Wednesday, November 30, 2011

"What Is It Good For?"

Here's me from class yesterday: "What eventually destroyed the Bretton Woods system was the fact that a fixed exchange rate was exporting American inflation to other countries, who decided they didn't want it. Remember, in the late 60s and early 70s the US was fighting two wars, one on Poverty and one on the Vietnamese, both of whom won."

Title from the original title of Tolstoy's War and Peace.

The Deserving

Everybody deserves everything, it seems.

Photo from Reuters here

What is a pension? It's either pay you haven't earned, which is robbery, or it's pay you have earned, just earlier, which is forced saving.

Most people demanding a pension would take umbrage with the "robbery" characterization, so let's look at the second claim. A pension is not the world's only saving vehicle. If you can't get a pension, create your own through saving. Problem solved.

"But wait," you say. "What if you planned on the pension as your method of saving and are now finding out it's not available?" That's a serious problem. But if you earned the money, the money should be there. If it's not, you either didn't really earn it (so we're back to "pension = robbery"), or it was mismanaged.

The thing about claims of mismanagement is that these are all constitutional democracies that are having these problems. The managers were chosen by the sovereign people. The managers spent the money in broad daylight. The people didn't replace the managers, thereby giving tacit approval to the looting of the pension. They earned the value of the pension, and they were repaid in expanded government programs and services. Now the erstwhile pensioners tell us we have to cover the costs, in effect paying them twice. Unless our calculations of the value of their work was off by half, they want money they didn't earn. And now we're back to "robbery."

Looted savings, when undertaken by a non-governmental agency, is a crime. But it's also a secret while it's going on. No one can really claim surprise that Social Security's "lockbox" is a filing cabinet in West Virginia filled with records of how much Social Security money the government has already spent. That's not saving; that's spending.

So no one "deserves" a pension unless he's earned it. If he's earned it, it should be there. If it's not, it was mismanaged. If it was publicly mismanaged, pensioners have a revealed preference for not receiving pensions. Why does this then impose an obligation on anyone else?

Recent History

PROFESSOR: "[The use of the term 'inflation' to refer to an increase in the money supply, as opposed to its modern meaning of a rise in prices] was still occurring in the Mississippi Bubble, and that was in 1720, which is very late."

A RANDOM STRANGER [to himself]: "Wow, that is late!"

What has been going on in my brain that makes 1720 seem like recent history? I have no idea. Maybe it's because I've been reading A Canticle for Leibowitz, which, despite being set in the centuries after the 2600s, feels like it's set in the fifth century.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

The Squeaky Shoe Gets to Kick Your Face

There's a guy in my program that I don't really like. Let's call him Phil. I could catalog all the reasons, but I'm sort of busy today. (Or, rather, I'm supposed to be busy today. I mean, how busy can I really be when I'm blogging, right?) Suffice it to say, I don't like the guy.

Phil requested me as a Facebook friend and I accepted because I don't actively wish him any harm, which is my standard for becoming someone's Facebook friend. (Note: if we're not Facebook friends right now, it doesn't necessarily mean that I am actively wishing you harm; I might just not know who you are.) A few weeks later, however, he came up as a suggested friend, meaning he had defriended me.

I wasn't too broken up about it, since we weren't REAL friends to begin with (defined as someone who will help you bury a body with no questions asked), but it definitely has cooled what was an already-chilly relationship.

A few weeks ago, I walked into class a few steps behind another student. Phil said to the other student, "Oh, I heard your squeaky shoes and thought it was [A Random Stranger]." I said, "Do my shoes squeak?" Phil said, "Usually."

What? Firstly, my shoes don't squeak unless it has rained, in which case EVERYone's shoes squeak (except those of James Fenimore Cooper characters).

Secondly, why would a guy decide I wasn't worth taking one of his 5,000 friend slots, yet dedicate brain bandwidth to tracking the noises of my shoes? (Unless the reason he unfriended me was the shoe squeaking, but I refer you to my first point.)

Thirdly, Phil has a way of saying everything that is the opposite of friendly. Someone else could joke with me about my supposedly squeaky shoes, but when Phil says it, it's accusatory, as if my shoes are responsible for his terrible haircut and his boring-as-hell interest in robots and feudal Japan. (Hey, it turned out I wasn't too busy to catalog his faults after all!)

