Monday, February 25, 2008

Next Time, Hal, You Can Just Post on Theory Bloc.

A question I submitted to the Freakonomics blog was honored with a response by eminent Google Economist Hal Varian.

Q: How can we explain the fairly entrenched position of Google, even though the differences in search algorithms are now only recognizable at the margins? Is there some hidden network effect that makes it better for all of us to use the same search engine?

A: The traditional forces that support market entrenchment, such as network effects, scale economies, and switching costs, don’t really apply to Google. To explain Google’s success, you have to go back to a much older economics concept: learning by doing. Google has been doing Web search for nearly 10 years, so it’s not surprising that we do it better than our competitors. And we’re working very hard to keep it that way!

I originally cringed at the response. (I *obviously* should have said "market entrenchment" rather than citing the narrow idea of network effects, which clearly don't apply here! What was I thinking!?) I was so taken by the mere acknowledgment of my question, I forgot to scrutinize the answer. Fellow commenter Kip, noting the response, accused Varian of dodging the question.

Perhaps Hal Varian anticipated the brief response would be inadequate, because he had already promoted my question to the spotlight on the Official Google Blog, providing an extended response.

Crooked Timber then reacted with further skepticism.

What do you think of Google's dominance?

(Far more importantly, what do you think of my new fame? I only ask because I care so deeply about all you little people, who helped me get where I am today. It's true there are Angels in this blogosphere!)

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Today's Word is "Exurb"

Not long after the brilliant "Why Obama Matters," The Atlantic attempts to seal its position as the New Yorker with Relevance with another must read article, titled to defy proper inflection as "The Next Slum?"

Leinberger speculates that with the rise in popularity of urban living, the urban poor are likely to be quickly displaced into the suburbs and exurbs, while the affluent pour into the inner-city.

I don't necessarily have any twists to add, but all the blogs are talking about it, so I didn't want us to fall behind.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Global Etiquette on Spy Satellite Shootdowns

China has criticized the U.S. shootdown of a spy satellite.

I found this ironic in light of the fuss last year.

We should just set a rule on this, so everyone knows whether its acceptable or not. Like double dipping, or not putting out the marble rye you receive from a guest.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

So you're worried about a recession?

Heard on Marketplace Morning Report (NPR) this morning:

Worst inflation in the world:

1: Zimbabwe - 100,000% inflation (and this is supposed to be a conservative guess)

2: Iraq - 60% inflation

somewhere down the list: U.S. - 3 to 4% inflation

Two things:

1. Do we have better tools to measure inflation? I remember history teachers using analogies for post-WWI German inflation like "People could save money by wallpapering their walls in German currency". Was Germany as bad as modern Zimbabwe, or was it only 90,000% inflation? Maybe 1,000,000% inflation?

2. Once it gets to 100,000% inflation is it even worth quantifying? I don't think I can wrap my brain around 100,000% inflation (and I have a good education and a high standard of living - two things that would be imperative for comprehending or at least empathizing with such a situation). We should probably go back to analogies.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Lessig for Congress!

So Lawrence Lessig, champion of Free Culture, is (considering) running for Congress, and I feel an overwhelming pull to move to California's 12th Congressional district to better support him.

Thanks, rc3.

UPDATE: Lessig has chosen not to run.

Michelle Obama: Open Mouth, Insert Foot

This blog has recently turned into an Obama lovefest, so in the interest of neutrality and before contributors start fainting at the sight of him, we should probably discuss his wife's controversial comments:

“Hope is making a comeback and, let me tell you, for the first time in my adult life, I am proud of my country. Not just because Barack is doing well, but I think people are hungry for change,”

and for a little more context, also:

“I have seen people who are hungry to be unified around some basic common issues and it has made me proud,”

Obviously the controversy is over the comment that would leave people to believe that Michelle Obama is/was either-

1. Really REALLY disenchanted with her country.
2. Lacking in a sufficient amount of patriotism to be First Lady.

Naturally, Obama opponents would argue the latter is true, as someone as well off as Michelle Obama clearly couldn't be totally lacking in U.S. pride since the age of 18/21. This goes back to a previous point I made when Hillary became embroiled in Johnson/Civil Rightsgate, which is - You have to manage rhetoric for the current media. Hillary and Michelle's comments may have been fine back in the 1960s when Presidents and candidates for President received four times as much airtime, but current media sound bites for high ranking political figures average between 12 to 15 seconds, leaving no time for context. What was true for the Clinton camp is true too for the Obama camp - If you want to make statements to rally a base, make sure the revolution is not being televised.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Contra Obama: The Role of Religion in a Democracy

Thanks to the efforts of Lawrence Lessig and Randall Munroe, I have recently decided to endorse Barack Obama for President in 2008 (This isn't that notable; my endorsement is not highly sought after).

Obama spoke on the role of religion and Democracy back in 2006. As I endorse Obama, I was pleased to see him champion the same sort of universal secularism I generally favor. But in the interest of intellectual integrity, I have to take issue with a few of his arguments. (This is probably why no one sought my endorsement.)

