Blogs

Boxing Day Cat Blogging - 26 December 2014

| Fri Dec. 26, 2014 3:00 PM EST

Traditionally, Boxing Day is when the upper classes present the help with Christmas boxes full of money or gifts. As you might guess, this tradition has been corrupted a bit on its way to California. Here, it's the day that the help presents the upper classes with a box. Empty is preferred, actually. This one is big enough for two cats, but Hopper isn't interested in lounging inside the box. She leaves that to Hilbert. She prefers to sit on the outside and gnaw on the box instead. Her motto: If it's cellulose-based, it's meant to be ripped to shreds.

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Does America Need More Startups? Fine. How Do We Get Them?

| Fri Dec. 26, 2014 2:31 PM EST

Over at Foreign Affairs, Robert Litan has a piece lamenting the decline in entrepreneurship in America. I'm not entirely persuaded that this is a major problem—a fair amount of it is just the result of big national retailers replacing local diners and small shops, which are hardly big engines of economic growth—but I'm still willing to accept that some of it is probably real and deserves attention. The problem is what to do about it. James Pethokoukis, addressing skeptics like me, summarizes Litan's suggestions:

Of course one can quibble with these numbers and what they mean....But here is the thing: Pretty much all the policy steps you might take to respond to this startup wind-down — and the decline in innovation and good jobs it implies — are pretty smart ideas in their own right. Among Litan’s suggestions:

  1. Attract more immigrant entrepreneurs and keep more foreign students who earn graduate degrees in the STEM fields.
  2. Make it easier to attract investment capital through crowdfunding platforms.
  3. Constantly evaluate regulations to see if they raise entry barriers to new firms or give an edge to incumbents.
  4. Don’t let future changes to Obamacare create a disincentive for workers to leave their firms.
  5. Reform k-12 education to better teach technological literacy — but also don’t skip humanities and the arts.

Well....OK. But how far would this get us? #1 is something we already do better than anyone in the world. I suppose we could improve even further, and I'd be in favor of immigration legislation that does just that. Still, I guess I'm dubious that lack of smart immigrants is really a huge headwind in the US. Ditto for #2. Is lack of access to venture capital really a serious problem in this country? #3 is fine. I don't know for sure just how hard it really is to start a business in America, but the World Bank ranks us 46th in the world, and I imagine we could do better. #4 is odd: Litan himself says the news here is "mostly good." Obamacare makes it easier to change your job or start up a new business, and that's inherent in its very nature. It will stay that way unless it's completely repealed. Finally, #5 suggests that we do a better job teaching science, humanities, and the arts. Since that's pretty much everything K-12 education does, this is just a way of saying we should keep trying to improve primary education. I don't think anyone argues with that.

I don't mean to come off too cynical here. There are two good ideas here that we could plausibly do something about: Being friendlier to highly-educated immigrants and making it easier to start a business. (A third idea—improving our schools—is also good, but it's basically like endorsing motherhood and apple pie.) And a good idea is a good idea. But if entrepreneurship really is in decline in America—and if it's truly a far-reaching problem—I'd be interested in hearing more about root causes and what we might be able to do about them. It seems like it will take a lot more than this list to seriously address it.

The Best Corrections of 2014

| Fri Dec. 26, 2014 1:22 PM EST

In 2014, journalists produced a number of solid blunders and fails. That's bad news for industry esteem, but great news for lovers of hilarious corrections. Here are some of our favorites from the past year:

 

The Economist, Drug Legalization: The magazine's collective memory gets hazy when attempting to recall the finer details of their push for drug legalization.

 

New York Times, Dick Cheney: An amazing error that speaks volumes about the Bush years.

 

New York Times, Kimye Butts: In a story titled "Fear of Kim Kardashian's Derriere," the Grey Lady cites a fake interview where Kanye West compares his butt to the infamous butt of his wife.

 

Mumbai Mirror, Narendra Modi: Sarcasm!

 

NPR, Cow Farts: In a story about gassy cows and climate change, NPR "ended up on the wrong end of cows."

 

New York Times, "Good Burger": In which the Times made it embarrassingly obvious their newsroom is unfamiliar with the 1997 film classic, "Good Burger." (Plus, a bonus #teen error!)

 

Vox, Barry Manilow:  While cataloging the slew of celebrities who appeared on Stephen Colbert's final show, Vox confuses old white man Barry Manilow for old white man Rod Stewart.

 

New York Times, Gershwin grammar gaffe: Gershwin 101.

 

Courier-Mail, Birth Announcement "Retraction": Let's end on a heartwarmer. Well done, Bogert clan!

In Police-Civilian Encounters, Your Eyes May Be Your Worst Enemy

| Fri Dec. 26, 2014 12:14 PM EST

Dan Kahan flags a recent bit of research about cognitive biases as a "run-away winner" in the contest for coolest study of the year. That might be a stretch, but it is pretty interesting.