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Richard III 1

Holiday Travels

K. Jack Riley writes in his paper "Flight of Fancy? Air Passenger Security Since 9/11"

Researchers have estimated that the 9/11 attacks generated nearly 2,200 additional road traffic deaths in the United States through mid-2003 from a relative increase in driving and reduction in flying resulting from fear of additional terrorist attacks and associated reductions in the convenience of flying. If the new security measures are generating similar, or even smaller, substitutions and the driving risk has grown as hypothesized, the new methods could be contributing to more deaths annually on U.S. roads than have been experienced cumulatively since 9/11 from terrorism against air transportation targets around the world.

Happy driving, everybody!

Riley's paper appears as Chapter 12 of The Long Shadow of 9/11: America's Response to Terrorism, edited by Brian Michael Jenkins and John Paul Godges. It was recommended in Timothy Taylor's "Recommendations for Further Reading" in Journal of Economic Perspectives, Vol. 25, No. 4 (Fall 2011), which was blogged about by Scott Sumner here. One of Sumner's commenters claims TSA is not designed to prevent lives, but to protect the macro economy. If this is true, the TSA is a massive tax of the "corporate welfare" variety that gets the 99% all hot in the pants. My privacy is invaded and my body is given cancer so corporations can operate in a slightly-less-risky environment. Why are there no unwashed hippies occupying airport screening lines?

Monday, November 21, 2011

Cynical Lies and the Cynical Liar Who Tells Them

Since this is going to be a short week for me, I'm trying to get some stuff done in the office today (and failing spectacularly). That means I don't have a bunch of time for blogging (or do I? No, no I don't.), so I'll just jot down something I've been thinking about.

It seems pretty obvious that the "supercommittee" is neither super nor a committee. It's a collection of sound bytes about how the problem is the other side's fault. The decision has been made to miss the deadline and win voters next year.

And missing the deadline is not a bad thing. That means that the decision of what gets cut becomes automatic, getting out of the politically-inviable world of taking action against an entrenched interest.

The last time the specter of automatic cuts came up, the president said it would require withholding pay from military personnel. And that's the biggest thing I want to make sure everyone understands: THAT IS NOT TRUE.

Military pay would be withheld at the president's discretion. It wouldn't be a case of Obama saying, "Oh, I wish it didn't have to be this way." He would actively DECIDE to make it that way.

The problem is that the guy will do it in a heartbeat and lie about it for the next 11 months. Of all his lies ("I'm going to close Guantanamo," "My health-care law is deficit-neutral," "If you like your plan you can keep it"), this would be the worst, because it turns the lives of military personnel into a political tool. It would be like invading Canada to get a bump in the polls. If the public is fully informed, there will be no bump in the polls. Realize that military pay is a discretionary item when the automatic cuts kick in.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

"It's Been So Long Since I Have Felt Fine"

At the end of September, I realized it was the first time in over six years that I felt like I imagine a normal person feels, the previous time being May 2005. The bad news: that feeling left about the middle of October. The good news: it's still possible for me to feel like a normal person.

Title from Jim Croce's "New York's Not My Home."

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Talking to Me

About a year ago, I read Alison Weir's Princes in the Tower. Now I'm reading Shakespeare's Richard III. Last night my daughter was standing in front of the bookshelves, with her head blocking the SE section, which reminded me that I should add Desmond Seward's biography of Richard to my "to read soon stack." (It's a real stack, which teeters at 17 books. I feel like one of those ladies on "Hoarders" whose stack of newspapers shifts and crushes a beloved cat.)

I had Crazy Jane find the book behind her head and hand it to me. (Now the stack is 18 books.) I turned it over and noticed the dates of Richard's life: 1452 to 1485. I said to my wife, "Here's another guy who accomplished great things by the time he was 33. One more person who makes me look like a failure."

"I'm fine with what you've accomplished," she said.

"By the time he was my age, Richard was king of England."

"But that was something he was born into," my wife said. "He didn't have to do anything to get that."

"Are you kidding?" I asked. "He had to murder a lot of people. He had to kill Henry VI and his son, his brother Clarence, his nephews Edward V and the Duke of York, and a bunch of their uncles on their mother's side. That's, like, ten murders. Then he had to marry a couple times. All that's a lot of work."

Anyway, not only did Richard accomplish more by 33 than I did, but I'm almost 34 now, and Wikipedia says Richard died before his 33rd birthday, even. So I've spent a lot of this morning feeling like a terrible failure.

George Mason University economist Robin Hanson (whose Industrial Organization class I had) has a blog post today about this very thing:

In 1993, at the age of 34, I began a Ph.D. at Caltech, which I finished four years later. I probably didn’t make much more money afterward, but I’m a lot more satisfied with my life.


