Saturday, March 31, 2012

A disappointing first look

The Rivercats and the A's held an exhibition game in Sacramento tonight.   Actually, a better description might be that the A's held batting practice against a raft of Cats pitchers.   The Cats were hitless but they did lead the game in errors.   The A's scored 9 runs before rain ended the game.   Minor league baseball teams take a time to jell (as we have learned over the last dozen seasons) but based on tonight they are going to need a lot of jelling.   The Cat's real season begins in a few days and the first home game is on the 13th - they begin in Tucson and Las Vegas.

Friday, March 30, 2012

Success has more than one father

With the passing of Earl Scruggs, many of the newspaper articles described him as the "father of bluegrass."   When Bill Monroe died in 1996 most of those article described him in the same terms.   So which is right?   You could make the case that Monroe deserves the title because he actually gave Scruggs (and Flatt) their first big opportunity with the Bluegrass Boys in the late 1940s.

But you can also make the case the Scruggs, who had more broad based commercial success is the father of bluegrass.

In reality, both deserve the title.  Monroe spent several decades building a sound and in giving a group of distinguished musicians the opportunity to play.  A wide range of careers were started with the Bluegrass Boys from Del McCoury, to Chubby Wise, to Bill Keith, to Flatt and Scruggs- all had their start with Monroe.

But Flatt and Scruggs opened this music to a range of new listeners from venues where Monroe was mostly not present.  And he mentored a lot of different prominent musicians.

Music evolves as people interpret it.   Thus, the like many other things in life there is certainly room for more than one father of bluegrass.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Earl Scruggs

Earl Scruggs died today at 88.   When I first started to play the five string he was one of my most important influences.  My first banjo supposedly had been one used by Uncle Dave Macon (who was a frailer) but Scruggs and Lester Flatt (who met each other in the Bill Monroe band in 1946) were a key influence in commercially accessible bluegrass.  Their style was clean.

Scruggs experimented with his music.   He developed his three finger style playing Ruben when he was very young.   Lester Flatt sang lead and Uncle Josh Graves played a very distinctive dobro.   They played together for a number of years as the Foggy Mountain Boys but broke up when Scruggs began to experiment with electrified music.    This video is of Scruggs doing some explanation of his technique.   Like Mike Seeger, who played old time music, Scruggs was a musician first.

The second video is of Earl's Breakdown, which uses something called Scruggs Tuners.  5 string players have a lot of different tunings.  Scruggs invented some cam based tuners that would retune the middle two strings in a precise manner.   Bill Keith perfected the engineering for these devices.   For a long while I had a set of Scruggs then Keith Tuners on my Ode Banjo.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Transposing Logic

For months a lot of "conservatives" have been arguing that Mitt Romney has not been able to close the deal because he cannot seem to get above the 30-35% among GOP voters (see the earlier post Rush is Wrong) - with several candidates in the race it seems odd to me to make that claim.   Romney is written off by these "pundits" as a) not appealing to conservatives and b) a candidate who cannot be successful in one part of the country - the South (and without the South no GOP candidate can win).

Well, yesterday Rick Santorum got 49% of the vote in the Louisiana primary.  So far Mr. Santorum has been unable to get ratings above 50%, indeed in contested contests he frequently has gotten less than 30%.   I am not ready to say that Mr. Santorum is out of the race (although he seems to be on a downward  cycle).   And I believe that as the race continues to clarify, the GOP front runner will be able to pick up additional areas.   For example, I do not believe that whether Romney or Santorum is the nominee that any of the deep south states will go to Obama.

Thus it seems that the Romney nay sayers will be just as wrong as the argument made above about Santorum.  The only difference is that Romney has about half number of committed nominators he needs to be chosen by the GOP.   That does not assure that the key states like the industrial midwest will not be in play( they will).  But it does suggest that anyone who is offering a final view of the 2012 election is smoking funny cigarettes.

Childhood Images

We took our grandson to the Lorax, the Universal adaptation of the Dr. Seuss book.   It struck me negatively in many ways.   In the middle of the movie, one of the main characters, who has developed a new product that uses the leaves of a particular tree - sings a ditty (How Bad Can it Be) that portrays entrepreneurial activity in a most unflattering light.  "How bad can it be, I am just following my destiny."  The Seuss story was not without its controversy.  When it was first published it generated an unflattering review in the journal Nature.   A few years later it also got more visibility because of a parody written about it called the Truax - which was a story of the positive benefits of using a renewable resource like trees.

