Sunday, May 19, 2019

Asset Bubbles and Social Improvement

In his tail-covering memoir The Age of Turbulence, Alan Greenspan says that the rolling asset bubbles of the 21st century are the result of the enrichment of high-savings Asian societies; all this additional saving circles the globe, seeking profitable investment, competing up prices before moving on to the next market.

What if the owners of these resources were interested in advancing human welfare instead of maximizing their return? I'm not asking them to give their money away. But there is room for a lot of welfare-improving development that, because it would increase productivity and well-being, would have a positive return, even if not necessarily the highest possible return. Replacing Indian slums with modern housing seems like a better project than inflating a cryptocurrency bubble.

Saturday, May 18, 2019

The Biggest Change to Our Lives in the 21st Century

I'm going to go on record predicting that self-driving cars will cause the largest changes to modern life of any advancement in the next 50 years. My reason for that is this: everything that we do happens in physical space, and every aspect of physical space will change when we change how we access that space. Houses won't need driveways and garages, shops won't need parking, towns won't need street networks. We probably can't return to a village of pedestrian alleys, because people own a lot of crap and need ways of schlepping it about, but the dominant feature of my street can stop being the street itself.

"So why don't you make some money out of this, if you're so sure about it?" Well, I see opposing influences in play, and I don't know which will come to dominate. Towns could become denser, as all the former street space in the existing urban area is re-purposed, or towns could become less dense, as traffic and commuting times stop being concerns. So where's the money to be made, in buying the land on which the next exurb will be built, or in buying the land in the under-developed urban core?

Friday, May 17, 2019

That Famous Indianapolis Cheek

I was only in Indianapolis for about 16 hours, and I spent eight of them asleep, but I still managed to have two different run-ins with cheeky Indianapolis bums.

The first asked me for directions to the Salvation Army mission. I said, "I don't know because I'm not from here, but I'll look it up for you." I got out my phone and started searching for the information. The mention that I wasn't from town led him to ask me, "Do you have a hotel?" I thought for a moment, "Could there be any harm in telling him?" It seemed like the answer was no, so I said I did. Then he asked, "Can I go there with you?" I declined his offer. Then he asked, "Can you get me a hotel?" Again, I refused.

The next morning, walking to the train station at 5:30, I passed a man who asked me for some money. I said, "I only have two one-dollar bills, but you can have them." As I got them out, he asked, "What do you do for a living?" I said, "I'm an economics professor." He said, "I'm a philosopher; can you teach me?" I said, "I have to make a train." Then, as we parted, simultaneous to my wishing him a good day, he wished me a good night.

Free hotel rooms and free economics lessons: don't let it be said that the bums of Indianapolis have set their sights too low.

Thursday, May 16, 2019

"Kansas City, Here I Come"

Any time I'm going to Kansas City, I find myself singing the song "Kansas City" by Fats Domino: "I'm going to Kansas City / Kansas City, here I come." At one point in the song, he sings the methods he might use to reach Kansas City: "I might take a train / I might take a plane / But if I have to walk / I'm going just the same." This past weekend, as I was indeed taking a train to Kansas City, it made me wonder about the myriad ways I have used to reach that city.

AUTOMOBILE: I first visited Kansas City in 1983, arriving by car on a cross-country vacation from Ohio to Colorado.

BUS: My next method of visiting Kansas City was a Greyhound bus from Los Angeles in 1999. If you want to experience a segment of American society that you probably have never seen before, you should take a multi-day bus trip. After making several stops, each worse than the last, if wasn't until we reached Oklahoma City that the driver told us the station was in a bad neighborhood. I thought, "If the other neighborhoods weren't bad, how bad is this going to be?!"

PLANE: I first flew to Kansas City in 2001. It was August, so it was the last few weeks of the old way of air travel. The Kansas City airport was set up to allow you to walk about 20 yards from the end of the jetway, outside the airport, and into a car. Actually, 20 yards might be an exaggeration; it was probably closer to 10 yards.

TRAIN: Just this month, in 2019, I took a train to Kansas City for the first (and last?) time.

OTHER METHODS STILL TO BE USED: I haven't arrived by bicycle yet (although I did BUY a bicycle in Kansas City once; does THAT count?), or by boat. What's left? Hot-air balloon? Hyperloop?

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Analyzing Some Grammar

Another example of a consonant changing the pronunciation of an adjacent vowel: the plural noun "analyses" and the conjugated verb form "analyzes." As in, "He analyzes analyses for a living." Not only does the Y and the E change pronunciation, the stress moves, as well.