Human lives are long. If you are willing to work, you can radically change direction, even at the age of 34.

So I guess I'm not so bad off. I started my Ph.D. at 31; I might even be done before my 35th birthday. If Richard III is a better man than I, at least I have some company.

Friday, November 18, 2011

On the Prowl

So I'm ready to move.

Which is terrible, because we just moved to a new place that I actually like quite a bit. But I want to get out of this town. (I'm unsure if that means my particular suburb, Bakersfield-Near-the-Potomac, or the Washington area completely.)

I'm done actually needing to be in the Washington area in less than a month. We probably shouldn't move until next August, when our lease expires, but a sufficiently-nice opportunity could entice me to incur the lease-breaking penalties. The difficulty is that there are no opportunities around, let alone sufficiently-nice ones. So I'm stuck working four hours per week as an independent contractor.

Now is the time for all good readers to come to the aid of their blogger. I mean, I've spent YEARS cultivating my five-member readership; now that capital is going to pay off. Find me an economics job and you will be repaid with a handsomely-glowing review of your friendship on my blog. (How handsomely glowing, you ask? THIS handsomely glowing. Damn, that glow is HANDSOME, yo.)

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Blaming Everybody

I suspect most of my readers (three of the five of you) don't know who Jason Whitlock is. He's a sports columnist who wrote for the Kansas City Star and is syndicated nationally. He also writes for, where he's been among the ignorant masses howling for Joe Paterno's head on a pike.

I usually like Whitlock. Not that I always think he's right, but I think he's a pretty straight shooter. But on Penn State he is allowing illogical emotion to run roughshod over things like reason and truth.

In a hyperventilating Nov. 8 column, Whitlock claims Paterno could have reprimanded a non-employee, knew information Paterno says he didn't know at the time, should have contacted the police with the nuclear option of all possible criminal charges based on hearsay, and somehow delegitimized every victory in a 46-year career.

In his Nov. 17 column, Whitlock defends Mike McQueary thus:

I bring all this up because I think I understand the situation Mike McQueary faced when he walked in on Jerry Sandusky allegedly raping a 10-year-old boy in 2002. I bring it up because I believe many of the people loudly and quietly crucifying McQueary for apparently doing next to nothing to stop Sandusky would make the same choice as McQueary.




He's got to be kidding me. He's got to go on a few more paragraphs before typing, "Ahhh, I'm just messing with you!" Right?

Not at all. Whitlock, the man who says Paterno's reasoned nonresponse to a rumor deserves condemnation, says McQueary's senseless nonresponse to witnessed child sex abuse deserves understanding.

Whitlock says we hate McQueary because we see ourselves in him. To which I say, don't you dare tell me who I see myself in, Jason. First you claim Paterno has some sort of moral shortcoming that should bar him from his past accomplishments, and then you claim every American has a far-worse moral shortcoming. If we're all McQueary clones, then why can't Paterno keep coaching? Whitlock isn't giving up his columnist position. Everyone's terrible, but only Paterno has to lose his job for it.

Whitlock thinks replacing an S with a $ amounts to a cogent argument. In the first article he writes, "There should be an asterisk next to JoePa’s 409 victories. And if not an asterisk, at least a dollar sign, America’s favorite religious symbol, our justification for valuing institutions more than human beings." Then in the second column he writes, "Brooks wrote that people 'suffer from Motivated Blindness.' Not that I disagree with Brooks, but I believe he would’ve strengthened his column by referencing Motivated Blindne$$, America’s most powerful force when it comes to willfully ignoring lapses in ethics and adherence to law, common decency and morality."

A kid in my fifth-grade class, Marc, had a habit of repeating things he couldn't understand that he'd heard from his grandfather. Among his repertoire was the phrase "the almighty dollar." He'd bring it out at random, hoping he might one day stumble across an appropriate setting. (Sadly, fifth-grade never yielded one.) Aside from differing in age, name, and race, I'd swear maybe Marc grew up to be Whitlock. Blaming Paterno, exonerating McQueary, blaming dollars (and calling on Obama to fix it!) seems like the work of a guy making arguments he can't possibly understand.

Officeless Office Hours

At Undergrad U., my office was a "bullpen" type of cubicle setup. Here at Graduate U., I get a workstation open to the public that I have to share with seven other instructors. And since it's open to the public, a random student is using it as study space right now. So I'm holding my office hour on a couch in a hallway.

