When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro. - Hunter S. Thompson

31 January 2008

Forbes: America's Most Miserable Cities

Imagine living in a city with the country's highest rate for violent crime and the second-highest unemployment rate. As an added kicker you need more Superfund dollars allocated to your city to clean up contaminated toxic waste sites than just about any other metro.

Unfortunately, this nightmare is a reality for the residents of Detroit. The Motor City grabs the top spot on Forbes' inaugural list of America's Most Miserable Cities.

Forbes.com - Worst Places: America's Most Miserable Cities

And the complete top ten:

1. Detroit, MI
2. Stockton, CA
3. Flint, MI
4. New York City
5. Philadelphia, PA
6. Chicago, IL
7. Los Angeles, CA
8. Modesto, CA
9. Charlotte, NC
10. Providence, RI

You know, I live very happily in New York City, and have enjoyed the time I've spent in Chicago, including a year living in the northern 'burbs.

And any methodology that objectively ranks Los Angeles as *less miserable* than NYC is inherently suspect in my book.

Obama the Hawaiian

"To envision a world where racial identity is more fluid, where men and women are more mobile, and where segregation is a thing of the past is not to envision a post-racial world. Obama knows this, as anyone who has lived in Hawaii must."
Allegra Goodman, Honolulu Diarist, The New Republic

29 January 2008

More on credit derivatives

Further to an earlier post:

28 January 2008

Derivatives, unintended consequences, and perverse incentives

A boom in the use of derivatives is giving creditors strong incentives to push troubled companies into bankruptcy rather than help rescue them, according to new research and industry experts.

A study by academics Henry Hu and Bernard Black concludes that, thanks to explosive growth in credit derivatives, debt-holders such as banks and hedge funds have often more to gain if companies fail than if they survive. The study suggests this development could endanger the stability of the financial system.

The findings highlight a crucial problem in corporate restructuring when more and more companies are facing financial difficulties. According to the research and industry practitioners, creditors have a strong interest in voting against a restructuring plan if they have bought credit or loan default swaps, which trigger payments when a company fails.


The problem is compounded by creditors not having to disclose derivatives positions, making it very difficult for companies and regulators to find out their real intentions.

Financial Times (ft.com): Derivatives boom raises risk of forced bankruptcy for companies (28 Jan 2008)

A "derivative financial transaction" is one that has no inherent value in and of itself; its value is derived from some aspect(s) of the underlying instruments or commodities.

The very first derivative transactions were options and futures in the agricultural commodities market: allowing a farmer to lock in a sale price for a crop that was still in the fields, for instance.

Derivatives transactions are, by their very nature, designed to transfer risk from one party to another at an appropriate price. Even as they have grown more exotic and incorporated vast amounts of leverage, it is arguable that their presence in the financial markets has been a net positive for the world.

But leverage is a tricky thing. The notional value of the world OTC derivatives market as of December 2007 was over $500 trillion (half a quadrillion) dollars, and the "gross market value" (the cost of replacing all open contracts at the prevailing market prices) was over $11 trillion; by way of reference, the annual GDP of the United States was "only" $13.3 trillion in 2006.

Even a small change in the underlying value that a derivatives contract is based on, under the right circumstances, can have massive repercussions.

And as derivatives become more and more abstracted from the instruments of underlying value, unintended consequences seem to be the sure result.

It's arguably good for the economy to allow counterparties to use credit default swaps to insure against payment-default risk.

But does anyone think it's good public policy that--as a net result of some of these complex transactions--we encourage creditors to force possibly-viable companies into bankruptcy because they (the creditors) are holding markers for a bet that will only pay off if that happens?

Wikipedia master article on derivatives

Articles on specific subtypes:
  • Futures/Forwards, which are contracts to buy or sell an asset at a specified future date.
  • Options, which are contracts that give a holder the right (but not the obligation) to buy or sell an asset at a specified future date.
  • Swaps, where the two parties agree to exchange cash flows.
"Unless derivatives contracts are collateralized or guaranteed, their ultimate value also depends on the creditworthiness of the counterparties to them. In the meantime, though, before a contract is settled, the counterparties record profits and losses -often huge in amount- in their current earnings statements without so much as a penny changing hands. The range of derivatives contracts is limited only by the imagination of man (or sometimes, so it seems, madmen)." -- Warren Buffett, Annual Report to Berkshire Hathaway shareholders, 2002

26 January 2008

We have to be more clever

Marc Andreesen:

Risk Magazine -- the finance industry magazine focused on risk management -- presented, this very month, its Equity Derivatives House of the Year award for 2008 to... ta daa... Societe Generale.

