2011 - %3, May

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for May 27, 2011

Fri May 27, 2011 6:00 AM EDT

U.S. Army Special Forces Soldiers speak with a village elder during a Convoy Reconnaissance Patrol at Badamak, in the Uruzgan province of Afghanistan, May 23, 2011. The purpose of the patrol is to build relationships and trust with local citizens and assess safety, security, and insurgent threats in the area. U.S. Army photo by Pfc. Simon Lee

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He Binded Me With Science!

| Fri May 27, 2011 6:00 AM EDT

Jonathon Keats. Photo: Akim AginskyJonathon Keats. Photo: Akim AginskyTwo weeks ago, my longtime partner Mike and I became the first couple in the universe to get entangled. This wasn't some pseudo-marriage, engagement, or commitment—entanglement is much bigger than that. It is the most progressive, state-and-church-free alternative to marriage.

"Quantum Entanglement" is the latest cross-disciplinary invention of the San Francisco-based experimental philosopher and writer Jonathon Keats. His rigorously tested apparatus, previously only used by scientists in military cryptography, applies the principles of quantum physics to the irrational realm of human relations.

It requires no contracts, no paperwork, and no loads of cash. There are no restrictions on who may be entangled to whom. "After 5,000 years of man-made laws, often exclusionary or punitive, science promises to liberate marriage through technology freely offering entanglement to everybody," Keats argues. There is absolutely nothing anti-gay-marriage legislators or church officials in your state can do about this. How does it work? Keats' apparatus uses photons (i.e., light) to conjoin subatomic particles such as electrons to each other. "When two or more particles are entangled, they behave as if they were one and the same. Any change to one instantaneously and identically changes those entangled with it even if they're a universe apart," he explains. "Just try doing that in a marriage contract."

Quantum Entanglement Apparatus. Photo: Jonathon KeatsQuantum Entanglement apparatus. Photo: Jonathon Keats

I first met Keats five years ago at the San Francisco Art Institute where he shocked my atheist partner and others in the audience with his and some UC Berkeley scientists' attempt to genetically engineer God through discovering Her DNA. Next time we saw Keats, he was mucking in the dirt at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts dressed in a three-piece tweed suit, looking like what one person described as "Al Capone's accountant." Keats was installing the "The Honeybee Ballet" project, where he timed the blooming of plants in different parts of the city, choreographing the movements of unsuspecting bees who pollinated in the elite museum spaces that traditionally exclude insects, dogs and all cats. Keats then briefly dabbled in amateur filmmaking producing porn for plants, and it appears this phase was the most lucrative of his career. About a month ago, he launched a gourmet restaurant for plants in Sacramento's Crocker Art Museum.

A few weeks ago, Keats' wife, Silvia Pareschi, invited us over for plant-inspired risotto. As Mike lamented my increasing weekend hours reporting on students and teachers, Keats revealed his latest invention as a possible cure for "too much work." He pulled out a small, elegant metal and glass apparatus that he set on the dining table, and we moved our chairs closer next to each other. The light hit the machine just right, our electrons started to conjoin (metaphorically, because there was no sunlight that day), and Mike made an inappropriate joke. We held our hands and made promises to spend more time together. Then Silvia poured us another glass of wine. It was the easiest commitment I'd ever made.

Still confused? Check out this video with Keats explaining how the apparatus works.

Entanglements are available in New York from May 12 to July 30 at the AC Institute. More cities to come soon.

The Future of Solar Power

| Fri May 27, 2011 1:26 AM EDT

GE is bullish on solar power:

Solar power may be cheaper than electricity generated by fossil fuels and nuclear reactors within three to five years because of innovations, said Mark M. Little, the global research director for General Electric Co.

“If we can get solar at 15 cents a kilowatt-hour or lower, which I’m hopeful that we will do, you’re going to have a lot of people that are going to want to have solar at home,” Little said yesterday in an interview in Bloomberg’s Washington office.

....GE, based in Fairfield, Connecticut, announced in April that it had boosted the efficiency of thin-film solar panels to a record 12.8 percent....The cost of solar cells, the main component in standard panels, has fallen 21 percent so far this year, and the cost of solar power is now about the same as the rate utilities charge for conventional power in the sunniest parts of California, Italy and Turkey.

