Saturday, October 28, 2006

When a price hike is more than a price hike

I hope I never have to file this under the 'could be worse' category, but fares for Zimbabwe's national airline are up 500%. They cite the usual excuses: Official inflation at 1000% per year, unofficial inflation at 4000% per year, but a better answer might be 'cluelessness'. Not, of course, that Zimbabwe in particular happens to be clueless: It's just generally true that some commodities are really hard to accurately price; they have weird supply/demand equations with multiple optimum-looking intersections, and at different prices, two services that appear the same can actually be viewed as radically different.

At black-market rates before the price hike, it cost $250 or so to fly from London to Zimbabwe. At that rate, if the airline was trying to play any particular role in the economy, it was trying to provide a subsidized good to an interest group (as some observers note, third world governments are incredibly effective at subsidizing their own apparatchik). At the new price, 1) It's more of a luxury good, and 2) As such, more likely to be used by official travelers -- who, themselves, will be slightly more likely to use the official exchange rate instead of turning to black-market sellers.

By simply changing the price of the product, Zimbabwe's airline radically affected the nature of what they were selling, and had an outsize impact on customer behavior. Economic history is full of even more radical examples: Ford repricing cars so they competed with other transportation providers instead of other luxury goods; Gates raising the price of software consulting until it was at the forefront of the industry, instead of an afterthought; not to mention the combination of high bandwidth and large hard drives forcing music to undergo the opposite change, from product back to service. This price hike isn't just a symptom, and it isn't just a stopgap: It's profound.

[Once again, this is a post meant for my other blog, but blogger is being uncooperative.]

Wednesday, September 27, 2006


There's nothing sillier than trusting unsourced information from entirely anonymous Internet sources, but I can't help but mention the "Enron/AEP bribery recordings", which will probably be revealed as fake pretty soon, but which are otherwise rather interesting. The 'silly rumor' half of the story is that a private investigator working on an unrelated case tapped the phone of an energy executive, and managed to record some discussions of AEP paying off key employees with $5 million bribes to cover up accounting irregularities. The 'could be something to it' part is that there are several sound recordings, allegedly of these conversations, which you can find here, here, and here (bittorrent users can get the complete collection here).

Whether or not it's true, this could make an interesting case study in how quickly information spreads: As far as I know, it was first posted at about 10 PM ET; since the recordings are already available from several sources, it's likely that at least a few traders will hear about it by the open. Now, if we want to know whether sophisticated traders have faster information sources than everyone else, what we'd look for is high options activity: If you intend to make money on a short, unexpected swing, buying puts is just about the only way to do it. The volume in AEP options is minimal, so any sudden action should definitely show up. Granted, a few low-fi recordings of someone who could easily be an actor shouldn't be worth more than a percentage point or two of lost value. But there's a point at which the effort involved in making a practical joke -- coming up with the story, getting plausible voice actors, making and spreading the file -- is so high that someone out there might find the story plausible.

Friday, April 21, 2006

We Meander and Really, Why Not?

I spend about an hour or two a day just wandering around campus, listening to music, and thinking. I'd recommend it to anyone who feels underthought, because it's a good cure, or overthought, because they're wrong. Most of the time, I just try to debate something (the war in Iraq, anarcho-capitalism, Objectivism, and relativism/absolutism) with myself -- which means that I'm absolutely brilliant at winning arguments, as long as the person I'm arguing with is also me. But being able to outsmart myself doesn't usually translate into being able to convince others: In one of my classes, my friends were shocked -- shocked -- when I noted that I really didn't think government was necessary for, well, anything.

"Byrne, you can't name a single example of that working in practice."

"Well, first of all, there's Somalia, which seems to function a lot better than any of its neighbors, all of whom have governments. And you can, of course, argue that it's a coincidence that African countries with governments tend to be oppressive, chaotic, and awful, and the one without governments just happens to be one of the best places to live. But that's a stretch. And you can also argue that since there isn't a major authority between any two independent countries, but they still manage to settle trade and territorial disputes without resorting to violence more than occasionally, anarchy is in one sense universal."

"So, you're saying it's right, even though it only works in Somalia."

"Yes. Somalia and everywhere. That's all."

One would think that this is persuasive -- that we ought to at least reconsider the argument that local monopolies on coercive force are absolutely essential to the existence of civilization, but apparently that is a really hard assumption to make. Maybe it's silly. Maybe individuals are absolutely incompetent to make decisions for themselves, unless they happen to be elected or selected or armed and insistent, in which case they're magically competent enough to make decisions for all of us. Maybe the fact that I've never met anyone whom I considered competent to run my life nor never met anyone so lost and confused that I considered it necessary to run their life is just a weird coincidence. But I have my doubts.

Other quick thoughts:

Besides charity and altruism, is there any difference at all between Doing The Right Thing and being totally self-interested over the longest term possible? I mean, you can explain monogamy and honesty and hard work and thrift and just about every mode of behavior that any minister or rabbi or priest has ever suggested -- again, excluding charity -- entirely on the grounds that, eventually, it pays off.

Affirmative Action only works if either 1) Racists are right about differences in ability being intrinsic to race, but egalitarians are right that outcomes ought not to reflect differences in value to society, or 2) Racists are wrong, and egalitarians are wrong, but the only effective way to keep racism from being an issue is to make it a permanent feature of our laws, by expecting people to behave as racists and then compensating those who suffer from it.

