“Useless and necessary”: thoughts on Reflections on the Guillotine

I’m reading Reflections on the Guillotine by Camus. It’s phenomenal and disturbing, as I should have expected. This part really got to me:

The State cannot
escape the dilemma Beccaria described when he
wrote: “If it is important to give the people proofs of
power often, then executions must be frequent; but
crimes will have to be frequent too, and this will prove
that the death penalty does not make the complete impression
that it should, whence it results that it is both
useless and necessary.” What can the State do with a
penalty that is useless and necessary, except to hide it
without abolishing it? The State will keep it then, a little
out of the way, not without embarrassment, in the
blind hope that one man at least, one day at least, will
be stopped from his murderous gesture by thought of
the punishment and, without anyone’s ever knowing it,
will justify a law that has neither reason nor experience
in its favor.

There are other things that the US government does today besides the death penalty that are useless and necessary (for proving power). Here’s a short list of some examples:
1. excessive police force
2. TSA
3. guantanamo and related detention for enemies of the state
4. drone strikes
5. other military adventurism

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Thoughts on another arbitrary Simpsons anniversary

Today is the 20th anniversary of the Simpsons episode The Last Temptation of Krust.

That’s the episode where Krusty realized he’s completely out of touch and no longer the behemoth showbiz success he used to be. He has a moment of panicked clarity when he sees Bart’s room, overflowing with his merchandise.

View post on imgur.com

Anyone who knows me knows I’m a huge fan of The Simpsons. I consider the first 8 seasons to be among the best TV ever made, and I maintain that most of the episodes from that period hold up over 20 years later, even in the current TV renaissance of the last ten years or so.

Fewer people who know me know that my feelings about the rest of The Simpsons is much more tepid. I thought the movie was good the first time I saw it, but I’ve cooled on it. There are a few OK episodes from after season 8, but the decline in quality was rapid and consistent. Other people on the internet have detailed and chronicled this phenomenon much better than I can here.

In the episode, faced with his inability to freshen up his act, Krusty announces his retirement at a press conference. He opens with an excerpt from the poem “To an Athlete Dying Young” and is interrupted by one of the journalists.

View post on imgur.com

I watched The Last Temptation of Krust a few nights ago with Mary. It was OK. It has the legendary “Canyonero” sequence as a closing bit, which stands on its own as a great musical segment from around the golden era of The Simpsons. The rest of the episode really was just OK. Right after watching that we watched Who Shot Mr. Burns Part 1. It’s a bit unfair to compare, considering that’s one of the best Simpsons episodes ever, but the difference in quality was stunning.

I think The Last Temptation of Krust was a high point for season 9, but that season was part of the steady decline that the show never recovered from.

I don’t mind that The Simpsons isn’t as good as it was, I know there are plenty of people who still enjoy it. I just can’t because it’s so inferior to what it was before.

The next question Krusty gets from the press is

View post on imgur.com

Someone on Reddit mentioned that this anniversary would be a great time for The Simpsons to announce retirement. I don’t think that’s going to happen for the same reason it didn’t happen 20 years ago.

I don’t begrudge the enjoyment of folks who like current Simpsons. I just know that re-watching the early episodes is more than enough for me.

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My top ten tv shows

Originally posted here.

30 rock
arrested development
bojack horseman
community
it’s always sunny
parks and rec
rick and morty
simpsons
the wire
venture bros

 

preference order added on 8-21 for crybaby Eric:

simpsons
arrested development
bojack horseman
it’s always sunny
rick and morty
the wire
venture bros
parks and rec
30 rock
community

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Scarlett milestones for the day 2015-05-22

  • ambiturner: learned how to roll to the left (could already roll right)
  • began to occasionally yell for the fun of it
  • better at reaching for her toys
  • moved up to size two diapers
  • was very well behaved at the fitness center
  • had fun throwing toys out of her stroller while mom worked out
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My Star Wars ABCs

Mary found this article and thought it apropos to us right now, considering we’re expecting and we love Star Wars.

My response was more along the lines of “what’s he reading? Star Wars ABCs … maybe I should get that book to read to our kid. No wait! I’ll make my own!”

