Friday, December 31, 2010

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell

I just finished reading 'Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell'. It is a very good book. The most concise and accurate description I can give it is 'An adult version of Harry Potter' It is sophisticated, high-quality fiction from a previously unknown British author. It draws on a wide literary tradition and does an excellent job of building a world and characters.

The book was published in 2004, in a publicity campaign that was massive by the standards of the publishing industry, and earned a blizzard of positive award and prizes, including a Hugo Award. And yet I had never heard of it before this year. I first saw it on a friend's bookshelf, and it looked interesting, but I had never heard of it so I assumed that it was a bit of mediocre genre fiction. But then I saw it on a list of the most impressive fiction of the last decade, from a very smart blogger who reads very extensively, so I decided to borrow and read it.

It is scary how such a famous and high-quality book in a genre that I like could have escaped my notice for so long. There was once a time when every literate person read every good new book that their society produced. Now I cannot even keep up with the good speculative fiction books that my society produces. The dizzying array of options and choices in the modern world really has had the effect of fragmenting our culture.

Maybe I should resolve to read all of the Hugo Award winners, and to ignore any sci-fi or fantasy books that have not won the award. That would definitely improve the average quality of the books I read, and increase the odds that I could talk about books with people like me. It is a good solution to the coordination game of what to read and talk about. But it would also mean that I miss out on really fun books, like the 'Monster Hunter' books from Larry Correia that I really enjoyed reading.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Deaf Experience

Yesterday evening, a friend and I went to a dinner meeting for deaf people.  A few people there were training to be interpreters, and a few were friends, but most were deaf.  It was a very interesting experience.

In most dinner meetings, conversational range is limited and the conversation is communal.  You can only talk to people close to you, and everyone nearby will hear you and be part of the discussion.  But deaf people always communicate by line of sight, either with cued speech or sign language.  This means that they have no trouble at all holding a conversation with someone on the other end of the table.*  Several times during the night I noticed that several different simultaneous conversations were taking place between people far apart from each other.  This could never happen with sound-based speech.

On the other hand, conversation among deaf people tends to be binary.  It is very hard to read the lips or signs of two people simultaneously, or even to notice that someone else wants to speak.  Interrupting someone or jumping into the conversation requires a bit of effort, so the conversations tend to have only two people talking back and forth.  Sometimes someone else will be watching both of them.

If you want to get someone's attention, you have to either flap your hands at them when they are looking in your direction, or poke them, or poke someone else at pass along a message. (It is considered very rude to throw something at deaf people to get their attention.)

All of this means that conversation and group dynamics were very different than anything I have seen before.  I get the feeling that there was much more actual communication than there would have been in a group of hearing people.  Deaf people communicating never generates any 'noise pollution' so there is no limit to the number of simultaneous conversations.  In theory, fully half of the people at the table can be talking at once without interfering with each other, and you could talk with anyone at the table and not just people close to you.

I also got a taste of what it must feel like to be deaf in a world of hearing people.  None of them made any sounds when talking.  Often they would move their mouths, so that the others could lipread them to aid understanding, but they did not bother to put any stress on their throats or vocal cords by making sounds.  So I was at a table full of people chattering away happily, making no sound at all, and I could not understand any of it.

I also noticed that nobody had a pen and pad of paper handy.  They ordered either by talking or pointing at a menu.  If I was deaf or had any other kind of communication handicap, I would carry paper with me at all times and use that as my primary method of communication.  I would write things down and ask others to write in response.  But nobody else seems to do that. 

In fact, sometimes I think that the world would be a better place if everyone did this all the time.  But then, I am a bit odd in liking the precision of the written word rather than the vagueness and messiness of speech or gestures.

*They can also talk to someone on the other end of the room, or even, as I saw, through a window.  If they can see each other well enough to see hand shapes, they can talk just as well as if you were right next to each other.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

The Ultra-Imperial Presidency

Here's a Good Interview with a guy who warns about the dangers of steadily increasing executive power.  This is not one of those anti-Obama people that ignored the Bush abuses of power.  He points out that things have been getting worse under all presidents.

M-M: In your view, are Republican and Democratic presidents equally responsible for power grabs?
BA: Yes. It's true that the three worst incidents have occurred under Republican presidents — that is, Watergate, Iran-Contra and the extra-legal, illegal activities of the war on terror. But there has been a bipartisan effort by presidents from Franklin Roosevelt through to the present to aggrandize presidential power. And there are crucial features of the existing edifice that have been built by Democratic presidents. 

 Right now, we have an increasing number of highly skilled lawyers in the White House Counsel's office and in the Office of Legal Counsel. We didn't have these people before. Before Richard Nixon, there was no trained legal staff in the White House. Now there are 40 lawyers, 25 of them writing very polished opinions. What happens in an emergency is that these lawyers in the White House staff and the Office of Legal Counsel have powerful incentives to write very learned opinions saying the president can do whatever he wants.  

There are 7 billion people in the world. There are always going to be tens of millions of people who don't like America. And with the big technological shift, it's becoming possible for smaller and smaller numbers of people to buy more and more dangerous weapons for lower and lower prices. Five hundred people with a couple million dollars will, predictably, in 20 years' time, have nuclear capacities. One of these groups is going to be lucky. That's going to happen. The question is, whether it is totally going to destroy our tradition of freedom or whether it will simply disrupt it for a manageable period of time. 

 My proposal is to have a new emergency statute which recognizes that right after a 9/11 catastrophe — and we may well have worse catastrophes in the 21st century — it is appropriate for the United States government and the president of the United States to take really sweeping actions for a brief period of time — I'd say, 45 days. I say, however, that this state of emergency has to be approved by Congress, and that every 60 days thereafter, the president has to go back to Congress and get it approved again, with a supermajority — the first time, 60 percent of Congress has to go along, and the next time 70 percent, and the next time and for every time thereafter, 80 percent. What this means is that emergencies end. Our problem right now, after 9/11, is that so many of the emergency measures, which I would support as short-term devices after a tragic episode, have become part and parcel of our system. And when we have another attack, which we will, people will say, "Well, you know, these measures weren't enough to stop the attack, so let's be even more draconian." 
He also mentions disturbing tends in the erosion of civilian oversight of the military.  I am not sure how true this is, but I do know that a military that always follows civilian orders and does not get involved in politics is vital for the long-term health of freedom and democracy.  The problem is that civilians sometimes order the military to do really stupid things and they need to have the right to protest that.