My biggest problem with absolutism (of the "Thou shalt not... and we shan't footnote this with caveats or exceptions or anything else" variety) is that it discourages thought about why something is wrong. I suspect that just about any specific action can be justified under the right circumstances -- murder to avert genocide, aggression through conventional warfare to avert aggression through chemical/biological/nuclear warfare, theft to avoid starvation, etc. -- unless you've been taught that a given action is intrinsically immoral, no matter what the consequences. Whereas, really, the consequences are what count, since the rest is just going on inside your head and isn't going to bother anyone unless you act on in (in which case, once again, It's a Consequence). So. Consequentialism: Because anything else is just Masturbatory Morality.

Monday, October 24, 2005

Melancholy Thoughts at 4 AM in IHOP

[A note before I start: A while ago, I said I was posting the edited gist of letters to my girlfriend. We've since broken up, but old habits die hard, so now you're reading a letter to my ex-girlfriend. If you're involved in the story, you might notice factual inconsistencies, in which case I suggest you adjust your behavior to the point that telling everyone exactly what you did doesn't interrupt the dramatic flow. And without further blather: Wheee]

What are friends for if not to enable us to indulge in our weirder bad habits? I like having people with sleep schedules more or less inverse to mine (I take all the Absurdly Early hours; they do all the Absurdly Late ones) -- they're willing to stick with me when I'm afraid to sleep. It's not as bad as it could've been: I slept almost all day Sunday (up at 9, back asleep at noon, up for good (or something like it) at 6). I had what's suddenly the Ritual: The Girls cook and the Guys eat on Sunday nights in the Hayden common room.

Oh, right, and my friends are making me feel better about not quite knowing where I stand in relationships: I was talking to Cassi online on Friday afternoon, and we spent an hour or so discussing romantic involvement, the meaning of relationships, and all that good stuff. And then she said "I guess I'll learn to enjoy spending the rest of my life single." Which is interesting, because I met her last time I stayed up all night, and Lowell introduced her by saying "Don't say anything too... rude about her. She's my girlfriend, okay?" As it turns out, he'd more or less assumed this was obvious, and she'd spent the last few weeks beating herself up over whether he liked her or hated her or was just using her or what, because, naturally, he'd never told her that they were dating -- they just shared a bed a couple times a week and spent most of their free time together. Anyway, I managed to Bring Them Together by nabbing Lowell from a Gamers Society meeting, dragging him over to Cassi's dorm, telling him to tell her he was sorry, taking over and, well, saying that he was sorry, and then chaperoning them while they wandered around campus until one or so.

Back to Sunday: I got to do the slightly more self-aware version of Developmentally-Disabled Kid Is Allowed to Play With the Normal Kids and of Course They Let Him Win Every Game by Surreptitiously Helping Him Out. Except mine involved the kitchen, where I was allowed to not only wash dishes but actually put the bread in the oven after reading the instructions aloud several times, committing them to memory, and promptly forgetting whether it was fifteen or fifty minutes. But I did okay, and the bread was really good.

After dinner, Lowell, Cassie and I ping-ponged around the Honors dorms: First to Cassie's room, where I managed to offend her roommate yet again. The first time we met, I apparently made a bad impression by being insensitive to women in front of her -- turns out she's a staunch feminist. This time, I noted that "Abortion sends babies to God faster!" -- turns out she's a staunch Catholic. I noted that I was really, really sorry, hoping that as a Catholic she's been trained to believe that, so long as I say this repeatedly, formulaically, and contritely, there's really no way I'm still guilty of anything.

And then we went to Nick and Dave's room. Nick and Dave are a beautifully odd pair: Nick reads the Bible for 'fun', memorizes poetry, and has such meticulously combed hair that I'm relatively sure it's a strand-at-a-time process; Dave has shoulder length hair impervious to shampoo or trends, and has covered his wall in posters of obscure bands. And Che. Dave also has a juicer, which, of course, is quite swingin' and Bohemian (and is the same juicer that Kim, my 40-year-old half-sister, who is the most suburban person I know, bought but considers a little too dull and pedestrian for regular use). He invited us over so we could try his homemade (or at least dormmade) apple juice (medium good) and Cassi could read a poem (likewise).

And then we bounced into my room, where we watched Kill Bill, Volume II. I'd like to see it again some time, because I think I missed some crucial dialogue between telling Those Two to be quiet, telling them not to tickle each other, and holding down one so the other could tickle with impunity. Kill Bill, by the way, is ridiculously bloody (according to the IMDB trivia section, 450 gallons of fake blood), has little or no plot, and involves rapidly escalating violence and samurai swords. It is a stupid movie and a waste of three hours and I heartily recommend it.

What is there to do at 2:30 in the morning when the three of us have finished off one movie and a pot of coffee? Well, there's IHOP, and there are a bunch of runner-up ideas so far distant they practically blend in with the horizon. So we went to IHOP. Which is a different world that early in the morning: Our waiter managed to take our order, completely forget what I'd asked for by the time he was done taking everyone else's requests, and then brought us all exactly what we wanted. I am still not sure if he was a stoner who had a burst of insight, or just a little tired for a little bit and then suddenly all better now, or just playing around with us. I do know that the coffee carafes there look like penguins -- especially when one of us has a sharpie, another has some artistic talent, and that collaboration produces a pair of scrawled-on eyes (interestingly, this is the first bit of vandalism I've ever done; it doesn't seem too bad, since it looks really, really funny. If we ever see each other again, I'll show you the picture).