Some pondering, an online rhyming dictionary, a little wookieepedia surfing, and several minutes later — I present to you: Star Wars ABCs, by Josh Smith. Read more »

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My answers to Tim Aten’s quiz

The quiz is at the end of this delightful article, and my answers are below.
Read more »

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Pebble saved my phone today

Left phone on roof of car when I left work tonight.

Onramp: took curve a little fast and heard a noise on the roof and then off to my left on the ground. Spider sense tingling.

Seconds later, Pebble buzzed with lost bluetooth connection (the same thing that happens when I leave home without my phone, eg). Immediately pulled over.

Ran back up the onramp on foot, terrified that phone would have already been run over.

Find phone behind tiny shrub on shoulder. No damage to phone, scratches on after-market cover.

That could’ve been a lot worse.

I posted this to reddit.

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Good News! More Maria Bamford!

Obviously her work on the Comedians of Comedy and The Maria Bamford Show is totally classic, but apparently there is yet more MB to come. Check out the first episode in her new series (and yes, she does look like my fiancée’s sister):

 

 

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Ponynomics: Economic Lessons from MLP

(crossposted from TheLibertyKids.com)

There are a number of important economic concepts illuminated by the excellent My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic episode “The Super Speedy Cider Squeezy 6000” (season 2, episode 15). I want to talk about them here, but warning, there are some pretty heavy spoilers within.

First off, here’s an episode summary from wikipedia(NB, the Apples are a family of ponies who live in Ponyville):

Cider season has arrived but the Apples cannot make cider fast enough by traditional methods to satisfy everyone. The Flim Flam Brothers (Samuel Vincent and Scott McNeil) arrive with their “Super Speedy Cider Squeezy 6000”, claiming they can make as good a cider in a faster time. When the Apples refuse to accept a lopsided partnership, Flim and Flam instead challenge them to a cider making contest for rights to sell cider to Ponyville. The contest starts with the brothers in a strong lead, but Applejack’s friends offer their help to speed up production. With their lead quickly diminishing, Flim and Flam speed up their machine, disabling the quality control. They ultimately win the contest with the most barrels of cider but the cider is undrinkable and they quickly flee town. With all the cider made in the contest, the Apples celebrate with everyone else in town.

 

My Analysis

Before the Flim Flam Brothers arrive with their machine, we see that every day there is a long line of ponies waiting to buy cider, and each day when the cider made that day is gone, there is still a long line of unserved customers. These long lines mean a lot of idle, wasted time for ponies who might rather be doing something else. Time has value, and time spent wasted in a line is a non-monetary cost of buying Sweet Apple Orchard Cider, even for ponies who do get served. An economist observing a line of unserved customers would immediately suggest that the supplier should raise their price so that the market clears. (Even ponies who get cider wait in a long line. A solution to that might be to hire some ponies to run a second or even a third serving station.)

Remember, a “cleared market” is not one in which everyone gets what they want, but one in which everyone who is willing to pay the market price gets the amount they want at a price they are willing to pay. If the Apples keep their prices low, there is an incentive for someone else to enter the market and sell — at any price the pony customers will pay, above or below the Apples’ price — to all the thirsty and under-served ponies.

Making Cider

Later in the episode we see that the process of making cider works thusly:

  1. Applejack kicks a tree in Sweet Apple Orchard, and the apples fall off the tree.
  2. Before they hit the ground, Apple Bloom scurries under with a basket and catches them.
  3. When a basket is full, Apple Bloom takes the full basket to Granny Smith
  4. Granny Smith sorts through the apples, discarding the ones she considers unfit for cider making, and sends the rest on down a chute, where they slide under a stone wheel, spinning under the power of . . .
  5. Big McIntosh, who trots on a treadmill next to the stone grinding-wheel.
  6. Cider comes out of a spout at the base of the tub in which the grinding wheel sits. When a cask is full, Big McIntosh must cap it, and replace it with an empty cask.

When the Flim Flam Brothers arrive, we see that they have a machine which does the following:

  1. Automatically retrieves apples from the trees via a large vacuum hose.
  2. Sorts the apples for quality
  3. Mashes the apples into cider
  4. Outputs cider and seals the casks

The only input involved in operating this machine — the titular Super Speedy Cider Squeezy 6000 — is some magic from the Flim Flams, who are unicorns (in the world of MLP:FIM, there are three types of ponies: unicorns, who have the power of magic; pegasi, who can fly and also control the weather; and earth ponies, who till the hard earth). It is certainly worth noting that not only is no direct labor involved in any of the steps of cider production for the machine, but it also saves steps, such as transporting from one stage to the next.