Fortunately for everyone, nobody comes to office hours.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Relying on the Smallness of the Mormon World

Once I was a regular reader of a stranger's blog until the blogger decided to make it private. Then I discovered that my wife's friend knew this blogger, and so the friend asked for an invite and then gave us her Google login information so we could continue reading.

That opened my eyes to how the smallness of the Mormon world can work for me. So now there's some information I want, but I don't know the involved parties well enough to just ask for it. I'll describe the situation to you, and I hope one of you knows the details I need.

A high school friend of mine is rarely on Facebook. When I requested him as a friend, his wife friended me, too, since she actually updates stuff. At first I was all, "I don't even KNOW you, mister," but now I've seen that it is actually quite sensible. I have a general knowledge of their family's activities and have a way to contact them.

So now I'm Facebook friends with a woman I've never met. And I happened to notice once that she was tagged in a photo with some friends/relatives of hers. And here's the situation I want to learn more about: one of the women in that picture has an enormous tattoo on her shoulder of either 1. Marilyn Monroe, or 2. herself. I want to know which one it is, and (in either case) what the hell it's doing there.

So think it over and let me know if you know a woman with this tattoo, and then give me the background information I seek.

Welcome to Fabulous

I feel the need to turn things up around here. And I figured if I started with my blog layout, the rest of my life would follow.

Here's the history of the blog layout, for those who care. A Random Stranger began 2 January 2006. It had a regular title across the top. Three years later, I learned how to change the background picture of the title space to create a headline image. On 3 January 2009 I uploaded a picture of the Flint Hills I'd taken the previous summer and unveiled "A Random Stranger IS... Your New Best Friend."

That lasted for about nine months. Then, like all harbingers of non-violent change, I realized violence gets things done. I gave up being your friend and threatened to beat you into submission. On 25 September 2009 I downloaded a picture of Sugar Ray Leonard and Roberto Duran, used Paint to add enough original content to satisfy fair use laws, and unveiled "A Random Stranger IS... Kicking Life's Ass."

Now the time has come for another change. Life isn't an adversary whose ass needs beating; life and I are working together to produce all kinds of awesome. (Plus, three of my kids can read now, and I don't want to have to explain to them why my blog title contains the word "ass" when they sneak up behind me in my office.)

And so today, I unveil "Welcome to Fabulous 'A Random Stranger' (A Good Blog)."


Hilarious Jokes That Aren't So Hilarious Anymore

From 1933 to 2009, fiscally conservative types used to say things like, "The national debt is a problem," and the more knowledgeable among us would laugh and say, "It's not a problem at all! We owe it to ourselves!" Steven Landsburg has a chapter of his book The Armchair Economist about how the national debt only looks bad when you don't understand what you're talking about.

In 2009, we saw the return of the sovereign debt crisis. It turns out national debts do matter. This made some fiscally conservative types uneasy about the large amount of American government debt held by China. "Well," laughed the more knowledgeable among us, "national debts matter for small countries. But you don't really think China's going to take over if we default, do you? That's preposterous!"

This year, we are seeing the European Union (the largest government there is, based on GDP size) start into a sovereign debt crisis. As Europe tries to find a way to pass around the bailout bill and somehow have it disappear in the process, China has come up as a possibility. Some fiscally conservative types question how independent EU policy will be when they are on the China payroll. French President Nicolas Sarkozy dismisses thus: "our independence will in no way be put into question by this." And then the EU delegation to China is presented a series of concessions China would like. They didn't give in to them now, but once French bonds get over 5%, they will.

Of course you lose your independence when you are indebted to someone. That was why non-landholders couldn't vote in a republic. The basic unit was not the individual, but the economic interest. One economic interest, one vote. (It also keeps the voters from stealing so much if they already have stuff themselves, and have stuff that other voters can steal right back.)

Ultimately, the final response to any lingering sovereign debt crisis is a loss of independence. Greece thinks they've already experienced this (but the reality is that it'll really be coming next year). Newfoundland lost its independence when the government went bankrupt. In Georgia, Campbell County and Milton County ceased to exist in response to economic conditions. These things have happened before, and they will happen again.

And it's not a bad thing, actually. Bankrupt companies are evidence of the failure of their directors, and their resources are sold to non-failure directors. We're better off having non-failures control more resources than failures do. The same thing will happen at a geopolitical level. If China ends up reducing America to a protectorate, it will be the result of the failure of the American government, and I couldn't very well support free market principles in one arena while saying failures should be insulated from their decisions' consequences in the arena of government.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Economics Genius

The eponymous genius is not me. (I wouldn't even know the word "eponymous" if I wasn't an REM fan.) It's my son.