Eventually and inevitably, I got depressed and introspective and noted that I don't have a girlfriend and demanded that somebody fix this for me. One of my reasons is that I'm getting pro (re-) gressively more lonely -- I really miss having someone who loves me and thinks that I'm awesome, not to mention (he mutters, thinking back to the movie and feeling a little jealous) someone reasonably warm who is also persuadable that she's cold enough to lean on somebody else. If electric blankets ever become capable of gentle flattery, women are doomed.

Cassi noted that I'm sweet and sensitive once you get to know me, and that I'm really rather nice when I stop trying to impress people and get attention. And Lowell said that some girls have really poor judgment. Poor judgement, of course, isn't unique to either gender. We didn't leave IHOP until 6:30. I know, I know -- you can hardly contain your pride; I really did manage to stay up all night, just like I said I would. I'm going to take a minor little nap, finish and drop off my Physics homework, take another little nap, and go to work. And then I'll let all that delayed and put-off sleep undelay itself, so I can collapse into dreams of ambiguously sweet and vaguely understanding eventual girlfriends.


P.S. I might have mentioned this before, but in the interest of gender equality, I present; "She was a connoisseur of guys and desserts, and had decided after careful consideration, that she liked her men like she liked her cream: Rich, white, and whipped." I mean, some people like it -- mostly the ones who really hate "I want to meet a sensitive girl. Someone with depth; someone who accepts me for who I am, not what I might superficially appear to be. Also, no fatties."

Sunday, June 26, 2005

Update (Only five days behind!)

On Tuesday, we staggered into a routine: Wake up, discover that coffee has miraculously appeared – I'm still not sure how, since the only people who drink it are the ones who sleep in – and have some cereal and toast for breakfast. It's not particularly Irish (no Bailey's, after all), but good. And then, work.

The work is menial archaeology, which I say without any rancor whatsoever. Really, it's a chance to play in the mud, with the added thrill of knowing we might step on a thousand-year-old skull if we aren't careful. We follow what I swear is the standard Irish work schedule:

9:00 – Be at work, in theory.

9:30 – Be at work, officially.

10:00 – Okay, now are you working?

11:00 – Tea time!

11:30 – Tea time is officially over.

11:45 – People begin straggling out from tea.

1:00 – Perhaps the cooks need some help preparing lunch.

1:30 – It is officially lunch time.

2:40 – Lunch time may or may not be technically over.

3:00 – Work time.

4:30 – Clean up the site.

4:50 – Sprint back to the cabin.

5:30 – Finish grousing about the brutal, backbreaking day of hard labor. Start scheduling dinner around previously-planned pub-schedule.

Before we left, the Sligo Kids and the Yankees gathered on the porch for a morning harangue. Today's lecture was on cigarette butts. Specifically, Doc was furious that we'd been leaving cigarette butts lying around everywhere. More specifically, he was furiuous that Teresa, the fifty-year-old bartender whose life represents and admirable balancing act between ever-hammered drunkard and anal-retentive harpy, was complaining about how much time she spent picking up cigarette butts.

Doc tried to be measured and calm: “Look. When we got here, there weren't any. Now you can see a few in the yard, and-”

Teresa: “A few. Just look at this: I can see one, two three, I can see four, five, there's six, seven, come on eight nine.”

On Monday, that sounded like the rant before the breakdown – I saw The Aviator, so I'm a fully qualified analyst of control-freakish lunatics – but as of today I can look back and wish that wasn't just Teresa being Teresa. Given that we're both staying in the same (distressingly small) house. [Not to break the mood or anything, but I'm writing this on a bus to Dublin. She's sitting two seats away, hopefully not reading this, and listening to really obnoxious rock music on her headphones. She's wearing headphones, so I shouldn't really need to know what she's listening to. Good headphones are like modern plumbing – they absolve everyone around you of the duty to deal with that crap.]

The minute Zoom and I got to the site, we had an assignment from Doc: Wait at the church for him to come back and tell us what to do. The church won't sound all that impressive: It's a hole in the ground, about twelve feet long, eight feet wide, and four feet deep. Two of the walls are built of recognizably architectural whatsits – stones, mortar, and transvestite compinations thereof – and the other two are dirt. It's a little more impressive to realize that two weeks ago, the church wasn't anything at all; the walls were buried, the hole was five days of careful troweling and a couple hours of awe-screwit pickaxing away.

Oh, and it's about six hundred years old. Nobody's quite clear on why this settlement was abandoned, but if I had to hazard a guess I'd guess midges. Midges are tiny, vicious insects – vampire gnats from hell – that feed on the living, the unwary, and the short-sleeved. They like low altitudes and moisture, and say what you want about the romance of a just-excavated ancient religious site; at some level, it's just a muddy hole.

We didn't do anything before tea time. Not that we tried and didn't accomplish anything, but that we spent the entire hour waiting for Doc to remember that he'd told us to wait a minute for instructions. Tea time was very informative, though: I didn't learn much about Irish accents (the normal conception of them is, basically, dead-on), but I learned a lot more about what people say in those accents.

I've always had a penchant for self-censorship, if not in the sentiments I express then at least in the words I choose to express them. Thick accents give me a nice loophole, but I don't want to dwell on on the pungence of the typical Sligo kid's vocabulary. I'll just note that 'feckless' is when they don't have a girlfriend and can't afford a whore. The rest is pretty easy to get used to: “I can't afford me fags” is a comment about the onerous excise tax on cigarettes. “I'm knackered” means “I'm tired,” while “What a knacker” means (here I'll resort to direct quotes) “Like a city-guy who wears a Burberry hat and a Burberry scarf and thinks he's all that.” Make of knacking what you will. Ireland is far too classy to deal with rednecks; out here, they've got bogtrotters.

