Slow Week for Posts

Slow week. Sorry about the light posts. I’ve been knee-deep in a database upgrade over at the day job, and it’s killing my blogging time. I think I might latently be a database designer. There’s something so rewarding about it. And so very, very anal-retentive. I guess what I like about it most is the permanence of it. The database I’m re-developing has been in place for over a decade. And it shows. My database will have to function properly long after I’ve left this job. Which means making good documentation, built-in flexibility, and robustness.

I guess, thinking about it, that’s what appeals to me in politics and urban design: thinking long-term. So much of our lives is instant and up-to-the-minute, it’s nice to think about investments for which we won’t necessarily see the return. Done right, this database will really be useful once years and years of data get pumped into it. That’s when it will start to shine. And I won’t be there. Much like our parents and grandparents taxed themselves to build the highway system that I enjoy every day.

For more on the absurdity of our short attention spans, see The Long Now Foundation. They’ve built a clock that ticks once every 100 years, and is designed to last 10,000 years. A modern-day Stonehenge. It’s quite a remarkable project. As a kid, I remember my priest once saying that to contemplate eternity, think about a giant rock on a cliff. Imagine a bird flying by once very 100 years and brushing the rock with its wing. Eternity is the time it would take for the bird to erode the entire rock. That image stayed with me.

Anyway, sorry about the slow posts. I’m planning on upgrading our blog software (the trackback spammers have discovered us), so if everything goes away this week, you know why.

Tree. ‘Fraid?

Ed Kilgore reminds us that America is only free trade if and when it suits our interests. Case in point: Canadian timber. Theirs is cheaper than ours. We slapped it with tariffs. NAFTA ruled in favor of Canada. We ignored the ruling.

Imagine if Mexico tried to slap a tariff on our imports? We’d be up in arms. But then again, these free trade agreements aren’t about trade, in a two-way sense. They’re about cheap labor for Stateside companies. Remember: just ’cause you’re pro-free-trade, doesn’t mean you have to support some of these silly trade agreements that masquerade as free trade.

Dig?

A Universe, Precariously Standing on its End

It fascinates me that even with the war, hurricanes, a housing price bubble and more, it’s been such a slow-boil kind of summer that intelligent design has become a topic du jour. Maybe I’m not the only one with fond memories of long nights spent in dorm hallways, quoting philosophers half-understood. At least it moves the gathering clouds of kulturkampf to a somewhat higher plane.

A few days ago, I was standing in the shower, thinking about this and the rest of the vortex. I had to open a new can of shaving cream. I popped the small plastic top off (it was the kind that just covers the button on top of the can; about the diameter of a half-dollar, and maybe a quarter inch wide on the rim).

At this point I should tell you that I have a guilty pleasure when it comes to small bits of trash — bottle caps and the like. I thoroughly enjoy chucking them over my shoulder, over a fence, whatever, devil-may-care where they land. I think it helps me keep my sanity in what I otherwise try to make a highly regimented life.

So I popped the plastic cap off and as is my custom, I immediately threw it over the top of the shower door, land where it may.

I thought it made an odd sound.

I washed my hair, lathered and rinsed, checked for cancer, and slid the fiberglass door back to grab my towel and exit. And that’s when I saw my little cap, thrown blindly and randomly, standing straight up on its edge along the sloped seat of my toilet — a perfect 10 of a landing.

Which got me to thinking. There were an infinite number of possible resting positions for that cap. Granted, this was a bounded infinity, limited by my strength, the physical limitations imposed by walls, ceilings, and fixtures, etc., but infinite nonetheless. And yet, of all the possible positions, my cap came to rest in one of the most unlikely.

Clearly, this was a rare event. And it begs the question, how did it happen? I threw the cap with just the right force, at just the right angle, with just the right vectors of motion. The slight breeze blowing through the room was perfect. There was just enough moisture on the cap to overcome a certain amount of friction on impact, etc. I’d need a Cray and a math Ph.D to model it, but even though I can neither replicate it nor truly describe it it DID happen.

To make a giant leap, this is a quite a bit like like the creation of the universe, and by extension our planet. An initial set of preconditions led to one outcome (possibly very rare among all possible outcomes) with one result being that I’m here and able to throw small objects out of my shower.