I raked the back yard with the two boys this morning before heading off to teach. At the end of raking, Jerome said, "We didn't get all the leaves," and Joe said, "[Jerome], you couldn't get all the leaves unless you spent, like, 20 hours raking."

Yes, my seven-year-old understands diminishing marginal returns. Half of my upper-classman students don't get it. And more than half of America doesn't get it.

We got most of the leaves, but we didn't spend most of 20 hours raking. So why would we have to spend so much time to get our yard leaf-free? Joe understands that the first leaf raked is the easiest leaf to rake, and the last leaf to rake would be the hardest. After an hour we called it quits because the marginal benefit of raking had fallen below the marginal cost of the additional work.

What is my evidence that most Americans don't get this? The prevalence of "no child left behind" thinking. Honestly, some children should be left behind. The last kid to learn how to read--the one who just cannot learn how to read--is going to cost billions of dollars. Is it really worth that to us? Well, let's ask if it's really worth that to HIM. Who was the last person to spend billions to learn how to read? If no one makes such an effort for his own benefit, why should we collectively make such an effort for him?

I'm so happy that my son intuitively understands this. It's the best thing that's happened all day.

I'm a Person, Not a Resource

It's like my ward thought, "He might be losing his opinion that the church is only here to use him; let's do what we can to reinforce that."

I believe I've written before about my mission president who responded to my plea for help by telling me that I was taking time he needed to be spending on people who REALLY needed help. And that pretty much sums up the entire church, but especially my ward. When they need me to do something, they know my phone number; otherwise, they are not quite sure who I am.

Some of my friends have said, "You should go have a chat with your bishop." I said, "No, he's busy helping the crazy people (person?) of the ward." My friends said, "He'd rather be meeting with a normal person like you." But that is supposing that he has a fixed amount of time he's spending on his calling. The reality is that the crazies are going to get their share, and anything beyond that is coming out of his personal time. And, just like my mission president, when you're looking for someone to be angry with, it doesn't make much sense to be angry with the crazies, since they can't help it, so who does that leave?

To sum up: people sometimes like to think that God is pushing them to their breaking point to show them how strong they are. Instead, I think He does it to show me that I am breakable.

Point taken.

Early Morning Conspiracies

Once I was at the KU library late. At about 4am I headed home, wanting to get some food on the way. I went through the "Open 24 Hours" Burger King drive-thru on 6th Street, and they told me that they were balancing their receipts for the day and wouldn't be able to serve food for 15 minutes. So I went through the "Open 24 Hours" McDonald's drive-thru on the next block, and they told me that they were switching the menu over from dinner to breakfast and wouldn't be able to serve food for 15 minutes.

And do you know what I did next? If you guessed "bit my boyfriend on the arm and tore off his shirt" like this lady, you were wrong. I drove home and made a sandwich.

And I was even more wronged than this lady! At least she could buy food. I was blatantly lied to by TWO different neon signs. Maybe I should have bitten my boyfriend.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Fake Morality

So here's the Penn State scandal, neatly summarized by Wikipedia.

Jerry Sandusky allegedly did horrible things. James Calhoun says he saw it first-hand and told his supervisor, Jay Witherite. Neither James nor Jay told the police nor anyone further up the university chain of command. Mike McQueary says he saw it first-hand and told his supervisor, Joe Paterno. Neither Mike nor Joe told the police, but Joe told his supervisor, Tim Curley.

Tim and his supervisor, Bill Schultz, told Jerry not to bring kids to the university facilities anymore. Bill's supervisor, university president Graham Spanier, approved the decision (although it's unclear to me if Graham's approval was of the "Bill says he's a little concerned about Jerry having kids in here" variety or of the "Bill says Jerry is sodomizing kids in here" variety).

Jerry Sandusky's been arrested. Joe Paterno and Graham Spanier are said to have known about the crimes and have been fired. Mike McQueary, who says he SAW the crimes, has not been fired.

False accusations of sex crimes ruin lives. Joe Paterno had no knowledge (being told something is not knowledge), and so probably thought, "Hell, it isn't my job to investigate further," and passed along the tip to the man whose job it WAS. Tim Curley and Bill Schultz decide to cover it up. Graham Spanier signs off on something he probably wasn't told was a cover-up.