Whoof. They sure did:
With one of the largest exotics books on the Street, one would imagine that Société Générale Corporate and Investment Banking (SG CIB) would be licking its wounds and coping with hundreds of millions of euros in losses. There was some impact, but the losses have been relatively minor and entirely manageable, says Christophe Mianne, SG CIB's head of market activities, covering equity, derivatives, fixed income, currency and commodities in Paris.
Risk Magazine - Equity Derivatives House of the Year - Société Générale

Of course, Risk has a new story at the top of its website right now... and it's an interview with M. Mianne:

24 January - The Société Générale rogue trader knew "perfectly" how to conceal his trades with a combination of fictitious trades and rolling forward positions, according to Christophe Mianné, the new head of global equities and derivatives, who spoke exclusively to Risk today.

The unauthorised trades in European equity index futures had been going on for "a few months" in 2007, Mianné said, but "the losses were just in 2008".

"Why didn’t we see that? Because he was working before at the middle and back office and knew perfectly how to hide the positions with some fictitious transactions on, let’s say, forwards on indexes, and in terms of the VAR spread test, delta every night on the position was zero." One of the techniques he used, Mianné said, involved rolling 30-day forward positions, which were unwound just before confirmation and replaced by forwards with different counterparties. "He was very clever," he adds, "but that's not an excuse, because we have to be more clever."

Earth2Tech: How to Index Your Cleantech Investments

With the launch of the FTSE ET50 Index, which is devoted to following 50 large cleantech stocks from around the globe, Wall Street has gone from spotting a trend to beating it to death with specialized financial products. There are now more than three dozen clean technology or sustainable energy funds, and many of them contain companies that overlap.

Earth2Tech: How to Index Your Cleantech Investments

I have a (very!) modest stake in a Powershares ETF (PBW) based on the WilderHill Clean Energy Index, one of the first "cleantech" indexes.

At this stage of the game, picking individual companies for investment in this industry sector would seem almost impossible. Investing in clean energy through an index fund or similarly-structured ETF seems to make the most sense... but don't forget the dirty energy while you're at it; ExxonMobil and Shell are set to post record profits for 2007.

A global, multicivilizational, multipolar battle

The more we appreciate the differences among the American, European and Chinese worldviews, the more we will see the planetary stakes of the new global game. Previous eras of balance of power have been among European powers sharing a common culture. The cold war, too, was not truly an “East-West” struggle; it remained essentially a contest over Europe. What we have today, for the first time in history, is a global, multicivilizational, multipolar battle.


To understand the second world, you have to start to think like a second-world country. What I have seen in these and dozens of other countries is that globalization is not synonymous with Americanization; in fact, nothing has brought about the erosion of American primacy faster than globalization. While European nations redistribute wealth to secure or maintain first-world living standards, on the battlefield of globalization second-world countries’ state-backed firms either outhustle or snap up American companies, leaving their workers to fend for themselves. The second world’s first priority is not to become America but to succeed by any means necessary.

Waving Goodbye To Hegemony (New York Times Magazine, Parag Khanna, 27 Jan 2008)


New on the blogroll: Kaboom: A Soldier's War Journal.

Thugs and The Wire redux

Sudhir Venkatesh is still watching The Wire with a posse of retired thugs and posting updates to the Freakonomics blog:
Thugs don’t cry.

At least that’s what I was told when I hung out in the projects.

This ghetto legend was quickly dispelled when I watched episode three of
The Wire with the usual cast of thugs from New York and New Jersey — ex-gang members and drug dealers who prided themselves on being impervious to emotional outbursts. These weren’t supposed to be girlie men.

But as soon as Butchie received the first of two gunshots to the knee, about 40 minutes into the show, a pall was cast over the assembled crew. Shine began the love-fest: “Oh sh-t! I can’t believe they f—ed with my man. And I had tall respect for Snoop.” He was referring to one of two henchmen Marlo had sent to forcibly obtain information from Butchie. “Never thought I’d see the day.”