I would say that the military should always have the right to argue that it should not be doing something, especially if that something involves the creation of overseas entanglements.  However, they should not have the right to propose new strategic actions or attempt to alter domestic policy or leadership in any way.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Future Shock?

Futurists often discuss the possibility of productivity-enhancing drugs and their potential to generate wealth inequality.  What if the rich had access to things that made them work smarter and harder?

Here's an interesting essay that suggests it has already happened.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Bank Law Consequences

There is an entire industry of fraud built up around a stupid little flaw in our banking system.  I refer to the fact that when you deposit a check, the bank always credits your account before checking to see if the check is any good.  If the check later turns out to be bad, you lose the money.  This can happen not just with checks, but with a variety of payment types.

Scammers of all kinds use this to defraud people.  They send a fake check and the victim deposits the check and sees money credited to the account.  After the check is deposited but before it is revealed to be fake, the criminal then ask for money back for some reason.  Many people who do not know about this flaw in the system will send money and lose it.

Thousands and thousands of people have been harmed by this.  The fraud works because the bank is basically lying to you.  They say that you have the money, but you do not.  The truth is wildly different from how most people assume bank statements work.

Banks do this because they are forced to by law.  There is some stupid banking law somewhere that forces banks to credit money to your account when you give them the check.  I am sure that banks would do things differently if this law was not in place.  They would only credit a check to your account when it actually cleared, and they would then advertise the fact that customers of their bank are much less vulnerable to frauds as a result.

If they did this, then the only disadvantage would be that you would have to wait a little longer for 'your' money when checks were good.  But the banks could probably treat different checks differently if they wanted to.  The more reliable kinds of checks could be credited instantly, and the kinds scammers use would not be.

I am not sure what the ideal rule would be.  Maybe no regulation would be best.  Maybe there should be a rule making it illegal for banks to claim you have the money from the check when you do not.  The current way of doing things is basically fraud, and it results in a lot of people losing money to con artists.

This kind of thing is why all laws and regulations should be considered guilty until proven innocent.  Every law that is passed has the chance for these kinds of side effects.  A single oversight or error in the drafting of legislation can create conditions that hurt people for decades.

Monday, December 6, 2010

More Wikileaks Thoughts

In competitive paintball games, there is a strategy called 'Designated Idiot'.  One player is assigned to make a lot of noise, to yell insults at other teams and the referee, to be flamboyantly obnoxious and draw attention to himself.  This distracts the referee and opponents, allowing the teammates to surreptitiously cheat their way to victory.

Assange is the Designated Idiot for Wikileaks.  I do not know if the strategy is deliberate or accidental, but it is working beautifully.  Attention is focused on one person, while the rest of the team continues to operate silently to build up the infrastructure and connections that allow Wikileaks to be so successful.

The best thing that could happen for the organization now is for Assange to be martyred.  If he is killed or injured in a suspicious way, a lot of people will start to see him as a hero and work to further his goals.  The people calling for him to be killed are idiots.  They show a complete lack of perspective, a contempt for the rule of law, and zero sense of strategic thinking.

The actual spooks are cleverer; they are aiming for character assassination.  A rape charge is the best way to destroy a reputation in today's world.  I am not dismissing the possibility that Assange actually committed a crime, but the timing of the warrant is quite suspicious.

WIkileaks has worked to prevent people from being hurt by this.  They have deleted several documents, and gone over them internally to try to avoid releasing anything harmful.  They also sent a letter to the State Department offering to hold back specific documents upon request.  The government did not point to any specific document that might be harmful.

This information is almost certainly available to foreign intelligence services already.  The database that the information came from can be accessed by over three million people.  Several dozen of these people are probably compromised by various foreign governments, and feeding them information.  If Manning had sold the files he downloaded to the Soviets or Chinese, nobody would have ever known about it, and the Army has plenty of people like him.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Plain Tales From The Hills

Since childhood, I had been vaguely aware of Kipling, as the author of the Just So Stories and of several poems that I never actually read but knew lines from.  I also knew of his reputation and a bit of his life story.  Over Thanksgiving break, I was looking through some old books at my Grandmother's house and found Plain Tales From The Hills.  I always like short stories, so I read one, and liked it so much that I asked to borrow the book so I could read the rest.

The book is incredibly good.  Most of the stories are first-class, very well-written, with lines and quotes that you want to repeat to other people around you.  They are very much like Mark Twain's early short stories, although with less emphasis on pure humor.  

In addition to their inherent quality, they are fascinating historical documents.  They reveal a way of life and thinking that is almost dead today, and very alien to our modern sensibilities.  One thing that particularly fascinates me is that I cannot tell if Kipling is subversively mocking these beliefs or if he actually holds them.  I tend to think the former; many of the statements are so outrageous that I think they must be like Swift's 'A Modest Proposal'.  Kipling constantly portrays the British colonial administration of India in a cynical way, creating the impression that the government was full of stupidity, waste, and corruption.

But then, he will write something in complete seriousness that is blatantly racist, or silly, or alien to the modern mind.  It is a fascinating mystery.

While reading these stories, I assumed that they were they work of a cynical, middle-aged, world-weary soldier.  I was surprised when I looked the book up and saw that all of them were written by the time he was 22.

I was also surprised by how many non-English words he throws around without explanation.  I do not know if all readers would have understood them, or if he did that to appear impressive and exotic.  Given that they were published in India at first, I assume the former.  As I was reading, I had to make a long list of words to look up, and there were a lot more that I already knew or could figure out from context

The stories are short and, aside from some of the vocabulary, very easy to read.  If you have a little spare time, read a few and see what you think.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Machinery of Government

Recently I have been reading Kipling's 'Plain Tales from the Hills', an amazingly good book.  When I am done I will write more about it.  But today I will bring up one point that relates to current events.  This is from the story 'Consequences':

Mrs. Hauksbee gasped as she read, for the first glimpse of the naked machinery of the Great Indian Government, stripped of its casings, and lacquer, and paint, and guard-rails, impresses even the most stupid man.

Over the last week, the world has gotten a glimpse of the naked machinery of international diplomacy.  It is an extraordinary sight.  The Wikileaks publication of diplomatic cables will change the world in important ways.  People who know about technology have been predicting something like this for decades, but the actual event was like 9-11 for the diplomatic community.

