Wednesday, August 28, 2002

I'm out of town on business right now; no time for blogging. I'll be back on Friday.

Tuesday, August 27, 2002

Here's a good profile of homeschooling in Florida.


Speaking of Nickel Creek reminds me of something: The glaring lack of talent in the music business.

I'm not speaking of studio musicians or touring musicians -- they are usually well-trained professionals who are rock solid at what they are hired to do, which is make music, pure and simple. Some guys in Nashville can walk into a studio, look at a tune they've never heard before, and record something that is radio-worthy in a couple of takes. It's mindboggling how good some of them are.

I'm talking about the people fronting the acts. Namely, the singers. There just isn't much actual vocal talent in the top acts. In fact, I would bet that at any given time, there is more sheer vocal talent among the churchgoers at the First Baptist Church in my hometown, Springdale Arkansas, than in the entire top 40. I say that not as a lawyer, but as a professionally-trained musician.

What do I mean by vocal talent? For one thing, the ability to sing live at all, without lip-syncing or having someone off-stage manipulating the sound so as to keep the singer on pitch (they have technology to do that nowadays). The ability to sing on pitch. A decent range. A smooth and pleasing tone. A voice that has richness and power. A voice that can sing more than a few songs without cracking, wavering, or croaking.

You really don't find that very much in the top 40 music acts. First of all, many of them are rappers who don't even attempt to sing. Then there are the husky-voiced rockers whose vocal cords are obviously damaged by smoking, straining to hit notes that they really can't hit, and generally bad technique. Among the few left over, most can't sing live worth beans. A top producer I know in Nashville says that it is truly amazing how little vocal talent there is in the business. He says that often when he meets aspiring singers, he asks them to sing something live -- the response is usually an embarrassed cough, and then a fumbling excuse like "Here's my demo CD, listen to that." And when singers record, all bets are off -- any recording you hear is so electronically manipulated and edited that it usually exaggerates vastly the singer's actual abilities.

So that's my little rant about the music business.
There's hardly anything that makes me as happy -- in music-related news, that is -- as hearing that Nickel Creek has a new album coming out. Nickel Creek is composed of Chris Thile, 21, on the mandolin, Sara Watkins, 20, on violin, and Sean Watkins, 25, on guitar. They all sing and write a lot of their own music, and they are all unbelievably good instrumentalists. Especially Chris Thile, who has been called the "Tiger Woods of the mandolin." That's no exaggeration -- I studied classical guitar for many years, and I'm blown away by Thile's technical abilities.

Though they might look like any other "teen" act, don't be fooled. Nickel Creek is Rembrandt, and all the other teen acts are kindergarten finger-painters.

Their style? A mixture of acoustic pop and bluegrass -- newgrass, some call it. Their first album, produced (as is the new one) by Alison Krauss, was one of the best albums I've ever bought. Lush vocal harmonies, rollicking instrumentals, tunes with memorable hooks.

And they were all homeschooled too. :)

Monday, August 26, 2002

Here's a fascinating, albeit dense, article by two Harvard Olin fellows who have come up with what they think is the economically optimal liability rule for libel. The problem is how to structure liability such that the media a) are not chilled from putting out valuable news stories, but at the same time b) have a sufficient incentive to investigate the truth as opposed to putting out quickly-written stories that may turn out not to be true. The answer? You'll have to read the article.

Friday, August 23, 2002

My Stanford Technology Law Review article on spectrum regulation is finally out. (Let's just say that I submitted it about a year and a half ago, and the subsequent delays weren't on my end.)

Fans of Larry Lessig might be interested to know that he said the article was "GREAT!" (I guess that's no surprise; he gave me the idea for the article when I took one of his classes a few years ago.) I've also gotten favorable (and unsolicited) emails about the article from law professors at Texas and Chicago and from a senior economist at the FCC.

OK, enough self-promotion.
Unmanned surveillance drones over America? It's already happening.
Some statistical funny business is going on in a new Insurance Institute for Highway Safety report claiming to prove that camera-enforced red lights reduce the overall number of accidents. Turns out that the study excluded an increase in rear-end crashes (often caused by a sudden stop at a red light) simply by defining the "intersection" to mean only the zone between crosswalks. A man named Kadison, who reexamined the data, came to a different conclusion:
Over this enlarged zone, rear-end crashes increased by 33 after red-light cameras were installed. At the same time, side impacts dropped 25 percent. Kadison concludes that the cameras merely trade one type of crash for another.