Basically, it's about whether police bodycams will help resolve disputes about what really happened in encounters between cops and civilians. There are reasons to think their effectiveness will be limited because even with video evidence, we tend to interpret ambiguous events to fit our preconceived biases. This is similar to the way sports fans interpret instant replays of penalties in ways that favor their home team, and it goes under the generic name of "motivated reasoning."

So far, so boring. But conventional wisdom and common sense tells us that the way motivated reasoning works is simple: we view the events, and then we interpret them in light of our biases. That turns out not to be the case. The researchers performed a couple of studies based on video clips, one a citizen-police encounter and the other a brawl between two private citizens who wore different colored-shirts. In each case, the test subjects sympathized with one actor vs the other (police officer or suspect in study 1, green-shirt or blue-shirt in study 2). And it turns that motivated reasoning happens way earlier and is even more unconscious than we thought:

The super cool part of the study was that the researchers used an eye-tracking instrument to assess the predicted influence of motivated reasoning on the perceptions of the subjects. Collected without the subjects’ awareness, the eye-tracking data showed that subjects fixed their attention disproportionately on the actor they were motivated to see as the wrongdoer—e.g., the police officer in the case of subjects predisposed to distrust the police in study 1, or the citizen identified as an “out-group” member in study 2.

Wow!

Before reading this study, I would have assumed the effect of cultural cognition was generated in the process of recollection....But GBST's findings suggest the dynamic that generates opposing perceptions in these cases commences much earlier, before the subjects even take in the visual images.

The identity-protective impressions people form originate in a kind of biased sampling: by training their attention on the actor who they have the greatest stake in identifying as the wrongdoer, people are—without giving it a conscious thought, of course—prospecting in that portion of the visual landscape most likely to contain veins of data that fit their preconceptions.

Kahan suggests that this study "comes at the cost of intensified despair over the prospects for resolving societal conflicts over the appropriateness of the use of violent force by the police." Perhaps so. Certainly facts and evidence have a poor track record of changing minds, especially when it comes to emotionally charged events that affect our essential worldview. Still, I suspect that if bodycams become widespread, they'll change minds slowly but steadily. In the same way that years of exposure to TV and movies have turned us into more sophisticated consumers of narrative video, years of regular exposure to bodycam footage may turn us into more sophisticated viewers of police-civilian encounters. We'll probably know sometime around 2030 or so.

Jeb Bush Has an Obamacare Problem

| Fri Dec. 26, 2014 10:52 AM EST

From Politico:

Jeb Bush is stepping down from the board of a health care company that has reportedly profited from Obamacare, a move that comes as the Republican explores a run for the presidency.

According to various media reports, Tenet backed President Barack Obama’s health reform act and has seen its revenues rise from it. Bush’s involvement with Tenet could give ammunition to conservatives in the GOP who view him as too moderate — particularly those who despise the Affordable Care Act.

I can't help but get a chuckle out of this. In normal times, Bush would have left Tenet because it's a big, soulless corporation that's paid fines for Medicare fraud and been criticized for dodgy tax practices at the same time it was beefing up executive pay. A man of the people who aspires to the Oval Office can't afford to be associated with this kind of dirty money.

But no. At least if Politico is to be believed, this isn't really an issue in the GOP primary. What is an issue is that Tenet might have profited from Obamacare, which in turn means that Jeb may have profited from Obamacare. Even if it's a double bank shot, that's dirty money in tea party land.

Of course, Jeb also has some of the more conventional plutocratic image problems:

Soon after his tenure as governor ended, Bush became an adviser to Lehman Brothers and, later, Barclays....In May 2013, Bush set up Britton Hill Holdings and dove into the private equity business....Bush’s first fund invested in Inflection Energy....His next one, BH Logistics, raised $26 million this spring from investors including China’s HNA Group....Bush’s newest fund, [U.K.-based] BH Global ­Aviation, is his largest and most complicated. It deepens his financial ties to China and Hainan....“In many deals, the U.K. ­effectively serves the same function as the Cayman Islands or Bermuda,” Needham says. “It’s like a tax haven, except it’s the U.K.”

Plus there's the fact that Jeb stayed on as an advisor to Barclays for years after it was fined for illegally trading with various blacklisted countries, notably including Cuba and Iran. If being on the board of a company that profited from Obamacare is a problem, surely this is at least equally bad. The attack ads write themselves, don't they?

Anyway, apparently Jeb is now in cleanup mode:

“These are all growth investments that the governor has worked on,” said Bush’s spokeswoman, Kristy Campbell....Campbell said the 61-year-old former governor is “reviewing all his engagements and his business commitments” now that he’s begun to focus on a potential race. “That’s a natural next step,” she said.

Indeed it is. On the other hand, Mitt Romney severed most of his ties with Bain Capital a full decade before he ran for president, and just look at how much good that did him. Jeb probably isn't out of the woods yet.