Why Idolatry Is Tempting

I am reading a version of the Bible about which I've read good things: The New Revised Standard Version (NRSV). It started as a desire to read the Apocrypha, which meant I had to get a new Bible, since The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints doesn't include the Apocrypha in its printing of the King James Version. Since I had to get a new Bible, I figured I'd get one that had good reviews from scholarly members of my church. Thus, the NRSV.

How's it going so far? Well, I've tried several times to read the Bible straight through, always with the KJV, and I've always given up in Numbers. This time, though, I am in 1 Samuel and doing fine.

Anyway, a few weeks ago, I read Deuteronomy 4:15-19:

Since you saw no form when the LORD spoke to you at Horeb out of the fire, take care and watch yourselves closely, so that you do not act corruptly by making an idol for yourselves, in the form of any figure--the likeness of male or female, the likeness of any animal that is on the earth, the likeness of any winged bird that flies in the air, the likeness of anything that creeps on the ground, the likeness of any fish that is in the water under the earth. And when you look up to the heavens and see the sun, the moon, and the stars, all the host of heaven, do not be led astray and bow down to them and serve them, things that the LORD your God has allotted to all the peoples everywhere under heaven.

I was intrigued by how Moses leads with the word "since;" because they do not see God, they are tempted to idolatry. It made me think about the Spencer W. Kimball talk from 1976, "The False Gods We Worship," when he said:

Few men have ever knowingly and deliberately chosen to reject God and his blessings. Rather, we learn from the scriptures that because the exercise of faith has always appeared to be more difficult than relying on things more immediately at hand, carnal man has tended to transfer his trust in God to material things. Therefore, in all ages when men have fallen under the power of Satan and lost the faith, they have put in its place a hope in the “arm of flesh” and in “gods of silver, and gold, of brass, iron, wood, and stone, which see not, nor hear, nor know” (Dan. 5:23)--that is, in idols. This I find to be a dominant theme in the Old Testament. Whatever thing a man sets his heart and his trust in most is his god; and if his god doesn’t also happen to be the true and living God of Israel, that man is laboring in idolatry.

President Kimball points out two specific ways in which modern America has succumbed to idolatry: trusting in our riches and our martial prowess for protection from want and enemies, instead of trusting in God.

I'm more sure than ever that every "deep insight" I have is old news to everyone else, and this is probably no exception. But I was impressed by the inclusion of the word "since" by Moses. He's telling us, "The condition you're in makes this temptation more appealing." It would be worth our attention to make sure we "watch [our]selves closely."

Descent Into Amtrak Hell

I am in Ohio for a few weeks, and during this time, I needed to go to Kansas City for my nephew's wedding. I didn't want to lose the two days that it would take to drive there and back, so I decided to take the train. Yes, it would be slower, but someone else would be driving, so I could work the whole time.

First problem: the train doesn't come within 60 miles of where I am. So I drove to Indianapolis and spent the night to be ready for an early-morning train to Chicago.

Things started well, and then deteriorated steadily. First, I found a seat with no problem, and spent the first part of the trip to Chicago watching Champions League highlights on my phone. We had no delays, and we got to Chicago right when we were supposed to.

In Chicago, I had the first tiny problem: I had access to the Metropolitan Lounge because I had purchased a business-class ticket, and I spent my long layover working in the lounge. However, after a few hours, the Internet connection started glitching, causing me to have to type things two or three times for the online-note-taking service I was using to be able to save my work.

We got on our train to Kansas City. I sat next to a man that I engaged in conversation. He proceeded to get plastered within the first two hours, then showed me a text from his mother that said, "Please don't get kicked off the train!" I went to the observation car to give him some time to either get arrested or pass out. When I returned about an hour later, he was slumped over on my seat. I carefully retrieved my bag and went to spend the rest of the trip in the observation car.

Shortly after crossing the Mississippi River, the Internet stopped working. The network wasn't even a visible option anymore. There was no mention of this, or explanation. It was just an amenity that was no longer there. This made it more difficult to communicate from rural northeast Missouri to let my ride in Kansas City know about our mounting delays. Evidently, freight traffic has precedence on United States railways? Of course; why wouldn't it? The passenger train is full of people, while the freight train is full of stuff that is so non-time-sensitive that it was sent by rail instead of by truck. (Freight rail firm's reply: "Passenger train travelers are so non-time-sensitive that they are taking a train instead of a plane." Touché.)

When I disembarked in Kansas City, though, the trip was not dealbreakingly bad. In fact, I was pleasantly surprised that my checked bag made the entire trip with no problem, and I only had to wait about two minutes to get it.

The morning after the wedding, my sister dropped me off at the train station for my 6-am train. The clerk said, "You should know that your train is very delayed." I asked, "How delayed?" He said, "It is expected to arrive at 11 o'clock." Getting to Chicago five hours late would mean that I would miss my train to Indianapolis. I asked about that, and a different clerk said, "You should be okay; sometimes trains make up time." With having to give way to every freight train, I didn't really see that as happening. Then he said, "If you're not going to make the transfer, they'll pull you off the train in Galesburg and send you to Indianapolis by bus."