The reaction of our government to this leak really disturbs me.  When Wikileaks released a trove of military documents, the government made some noise about it but did not really take any action.  But now, they seem engaged in an all-out cyberwar against the site.  To me, this is backwards.  The military files did not really tell us that much, but they may have put our soldiers and intelligence contacts at risk.  The diplomatic files, by contrast, reveal a lot of lies and corruption at the highest levels of a lot of governments, but the risk of actually putting lives at risk is a lot smaller.

Basically, our government has revealed by its actions that it cares far more about the reputation of its diplomats than the lives of its soldiers.

I think that the principle of openness in general, and Wikileaks in particular, are good for the world.  Secrecy is a weapon.  It may be a necessary weapon, to safeguard things like your bank account, but we must always remember that it is a weapon.  You keep information about yourself secret for the same reason you lock your doors and keep a shotgun by your bed.  Secrecy is a collection of lies, evasions, and dishonesty that let you win social and political games in an adversarial world.  An honest world with no secrecy is like a peaceful world with no weapons: an excellent goal and dream even if it is practically impossible.

Government bureaucracies will always try to accumulate as many weapons as they possibly can, and claim that it is for the benefit of the country.  The citizens of the country must resist this trend for the same reason they must resist the accumulation of physical weapons and military power by their governments.  Weapons may be necessary, but they are always and everywhere a necessary evil, useful only if they prevent greater evils.

The optimal amount of government secrecy is certainly not zero, but I believe that it is much lower than the amount we currently see.  Wikileaks helps us move in the right direction.  If our government could be trusted to only classify what was necessary for the country, and not necessary for bureaucrats, then Wikileaks would be pointless and damaging.  But given the tendency of governments toward excessive secrecy, leaks like these are good.  They tell the public what is really going on, and threats of disclosure should make governments less likely to lie to their citizens.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

1895 8th Grade Exam

I saw this exam quoted in a newspaper article once, and tried to find it online but could not.  But another blog linked to it today.  I'll copy it and give comments on the questions, and then discuss it a bit:

This is the eighth-grade final exam from 1895 from Salina, KS. USA.
It was taken from the original document on file at the Smoky Valley
Genealogical Society and Library in Salina, KS and reprinted by the
Salina Journal.

8th Grade Final Exam: Salina, KS - 1895

Grammar (Time, one hour)
1. Give nine rules for the use of Capital Letters.
2. Name the Parts of Speech and define those that have no modifications.

These are simple enough, but I'm not sure the lists I could come up with would be complete.  It would be easy to study, though.
3. Define Verse, Stanza and Paragraph.

I had no idea what the difference between Verse and Stanza is.  After looking it up, I saw that the two words have been conflated in the past century, but 'Verse' was single line of poetry whereas 'Stanza' was a group of lines.
4. What are the Principal Parts of a verb? Give Principal Parts of do, lie, lay and run.

I had no clue what they mean here.  Even after looking it up I am not confident I would get it right.  Looking at all the labels for each tense, like 'preterite', make my head hurt.  I have excellent grammar, but that comes from simply reading a lot of high-quality prose rather then memorizing rules like this.
5. Define Case, Illustrate each Case.

No clue.  This is apparently something to do with how you use nouns.  I started to look it up, saw that it was a twisted complex mess, and decided that I don't even want to know; I have better things to do with my brain.
6. What is Punctuation? Give rules for principal marks of Punctuation. 
7 - 10.  Write a composition of about 150 words and show therein that you understand the practical use of the rules of grammar.

Finally, something reasonable and practical.

Arithmetic (Time, 1.25 hours)
1. Name and define the Fundamental Rules of Arithmetic.

I know a lot of basic rules of arithmetic and math, but I do not know which they are asking for here.  Is it the definition of the operations, or things like the Associative Property? <looks it up> The former.
2. A wagon box is 2 ft. deep, 10 feet long, and 3 ft. wide. How many bushels of wheat will it hold?

Notice how they require you to memorize the volume of a bushel.  I do not know how many cubic feet there are in a bushel, so I could not get this right.
3. If a load of wheat weighs 3942 lbs., what is it worth at 50 cts. per bu., deducting 1050 lbs. for tare?

For this one, you have to know how much a bushel of wheat weighs.  Farmers in Kansas would find it useful to know this, but I certainly don't.
4. District No. 33 has a valuation of $35,000. What is the necessary levy to carry on a school seven months at $50 per month, and have $104 for incidentals?
5. Find cost of 6720 lbs. coal at $6.00 per ton.
6. Find the interest of $512.60 for 8 months and 18 days at 7 percent.

These are easy.  Many of my college students probably could not handle them, though.
7. What is the cost of 40 boards 12 inches wide and 16 ft. long at $20 per m?

I have no idea what 'per m' means.
8. Find bank discount on $300 for 90 days (no grace) at 10 percent.

I assumed that this was referring to 10 percent annual interest, but it is not.  The math here is very simple, but you have to know what these terms mean.
9. What is the cost of a square farm at $15 per are, the distance around which is 640 rods?

I have no idea how long a rod is.
10. Write a Bank Check, a Promissory Note, and a Receipt.

How is this Arithmetic?  

U.S. History (Time, 45 minutes)
1. Give the epochs into which U.S. History is divided.

There are a large number of ways to divide history into 'epochs' and none of them are any more correct than any other.  You can come up with any classification system you want.  They may have just been memorizing a pointless list, or they may have been using these epochs as labels to aid a good understanding of history.  It is impossible to tell.
2. Give an account of the discovery of America by Columbus.
3. Relate the causes and results of the Revolutionary War.
4. Show the territorial growth of the United States.
5. Tell what you can of the history of Kansas.
6. Describe three of the most prominent battles of theRebellion.

I could handle these easily, replacing Kansas with my home state, but most people probably could not.
7. Who were the following: Morse, Whitney, Fulton, Bell, Lincoln, Penn, and Howe?

I knew these, but I would not expect most people to.  All of them except Lincoln and Penn were inventors of various tools and practical technologies.  An analogous modern question would be about Steve Jobs or Bill Gates.
8. Name events connected with the following dates:

I could not think of anything special about 1800 and 1849.  I forgot about the 'gold rush'.  I knew that Jefferson was president from 1800 but I would not have considered that worth writing about.