IIHS's claim of safety from cameras is flatly contradicted by a number of cities that have tried them. "At some intersections [with cameras] we saw no change at all, and at several intersections we actually saw an increase in traffic accidents," admitted San Diego police chief David Bejarano on ABC News's Nightline.

In Charlotte, North Carolina, station WBTV had this to say, "Three years, 125,000 tickets, and $6 million in fines later, the number of accidents at intersections in Charlotte has gone down less than one percent. And the number of rear-end accidents, which are much more common, has gone up 15 percent."
This should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with the principle of unintended consequences -- try to fix one problem (red light violations) and likely as not you worsen another (rear end crashes).

Thursday, August 22, 2002

I've found that with the advent of blogging, I read fewer and fewer op-ed columnists than I used to. I still like to read the big-wigs, like George Will, and I'll read anything on a major newspaper's op-ed page that looks really interesting, no matter who the author. But I don't find myself reading the second-tier syndicated columnists nearly as much. By the time a syndicated columnist has had time to write a column on a particular issue -- like, say, the NEA guidelines on Sept. 11 -- that issue has already been hashed to death by bloggers and I'm just not interested any more. Anybody else had this experience?
Now this is what I'm talking about.

Wednesday, August 21, 2002

One of the conspiracy websites I check occasionally -- just to see what the nuts are up to -- is What Really Happened. That site currently has one item that is both pathetic and laughable. In attempting to suggest that America's conduct in Afghanistan is as bad as the Nazis, the site displays a huge headline, "What Have We Become?", under which are two photographs -- the first labeled "Mass Graves at Bergen Belson," and the other labeled, "Mass Graves in Afghanistan." Here are the two photos:


Notice anything about the difference between the two photos? Such as, there aren't any bodies in the "mass grave" in Afghanistan?

This stuff is beyond belief.

Mark Shea has a hilarious takedown of a New York Times article that offhandedly claimed that Catholics are barred from having sex during Lent:
I missed the memo from the Vatican instructing all Catholics to abstain from sex during Lent. I thought maybe the reporter mistook the movie "40 Days" for the Catechism of the Catholic Church. But Stephen Riddle tells me she probably just fell into a time warp since this was a practice in medieval times. Which just goes to show that NY Times reporters should check their facts every thousand years or so.

Tuesday, August 20, 2002

Like all bloggers, I check my stats from time to time -- ok, daily -- to see who has sent visitors to my site. And sometimes interesting things turn up. Someone visited my site from Michael Barone's own stats page, according to which my blog is ranked 8th in how many readers it refers to Barone's site. And 4 out of the top 8 are Instapundit; 2 are search engines, and the other is Patrick Ruffini, who designed Barone's site. So basically I'm third. Who would've thought?

Then there's this site called "1 on 1 -- Web Knowledge for Business," which features a glossary of web terms. Under "Bloggers," guess what it says? This:

Web users who post usually short, frequently updated posts that are arranged chronologically on a web page. The content (weblog/blog) varies greatly—from links and commentary about other web sites, to news about a company/person/idea, to diaries, photos, poetry, mini-essays, project updates, and fiction. Bloggers webs are often linked to other bloggers webs. Examples are: The Buck Stops Here - and InstaPundit.Com -
Yep, me and Instapundit. [pulls up britches with self-satisfied expression] That about defines the term "blogger" right there.
Pluto is experiencing global warming. Clearly anthropogenic, probably caused by stray emissions from the Voyager. Because why else would a planet get warmer?

Monday, August 19, 2002

Public toilets may soon be reminding you to wash your hands. But you do that anyway, right?

Saturday, August 17, 2002

Brad DeLong discusses Larry Lessig's views on the harmfulness of copyright laws -- that is, the harm of extending the term of copyrights at the behest of big corporations (like Disney) so as to prevent valuable cultural creations of exactly the sort that Walt Disney himself invented when he put out modified versions of Grimm's folk tales, etc.

Something to consider: One of the all-time great law-and-economics duos -- William Landes and Richard Posner -- have a brand new article on SSRN, in which they defend the idea of indefinitely renewable copyrights. They rely on two possible bad effects that might happen when a work passes into the public domain: First, the destruction of the incentive to maintain and exploit the work, as well as too-great an incentive to make otherwise-unnecessary changes so as to retain something copyrightable.