25 January 2008

Our man in Mérida

Phil at The Archer Pelican is visiting Mexico for a few months, and he's doing some fascinating travelblogging. Check it out.

A newsfeed for your block

Everyblock scrapes information from a bunch of different sources and gives you an aggregated newsfeed of what's going on around your house or apartment. It's currently available for Chicago, New York, and San Francisco:
We aim to collect all of the news and civic goings-on that have happened recently in your city, and make it simple for you to keep track of news in particular areas. We're a geographic filter -- a "news feed" for your neighborhood, or, yes, even your block.

At this time, we cover three American cities: Chicago, New York and San Francisco. On each site, you can type in any address to read local news and public information near you. You'll find three main types of news:

  • Civic information -- building permits, crimes, restaurant inspections and more. In many cases, this information is already on the Web but is buried in hard-to-find government databases. In other cases, this information has never been posted online, and we've forged relationships with governments to make it available.
  • News articles and blog entries -- major newspapers, community weeklies, TV and radio news stations, local specialty publications and local blogs. We do the work of classifying articles by geography, so you can easily find the mainstream media coverage near particular locations.
  • Fun from across the Web -- local photos posted to the Flickr photo-sharing site, user reviews of local businesses on Yelp, missed connections from Craigslist and more. We figure out the relevant places and point you to location-specific items you might not have known about.
Here's what's going on in my neck of the woods.


24 January 2008

Making a living off the idiocy of big Wall Street firms

Michael Lewis explains how Goldman Sachs made a pile of money shorting the subprime mortgage market... even though its own traders were locked into very painful and costly long positions:
The only difference between Goldman and everyone else was that Goldman had, in effect, an entirely separate enterprise, sitting on top of the firm, with the power to reverse the judgment of its own supposed experts in various markets. They were able to do this, apparently, without ever saying a word about it to their own traders. Instead of telling the fools trading subprime mortgages that they are wrong, and that they should unwind their positions, they simply offset their trades.

Rolling Heads

All across Wall Street risk managers are being fired, reassigned or hovering under a cloud of contempt and suspicion. Heads must roll, and after the CEO, these guys are the most plausible to guillotine.

But at the same time it's pretty clear that a lot of these so-called risk managers never really had the power to manage risk. They had to consider the feelings, for example, of the guys who ran subprime mortgages. Morgan Stanley conceded as much when it said recently it was considering changing things around so that the risk manager reported to the CFO, rather than the heads of individual businesses.

But at Goldman there were two intelligences at work: one, the ordinary Wall Street intelligence, which was allowed to get itself in trouble, just as at every other Wall Street firm; the other, more like an extremely smart hedge fund that made its living off the idiocy of big Wall Street firms, including its own people.

Bloomberg.com: What Does Goldman Know That We Don't? (Michael Lewis)

via Kottke

20 January 2008

Bad Usability Calendar

My Norwegian friend Eidar just wrote to inform me that their company (Netlife Research) has finally released Bad Usability Calendar 2008. Last year, the calendar got quite popular and even Jakob Nielsen mentioned it in one of his newsletters.

This year, I’m more than ever looking forward to use it. The calendar has — as always — 12 brilliant examples of how not to build a calendar.

justaddwater.dk: Bad Usability Calendar 2008

calendar excerpt

The Bad Usability Calendar

19 January 2008

Escape IVR voicejail with profanity

Reader Martin writes:

Many IVR (interactive voice response) systems are programmed to recognize key words. Among those keywords are frequently a list of swear words, like the FCC's dirty 7. When asked to respond, use on of those epithets and you will likely be transferred directly to a live human being.

It certainly doesn't have the relaxed sophistication of GetHuman, but if it gets the job done... as they say, the squeaky wheel gets the grease. I gave it a try this morning, and I'll let you know how it went after the jump.

After calling a couple phone numbers with IVR systems and not having too much luck (I could have been saying anything, as long as it wasn't on their menu they were confused). But my third try did the trick. The IVR operator gave me a list of options, I said, "F*@#!" and he said: "I think you said you want to talk to a customer service agent. Is this correct?"