Orthography (Time, one hour)
1. What is meant by the following: Alphabet, phonetic, orthography, etymology, syllabication?
2. What are elementary sounds? How classified?
3. What are the following, and give examples of each: Trigraph, subvocals, diphthong, cognate letters, linguals?
4. Give four substitutes for caret 'u'.
5. Give two rules for spelling words with final 'e'. Name two exceptions under each rule.
6. Give two uses of silent letters in spelling.  Illustrate each.
7. Define the following prefixes and use in connection with a  word: Bi, dis, mis, pre, semi, post, non, inter, mono,super.
8. Mark diacritically and divide into syllables the following, and name the sign that indicates the sound: Card, ball, mercy, sir, odd,cell, rise, blood, fare, last.
9. Use the following correctly in sentences, Cite, site, sight, fane,fain, feign, vane, vain, vein, raze, raise, rays.
10. Write 10 words frequently mispronounced and indicate pronunciation by use of diacritical marks and by syllabication.

Why is this separate from grammar?  How is it even useful?  I could give a decent answer for 1, 6, 7, and 9, but everything else seems completely pointless.  Memorizing rules like this do almost nothing to help develop good language skills.  The contrast between this and the arithmetic is staggering.  The arithmetic is too narrowly practical, while this would have no practical use at all, except maybe for a newspaper editor.

Geography (Time, one hour)
1. What is climate? Upon what does climate depend?
2. How do you account for the extremes of climate in Kansas? 
3. Of what use are rivers? Of what use is the ocean?

Good questions.  Note the emphasis on how things are used by people.  This test seems to be a sign of a curriculum that is a good mix of theory and practicality.
4. Describe the mountains of North America.
5. Name and describe the following: Monrovia, Odessa, Denver, Manitoba,Hecla, Yukon, St. Helena, Juan Fermandez, Aspinwall and Orinoco.
6. Name and locate the principal trade centers of the U.S.

4 and 6 are easy general knowledge questions, but 5 is all about pointless memorization.
7. Name all the republics of Europe and give capital of each.

This question was a lot easier in the 19th century than it would be today.  There were a lot fewer countries.  At one point in the 1800's, there were less than two dozen sovereign nations on the entire planet.  Everything else was a colony.
8. Why is the Atlantic Coast colder than the Pacific in the same latitude?

I thought the Gulf Stream made the areas around the Atlantic warmer.  But that only applies to Europe, I guess.
9. Describe the process by which the water of the ocean returns to the sources of rivers.
10. Describe the movements of the earth. Give inclination of the earth.
Also easy, and good to know.

Aside from the grammar nonsense and questions like Geography 5, I could ace this with a little bit of studying.  The grammar probably would not be too hard if I had ever been taught it by someone, and I could certainly learn it in a week or so if I really had to.

Most people could not do so well, but that does not necessarily mean that we are stupider.  Every society demands a different mix of knowledge from its people.  The '8th grade final exam' in many primitive tribes would involve going off into the woods alone with a knife and surviving alone for a couple weeks.  Very few people today could do that, but it does not mean we are inferior.  Our education has simply been focused in a different direction.

Still, it would be interesting to need to find some modern 8th grade tests to compare.  My memory of by own middle school years is so fuzzy that it is useless as a comparison.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Good Article

Keep Your Identity Small

More generally, you can have a fruitful discussion about a topic only if it doesn't engage the identities of any of the participants. What makes politics and religion such minefields is that they engage so many people's identities. But you could in principle have a useful conversation about them with some people. And there are other topics that might seem harmless, like the relative merits of Ford and Chevy pickup trucks, that you couldn't safely talk about with others.


Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Christmas Music

I absolutely hate the kind of Christmas music they play in stores.  The music, and decorations, and general atmosphere are so obnoxious that I always try to avoid setting foot in any retail establishment after Thanskgiving.
As I was walking back from the library today, I stopped inside a Dollar General, more out of anthropological curiousity than anything else.  I wanted to see wkat kind of things they would be selling.  Unfortnately, they were already playing Christmas music.  As I left, I heard the cashier talking to another customer.  The cashier was complaining about having to play the music, and wanted to play something else.  The customer agreed, and said that her six-year-old son also hated Christmas music in stores, and had specifically complained about it earlier.
I have never met anyone who likes this music.  Everyone I have ever talked to either hates it or finds it mildly distasteful.  So why do the stores keep playing it?  Some people might claim that the management is just being stupid, but any practice that survives for a long time in a competive industry must have some benefit.
Maybe the music actually is effective at getting a certain type of person to spend more money.  Maybe there are a sufficuent number of people out there who like it and enjoy the experience of shopping in stores that play it.  Maybe it works like advertising: people think they hate it, but it affects them subconsciously and gets them to spend money.  Maybe the fact that people hate it is what gives the benefits, and that their rush to get away from the insipid noise causes them to spend less time comparing prices or looking for good deals.
I wonder if any stores have actually done randomized controlled trials to see what kind of music boosts sales the most.  This library does not have the journal subscriptions the university does, so Google Scholar is mush less useful than normal, but a quick search and a look at abstracts seems to indicate that there is a little bit of academic research showing it works to boost sales.

Monday, November 22, 2010

What Would Jesus Buy?

Here's a good article that resists quoting and summarizing.  It discusses, among other things, the history of Christmas, burning Santa in effigy, and 'chav bling'.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Quick Observation

A slice of life in the USA: After a group of White and Black people finished their martial arts practice this afternoon, a group of Asians came into the gym and started playing badminton.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Dream Movie

I rarely remember my dreams.  Most of the ones I do recall are the 'normal' ones where I am doing something and interacting with the world.  But sometimes I have 'watching dreams' where I am doing nothing except watching events unfold.  In the dream, I usually feel like I am watching a movie.  I do not see any television set or screen or other spectators, but I am definitely watching something I know I am not a part of.  It is like I am a disembodied spirit just observing things, or like I am the only spectator in a large IMAX theater.

Last night, I was watching the part of 'The Return of the King' where Bilbo gets to Mount Doom and is attacked by Gollum.  In my dream version, Gollum got the ring away from Frodo, put it on, and was heading out the door.  I do not remember seeing Sam anywhere.

Then Gandalf showed up.  He could not see or stop Gollum, and tried to close the door to the cave ( There was no door in the movie but there was in the dream ).  He failed; Gollum managed to get there in time and stop the door from closing.  Then Gimli showed up, standing outside the door looking in.  He could not see Gollum, but he could talk to him.  