The second problem they call "congestion externalities." What they mean by that term is that if too many people use a work or image, it might be so devalued that there is a general loss in social welfare. On p. 13, for example, they say this:
If anyone could use Humphrey Bogart's name or likeness in advertising, . . . the total utility might fall if the lack of excludability and resulting proliferation of the Bogart image led to confusion, the tarnishing of the image, or sheer boredom on the part of the consuming public. Eventually the image might become worthless.

They go on to examine empirical evidence on the small number of copyrights that are renewed, and on the effects of a renewal fee (evidently, the demand for copyright renewals is fairly elastic, which means that raising the fee decreases the number of renewals). They then suggest that if we shorten the copyright term, and raise the fee, hardly anyone will bother to renew copyrights anyway, which means most works will be in the public domain rather quickly. But very valuable works, the kind that the inventors should benefit from, should be able to be renewed indefinitely. Indefinite renewal would prevent the rent-seeking efforts that currently proliferate whenever a major player's copyright term is about to expire.

Despite my hesitation to go against the august authority of Landes and Posner in this realm, I'm not sure I'm convinced. Their argument on congestion externalities seems rather weak and is not fleshed out with much detail or evidence. Still, their paper should be considered in evaluating the arguments about copyright terms.

Friday, August 16, 2002

I haven't seen anyone link to the Toronto Star's article on blogging. So there you go.
This blog-o-universality comes as a huge relief to those concerned that what reality TV has revealed about humanity is our damn-the-consequences need for celebrity, recognition or, at the very least, acknowledgement. Blogs reassure us that there are masses out there not content to eat worms or date morons for validation, but instead prefer to speak out and be heard.

Dave Meck mentions the many times he's gotten free cable through some happenstance. The same has happened to me before. At one point, I had lived in three different apartments in a row where the following sequence of events happened: 1) I purchase basic cable. 2) The cable goes out. 3) I call for repairs. 4) After the repair guy leaves, I now am getting expanded basic (several dozen more channels) but am never charged for anything but basic. I just figured that some cable guys enjoyed giving away free expanded basic when they were called out on repair jobs.

Here's what bothered me, though. Was it dishonest or unethical for me not to call the cable company back and inform them that they were giving me too many channels? I really don't know. On one hand, I was getting something that I didn't pay for. I wouldn't feel comfortable walking out of a store with, say, an extra pair of jeans just because the sales clerk accidentally put them in my bag.

On the other hand, cable service is essentially a zero marginal cost service. The electrical signals for expanded basic were already sitting right there in the cable running to my apartment, and once the cable guy had flipped the wrong switch, it cost the cable company literally nothing for me to be getting expanded basic as opposed to basic. In fact, it probably would have cost the cable company more to come back out to the apartment and flip the switch back to basic. So by not calling the cable company, I was actually doing them a favor, right?
Paul Orwin (via Charles Murtaugh) has an interesting post on the cosmological argument for God's existence:
Well, I always find it a bit humorous how people with intense mathematical training can blithely state something like "the chance of human beings arising from Evolution are infinitesimal" or "the chance of all of these physical constants being just so, allowing for us to exist, is very small". Any time someone invokes an argument of this type, they are making a serious logical error. How many times have the physical constants of the universe been set? How many times has life on Earth evolved (ok, there can be some debate on this one, given the history of cosmic catastrophe on the earth's surface)? The answer, in both cases, is once. Not to put too fine a point on it, but you simply can't argue "What are the odds?" about something that has only, and can only, happen once! It is simply not a useful discussion.
Well why not? Orwin doesn't explain. Let's take a non-controversial example: The chances that I, as an individual, would be born. Here I am -- I was indeed born, and that was something that could only happen once. Does that really mean that it is meaningless to ask, "What were the odds that the individual Stuart Buck would ever exist"? It might be difficult to measure the odds -- you would have to estimate odds for my parents' meeting, for their mating at the exact moment that would produce me, and so on for all my ancestors. But the mere fact that I could only be born once is irrelevant, isn't it?
Brink Lindsey has an thoughtful post about the problems involved in corporate governance. I'm not sure I follow his implication that efforts to minimize hierarchy costs and to minimize agency costs are at cross purposes, though. Perhaps he could explain further . . .

Thursday, August 15, 2002

Jane Galt refers to Clinton's propensity to cheat at golf. I have a little story about that.