Fire Sandusky, obviously. Fire Curley and Schultz, fine. But also fire McQueary, the guy with first-hand knowledge. And don't fire Paterno--the victim of his supervisors' crimes--and probably don't fire Spanier--seemingly the victim of his underlings' crimes.

Pundits say Paterno "failed as a human being." But his decisions reflect uncertainty and the modern world. Uncertain of the truthfulness of the allegations, but aware of the modern world, where a single misconstrued event or sentence can ruin a man's career and reputation, Paterno acted rationally. With hindsight his critics now say he "should have done more." But at the time, he correctly balanced concern for the alleged victims with concern for the possibly-falsely-accused man.

"Acting with concern for the criminal?! That's repugnant!" That's the hindsight talking again. Critics who want a single baseless accusation to create immediate certainty of guilt are destroying our legal system in the name of "the victims."

Here in the DC area, a woman murdered her coworker. At the trial, it was said two employees of the shop next door heard arguing and someone ask "Please help me." These eavesdropping employees are said to be terrible people for not responding.

Responding how? Is the only way to be a "decent person" to be all up in everyone's bidniz? They employed Bayes's* Law and said, "Hmm, most disagreements aren't workplace murder."

Of course, Bayes's Law has had a tough time of it lately, being thrown out of court in England. We're entering a world where serial killers' neighbors no longer say, "He was so quiet," but now face prosecution for not TELLING someone the killer was so quiet. After all, murders are usually quiet, aren't they?

I feel bad for the Pennsylvania victims and the murdered DC worker. I condemn the crimes. But I cannot support spreading blame from those who knew and should have known to those who COULD have known.

* = Eighteenth-century is not ancient enough for me to give him the "just an apostrophe" treatment. Of course, with grammar you also have this "court of public opinion" issue, where continually referring to "baseball stadia" doesn't do anything but confirm your status as a pedant. Stephen Fry has an interesting take on language pedantry, but the video is too annoying to watch for me to imbed. Here's the link; be aware that it involves words flying around the screen for five minutes (pedants call it "kinetic typography").

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Clean Cleaning

Every day for the past two weeks I've told the kids to go clean up the playroom. A few minutes later they come back, claiming to be done.

Today my wife and I spent four hours down there cleaning. And we're still not done yet.

Friday, November 11, 2011

"Hopelessly Lugubrious"

Remember two months ago when I thought everything was going to be awesome? Yeah, me neither.

Title from "These Days" by The Rentals.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

"I Don't Know. Awesome?"

Articulate Joe can read now (hell, even Jerome Jerome the Metronome can read now), but that doesn't mean Joe wants to. He has progressed from fleeing the scene whenever I suggest we read together, to fleeing whenever he suspects I'll suggest we read together. And it's not a matter of the material: we read books that he claims to greatly enjoy. He just always has something he'd rather be doing than reading.

The result: when I finally corner him with a book, it takes a while for him to get back up to speed. Last night we sat down to read Mighty Monty by Johanna Hurwitz and it was the same routine; the first page was all guesswork, and then he actually read for a while, but two pages later, we got to a scene break and he tried to run out of the room.

I tried to explain to him that we were going to keep going, because he needed to read more often and for longer periods of time to limit his regression between attempts. We had this conversation.

A RANDOM STRANGER: Did you notice a difference between the first page you read and the other two? How did you do on the first page?

ARTICULATE JOE: I don't know. Awesome?

ARS: No, you did terribly. But then you remembered to read instead of guess, and you did really well. It's because you have to practice to stay good at something. That's why practice was invented. Even professionals practice; that's how they stay so good. You haven't practiced piano since July, so how well do you think you're going to play the piano when you finally decide to try again?

AJ: I've been practicing in my head every day.

ARS: This is why adults can't take children seriously, because kids say things that fly in the face of all received human understanding. Since the beginning of time people have known that it takes actual practice to get good at something, and then a kid says, 'I can get good at it by practicing in my head.'

AJ: I have!

ARS: There's a quote by a famous musician--I think he was a cellist--where he says--

AJ: What's a cellist?

ARS: A person who plays a cello.

AJ: What's a cello?

ARS: It's a giant violin that stands on the ground because it's too large to hold under your chin. And he says if he doesn't practice for one day, he notices a difference. And if he doesn't practice for two days, his wife can notice a difference. And if he doesn't practice for three days, the audience can notice a difference.* And he's one of the best cellists there is.

AJ: Did a piano player ever say that?