Customer Service: Skip straight to the operator with your dirty mouth (Lifehacker)

GetHuman really is the bomb, by the way, if you don't want to try the above technique, say, at work where colleagues are listening.

New and improved prevarication

Lying is a time-honored strategy for misleading someone; it's wonderfully effective in the short term, and if you construct the lie well enough, it will hold up brilliantly over time... at least to the extent that you can fool some of the people all of the time, as Honest Abe had it.

But most of us aren't that smart.

A much better plan is to stick to the truth, but be extremely selective about the information you share. In other words, "don't tell everything you know."

Cherrypicking the facts that support your argument gives you the appearance of intellectual honesty, with most of the advantages you'd have obtained by lying in the first place.

Just ask the drug companies:

The makers of antidepressants like Prozac and Paxil never published the results of about a third of the drug trials that they conducted to win government approval, misleading doctors and consumers about the drugs’ true effectiveness, a new analysis has found.

In published trials, about 60 percent of people taking the drugs report significant relief from depression, compared with roughly 40 percent of those on placebo pills. But when the less positive, unpublished trials are included, the advantage shrinks: the drugs outperform placebos, but by a modest margin, concludes the new report, which appears Thursday in The New England Journal of Medicine.

Previous research had found a similar bias toward reporting positive results for a variety of medications; and many researchers have questioned the reported effectiveness of antidepressants. But the new analysis, reviewing data from 74 trials involving 12 drugs, is the most thorough to date. And it documents a large difference: while 94 percent of the positive studies found their way into print, just 14 percent of those with disappointing or uncertain results did.

Antidepressant studies unpublished (New York Times, 19 January 2008)

14 January 2008

Malignant symphony

Berger has been working with cancer researchers and mathematicians on non-invasive ways to detect cancer. Instead of doing a biopsy, you can do things like medical [sic] resonance imaging, also known as MRIs. But the problem is that MRIs give you so much information, it's hard to know what to do with it. In a visual form, it's virtually impossible to separate the important data from the meaningless stuff.

So, Berger assigned different sounds to different data points. "Imagine there's an orchestra of one hundred players, and each of those points is mapped to one of those orchestra players," he says. Essentially, he's creating a symphony based on the information contained in the cells. And our ears can tell the difference between a benign symphony, which is a low, pulsing beat...

And then there's a tinnier, more bell-like, malignant symphony...

The Sound of Cancer, and Golf - Weekend America (American Public Media)

12 January 2008

Ron Paul and those newsletters

WOLF BLITZER today, speaking in gerund phrases, examining the Ron Paul newsletter controversy, interviewing the Republican presidential candidate, who claims not only that he had no hand in writing numerous racist and homophobic items that appeared under his name over a period of years, but that he does not know—or care—who did write them.

Mr Paul is probably not himself a racist, and many of the sentiments he expresses in his CNN interview are admirable. It is equally plausible that the hateful items published in his newsletter, so different in style from the congressman's own speech and writing, are not his handiwork. But his protestations of ignorance, both about what was being disseminated on his behalf and who was responsible, are much harder to credit...

...[A]ccording to numerous veterans of the libertarian movement, it was an open secret during the late-80s and early-90s who was ghostwriting the portions of Mr Paul's newsletters not penned by the congressman himself: Lew Rockwell, founder of the Ludwig von Mises Institute, and members of his staff, among them Jeffrey Tucker, now editorial vice president of the Institute...

...[I]f the person responsible for spreading venom under his name for many years remains a close associate, it suggests that Mr Paul is at least prepared to countenance pandering to racists, however respectable his own views. The candidate owes his supporters a far more complete explanation than he has thus far provided.

Democracy In America blog - The Rockwell Files - 11 Jan 2008


When the best-case scenario is "I didn't know what was going out under my name," and the worst-case scenario is somewhere on the spectrum from Dr. Paul being a passive enabler of racists to cynically pandering to racists to actively holding and espousing racist beliefs...


I've defended Dr. Paul in the past from accusations of extremism--including on this blog--and I still maintain that a certain percentage of nutty supporters do not, of necessity, a nutty candidate make.

But a much fuller and much more transparent explanation for this sordid business of the newsletters is called for. What we've heard so far are nothing but credulity-straining evasions, particularly repellent coming from a man who claims to espouse a philosophy that values personal responsibility.