And this is where the intelligent design folks get their gas from. On the cosmic scale, these events are so rare, they say, the preconditions so extraordinary, that that in itself provides evidence that there is some kind of intelligence which set those conditions, and possibly intervened at subsequent points, too. Further, the intelligent-designers almost always seem to believe that since their own sentience is undeniably a good [FOR THEM, at least ... Rick Santorum, I'm looking at you], that by extension the Designer itself is also good.

You see my point here. My shaving cream cap standing on its end was no product of intelligence. And the outcome achieved was extraordinary, it was not planned, or even hoped for. While it’s true that there was an agent who caused the outcome — or a “prime mover” to use the classical formulation — the agent in this case was acting without awareness of the outcome. I was simply “what came before,” and again there’s an analog in modern theories of cosmology (it’s generally accepted that the initial singularity must have come from some previously existing state).

Finally, there was no “goodness” in my throwing of the cap. In fact, quite the opposite if you happened to be the one tasked to pick up after me.

In the end, we’re left only with a universe that may be nothing more than a bottle cap standing on its end, designed by a balding Polack, and filled with reactionaries who want to waste our children’s time in school.

Real Estate Reality Check

Great article in Slate this morning on Real Estate agents and economics. Ever wonder how it is that Realtor comissions have stayed at 6 percent while the number of realtors grows each year? Me too. You’d think some smart realtor would offer 5 percent and make a hefty profit as a discounter. Turns out that they’re still getting their 6 percent, they’re just selling fewer and fewer homes:

A recently published study bears this out. Enrico Moretti and Chiang-Tai Hsieh of the University of California, Berkeley, studied the real-estate agent business in 282 metropolitan areas during a 10-year period. They compared agents in inflated markets to agents in flat-lining markets and found overwhelming evidence of the zero-profit condition in action. When housing prices rose, the number of agents did as well, and this, in turn, reduced the number of houses each agent sold by almost exactly the same proportion as the price increase. In Moretti and Hsiesh’s data, for example, houses cost 5.9 times more on average in San Francisco than they do in Steubenville, Ohio. But the average full-time agent working in Steubenville sells more than 22 houses per year, whereas the same agent in San Francisco sells less than one-fifth as much.

I guess this works out pretty well for everyone. Instead of entering the market and having to hustle and discount to sell a lot of homes for little commission, newbie realtors just have to hang back and wait for their one or two sales. Same money, less paperwork.

Movement on Fuel Standards

The Bush Administration has made a move on fuel standards. It’s something. The new system is designed to be as flexible as possible, splitting up the SUV market into six smaller segments, based on footprint:

Under the new attribute-based system, the standards would range from as high as 26.8 mpg in 2008 for smaller vehicles such as the Chrysler PT Cruiser and the Toyota RAV 4 to 20.4 mpg for large vehicles such as the Chevrolet Silverado and the Dodge Ram.

So not a huge change. My ’01 RAV 4 gets 22-27mpg already, depending on the type of driving. But it’s a start. What’s also interesting is that the proposal is based on the idea of cap-and-trade (of which I’m a fan):

The system provides flexibility — automakers could earn credits for exceeding the minimum in certain categories and apply them to a category where they don’t meet the standard.

It goes on to say that the American car makers are at a disadvantage because they make their bones from really big SUVs. Boo-freakin’-hoo.

In the end though, this all amounts to re-arranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. The ship’s goin’ down, folks. I’m guessing I’ll purchase one more traditionally-powered car in my lifetime, two at the most. After that the era of the internal combustion engine will be all but over.

The Iraqi Constitution

We’ve been remiss in talking about the Iraqi constitutional process, I realize. I find it fascinating, and I’m eager to suss it out. Hopefully on next week’s broadcast we’ll be able to organize some of our thoughts and give some feedback on this amazing process. In the meantime, Fred Kaplan has the money quote today:

Islam may not be incompatible with democracy, but Locke and Montesquieu take you there more directly.

Kaplan discusses some similarities and differences between Philadelphia 1787 and Baghdad 2005. My first reaction, which he doesn’t directly address: is the issue of Sharia Law in the constitution similar to America’s debates on slavery? i.e., will the Assembly in Baghdad “kick the can down the road,” the way that the Founding Fathers punted (for the sake of national unity) with the three-fifths compromise? If so, then it might mean that Iraq will still devolve into a bloody civil war, but on the plus side it would take four score and seven years to happen. I’ll take it!

Update!: Read to the end of the article before you post, Bruno!!