What struck me about this story was the images that a kid could get from it and the contrast that a young child of fifty or a hundred years ago.  In Ronald Reagan's biography he mentions a book he read when he was about 11 (much older than our grandson) called That Printer of Udell's written by Harold Bell Wright.  It is typical of literature at the time.  It tells the story of a person who strives to make something of himself and ultimately is successful but also uses some of his success to take care of those less fortunate in his community.

Societies grow and prosper in part because of the myths that their children learn.   Indeed, we should be aware of the needs of our fellow citizens.  But for my taste the whole storyline in the Lorax is a bit too hostile to the economic system that made our country prosper.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Rush is Wrong

Rush Limbaugh has been trying to make the case that Mitt Romney is not conservative enough for him and that he would fare like Bob Dole in the general because the GOP base is not excited about him as a candidate.

Limbaugh makes the case that in contested primaries that Romney has not been able to capture a majority of the vote.   Well, duh.  The GOP is made up of a series of factions - social conservatives, economic conservatives and libertarians are at least the three most obvious.   The social conservatives have been especially wary of Romney because of where he was Governor.   A lot of people including Limbaugh have also tried to make the case that the Massachusetts version of healthcare reform and Obamacare are the same.

Two points.   First, when you have four candidates running it is often hard to achieve a majority.  It is obvious that Gingrich is fading as a candidate.  So it is likely that Romney's percentages will begin to move up as that happens.   Second, the most important priority of GOP people this year is the defeat of President Obama.   I suspect that as Romney consolidates his majority status in the coming weeks, the level of enthusiasm for Romney will increase.

That does not mean that Romney is going to defeat the President.   The intrade odds on Obama have been getting stronger in the last few months.  As the race comes down to two candidates I expect the numbers to close.   At the same time Romney has shown two competing tendencies as a candidate.  First, he has shown an ability to make gaffes which the press has played up.   At the same time, he has developed over the last few months into a better candidate.   The President remains unpopular with a lot of voters (for good reason) and so do many of his programs.   If this becomes a vote on his record, the odds for the race will tighten up.  

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Canine Rhythms

We have a canine visitor with us for a while - he is a Queensland heeler.  It has been a while since we had a dog in the house.  We lost our Golden several years ago and I was, quite frankly, unwilling to bring another dog in the house.    This one is a bit more frenetic than our Golden but he is lots of fun.  He is an exuberant walker.  He has seemed to enjoy sniffing out the neighborhood in the first few days.  He gets walked at least twice a day.

That gives you a reason to get up in the morning and a time (or two times) to reflect on the state of the world.   When you walk dogs you can carry on a conversation but it is mostly with yourself.   In the first few days he has been with us, he was walked in the rain a lot.  Like Molly, our Golden, he does not seem to mind the wet weather.

So far it has been a kick to have him with us.

A frustrated Galaxy User

In the post on the Apple critic/monlogist "anonymous" posted a rumor on the new iPad.   He stated "I have just read that consumer report engineers have given the new ipad a very bad report."   Actually, that is not accurate.   The Huffington Post Technology section does a credible job of explaining what Consumer reports actual said "When it was at its hottest, it felt very warm but not especially uncomfortable if held for a brief period.") but it's nonetheless aggravated more than a few users (and created enough of a buzz to warrant a response from the usually comment-less Apple)."   Device users can be grumpy about a raft of issues and some of them are justified.  In this case, based on my own experience and on the raft of reviews listed in the Huff Post meta-review, the comments of Anonymous are inaccurate.

Here also is one consumer response. (My own)  I have used the iPad 3 since it came out and have not had a problem with heat.  Apple commented “The new iPad delivers a stunning Retina display, A5X chip, support for 4G LTE plus 10 hours of battery life, all while operating well within our thermal specifications. If customers have any concerns they should contact AppleCare."
I have always allowed Anonymous posters to add comments to my blog.  While I moderate comments, I have never censored a comment that I disagreed with - however this one looked a lot to me like a frustrated Samsung user.  The display on this device is superb.  The response of it is great.   I have noticed a bit less battery life - although it is hard to calibrate a device until it has been run through a couple of cycles.

