Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Slow Season

Wow. Almost a week has sneaked by without a post. I suppose that's to be expected at this time of year. Many things going on as the holidays swoop by. I don't really know, since I haven't blogged through a holiday season before (though my perception as a blog reader has long been that things are slower this time of year).

I notice that in my absence, Blogger has finally gotten its new software out of beta, and somewhere along the way they've managed to relocate the search bar that was supposed to be at the top of this blog all along. So that's progress.

The primary reason for my absence has not, in fact, been holiday celebrations (although there have been some). Mostly it is the fact that my little software startup company has moved into its first offices, and I've been spending a lot of cycles doing things like debugging the network, chasing phone lines, and learning where to buy lunch in the neighborhood (San Francisco, near the Civic Center, sort of).

So at least some of the time, I will now be commuting to the office, which has its good and bad points. I like the fact that I will get to see my coworkers more often. I regret that I will spend more time in transit, though much of that will be on BART. I believe it will also be easier to get to baseball games, as I will be much closer to the stadium when I am at work.

A secondary reason for my absence from scribbling on the blog is that I've been reading a very long book, Twenty Years After, which is the (first) sequel to The Three Musketeers, which I reread a year or two ago. It's very long, but I'm almost done, and struggling to finish before we take off for holiday visits. Because I really don't want to schlep an 800-page book along with me, just so I can read the last 50 pages or so.

I won't spend a lot of time writing about the book, except to say that it's quite engrossing. Not quite as swashbuckling as The Three Musketeers, which is to be expected, I suppose, with them all being twenty years older. More about politics and the motivations of the characters.

I find that it would probably be helpful to know some French. Even a little. I allegedly studied some Latin in high school, but that doesn't really help here. I've picked up some insight into the idioms in the translation, but it's no substitute for actually understanding the language. One very helpful item in the Oxford World's Classics edition I'm reading is a little two-page map of Paris in the 17th century, highlighting the locations that figure in the story. That little touch is extremely helpful to me, and would have been nice to have when I read (a Penguin Classics edition, as I recall) the first book (or Les Miserables, for that matter). But I'm learning.

Particularly interesting is the way the story meshes with my limited knowledge of European history. I've had a fascination for the 17th century ever since I took a course called Rhetorical Theory and Practice of the 17th Century back in college. It was fascinating to read Descartes, Moliere, Bacon, Jonson, and many others, and learn about them in the context of a century of intellectual upheaval. Cool stuff.

So I haven't been wasting my time, really. I just haven't been sharing very much of it with y'all.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Baseball, Wealth, and Rationality

One of the fine things about being a baseball fan is that during the off season, I get to think about baseball. Now, obviously I think about baseball during the season, too. But in the off season, I get to think about baseball without the distraction of actual baseball games.

Fans have long called it the "hot stove league," sitting around a hot stove during the winter, speculating about what happened in the past, what will happen next year, and what their team should do about the burning issues of the day.

Which brings us to money. Baseball players make a lot of it. Even not-particularly-good players make a ton of it. The minimum annual salary for a Major League ballplayer next year is $380,000. That's just for being on the team: $380K even for sitting on the bench and scratching occasionally.

Now, I realize that when one talks about money, and particularly about large amounts of money, rationality rarely enters into the equation. It's easy for me to sit here on my couch and say that Barry Bonds should play baseball for a mere $10 million a season, when he feels he needs $16 million. Really. For those of us not involved, it is hard to imagine how $10 million vs. $16 million makes a difference, particularly when one pocketed $90 million over the previous five years.

Heck, even if I hadn't banked $90M (and I haven't!), it seems like $10M would be just fine.

My wife, with the prestigious MBA, would probably say that it's like tulips, Cabbage Patch Kids, Beanie Babies, and Internet stocks: supply and (irrationally inflated) demand. With some ego thrown in on the side.

Which makes you realize that timing is very important. You can make a nice living in the tulip market today, but nothing like you could in the 17th century. And you can make a nice living on Internet stocks today, but not like you could in the day.

But because of this timing issue, it's important to remember that just because the commodities in question were highly valued (and apparently, overvalued), we should not necessarily devalue those in the same business outside the bubble. I got to thinking about this today reading some humorous commentary on current baseball contracts. My favorite is the section about what Willie Mays' agent would say if Mr. Mays were a free agent in a market like this after one of his greatest seasons.

And at the same time, it's probably important to recall that those who profit off a bubble are not necessarily wiser or more worthy than those doing the same thing in a different era. I admire some of the people who created some of the technology that begat the "dot-com boom," but they were not necessarily smarter or somehow better than those who labored in different fields or at different times. By the same token, I know a lot of people who made a lot of money just for being in the right place at the right time. And I know that some of them are not nearly as capable as some of their contemporaries.

So it's important that we not judge people by how much money they have, or how much people are willing to pay them at any given moment.

It is always hard to compare people (baseball players included) from different eras. But that's the most amusing part of the hot stove league. Because discussing who was the best player of all time is fun, and the discussion has no definitive answer. And because worrying about where your team is going to pick up a better first baseman can only take you so far on a cold, rainy day.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Unintended Consequences

The seasons are changing, and my wife and daughter both have rather dry skin, so of course, I will gain weight.

Huh?

For the dry skin, someone recommended coconut oil. Now, my family smells wonderful.

And I have a strong desire to eat a Mounds bar. Ah, the sacrifices one must make for soft skin.