So I could sit in the station for five hours for the opportunity to ride a bus across Illinois, or I could look into other travel options. If I had access to the Metropolitan Lounge for those five hours, it might have been tolerable, but the seating in Kansas City's Union Station is exclusively those wooden benches from the 1940s that they have in literally every train station.

I reserved a car on my phone, rode the city bus to the rental office, drove myself to Indianapolis, took an Uber to my parked car, and then drove myself back to Ohio, arriving more than seven hours ahead of schedule. When the train finally reached Kansas City and I wasn't there, Amtrak sent me an e-mail asking me to contact them. I thought, "Fat chance, Amtrak!" I had learned my lesson: people don't travel by train in the United States because it's not really an option for anyone desiring anything other than the experience of a train trip.

To Amtrak's credit, all on their own, they refunded half the value of my return ticket. But I still think a massive overhaul of the rail industry will be needed before I consider riding the train again anywhere but the Northeast Corridor.

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

Anti Busy-Body

In church on Sunday, I watched a young woman cough into her sleeve, and it made me sad. I get that it's probably a better solution than using your hands, but the part of me that is anti busy-body doesn't want to see society adopt this convention. Somewhere there is a smug person thinking, "I started the sleeve-coughing thing," and every time she sees someone cough into his sleeve, she feels slightly more superior.

Recently, Gmail has started reading the e-mails I'm composing and suggesting words that come next. Even though these suggestions are usually correct, I make a point of not only not accepting them, but changing my planned phrasing.

Instagram is suggesting I follow accounts of people based only on the fact that I have e-mailed these people in the past, even though I have never given Instagram permission to mine my e-mail contacts. I'll be damned if I accept a single one of their suggestions. I don't even use the URL that identifies how I got to an article when I want to re-share something. When I see a Facebook ad for something that I actually might be interested in, I open another tab and search for it.

A few weeks ago, I took a picture of my son's baseball team. A few days later, based on running that picture through facial-recognition software, my phone suggested I follow the Instagram account of one of my son's coaches. This is busy-bodiness to an extreme. I'd rather sneeze into my hands and then use some hand sanitizer than validate the rise of busy-body culture.

Wednesday, May 08, 2019

Thoughts on Weezer

On my drive from Florida to Ohio, I listened to a lot of the Weezer discography, in chronological order. Two things struck me: the back-tracking between "Pork & Beans" and "Back to the Shack," and the hints in "Memories" that perhaps Rivers is an unreliable source for information on how he composes songs.

First, the back-tracking. "Pork & Beans" is from the "red" album, which is probably the height of Weezer's experimentation. It is the album with band members playing instruments they don't usually play, or singing lead when they usually don't. And in the lyrics of "Pork & Beans," Rivers specifically says, "I ain't gonna do the things that you like ... I don't give a hoot about what you think."

In 2011, in a very serendipitous moment, I picked up a copy of a book entitled The Advanced Genius Theory, by Jason Hartley, that was being given away by some professor in my department. I love this book because it basically tells cranks like Comic Book Guy to sit down and shut up. If I had unlimited funds, I'd mail a copy of this book to every Weezer fan, especially the ones like Leslie Jones's character in this Saturday Night Live sketch. And in "Pork & Beans," Rivers was telling them, just like Hartley, to sit down and shut up.

Which is why "Back to the Shack" is so disappointing. Not that artists can't revisit their old style, but that the lyrics are such a mea culpa for the "red" album. "Maybe I should play the lead guitar and Pat should play the drums," is as close as you can get to singing the words, "The 'red' album was a mistake." It's like Rivers has internalized the argument that The Advanced Genius Theory is meant to dispel.

However, there's a style of Weezer fan who's not happy unless they are complaining about Weezer. And such a person wrote this review of the new "black" album. And this leads me to my second point: maybe Rivers's summary of his song-writing process is not to be believed. After all, in "Memories," he specifically sings, "Messing with the journalists and telling stupid lies." And if you're going to write a whole bunch of heart-felt lyrics like on "Make Believe" and just have people poop all over them, why not tell them that everything you write now comes from a spreadsheet and an algorithm (which, as we all know, is how Al and Tipper Gore practice birth control)?

I'm not convinced that the spreadsheet method is the real method. But even if it is, sit down and shut up.

Singing About Your Singing

Two years ago, I wrote about songs that refer to the properties of the songs themselves. I've since thought of another one, and I realized that there's a THIRD instance in "Thunder Road" that I somehow overlooked.