In my dream, Gollum was apparently a fallen goblin rather than a fallen Hobbit.  Gimli proceeds to give a talk that builds on the shared heritage of mountain-dwelling races, and convinces Gollum that his actions are misguided and wrong.  Gimli reminds Gollum of the joys of his former life in the sunlight with his family, comparing that to the state he has been reduced to by the Ring.  It went on for a while, and at the end, stricken with grief, Gollum jumps into the lava with the Ring.

I remember thinking "This is not what happened in the book.  But I am glad they gave Gimli this chance to shine, to make up for making him look bad in the rest of the movie."

I have no idea why my subconscious decided to rewrite the movie so that Gimli saves the day by delivering a Hannibal Lecture.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Criminal Justice Failures

When Obama was elected, I signed up for so I could sign all the libertarian petitions.  I still receive their weekly bulletin; it is a good look at the things that liberals consider to be the important issues of the day.  The last bulletin was noteworthy in that its top three stories were about how our criminal justice system is ruining lives:

Free Sex Trafficking Victim Sara Kruzan

At, we encounter a lot of stories of tragedy, injustice and triumph. None is more heart-wrenching than the story of Sara Kruzan.

Sara, who was once her elementary school's student body president, met the man who would become her pimp when she was just 11. After acting as the father figure she never had for two years, he raped Sara at age 13 and trafficked her into the commercial sex trade.

For the next 3 years, from 6pm to 6am, strangers would pay Sara's pimp to rape her and other adolescent girls he recruited and preyed upon.

Finally, physically and psychologically traumatized, Sara snapped. She shot and killed her pimp.

Her punishment? Life in prison without the possibility of parole.

The sentence was handed down by a judge in 1994 against the recommendation of the California Youth Authority, and before there was much awareness about the violence of child trafficking or an appreciation for the trauma of adolescent sexual and physical abuse.

There is a constant joke about the Deep South, that it is a place where "He needed killin'." is a valid defense.  Well, sometimes it is.  Any sane criminal justice system would call this 'self defense' and release her, perhaps after a period of counseling and psychological evaluation.  She is not a threat to any law-abiding citizen.

Recovering from Wrongful Imprisonment

Gloria Killian spent more than 16 years behind bars for a murder she didn't commit, a victim of prosecutorial misconduct and admittedly false testimony from a man who had struck a deal with the state for a shorter sentence. Her conviction overturned in 2002, Killian has gone on to campaign on behalf of other women unjustly imprisoned.

This kind of thing is far too common.  The incentives for prosecutors are horrible: there is a constant pressure to convict, no good oversight, and no punishment for actions that would constitute perjury and criminal misconduct if committed by any other person.

Police Threaten Rape Victim

A South Carolina woman who reported being raped by a Marion police officer was subject to another assault when the officers who responded to her call threatened to put her in jail if she didn't recant her story. Instead, they forced her to write the following: "Though I didn't agree or consent to it (it) was not rape." Non-consensual sex is rape - there's no getting around it. And while the accused rapist has thankfully been sent on leave, the two officers who threatened to throw the victim in jail are sitting pretty. These officers need to be suspended for gross police misconduct pending investigation before they harass any other victims. 

This is the kind of thing that you would expect to see in a third world country.  It is clear that something is very wrong in the institutional structure of this police department.  American citizens simply should not be subjected to this kind of thuggish savagery from our police officers.

Sooner or later the liberals and progressives who follow these issues will realize that government is the problem, not the solution.  No matter how evil or corrupt they might be, businesses do not have access to violence and the power of the state.  True threats to liberty come from the corruption of people within the government.

But it may take a while.  People who get emotional involved in these kinds of issues often have no sense of perspective at all.  All too often, they utterly lack the ability to prioritize and focus on important things.  Here is another story from that same email:

Fighting Racist Mascots
The University of Illinois retired Chief Illiniwek, the college's costumed, dancing Native American mascot, in 2007 after pressure from the NCAA. But more than three years later, his ghost remains on campus. The administration has not named a new mascot and students still stage unofficial "chief" rallies, resurrecting a caricature that Native American groups have found offensive, racist and misleading. A coalition of student and community groups is pushing for a new mascot, saying this will help heal racial tensions and allow the campus to move on.

Seriously?  In the same email in which you bring serious abuses to light, you complain about a few college kids showing loyalty to an old mascot that some people find offensive?  This juxtaposition is an insult to the three women victimized by state power.  You will never get anything done if you waste time, attention, and moral authority with irrelevant things like this.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Momentous Fact

In Mexico, for instance, the fertility rate was 6.82 in 1970. It dropped to 5.3 in 1980, 3.61 in 1990, and 2.75 in 2000. It now sits at 2.1

The Mexican fertility rate has fallen to the replacement level.  Think about that for a moment.  An important driving force behind a lot of issues, like illegal immigration, has stopped.  Assuming that the Mexican economy does not actually start to contract, there will be enough jobs for everyone and no supply of excess workers.

Actually, there have been relatively few Mexican immigrants for some time.  Most illegals come from much poorer, higher-fertility countries in Central America, and they just pass through Mexico.

I was quite surprised when I read this.  Most of my core knowledge about the world was formed sometime between 1990 and 2000, when I was in middle and high school.  I had internalized the idea that the Mexican fertility rate was between 3 and 4, and nothing had caused me to update those beliefs until now.

Bread Machine

I bought a bread machine on Saturday.  I got it at the thrift store for $5.  Then I bought about $40 worth of flour and yeast and other ingredients to make the bread.  My main goal with the bread machine was to get more sleep.  Instead of getting up at 6:00 to make oatmeal, eat it, and wash the pot, I could get up at 6:50, grab a fresh loaf of bread, and eat it in the car or my office. ( I am, in fact, still munching the bread as I write this.  Not even I can eat a 2 pound loaf of bread in one sitting. )

I know how to use a bread machine because I got one for my mother one for Christmas in 2005.  The one I got her was a really nice two-paddle machine that cost significantly more than $5.  It is quiet, reliable, and makes things that look like a real loaf of bread.  After experimenting with it, I developed a real taste for fresh bread.  The nice thing about bread machines is that you can make bread exactly the way you want it.  I usually make a dense, German-style loaf full of fruit and nuts, like the kind of artisanal breads that cost $5 a loaf

Mine is a one-paddle machine, which means that it makes a 'loaf' of bread that looks like a massive mutant muffin.  I tested the machine Saturday night, putting it on my kitchen table and setting it to finish making the bread at 9:00 AM Sunday.  But at 6:00 Sunday morning, I was awakened by a horrible racket in the kitchen.  It sounded like a cudgel-wielding dwarf barbarian locked in mortal combat with a steam-powered mechanical spider.  The noise was, of course, generated by the high-torque motor of the machine kneading the bread, which caused the machine to rock like an unbalanced washing machine.

