Tuesday, September 29, 2009

How Many Starbucks?

I was reading Barry Ritholtz's blog "The Big Picture" today, and he spoke of a discussion another blog, call kottke.org, was having about how many Starbuck's are within 5 miles of your location. So, Ritholtz entered his address in the Starbucks locator and number came up an amazing 215. That is not an misprint. Of course, he lives in Manhattan. I live on the outer edge of Boulder, a town of 103k. My total was 13. How many near you? Leave a comment.

Brings to mind the classic film "Best in Show", where the yuppie couple met at Starbucks.....but not the same Starbucks, they were at 2 different ones across the street when their eyes met.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Some Monday Thoughts

Watched the first part of Ken Burns' "The National Parks" on PBS, and I will be catching the rest of it through the rest of the week (still using the primitive technology of the VCR to make sure I catch it all). It reminded me of what an amazing place Yellowstone is. If you have never visited a National Park, then get off your ass and go find one, and the best of the many I've been to is Yellowstone, which has everything you could want in such a place....spectacular scenery, geological wonders and weirdness, bears, moose, elk, wolves and bison.

The baseball season has one week to go, and the Rockies magic number for the playoffs is 5. They have returned to earth lately, after playing far better than the probably are during the summer. I do wonder, however, when the national sports media will discover Troy Tulowitzki. He is a shortstop who bats cleanup with 30 homers and 88 RBI, and plays great D. If he were playing on either coast he would be hailed as the "Next Cal Ripken".

Finally, I will be appearing in a play for the first time since 8th grade this November. It is called "The Man Who Never Died", and is about labor organizer Joe Hill. I play an incompetent sleezy lawyer. I figured after all these years of getting paid to be an "actor" I should do at least one play, although rehearsing and learning lines are not in my usual showbiz repertoire.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Economics and Beer

Thanks to Fiona for sending along this concise little PRI piece that discusses world economics as viewed through a beer glass. Listen to it HERE.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

The Food Dude

On September 12, a man died who whose death should have gotten about 100 times the publicity of Micheal Jackson and Ted Kennedy's deaths combined. Of course, I am speaking of Norman Borlaug.


The Economist, in their obituary, calls Borlaug "feeder of the world", but I think "Food Dude" is a lot cooler. He is the man primarily responsible for developing new strains of wheat in various parts of the world, allowing much of the poor world to be able to feed themselves. His work allowed Mexico to become food self-sufficient for the first time in 1956. He was responsible for the "green revolution" in India that did the same thing, and won a Nobel price in 1970. In short, his work allowed the world to greatly in increase food production, avoiding for who knows how long a Malthusian disaster.

Avoid a what?

Thomas Malthus was an early Economist who predicted that, in a nutshell, populations would grow to a point where it was impossible to feed everyone with the earth's resources. Here's a quote from his theory on population:

The power of population is so superior to the power of the earth to produce subsistence for man, that premature death must in some shape or other visit the human race. The vices of mankind are active and able ministers of depopulation. They are the precursors in the great army of destruction, and often finish the dreadful work themselves. But should they fail in this war of extermination, sickly seasons, epidemics, pestilence, and plague advance in terrific array, and sweep off their thousands and tens of thousands. Should success be still incomplete, gigantic inevitable famine stalks in the rear, and with one mighty blow levels the population with the food of the world.

While Malthus has yet to be close to correct over 200 years after this dire prediction, he is probably most responsible for Economics being known as "The Dismal Science". So, he's got that going for him, which is nice.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Tom Friedman Strikes Again

NY Times columnist Thomas Friedman has been writing well thought out, brilliant books and articles about world affairs for many years. He is fair, thoughtful, and not held hostage to any particular political doctrine. In other words, he actually thinks about problems and how to solve them best. Therefore, he has ideas that are both brilliant and quite sensible. So, you can be pretty sure that politicians will continue to ignore him, as he both makes sense and does not foam at the mouth, which apparently is the only way the public and our politicians will pay any attention to a commentator. What a shame, because, as today's column shows, Friedman makes sense.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Lewis Black is back and angrier!

Lewis Black has been doing hilarious commentary on The Daily Show for many years, most of it screaming angry rants. So he is happy that America is also raging crazy now. Enjoy!
The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Back in Black - Angry Outbursts
Daily Show
Full Episodes
Political HumorHealthcare Protests

Stop the Punting!

It is hard not to laugh at how conservative NFL coaches are in their decisions. Even to the casual observer, it is clear that they have much more fear of a bad thing happening than they do hope for a good thing. Anyone who watches a game with me will hear the words "effing idiotic wimp" whenever a coach chooses to punt from the opponents 37 on 4th and 2.

It turns out that my gut reaction is also statistically correct. And, it is even more correct if you are discussing this decision at the college or high school level, where the results of a punt or field goal attempt are less sure than in the NFL.

