the current, unfunded, maximum payout for 2005 Social Security payments is $869 a month; which translates to $10,428 per year.

Assume someone had a stroke of genius in 1967, and enacted the Social Security Reform Act of 1967, shifting all contributions to private accounts and invested the accounts in the DJIA.

Assume further that Incognito’s worker bee household began contributions to the account at age 25 in 1967, retiring in 2004 at age 62. If Nito’s household has always been in the mid-tier household income bracket, his final 2004 household income would be $54,453 a year. Under the plan, his monthly payout from the plan would be $1,417 a month, or $17,000 a year. This is 63% more than the current Social Security payout. The huge difference is that the private account is funded for 20 years of retirement, or to age 82.

Say Nito’s household is in the top income bracket for all or most of his life. His final 2004 household income would be $154,120 a month. His household payments for retirement would be $3,583 a month, or $43,000 a year. Again, this would be fully funded for 20 years of retirement.

Second tier 2004 household income would be $86,867 a year. Monthly payments would be $2,167 a month or $26,000 a year.

Say Nito wasn’t very successful in life. Fourth tier ending 2004 household income would be $34,000 a year. Social Security payments would be $950 a month, or $11,400 a year. Fifth tier ending 2004 income would be $17,984 a year. Social Security payments would be $504 a month, or $6,050 a year. Again the big difference being that it’s fully funded.

So the only time you’ll be below the current Social Security maximum is if both husband and wife make minimum wage all their lives.

Change the number of retirement years from 20 to 15 or 10, and you’ll be living well.

What-if numbers amount to exactly zero ($0). But it makes you think.

Maybe 37 years from now we’ll still be talking about reforming Social Security. Maybe someone will say wow, wouldn’t it have been a great idea to put it in private accounts?

Here is my Excel.

More thoughts: Based on the Census Bureau, there are 112 million households in the U.S. If you take the current annual mid bracket Social Security contribution of $3,376 a year as the average, that’s $378 billion a year. Investing private accounts for Social Security in a broad market index would imply putting 98% of the amount back into the economy (index funds charge about 1% for management fees, going by my rule of thumb for government implies a 2% management fee for lazy bureaucrats.) You can argue that putting $370 billion back into the economy would create a tremendous amount of new jobs, which in theory would cascade into more income, more contributions, etc etc. lifting all boats.

Update: Looks like good ol’ Cato Institute was way ahead of me:

For example, assuming historical rates of return, if individuals born in 1970 were allowed to invest in stocks the amount they currently pay in Social Security taxes, those individuals could receive nearly six times the benefits that they are scheduled to receive under Social Security, as much as $11,729 per month. Even a low-wage earner would receive nearly three times the return on Social Security.

Update 2: Thanks to Cole for pointing out the correct historical rates.

I’ve updated the excel and the numbers blow away the current Social Security payments. Even the lowest bracket is comparable to the current unfunded maximum payout:

The Law & Iraq

Perhaps the essay (noted by Instapundit) by Brett H. McGurk, “A Lawyer in Baghdad” (published in The Green Bag: An Entertaining Journal of Law in the Autumn 2004 issue) describes what most lawyers know, but he gives outsiders (like me) a glimpse into that work. Pointing to some of the great paradoxes of law & occupation, he describes his work in the Green Zone. He notes the lack of precision and clarity in the rules under which the lawyers worked and the tensions in an occupation that also attempts to establish laws that arise from these specific (& fluid) circumstances. The necessity is at once to “affirmatively promote the welfare of the Iraqi people and establish conditions for self determination” which is a “positive mandate. . . far different than the largely negative obligations under the Convention and Regulations” (53-4).

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Guns, Germs And Steel: A Book Review

It’s usually hard to go wrong reading a Pulitzer Prize winner and this book is no exception. Some books concentrate on a particular point in history, a particular event, or even – sometimes fascinatingly – the life of a single person. This book is on the opposite side of that spectrum. The author, Jared Diamond, attempts no less than describing the story of human social and technological development since the end of the last Ice Age, a span of about 13,000 years, in one 500 page volume.

But this is not a “normal” history book. You will not read about the Assyrians or the Hapsburgs. That is a scale so fine as to pass easily through this book’s filter. This book is better described as historical science. Diamond tackles the big, macro-scale questions of “How?” and “Why?” did the human race get to where we are today.

In the preface to this book, Diamond describes the book’s scope:

We all know that history has proceeded very differently for peoples from different parts of the globe. In the 13,000 years since the end of last Ice Age, some parts of the world developed literate industrial societies with metal tools, other parts developed only non-literate farming societies, and still others retained societies of hunter-gatherers with stone tools. Those historical inequalities have cast long shadows on the modern world, because the literate societies with metal tools have conquered or exterminated the other societies.

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Notes from Louisiana

For me, as for most expatriate Louisianians, the holiday season means lots of quality time with my groundcar. Satellite radio definitely makes the experience much more pleasant.

I just got done spending a week in Louisiana for the holidays. While I was there, I ate lots of good food, spent time with friends and family, and read the paper.

And gained some interesting insights thereby…

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Quote Of The Day

As president, Clinton sold burial plots in Arlington Cemetery and liberals shrugged it off. What really gets their goat is the autopen. Evidently, the important thing was that every one of those pardons Clinton sold for cash on his last day in office was signed by Bill Clinton personally.

