Friday, September 30th, 2005

In The Trackable Society, Arnold Kling defines a legamoron (legal oxymoron) as any law that could not stand up under widespread enforcement. Some examples:

  • laws against marijuana use
  • immigration laws
  • laws against sexual harassment
  • laws against betting on sports
  • speed limits
  • software licenses
  • laws against music sharing
  • laws requiring people to pay social security taxes for household workers

A really big example:

In fact, the entire tax system could be viewed as a legamoron. Congress deliberately underfunds the computer systems and audit department of the IRS. Otherwise, if households and businesses had to get everything on their returns exactly right, the cost of tax compliance probably would eat up the entire Gross Domestic Product, and there would be nothing left to tax.

In A Case for Immigration, he explains that “we are all illegal”:

For politicians, selective enforcement is a very useful tool. Having lots of laws on the books that are not obeyed means that we are at the mercy of the political class, because all of us are doing something illegal. We might be speeders, marijuana users, accounting standards violators, sexual harassers, etc. Any time a politician wants to, he can come after us.

Legamorons give politicians the option of going after political targets while leaving most constituents alone. If you were a crusading attorney general from New York, you could choose to prosecute people entirely on the basis of their unpopularity. When we are all illegal, any of us could be attacked by a crusading attorney general at any time. Only those of us who keep quiet are safe.

Selective enforcement means the rule of men, not the rule of laws. It means that your protection against politically-motivated legal action is only as good as your PR firm.

How to overcome that sinking feeling in quicksand

Friday, September 30th, 2005

How to overcome that sinking feeling in quicksand:

‘Everybody thinks, thanks to Hollywood, that you can drown in quicksand. Basically if you do a simple buoyancy calculation, the Archimedes force, it is immediately evident that you can’t drown completely,’ said Daniel Bonn, of the Van der Waals-Zeeman Institute at the University of Amsterdam in the Netherlands.

Quicksand consists of salt, water, sand and clay. It is the water content that makes quicksand, which is found near estuaries, beaches and rivers, so dangerous.

‘If you tread on quicksand, or liquefy it by moving, it goes from something that is almost completely solid to something that is almost completely liquid,’ Bonn told Reuters.

He and his colleagues showed that Hollywood had got it wrong by measuring the viscosity, the resistance to flow, of quicksand and its sinking ability.

They also calculated the amount of force necessary to get a trapped foot out — and found it was the equivalent needed to lift a medium-sized car. Their findings are reported in the science journal Nature.

If someone falls into quicksand they begin to sink and the sand packs densely around the feet, forming a type of trap. In films people sinking in quicksand usually grab on to an overhanging tree branch or are pulled out just as they are about to disappear under the mucky surface.

But Bonn and his team said in real life the victim would sink halfway into the quicksand but would not disappear.

The scientists advised people trapped in quicksand not to panic and to wiggle.

‘All you have to do to get your foot out is to introduce water into the sand and if you can do that along your leg by wiggling your leg around, that is the best way to get out,’ Bonn said.

Ivory Cower

Friday, September 30th, 2005

Victor Davis Hanson claims that “university presidents have lost their dignity” in Ivory Cower:

Finally, there is Robert J. Birgeneau, the new chancellor of the University of California, Berkeley. Upon arriving in the Bay Area, he quickly vowed to solve the problems he had found. Surprisingly, these had nothing to do with a decline in academic standards, deterioration in the quality of Berkeley’s key departments, or a state funding crisis. Instead, the chancellor complained that Berkeley has fewer Native American, Hispanic, and African-American students enrolled than it should — the campus was only 3% black, 9.5% Hispanic, and 0.4% Native American, in contrast with about 45% Asian-American and about 33% white. (The California population comprises 6.5% blacks, 33% Hispanics, 0.92% Native Americans, 11% Asian-Americans, and 45% whites.) Mr. Birgeneau is obsessed with racial diversity, as determined by percentages and quotas. But as we shall see, the numbers, under closer examination, may make him regret pandering to the diversity industry.

Chancellor Birgeneau blames the apparent statistical injustices on Proposition 209, the 1996 California ballot initiative that forbids the use of racial criteria in state hiring; it passed with the support of 55% of the electorate. In his view, however, democracy ought to defer to elite opinion; thus, to this Canadian academic the state’s voters were obviously misguided: ‘I personally don’t believe that most of the people who voted for 209 intended this consequence.’

One can learn a lot about the pathologies of the contemporary university from what its presidents say — and don’t say. A close look at the data suggests a different picture from the one implied by Mr. Birgeneau’s gratuitous lamentations about the lack of diversity. Whites, for instance, are underenrolled at Berkeley: They amount to around 35% of undergraduates versus 45% of the state’s population. Given this fact, why doesn’t the Chancellor complain about the shortage of whites on campus?