The loaf of bread it produced in the end was perfectly good.  The appearance did not bother me and it tasted just like the bread from my mother's machine.  It was also much easier to get the loaf out of this machine than my mother's.  Because of the geometry, with more weight and less surface area, it slid right out, whereas with my mother's you sometimes have to bang the bread pan down to get the loaf out.  It also may have helped that this machine was very new; the previous owner had obviously used it very few times.

I am fairly sure that the noise was not due to a flaw of any kind; cheaper bread machines are usually loud like that.  If you had two closed doors and most of a house between your bed and the kitchen, it would not be a problem.  But I live in a one-bedroom apartment with no door, and maybe ten feet of distance, between my bed and the kitchen table.  Running the bread machine on the table every night would not have helped my goal of getting more sleep.

So I put the bread machine in my refrigerator.  This is not as crazy as it sounds.  I do not keep my refrigerator running; I have found that the noise and power consumption are not worth the benefits.  I do most of my cooking with nonperishable items, supplemented with the occasional trip to the store for the kind of fresh veggies that can be left out a few days.

This worked great.  The refrigerator muffled almost all of the noise, I did not lose any sleep, and I got a nice loaf of bread at 6:50.  When I opened the refrigerator door, a blast of hot, moist air fogged my glasses, but I did not notice any kind of condensation on the machine or the bread.

So my apartment now features a refrigerator that is not plugged in, with an extension cord running from behind the refrigerator and plugged into a smaller white power cord that disappears into the fridge door.  The vegetable drawer unit from the bottom of the fridge is sitting on top if the fridge; I had to remove it in order to make the bread machine fit.

The bread machine reinforces my decision not to run the fridge, because its function as a noise muffler is far more valuable than its function as a way to keep food cool.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Collapse and Measurement

A lot of historians and archaeologists have a bad habit of measuring civilizations by the art and monuments they produce.  A civilization that leaves a lot of visible traces and/or a collection of impressive art is called 'developed' and 'advanced' and lack of these signs is seen as evidence of a primitive or failed civilization.  This kind of thinking was more common in the past, but it still persists among some people.  It could happen because people see societies as symbols, rather than really thinking of what it would be like to live in them.  It could also happen when they identify with the upper class only.  But if you think about what really makes a civilization good, and apply Rawls's veil of ignorance, it quickly becomes apparent that, ceteris paribus, you would much rather be a peasant in a civilization where the ruling class does not levy crushing taxes to build massive pointless monuments to their own vanity.

A closely related problem is the glorification of state power and administration.  Way too many people see a large central government as a marker of a good civilization.  The reality is that, in most cases, the government mainly existed as a tool to extract wealth from the common people for the benefit of the elite.  The best that could be said for most of them was that they prevented anarchy and protected the people from even worse governments and outsiders.

To be fair, in the past the monuments and government records were all we had.  But now we can use modern forensics methods to measure the quality of life of the average people.  By analyzing bones, we can learn about diet, health, and other parts of their lifestyle, and see which civilizations were actually good at allowing people to live a good, prosperous life.

Here's a good article that, among other things, touches on this issue:

Societal collapse is a slippery concept that defies a strict definition. Renfrew contends that it involves the loss of central administration, disappearance of an elite, decline in settlements, and a loss of social and political complexity. Collapse implies an abrupt end rather than a long, slow devolution.

Think about that in modern terms.  If a civilization like North Korea turned into a civilization like Switzerland, it would be defined as a 'collapse'.  We know from modern economic studies that a clustering of the population in one big city that is also the center of government is a sign of stagnation and oppression.  Healthy countries are ones where the population is spread out into more areas, as people focus their activity on generating wealth from the environment rather than seeking political favors and handouts.  It makes sense to assume the same about the past.

An increasing number of Egyptologists also now posit a more complicated and drawn-out decline—and one that ultimately had limited impact on the population. Miroslav Barta of Charles University in Prague notes that by the 25th century B.C.E., important changes in Egyptian society were already afoot. Smaller pyramids were built, nepotism within the royal families diminished, royal princesses married nonroyals, and the move from a centralized, pharaonic kingdom to a more regionalized structure was well under way.

All of these things are what I would call 'progress'. 

"There was no collapse," he insists. While the unified state disappeared and large monuments weren't built, copper continued to be imported from abroad and the concept of maat or kingship continued to be used at a more local level. "The peasants may never have noticed the change," he adds.

As long as there is trade and economic activity, that is a sign of a healthy society.  Wealth and prosperity come from the size of the market, not the size of the political unit.

Like the end of Egypt's Old Kingdom, the close of the classic Maya period around 900 C.E. has long been a poster child of collapse. Huge cities in the northern highlands were abandoned, monumental architecture ceased, and royal inscriptions halted. ...
But Elizabeth Graham, an archaeologist at University College London who works in the lowlands of Belize, says "there's not a blip" in the occupation of the Maya areas she has dug along the coast, which lie about 300 kilometers from major inland centers to the north. ...

Coastal sites like Lamanai and Tipu were admittedly smaller than the great inland cities, but Graham says there is no sign of crisis there at the end of the Classic period. Skeletons show no increase in dietary stress, populations seem constant, terraces and check dams are maintained, and sophisticated pottery continues to be crafted. The drying of the climate doesn't appear to trigger any societal rupture.

Basically, the people and real economic activity were just as healthy as before, and less wealth was being wasted on monuments.  That could be a sign of a revolution that deposed a predatory elite and instituted a system of local autonomy.  And of course, such an event would be recorded by royal scribes as 'anarchy' and 'ruin'.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Perils of Success

Here's an amusing, ironically droll statement:
The leader of the dredging party, Edén Pastora, is an eccentric former Sandinista guerrilla leader, who claimed that Google Maps showed his camp to be in Nicaraguan territory. Google then admitted to an "inaccuracy" in its map, adding that these should not be relied on to make military decisions.