It was the summer of 1993 or 94, I can't remember which. I was home in Arkansas for the summer, and was working out at a gym in Rogers with a good friend of mine, Phil. Phil's parents lived out on a swanky golf course near Rogers.

I had heard that Clinton was in the area visiting some old (and rich) friends of his. (The Blairs, I think.) Well, while Phil and I were working out, the lady who ran the gym came up and told Phil he had a phone call. Phil came back a few seconds later and said, "Hey, let's go to my house. Clinton is playing on our course."

So we drove over to his house, about 5 minutes away. A few police cars lined the road leading up to the golf course, but that was about it. Not much security, apparently, when the presidential visit is unpublicized. The random (and frightening) thought occurred to me that it's true what they say: Anyone who really, really wanted to assassinate the President could do it, especially if he were able to strike during one of these unannounced visits.

Anyway, we arrived just in time to stand on Phil's front lawn and watch Clinton play just a few dozen yards away.

He cheated.

Or, perhaps more appropriately, he had someone else cheat for him. He had hit the ball in an attempt to get it onto the green, but it fell short. As he chatted with his friends, someone who appeared to be one of his aides bent over and tossed Clinton's ball onto the green, much closer to the hole. Phil and I both got a huge kick out of it.

Sometimes when I say I'm from Arkansas, people ask, usually with a devilish grin, if I knew Clinton. Well, there you go. That's my Clinton story.

Wednesday, August 14, 2002

Ben Domenech has a good list of homeschoolers: "Blaise Pascal, Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, Patrick Henry, William Blake, Charles Dickens, Thomas Edison, Abraham Lincoln, C.S. Lewis, Douglas MacArthur, Katherine Hepburn, William F. Buckley . . . Sen. Rick Santorum and Mel Gibson."

To that list, I would add two prominent lawyers who have homeschooled their children at various times: Chief Judge Douglas Ginsburg of the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, and law professor Michael McConnell (who has been nominated by President Bush to the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals).

Monday, August 12, 2002

You might have noticed (or maybe not) that I have a bunch of links to other bloggers in the left hand column. But no link to the almighty Instapundit. Why?

It's not because I don't read Glenn's site; I do every day. It's not that I don't approve of and like his site; I do. It's not that I don't admire his path-breaking efforts on behalf of the world of blogdom; I do.

It's just that a link to Instapundit seemed utterly superfluous. The fact is, anyone reads this site is already aware of Instapundit and has his page bookmarked. Heck, even though this site has gotten mentioned in Slate and John Leo's column in the past couple of weeks (lots of visitors from that), there are still pretty good odds that all of you regular readers (whoever you are) found out about my site first because of 1) Glenn's links to me back in the fall (my first, abortive go-round) or 2) Glenn's links to me announcing my triumphant return to the blogosphere post-judicial-clerkship. For me to link to Instapundit -- well, it would be kind of like a White House cook offering to write a letter of recommendation for George W. Bush. The peasant granting his audience to the king. That sort of thing.

Which made me wonder: Why do so many people link to Instapundit? He's the most-linked-to blogger out there, with a smashing 438 known links to his site, just from other bloggers. I mean, people who haven't even put up their first posting yet are probably out there, linking to Instapundit. Why? What is the social meaning of this phenomenon?

Part of it, of course, is his sheer popularity. Which only stands to reason.

But that's not all. Another factor, I think, is that linking to Instapundit makes people feel cool. It's a way of signaling that you are in the know, that you have some sort of connection to the big guys, that you're a real blogger just like everyone else who links to Instapundit.

Another thing is that Instapundit has won himself canonical status in our little world. And what makes something canonical is precisely that it is so strongly associated with the field in question that they seem to go together like peas and carrots. To be part of the blogosphere without mentioning and linking to Instapundit is like speaking of judicial review without mentioning Marbury v. Madison, or law-and-economics without mentioning Ronald Coase, or modern political philosophy without mentioning John Rawls, or evolutionary theory without mentioning Charles Darwin, or Western movies without mentioning John Wayne -- you get the point.

Hmmm. Maybe I should put up that perma-link to Instapundit after all. . . .