In "Thunder Road," Bruce Springsteen sings the line, "I know it's late, we can make it if we run," and he has to speed through the last three words of the line to make it fit.

Jason Mraz's "I'm Yours" has the line, "I won't hesitate no more," but he sings the word "hesitate" in a very halting--one could say, hesitating--manner.

Two years ago, Alana told me to check out an instance of this in Handel's "Messiah." Which I did not do. Sorry. I'll try to remember to do it now.

Saturday, May 04, 2019

Jedi Mind Tricks in Baseball

Last weekend, my son went in to pitch in his baseball game. I was watching from our dugout. He threw a pitch, and I quickly reacted to the pitch, which was good, by calling out, "There we go!" And then a second or two passed, and then the umpire called it a strike.

I said to my assistant coach, "I think I just talked the umpire into calling that a strike." He said, "You should try it again."

WORST GAME ENDING EVER: the umpire has been verbally calling "strike" for strikes, and silently pointing to first base for walks, ALL GAME LONG. We have the bases loaded and one out. The count is full. The batter takes the pitch, and the umpire silently points to first base. The runners advance. The batter doesn't know what to do, so I ask the umpire, "Was that strike three or ball four?" He says, "Strike three." Well, now, we have runners off their bases. So the other team tags one of them for the final out of the game. So, so infuriating.

The Days of Mosiah I: Worse Than We Thought?

One of the books I'm reading now is Name as Key-Word by Matthew L. Bowen. (And if that title isn't going to get you to throw down some cash, he's got an irresistible subtitle: Collected Essays on Onomastic Wordplay and the Temple in Mormon Scripture. Jeez, Matt, call Parade of Homes, 'cause you're about to have enough cash to buy one of those houses in Alpine that is larger than a stake center!

Anyway, today I've been reading a chapter entitled "Getting Cain and Gain." A lot of it is about secret combinations. Bowen notes that secret combinations led to the near-annihilation of the Jaredites twice before their final destruction (proving that Satan is the source of the saying, "Third time's a charm"). First in the days of Omer (Ether 9:12), then in the days of Heth (Ether 9:26), and finally in the days of Coriantumr (Ether 11:15).

I thought, "How does this parallel the Nephite experience?" After all, the Book of Ether served for them as the Book of Mormon serves for us: a cautionary tale of a former civilization that couldn't get its act together. At first glance, there are only two times secret combinations lead to Nephite destruction: once before the visitation of Christ, and once at the end of Nephite history. But if we look at the first Jaredite instance more closely, perhaps there is a Nephite parallel.

See, the final destruction of both the Jaredites and the Nephites came from internal warfare. The penultimate* destruction of both the Jaredites and the Nephites came from natural disasters. Heth's destruction is from famine, while the Nephite destruction is from, perhaps, volcanic activity. And the first destruction of the Jaredites is when the righteous king is warned to flee and allow the unrighteous elements of society to have it out. In Nephite history, while there's no indication that the problem facing Mosiah I was a secret combination, or that a majority of his society stayed behind, there's also no indication that these things didn't happen, and some reasons to expect they might have. Firstly, what type of behavior is bad enough for the Lord to pull his people out of society? And secondly, how much of society must be effected before the king has to flee instead of pull a Melchizedek (which is totally a thing, I've just decided)?

If Mosiah was more of an Omer than a Moses, fleeing with a small group instead of leading an exodus, then the Jaredite and Nephite experiences were symmetrical. And symmetry is pleasing.

* = obvious Rule of Life: seize every opportunity to use the word "penultimate."

Thursday, May 02, 2019

The Two-Way Stop Sign: A California Invention

I grew up in California, and learned to drive there. In California, every four-way stop sign is really a two-way stop sign. If two streets, Central and Main, intersect, the pattern goes like this:

Central (both directions at once, with those turning left hesitating and then completing the turn behind the cars that had gone in the opposite direction). Main (both directions at once, with those turning left hesitating and then completing the turn behind the cars that had gone in the opposite direction). Repeat.

Meanwhile, everywhere else in the country operates four-way stop signs like this:

???? I don't know; I learned the far-superior California system and have no time for your inefficiencies!

Everyone else goes one direction at a time, but in what order? I don't remember. And it seems so stupid to sit there and watch a car use the intersection in a way that doesn't conflict with how YOU are going to use it, but it's not your turn yet, so you CAN'T GO!

Wednesday, May 01, 2019

Real Floridians

Last week, my wife and I walked into Aldi. Right in the middle of the aisle was a strawberry. I said, "If we were a lower class of people, I'd intentionally step on that strawberry so I could call [local attorney who specializes in slip-and-fall accidents]." My wife said, "I slipped and fell on a blueberry at Walmart and I didn't sue anyone." I said, "Are we even real Floridians?"