There is a short article in Sport Illustrated this week called "Just Go For It" about a high school coach in Arkansas named Kevin Kelley who never punts or tries field goals, and also tries and on-sides kick on every kick off. His reason? He has done the numbers and determined that the potential gains from going for it are greater than the potential losses of failing. He's done the numbers and calculated the probabilities. Oh, and he wins a lot more games than he losses.

Meahwhile, over at the NY Times, stats geek Brain Murray has done his own study, and concluded that NFL coaches are far more conservative than probability models would suggest they should be. This is the same conclusion University of California economist David Romer came to a few years ago when he studied the same thing. You can read his whole paper here if you are so inclined.

So, why are these otherwise macho guys such wimps when it comes to risk? I would agree with what others have postulated: that coaches do what everyone else does so they don't get fired if a riskier decision goes wrong. It is also likely that most of them have never done the math, and that is they took a stats class in college they might have slept through it.

I read something about this a few years ago, and it turns out the NFL coach who goes for it most often on 4th down is Bill Belichick. Why? Maybe it's because his job is certainly very secure, or perhaps it has something to do with the fact that he has a degree in Economics.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Inglorious Basterds

Saw Quentin Tarantino's "Inglorious Basterds" last night. Another amusing and very violent film from Tarantino that was a bit too long. Great dialague and interesting characters, but Tarantino seems to have reached the point where he is now too big to be edited. No reason for this film to run 150 minutes. Actually, he reached that point a few years ago with "Kill Bill", which should have been edited into 1 normal length film, not 2 drawn out mediocre films.

Now, the question is, how many people are seeing this movie and wondering about it's historical accuracy?

Monday, September 14, 2009

Trade is Good. This is bad.

The WSJ today reports that protectionist measures are rising world wide, which will result in a 10% decrease in global trade in 2009. Smoot-Hawley lives, apparently.

Trade is Good!!! TRADE IS GOOD!!!

Better than watching football.

Since it appears that my Buffalo Bills are about to embark on a 16 game march towards the number 1 draft pick, it might be a good idea for me to find something to do on Sundays that is better than watching football. Even though the Bills don't play until this evening, I did one of those things yesterday.

It had been a few years since I'd gone up to Rocky Mountain National Park for Elk Bugling season. Every Fall, the male elk round up as many females for mating purposes as possible by letting out a loud, high-pitched noise and showing off their racks. If you've never been in Colorado for this, you need to come and check it out.

Yesterday we had a great day of elk watching. First, on the way to the park we happened upon 4 young bighorn sheep, enjoying the grass along the side of the road. Then, while we were on a short hike before elk time (they tend to become most active a little before dusk) a good size, brightly colored red fox ran about 10 feet away from us. So, we had already chalked up some bonus critters before the elk show even started.

Not only did we see a bunch of large elk belting out their mating noise, but we also saw 2 young males going antler to antler in a process they apparently do to show off to the young ladies what good mating partners they are. This looks kind of like a couple of wrestlers locked head to head. It is pretty common to see the elk bugle, but not all that common to happen upon he antler wrestling.

We also saw a few females who switched guys......when we first saw them they were with one male, but they then wandered across the street to another dude, who then chased off the other males around.

Nature. Pretty cool stuff. If only there had been a guy with a telestrator and instant replay to explain it to us.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Looking at problems from another angle

Two stories in today's NYT that deal with different but important issues, but take an approach to them that differs from what Congress is debating.

First is an op-ed piece by Micheal Pollan, a healthy diet guru who has authored several books on the crap that we eat. He would like to see the horrible diet of Americans added to the health care debate. In particular, he is rightfully upset over the fact that our tax dollars subsidize the production of corn, which becomes high-fructose corn syrup, which is incredibly bad for us.
But so far, food system reform has not figured in the national conversation about health care reform. And so the government is poised to go on encouraging America’s fast-food diet with its farm policies even as it takes on added responsibilities for covering the medical costs of that diet. To put it more bluntly, the government is putting itself in the uncomfortable position of subsidizing both the costs of treating Type 2 diabetes and the consumption of high-fructose corn syrup.

Clearly, eating better will not cure all the ills of our health care system, but it sure would help. We subsidize corn, which is not good for us, but not broccoli. In other words, our tax dollars go to making us less healthy, which then costs us more in health care. Could we be more stupid?

Meanwhile, Congress is also debating a "cap and trade" system to reduce greenhouse gasses that cause global warming. A story in the Times business section notes that some countries in Europe, which has had a cap and trade system for several years, are now considering taxing carbon emissions directly instead. The first line in the story says it all:
Economists have long seen a carbon tax as a good idea because of its simplicity: Polluters pay at a level that is set by decree.