At half past teatime, Doc showed up: “Have you guys been waiting here all day?”



And he was gone.

So we waited some more. We eventually got a visit from the Chief Sligo-er, Chris. Chris used to be a Canadian interested in archaeology who happened to visit Ireland. One trip later, he was a Canadian running up colossal phone bills talking to his Irish archaeologist girlfriend. Now, ten years after that first trip, he's raising a whole family of little archaeo-darlin's. After a ten-year tug-of-war between his Canadian accent and an Irish tinge, he's settled on a detached, marginally Irish monotone. Though a detached monotone might just be his thing; I've yet to see him get excited about anything we've dug up, caved in, cooked up, or chugged down. “You've been here all day?” he drawled.



And he was gone.

Lunch was a multicultural affair: We had extremely American ham sandwiches, and a selection of authentic Irish crisps, which emulate potato chips the way Cheetos emulate brie. I'm quite sure what's wrong with them, so I'll go with flavor (or, as they insist on calling it, 'flavour', which sounds like some centuries-old concession to the paid-by-the-letter printer's union). The Irish have not been informed that there are certain flavors that are absolutely off-limits, “Chicken-flavoured corn snacks” among them.

Yes: Irish crisps intentionally made to taste like meat. This is simply a travesty. It's like beef jerky slathered in Essence of Cucumber. It's like Cayenne Ice Cream. It's... “Bacon-flavoured crisps,” too. Ugh. They need to be taught natural seasonings, like 'ranch' (which does not exist in Ireland. Jeff's girlfriend mailed him some, for which he's absurdly grateful) or 'nacho cheesier'. We'll show them the meaning of taste, we will.

After lunch, we waited some more. Another Irish archaeologist – an older guy named Mihal. He and Zoom struck up a conversation: “What's up, Mihal?”

“Worst weekend of me life. One beer in three days.”

He looked awful. Poor guy. Zoom introduced me: “Byrne, this is Mihal. Be careful around him, or he'll try to... befriend you.”

“Befriend? Whadda you mean 'befriend'. Do I look like a Boston priest?”

Mihal took a few pictures of the church, and then shambled off to the other excavations. With good reason: They dug up a new skeleton, named Frances (one of the girls found it), Francis (because one of the guys dug it up), Frances (because Fiona examined the pelvis and determined that it was a woman), and, finally, Francis (because we will not give up. Ever.)

France/is was a demanding find, and Doc left us alone for the rest of the day. The Sligo Kids went home, half of the Yankees went back to their house, and the rest of us decoompressed in the cabin. I took a shower.

It's always irksome to Americans when we spend decades perfecting some arcane technology like, say, the Internet, and go from mainframes chatting with mainframes and crashing in mid-sentence, to PCs gabbing with other PCs via 1600-baud modems, to AOL chatrooms on a 56K, all the way to streaming video on DSL. And some other country gets a late start, misses out on the chance to waste all that money on fancy, now-obsolete equipment, and, overnight, makes the rest of us look like Luddites.

I'm proud to note that Europeans did that for us with their bathroom technology: The lightswitch is located outside the bathroom, which is highly convenient if you've suffered from a hankering for low-grade pranks, and otherwise makes no sense. You could chalk that up to first-draft syndrome, and assume that they didn't correct it because everyone was used to it. But there's no way to explain why they haven't fixed the drain system: The bathroom floor is completely level, the shower consists of a showerhead, a curtain, and a drain. No clear delineation, no barrier. Just a gigantic puddle.

Properly cleaned-up, I was ready for the next adventure. Tuesday was the equinox: The longest day and latest sunset of the year. We decided to enjoy it in classic Irish fashion: We went to a tomb.

A bunch of tombs, actually. For a while, the big trend among Irish burial sites was to build a pile of stones, dig a passage underground, and branch that passage out in four directions. Then, they'd drag bodies to the end of each passage, seal it off, and repeat until they ran out of room. Fun! We popped into three or four of them (it's not every day that you can be surrounded by that much Death), and wandered up and down the Irish hills.

They're distinctly multi-purpose. Not only do they cater to overeducated tourists looking for something obscure to brag about, but they host herd after herd of sheep. Sheep aren't as fun as you might suspect if you were inclined to suspect that just about anything can be fun. They aren't friendly, but they aren't actively unfriendly, either. They just seem to treat us as a bit of geography they'd rather avoid; nothing too threatening, but nothing interesting, either.

The Yankees, on the other hand, were fun to watch. This was my first evidence that in a land of bad TV and historical attractions that, after a while, all look about the same, twentysomethings-through-fiftysomethings tend to find solace in alcohol. They're miraculously quick to drink it, too: A gaggle of us got to one tomb, and Anna had a full bottle of wine. Zoom and I got in. By the time Anna made it in behind us, she had 3/4ths of a bottle of wine. Zoom and I left. She crawled out behind us, half-full bottle clutched in her left hand. And, by the time we walked and she staggered to the next burial site, the bottle was empty.

Teresa handled a winebottle in similar fashion, washing it down with a beer or two. Jeff stuck with beer. Tiny Tim (who, at 27, is a bit of an authority figure – especially since he taught Zoom's freshman-year history class) and his girlfriend divided their drinking evenly between beer and wine. Christie took anything she could get. Doc, Zoom, and I abstained.

