Valerie Waters Personal Fitness: The Muscle Truck

Monday, March 29th, 2004

I managed to catch a reference to The Muscle Truck on some VH1 gossip show:

State of the art, convenient, and private, The Muscle Truck brings the quality of a top level health club on site, anywhere. Long, exhausting days of shooting are no longer a problem for that person who wants to stay in shape while filming. The Muscle Truck goes where you go and is always ready whenever you need it.

A Theory of the Size and Shape of Nations

Monday, March 29th, 2004

I haven’t studied David Friedman’s A Theory of the Size and Shape of Nations (from the Journal of Political Economy, 1977, vol. 85, no. 1), but I find its basic thesis intriguing:

If territory goes to the nation which values it most as a source of revenue, nations will be shaped to maximize joint revenue, net of collection costs. Trade, as a major potential revenue source, should imply large nations; rent should imply small nations; and labor should imply that nations will have closed boundaries or be culturally homogeneous (to maximize exit costs). I show how this fits the pattern of European experience from Roman times to the present. Results of preliminary numerical tests of predictions of the theory are given.

New Breed of Islamic Warrior Is Emerging

Monday, March 29th, 2004

New Breed of Islamic Warrior Is Emerging describes “al Qaeda 2.0″:

Evidence in the Madrid train bombings points to the participation of a new breed of Islamic holy warrior, unfettered by many of the religious and ideological constraints that defined Islamic terrorism in the past.

These Islamist warriors — schooled in the North African doctrine known as Takfir wal Hijra and trained by Afghan veterans of al Qaeda — think, recruit and operate differently from traditional Islamist networks. For Europe, that makes the threat particularly acute. The Takfir movement is strongest in Morocco and Algeria, the primary sources of Muslim immigration to Western Europe. Takfiri theorists openly advocate using immigration as a Trojan horse to expand jihad, or holy war.
[...]
Many elements common to the suspects in custody for the Madrid bombings so far, investigators say, bear hallmarks of the ultrafundamentalist Takfiris or their close cousins, the Algerian-based Salafists. These include the use of petty crime and drug trafficking to raise funds, the recruitment of women, and operatives who adopt a Western lifestyle to keep a low profile. The virulent brand of Takfiri Islam makes all-out armed jihad an obligation for all true believers; even apostate fellow Muslims are fair game.
[...]
Unlike previous generations of radical Islamists, who attracted police attention by their long beards, public proselytizing and orthodox postures, the newer generation of holy warrior blends in better. They are encouraged to lead a double life in the ultimate pursuit of jihad, according a German intelligence report.

“Outwardly they pretend to lead a modern lifestyle,” says terrorism expert Magnus Ranstorp. “But deep inside they adhere to a pure medieval strain of Islam.” Many Takfiris shave their beards and avoid mosques for security reasons. “Recruits conceal their true beliefs until the time is right,” Dr. Ranstorp says.
[...]
Takfiri ideology originated in a similarly named sect in Egypt in the 1970s and burst into notoriety with the assassination of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat in 1981. The doctrine spread during the Afghan war in the 1980s and was brought back to North Africa by veteran mujahedeen who preached to young people.

Although Takfiris espouse a hard-line interpretation of Islam, the ideology is popular because it encourages followers to reconfirm their faith by breaking its own rules. That flexibility, coupled with their seemingly deeper integration into Western life, makes it harder for police to detect them. It also gives Takfiris an ability to choose soft, civilian targets that will have the biggest political impact in each country. The Madrid attacks came just three days before national elections and helped lead to an upset victory for the Socialists, who want to pull Spanish troops out of Iraq.

No Fat Tax

Monday, March 29th, 2004

In No Fat Tax, Russell Roberts shares a surprising economic fact:

But if obesity causes health problems, doesn’t that justify government’s involvement? After all, if we taxpayers have to foot the bill for some of those higher health care costs, don’t we have the right to intervene in each others lives?

This argument has been used to justify the on-going and growing regulation of tobacco. It’s actually a lie. Smoking causes people to die earlier and relatively quickly, saving enough in Social Security expenditures to overwhelm the health care outlays. That actually justifies subsidizing tobacco rather than taxing it if you think that we should base public policy based only on the impact on government spending.

Smoking causes people to die earlier and relatively quickly, saving enough in Social Security expenditures to overwhelm the health care outlays. Crazy.

Chew On This

Monday, March 29th, 2004

Chew On This discusses the recently discovered MYH16 mutation — and another similar mutation that probably dates to the same period in our evolutionary history:

For one thing, a hominid with a weak jaw can’t grind up tough foods the ways its ancestors did; it needs new foods. The oldest tools, interestingly enough, date back to about the same time as the MYH16 mutation. Scientists suspect that hominids were using these simple stone axes to hack meat off of carcasses and dig up tubers. This new diet might have meant that a mutation to MYH16 wouldn’t have mattered much. The new diet may have been just as important as the missing jaw muscles to letting the hominid brain expand. For one thing, a big brain requires lots of energy. One way to make more energy available is to shrink the size of other organs, and it turns out that we humans have one particulary small organ: our intestines. Other primates use their long bowels to digest tough foods poor in nutrients; we can survive on our abbreviated bowels because we eat better grub.