It is clear that a tax is a much more fair and simple way to decrease carbon emissions than cap and trade. But since merely saying the word "tax" will cost an American politician his next election, we will instead get a costly, ineffective, and probably corrupt system instead. And it will allow politicians to give out the right to pollute to the industries in their districts. We need to realize that "TAX" is not a bad word when placed on something that is clearly bad for society (we call that "negative externalities" in econ talk!).

Monday, September 7, 2009

Stuff you might have missed this weekend.

While you were out enjoying the Labor Day weekend, we here at The Tall Thin Guy were diligently scouring the intellectual world for important work......okay, we were mostly drinking beer, but we did stumble across 2 interesting pieces in the online print media that are well worth reading.

First and foremost is Paul Krugman's article in the NY Times Magazine section called "How did Economists Get It So Wrong". This is a long but interesting story about the history of macroeconomics, and will leave you with the impression that these guys have no idea what they are talking about. He's particularly harsh on the Chicago school of Economics, the true believers that markets are always right despite all the evidence to the contrary. Worth the time to read it. It will give you an idea how dismal the Dismal Science really is.

And if you weren't frightened by the idea of President Sarah Palin already, you need to read Max Blumenthal's article from The Daily Beast "Inside Sarah's Church". If you can read this and still not conclude that she is batshit crazy, then you may just be batshit crazy yourself. Frightening!

Hope your holiday weekend was more festive than mine.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Portugal's success with liberalized drug laws

I have been harping on health care for a while, and ignoring one of my other favorite subjects, our moronic war on drugs. The Economist has a story this week about a report from the Cato Institute claiming that things have improved in many ways in the 8 years since Portugal decriminalized drugs. More addicts feel comfortable getting treatments, AIDS cases among drug users is down, and there has been no rise in drug usage as a result. In Portugal now, drug users are treated as people with a disease that needs treatment, not criminals. Read the Economist story here.

Or, you can read the complete Cato Institute report HERE. Here is a quote from the summary at the beginning of the report:
decriminalization has had no adverse effect on drug usage rates in Portugal, which, in numerous categories, are now among the lowest in the EU, particularly when compared with states with stringent criminalization regimes. Although postdecriminalization usage rates have remained roughly the same or even decreased slightly when compared with other EU states, drug-related pathologies — such as sexually transmitted diseases and deaths due to drug usage — have decreased dramatically. Drug policy experts attribute those positive trends to the enhanced ability of the Portuguese government to offer treatment programs to its citizens — enhancements made possible, for numerous reasons, by decriminalization.

One weakness of this report is that it contains no data on the amounts of money spent by taxpayers under the current system as opposed to before decriminalization. It would be interesting to know if Portugal is getting these results and also spending less taxpayer money on drug issues, as one might guess.

I am not in agreement with the libertarians at the Cato Institute on too many issues, but when it comes to the war on drugs, these guys are right on the mark.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Smoke gets in your eyes......from far away!

It's been very hazy here on the usually sunny and clear Front Range of Colorado the past few days. Yesterday when I was out riding I thought that the sky last looked as it did when we were having large fires in nearby forests.

Well, it turns out I was right. The Daily Camera reports that the haze covering Boulder is the result of smoke getting into the jetstream and being swept here from Utah and California fires. In fact, it is enough smoke for it to be unhealthy for some folks to go outside.

This is a reminder that in matters of the environment, there is no such thing as a local issue. You burn coal in Wyoming, it effects people everywhere. You pollute the river in Pittsburgh, and it pollutes the water everywhere. You cut down your forest, and it raises the temperature all over the world. Some people think all decisions like this should be local, but that is ridiculous. We are all on this planet together, and we impact each other with our actions.

Finally, the comic Prickly City is picking on Economists this week. I can't get it to embed properly, so you can enjoy it HERE.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

A Scary Moment and Advice from an Economist

2 things today that are not at all connected:

First, earlier today I witnessed a woman fall off her bike while riding down the hill near my house. Well, I didn't really witness it, I heard it. I was riding up the hill with my head down, and she was riding down when I heard a thud, looked up, and saw her lying face down in the street about 100 yards away. A woman working in her yard got to here before me, and I quickly pulled out my phone and called 911, even before I saw the blood on her head. She hadn't moved in the time it took me to ride up to her. By the time the paramedics arrived, she had rolled over and was breathing, but didn't know her name or what happened. I am pretty sure she had a concussion, but did not appear to injured anywhere else. None of us actually saw her fall, so we don't know what made her go down, but there was nothing in the road she would have hit, and no other vehicles near her. We did, however, notice her I-phone lying in the street next to her. I see far too many people using their phones to talk or text while riding their bikes, or driving their cars.

On a happier note, Fiona sent me this story from NPR "Pricelss Advice from "The Undercover Economist". This guy writes an advice column in the Financial Times, giving advice about every day issues to folks from an Economists perspective. You may want to pay particular attention to his advice about choosing the right gift, siting the classic Deadweight Loss of Xmas. I have added a link to his column on the right.