The NSA Is Surprisingly Open-Minded About Analysts Spying on Their Spouses

| Fri Dec. 26, 2014 9:35 AM EST

Via Bloomberg, we learn that the NSA chose Christmas Eve to release its latest set of reports on violations of surveillance rules by its analysts. Nice work, NSA! For the most part, the reports don't appear to contain anything especially new, but I was struck by this particular violation:

The OIG's Office of Investigation initiated an investigation of an allegation than an NSA analyst had conducted an unauthorized intelligence activity. In an interview conducted by the NSA/CSS Office of Security and Counterintelligence, the analyst reported that, during the past two or three years, she had searched her spouse's personal telephone directory without his knowledge to obtain names and telephone numbers for targeting....Although the investigation is ongoing, the analyst has been advised to cease her activities.

Wait a second. She was caught using NSA surveillance facilities to spy on her husband and was merely told to cease her activities? Wouldn't it be more appropriate to, say, fire her instantly and bar her from possessing any kind of security clearance ever again in her life? What am I missing here?

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Chart of the Day: War on Christmas Continues to Take a Drubbing

| Thu Dec. 25, 2014 8:38 PM EST

With the Christmas season now officially closed, I figured everyone would appreciate a final update on how our troops performed this year in the War on Christmas™. And since my Wikipedia entry insists that this blog is known for "original statistical and graphical analysis," that's what you're going to get.

So then: the chart below is a Google Ngram showing the popularity of Merry Christmas vs. Happy Holidays. I'm sorry to report that contrary to suggestions from certain quarters, Happy Holidays has been taking a terrific and sustained beating ever since the mid-70s. I took the liberty of extending the trendline based on an extensive personal sampling of popular music and TV shows, and I'm afraid the results were devastating: 2014 was yet another year of Happy Holidays getting its ass kicked. In 1975 we were behind by 2 x 10-5 percentage points. Today we're behind by 5 x 10-5 percentage points, and falling farther behind every year.

I know this might be discouraging news to some of you, but buck up, urban liberals! Happy Holidays is still doing better than the Lakers, the Bears, and the Knicks. Just wait 'til next year.

Merry Christmas!

| Thu Dec. 25, 2014 7:35 AM EST

We all still miss the late, much beloved Inkblot, but I figured this year it's time to celebrate the new cats in our family. So we have an all-new Christmas ornament. I did my best to retain all the charm of the old ornament, but this one features the new, much beloved Hopper. Merry Christmas, all.

Christmas Movies Are Now Just As Horrible As Everything Else Related to Christmas

| Wed Dec. 24, 2014 3:02 PM EST

Well, this answers a question for me. Dan Drezner describes the standard Jewish ritual for Christmas day:

Chinese food and a movie. Perfectly pleasant rituals, made special by the fact that the Gentiles are all at home or at church....

No longer.

I don’t know when it became a thing for Christian families to also go see a movie on the day commemorating the birth of Jesus, but personal experience tells me this is a relatively recent phenomenon — i.e., the past 15 years or so. All I know is that what used to be a pleasant movie-going experience is now extremely crowded.

Several years ago I naively decided that it might be nice to see a movie on Christmas. I figured the crowds would be really light and we could just slip right in. Needless to say, I was disabused of this notion quickly, and headed for home just as fast as my car would take me. At the time, I wondered what was going on. Had things changed? Was I just unaware that Christmas had always been a big movie day? Or what?

I guess it's the former. There really was a golden era when Christmas movies were uncrowded, but it disappeared before I even knew it existed. Sic transit etc.

The Hotel Industry Is Apparently Hellbent on Screwing Its Guests

| Wed Dec. 24, 2014 2:50 PM EST

The sheer venality and barefaced contempt for its customers that's so often displayed by corporate America never ceases to amaze me. I had no idea this was going on:

Microsoft and Google don’t agree on much, but they’ve presented a united front against the hotel industry, which is trying to convince government regulators to give them the option of blocking guests from using personal Wi-Fi hotspots....In October, Marriott settled an FCC complaint about the practice for $600,000 but argued that it hadn’t broken the law and was using technology to protect guests from “rogue wireless hotspots that can cause degraded service, insidious cyber attacks and identity theft.”

....Opponents of the proposal basically argued in filings late Monday that the hotel industry is just trying to keep guests and exhibitors dependent on pricy hotel wireless networks. They suggested hotels have other options for protecting Wi-Fi networks than jamming personal hotspots.

Years ago hotels lost the ability to charge outrageous prices for phone calls, so now they're engaged in a desperate rear-guard attempt to keep charging outrageous prices for Wi-Fi. Here's a suggestion instead: provide decent rooms at reasonable prices, and offer your guests additional services at reasonable prices too. Ho ho ho.

POSTSCRIPT: I wonder what the range of these jamming devices is? If Marriott or Hilton ends up jamming a Wi-Fi hotspot that someone is using on a public sidewalk outside one of their hotels, are they liable for damages?