I am disappointed, and embarrassed, to learn this evident truth about a man I thought I admired.

Did Scottish people invent gospel music?

The church elder’s reaction was one of utter disbelief. Shaking his head emphatically, he couldn’t take in what the distinguished professor from Yale University was telling him.

"No," insisted Jim McRae, an elder of the small congregation of Clearwater in Florida. "This way of worshipping comes from our slave past. It grew out of the slave experience, when we came from Africa."

But Willie Ruff, an Afro-American professor of music at Yale, was adamant - he had traced the origins of gospel music to Scotland.

The distinctive psalm singing had not been brought to America’s Deep South by African slaves but by Scottish émigrés who worked as their masters and overseers, according to his painstaking research.


The academic began researching at the Sterling Library at Yale, one of the world’s greatest collections of books and papers. He found records detailing how Highlanders had settled in North Carolina in the 1700s. "I found evidence of slaves in North Carolina who could speak only Gaelic. I also heard the story of how a group of Hebrideans, on landing at Cape Fear, heard a Gaelic voice in the dialect of their village. When they rounded the corner they saw a black man speaking the language and assumed they too would turn that colour because of the sun. When I made these connections, I thought: ‘That’s it, I’m going to the Hebrides."
Black music from Scotland? It could be the gospel truth (Scotland on Sunday/The Scotsman)

(hat tip to brautigan @ MetaFilter... be sure to read his post, which includes links MP3s of the referenced song styles and many good comments)

"Obama is a secret Muslim who also belongs to a Christian church that practices black liberation theology..."

Dear [Mom's friend],

Mom had mentioned to me that you had received some e-mail(s) about Barack Obama. There are a lot of lies and half-truths in circulation about him now - and when you receive an e-mail that makes a bunch of outrageous claims and you want to fact-check them, the best website for that sort of thing is http://snopes.com.

I don't know which e-mail(s) you received, but here is Snopes's breakdown of the Obama e-mails in wide circulation:


In short, virtually anything you're likely to hear about any political candidate in an unsourced e-mail is highly likely to be complete bullshit.

Great seeing you - and thanks so much for the wonderful chicken salad...

All best,


10 January 2008

For those of you who came in late...

Catch up on four seasons of The Wire in four minutes:

Of course, all four seasons are now available on DVD - and well worth your time.

Expert opinion

Sociologist and street-gang expert Sudhir Venkatesh watches the new season of The Wire with some retired thugs:

Ever since I began watching HBO’s The Wire, I felt that the show was fairly authentic in terms of its portrayal of modern urban life — not just the world of gangs and drugs, but the connections between gangland and City Hall, the police, the unions, and practically everything else. It certainly accorded with my own fieldwork in Chicago and New York. And it was much better than most academic and journalistic reportage in showing how the inner city weaves into the social fabric of a city.

Last year, I learned a lot by watching a few episodes of The Wire with gang leaders in Chicago. So, a few weeks ago, I called a few respected street figures in the New York metro region to watch the upcoming fifth season. I couldn’t think of a better way to ensure quality control.

"What do real thugs think of The Wire?" - Freaknomics Blog @ NY Times

Sudhir, who specializes in the underground economy, has a new book coming out called Gang Leader For A Day. His last effort, Off The Books, was one of the best nonfiction books I read last year.

And, of course, The Wire is the Best. TV. Show. Ever.

A whiff of Nixonian self-pity

There was a poignancy about the moment, seeing Hillary crack with exhaustion from decades of yearning to be the principal rather than the plus-one. But there was a whiff of Nixonian self-pity about her choking up. What was moving her so deeply was her recognition that the country was failing to grasp how much it needs her. In a weirdly narcissistic way, she was crying for us. But it was grimly typical of her that what finally made her break down was the prospect of losing.
"Can Hillary Cry Her Way Back to The White House?" Maureen Dowd, The New York Times, January 9, 2008)

09 January 2008

The $1.4 Trillion Question

Through the quarter-century in which China has been opening to world trade, Chinese leaders have deliberately held down living standards for their own people and propped them up in the United States. This is the real meaning of the vast trade surplus—$1.4 trillion and counting, going up by about $1 billion per day—that the Chinese government has mostly parked in U.S. Treasury notes. In effect, every person in the (rich) United States has over the past 10 years or so borrowed about $4,000 from someone in the (poor) People’s Republic of China. Like so many imbalances in economics, this one can’t go on indefinitely, and therefore won’t. But the way it ends—suddenly versus gradually, for predictable reasons versus during a panic—will make an enormous difference to the U.S. and Chinese economies over the next few years, to say nothing of bystanders in Europe and elsewhere.