The ride back was rough: We didn't have much room (our rental van has suffered all sorts of indignities – it's scratched on all sides, the interior is coated in mud, it has another 2000 miles on it, and we're not entirely sure where the left front hubcap is hiding), so Teresa sat on Zoom's lap and Tiny Tim rode in the trunk. All of them react to drinking differently: Anna's voice drops to a stage whisper, and Teresa belts everything out with a nails-on-chalkboard gusto. Meanwhile, Jeff becomes a comedian, and Tiny Tim an obedient audience.

It was a long ride home.

At Jeff's house (which also housed Tim and Carrie, who'd come along for the ride, and Kyle and Beth, the Mystery Couple who hadn't), Jeff convinced Teresa, Anna, and Christie to stay and 'party'. Which left Doc, Zoom, and me in the car. We had a quieter ride home for a little while, and then we got an Idea. Usually, pranks are a zero-sum game: They make one person a little annoyed, and another person a little pleased, in approximately equal proportions. But when one of the parties is drunk, they're less capable of annoyance, which makes pranks a force for the greater good. Doc didn't dispute this. He dropped us off with one last invocation: “Remember, guys. Be creative, not destructive. And good luck.”

Forty minutes later ('partying' was ten minutes of drinking and thirty minutes of walking home), Christie, Tereas, and Anna made it back. Zoom and I were both in our room, reading. Christie marched in, asked us what was up, asked us if we were aware that those tombs were awesome, I mean awesome, and-

-And then Anna came in. “I have a problem,” she stage whispered. “The bed. It's broken.” Not quite. The bed wasn't 'broken', so much as it was 'adjusted'. Christie and Anna each had a bed, and each of those beds had a mattress, and each mattress had about twenty evenly-spaced slats holding it up, as of 10 at night. As of 10:15, each bed had a like number of slats crammed into one end, and, after Anna flopped down to sleep the wine off, a sunken mattress at the other.

“I know why,” she explained. “It's Ikea. Ikea makes these beds, and you've got to put them together, so they fall apart.” I love drunk logic. Christie and Anna fixed up their Ikea, and soon after that we were all asleep.

Thursday, June 23

It's been a few days since I've written, which is rarely a good sign. In this case, the prognosis isn't all that bad: I've been too busy, not too lazy, to make time for updates. But everyone else is off at the pub (a few of them fifteen minutes late after a similar amount of time spent trying to convince me to please come along), and here I am, alone in the top bunk in a three-bedroom house in County Roscommon.

My ride arrived a few hours after I posted the last entry – Zoom, the moderately wonkish socialist-turned-libertarian classmate (it's been a month since graduation. I still haven't gotten used to “Who I went to high school with”) and The Doc, former teacher at the my school, current teacher at two or three separate colleges, and head of the program. We drove (three hours), we talked (mainly about school; now that we're alumni, we're entitled to hear all the interdepartment gossip – a little musty, at this point – and a few good stories. And we finally know where our ever-fidgety tobacco-scented Shakespeare teacher took his smoking breaks), and I watched the scenery drift by.

Ireland, of course, has fantastic views. They also have some rather lax traffic laws – roaring down a two-lane street at 70 miles per hour isn't always applauded in America. The road system is ad-hoc and inexplicable; in America there are right angles and straight lines, in Ireland there are Lobachevskian curves and tangential drifts. Still, everything works faster (we made it across more than half the country at a constant clip) and better (the longest traffic jam I've seen so far has involved one intersection, five cars, and ten tense seconds). Even the road signs are a little friendlier, somehow. You know where this is going: It's like switching from MS-DOS to OS X.

And then I got to The House. The whole group is spread out over three houses, actually: Our 'cabin' is the main one, but the landlord (who owns the cabin and the archaeological site we're excavating) has his own fine abode, where Doc will stay, and another house in town, where another five of us sleep.

From the outside, it wouldn't be out of place in any suburb anywhere in Middle America; from the inside, it looks like Log Cabin meets The 80's: Every wall, floor, and ceiling is wood (they dropped the theme when it came to appliances and plumbing fixtures), and everything modern has that old-but-unused sort of newness to it. This used to be a bed-and-breakfast, and like every bed-and-breakfast it's built to be left. Which is a relief in the morning when I'm coping with a third-world toaster (with First World Reliability!). The coffee conditions are primitive, but instant. The rest of the breakfast is just fine.

When I arrived, most of the team was out at the site. The only one home was Jeff, who is 250 pounds of good humor and swollen liver. He'd been celebrating his birthday the night before, and, honestly, wasn't up to a few solid hours of careful troweling and obsessive observation. Jeff stayed home, watched TV, and shooed his headache away with the handy homeopathic remedy of slightly-more-expensive cheap beer.

By the time I'd taken the house tour and unpacked my bags (I'm a guy; this took thirty seconds), the rest of the group was straggling in. Half of the diggers are “The Sligo Kids,” a term that sounded innocent enough, but had a vaguely subversive, slightly insulting tone. They're a little like any similar bunch of college-age kids in America; they have the Requisite Goth, the Slacker Who Dresses Like a Jock, and the rest of the requisite stereotypes. On the other hand, they have a Fiona, and they sunburn when it's overcast.

After that there was some kind of meal, accompanied by some kind of realization that I'd been either awake or airplane-asleep (just as bad) for the last thirty-one hours. So that, at six PM Roscommon Time – Roscommon! In Ireland! Whoa! -- I fell asleep.

