A Southern California Sunset

I promise not to overdo this, but since I'm still in play mode with my new camera, here's another nice, soothing shot of a lovely Southern California sunset to end the blogging day with. Enjoy.

Voter Fraud or Voter Suppression?

E.J. Dionne has a column today about the longstanding conservative effort to pass "voter fraud" laws that (a) don't seem to reduce actual voter fraud, but (b) do tend to reduce turnout among traditional liberal constituencies. James Joyner reacts:

Are these reforms are aimed at suppressing the black and youth votes? I’d have to see substantially more evidence. But they seem to be aimed at theoretical problems that those who study such things can’t find in the wild.

Well, look: we'll probably never find smoking gun proof that voter fraud laws are aimed at suppressing the black and youth votes. After all, you'd have to be a monumental moron to actually admit this in any kind of written or otherwise permanent form.

Still, let's walk through the evidence:

  1. Research showing that actual voter fraud is minuscule — perhaps 0.001% of the vote or so — is overwhelming and very well known.
  2. Republicans have nonetheless been pushing voter fraud laws for nearly two decades.
  3. This costs a lot of money and sucks up a lot of energy.
  4. Parties don't generally spend lots of money and energy on things unless they benefit the party or its supporters in some way.
  5. The evidence that voter fraud laws reduce turnout among groups that trend Democratic is also very well known among party apparatchiks who pay attention to such things.

Maybe you can come up with some alternative interpretation for such a tenacious, coordinated, and energetic campaign. But the obvious explanation is that Republican Party apparatchiks think that voter fraud laws offer a method of reducing Democratic turnout in elections that's both effective and deniable. I really think you have to be almost willfully blind not to see this.

Confirmation Bias and Magic Mushrooms

Last week Andrew Sullivan linked to my post about new research into the mystical effects of psilocybin (aka the active ingredient in magic mushrooms) and said that his own experience with mushrooms a few years ago had deepened his faith and brought him closer to God. A reader objects:

This is why rationality is ultimately irreconcilable with faith. Scientists can now pinpoint the exact spots in your brain that light up during spiritual moments and you have found a mushroom that reproduces the effect. But instead of acknowledging this as an interesting yet completely natural sensation, you instead conclude that it’s a mushroom-shaped window into the divine.

Your mind is playing tricks on you, much in the same way that your eyes play tricks on you when items move into your blind spot. However, the effect sounds interesting; I might have to try it.

Andrew has an answer ("by definition, any divine manifestation in the mortal world will have some physical manifestation"), but it doesn't seem very convincing to me. Like his reader, I figure that if the feeling of the divine can be reliably activated by ingestion of a particular drug or stimulation of a particular nerve, then it's not really likely to be anything very divine after all. But then, I'm an atheist. I would think that, wouldn't I?

And with that, I'll now abuse the art of the segue to relate this to something that seems totally different. Here's my question to you: What do you think of those reality TV shows like The Bachelor and The Bachelorette, where some handsome guy or gal sweeps through a field of equally handsome contenders week by week until they're left at the end with their one true love? As near as I can tell, most people who watch these shows think that it shows something about the power of romance. But I have a different takeaway: if you can take 25 random people and reliably make your bachelor/bachelorette fall in love with one of them every single time, then it really means there's not much to romance at all, doesn't it? A few weeks of time and a modest selection of potential mates will do it every time. Sorta sucks all the mystery out of it.

And yet, these shows remain popular, even though they demonstrate on a weekly basis just how mechanical and predictable love is. Why are so many people enamored of having their faces shoved into this week after week? Beats me. But I guess the answer is the same as it is for psilocybin and the divine: if you believe in love as a transcendent experience in the first place, these shows just confirm that belief. If you don't, they confirm just the opposite. Aren't we human beings wonderful?

UPDATE: Andy Sabl is less enthusiastic about psilocybin than I am, but he's thinking along the same lines as me after reading various reactions to psilocybin's mystical effects:

In other words, religion in, religion out. Give mushrooms to a bunch of hippies and they’ll gain a new appreciation for yoga; give them to a heterodox Catholic and he’ll ponder the Incarnation. Give them to me and I might start to (wrongly) believe that I can understand complex mathematical proofs or conceive (wrongly) that I remember my once-adequate ancient Greek — which once gave me the very fulfilling experience of being able to read easy bits of Plato without a dictionary.

