Wednesday, January 29, 2014

The Dangers of Literacy

I might have already blogged this once, but I don't care. Given how little motivation I have to blog lately, I'm not going to pass up a post idea for a little problem like already having used it.

I take an ass-load of dietary supplements because I read a book that recommended it (and because I like making my urine as expensive as possible).

Anyway, my Vitamin C supplement is delicious and is sought after by our children as if it were candy. A few weeks ago, my 11-year-old daughter asked if she could have one. I said, "Yeah, but do you need help opening it?" She said, "No, I've known how to open those lids since I was five." My wife and I laughed at the ineffectiveness of "child-proof" caps and my daughter said, "What? The instructions are printed right on the cap!"

An interesting point: there are positive safety effects of teaching a child to read (they don't play with power lines and whatnot), but there are also negative safety effects (they learn how to open child-proof caps).

Another example of a negative safety effect of knowing how to read: I used to read a book while I rode my bike to and from school. I'd pay more attention in the morning, then in the afternoon I'd sort of remember where the parked cars were and put more effort into reading than looking around. Well, one day while I was at school, a roll-off trash bin was delivered to a house. I rode home thinking it wasn't there, and I ran directly into the thing, chipping one of my teeth. If I hadn't known how to read, my tooth would still be intact.

Of course this is hardly an argument to restrict literacy. I think we'd all agree the positive safety effects dwarf the negative ones. But in the modern world where no one wants to acknowledge any down-side of any policy he likes, it's important to recognize reminders that, in the real world, nothing is 100% good. There was a down-side to teaching my daughter to read. There's always a down-side. When a policy advocate won't engage with the down-side, he's at best (worst?) a demagogue, and at worst (best?) a fool.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Middle Class Would Be Sweet Right About Now

Here's an article with an interesting point, covered in a sea of garbage.

First the interesting point: one-third of those who self-identified as "middle-class" in 2008 now call themselves "lower-class" or "lower-middle-class." As the author, Kevin Drum, notes:

Class self-identification is deeply tied up with culture, not just income, and this decline means that a lot of people—about one in six Americans—now think of themselves as not just suffering an income drop, but suffering an income drop they consider permanent. Permanent enough that they now live in a different neighborhood, associate with different friends, and apparently consider themselves part of a different culture than they did just six years ago.
This speaks to me, as I'm one of those who considered myself middle-class in 2008 and now consider myself lower-class. I have suffered a permanent income drop. I have come to the realization that, if I want my family to prosper, I have to leave America. Like my ancestors who left Germany and Ireland and Greece and Czechia in the second half of the 19th century, I have to emigrate.

I'm not sure yet where we're going; most countries have much more stringent immigration requirements now than back then. So far I've looked into Belize, Chile, China, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada. But more on that some other time.

Now for the sea of garbage. Drum quotes the Nobel Laureate in Polarized Nonsense as writing, "Conservatives claim that character defects are the source of poverty." No, Paul, they don't, but it's a lot easier to make that position look stupid than to engage the actual conservative argument. Another writer known for perpetuating New Yorkers' stereotypes of conservatives, Andrew Sullivan, writes, "I have old childhood friends who are out of work or between jobs, or have kids with special needs who are going up on Facebook every day with brutal takedowns of Obamacare."

Ah, the elephant in the room. Obamacare. Because it is Obamacare that has moved me from the middle class to the lower class. It is Obamacare that has made it so I have to move my family to Chile or China to be able to work again. I mean really work, not stock shelves at Petco for 29 hours per week and then stock shelves at Target for another 29 hours per week. Sullivan's friends are angry about Obamacare because it is Obamacare that has made them out of work or between jobs. Hence the "brutal takedowns." But since Sullivan, like Krugman and Drum, comes from the view that Obamacare can never be wrong, the real explanation, of course, is that his West Virginia friends are just too partisan. "...they have no scruples about savaging anything with a D next to it."

It's not the D next to Obamacare that makes us erstwhile middle-classers hate it. It's the way it killed the American dream so quickly, leaving us in a position our ancestors left Europe 150 years ago to avoid.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Unplanned Hiatus

I'll probably be back to blogging regularly. Probably soon. Until then, read the archives and ask yourself, "Is this really the type of blog I want to be following?"

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Action Packed!