Any economist will say that Americans have been living better than they should—which is by definition the case when a nation’s total consumption is greater than its total production, as America’s now is. Economists will also point out that, despite the glitter of China’s big cities and the rise of its billionaire class, China’s people have been living far worse than they could. That’s what it means when a nation consumes only half of what it produces, as China does.

Neither government likes to draw attention to this arrangement, because it has been so convenient on both sides. For China, it has helped the regime guide development in the way it would like—and keep the domestic economy’s growth rate from crossing the thin line that separates “unbelievably fast” from “uncontrollably inflationary.” For America, it has meant cheaper iPods, lower interest rates, reduced mortgage payments, a lighter tax burden. But because of political tensions in both countries, and because of the huge and growing size of the imbalance, the arrangement now shows signs of cracking apart.
The $1.4 Trillion Question (James Fallows, The Atlantic)

Pacifism as WoW strategy

Back in November 2007, columnist John Himes took a look at a special breed of [World of Warcraft] player who levels from 1 to 70 in a decidedly unconventional manner: hunters who only melee, a naked (well, except for his loincloth) warrior – and Noor the pacifist, who levels without intentionally killing anything. Now, this isn't the first time we've heard of players who've given this idea a whirl, but Noor, a gnome rogue on Maiev, and his Horde counterpart, Reinisch the undead priest, seem to have the gumption and persistence to make it to the top of the XP tree.
15 Minutes of Fame: Noor the Pacifist

(via Kottke)

08 January 2008

A dreamboat trip to an unknown destination

Cintra Wilson on the Iowa caucuses:

Americans are so romantic and/or brain-damaged by Hollywood narratives that they would rather gamble everything on a dreamboat trip to an unknown destination (Obama) than re-invest in an older, wiser, proven disappointment (Hillary). As a country, we are still haplessly immature and emotionally retarded by the Power of Dumb Mythology (i.e. the gratifyingly infantile World of Disney, as opposed to the hardcore and sometimes depressing Joseph Campbell). Our crazy-dreamer-style political decision-making is based on a totally optimistic disregard for actual politics, the learning process, and logic in general. We've been absolutely clobbered at the table in the last 6 years, but we're still voting from instinct instead of intellect. Americans would rather play Texas Hold'Em than learn to calculate probabilities... but the interesting and encouraging thing about Americans is that we will eventually learn to calculate probabilities by playing Texas Hold'Em.

It's our great talent, and only hope for competing with the stunningly self-abnegating, industrious groupthink of the Chinese: we still have the accidental genius that seems to happen when spoiled Americans overindulge themselves. Elvis. Madonna. Lowrider bicycles. Richard Pryor. Miles Davis. Gay fabulousness. Grand Theft Auto.

These are our proudest exports: bursts of louche creative expression that have always been slightly too controversial, sexy, and intoxicating for our politicians to get too close to.

07 January 2008

Bracing, like a shot of battery acid

Author George MacDonald Fraser, OBE (of the Flashman novels) died last week.

(Telegraph obituary here.)

Framing his parting shot for him, the Daily Mail ran an excerpt from Fraser's 2002 memoirs, The Light's On At Signpost.

It's an extended and vitriolic rant against political correctness, and I read it with something approaching pure pleasure:

I loathe all political parties, which I regard as inventions of the devil. My favourite prime minister was Sir Alec Douglas-Home, not because he was on the Right, but because he spent a year in office without, on his own admission, doing a damned thing.

This would not commend him to New Labour, who count all time lost when they're not wrecking the country.

I am deeply concerned for the United Kingdom and its future. I look at the old country as it was in my youth and as it is today and, to use a fine Scots word, I am scunnered.

I know that some things are wonderfully better than they used to be: the new miracles of surgery, public attitudes to the disabled, the health and well-being of children, intelligent concern for the environment, the massive strides in science and technology.

Yes, there are material blessings and benefits innumerable which were unknown in our youth.