According to Will Rogers, "It's not the things we don't know that get us into trouble; it's the things we do know that ain't so." For instance, that medieval people all thought the earth was flat. Ain't so, as any reader of Thomas Aquinas knows.
Things that irritate me:

Morning radio talk shows. I have about 5 radio stations that are preprogrammed on my car's radio. At most times of the day, they play music that I enjoy listening to, for the most part. But in the morning as I drive to work, at any point in time the chances are about 90% that all 5 of them will be playing not music, but one of those morning talk shows. You know the kind, with several hosts who all seem to be in college and whose idea of entertainment is to engage in juvenile and trivial banter over whatever comes into their heads.

This isn't just a Dallas phenomenon. It was the same way in DC, and in the Atlanta area when I lived there, which leads me to assume that other cities have the same problem.

Why do all the pop/rock radio stations do this? What is it about the morning hours that makes radio stations think no one wants to listen to any music and that everyone wants to hear goofy adolescent chatter instead? Why doesn't just one radio station buck the trend?

Sunday, August 11, 2002

The headline: Not enough sugar and too much spice; Teen girls often gossip, bully and back-stab their way up the adolescent social ladder. The subject: The harshness and cruelty with which teenage girls often treat each other at school.
"The girl who is a complete outsider who wants to be in can be miserable and the girl who is in the group and has to constantly prove herself to stay in may have to sacrifice of herself," said Rosalind Wiseman.

Wiseman, the author of "Queen Bees and Wannabes," runs a Washington D.C. based non-profit called the Empower Program that teaches teens to stop violence and cliquish behavior that leads to conflict and violence.
I suppose that's part of the valuable socialization of which homeschooling deprives children.


Friday, August 09, 2002

The FCC voted 3 to 1 to require that all televisions be digital by the year 2007. According to the FCC's press release, this "marks another step in the FCC's progress toward making the digital television transition a reality."

I suppose so, although why this is considered "progress" is a mystery to me. Everyone acknowledges that digital televisions will cost more, and generally speaking, consumers should have a choice (in my opinion) about whether they want to spend more money to get a higher quality product.

Imagine that the Federal Home Agency (there's no such thing now, but give it time) mandated that all homes built in America be over 2,500 square feet, on the theory that Americans would like to have more space and this would give it to them. The response would be, "Sure Americans like space, but some Americans might rather have a cheaper home with less space so they can spend their money on something else -- and that's a tradeoff they should be allowed to make."

Of course, there is a difference between the TV market and the home market -- the possibility of a collective action problem. If you are the only person in America who builds a home over 2,500 square feet, your home will still function perfectly well. But if you are the only person in America who buys a digital television, then you are basically screwed, because no one is going to supply digital programming for you alone. In order for digital programming to work at all, there have to be a substantial number of consumers with digital sets and a substantial number of programmers willing to supply the programming.

But still, who says the government has to get involved? Look at the transition that happened from records to tapes, and then from tapes to CDs. One could argue that there was a collective action problem there too -- who wants to be the first person to buy a CD player when hardly any CDs are available? And who wants to be the first record company to put out CDs when no one has CD players?

Yet here we are -- everyone has CD players and all the companies put out CDs. The transition happened, and I certainly don't recall the government mandating that every boombox come with a CD player by 1991. (The same point applies to the ongoing transition from videotapes to DVDs.)

Oddly, Michael Powell's separate statement begins by saying this:
Every year, 25 million analog sets are sold in this country, their purchasers blissfully unaware that their new sets come with a government- mandated expiration date. Someday, analog broadcasting will cease. When that time comes, consumers will expect their television sets to go on working in the digital world just as they do today. This includes the ability to receive broadcast signals. Indeed, the expectation that TV sets receive broadcast signals is so ingrained that consumers simply assume this functionality is incorporated into their television set. That is what today?s Order is all about.
Of course, if it is true as he says that digital programming is going to take over and all "consumers will expect their television sets to go on working in the digital world," then why not leave it to the marketplace? I mean, if digital programming is all there is going to be in 2007 anyway, what rational television manufacturer is going to try to sell analog models that year? They'd go out of business. I'm always baffled by the argument, often made by government agents and people on the left end of the spectrum, that "We have to interfere with the market here, because what we're mandating is what people would buy/produce anyway."

Thursday, August 08, 2002

Quote for the Day

All argument against these plain facts [that miracles have been observed] is always argument in a circle. If I say, "Medieval documents attest certain miracles as much as they attest certain battles," they answer, "But medievals were superstitious." If I want to know in what they were superstitious, the only ultimate answer is that they believed in miracles. If I say "a peasant saw a ghost," I am told, "But peasants are so credulous." If I ask, "Why credulous?" the only answer is -- that they see ghosts. Iceland is impossible because only stupid sailors have seen it; and the sailors are only stupid because they say they have seen Iceland.