* = Internet sources are now telling me that it is violinist Jascha Heifetz, and his second day person isn't his wife, but critics. I think I communicated the truth of the quote in my paraphrase, though.

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

You People Bring Out the Worst in Me

Last week I was goaded by benniegirl into writing insensitive things about allergies. Yesterday when I mentioned I came away from stake conference with complaints, reader Richard Strang was quick to comment, "I'd like to hear the complaints."

On a not-unrelated note, I came home Sunday thinking of this "Saturday Night Live" sketch.

Specifically, I was reminded of the part when he says, "Did I try soapy water?! Soapy water was the first thing I tried! And then it was the tenth thing I tried! And then it was the hundreth thing I tried!"

You see, I've got some problems in my life. Not "oh, I had to get the Cadillac with suede seats but I really wanted the leather ones" kind of problems. On some parameters, my life is downright terrible. And so I left stake conference a little angry about messages like, "When you're having trouble in your life, you should pray."

It would be like going to a cancer specialist and getting a reminder to eat an apple. Is it a cancer-killing apple? Because if it is, that would be great. Otherwise, it might be a little too simplistic of an answer.

It might seem like I think prayer is useless. I don't. I just think MY prayers have been useless, and I could have used something more insightful to help me understand why.

Tuesday, November 08, 2011


Sometimes I think, "What if there was a lot of money to be made in scuba-diving in Port-A-Potties, looking for lost change? Would I still do it?" But here's an entirely different question: Would I have the good sense to not speak to reporters about it?

What is with Americans who are so stupid they don't realize they're stupid? Remember three years ago when I linked to the article about the lady who was complaining that she couldn't shop at Whole Foods anymore, and she felt like she was endangering her family as a result? (I do.) This lady didn't have the presence to keep her bidnez private.

Here's someone else who should keep his lips buttoned:

A few years ago, Joe Therrien, a graduate of the NYC Teaching Fellows program, was working as a full-time drama teacher at a public elementary school in New York City. Frustrated by huge class sizes, sparse resources and a disorganized bureaucracy, he set off to the University of Connecticut to get an MFA in his passion—-puppetry. Three years and $35,000 in student loans later, he emerged with degree in hand, and because puppeteers aren’t exactly in high demand, he went looking for work at his old school. [...] So even though Joe’s old principal was excited to have him back, she just couldn’t afford to hire a new full-time teacher. Instead, he’s working at his old school as a full-time “substitute”; he writes his own curriculum, holds regular classes and does everything a normal teacher does. “But sub pay is about 50 percent of a full-time salaried position,” he says, “so I’m working for half as much as I did four years ago, before grad school, and I don’t have health insurance…. It’s the best-paying job I could find.”

This is not one of those ubiquitous "people cause their own problems" articles (aren't you getting tired of how many of THOSE there are around lately?). It is instead one of the Occupy Wall Street fluff pieces passing for journalism these days.

Here are the facts: a guy quit a full-time job to incur debt to get a master's degree in puppetry. END OF STORY. Anything else is unnecessary; we already know we're dealing with an idiot here.

"But, but, but, it's his passion!" Then he has a revealed preference for poverty. Which is not to say that, just because I don't share that preference (or do I?), his preference is wrong. But he can't very well expect us to foam at the mouth at the temerity of those who have a revealed preference for wealth. Nobody got rich from Joe's idiocy. There's nothing to protest here. Go back to your puppets and poverty and leave the rest of us alone.

What's My Accent?

I had a meeting today with two guys from New York. They obviously sounded to me like they were from New York, but what did I sound like to them? Do I just have a "rest of America" accent, or can you pinpoint my past states of residence?

Here's what you should do: watch my last vlog (not all of it, just enough to refamiliarize yourself with my speech), and see if you think I sound like anything more than just an American.

Yes, we all agree this is a terrible post topic, but it was either this or complaints about stake conference. Which one would you rather hear?

Saturday, November 05, 2011

Raising the Bar

Blog reader Erik came to town yesterday to take me and my wife out to dinner (and pay for the whole thing), thereby setting a new standard for adequate blog readership. Let this be a lesson to the rest of you deadbeats.

Thursday, November 03, 2011

Can't Say I Agree With the Sentiment

Evidently Pirates outfielder Starling Marte is "bothered by groin tightness." To each his own, I guess.

Mail Bag: Allergies Edition

Last month I was going to write an insensitive post about allergies, then decided to censor myself. Long-suffering reader benniegirl wrote, "I'd still like to hear about the allergies though." Which just goes to show: my public demands the uncensored version.