Quality of Product

Once the Apples’ see the SSCS6K in action, they insist that the cider it produces must be of inferior quality to their more labor-intensive cider. Let us assume that the Apples’ cider is in fact far superior to that put out by the machine. Assuming a sufficiently discerning customer base throughout Equestria, this means that the Apples can sell their cider for a higher price than the Flim Flams can. This is a good time to apply the Alchian-Allen Theorem.

By what is almost certainly an enormous coincidence of an example product, AAT is often abbreviated as “ship the good apples out.” Here’s my summary of AAT: Assume you are a producer of a good that has differing levels of quality, like apples in an orchard. You quality grade some of your apples as High Quality and some as Low Quality. Further assume that you produce more apples than you can sell locally. Which apples should you ship out, the High Quality or the Low Quality? AAT postulates that, other things being equal, you should ship out the thing that sells for more money, as your shipping costs are the same either way, and this way you make the highest return on your shipping costs. (for more on this, I recommend the wikipedia article on it.)

What I am getting at here is that the Apples’ should ship their Sweet Apple Orchard Cider out to Canterlot, Cloudsdale, Appleloosa, Manehattan, etc., while the people of Ponyville drink the less expensive cider produced by the Super Speedy Cider Squeezy 6000. However, this proposal assumes that there are enough apples to meet both competing needs.

There Isn’t Enough to Go Around

On the one hand, the Apples make cider because that’s what the ponies in town want, but they’re not doing it for free. They make several dark and cryptic references to “losing the farm” if they somehow do not manage to sell all of their product. The incentive for them should be to make as much money as possible with their limited resources. If the people of Ponyville have sufficient demand, they can buy cider elsewhere (perhaps from the Flim Flam Brothers, as I suggested above, and provided the Flim Flams can get a supply of apples).

If the end goal is serving every pony in Ponyville, it’s clear that the scenario we have now is not optimal. There should be some middle ground in between the extremes of

  • the Apples leave a huge line of thirst ponies at the end of every day and
  • the Flim Flam Brothers and drive the Apples into the poorhouse

Perhaps a temporary lease at the beginning of the season to accumulate a store of cider for especially busy days when the artisanal cider supply runs dry, and hand-crafting for other times.

But these options are never on the table in the episode. Instead, Granny Smith foolishly puts her ancestral homestead and the livelihood of all those dear to her on the line against new-fangled machinery in a head-to-head, speed-based competition. So they battle: and may the ponies who produce the most cider in an hour have exclusive rights to sell cider in Ponyville.

The Faceoff

Once they begin the competition, the Flim Flam brothers rest on a couch while their machine rapidly out-produces the Apples’ fastest efforts. Applejack’s friends step in to help the Apples, and they begin to outpace the Flim Flams, so the Flim Flams turn off their quality control and begin outputting cider barrels that contain not only rotten apples, but leaves, sticks and liquified wood pulp from entire apple trees that get sucked into their input nozzle.

Once the time runs out on the competition, Flim and Flam have more barrels of cider stacked up than the Apples and are declared the winners with exclusive rights to sell cider to Ponyville. The Apples dejectedly declare that they must pack up and prepare to leave town.

Gresham’s Law

But of course, once any pony gets a taste of the Flim Flams most recently packaged brew, they spit the contents of their tankard right back in Flim and Flam’s faces. No pony wants to drink cider that is 80% wood pulp.

Should the brothers have even been declared the winner? Why was there not a quality floor set on what would constitute “cider” for purposes of the competition?

Here another economics concept rears its head: Gresham’s Law. Gresham’s law as initially conceived applies to money. If the government issues coins with silver in them, and says that the coins are worth $1, and they have 80 cents worth of silver in them, everyone will use them as dollars in their day-to-day life, spending them when necessary. If there are other government issued coins that the government says are worth $1 which have $1.10 worth of silver, people will hold on to those coins and spend the others instead. Some people will even melt down those more valuable coins and sell the silver for it’s higher value (even though melting down coins or otherwise destroying government-issued money is often illegal). Gresham’s Law is often summarized as “bad money chases out good.” That is, the coinage which has the lower alternative value will be used as money, while coinage with a higher alternative value will leave the economy and sit idly or be destroyed for it’s alternative-valued use.