But much has deteriorated. The United Kingdom has begun to look more like a Third World country, shabby, littered, ugly, run down, without purpose or direction, misruled by a typical Third World government, corrupt, incompetent and undemocratic.

My generation has seen the decay of ordinary morality, standards of decency, sportsmanship, politeness, respect for the law, family values, politics and education and religion, the very character of the British.

The last testament of Flashman's creator: How Britain has destroyed itself

Hat tip: Abu Muquwama

Venti McLatte

McDonald's is set to launch coffee bars with "baristas" serving cappuccinos and lattes, moving into direct competition with global coffee chain Starbucks, the Wall Street Journal reported on Monday.

McDonald's will install coffee bars at its 14,000 U.S. stores, incorporating theatrics similar to Starbucks' counters, displaying espresso machines and having baristas prepare drinks, the report said.

The report, citing internal documents from 2007, said the move will add $1 billion to McDonald's annual sales of $21.6 billion. McDonald's will also sell smoothies and bottled beverages, it said.

McDonald's Coffee Bars to Take on Starbucks: WSJ (Reuters via CNBC)

For WSJ subscribers (oh, man, I can't wait for Murdoch to take down the paywall), the original article is here.

Very pertinent excerpt from the WSJ article:
Hailing from very different corners of the restaurant world, the two chains have gradually encroached on each other's turf. McDonald's upgraded its drip coffee and its interiors, while Starbucks added drive-through windows and hot breakfast sandwiches.

The growing overlap between the chains shows how convenience has become the dominant force shaping the food-service industry. Consumers who are unwilling to cross the street to get coffee or make a left turn to grab lunch have pushed all food purveyors to adapt the strategies of fast-food chains.
And MSNBC wins "best headline" on this story: "Coffee Clash." Heh.

For what it's worth, the "upgraded" coffee at McDonald's is pretty good these days... when I'm on the road, I'm quite happy to have a cup of McDonald's coffee.

The fries are the only other thing on their entire menu that I'll consume.

"Middle class" at 150K/year

Why New Yorkers, with a completely straight face, talk about "affordable housing programs" for people earning in the low six figures:

Living in the city is becoming more unaffordable for the middle class, and not just in trendy Manhattan neighborhoods, where a two-bedroom apartment can cost about $1.5 million or rent for $3,500. Gentrification in parts of Brooklyn, Queens, Harlem and upper Manhattan is putting former middle- and working-class neighborhoods out of reach for many people.

Add a city and state tax burden that can approach 12% of income, and New Yorkers are being priced out of the city, which they don't want to leave.

Unaffordable NY: tough choices at $150,000 (Crain's New York Business)

I would add that since most of us rent, the best and most generous Federal tax deductions available to the middle class typically don't apply to us.

05 January 2008

2007 Year In Review

I don't "do" year-end reviews or best-of lists, as a general rule.

But you gotta admit, the opening line of this one is a grabber:
It was a year that strode boldly into the stall of human events and took a wide stance astride the porcelain bowl of history.

Dave Barry's year in review (Miami Herald, 28 Dec 2007)

Hat tip: Buck

Motion Mountain

How do objects and images move? How can animals move? What is motion?

How does a rainbow form?
Is levitation possible?
Do time machines exist?
What does 'quantum' mean?
What is the maximum force value found in nature?
Is 'empty space' really empty?
Is the universe a set?
Which problems in physics are still unsolved?

This site provides a free physics textbook that tells the story of how it became possible, after 2500 years of exploration, to answer such questions. The book is written for the curious: it is entertaining, surprising and challenging on every page.

With little mathematics, starting from observations of everyday life, the text explores the most fascinating parts of mechanics, thermodynamics, special and general relativity, electrodynamics, quantum theory and modern attempts at unification. The essence of these fields is summarized in the most simple terms. For example, the text presents modern physics as consequence of the notions of minimum entropy, maximum speed, maximum force, minimum change of charge and minimum action.

Download the text (21st edition, December 2007).


(via Cool Tools)

You think he's wearin' a vest?