Monday, June 20, 2005

Shannon Airport -- 12 PM

I'm looking forward to the first post about this trip that wasn't written, conceived, and edited on an airplane or in an airport. People don't stay packable and stackable for very long without getting annoyed and filthy, and since the air-transit businesses hasn't opted for any good places to decompress, they tend to stay that way.

On the other hand: I spent about twelve hours on a quest for cheap broadband I could borrow to check my email. I finally found it here in Shannon, which proferred some WiFi the minute I got through customs; I'm on my third cup of coffee, and I'm still not as wired as this country.

So far, this trip has been all about the fruitless quests: It took a week of constant phone calls to get US Airways to admit that they could, if pressed, change the name on my ticket if I asked as I checked in. We showed up two and a half hours early, armed with passport, copy of passport, assorted other IDs, even a birth certificate. And got the whole change made in five minutes.

My flight from Philly to Shannon was scheduled to leave at 8:35, which gave me a solid three-hour layover. By the time I got there, it had been bumped back to eleven, for a slightly mushier one. Eh. I read for a bit (I'm working on one biography of Alexander the Great, I have another nonfiction book in my laptop-bag, I downloaded the novel Accelerando, and, if pressed, have about a novel's worth of other stuff I've written, too), and had an intellectually-stimulating phone conversation. Specifically, after about an hour of idle and non-idle chat, I wondered about the precise nature of my long-distance plan. I don't actually pay that bill, and suspect I'll continue to be free of such obligations until I violate the mysterious phone-company edicts and wind up making a ten-minute, $40 call.

If this whole narrative has a jangled, disjointed feel, keep in mind that I'm not sure how much I slept, though I can tell it's not enough since I can't quite grasp how the time zones have permutated so I don't precisely know how long I was in the air. I know I was conscious at 35,000 feet through the first half-hour of Be Cool, which, for once, would have been better had they not dubbed the swearing out: "You know, if you don't want an R-rating you can only use the F-word once in your entire movie? Y'know what? F[sudden, intra-word change of tone, emphasis, and pitch]orget[end of change] that!"

This is the second time I've visited Europe since the introduction of the Euro. For the second time, my first transaction was buying a cup of coffee. And for the second time, I forgot that if you pay a five-Euro note for a two-Euro coffee, you'll get a one-Euro and a two-Euro coin back. I don't pay too much attention to coins; both times, I assumed I was ripped off.

I'm not going to spend any time on traditional Irish vices (I saw far more liquor, pushed far more aggressively, in the American duty-free shops than I've seen here), but I'll note that there's a latent, growing obsession with gambling. And it starts with the phones. They work like this: Insert a random sum of money, make your call, and get 1) All of the money back, 2) Money back only if you put in exact change it can return to you, or 3) If, in frustration, you gave the phone a 2-Euro coin and ended up having a .50-Euro conversation, absolutely nothing. They could base their entire economy on first-hour-in-the-country stupid-American-isms.

Philadelphia Airport -- 1 PM

1 PM -- I don't handle airports too well. It's not that I get visibly agitated when I'm slouching in one of the hundreds of uniformly discolored, uniformly slashed-open, and uniformly filthy seats at gate A8, where a handful of us wait in breathless anticipation for Flight 2616 to Philadelphia (leaving in an hour and a half). It's just that I have Subversive Thoughts.

I'm not the only one, either. The guy behind me in the security line looked like the standard stringy tough-guy nerd-with-an-attitude (an, inexplicably, a girlfriend) muttered “Does anybody really feel safer? I've gotten through these with combat boots and knives.” And he said it loud – like we're playing a game of “Who gets to make the best airport-security joke and then spend the next two hours explaining the nuances of that sort of humor to Mr. Airport Security and his friend, Mr. Glock?”

Overall, airline security is a joke. And it would be a lot funnier if the punchline wasn't “We're screwed.” But we are, basically. A sufficiently determined hijacker, or barring that an irritated twentysomething who's sure his girlfriend will understand, is eventually going to get on the plane with something capable of causing damage, and he's going to use it.

Back in the halcyon days of September Tenth, our security personel weren't useful because they didn't think like terrorists. For now, our terrorists are impotent because they haven't learned to think like security guards (the phrase “I make minimum wage to put up with all this crap?” is pretty hard to render in Arabic). But all it takes is one smart guy with an axe to grind, and one dumb guard who lets the axe pass through screening (“It's for my mother-in-law. Big collector, you know.”), and poof.

Friday, June 03, 2005

Friday, June 3, 2005 -- Aprowha?

When do I evangelize?

I'm big on freshly-ground coffee and Eastern religion and duct-tape wallets and high-level computer languages and calculus. Just not at the same time, and not for very long. It's a habit that verges on an addiction: I'll find something to be obsessed about, like Objectivism or the conglomerates of the late 60's or the novels of Tom Wolfe, and, for a week or two, I. Won't. Shut. Up.

Right now I'm surrounded by the detritus of a recent tangent. Tangent is an apropos term for it, since, for a few days in late May, I was really into math. I got What Is Calculus About? by W. W. Sawyer, A Tour of the Calculus by David Berlinski, and What is Mathematics, by Courant and Robbins. A few days, and two pages of cramped, obsessive notes, and I got bored.