Now all we have to do is find lots of sunny places to put it all.

Hotels and Their Pervs, Revisited

| Thu May 26, 2011 9:30 PM EDT

Let's revisit the issue of pervs in hotel rooms. Why not, after all? It started with a New York Times op-ed by Jacob Tomsky, in which he told us that housekeepers are flashed or otherwise sexually accosted by male guests "more often than you’d think." My off-the-cuff reaction was to suggest a zero-tolerance policy for this kind of thing: "Do it once and you're thrown out and blacklisted forever. What's the justification for extending even the slightest forbearance toward this kind of behavior?" Megan McArdle had an answer:

I travel a lot, and I've had housekeepers walk in on me in various states of undress, especially in hotels with turndown service....Not a big deal for me, but I'm sure it could happen to a male traveler perfectly innocently. So could a wardrobe malfunction — the robes in many hotels are not exactly overgenerous, especially for the burgeoning middle-aged physique of a chairborne warrior.

....Maybe there should be a blacklist for serial offenders, but again, I was a serial offender at a certain hotel in LA with early turndown hours — I assume they didn't report me because, well, women don't usually do that sort of thing.

That's a fair point. Mistakes can happen. Still, I'll bet I know exactly what Megan's reaction was when this happened. It was, more or less, some version of "eek!" And I'll bet the reaction of your average perv isn't "eek!" And I'll bet that your average housekeeper can tell the difference with about 99% accuracy. That's why Megan never got a call from a hotel manager about this. Belle Waring puts it this way:

You, as a woman, know when you’re being flashed vs. when you accidentally walk in on someone who hasn’t heard your knock. Really. Big difference. A man showing you his penis on purpose has a certain way about him, let’s just say. Do I really have to go there?

In other words, if we're willing to take housekeeper reports of perv activity seriously — and we should be — there's a pretty slim chance of blacklisting an innocent man. Still, it's true: mistakes can happen. And if you have made a mistake, this really isn't the type you want to punish with instant banishment.

So how about this instead: Get reported once and you're given a warning. My guess is that if you just forgot to deadbolt the door, you'll never forget again after that. Do it again and you're blacklisted for a couple of years. After all, everyone deserves a chance to turn over a new leaf. So let them back in after two years, but tell them that a third strike means they're banned for good.

If this were the policy in a high-end New York hotel, it might not have much effect. You'd just make up a story about why, say, you'll never stay at the Plaza again. But what about the big chains? Here, for example, is a partial list of Marriott brands:

  • Marriott
  • JW Marriott
  • Marriott Courtyard
  • Residence Inn
  • Fairfield Inn
  • Ritz-Carlton

As a former business traveler, I can tell you that you'd be in trouble if you got your ass kicked out of all of these. There are just too many cases where one of them is by far the most convenient to your destination, or worse, where one of them is literally the only hotel within 20 miles of your destination. Or it's a convention hotel and everyone in your company is staying there. What's more, there's really no way to make up a plausible story about why you refuse to stay at any Marriott property anywhere in the country. So this would be a considerable motivation to stay on good behavior when you're traveling.

So why don't the big hotel chains have policies like this? It's possible there are legal problems, but I imagine a private corporation has very wide latitude about whom it serves and whom it doesn't as long as it has good evidence that it's not discriminating based on age, race, ethnicity, etc. Beyond that there are practical problems: to effectively ban someone you need more than just a name. I'd be plenty annoyed if some skeev named Kevin Drum got banned by Marriott and I ended up having to prove I wasn't him every time I made a reservation. But hotels routinely take credit card numbers and driver's licenses, and those could be used to prevent ID mismatches. That's not enough to make it impossible to evade a blacklist, but it would make it pretty difficult.

So....why not? Are there other good reasons that this would be unwise or unworkable? There might be. Seems worth thinking about, though. Big hotel chains are public companies that are susceptible to public pressure, and I'll bet most of them already ban guests who trash rooms or otherwise cause them trouble. So they know how to do this. Why not do it to give their housekeepers a decent working environment too?