You want uncensored? Well, all right, motherfu-- Just kidding. I'll keep some censoring in place. Just not any regarding allergies.

I never had allergies as a kid, so I grew up thinking that it was another way of saying "I didn't like something." I spent most of my childhood claiming to be allergic to watermelon.

I wouldn't go so far as to claim that ALL allergic reactions are psychosomatic, because people have reactions to unknown exposures. Sure, some people might feel fine until they see your cat, and then their eyes water, but other times the watering eyes cause them to look around for the hidden cat.

Allergies seem to have gotten out of hand, though. My daughter's Girl Scout troop is gluten-free because one member is gluten-free. Screw that! She can eat her crap snacks in the corner. The rest of us are having delicious cake.

Thirty years ago, what happened to the kids with the deadly peanut allergies? They died, I guess. It seems terrible until you remember that we all are going to die eventually. John Tavolta's character in The Boy in the Plastic Bubble was supposed to be dead. I mean, if you are allergic to EVERYthing, the chesty girl next door isn't going to be able to save you (unless she goes to a lot of medical schooling first).

If I had kids with allergies, I think I'd understand that the burden is on my family, not on society, to prevent my kids' exposure, and that there will be times when my kid is having a different experience. The other kids will be eating their peanut butter cookies and my kid will be eating his gross Fig Newtons. We don't have to make everybody have an equally miserable life just so my kid doesn't feel left out.

Wednesday, November 02, 2011

Entrepreneurial Plans

Next to our used book store is a consignment store called "Carousel." Which, for some reason, I thought was a homonym for the word "carousal." I thought the store specialized in lingerie, and that its name was a portmanteau of "consignment" and "arousal."

My wife pointed out to me that its name is actually the word "carousel," as in a thing that turns around at a fair. Which is a really appropriate name for a consignment store, come to think of it.

However, comma, you've got to admit that my lingerie consignment store idea is pretty great. My sister once gave me a copy of Marketing Precedes the Miracle by Calvin Grondahl, which contained a comic about DI being overrun with never-worn lingerie that Mormon husbands have bought for their wives (one wife per husband, smart ass). Which I take as evidence that there's a marketplace for Carousal. I figure Grondahl's cartoon will feature prominently in the prospectus I show potential investors.

Patent pending.

Tuesday, November 01, 2011


I'm not the only person who thinks it's a great place. From here:

National Geographic Traveler in its current issue lists Pittsburgh as one of the world’s 20 must-see places to visit. It is the only U.S. city listed and just one of four cities on the entire planet (along with London; Belfast, Northern Ireland; and Dresden, Germany).

Newbery Medal Winner, XXX Category

Last week we were in the local used book store (not a used bookstore, like a now-empty Borders), and I saw this book in the kids section.

I was drawn to it because I'm trying to make my daughter be interested in Greek mythology. So far it's been an uphill-road: she has really enjoyed reading the first three books of Carolyn Hennesy's Pandora series, but she is not as excited about Paul Shipton's Pig Scrolls,* and she refuses to read the second book in Mary Pope Osborne's Odyssey series, no matter how many times I renew it from the library.

Hoping to inflict even more classical antiquity on my daughter, I opened the book and read the first press blurb.

My cell phone camera doesn't focus well. It reads, "A sexy, sweeping tale, filled with drama, sassy humor, and vividly imagined domestic details."

Sexy? This book must be stocked in the wrong section (which happens a lot at our used book store).

Not so much. It's a "notable book for children" and a "best children's book of the year." Evidently what kids really need these days are sexy tales.

I understand that, when it comes to Greek mythology, modern authors are somewhat hamstrung by the source material. I mean, how do you tell a grade-school version of the tale of Europa (she did what with a bull?!)? But Paris can abduct Helen without having to get his sexy on, right? Portray her as more of an Audrey Hepburn type than a Megan Fox type. There's no need for the story of Troy to get any sexier than the author wants it to be. I think we'll be staying away from sexy versions of Greek myths for right now (unless that pig from Odysseus' boat** likes to get down).

* = When a work's title begins with either a definite or indefinite article, the article is dropped when the title is presented as a possession. Hence, A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, and Dickens's Christmas Carol are the same work. The book by Paul Shipton is entitled The Pig Scrolls.

** = Classical names ending in S don't receive a possessive S after the apostrophe. All other names do. Hence, the Jesus of antiquity owns Jesus' shoes, while a modern-day Hispanic named Jesus would own Jesus's shoes.