It was fun for a while: Sawyer, in particular, made calculus absurdly easy (though I'll admit his was a basic text). But then, I needed a break, so I spent the first half of one day reading the last half of American Caesar, a fantastic book that I should have taken in smaller doses. Once I finished, I was stuck with that lightheaded sense of hangoverish accomplishment that stems from intellectual overexertion: That was fun, but let's not do it again any time soon.

Which is how I feel every time I reach that same dénouement -- I get the sense I should move on from whatever I've been overthinking about, but I can't shake the feeling I'm just going to spin my wheels elsewhere. If I can summon the motivation for that.

Slip, slide, 'n' Stumble

Speaking of evangelizing... one of my first obsessions of the year was StumbleUpon, an extension that allows online channel-surfing at random or by topic. I've submitted a pretty broad list of topics -- half a dozen styles of music, lots of computer-related fields, and some academic stuff I needed to brush up on -- so I get plenty of unusual results.

Including ANTI CAPITALISM: Modern Theory and History, a collection of funky thoughts and even funkier graphs. Let's take a look:

Anti-capitalism isn't Communism or Marxism -- the last communist nations on earth practice capitalism today. It isn't anarchism -- it says nothing about government or freedom. It isn't nihilism -- it's about improvement and change, not total destruction.

So, they don't believe in anything in particular, but want to make sure you don't think that means they disbelieve in everything. Totally different, you see. And speaking of totally-different... I'm not even going to deal with "communist nations" practicing "capitalism" (they need some practice, certainly -- as Russia demonstrated). And one last thing: How can "Anti-capitalism" say nothing about government or freedom? Being anti-something, and hoping to put that antiness into practice, sure implies restricting someone's freedom to be pro-thatthing. And how do you restrict someone's freedom? Unless you've got a complete consensus (and what self-respecting plutocrat would give you that?) you'll need, well, government to govern your way into not-socialist, not-Marxist, not-communist, not-nihilist non-capitalism.

Money, considered the root of all evil, is the foundation of capitalism. But, is capitalism inherently evil? How else could we describe a system that puts phenomenal wealth in the hands of a few while a significant number of earth's inhabitants are left to freeze in the coldest element known to man -- human indifference.

Money, considered the root of all evil... by whom? Certainly not Timothy, that Biblical fellow who talked about how the love of money is the root of all evil. There's a distinction -- a huge one -- between loving a thing and the thing itself. Money is a means; money is a medium. In a purely socialist pure democracy, the primary medium of exchange would be debate -- the most eloquent would be the most influential. Had Timothy written for such a society, he'd have said "The love of words is the root of all evil," and he'd have a point -- it's greed for power, not power itself, that causes injustice. And Timothy was exaggerating just a tad. Money, by the way, is not the foundation of capitalism. Ownership is. Money is just an efficient way to make ownership fungible and useful, thereby making the world a more trade-friendly, happier place.

Okay, indifference is a cold element, and we're freezing to death in it. Beautiful. In Socialist countries which I won't bother to name, the people get cuddled and coddled to death in that warmest- and fuzziest-of-all-elements: ennui. But I won't use the Fr- UNNAMED NATION as an example. Our friends at the ANTI-CAPITALIST site have provided a much better one:

The ancient Spartans were anti-capitalists. They banned all forms of money, precious metals, and gemstones. Overnight, crime disappeared. The quality of life and all things in Sparta became the highest in all of Greece. Instead of focusing on the accumulation of wealth the people developed other ideals for living. Health, athletics, dance, music, social activities, artisanship, and of course, dominating other countries.

Sparta? Sparta? That's their utopian society? That's their city on a hill? The military dictatorship wherein 10% of the population constantly trained to put down rebellions by the 90% who were enslaved? Where theft was acceptable, but getting caught was considered immoral? The same font of education and judicial openness wherein laws could not, legally, be written down? I could go on (post-natal, state-mandated abortions, anyone?), but why bother? If your ideal government's most recent examples were the pre-Civil War South and the late Stalinist Soviet Union, you ought to reconsider your beliefs.

All consumer goods are driven to converge on cheapness and imitation by the profit motive, as Karl Marx the mathematician astutely observed a century ago. Except for the occasional scientific advance that produces useful new materials, most products deteriorate in quality. The scientists who develop improvements, it should be noted, are almost always focused on achievement, not money. Many artists and musicians are likewise driven by the desire to achieve excellence much more so than money. As Theognis advised thousands of years ago, "Spend time on excellence, and love the right, and don't let shameful profit master you."

Summary: Things get cheaper, except when they're getting better, and they generally get better thanks to the selfless efforts of hardworking researchers. This is 1950's Chamber-of-Commerce type stuff; this guy could be quoting Andrew Carnegie or Alfred Sloan. With all this insistent lauding of the craftsman comes the question: Isn't moneymaking a craft? Isn't there something pure, or even beautiful, about a well-executed leveraged buyout? Or is it just me? Really? Oh.

Consider again the wealth distribution in America as compared to the natural wealth distribution that is found in nature, as manifested by every manner of food source distribution from bacteria to honeybees to birds. The natural form in which wealth, in terms of food and territory, ar distributed among natural creatures is the normal curve, or what is called the bell curve because of its'[sic, because I had to] shape. The figure below shows one example of how a natural wealth curve could be implemented such that no human being falls below the poverty line. And, there is still plenty of room for people to make themselves filthy rich, if that should remain their paradigm.