I've written a little about how American football has lost me as a fan. I've regressed to a deeply casual fan, really only interested in the team supported by all my relatives (the Pittsburgh Steelers) and certain personalities (I think Peyton Manning seems like a nice guy, and I don't like Bill Belichick). The flippant attitude toward player safety (of the league, team owners, team staff, players themselves, and fans) is what lost me. (That and the arrest season, I mean, off-season.) I don't watch boxing, I don't watch MMA, and now I hardly watch football.

My children and I have become big soccer fans. Which has led to me hearing the common American complaint about soccer: "It's so boring."

This complaint frustrates me, especially when it is said during one of the scoring-play commercial chains (you know, how it goes touchdown, commercial break, extra point, commercial break, kick off, commercial break). On the clock, soccer games are 90 minutes. Football games are 60 minutes. But watching a soccer game takes just under two hours, which is less than half the time of a prime-time NFL broadcast, like a Sunday night or playoff game.

Not only does football take a 60-minute game and spread it out over four hours, it doesn't even feature action for the entire 60 minutes. In fact, the average features about 11 minutes of actual "guys are playing football right now" action.

Soccer scores are lower, both in terms of total points and in terms of scoring events. But football fans recognize that a non-scoring play can be a great play. Both David Tyree's Super Bowl XLII catch and Mario Manningham's Super Bowl XLVI catch were non-scoring plays. Football fans decide to criticize the lack of scoring events in soccer because it's a metric on which they know soccer fares poorly. To generalize that to "boring" or "lacking action" is nonsense.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

I Once Knew a Woman With a Comment Named Smith

A Smith I know commented on my previous post with two suggested reasons for the prevalence of Smiths. One is the translation of names (Schmidt becomes Smith when coming to America), and the other is the straight assignation of new, Americanized names to immigrants.

Both of these things have directly affected my family. For years our family history records showed a woman in 1700s Bohemia named Rosalie Smith, which was obviously wrong, but it was only last week that I learned her name was Rosalie Schmidtova. A great-grandfather of mine left Greece as Frankiskos Margaritis (Φραγκίσκος Μαργαρίτης) only to discover upon his arrival at Ellis Island that he was Frank Morgan (Frank Morgan).

However, comma, I'm not convinced these account for what we observe. Translated names would only make a lot of Smiths if there were also a lot of Schmidts and all its other equivalents. This brings us back to why there are so many Smith-equivalents in all these countries with different languages. And changing everyone's name to something common points out that the new name was already seen as common. The immigration officials didn't choose "Smith" out of a hat; they chose it because it was already the most-common surname.

I could see the translation explanation being valid if not all names were translated. In this story, my Pferdehirt ancestors didn't get their name translated because the immigration official didn't know it meant "horse herder," but people named Schmidt got their names translated to Smith because that was something the worker knew. I'm not sure that accounts for "Smith" being in first place, but it could account for the size of the gap between first and second place.

Do You Want Tippa?

In junior high, boys of a certain maturity would come up to you and ask, "Do you want tippa?" When you answered, "What does that mean?" they would respond, "Just say yes or no!" (Hint: when a junior high school boy demands you answer a question you don't understand, ribaldry will ensue.)

But I'm not here to teach junior high school boys new jokes. I'm here to say I hate tipping.

Specifically, I hate that the acceptable tip as measured in percent of the bill has grown. When I was a boy, tipping was 10 percent. When I got to high school, it was 15 percent. Now most people will say 20 percent is the appropriate tip. I cannot understand why tips are increasing.

Some would argue it's because servers' wages haven't kept pace with inflation, so in real terms their income has gone down. Why is it my responsibility to make up the shortfall? As the cost of living goes up, wages should increase with it. If not, that means the servers' share of real output has decreased, or that servers lack the negotiating platform to ensure they receive wages equal to their share of output. However, market competition for good servers would be all that is necessary to get servers their earned wages, so only falling efficiency accounts for servers' real-wage cut. Now you come to me and tell me, "Servers are less productive than they used to be, so you need to pay them more money." That makes no sense.

Some would argue I should tip more because inflation makes the old tip smaller. But because I'm tipping a percentage of the bill, my tip (as measured in absolute dollars) increases as the price of food increases. Three percent inflation makes my $10 meal become a $10.30 meal. My 10-percent tip increases from $1 to $1.03. The server has not been harmed by the inflation. In fact, tips have cost-of-living adjustments built right in.