So for those of you who want to try to spread silliness - I am happy to post your comments. (as long as you do not get obscene or inflammatory) At the same time I will feel free to add my own experience here.   In the first few days of use; this is a good upgrade to a great product.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

This American Life and denial

Mike Daisey is an ideological monologist.   He duped the NPR program This American Life in a program called Mr. Daisey and the Apple Factory on January 6.  The New York Times did a similar story  on the horrible working conditions in the factories that manufacture Apple products.  Trouble is that a lot of his story was fabricated, not by honest working people but by Mr. Daisey.  His translator denied that a series of interviews that Daisey said were the basis of his story actually ever happened.    So yesterday the program did a retraction, sort of.    Ira Glass the show's creative genius said in a press release "We're horrified to have let something like this onto public radio. Many dedicated reporters and editors - our friends and colleagues - have worked for years to build the reputation for accuracy and integrity that the journalism on public radio enjoys. It's trusted by so many people for good reason. Our program adheres to the same journalistic standards as the other national shows, and in this case, we did not live up to those standards."  That was a superb statement of contrition and the right thing to do.

But at the end of the piece they let ideology creep back into the discussion.   Charles Duhigg, who is an NYT reporter, tries to make us feel bad about using outsourcing to produce consumer goods.  He commented "You're not only the direct beneficiary; you are actually one of the reasons why it (the conditions in the Chinese factories) exists. If you made different choices, if you demanded different conditions, if you demanded that other people enjoy the same work protections that you yourself enjoy, then, then those conditions would be different overseas."

But let's look at this in a different way. Are the adverse working conditions permanent?  Of course not.  Here is how the dynamic changes come about - all without regulation.   First, the new factories in China, albeit with less favorable working conditions than in America produced jobs for Chinese workers.  Presumably, those workers benefited from the new jobs and wages that are higher than they were before the factories came to China .    Second, as a middle class has begun to develop, those same workers have begun to demand higher wages and better working conditions.   Ultimately, the market produces a pretty fast set of positive conditions.   

Part of the reason that Apple chose to make parts of the iPhone in China (and elsewhere) is that the net cost to the consumer is reduced (a benefit to US consumers).   At the same time, as those jobs open up, the workers in China benefit because of new jobs and higher wages.   In the end, as the differential between relatively low skilled Chinese workers and higher productivity workers in the US narrows (as wages in China increase - and they are increasing) some manufacturing jobs will migrate back to the US.   The NYT stories suggested that FoxConn the company that has generated the most controversy is beginning to automate some processes that in part is a result of the fact that low skill/low wage jobs are not always going to be a better economic choice.  Ultimately the dynamism of the market aids both US consumers and worker and Chinese workers.   Mr. Daisey's and Mr. Duhigg's presumed solution would be to impose regulations that only a highly developed economy could afford.   Who benefits from that? - bureaucrats and pundits.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

The New iPad

This is the fourth generation of iPads for me (WIFI, 3G, iPad 2 and the new one) and it feels like an incremental augmentation to the lineup.  Here is what I found different -

1) Speed - the processor and the connection speed is noticeably better.   I used the new one in a number of places yesterday and today both in WIFI and 4G - and the upload and download speeds are improved.  Also, moving around the iPad is faster - the processor seems to be able to do more than it could before.
2) Display - Everyone is talking about the display - but things like the Type in the WSJ is better.
3) Speech to Text - I have worked with Speech to Text Apps from the original IBM alternative more than a decade ago-  this new implementation is superb and it works across applications.  So I used it in Pages but also even in Safari - to fill in some blanks on a web form.  That is stunningly good.  Not 100% - some of the parts of English are almost impossible to understand - but it is very good and quick.

Walt Mossberg commented that if you like the iPad 2 you should stick with it.  OK, I understand.  But I like the new iPad for these features and more.

I have not watched an HD movie and am unlikely to want to spend the extra dough for an HD version of movies I download - but it could make a difference.