He is oddly quiet, too, about the more explosive issue of the Asian-American presence. This group constitutes almost half the Berkeley student population, even though Asians make up only about 11% of California residents and 4% of the general U.S. population. Why doesn’t Mr. Birgeneau admit that achieving his racial utopia would require deliberately reducing the enrollment of Asian-American students mdash; presumably by discounting meritocratic criteria and test scores and instead emphasizing ‘community service’ or other nebulous standards designed to circumvent Proposition 209? But because the new chancellor is obviously a sensitive sort, he cannot say what he apparently means: something like, ‘We have too many Asians, almost five times too many, and I am here to impose a quota on them and other suspect races.’ Instead, he worries about ‘underrepresentation’ of some, while denying the logical corollary of ‘overrepresentation’ of others. The same logic applies to gender, by the way. UC campuses enroll thousands more women than men, very much out of proportion to the general population, and yet Mr. Birgeneau does not decry the ‘overabundance’ of women.

Remember, too, that Asians have suffered a particularly long history of discrimination in California. Despite everything from immigration quotas to forced internment during World War II, they have the highest high-school graduation rates in the state, while blacks and Hispanics suffer the lowest. What, then, could we learn from the Asian-American experience that seems to render past hurdles to achievement irrelevant to present academic performance? Don’t expect Chancellor Birgeneau to take the lead in asking this question.

Stalin’s Old Villa, On the Block, Sparks Post-Soviet Fracas

Friday, September 30th, 2005

Stalin’s Old Villa, On the Block, Sparks Post-Soviet Fracas describes Stalin’s “secret White House,” a private resort in Abkhazia known as “Cold River”:

Cold River would certainly be an attractive refuge for a privacy-minded Russian oligarch. Painted military green and camouflaged by soaring firs and pines, it’s barely visible from sky, land, or sea — a concession to Stalin’s notorious paranoia. It can only be reached by a precipitous road that snakes up a thickly wooded hillside. An elevator connects it to the beach.

Modeling, Simulations Can Help a City Offer More Efficient Exodus

Friday, September 30th, 2005

Modeling, Simulations Can Help a City Offer More Efficient Exodus looks at traffic in an emergency:

Under realistic conditions, a freeway carries about 2,000 vehicles per lane each hour past any given point. Doubling the number of lanes by making southbound ones northbound, as on I-45 from Galveston to Dallas, is therefore a crucial first step. Houston officials ordered the reversal only at midday Thursday, after vacillating for more than a day.

That ‘contra-flow’ will increase a road’s capacity 60% to 70%, calculates traffic engineer Avi Polus of Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, Haifa. It doesn’t double capacity because left-hand exits, drivers’ confusion over going the ‘wrong’ way and signs turned backward gum up the works.


Houston officials admit that contra-flow was not even part of their emergency planning. If it had been, says Prof. Polus, “it shouldn’t take more than two or three hours to convert freeway lanes to a contra-flow” and change the traffic signals, exit ramps and feeder roads.

The take-away:

Bottom line: If you have six lanes of freeway (of which three are contra-flow), then at 2,000 vehicles an hour per lane and 2.5 people per vehicle, you can get about 600,000 people out of a city every 24 hours. You can load more people into each car or use buses and trains, but evacuating 1.5 million souls will take two to three days. Getting people out of harm’s way if there is no advance warning (after, say, a radiological bomb) is just not in the cards.

One final word of advice: motorcycle.

Bacteria at Your Fingertips

Friday, September 30th, 2005

Bacteria at Your Fingertips explains that “the gunk in your keyboard could kill you”:

A study conducted by Charles Gerba, a professor of environmental microbiology at the University of Arizona, concluded that the computer keyboard was the fifth most germ-contaminated spot in an office. (Topped only by your phone, your desktop — home to an impressive 10 million bacteria — and the handles on the office water fountain and microwave door.) Out of 12 surfaces studied the toilet seat came in cleanest, in case you’re wondering where to have your next lunch break.

The Sin of Sin City

Wednesday, September 28th, 2005

I never got around to seeing Sin City, but I meant to. Andrew Klavan’s The Sin of Sin City offers an interesting assessment:

The movie, an almost uncannily accurate reproduction of the Frank Miller cult-classic comic-book series of the same name, is certainly as brilliant as it is bad. It’s brilliant because its black-and-white palette with pulsing intrusions of red, yellow, and blue looks beautiful; because its acute and vertiginous camera angles are thrilling; because its imitation of the comic’s atmosphere is remarkably complete; and because the cast is excellent. It’s bad because all that aesthetic power is put into the service of a masturbatory barbarity.