Some might argue that the share of output created the servers has in fact increased, so servers should receive a larger portion of my overall meal expense. Not only does this again suppose the presence in the server labor market of a fatal flaw not present in any other labor market (and one which economic theory says would not persist), it flies in the face of experience. Servers are not becoming more important to the restaurant experience. As evidence that servers are not responsible for a greater share of the restaurant experience, no restaurant advertises on the strength of its waitstaff. No one says, "Let's eat there; I heard the waiters are really good." Servers can lose you customers, but they rarely win them for you.

I once ate a restaurant where the menu had a notice that state law allowed the restaurant to pay the servers half of minimum wage with the expectation that the rest of their pay came from tips. This was supposed to guilt me into tipping well. However, why are these workers taking positions with such low pay? If this restaurant experienced a labor shortage, it would have to increase the wages it paid. If not, the workers are signalling the value of their human capital, so why would I be expected to pay them more than that?

So none of these arguments is sufficient for me to increase my tip. If 10 percent used to be acceptable, there is no scenario where 10 percent would no longer be at least as acceptable. Perhaps there is one remaining argument, that servers don't make much money. That's because what they do isn't very valuable. We can discuss how servers can increase their human capital, whether serving is an entry-level position or a career, and whether those with means in excess of their needs should give some of those means to others without calculating the contributions of the less-fortunate to overall output, but that's a large and thorny discussion that is just bypassed when you say, "You should tip more." You have yet to demonstrate this imperative. No one has a responsibility to respond to anyone's harebrained demands for more money. If you disagree, you should pay me $50 a month for writing this blog.

Monday, January 13, 2014

The Ubiquitous Smith

Any collection of English-speaking people has a lot of people named Smith. Perhaps the Chinese get their revenge for the "more chins than a Chinese phone book" joke with something along the line of "more Smiths than an English phone book." (Admittedly, it doesn't make much sense, but Chinese comedians go in for the absurdist school more often.)

Anyway, here's my question: why so many Smiths? I can think of two explanations, and I don't know which is correct.

  1. The Middle Ages needed a lot of smiths. Not only did every town have one, but every town had more than one. Stroll through a medieval hamlet with your eyes closed and you'd think you were hearing the beginning sounds of O Brother, Where Art Thou?. (You'd also step in poop. Probably human poop. Don't stroll through a medieval hamlet with your eyes closed.) When so many workers are smiths, it makes sense that a big portion of later generations would be the descendants of smiths.
  2. Smithing was lucrative. It was the "computer repairman" of its day. Extra-normal profits, à la Malthus, get turned into extra-normal numbers of children. So between the rise of last names (according to Wikipedia, before 1400) and the end of the blacksmithing era, people named Smith had more children than people not named Smith.

Wikipedia also says it is commonly adopted by people seeking anonymity because of its prevalence, but that would just affect the magnitude of the difference, not the existence of a difference.

So which is correct? It doesn't seem to me that smithing was any more vital than, say, baking, and though Baker is a common last name, it's not as common as Smith (in fact, it's not even in America's top-ten list). Starting from an age when most people lived on bread, why are there now twice as many Smiths as Millers? (Saying Smiths emigrated more doesn't work, because Smith is still the most-common surname in Britain.)

Extra-normal profits require market power to maintain. The Middle Ages generally lacked the necessary mechanisms to restrict entry. (Right? I know guilds came to be a big deal, but how Mafia-like were they? It seems most explanations for the Industrial Revolution suppose a pre-Revolution lack of coordinating institutions, the kind necessary to maintain entry requirements for certain professions.) So if smithing was profitable, it would attract entry, but then stop attracting entry when profits returned to normal. Would that short-lived increase in smiths be enough to create the modern world of Smiths on every block?

I don't know which story is correct. I could look for medieval occupation studies to see how common smithing was. I don't think any census will be old enough to see if smiths had larger-than-average families back when smithing would have been a high-wage profession. Maybe there's some reason people named Smith are hornier than the general population, so they have a lot more kids even now. But I don't really want to find out if that's true, because I know people named Smith (who doesn't, right?), and I don't want to think about them getting all hot and bothered.

Wednesday, January 08, 2014

I'll Take "Cheaper Than Visiting an Actual Doctor" for 800

I had a flu-like illness last week. Since then, I've had an irresistible urge to scratch my entire body, but especially the joints (knees, ankles, hips, wrists, and elbows). This reminded me of a previous illness in April 2012 that was followed by itching so bad I trimmed off all of my body hair to facilitate lotioning.