I'd make a distinction here. I agree with Andy that I'm not much interested in an "enlightenment" that doesn't also happen to be true. However, the evidence on psilocybin suggests that it not only provides a mystical experience that might be intrinsically interesting (regardless of how you view it), but that it also has longlasting effects on purely measurable qualities like happiness and satisfaction with social interactions. That seems pretty worthwhile to me if there are no harmful side effects. I may not want to believe things that aren't true, but I'm perfectly willing to artificially improve my emotional state. Happier is happier, after all.

My Annual Post About the Death of Tennis

In honor of Wimbledon starting today, Patrick Hruby writes a piece that's become an annual tradition around this time of year: a plaint about the death of the serve-and-volley game among top tennis stars:

In part, serve-and-volley became a victim of its own success. By the mid-1990s, big-serving attackers—again, see Sampras—were winning points and games in bang-bang fashion, producing complaints of boring, monotonous tennis. The griping had merit: bereft of long rallies, matches between net-rushers lacked both flow and consistent action, reducing a game of ebb, flow and varied geometry to a soccer penalty shootout.

In response, courts were tweaked to make balls bounce slower and higher. Wimbledon, for instance, altered the composition of its grass in 2001, producing a firmer and more durable playing surface. This shifted the balance of power in the direction of baseliners, giving them valuable extra time—think a tenth of a second, which is all they needed—to line up returns and passing shots. In 2002, net-rusher Tim Henman complained that the All England grass was the slowest non-clay surface he had played on all season; six years later, a BBC broadcast compared a pair of Federer serves to show that the courts had become even slower. The first Federer serve was hit in 2003; the second in 2008. Both were clocked at 126 miles per hour. The latter serve bounced higher, and came off the grass travelling nine mph slower.

New racket technology also favors the power baseline game, and the result is that today just about everyone plays the exact same, boring style of tennis: an endless parade of huge, looping, topspin shots from five or ten feet beyond the baseline. Athletically, it's stupendous, but dramatically it's tedious. It's here to stay, though. One of these days John McEnroe will retire from broadcasting and we'll no longer have anyone to tell us once an hour or so that whoever we're watching at the moment would benefit from coming to the net more aggressively, at which point the serve-and-volley game will be such a distant memory that no one will even write the annual Wimbledon requiem any longer. It'll just be something to reminisce about at the old folks home.

How the Pentagon Will Rescue the Economy

Looking for employment opportunities that can help our flagging economy? Look no further:

The Pentagon now has some 7,000 aerial drones, compared with fewer than 50 a decade ago....Already the Air Force is training more remote pilots, 350 this year alone, than fighter and bomber pilots combined.

....The pressures on humans will only increase as the military moves from the limited “soda straw” views of today’s sensors to new “Gorgon Stare” technology that can capture live video of an entire city — but that requires 2,000 analysts to process the data feeds from a single drone, compared with 19 analysts per drone today.

There you go. Not only can we employ lots of people to build our new drone army, but we'll have to employ even more people to keep a close eye on every dangerous patch of ground on the planet. And luckily for us, those dangerous patches seem to be multiplying rapidly. Let's do a quick back-of the-envelope calculation:

  • We have 7,000 drones today. Seems to be a growth market, so figure 20,000 drones in a few years.
  • Let's say half of them have this fabulous Gorgon Stare technology. That's 10,000 drones.
  • At 2,000 analysts per drone, this amounts to 20 million jobs.

Now that's what I call putting America back to work! Only a non-patriot could object.

Quote of the Day: Greed Not So Good After All

From Felix Salmon, after reading about executives at Skype getting fired so they won't get a full payout of their stock options when Skype's acquisition by Microsoft is finalized:

This does seem pretty evil.

And yet, says Felix, "I’m sure it makes financial sense." I'm sure it does too. Lots of crappy behavior does, after all.