So here’s a prediction: scientists will eventually discover genes that control the development of intestines in humans. When they compare them to ape genes, they’ll discover that they underwent an evolutionary change around the same time that MYH16 shut down. Our brains did not evolve in a vacuum; they coevolved with the rest of our bodies in a complicated dance of tradeoffs and feedbacks.

The pledge of allegiance

Friday, March 26th, 2004

In The pledge of allegiance, Alex Tabarrok gives his take on the pledge:

Yesterday at the Supreme Court, Michael Newdow argued his own case against the phrase ‘under God’ in the pledge of allegiance and apparently he did very well — managing to elicit a rare round of applause from the audience and ending gracefully on time and on point. Personally, although I am not religious, the phrase ‘under God’ doesn’t raise my hackles. It’s the rest of the pledge that I hate.

Then he cites Cato’s Gene Healy on the topic:

From its inception, in 1892, the Pledge has been a slavish ritual of devotion to the state, wholly inappropriate for a free people. It was written by Francis Bellamy, a Christian Socialist pushed out of his post as a Baptist minister for delivering pulpit-pounding sermons on such topics as “Jesus the Socialist.” Bellamy was devoted to the ideas of his more-famous cousin Edward Bellamy, author of the 1888 utopian novel Looking Backward. Looking Backward describes the future United States as a regimented worker’s paradise where everyone has equal incomes, and men are drafted into the country’s “industrial army” at the age of 21, serving in the jobs assigned them by the state… Bellamy’s book inspired a movement of “Nationalist Clubs,” whose members campaigned for a government takeover of the economy. A few years before he wrote the Pledge of Allegiance, Francis Bellamy became a founding member of Boston’s first Nationalist Club….

By the way, that image depicts an early recommended salute. Look familiar? It gets worse. Take a look at these photos (complete with paranoid commentary).

The IRS’s chosen people?

Friday, March 26th, 2004

I’m not “clear” on how the Scientologists pulled this one off. From The IRS’s chosen people?:

According to this NYTimes article, a secret 1993 agreement between the IRS and the Church of Scientology lets Scientologists deduct the cost of a religious education as a charitable gift. The secret ruling appeared to come to light when the Sklar’s, who are Jewish, attempted to take a deduction for the religious portion of their children’s education at a Hebrew school. The IRS wrote them back asking for receipts from the Church of Scientology! The Sklar’s provided receipts from the Hebrew school and the IRS denied the deduction. The Sklar’s are now suing on the basis that all religions, or none, should be offered the deduction.

Scarlet Letters (and Numbers)

Friday, March 26th, 2004

In Scarlet Letters (and Numbers), Alex Tabarrok explains the economics of punishment — using this unusual punishment as a jumping-off point:

In Ohio, drivers convicted of drunk driving will be issued special red on yellow license plates.

In many ways, fines make good economic sense:

From an economic point of view, fines are the best punishment because they benefit the punisher as they punish the violator and imprisonment is the worst punishment since it punishes the punisher as well as the violator.

Many people don’t like fines, however, because they seem to allow the rich to get away with anything so long as they pay the price . But in theory, if the fine is set equal to the expected cost of the crime, everyone should face the same fine irrespective of wealth and if the benefit of violating the law exceeds the fine then paying the fine and violating the law is the efficient solution. Economists think this argument is obviously correct but it leaves most people cold.

The first half of this next point should be pretty clear; the second half isn’t quite as obvious:

Fines do have another disadvantage if you don’t trust the government (i.e. take this disadvantage seriously). Precisely because the fine is a revenue to the government it encourages them to fine more. And precisely because imprisonment is costly we expect government to be more restrained in its use.

Social sanctions form a middle ground, between fines and imprisonment:

Social sanctions punish the violator, and are perhaps a better signal to others about the costs of crime than are fines, but have neither benefits nor costs to the punisher – thus they lie in-between fines and imprisonment. If fines are thought unfair or too dangerous and imprisonment is too expensive then social sanctions seem ideal. It’s surprising that we don’t see this form of punishment more often.

The benefits of no-fault divorce

Friday, March 26th, 2004

The benefits of no-fault divorce cites a Washington Post article on Stevenson and Wolfers’ research:

After states adopted no-fault divorce laws, suicides among women dropped by 20 percent, the rate of domestic abuse fell by a third, and the number of women murdered by their partners dropped by about 10 percent, Stevenson and Wolfers found.

Tyler Cowen’s take? “I’m all for family values, but let’s not forget that some families should split up.”

Yahoo! News – George Michael Considers Wham! Musical

Friday, March 26th, 2004

From Yahoo! News – George Michael Considers Wham! Musical:

Pop singer George Michael is considering whether to turn the music of Wham! into a musical. Michael tells a London radio station two or three producers have approached him and Andrew Ridgeley with the idea.

Michael says on a creative level, he hates the idea. However, he says he knows a certain generation of people would love it.