The American delegates punted their problem by agreeing that no amendment to ban slavery would be so much as considered until at least 1808. Some observers are now suggesting that the Iraqis do much the same with the question of Islamic law—defer the issue until later and, meanwhile, let each region or province find its own way.

There are those who oppose a deferral, noting that the Philadelphia evasion unraveled, triggering the Civil War of 1861-65. I would say this: If the Baghdad delegates hammer out a deal that might spark an Iraqi civil war 74 years from now, they should sign it at once. The bigger worry—which Bush’s analogies to the American Constitution do nothing to address—is how to avoid civil war in the coming months.

Heh. I guess Kaplan and I are on the same page.

I Held Out Hope

Popping around on Drudge today, I Saw this headline:

SAN FRAN BANS WWII BATTLESHIP…

I thought, well, Drudge is sneaky. It probably isn’t what I think it is. He usually constructs his headline to cause maximum uncomfortability to Howard Dean, Hillary Clinton, or the Democrats in general. But no, it’s true: the City of San Francisco has rejected a World War II battleship that was destined to be a tourist destination at Fisherman’s wharf:

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., a former San Francisco mayor, helped secure $3 million to tow the Iowa from Rhode Island to the Bay Area in 2001 in hopes of making touristy Fisherman’s Wharf its new home.

But city supervisors voted 8-3 last month to oppose taking in the ship, citing local opposition to the Iraq war and the military’s stance on gays, among other things.

“If I was going to commit any kind of money in recognition of war, then it should be toward peace, given what our war is in Iraq right now,” Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi said.

Feinstein called it a “very petty decision.”

I couldn’t agree more, Senator. Especially at a time when the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy is on the verge of being repealed. That aside, the logic doesn’t even add up. The Iowa is hardly a symbol of the Iraq War. Could it be that the supervisors are actually trying to divert attention from the 60th Anniversary of their city’s V-J day riots??

Look, I’ll admit that it’s a little creepy the way we Americans fetishize warships and warplanes, waltzing around in our bermuda shorts on these giant instruments of death, taking photos and eating ice cream.

But I gotta say, this move ranks right up there with Roy Moore’s display of the 10 Commandments on the nut-bar scale. Message to the SF City Supervisors: You’re Not Helping.

GOP Flip-Flops

The Carpetbagger reports that, against all odds, House Republicans are planning on bringing add-on private retirement accounts to a floor vote next session. Classic move, of course: use your weakness as a strength. Polls consistently show the Prez’s approval on Social Security hovering in the 30s.

But this particular move is bizarre for reasons that go beyond the usual Rovian jujitsu. Apparently the accounts, now euphemistically called “grow accounts,” are going to be financed with the Social Security trust fund. This is the same trust fund that the President himself claimed DIDN’T EXIST just four months ago. To hammer the point home, he even went so far as to take a dramatic trip to the Bureau of Public Debt in West Virginia to prove the point:

I have just come from the Bureau of Public Debt. I want to thank Van Zeck, Keith Rake, and Susan Chapman. Susan was the tour guide there at the Bureau of Public Debt. I went there because I’m trying to make a point about the Social Security trust. You see, a lot of people in America think there’s a trust, in this sense — that we take your money through payroll taxes and then we hold it for you, and then when you retire, we give it back to you. But that’s not the way it works.

There is no “trust fund,” just IOUs that I saw firsthand, that future generations will pay — will pay for either in higher taxes, or reduced benefits, or cuts to other critical government programs.

That’s right. There is no trust fund, sayeth the President. All that money from the surplus? Doesn’t exist. Except if the House GOP needs it. in that case, we’ll make sure we can come up with it. It’ll be interesting to see what happens if and when this comes up for Bush to sign. Will he remind Hastert and DeLay about all those useless pieces of paper he saw in West Virginia?

P.S. (for the sake of intellectual honesty): I realize that there’s a slight difference between the surplus (extra money that SS is taking in between now and 2016) and the trust fund (the total accumulation of said surpluses). The house GOP wants to use the surplus, not the trust fund, to fund these “grow accounts.” Still, the plan doesn’t pas the straight-face test: we’re not going to have any more surpluses in 10 years’ time. Which means these accounts are going to lose their funding source at the exact moment that Social Security becomes insolvent. That’s just crazy. It’s like putting on a band-aid and then taking it off right before you actually cut yourself. Thanks, guys!