~Ann Coulter commenting on the Rumsfeld autosignature tempest. (Via Recovering Liberal)

This is a good example of a basic tactic in politics: when you’re in the opposition, the strategy is always “Attack!” It doesn’t matter what issue you’re attacking on because in the end, although most will fail to get real traction, some attacks will stick and do damage. It’s death by a thousand cuts. Attrition warfare.

The papers know this is a silly, non-issue. It doesn’t matter, nor does it stop them. It’s an attack, that’s the point. It’s one more pinprick that draws blood. Heap on the occassional body blow and your opponent, weakened finally to the point of exhaustion, stumbles and (hopefully) falls. We win.

Of course, had Donald Rumsfeld actually taken hours out his schedule each week to write and personally sign each letter of condolence, that would be a microscandal and point of attack as well. Imagine the story line, ‘Rumsfeld whiles away hours personally signing fallen soldiers’ death notices while commanders await important decisions.’ Or how about ‘Bush has SecDef do his dirty work.’ The possibilities are endless. Mind numbing too. The media elites wonder why so many Americans tune out 90% of what they say.

For the record, the sword cuts the other way as well. For all the things you could legitimately criticize Bill Clinton over, Monica-gate was an absurdity. I’m not endorsing adultery – far from it, I’m against it – but to tie up the US government in a months-long impeachment, to waste that much time and money over a matter that rightly belongs between Bill and Hillary and Monica, was ridiculus in the extreme. There’s been marital infidelity among presidents from Jefferson to JFK. Monica-gate was scandal mongering at its absolute worst. It was a national circus. Nothing like a touch of licentiousness to sell papers though. Or dead soldiers. One’s as good as the other. And either can advance your agenda. That’s all that matters.

Merry Christmas to All


The bells of waiting Advent ring,
The Tortoise stove is lit again
And lamp-oil light across the night
Has caught the streaks of winter rain
In many a stained-glass window sheen
From Crimson Lake to Hookers Green.

The holly in the windy hedge
And round the Manor House the yew
Will soon be stripped to deck the ledge,
The altar, font and arch and pew,
So that the villagers can say
‘The church looks nice’ on Christmas Day.

Provincial Public Houses blaze,
Corporation tramcars clang,
On lighted tenements I gaze,
Where paper decorations hang,
And bunting in the red Town Hall
Says ‘Merry Christmas to you all’.

And London shops on Christmas Eve
Are strung with silver bells and flowers
As hurrying clerks the City leave
To pigeon-haunted classic towers,
And marbled clouds go scudding by
The many-steepled London sky.

And girls in slacks remember Dad,
And oafish louts remember Mum,
And sleepless children’s hearts are glad.
And Christmas-morning bells say ‘Come!’
Even to shining ones who dwell
Safe in the Dorchester Hotel.

And is it true,
This most tremendous tale of all,
Seen in a stained-glass window’s hue,
A Baby in an ox’s stall ?
The Maker of the stars and sea
Become a Child on earth for me ?

And is it true ? For if it is,
No loving fingers tying strings
Around those tissued fripperies,
The sweet and silly Christmas things,
Bath salts and inexpensive scent
And hideous tie so kindly meant,

No love that in a family dwells,
No carolling in frosty air,
Nor all the steeple-shaking bells
Can with this single Truth compare –
That God was man in Palestine
And lives today in Bread and Wine.

Sir John Betjeman

Rendezvous with Titan

Huygens Probe Descends on Titan

Cassini, the NASA/JPL spacecraft currently in orbit around magnificent Saturn, is about to release a probe. On December the 24th, the European Space Agency (ESA) designed and built Huygens Probe will be released on a glide path calculated to insert it on a landing trajectory on Saturn’s largest moon, Titan. The landing is scheduled for January 14th, 2005.

The Huygens Probe is named after the multi-talented Dutch scientist Christiaan Huygens, who discovered Titan and Saturn’s rings in the 17th century.

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Tom Barnett’s Famous Powerpoint

Tom Barnett’s famous Powerpoint presentation can now be viewed online, courtesy of C-SPAN. The briefing takes 90 minutes and is followed by 1 hour of Q&A.

Having read The Pentagon’s New Map several months back and having some time now to digest and consider his ideas, I was oddly curious and strangely compelled to see the famous Pentagon briefing that started it all. Having watched it, I have to say I’m struck by one overwhelming feeling: his sense of optimism. I might even say he’s an idealist.

Tom envisions a world where a super-empowered UN, with a much expanded Security Council serving as an Executive (he recommends the G-20), decides where and when the US intervenes to enable the Core to take a bite out of the Gap.

I have to say I’m deeply torn by this idea. The Realist in me laughs. But the Idealist in me is intrigued:

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Himmelfarb’s 3 Enlightenments

One of the heroes of Gertrude Himmelfarb’s The Roads to Modernity is Adam Smith, saluted every day on our masthead. This book’s design (not a surprising one for a Victorian scholar) is to honor the British Enlightenment; to do this, she splits it in thirds. She devotes the first 150 pages to the British (“The Sociology of Virtue”) and then examines more briefly the French (“The Ideology of Reason”) and, finally, the American (“The Politics of Liberty”). The book is short and lucid. Her approach uses the French as foil to the English; the Americans not only offer a third and often later perspective but give life to many of the arguments from these eighteenth century British thinkers. Needless to say, she doesn’t see that as a bad thing. She argues, toward the end, that “If America is now exceptional, it is because it has inherited and preserved aspects of the British Enlightenment that the British themselves have disarded and that other countries (France, most notably) have never adopted.” (233)

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