And I yawn for a moment, blink a bit, reread that paragraph, and wonder how much this guy knows about bees and bacteria. Specifically, how does he compare the wealth of men versus the wealth of women to 1) A species wherein the men exist entirely to mate, and they basically sit around hexacell-potatoing until then, and 2) A species wherein there aren't any women and most of the action is kind of intracellular? The author here has no idea what he's talking about: Each of those two charts contains two seperate charts, one of which has been reversed and pasted onto the other to give it some semblance of symmetry. A 'normal distribution' and a 'bell curve' will not show up in incomes, because negative net worth can't occur in the same magnitude as positive net worth, and wealth is skewed to positive extremes because of the effects of compound interest over long time periods. Or, if that doesn't work, suffice to say that the chart is just stupid.

Consider the structure of our capitalist society. People are conditioned to be consumers from the earliest. They are given a minimal education -- learning just enough Math to work for someone else, and just enough English to know what consumer items to spend their paychecks on. All of the things that are most important to human enjoyment and happiness are suppressed or minimized, while all the things they don't need are advertised heavily to give them mock importance.

Surprising, isn't it, that twelve years of gradeschool-through-highschool is 'minimal'. How does Math (note the Scare Capitals) make me a slave? How does English (again! Sorry... Again!) make me a consumer? Apparently my minimal education is minimal enough that the answer escapes me. About advertisements: Yes, I find them annoying. Yes, I find them obnoxious. No, it does not surprise me that Time with Grandma and Beautiful Sunset don't get million-dollar spots during the Super Bowl: They aren't products and nobody needs persuation to take advantage of them. Urgh. Why must you anticommercialists commercialize everything so?

Can a barter economy work, that is, one that ran on pure credit? Proudhon's Bank of the People was a farsighted experiment that would have demonstrated the superiority of a barter economy. The idea was to assemble working people of diverse skills such that anything anyone needed could be provided by someone else. Credits would be defined for the value of work or goods, whether carpentry, milk, health care, tailored goods, or whatever. Defining the values would not be diffficult, after all, we do this with dollars already, except that instead of receiving flat rates they would receive true value. In Proudhon's Bank there would be no money, no interest or profits, and no absentee owners of the same -- it would simply facilitate the flow of goods in a near frictionless manner.

In such a system taxes could not be collected in terms of money, but only in terms of credit dollars towards human labor. Nor could interest be collected, since this also represents profit. The capitalisation of wealth, which holds human labor in suspension and diverts it to the whims of a few, rather than the needs of the many, would not be facilitated. Napoleon, who had considerable capitalized wealth, had Proudhon imprisoned for a trumped-up charge of slander just prior to the opening of the Bank -- and the grand experiment collapsed before it began.

No offense to Mr. Proudhon, who I don't doubt was a perfectly wonderful guy, but: The gist of these paragraphs is "It hasn't been tried, ever. So it must work." Or, more charitably: "Given that only one person has attempted this system [Sparta, for now, doesn't count], and he almost got started, you can't really prove that it won't function." Maybe those paragraphs would have been better used had they presented a warning: The road ahead is difficult, there are many people with interests opposed to yours, and they will use legal and extralegal means to thwart you. So think twice, or start small.

The figure below illustrates the concept generically for any company that produces goods that are affected by supply and demand, and economies of scale. In theory, a company could boost production to the maximum by allowing profits to approach zero. This necessitates increasing employment and increasing sales by improving quality.

Yep. You heard what the chart said: Those naughty corporations are making huge profits by keeping the unemployment rate at 50%. Only off by one order of magnitude, which I doubt "Marx the Mathemetician" would find acceptable. But who cares? We're serving The People, here!

Unanswered is the question of how consumerism will be vanquished by producing twice as many consumer goods, and putting more people in a position to buy them. Fortunately, utopias rarely have to deal with that particular problem. Whew.

At this point, I kind of give up. We're talking about "Profitless Capitalism," which is illustrated by this helpful graphic:

Woosh! Swoosh! Lookit all them arrows! It's gotta be good!


I only glanced at the ANTI-CAPITALISM site at first. It didn't really seem worthwhile. But, just before I moved on, something stopped me: A popup. I got a popup. For a casino. On a site devoted to ANTI-CAPITALISM.

Oh well. Gotta make a profit somehow, don't they?


This is the Byrne's Eye View. Not to be confused with previous incarnations thereof, which included, but were not limited to, a series of political one-liners that fooled just about everybody (conservatives were sure I was conservative, liberals knew -- in their bleeding, liberal hearts -- I was liberal), a rambling, discursive monologue on what I did today, what I ate today, who I saw today, etc., etc., etcetera...



Actually, I concede that this will be very much like that. In fact, this will be precisely that, except that I'll eventually let my parents read this one and presumably they'll Shanghai all their friends into reading it, too, so by my first month I'll be some kind of SlashdaPundiLileksKosFiles. Dot com.

Which is, frankly, fine with me. I don't mind attention, I can handle adulation, and given that I've started two of the last three clauses with 'I', I can the fawning self-love a blog both requires and engenders. As the burst of hopefully-untypoed links demonstrates, I can do all the HTML I need to succeed in the blogosphere, at 70 words per minute I can fill the screen with drivel in no time, and, well, I suppose those are all the criteria for blogging.

Besides content, which kind of writes itself. I mean, live, talk, go home, write, publish. This isn't too difficult. As for where 'home' is: I'm a St. Louisan for the next few months, after which I move to Arizona. And, moving backwards, 'I' am Byrne, 18 years old, just graduated from high school, heading off to college, planning to major in Finance, and typing like mad. You'll figure out the rest one post at a time.