Bill Clinton on Getting People Back to Work

Bill Clinton takes to the pages of Newsweek to propose 14 good ideas to boost employment. Here's one of them:

4. COPY THE EMPIRE STATE BUILDING

Just look at the Empire State Building—I can see it from my office window. Our climate-change people worked on their retrofit project. They cleared off a whole floor for a small factory to change the heating and air conditioning, put in new lighting and insulation, and cut energy-efficient glass for the windows. Johnson Controls, the energy-service company overseeing the project, guaranteed the building owners their electricity usage would go down 38 percent—a massive saving, which will enable the costs of the retrofits to be recovered through lower utility bills in less than five years. Meanwhile, the project created hundreds of jobs and cut greenhouse-gas emissions substantially. We could put a million people to work retrofitting buildings all over America.

Ideas 1, 2, 5, and 7 sound pretty good too. What's your favorite?

The Great Speedup

Americans — those who still have jobs, anyway — are working harder than ever these days. More hours, more weekend email check-ins, and less vacation than just about anyone else in the world. Clara Jeffery and Monika Bauerlein write about all of this, including the vacation part, in "All Work and No Pay: The Great Speedup":

European companies face the same pressures that ours do—yet in Germany's vigorous economy, for example, six weeks of vacation are de rigueur, weekend work is a last resort, and companies' response to a downturn is not to fire everyone, but to institute Kurzarbeit — temporarily reducing hours and snapping back when things start looking up. Sure, they lag ever so slightly behind us in productivity. But ask yourself: Who does our No. 1 spot benefit?

A big part of this is cultural. Mother Jones, no capitalist taskmasters they, have a pretty generous vacation policy. And yet, I almost never take vacation anyway. I've been brainwashed! (Until Wednesday, that is, when I'm taking a week off.) The map below shows this starkly: the United States is virtually alone in not mandating any annual time off for employees, right along with such economic luminaries as Burma, Guyana, and Nepal. More charts on American overwork here.

The Great Tax Holiday Scam

The New York Times reports that corporate lobbyists are renewing a push for a "one time" deal that allows them to bring foreign profits back into the U.S. at a low tax rate:

Under the proposal, known as a repatriation holiday, the federal income tax owed on such profits returned to the United States would fall to 5.25 percent for one year, from 35 percent. In the short term, the measure could generate tens of billions in tax revenues as companies transfer money that would otherwise remain abroad, and it could help ease the huge budget deficit.

Corporations and their lobbyists say the tax break could resuscitate the gasping recovery by inducing multinational corporations to inject $1 trillion or more into the economy, and they promoted the proposal as “the next stimulus” at a conference last Wednesday in Washington.

This is ridiculous: I know that "stimulus" is the excuse du jour for everything, but companies don't expand and hire more people because their corporate treasuries are flush. They expand and hire more people when they think demand for their goods and services is strong. Besides, corporate treasuries are already flush with cash that isn't being used to expand operations. So why would this make any difference?

Kudos, then, to reporter David Kocieniewski, who points this out in the very next paragraph:

But that’s not how it worked last time. Congress and the Bush administration offered companies a similar tax incentive, in 2005, in hopes of spurring domestic hiring and investment, and 800 took advantage. Though the tax break lured them into bringing $312 billion back to the United States, 92 percent of that money was returned to shareholders in the form of dividends and stock buybacks, according to a study by the nonpartisan National Bureau of Economic Research.

Indeed, 60 percent of the benefits went to just 15 of the largest United States multinational companies — many of which laid off domestic workers, closed plants and shifted even more of their profits and resources abroad in hopes of cashing in on the next repatriation holiday.

That money didn't go toward corporate expansion last time and it won't go toward corporate expansion this time. It will just fill up corporate treasuries and get distributed to shareholders, who are disproportionately well off and unlikely to use the money for increased consumption. The whole thing is just a scam.

America's corporate tax code needs an overhaul. The way we treat overseas income might need an overhaul too — though doing it properly would require some new regulations that corporations might not like so much. But without that overhaul, yet another tax holiday does nothing except to make the rich richer. It won't do a thing to get the economy moving again.

Kevin's Camera Gallery

In the camera thread last night I mentioned that one of these days I'd take pictures of the entire Drum family camera collection, from 1935 onward. Well, why not now? However, since most of you aren't interested in this kind of thing, I've put it below the fold.