Be Excellent to Each Other

I haven't talked about torture here for a while. I suppose that's good; I don't like to dwell on torture, and it's a subject that I would prefer not to have come up very often. Indeed, the frequency with which the subject comes up these days is itself almost as disturbing as the torture itself.

Anyway, the thing that brought me to the subject today was reading this post by Scott Lemieux on Lawyers, Guns and Money (LGM). Although I don't think what's currently being done to Jose Padilla constitutes torture, per se, it is inexcusable, or as Lemieux puts it:
This kind of systematic mistreatment of prisoners is an utter disgrace on every level: moral, political, legal, and pragmatic.
I hate to think that my government, my countrymen, tortures anyone for any reason, but at least in the case of active warfare or imminent threats, I can understand how one might arrive at some kind of rationalization. But when one has incarcerated and incapacitated someone for literally years, the ongoing abuse loses any rationality.

It's sick, it's wrong, and it's pointless. So stop it. We need to get remove from power the people who seem to think it is a good or useful practice.

Friday, December 01, 2006

This Just In: E-Voting is Bad!

Big shock to those of us who have been following the issue: The National Institute of Science and Technology (NIST) has examined voting machines, and preliminary reports say that they come up lacking (PDF).

The standard they apply, and which I like, is "software independence":
A voting system is software-independent if an undetected change or error in its software cannot cause an undetectable change or error in an election outcome.
Essentially, that means that the ability of election officials to tally and audit election results cannot depend solely on the reliability of the programming of the voting machine.

News reports after the November elections indicated that some jurisdictions had issues when they went to verify results, like sometimes the machines reported different numbers.

Clearly, this is no way to run a democracy. A vote is a vote, and no matter how many times you count it, the vote should still come out the same way. I realize that in some cases (as we all learned in the aftermath of the 2000 presidential election, dimpled chads and all), there are ambiguities, and reasonable people might interpret the same data differently. But in those cases, humans should be able to examine the evidence and make a ruling, not just accept the "judgement" of a technological system.

I like this quote from the end of the Washington Post's story today:
"Why are we doing this at all? is the question people are asking," said Warren Stewart, policy director of VoteTrustUSA, a group critical of electronic voting systems. "We have a perfectly good system -- the paper-ballot optical-scan system."
Anyway, enough ranting for the moment. More to come, obviously.

Mexicoland

As noted earlier, we recently returned from a week in Cozumel. I had been there once before, about ten years ago. Friends had told me things had changed, but I don't think I fully appreciated the degree of the change until we got there.

Cozumel used to be a diver destination, and that was about it. The vast majority of the tourism to the island was scuba divers. Much of the reef system off the west coast of the island is a national park, ecological preserve, or other protected area. That's great, and very healthy, and the diving is quite spectacular (weather permitting). Much of the economy of the island, therefore, catered to the needs of divers.

The biggest change since my last visit is the increase in the number of cruise ships visiting Cozumel. A decade ago, there were several each week, and the big scandal among divers was that they had dynamited a reef to put in a cruise-ship dock. Today there are three or four such docks, and multiple cruise ships in port every day except Sunday.

The result has been that virtually everything in Cozumel is now geared toward extracting dollars from American cruise-ship tourists. [I'm reminded of a line from a song about Cancun: "Montezuma extracts his financial revenge."] Virtually every price on the island is quoted in U.S. dollars, and dollars are accepted everywhere. I never had to acquire any pesos, although I did get some in change. Nearly everyone on the island seems to speak and understand English very well.

Compared to my last visit to Mexico (when we went to Puerto Vallarta and stayed in the old part of town, not the newer, touristy part), it was almost like not being in Mexico at all. More like being in a sort of Disneyland version of what Mexico might seem like to American tourists, or as I came to call it, "Mexicoland."

Is that bad? Hard to say. The island seems much more prosperous than it did ten years ago, in spite of some of the lingering damage from last year's hurricanes. The town is clean, and the food is good. Even driving through some of the back corners of town (yeah, we took a couple of wrong turns), one never go the impression of rampant poverty. Some parts of town are less nice than others, but nothing awful.

And on the other hand, you have Burger King, Pizza Hut, Subway, and a Hard Rock Cafe. Not exactly what I look for when I travel to another country, but I realize some people want that.

More interesting to me is that the locals seem to prey on the cruise ship commandos. They ask you what ship you're from, and apparently they raise their prices accordingly. One diver told us a cab driver quoted him a cab fare of US$6, and when he replied "I'm not from a cruise ship," the cabbie lowered his request to $4. Prices in general seem to have gone up; Cozumel is not a cheap vacation spot. But it appears that it's cheaper for those staying in the hotels than for those who debark from a ship, hit the market square, and take off again.

And my personal complaint is against Royal Caribbean cruise lines, who for some reason feel the need to blast their P.A. system outdoors at 5:30 am as the ship pulls into port (outside my hotel). I can understand making announcements to those on the ship, but it was clearly audible in my room, probably a quarter mile away. Grrrrr.

Ultimately, Cozumel was still a terrific place to visit, and a wonderful place to dive, but I left with this weird sensation that I hadn't really been to Mexico. Walking around the Mission district in San Francisco feels as much like Mexico as walking through most of Cozumel. Maybe that's globalization. But it felt like Disneyland (especially when the Disney cruise ships were in port!).