The film’s interlocking stories are all, essentially, the same story. Boy hurts girl; other boy avenges girl. Along the way, the severed heads of women are mounted on walls, the testicles of rapists are ripped off by hand, women are eaten by men, men are eaten by dogs, throats are cut, brains spattered…. In other words, all those gorgeous visuals ultimately represent nothing more interesting than the internal world of a crawly 12-year-old boy, his alternating fantasies of torturing naked women and of being the strongman who comes to their rescue.

Now, 12-year-old boys are what they are and fantasies are what they are, and I condemn neither. If boys’ consciences didn’t wrestle with their violent desires, there would be no adventure stories. Nor, as my own novels attest, do I object to sex and violence as pure entertainment. Sex and violence are central to entertainment because they are central to the language of our dreams.

But the translation of daydreams into art — even violent, sexy pop art—requires at least some minimal interaction between the raw material and a compassionate conception of the terror and dignity of being human.

Green Berets Prefer Biodiesel

Wednesday, September 28th, 2005

From Green Berets Prefer Biodiesel:

When Erwin Rommel’s Panzer tanks ran out of diesel fuel in North Africa in World War II, the German general poured cooking oil into their gas tanks to keep the vehicles fighting.

The U.S. military thinks Germany’s ‘Desert Fox’ might have been onto something. At bases throughout the United States, soldiers are filling their gas tanks with biodiesel — diesel fuel made from soybean or other vegetable oil.

From that intro, you’d think the military was switching to biodiesel for logistical regions, but it’s not. It’s simply trying to meet government goals set by the Energy Policy Act of 1992.

From the title, you’d think the Army’s Special Forces were involved. The article mentions the Marines, Navy, and Air Force — no Army, and no Green Berets.

No Green Acres? Try Skyscrapers

Wednesday, September 28th, 2005

From No Green Acres? Try Skyscrapers:

Tens of thousands of empty storage containers are stacked in towers along I-95 across from the harbor in Newark, New Jersey. They’re heaped there in perpetuity, too cheap to be shipped back to Asia but too expensive to melt down.

Where many might see a pile of garbage, Lior Hessel sees, of all things, an organic farm. Those storage containers would be ideal housing for miniature farms, he believes, stacked one upon another like an agricultural skyscraper, all growing fresh organic produce for millions of wealthy consumers. And since the crops would be grown with artificial lighting, servers, sensors and robots, the cost of labor would consist of a single computer technician’s salary.

The business case:

As of mid-2005, it cost as much as 50 cents to transport a 1-pound head of lettuce from California (where 85 percent of America’s lettuce is grown) to the East Coast, according to Ram Acharya, an agricultural economist at Arizona State University. If the lettuce can be grown near where it’s eaten, it will have an automatic cost advantage.

OrganiTech can supply a complete set of robotic equipment plus greenhouse for $2 million. A system the size of a tennis court can produce 145,000 bags of lettuce leaves per year — that’s a yield similar to a 100-acre traditional farm. According to the company, it costs 27 cents to produce a single head of lettuce with its system, compared to about 18 cents per head of lettuce grown in California fields. Factor in the transportation costs and suddenly the automated greenhouse grower saves as much as 43 cents a head.

Shooting Not to Kill

Wednesday, September 28th, 2005

Shooting Not to Kill summarizes current non-lethal weapon (NLW) technology:

It is invariably the most novel and strange NLWs that get the most press attention — like the “Who, Me? bomb” (contemplated by the U.S. military as early as 1945 and intended to simulate flatulence in enemy ranks) and the pheromone-based “Gay bomb” (proposed in 1994 to compel an enemy to “make love, not war”). Both of these have been discussed and joked about widely in the media, although neither was ever pursued. But some of the newest real-life NLWs are pretty bizarre, too. For instance, the Long Range Acoustic Device (LRAD) is a sort of screeching megaphone that can project noises at just over 150 decibels. Too much exposure to that level of noise can cause permanent deafness, but the technology’s backers believe that most people even briefly exposed to LRAD’s noise would run away. The system has already been used in Iraq, including in Fallujah. Israel has used a similar weapon, dubbed “The Scream,” which emits a painfully high-pitched noise.

Another NLW under development — and reportedly to be deployed in Iraq for the first time later this year — is the Active Denial System, a concentrated millimeter-wave beam. Like a microwave oven, it heats moisture. When aimed at a person, the target’s skin warms up, and then gets hotter and hotter, reaching 130 degrees Fahrenheit—a point of agonizing, albeit non-lethal, pain. Like the LRAD, it causes targets to run away and crowds to disperse.

Most of the criticisms of NLWs relate to the possibility that the weapons could be overused by troops who think the weapons are safe because they are not intended to be lethal. Other criticism involves the possibility that new NLWs could be used for torture; human rights groups have already complained that the Active Denial System, for instance, could be abused in that way. And some NLWs under development might violate international treaties to which the United States is a party.