G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy 149-50 (1908).
So the speed of light may not be constant after all. Amazing.
This op-ed by Yale Law School's Peter Schuck is quite sensible. He examines the social havoc wreaked by a New Jersey Supreme Court decision (Mount Laurel) that basically allowed state judges to create or modify zoning laws.
The Mount Laurel approach is a throwback to a time when judges ordered top-down social change. Housing markets, however, are too complex and dynamic for courthouse engineering. A better approach to improving options for low-income families is to give them vouchers and help them find housing in places where they want to live.

Wednesday, August 07, 2002

Jane Galt's takedown of Hertzberg is definitely worth reading.
Amazing. This is the first Maureen Dowd column that I was able to finish with clicking somewhere else in boredom or irritation. It's about Gore's recent pretense at populism, by the way.
The West Nile virus found here matches an Israeli strain, according to a CDC scientist. The implication is that someone deliberately brought the strain over here -- and if that's true, it's likely to be a radical Muslim, right? That's the most logical choice. But I can already see how some of the conspiracy websites are going to play this one: "It's an Israeli strain! It must be those Jews again, trying to bring down the U.S."


Tuesday, August 06, 2002

Thanks to Pejman for the link. I have to wonder, though, what his classification system means: Why, for example, am I listed under "Sphere of the Fixed Stars"? Something to ponder.
Mark West of the University of Michigan Law School has a fascinating new paper out called "Legal Determinants of World Cup Success." In this groundbreaking study, West takes an economic model used by scholars to analyze the success of corporate law in various countries, and applies it to the prediction of soccer victories.

Here's how it works: Look at how many points each country has in the FIFA/Coca-Cola World ranking system (a system for ranking countries' soccer teams). Then create a regression equation in which the variables are 1) Professional (number of soccer professionals per capita in a given country, 2) Origin of commercial law (English, French, German, or Scandinavian), 3) Rule of law (a ranking of "law and order" in any given country), and 4) Anti-director rights (an index measuring the power of shareholders to govern corporations). Then run the regression and see which variables affect soccer success.

The findings are surprising: "[G]ood law, and especially French law, leads to good soccer." West's explanation? "Perhaps teams from countries with systems based on the French model (such as 1998 champion France and 2002 champion Brazil) perform well due to the remaining vestiges of the Napoleonic Code that somehow remove discretion from coaches and managers in the same manner that that civil law system curtails judicial activism. Or maybe -- just maybe -- some other forces are at work."

Just maybe.

Another hilarious article from Mark Steyn.
Ah, it's August, or as we in the newspaper business call it, ''the silly season,'' because nothing important ever happens in August, unless you count the outbreak of the First World War (August 1914), the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact heralding the Second World War (August 1939), the nuking of Hiroshima and Nagasaki (August 1945), the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia (August 1968), the only presidential resignation in American history (August 1974), etc., etc.
Caleb Stegall takes on Sean Wilentz's vicious and ahistorical attack on Justice Scalia, who wrote a much-noticed article describing how his views on capital punishment differ from some Catholic leaders' views.

Monday, August 05, 2002

Sasha Volokh has a great post on the definition of "semi-automatic weapon." It drives me crazy too when people use that term as if it means virtually the same thing as "automatic." Perhaps gun makers and enthusiasts should just come up with a more descriptive and less pejorative-sounding term to describe all the many guns that shoot one bullet with one pull of the trigger without any pumping action required (but without spraying bullets everywhere, which is what people seem to think when they hear "automatic" even with "semi" in front of it.).
I have to say, I pretty much agree with this column by Norah Vincent, the title of which asks, "Is God There Only in Happy Endings?"

Then, of course, there has been the rash of child abductions across the country in the last few weeks, leaving us unbelieving that any God could countenance the unspeakable suffering of a 5-year-old girl, sexually assaulted, murdered and left propped up on the side of the road. Where was our miners' God then? Was he there when Samantha Runnion lay frightened and in pain beyond enduring? Is he there by the side of Elizabeth Smart, wherever she may be? Or was he only there in Philadelphia when mercy was shown to 7-year-old Erica Pratt, who escaped to safety by chewing through the duct tape with which her captors had bound and gagged her?