There is one other addition, not specifically a part of the new device that is worth mentioning.  iPhoto is significantly improved.  It offers a set of tools that would be more than adequate for most photo users that are simple to use.   Like Aperture it allows you to revert to the original version at any point if you do not like what you have edited.  This makes the iPad even more useful.   While the camera on this device is improved, the software is a quantum leap.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Bart's Back

In a prior post I mused about the President's Bart Simpson like attitude on the economy and on gas prices.

Here is a quote from a speech he gave on March 7 -

“Now, because of these new standards for cars and trucks, they’re going to — all going to be able to go further and use less fuel every year.  And that means pretty soon you’ll be able to fill up your car every two weeks instead of every week — and, over time, that saves you, a typical family, about $8,000 a year.”

Interesting, the president evidently thinks he CAN have an effect on gas prices.  Two problems though.   First, the figure he mentioned in the speech in N. Holly North Carolina, is about the savings produced by energy efficiency standards that his administration is trying to promote (55 miles per gallon) but over the life of the car not in a year.   With gas at about $4 per gallon and the typical driver going just under 13,500 miles per year and the average fuel efficiency of about 20 miles per gallon - that means the average driver spends about $2700 per year.   From my view it is pretty hard to save $4000 per year based on $2700 per year expenditure.   His math on the alternative (with a 55 MPG standard) is also faulty - net savings would be a bit more than $17,000.   

But here is the other problem - even more fundamental.  Just how does the federal government compel auto makers to establish a 50 MPG standard?  What technologies can they offer to help the advances necessary to improve mileage standards?   What technology do they bring to the table?  Or is the assumption that if this administration continues to encourage increases in gas prices, people will actually reduce the number of miles driven to produce savings based on fewer miles?    What this really sounds like is pie in the sky, economy wrecking logic of this administration.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Bart Simpson Obama

I have been amused in recent days about the discussion of the President's inability to influence gas prices (although a raft of politicians are harumphing that they should be able to control prices through regulating speculators).  By the way I think the President has very little power to moderate gas prices and that the power that he does have is mostly negative - i.e. the more he does the more the system will get screwed up.  Most voters, according to the polls, put a great deal of faith in the power of the presidency to move markets.  But their belief is mistaken.

That is except for those parts of federal policy which can influence the amount of oil produced in the country and the amount imported into the country.   For example, if the EPA and the Department of Energy encourage the production of all sorts of known oil reserves in the country the price of oil will decline.  Likewise, if they discourage the energetic search for sources of oil in this country, the price will increase.   The Secretary of Energy, before he took his current job was quite explicit about raising the price of oil to "european levels."  The president during the last campaign was quite explicit about two things - first that the Bush administration was responsible for high gas prices and second that we should make a transition away from petroleum as a source of energy.

My amusement comes from what I think will be an eventual discussion in the campaign.  He clearly will try to thread the needle that energy prices are beyond his control.  He will also take a lot of credit for the economic recovery - even if the American people realize that the recovery is at best puny.  At the beginning of his administration the President said I have four years to clean up the mess in the economy.  He repeated that several times and argued that if he was not successful he should be a one term president.   For the first couple of years he then commented frequently, that a good part of the mess he was trying to deal with came from George Bush.

At that point he reminded me of Bart Simpson (It's not my fault, I didn't do it.)   But here is the transition I expect to hear soon on the broader issue of the economy.   The economy is in great shape, but any problems that are left are George Bush's fault.  He won't be the first politician to use that line of logic but you can see it coming well before he starts to bring it out of the playbook.

Tuesday, March 06, 2012

Was Tuesday Super?