The Utopian Nightmare

Wednesday, September 28th, 2005

The Utopian Nightmare examines the failure of foreign aid to pull Africa out of poverty:

After 43 years and $568 billion (in 2003 dollars) in foreign aid to the continent, Africa remains trapped in economic stagnation. Moreover, after $568 billion, donor officials apparently still have not gotten around to furnishing those 12-cent medicines to children to prevent half of all malaria deaths.


Wednesday, September 28th, 2005

Boss-Zilla! describes what it’s like to work for Hollywood producer Scott Rudin, who has gone through 250 assistants in five years:

The producer — who once forced an underling to tape a sign defining the word ‘anticipate’ in huge letters above his desk — says that when he asks follow-up questions about work, assistants often look back at him ‘like I’m speaking Urdu.’ He tells them, ‘When I ask you these questions, have an answer ready. Then I would think you’re intelligent.’

He is also known for a wicked sense of humor: When one assistant routinely sported ink-stained shirt pockets, Mr. Rudin bought him a half-dozen expensive dress shirts at Bergdorf Goodman, which he then had an intern spot with ink blotches.

The atmosphere drives assistants to perform remarkable tasks. In May 2004, for instance, director Stephen Daldry was climbing in the Himalayas when Mr. Rudin became desperate to show him a new screenplay. After an assistant got the pages into the director’s hands in Nepal, Mr. Daldry says he later asked Mr. Rudin in amazement, ‘How did you find me?’ (An assistant got Mr. Daldry’s office to say where he was vacationing, then hired a specialty courier service to take the script to Kathmandu.)

In 1992, L.A.-based assistant Adam Schroeder was asked to deliver an offer to author Terry McMillan, whose best-seller ‘Waiting to Exhale’ was the subject of a bidding war. Mr. Schroeder says he flew to San Francisco on the Fourth of July, then drove to her suburban home, where she answered the door in a bathrobe. Even after Mr. Schroeder helped the writer’s little boy search for a lost rabbit, Mr. Rudin didn’t get the film rights. The loss didn’t get Mr. Schroeder fired. He now operates his own production outfit in Hollywood. Ms. McMillan declined to comment.

Other times when things go wrong, Mr. Rudin lets loose. Former assistants say he sometimes vents his anger by throwing phones and office supplies, prompting assistants to take precautions. Some feared Mr. Rudin might hurl an easily accessible framed picture on his desk, so they surreptitiously moved it out of his reach. Others measured Mr. Rudin’s phone cord so they could keep the appropriate distance. ‘The rookies often stood too close,’ remembers Mr. Evans.

Angry Surfers Say Cage-Diving Changes Great White’s Way

Wednesday, September 28th, 2005

From Angry Surfers Say Cage-Diving Changes Great White’s Way:

This shark-diving industry, established in the late 1990s, has become big business on the Cape coast. Drawing in some 35,000 mostly American and European adrenaline junkies a year, shark divers pay some $6.3 million in fees to 12 licensed operators, or as much as $200 a dive, and more for hotel, food and airfare.

But there isn’t just fish blood in the water. As the cage-diving industry flourishes, Cape Town beaches — a Mecca for surfers — have been hit by a spate of gruesome shark attacks on people. Critics blame the deaths on shark-diving practices such as baiting and chumming, or the throwing of ground fish into the ocean. Cage-dive operators, these critics say, may have taught sharks to associate humans with food, turning the ocean’s apex predators into man-eaters.

Monster Mold Threatens Health in the South

Wednesday, September 28th, 2005

Much of the hurricane-hit South is covered in mold, which was a problem even before everything got soaked. From Monster Mold Threatens Health in the South:

A Louisiana State University allergist, the late Dr. John Salvaggio, described at medical meetings in the 1970s what he called ‘New Orleans asthma,’ an illness that filled hospital emergency rooms each fall with people who couldn’t breathe. He linked it to high levels of mold spores that appeared in the humid, late summer months.

Brokers Fiddle as Real Estate Burns

Wednesday, September 28th, 2005

Alan Murray objects to realtor commissions in Brokers Fiddle as Real Estate Burns:

There are more Realtors out there today — 1.2 million — than there were a decade ago.

Compare that with what happened to stockbrokers, a similar breed who saw their commissions fall from dollars to pennies over the course of three decades. Or look at the even more dramatic fate of travel agents, whose commissions on airline travel plummeted from 12% to nothing between 1995 and 2002.

In an age when information was scarce, Realtors could claim big commissions, because they controlled the gold — the information on houses for sale. But in an age when information is ubiquitous, it’s hard to understand how they continue to rake in such fees.