The Graying of America

| Thu May 26, 2011 5:56 PM EDT

Will Wilkinson, in a post that sadly fails to recognize the merits of means testing Medicare after death instead of before, also says this:

I would add: that nearly a third of the voting public is 65 or older does not quite capture the overwhelming electoral heft of seniors. Retirees are disproportionately likely to actually show up at the polls. Moreover, the interests of seniors are more unified than those of younger voters....America's silver foxes constitute a more or less consolidated force fighting for the protection of old-age entitlements.

I was all ready to make a point about this, but then I looked up the numbers and they aren't nearly as bad as Will thinks. According to the Census Bureau, the 65+ crowd accounts for about 17% of the voting-age population. And according to the 2008 exit polls, that same group accounts for about 16% of the total votes cast. I'm surprised at this, but it appears that not only are America's seniors not that huge a voting bloc, but they don't really vote in extra big proportions either.

(And my original point? I was just going to say that things are worse than Will thinks, because once you hit 55 or so you start to realize that retirement is looming and you start voting as if you're 65 already. And the 55+ share is obviously even bigger than the 65+ share. However, it turns out that the 55+ share comes to about a third of the population, so it's no worse than Will thinks after all. It's merely as bad.)

(And what is it he doesn't get about the benefit of means testing Medicare after death instead of before? I wasn't planning to write another post on this subject since it obviously has no political feasibility, but maybe I will over the weekend. Sometimes a little bit of blue-sky nattering is a good way of exercising the brain cells.)

Mattel Wants Barbie to Build Green Dream Home

| Thu May 26, 2011 3:05 PM EDT

This post first appeared on the Mother Nature Network.

As part of toymaker Mattel's career empowerment-minded line "I Can Be …" collection of Barbie dolls, the pink corvette-driving blonde bombshell has been reimagined as Architect Barbie, complete with "symmetrically stylish outfit" and "essential on-the-job accessories" like a hard hat and pink document tube. Past "I Can Be …" Barbies have included movie star, veterinarian, dentist, lifeguard, news anchor, racecar driver, ballerina, and, ummm, bride.

The awesome fact that the brand's "career of the year" is architect (and not Pussycat Doll or cookbook-shilling Real Housewife) also has some historic significance: 2011 marks the 125th anniversary of women's acceptance into professional architecture associations. Says Despina Stratigakos, Professor of Architectural History at the University at Buffalo and Architect Barbie consultant: "For more than a century, women have chosen to become architects to express and give form to new ways of living. Yet some still consider architecture an unusual profession for a woman. Architect Barbie salutes the many generations of women architects and encourages young girls to imagine a better world they can design and build."

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Your Dental Hygienist Questions Answered!

| Thu May 26, 2011 2:31 PM EDT

Earlier this morning we considered the burning question of whether regulation of dental hygienists has contibuted to an increase in income inequality. Before I staked out a position on this I wanted to know if hygienist regulation had increased over time, but sadly, uncredentialed proles like me are denied access to the relevant academic paper unless we fork over $5, thus transferring wealth from me to the economics profession and increasing income inequality along the way. Luckily, reader JR bravely defied the relevant IP laws and sent me a copy. So now I have an answer for you.

The specific question at hand is whether hygienists are increasingly being required to work for dentists, which would decrease their earning power and increase the profits of dental practices owned by wealthy dentists. The answer is no. From the paper:

Until 1988, when Colorado first allowed hygienists to practice without the direct supervision of a dentist, hygienists have been required to work for or be under the direction of a dentist. Since that time, seven states have allowed hygienists to be self-employed without the direct oversight of a dentist.

....In order to show the growth in hygienists’ autonomy over time, in Figure 1 we develop and show a box-and-whisker graphic analysis of state regulation, which gives the mean and spread of the regulation of hygienists over the period 2001–2007. Panel A shows the overall ranking of dental hygienists’ professional practice environment that is allowed by statute or legal rulings.