In what the pundits called Super Tuesday - there were some mixed results - here are six things which stuck out for me:

1) Romney - Romney won Idaho, Massachusetts, Ohio (by a slim margin) Vermont, Virginia and Wyoming and he picked up at least 147 delegates out of the 1144 needed - that is without results for delegate counts in the caucus states.
2) Santorum - Santorum added 64 delegates but actually lost the Catholic vote in Ohio by eleven points.  
3) Marcy Kaptur - There were a couple of congressional primaries in Ohio including one which pitted lefty March Kaptur versus more lefty Dennis Kucinich.  Kucinich lost 60-40%.  Good Riddance!
4) Gingrich - Gingrich, with a big win in Georgia, picked up 52 delegates.   I am still not sure what he is doing in the race but I suspect that he will be in it for the duration.  With Superpac money he may simply be holding out to be the idea guy for the GOP.  In the 1994 Congressional campaign his "Contract" helped create a majority in the house for the GOP.  He may relish that role again. (Although times may have changed.)
5) Carville Redux - James Carville's notion (it's the economy stupid) seems to have been the major motivator in all of these 10 contests.   I for one do not believe that the apparent improvement in some economic numbers will be necessarily positive for the President but a lot depends on the skill of the eventual GOP nominee in focusing on the concerns that voters seem to have expressed throughout this primary season.  In spite of the nonsense the last ten days about contraception issues (which the democrats skillfully played) if the issue for the electorate in November is the economy - I believe the President will have a tough road.
6) Motivated Voters? - Some pundits said the GOP has lost its energy - they point to the Virginia turnout which was half of 2008.  I think that may be a bit silly - remember that in Virginia there was only a race between Ron Paul (who I believe most GOP voters believe is unelectable) and Romney.  I think many voters are motivated about the president and that a lot of the crowing we've heard from the President and his allies is whistling in the dark.

Romney has begun to make a case why he should be the nominee.  It is unclear whether Romney can avoid making the kinds of gaffes that the media has been playing up.   But clearly when he has focussed on economic issues he has been successful.   I believe Obama is vulnerable on his attempts to enlarge the size and scope of government (Obamacare remains very unpopular - with more than 50% of voters supporting outright repeal).

A Followup on the Tyrannies Post

The consequences of an overly aggressive regulatory scheme as we have in California (which is parallel not centralized in the words of the last post) is pretty easily demonstrated.  The graphic is from Carpe Diem, an economics blog.   The data is from the Orange County Register which ran a story about businesses leaving California.  The pace has picked up in the last couple of years according to Joe Vranich who runs a business helping companies re-locate.  Their website offers services to companies who are looking to move to "boost growth, reduce costs or be in a friendlier environment."   The companies are moving to other states and even Mexico.  The weather bonuses a company gets in California do not outweigh the other climatic costs like the business environment.

Monday, March 05, 2012

Which is worse - coordinated or parallel tyrannies?

On Thursday I was in an audience for a speech by  Bill Watkins,director of the California Lutheran University Economic Forecasting Unit.   He discussed some of the limits to economic growth.   What intrigued me about his talk was his reference to two types of tyrannies - parallel and coordinated.   He argued that corruption occurs in two forms.   The first is where a centralized authority controls access to the benefits of society through a single set of levers.   In those situations one goes to the central authority and submits to it, often with a bribe, and then things function well.   In the alternative, there are a series of powers that control small parts of the system and to negotiate that system one needs to go through a series of payments (in either time or money) to get something done.   He was arguing that California had devolved, as a result of its regulatory schemes, into the latter system.  

In June of 2010 the Association I worked for until my retirement made an offer to purchase a building in downtown Sacramento which had once served as a bus station but had not been occupied in several decades.  The station's fuel tanks had been removed several decades ago but there was a minor contamination of diesel fuel.   In order to "solve" that problem, the current owner was required to remediate the ground.   Almost two years later and for more than half the sales prices of the building, it is still in the process of being cleaned up.   Luckily the only cost to the buyer was time.  

I'm all for keeping the environment clean.  But this process has been one of parallel tyrannies.  Lawyers, environmental consultants of all types and other assorted consultants have each added to the steps in making the purchase.  The odd thing about this story is that an auto repair shop across the street changed hands in the last few years and was not required to remediate their property.   The combined "expertise" of all those consultants, including public officials (who seem to operate on their own time schedules), has delayed improving this eyesore into a showcase.

The talk got me to think about two bits of theory.   First, with the recent passing of James Q. Wilson, one could not help to think about his broken windows theory. (Link in a previous post)   This is a perfect example.  The building is graffiti covered and one suspects that if it were restored the block around would also improve.  Would the city be better off with the infinitesimal risk of trace amounts of diesel fuel contaminating ground water or an improved site at the edge of the city's business district?  The answer should be obvious, but it has not been to the officials (both public and private) who have wanted to have their say on this site.