This illustrates an important lesson about providing something new: If you are successful in launching a new product or service that everyone starts to rely on, then you will end up with situations that you never imagined.  Ten years ago, nobody at Google could possibly have imagined that one of their computer programs would be an issue in an armed standoff between two soverign countries.

People will accept error and inconsistency in new things, especially if they offer lots of benefits.  But after a few years, people expect more and more things of you, and you can get in trouble if you do not meet these rising expectations.  When the thing you provide moves from being a luxury to a necessity, you are suddenly operating within an entirely different implicit social contract.  People go from being happy with any benefits of the new thing to being unhappy with any flaws in it.  You have to change your engineering standards from 'good enough to amuse early adapters' to 'capable of handling mission-critical tasks at five-nines reliability' which often requires a big change in corporate thinking.


The department seminar today is about torture.  It might seem odd that this is an issue for economists, rather than legal scholars or criminal justice people, but we have a lot of models of bureaucratic incentives and decision-making and that can be used to analyze the issue.  The paper shows that torture, even if it works, is counterproductive, because it reduces the incentives to fight terrorism using means other than torture.

I've known for some time that torture simply does not work.  Centuries of experience have shown that it has basically zero information or deterrence value.  Good interrogators get far more information with other methods, and the institutional use of torture tends to reduce the use of more reliable methods of police work and information gathering.

Even beyond that, I absolutely hate the idea of our government torturing anybody.  I see torture as a fundamental insult to the values of our nation and culture.  I believe that it would cause serious damage to America if we adopted a long-term policy of torturing people or being complicit with torture.  I think that people who defend or advocate for torture are very harmful.

One of our professors just asked:

"Why is torture uniquely bad?  I'm sure that many more people have died [in the USA] in no-knock drug raids than from torture."

This is a good question.  Why do I hate torture so much?  If you look at actual pain and damage, there are many other current policies that are far worse.  I oppose those policies as well, but I do not oppose them with quite as much emotional intensity.  

To complicate things further, a few months ago I basically advocated for a form of torture as an alternative to jail time.  I understand intellectually that jail is worse for people than torture.  Why then should I care so deeply about torture?

I think it is mainly about symbolism.  Torture is the tool of thugs, savages, and fascists.  If we torture people the same way they do or did, we become like them.  This threat to our identity, I suppose, motivates me more than utilitarian concerns about pain in this case.

Partly by analyzing my thoughts and emotions like this, I have learned to become more understanding of the 'sacred values' and identity threats embedded in other people's thinking.  For example, many people feel the same way about putting a dollar value on human life that I do about torture.  It is, to them, Not Something We Should Do.  So I reframe the issue as 'finding the way to save the most lives with our limited resources' and then I can do the cost-benefit analysis without threatening anyone's values.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Pop Quiz

When governments outlaw high interest rates and the ceiling is binding,
what probably happens to the total amount of money borrowed?
a. It rises because borrowers are protected from high interest rates.
b. It falls because savers aren't willing to lend as much money at this low
interest rate.
c. Both a and b are usually true.

Far too many of my students answered c.  You don't have to know any economics to realize that this is impossible.  Yet somehow the wording of the question convinced people that the amount of money borrowed could rise and fall simultaneously.

Many of these are good students, too.  I've never understood why the humans find it so hard to do word problems.  What is it about our language that makes it so hard to see the logic embedded in a sentence?  A group of reasonably smart people, with reasonably strong incentives to think through the problem, were convinced that A=!A.*  This is a serious problem.

* The ! symbol in this context means 'NOT'.  It is a fundamental principle of logic that an argument 'A' and its opposite '!A' cannot simultaneously be true.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Good Sentences

from an article on viruses:

Those who like their categories cut and dried may wonder whether viruses are alive or not. Wise biologists do not struggle too much with such questions.  ...

The problem with categorical thinking in biology is that evolution does not work like that. It actually works by whatever works working.

Humans, by instinct, like to put things in neat categories.  Our schooling reinforces that; students in school are taught all kinds of classification rules.  This can be useful, but you also need to realize that reality can be very messy.  

It is also important to realize the danger if categorical thinking when it comes to dealing with people.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Food and Health

I was going to add this article about height and health to another blog post, but it is so important it deserves a spotlight.  It shows, with sobering clarity of science, that there is something seriously wrong with public health in our country:

Then [in the 20th century] something strange happened. While heights in Europe continued to climb, Komlos said, "the U.S. just went flat." In the First World War, the average American soldier was still two inches taller than the average German. But sometime around 1955 the situation began to reverse. The Germans and other Europeans went on to grow an extra two centimetres a decade, and some Asian populations several times more, yet Americans haven't grown taller in fifty years. By now, even the Japanese—once the shortest industrialized people on earth—have nearly caught up with us, and Northern Europeans are three inches taller and rising.

The average American man is only five feet nine and a half—less than an inch taller than the average soldier during the Revolutionary War. Women, meanwhile, seem to be getting smaller. According to the National Center for Health Statistics—which conducts periodic surveys of as many as thirty-five thousand Americans—women born in the late nineteen-fifties and early nineteen-sixties average just under five feet five. Those born a decade later are a third of an inch shorter.

The average Japanese is now almost as tall as the average American.  And those numbers only include White, native-born Americans.  Our diet and lifestyle is that messed up.  Too many of us are simultaneously overweight and malnourished enough to stunt our growth.  Here's an amazing finding:

In a recent British study, one group of schoolchildren was given hamburgers, French fries, and other familiar lunch foods; the other was fed nineteen-forties-style wartime rations such as boiled cabbage and corned beef. Within eight weeks, the children on the rations were both taller and slimmer than the ones on a regular diet.

There may be some flaw in the study methodology.  I have not been able to find it, and like most mainstream journalists they don't cite sources.  But my instinct is to believe it.

I read that article because it was linked to from this blog post, which is itself a good read:

Remember this the next time you read about the genetics of I.Q. and the arguments that are framed around differences in intelligence between races or other population groups. The heritability of I.Q. can be hard even to define (read this lengthy but worthwhile post by Cosma Shalizi to understand why) but good estimates often place it at around 50 percent—well below that of height. Environmental influences on I.Q. should therefore be huge, and one should be very skeptical of arguments that imply (or state outright) that any alleged differences between those groups are innate or unchangeable. Indeed, if Komlos and his colleagues are right that differences in health care explain the plateau in U.S. height, one might expect that those same health care differences—which certainly correlate with economic status and race in this country—could have a very marked effect on I.Q., too.