Democracy demands that the religiously motivated translate their concerns into universal, rather than religion-specific, values. It requires that their proposals be subject to argument, and amenable to reason. I may be opposed to abortion for religious reasons, but if I seek to pass a law banning the practice, I cannot simply point to the teachings of my church or evoke God's will. I have to explain why abortion violates some principle that is accessible to people of all faiths, including those with no faith at all.

In a democracy, no one group is expected to vote on behalf of another. Democrats do not vote on behalf of universal political principles, nor do Republicans. The religious do not vote on behalf of the secular, and the secular do not vote on behalf of the religious. The premise of democracy is that when we all vote according to our rational self interest, most people will end up getting what they want, and that's a good thing. Thomas Frank provides some unintentional evidence that we vote for our perceptions of the common good, rather than our personal (economic) interests, but Frank is surprised by this behavior precisely because it is not the inevitable premise of Democracy, as Obama suggests.

Secondly, Obama attempts to cast abortion as a uniquely religious concern. Don Marquis, for one, provides a completely secular argument against abortion. While this argument is not without its flaws, it shows it is a mistake to consider abortion a purely religious issue, analogous to mistaking theft as a religious issue simply because the religious generally consider it immoral.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

HD vs. Blu-Ray (and myths about Porn)

So the Blu-Ray/HD DVD war is all but over, with Blu-Ray coming out on top.
I think this provides an excellent opportunity to debunk a certain myth about the Porn industry.

It's been said again and again that Porn drives new consumer technology.

Since "[t]he adult industry's decision to embrace VHS in the early 1980s... helped kill Sony's Betamax...", if "the adult entertainment industry adopted HD-DVD", why didn't HD-DVD win the war?

Maybe the influence of porn is lower than the influence of urban legends.

Now, it's undeniable the internet has a bevy of porn (no links here, find it yourself), and many gadgets are adapted for porn even though that was their last intention. Even so, the failure of HD-DVD reminds us not to ascribe all important human behavior to our more risque impulses, regardless of whether or not it makes a good story.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

The real emergency is FEMA.

Remember those Katrina trailers? The ones we brought kinda late, after we failed to recognize there was even a disaster? Funny story about that... turns out they're laced with poison! Ha!

No, seriously, you folks should leave. We'd send you our other trailers, but we're pretty sure they all contain deadly vipers.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Delicate Delegates

It appears that Senators Clinton and Obama have been put in a tough spot by their equally rabid support bases: There is the increasing chance that neither will have enough delegates come the convention.

This has lead to a shifting of strategies, one desperate, one weak. First off, Hillary Clinton, and her camp's plan of attempting to seat (and count) delegates from the castoff states of Michigan and Florida (who held their primaries too early and were spanked like the bad little children they were). Hillary. For shame. In addition, Hillary thinks delegates should vote based off their idea of who would be the stronger candidate.

On the opposite end, Obama's camp is pleading with superdelegates to follow the "will of the people". I'm not sure he has a case here. Even though delegate math is not a hyper-realistic representation of the people's will, it's not THAT far off. The gap between these two (in registered Democrats mind's) is not too far apart.

So the question is - how should the superdelegates turn? Also, how fair is it that the Michigan and Florida delegates be counted? After all, Obama chose to take his name off those ballots (fact check that as I am going on recall). How would he have fared otherwise? Maybe Obama doesn't win Iowa if he keeps his name on the ballot (the same could be posited for Hillary in New Hampshire). What angles am I missing here?

Friday, February 08, 2008

What to look forward to in November

For the most part, the networks got Super Tuesday correct. They called a few contests early, but I haven't heard complaints about these calls being incorrect or influential. Along the same lines, Thursday's KC Star had an interesting blurb on how the networks divided up delegates to the leaders:

Clinton McCain
MSNBC 582 615
ABC 872 516
CBS 974 561
FNC 845 613

I was under the assumption that all the Republican contests were winner-take-all, so I'm not quite sure how there would be a 100 point swing between ABC and MSNBC's totals. Was there a handful of proportional delegates assigning states? The real 'mind blow' to me comes with the 400 point differential between MSNBC and CBS. Are we all using the same math here? 400 points is 1/5 the total needed to clinch the nomination among the Democrats. If the media is reporting facts (even estimates), they should be a little bit closer than 400 points in a race to 2000 points. I don't think that's expecting too much.

Thursday, February 07, 2008

Karmic justice?

Man is speeding (70mph in a 55mph zone), man hits teenage boy, teenage boy dies, man sues parents of teenage boy for nearly $30,000 in damages. Village comes to near riot in courthouse. Man drops lawsuit.

The fine details of the story include the man not being charged, but there being a 2-3 day window of appeal by the parents of the victim, that window passing, then the man brings the lawsuit. The area the incident happened in was so appalled they flooded the courthouse to the point where the driver knew he wouldn't win, and dropped the case. Additionally, the man may be on the hook for charges after all, due to the outraged masses causing some local political pressure.