Maybe God has been busy in Pennsylvania.

Or maybe we're just custodians of a cheap and bribable faith. Maybe we're just the kind of fair-weather believers who pray for the winning Lotto ticket or the outcome of an election or who cross themselves in the batting box and the end zone because they think God cares about a timely touchdown or home run. * * *

* * *

Our God should be constant, the God both of tears and laughter, not the God of good fortune at the track. If we can make of God nothing more than a name to be cut and pasted haphazardly into oaths, or praised only on the auspicious days, then we have lost the faith this nation -- under and trusting in God -- was founded on and, moreover, the faith that makes it worth defending.

Happy endings have nothing to do with it.

Sunday, August 04, 2002

The Washington Post weighs in on the value (or nonvalue) of supermarket cards.

Saturday, August 03, 2002

The Washington Post has a long, thorough, and surprisingly balanced look at Justice Thomas, focusing mainly on the unfortunate fact that many black people have nothing but contempt for Thomas, simply because he has voted the "wrong" way in three or four cases out of the nearly 1,000 he's decided in an 11-year period on the Court. An interesting quote:
He is known to phone columnists and other commentators to offer critiques of their work and advice. Essayist Debra Dickerson received one of Thomas's calls after an op-ed column she wrote for The Washington Post about the "conundrum" Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice present as powerful African Americans whose achievements merit admiration but whose Republican stripes often put them at odds with the majority of blacks.

Thomas liked the column, he told Dickerson, and talked about how difficult it is for blacks in public life with nontraditional views. He laughed and did 90 percent of the talking, keeping her on the phone so long that Dickerson thought, "He's a lonely guy."

"I think he would clearly love his relationship with the black community to be different . . . There is a wistfulness there. You can't be outside of the fold and not feel it," she says, speaking as an unpredictable black voice herself. "He is the lowest of the low in sort of official blackdom. It's unfair, and it's got to hurt."
An Economics Question

Not too long ago, I spent the night in a fairly nice hotel -- the kind where valets park your car and all that. I was going to make a long distance call, and looked up the rates. It turned out that the hotel charged $3.50 for the first minute and $1.50 per minute after that! Luckily I had a cheap phone card with me.

To put matters in context, according to this article, the average hotel markup on long distance used to be 6 times the cost, but the trend has been downward due to the pressure of cell phones. Now the markup is usually 1.5 times cost. At the hotel I'm talking about, the markup had to be more like FIFTEEN times cost.

So the question is, why on earth did the hotel charge that much? The seemingly obvious answer is, "To make money."

But does that make sense? At such outrageous prices, hardly anyone would actually use the hotel long distance service anyway; they would use a cell phone or a calling card instead. And out of those who did use the hotel long distance by accident, probably 95% would be infuriated when they got a $17 charge for a mere 10 minute call. In other words, the high rate wouldn't make that much money, and what money it did make would be at the expense of pissing off the customers.

The only people who would pay the charge either knowingly or without complaining would be people who are simply so rich that money means nothing to them. Maybe that hotel gets a lot of those types of customers, but I doubt it. In my (limited) experience, while rich people don't mind spending money on things that they actually value and want, they usually do mind throwing money down the drain for nothing. You generally don't get rich by being completely wasteful.

In fact, the above article quotes representatives from two swanky hotel chains as saying that their customers definitely resent high long distance charges:
"The No. 1 complaint from guests, according to our front desk managers, is the high cost of long-distance calls," Jordan [from Wyndham Hotels] said.
[According to the chief operating officer of New York City's Apple Core hotels], "You're doing yourself a big favor in winning over the customer" when you eliminate phone charges. "If there's one thing that riles hotel guests, it's these payments."

One thought that occurs is that high charges are more likely in hotels that (like the one I stayed at) are not chains. A stand-alone hotel might get away with stiffing you on the ultimate bill, which you find out about only when you're already on your way out the door and likely won't stay there again anyway. But a chain hotel has a greater incentive not to spring unfair charges on you, because that could hurt their operations elsewhere. Even so, though, the stand-alone hotel does a lot of business for conventions and such, which would provide some very substantial repeat business. You'd think that would provide some incentive not to get a reputation as a place that rips people off.

So what's going on here? Is there a rational explanation for this hotel's behavior, at a time when so many hotels are realizing the futility of marking up phone service by a fraction of this hotel's rates?