At the same time, Mancur Olson's last book (Power and Prosperity: Outgrowing Communist and Capitalist Dictatorships) seems to offer some ideas here.   Olson was a first rate political economist - in this book he discussed "market augmenting" governments which improve the right of private property and contracts.  The potential environmental harm on this site is minimal and has been the same since the building was last occupied but because of the relatively uncoordinated process of regulation between permitting and environmental review, that fact is ignored.   It is not hard to understand why California's economy is in the dumps.   So while neither tyranny is ideal, the uncoordinated alternative is often far worse.

Sunday, March 04, 2012

Disruptive Technologies

On Thursday, the President of a university that I have worked with over the years sent me a clip about his ranking among online MBA programs.   His was listed on the US News Honor Roll for those programs.   Online programs grew by about 10% last year.   The rate of growth actually plateaued compared to previous years although growth continues.   The survey looks at students who took at least one course which had at least 80% of its content online.   That is a pretty loose standard but it gives you an idea of the dimensions of online education.   There is a coalition of institutions that is trying to research the growth of online programs and at the same time attempting to establish standards of quality.   The Sloan Consortium publishes an annual report to chart what is going on in the field.

What struck me most about the rankings is that most of the names on the list are not known for their prestige or for the general position of being innovators in the education field.  That suggests that this area of higher education is experiencing a lot innovation from unexpected places - i.e. disruption.

Friday, March 02, 2012

James Q. Wilson

James Q. Wilson was a giant among academic political scientists. He died today in Boston. He is most remembered for his "broken windows" theory which postulated that if you let a neighborhood get run down it would feed upon itself.  But his contributions to thinking in social theory were much broader.  He did a superb book on Bureaucracy.  Peter Skerry, a Boston University professor said that he lacked the pretensions of many social theorists "He was just as comfortable having a burger at a joint on the Pacific Coast Highway that bikers would go to as he would be at his favorite steakhouse in New York or his favorite hotel in London," 
From a Commentary Article "I worked with him a bit on an issue relating to the Western Accrediting Association in the late 1980s.  I found him to be diligent about data - looking and rethinking - but a true gentleman.   We had several long conversations about the issue at hand.  In a Commentary article he once wrote - "I wish to argue for an older view of human nature, one that assumes that people are naturally endowed with certain moral sentiments. We have a peculiar, fragile, but persistent disposition to make moral judgments, and we generally regard people who lack this disposition to be less than human. Despite our wars, crimes, envies, snobberies, fanaticisms, and persecutions, there is to be found a desire not only for praise but for praiseworthiness, for fair dealings as well as for good deals, for honor as well as for advantage. These desires become evident when we think disinterestedly about ourselves or others."   

In the late 1980s I had the pleasure of working with him on a project related to the accrediting region in California.  What I enjoyed about the brief collaboration is that he never ceased to try to look at the issue we were working on from a number of vantage points.  He was also a stickler for data.   But as Professor Skerry commented he did not have the over-sized ego of a major figure in academe.

Commentary put all of his articles up in an archive which is well worth browsing.  National Interest put up all his articles from the Public Interest.   If you are interested in reading his most famous article "Broken Windows" - the Atlantic republished it.

Thursday, March 01, 2012

First you say you do, and then you don't

 The Pew Research Center released some polling today which I found interesting.   GOP voters and Democrat voters have almost opposite reactions to the role of churches and colleges in society.  The GOP voters are more impressed with churches and religious organizations and by an almost opposite number democratic voters are more impressed with colleges and universities.   That is not at all surprising.   GOP voters are really grumpy about labor unions and the entertainment industry as well as congress and the federal government.  Democratic voters are most skeptical about large corporations, congress(albeit by a more generous margin than the GOP), and banks, although generally one could conclude from this poll that democratic voters are a lot less grumpy about most societal institutions than their GOP counterparts.

All of that should not be a surprise.  What amused me is that GOP voters, when asked whether the investment in college was a good investment, they responded that it was very good by higher margins than democratic voters.   As I sad at the beginning, interesting.