How do we get from there to “bad cider chases out good”? Well, the money aspect of Gresham’s Law can be analogized for other situations where something is asked for. Without what David Friedman calls “the discipline of constant dealings” — that is, the incentive to be nice, knowing that you will meet the person you are being nice to again and want them to be nice back —  the Flim Flams have no incentive to produce cider of any particular quality. Just as how the law calls for people to accept any legal tender for their debts, and so people use the lowest silver-content coins the can; similarly, when the bet calls for who produces the most “cider,” there is an incentive to produce the worst cider that can possibly be produced quickly.

Quality Again

What usually is, and should be, the arbiter of what is produced and sold on the market is customer demand. And we see in the episode that the Flim Flams can’t sell their lousy cider at any price. But this is a highly artificial outcome that has nothing to do with a real market. The owners of the two cider-producing firms made a bet that had nothing to do with actually pleasing their customers. They may as well have had a jet ski race to see who should sell cider (though it’s probably hard for a horse to operate the throttle).

If the Flim Flam brothers had not turned off their quality control, perhaps they would have produced something that ponies wanted to drink, even if not as fast as the Apples (with help from Applejack’s friends).

Competition

This episode is largely a bad example of market competition, in that the two firms chose to compete with something other than sales. Even typical market competition is not over who can produce the fastest, or who can sell the most, or anything as simple as that. All that matters to any individual firm is whether their revenue covers their costs, and that there is enough profit to encourage them to keep doing what they are doing rather than changing (to making something else or to producing in a different way, etc).

In then end, Apple Bloom observes that because of the race, the Apples have produced enough cider for everyone to get some (today). This illustrates that competition (even market competition) motivates producers to work harder than they otherwise might in order to satisfy their customers.

Final Lesson

Episodes of My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic usually end with a character writing a letter to Princess Celestia to illustrate what they learned that week (usually a lesson about friendship). Despite the many opportunities for learning in this episode, Applejack writes in her letter that she learned nothing. This is also contrary to Princess Celestia’s request that she get a letter from whichever pony learned something.

“From this day forth, I would like you all to report to me your findings on the magic of friendship, when, and only when, you happen to discover them. ”
— Princess Celestia (season 2, episode 3)

I will conclude with one final lesson that I feel that Applejack could have learned about capital. Capital is a blessing and not something that should be dismissed or disregarded. The apparatus that Big McIntosh uses to smash the apples to cider is capital; if not for that, they’d be crushing apples into cider by hoof. The baskets that Applebloom use to carry the apples around are capital; if not for those, she couldn’t carry as many, and each load of apples would take lots more work to move. Even the method the Apples use to manufacture their cider is a form of capital; if someone had not taken the time in the past to develop that method, they’d be serving apples alone to their customers, instead of delicious Sweet Apple Orchard brand cider. It’s easy to take the things we have around us for granted, but many of those minor things that make our lives more pleasant or convenient are the result of someone who came before doing lots of extra work — after their normal day’s work was completed — in order to find ways to make life better in the future. Inventors and enterprising individuals have to invest labor up front for an uncertain future payoff, but when they come up with something that increases convenience for themselves and others, it pays labor-saving dividends for years to come.

The Super Speedy Cider Squeezy 6000 is one such example. Equestria is a better place because there is a machine that can do the work of four hard-working ponies at once, with no additional labor input. Embracing technological change means more free time to plant trees, make things, and even sit and drink cider while enjoying a beautiful day. Work can be it’s own reward, but that is no reason to squander our precious and limited time by swearing off conveniences. Machines that make things easier mean more time to figure out and do whatever is most important to us.

Even though Applejack did not learn this (or any other) lesson, we still can.

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Pictures of me from my first 5k

AEI has posted a slideshow of pictures from the 5k they hosted at this year’s SPN Annual Meeting. I’m visible in the crowd shot (picture number 3) crouching near the front, and in picture number 5. Even though I’m not in any of the finish line pics, I finished!

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