I’m not sure it’s the age demographic that’s the perfect match…

An Un-Funny Valentine

Thursday, March 25th, 2004

An Un-Funny Valentine describes how a printing error turned an amusing cartoon character into…what most old cartoon characters, like Mickey Mouse and Felix the Cat, always looked like:

Somehow, boxes of SpongeBob SquarePants Valentine’s Day cards are popping up in local Wal-Mart stores — but the popular cartoon character found inside isn’t his traditional yellow color.

He’s black. And with his trademark big teeth and wide eyes, this SpongeBob seems similar to offensive images of African Americans portrayed in minstrel shows decades ago.

Yahoo! News – Man on Trial for Decapitating Mother with Sword

Thursday, March 25th, 2004

I was going to joke about stricter samurai-sword-control laws — if you outlaw swords, only outlaws will have swords — then I thought, aren’t swords already controlled in Germany? From Yahoo! News – Man on Trial for Decapitating Mother with Sword:

A German man has gone on trial accused of decapitating his mother with a Samurai sword.

Prosecutors say the 22-year-old, identified only as Axel T., beheaded his mother last June after his parents wanted to move him out of the family home in Munich, a court spokesman said on Tuesday.

The man, who has a history of drug problems, ran into the kitchen where his mother was reading a newspaper and cut off her head with the 45-centimeter blade, the spokesman said.

‘Then he wanted to kill his father who was in another room.’

But the son called the police instead and blamed his father for the crime.

The trial started on Monday.

Bunless Burgers Old News to California Chain

Thursday, March 25th, 2004

Bunless Burgers Old News to California Chain brought a smile to my face — and a longing in my heart (and stomach) to return to California:

As one fast-food behemoth after another jumps on the bunless burger bandwagon, devotees of a small Southern California-based chain of drive-through eateries are taking some pride in saying, ‘We told you so.’

Patrons of In-N-Out Burger have been ordering high-protein, low-carbohydrate hamburgers wrapped in lettuce for more than 30 years.
[...]
The protein-style burger is part of the “secret menu” that has developed over the years as the privately held chain of restaurants has strived to accommodate its customers’ fondness for customized food.

(Another entry on the secret menu is the “animal-style” burger, a beef patty cooked in mustard with grilled onions, pickles and an extra helping of a secret “special sauce.”)
[...]
(For serious eaters, the secret menu also includes the “four-by-four.” As its name implies, it includes four hamburger patties and four slices of cheese.)

Restaurant consultant Edward Engoron attributes In-N-Out’s success to sticking to a simple approach for more than 50 years: fast food made from scratch and made-to-order. The restaurants’ butchers select and grind the beef and the buns are baked daily. All produce is delivered fresh, and none of the restaurants has freezers or microwaves.

How I miss my four-by-four!

Interestingly, In-N-Out is not a franchise:

The company, which says it “has no plans” to offer stock or franchise its operations, does not release financial data, but Engoron estimates that each restaurant earns an average of $2 million annually — about 20 percent of which is profit.

Those are numbers “considerably higher” than McDonald’s and Burger King in per store volume and net earnings, he said.

“It seems the biggest complaint about In-N-Out is that there aren’t enough of them,” Engoron added.

Indeed.

Fructose Sweetener Linked to Obesity Rise

Thursday, March 25th, 2004

I’m not sure how much faith I put in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition and its peer-review process. Fructose Sweetener Linked to Obesity Rise summarizes a recent study from the journal:

Researchers say they’ve found more evidence of a link between a rapid rise in obesity and a corn product used to sweeten soft drinks and food since the 1970s.

The link?

The data showed an increase in the use of high-fructose corn sweeteners in the late 1970s and 1980s “coincidental with the epidemic of obesity,” said one of the researchers, Dr. George A. Bray, a longtime obesity scientist with Louisiana State University System’s Pennington Biomedical Research Center. He noted the research didn’t prove a definitive link.

At least he noted the research didn’t prove a definitive link.

Here’s some misguided science writing:

The debate over high-fructose sweeteners centers on how the body processes sugar. Unlike glucose, a major component in table sugar, fructose doesn’t trigger responses in hormones that regulate energy use and appetite. That means fructose is more likely to be converted into fat, the researchers said.

Table sugar, or sucrose, is composed of glucose and fructose.

Why is high-fructose corn syrup so popular compared to table sugar?

The sweeteners are also cheaper to produce and use in food manufacturing than cane and beet sugars, the study noted.

Why are they cheaper? Because American sugar producers got huge protective tariffs put on sugar.

Weaker Jaws Were Traded for Big Brains

Thursday, March 25th, 2004

We may owe our amazing human mental powers to a mutation that weakened our ancestors’ jaws. From Weaker Jaws Were Traded for Big Brains:

A genetic mutation that occurred 2.4 million years ago could be the reason why modern humans have such big brains and weak jaws, scientists said on Wednesday.
[...]
All humans have the MYH16 mutation but other primates, including chimpanzees and macaques, still have the intact gene. Over the past few million years, since the genetic fault occurred, human skulls have grown three times in size and the outwardly elongated jaws have receded.
[...]
“The coincidence in time…may mean that the decrease in jaw muscle size and force eliminated stress on the skull which released an evolutionary constraint on brain growth,” said Nancy Minugh-Purvis, a member of the team at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, that made the discovery.