Banana Box

In the last decade or so, discount food stores have been appearing all over the country.  They take the kind of damaged and out-of-date goods that used to be thrown away or donated to soup kitchens* and sell them at a discount.  They are often called 'Banana Box' stores because the grocery stores ship stuff to them in banana boxes and they often put stuff out in those banana boxes rather than wasting time shelving them.

My parents shop at a couple of these stores near their house.  Most of the stuff in those stores is junk, but every so often you can get really good stuff that is obviously leftover from a high-end grocery store.  My parents, and their like-minded friends, have added all kinds of interesting, exotic, and premium foods to their diets as a result.  But finding these things is like getting lucky in a treasure hunt; the stores are obviously run by and for the kind of people who measure food in terms of quantity rather than quality.

However, I have discovered a far superior grade of discount store.  On the way back from visiting a friend for Fall Break, I stopped by Amazing Savings in Greenville.  She had taken me shopping there one time, and I had been impressed, but had not had time to really inspect the place.  This time, I seriously went shopping.  The more I looked, the more good stuff there was.  The shelves were packed with what I would call a lucky find at most discount stores.  For example, in the ones near my parents' house, you might get lucky and find a few $1 boxes of premium granola cereal.  I typically clean the store out when I find a good brand.  Here, there were shelves full of them.  I got a about half a dozen boxes and did not affect their stock that much.

The store is specifically run to be a place that packs healthy, specialty, and exotic food.  For example, they identify gluten-free food and put it in a special section.  They even have their own store-label foods like granola and dried fruit and steel-cut oats, packed in zipper bags with simple labels.  Presumably they get them from local farmers.  I have been idly munching on a 20 ounce bag of their 'vanilla macaroon' granola as I write this, and it is disappearing at an alarming rate.

I started off with a basket, but moved up to a shopping cart once I saw the 3-for-a-dollar bags of beans.  I had to stop myself from getting too much, and limited myself to one example of each thing that looked good, to test them out.  I basically had the attitude that I was going grocery shopping for the next couple of months, and also conducting a sample to figure out which foods and brands were good.  The cashier seemed surprised to see someone buying so much stuff.  I was surprised that more people were not doing the same.  You could easily use that place as your primary grocery store, and cut your grocery bill in half while dramatically boosting quality.

I think that most people are limited by their plans, goals, habits, and routines.  They make a list to go grocery shopping, and go to a store that is guaranteed to have everything on that list.  The few customers at discount stores go in with the attitude of looking for something specific that the store is likely to have, or with the idea that they are finding a treat to supplement their diet.  It takes a rare sort of person to be willing to adjust diet plans based on what the store happens to have.  But really, the attitude should not be that rare.  Our forager ancestors went out looking for food and ate whatever was available.

I spent about $60 for a staggering amount of food.  I mean that literally; I was almost staggering as I carried it out.  The cashier offered to pack my purchase in banana boxes rather than grocery bags, and I accepted.  She was actually quite good at packing the boxes efficiently, and they ended up being a lot easier to carry than a big pile of bagged groceries.

There is now a banana box full of food perched above my head as I write this. ( My desk in my office at school is one of those tall standalone units that incorporates shelves above the desk.)   It is packed with various kinds of cereal, granola, dried fruit, crackers, snack bars, and exotic microwave meals.  This is in addition to the stuff I pulled out and put in my bottom drawer for easy access.  The pantries in my apartment are also packed with food.

The store is too far away to go to on a regular basis.  The 50-mile round trip would cost me over $10 in gas and car depreciation, which would erase any savings from trips where I did not fill up the shopping cart.  I can, however, get in the habit of making the small detour there when I visit my parents.  They also have another branch in a small town about 8 miles from my apartment.  Hopefully that one is just as good.

*Yes, this is bad for the soup kitchens.  When the economy gets more efficient, there are often losers.  But the gains to the workers and customers of these stores are bigger than the losses to the soup kitchens, and the existence of these stores can keep people out of the soup kitchens.

Thursday, October 28, 2010


I had no idea that biofuel production was so far advanced.  They know how to make advanced kinds of fuel out of sugar at competitive prices, and the technology keeps getting better.  In the next few years, there will be enough biofuel refineries around to start driving down the price of fuel.

Here is an important sentence:

Today's cellulosic ethanol is competitive with the petrol it is supposed to displace only when the price of crude oil reaches $120 a barrel.

$120 a barrel is about 50% more than current oil prices.  The potential availability of ethanol effectively puts an upper limit on long-term gas prices. If oil ever got above $120 a barrel and stayed there, then we would be able to use current technology to make enough ethanol out of weeds to replace it at that price.

This means that fears of 'peak oil' are completely unfounded.  We already have the technology to replace oil if we need to, and the technology keeps getting better.  Yes, it would take several years to start scaling up production.  But even in the worst-case projections, it would take decades to run out of oil.

This is bad news for electric cars.  If biofuel technology advances faster than battery technology, there will be little point in replacing the internal combustion engine.

Name Auctions

When broadcasting was first introduced, the FCC gave out extraordinarily valuable chunks of radio spectrum for free to TV and radio companies.  In recent decades, they have learned from that mistake and started auctioning off the spectrum, raising millions of dollars and allocating the resource more efficiently.

It just occurred to me that ICANN, the private not-for-profit company that assigns web addresses, made exactly the same mistake.  A domain name like '' can sell for millions of dollars.  And yet ICANN gave out all of these names for free to anyone who registered them in the early days of the Internet.

The existence of 'aftermarket' domain name auctions makes the allocation efficient: the names go to whoever pays the most.  The issue of who gets the money is usually considered irrelevant in economic analysis; it is just a transfer payment from one person that leaves society as a whole.  However, there are transactions costs and wasted resources involved here.  People spend time and effort making these deals that could have been spent on more useful things.

If the Internet ever gets replaced or reconfigured so that a new system of names is set up, the people responsible for assigning names will probably do the smart thing and auction them off.  This would be more efficient, and would give the money to the people who actually run the system rather than random speculators.

There are a lot of other organizations that could raise money in similar ways.  For example, campus IT departments could probably raise a decent amount of cash by auctioning off the rights to email addresses like '' for a five-year period.  Any new email or blogging system with free registration usually has all the good names taken very quickly, while getting nothing for them.  A lot of otherwise smart organizations are leaving a lot of money on the table because of their failure to properly price valuable assets.