I'll just wait here while you ponder that image a little longer.

Anyway, I woke up this morning and thought, "It's almost like I'm allergic to my own immune system, but I'm not sure that's even possible."

Then, later today I was running on a treadmill watching a recorded episode of Jeopardy!, when Alex read a clue about "an allergic reaction to your own immune system causing hives." The answer was the name for the type of specialist I'm supposed to see, but between the treadmill noise and me yelling out, "That's what I have!", I didn't hear what the contestant said.

Monday, January 06, 2014

Science and Religion

Here's an interesting excerpt of a film produced in the 1960s by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The film is entitled "The Search for Truth." Of particular interest to me are Wernher von Braun's point that annihilation isn't in keeping with the laws of nature, and David O. McKay's point that true religion corresponds to true science. He doesn't elaborate on the point, but it's worth noting that not all items that circulate under the name of science (or religion) are true, and that is the source of any apparent conflict.

Brought to my attention by Interpreter.

Saturday, January 04, 2014

Toenails and Menstrual Cycles

Most of the time, my toenails are too strong to groom with just my fingernails. If I try to use my thumbnail to pry off the excess toenail, my thumbnail gives way first. But every so often, my toenails weaken (or my thumbnails strengthen, or some of both), and then I can easily use my thumbs to trim my toes. My toenails pull off in nice strips, only the excess.

I don't know what makes the difference. It's not toenail length, because I only worry about grooming my toenails when they are of a particular length. Sometimes at that length I need clippers, but sometimes I don't.

My body doesn't really have periodic hormonal swings. But my wife's does, and I'm beginning to suspect that her menstrual cycle is affecting my body.

I have two reasons this could be the case.

  1. As she progresses through her cycle, our sexual activity ebbs and flows (I could have said "comes and goes," but this is a family blog). So the presence or absence of different hormones in my blood is tied to her menstrual cycle. If some hormones weaken (or strengthen) my toenails, then my ability to groom my toes with just my thumbs should sync with her periods. This could also be true if my body is diverting resources for more sexual activity. Perhaps my weak toenails coincide with heightened sperm production.
  2. Her desires for different foods will change throughout her cycle, and for the most part, I eat whatever she wants to cook. So if some foods are better or worse for toenail health, I'll see monthly changes in the strength of my nails.
Of course, one would assume that whatever is good for the toenails is good for the fingernails. It puzzles me that the relative strength of the sets of nails is switching back and forth across 1:1. I don't see how a menstrual cycle can be blamed for that. But I don't know what else in my life would make me have periodic hormonal swings.

NB: Now the "math" label is standing in for "health." Is there anything it can't do?

Friday, January 03, 2014

You Know How I Know That Man Likes Freaky Stuff?

Our neighboring town has a sex shop. I sort of jokingly tell my wife I'm going to buy her a present there (I say "sort of" because I have bought her presents from sex shops in the past. Oh, can it--you wish your husband was as awesome as I am).

Anyway, a few weeks ago I was chilling in the neighboring town's Jo-Ann Fabrics ('cause that's how I roll) when I ran into a woman from church. When I got home, I told my wife about our interaction.

A few days later I said, "I have a confession to make. I didn't really run into [woman from church] at Jo-Ann*. We were both shopping in [sex shop], but we agreed to tell people we were in Jo-Ann. Now I know what her husband is into. [frightened whisper] And it's freaky!"

All joking aside, I stand by my characterization of her husband's preferences as "freaky" on one piece of evidence alone: he's a dude. Dudes be into some freak.

* = No S. Look it up, baby. Like Aldi, JC Penney, and Kroger. (My brother-in-law is an expert on this issue.)

Thursday, January 02, 2014

Don't Tell Me How to Feel

My weather app is a little presumptuous.

In the app's defense, however, it is colder than I'd like, and I would prefer it to be less windy.

Wednesday, January 01, 2014

What Does the Horse Say?

Today I ran past some horses. One was standing right by the fence, staring at me. I thought, "That horse looks like he's going to bark at me." Then I thought, "Horses don't bark." Then I thought, "It's weird that horses are such large mammals and they make no noise." Then I remembered whinnying and neighing.

That took a little longer to get to than I would have liked.