Watching Obama's Iowa victory speech:
...But what I'm looking at here is different than the '88 election. Jesse had done surprisingly well, considering. But pulling off the Iowa shit that Obama did last night? A state with a 2.3% Black population and a 94% white majority? Oh, no. This was some “next-level” stuff I was watching. It took an eternity for Obama to get to the mic to speak, and in that eternity, I felt the muscles in my neck tense up...

...I found I couldn't really absorb or analyze the speech as I'd have liked. I was too busy checking out cameras in the crowd held aloft, and wondering about security. “Jesus, he gets so many people at his events! How the fuck is he gonna secure the venues? Ohhhhh man...”

...The phone rang, jarringly.

“Hello?”, I ask.

“You watching this?”, my friend “D” asked quietly.


“You think he's wearin' a vest?

A long beat from me. “Well...I'm sure he's got Secret Service protection.”

“Is he wearin' a vest to protect himself against those motherfuckers?“

“Well, if he didn't before tonight, he will be by tomorrow”, I replied.
This is a long, thoughtful post, well worth reading. It's a vivid glimpse into what a friend of mine calls "educated paranoia":
We have developed an unfortunate Pavlovian response to the repeated sight of our best and brightest being blown away like so many dandelion bits in the wind.

We have our moments of pride, and then...then, those uncontrollable palpitations. Worrying about when the ax will fall. Or the grenade. Or the bullet's sharp crack, the diving security and guests, and the inevitable cut to a shocked newsroom.
Group News Blog: Pride and Palpitations

Andrew Olmsted, RIP

Andy Olmsted, who was one of the authors at the excellent group blog Obsidian Wings, was killed Thursday in Iraq.

Known to blog-readers by his handle "G'Kar" (a character from the cult sci-fi television show Babylon 5) , in Iraq he was known as Major Andrew Olmsted, US Army.

When he deployed, he gave a "last post" to be published in the event of his death, to a colleague.

Here it is.

Update, 5 Jan:

03 January 2008

A Bloomberg run

Commenter Phil requests:
Would love to see your opinion on a Bloomberg run and a Bloomberg presidency. If you've already posted such elsewhere, please point me to the permalink!
Well, I might do that... but in the meantime, it would be hard to outdo the job Dave Weigel did over at Reason's Hit and Run blog.

02 January 2008

Get in the Glassbooth

Longtime enrevanche readers will be shocked, shocked to see this result:

Ron Paul shares a 77% similarity with your beliefs

Representative, (R-TX)
Ron Paul was born on August 29, 1936. He is a Republican from Texas. Paul has served 10 terms as a congressman from the 14th and 22nd districts of the U.S. House of Representatives. Prior to that he was a general physician in Lake Jackson, Texas. Paul placed third in the 1988 presidential election with a 0.5% of the vote, running as the Libertarian Party nominee--while remaining a registered Republican.
Register to Vote: Rock the Vote, powered by Working Assets Wireless
Crime and Punishment very similar find out why
Gun Control very similar find out why
Education very similar find out why
Medical Marijuana and Drug Policy very similar find out why
Civil Liberties and Domestic Security very similar find out why
Trade and Economics very similar find out why
Taxes and Budget very similar find out why
Health Care similar find out why
Iraq and Foreign Policy similar find out why
Environment and Energy different find out why
Social Security very different find out why

Get in the glassbooth and take the test for yourself.

(Hat tip: Tarus)

New on the blogroll: Third Party Watch

New entry on the blogroll to your right: Third Party Watch.

With the Ron Paul insurgency in the GOP, and Mike Bloomberg waiting in the wings, I have a feeling that TPW could be an even more interesting read than usual in 2008.

01 January 2008

Happy new year!

For the first post of 2008, a reminder that here at enrevanche, we're Not Afraid To Be Service-y:
For such a common malady, the hangover still has a bit of mystery about it. As an M.D. wrote in an NIH publication wrote a few years back, “Despite the prevalence of hangovers … this condition is not well understood scientifically.”

Still, it is possible to piece a few things out. Alcohol interferes with a hormone that regulates urination, leaving drinkers dehydrated, according to a hangover review in the Annals of Internal Medicine.

Booze irritates the stomach and intestines, which can contribute to the gut pain and nausea associated with hangover. It also interacts with several neurotransmitters and hormones that have been associated with headaches, though the hangover-headache connection isn’t entirely clear.

Anatomy of a Hangover: Wall Street Journal Health Blog