This is followed by lots of Greek letter math that no sane person would try to understand. However, charts are easy to understand, so I've helpfully reproduced Panel A on the right, adding a bright red arrow showing the increase in hygienist autonomy over the past decade. The basic shape of things is clear: despite pushback from the dental profession, over the past couple of decades hygienists have been allowed to perform more and more tasks and have been unshackled entirely from the dental profession in seven states. This is (probably) a triumph of improved public policy and a counterweight to growing income inequality. So now you know.

Mumbai Terror Conspirator's Testimony Raises More Questions About DEA

| Thu May 26, 2011 2:30 PM EDT

On Wednesday, David Headley continued to deliver revelatory, damaging testimony at the trial of alleged Mumbai attack conspirator Tahawwu Rana. Headley—who helped plan the attacks—alleges that Pakistani intelligence collaborated with Lashkar-e-Taiba, the Islamist terror group that killed 166 Americans in November of 2008. His testimony will likely exacerbate an already fraying relationship between the United States and Pakistan.

But as we pointed out on Monday, Headley is also directing some unwanted attention at another security entity: the Drug Enforcement Agency, which employed Headley as an informant for several years. From The New York Times:

One of Mr. Rana's lawyers, Charles Swift, began cross-examining Mr. Headley on Wednesday, and his relationship with the D.E.A. was one of the first areas explored. Mr. Headley said that he had traveled to Pakistan for the agency in 1999, and continued working with it until September 2002, months after he had begun training with Lashkar-e-Taiba.

Mr. Swift asked Mr. Headley about a 2001 episode in which his former wife warned the Federal Bureau of Investigation that she believed he was plotting with terrorists. Mr. Headley said he told the investigators that he was mixing with extremists as part of a government assignment.

"I had instructions from the D.E.A. to visit those mosques," Mr. Headley said.

"So you told the government not to worry because you were working for them, right?" Mr. Swift asked.

Mr. Headley replied, "Yes."

If Headley really was supposed to infiltrate extremist groups on behalf of the DEA, it makes sense that the FBI woudn't have investigated what he was up to. Still, the revelation that he spent months working as a double agent dredges up ugly, painful memories of the December 2009 murder of seven Afghanistan-stationed CIA agents by Jordanian double agent Humam Khalil Abu-Mulal Al-Balawi—a man who, it turned out, the United States had already identified as a serious threat.

Chart of the Day: Initial Unemployment Claims

| Thu May 26, 2011 2:02 PM EDT

Initial unemployment claims, which have been dropping since 2009, have recently spiked a bit. Mark Thoma:

Every time claims go up we hear about holidays falling at unusual times, seasonal adjustment problems, weather related problems —- there seems to be no shortage of reasons to dismiss weakness in labor markets. So I'll be interested to see what excuse policymakers come up with this time to ignore the unemployment crisis.

As the attached chart shows, this is hardly the first time there's been a short spike during an economic expansion. You can see big ones in 1977, 1992, and 2006 and smaller ones in several other years. If this one only lasts a month or two, it's no big deal. But if it lasts longer, the excuses are going to start to wear pretty thin.

Gated Academic Papers Are Inefficient

| Thu May 26, 2011 1:00 PM EDT

Matt Yglesias notes that, compared to states where dental hygienists are required to work in a dentist's office, dental hygienists earn about 10% more in states where they're allowed to work independently. Likewise, dentists in those states earn less and have slower employment growth. The obvious conclusion is that in states where hygienists are required to work for dentists, dentists capture some of their earnings:

There’s been a lot of interest over the past ten years among progressives in the subject of the political origins of growing income inequality. But I find there’s been less interest in trying to explore specifically what those origins might be. It’s not all overregulation of dental hygenists (obviously) but it’s also not all Bush tax cuts and Commodity Futures Modernization Act either.

This is interesting stuff, but it lacks one thing: a time function. Occupational licensing like this might transfer income upward in some cases (though the hygienist example is sort of unique in the way it works), but it would only contribute to growing income inequality if this particular type of hygienist regulation has increased over the years. Unfortunately, the paper Matt cites would cost me $5 to read, so I'll probably never know if it has.

UPDATE: Now I've read it! All your questions are answered here.