Thursday, August 29, 2013

The Scope Of The Mission In Syria

When I want to know what to think about some conflict in the Middle East that America might be getting into, I turn to Juan Cole. I found these speculations about what America might do in Syria particularly interesting:
It is not clear what an American intervention would achieve. It is likely that Washington will conduct a limited punitive operation, perhaps hitting regime buildings with Tomahawk missiles. The latter would avoid the regime’s sophisticated anti-aircraft systems, which might be able to fell an F-18 fighter jet. 
It should be obvious, however, that any such strike would be a form of retaliation for President al-Assad’s flouting of international law. It would not actually protect Syrians from their government, and it would be unlikely to alter the course of the civil war.
Fred Kaplan's excellent article in Slate suggests something similar, though it also considers the possibility that Obama is considering a larger mission to destabilize the Syrian regime. Kaplan emphasizes that Obama wants to defend one of the few international norms that there seems to be a real consensus around: don't use chemical weapons. I don't know if there's a good reason for having that particular norm. (Gas is a horrific weapon in many ways, but is it really worse to be killed with nerve gas than to be shot by a helicopter gunship or a drone? Gas is probably not as bad as land mines, which stick around to kill noncombatants long afterwards.) But I am a believer in a rule-governed international framework that curtails violence, and defending such a framework requires punishing violators. Doing just enough to make Assad regret using chemical weapons may be the goal here.

In any event, what we should think of war with Syria depends a whole lot on the scope of the mission. What we're looking at here is modeled off of Libya and Kosovo a lot more than Iraq, as it doesn't seem that we're sending in ground troops to occupy the country. That's no guarantee that it'll have results like Libya and Kosovo, which I mostly see as successes of American military policy. But if it doesn't, that'll be because of logistic and tactical differences that involve the specifics of the situation in Libya, Kosovo, and Syria, rather than broad and general considerations about the nature of the war. I don't have an opinion yet on what should be done in Syria, because I don't have a good handle on the specifics of the situation.

Of course, the point that we'd do a lot better to devote money to buying insecticide-treated bednets to protect people from malaria than bomb Syrian government installations in the name of humanitarianism is exactly right. That's an argument for defunding American war-fighting capacity in general in favor of giving more money to humanitarian causes, which I think is exactly the right thing to do. I don't know how to bring that fact to bear on the situation at hand, though. It's not like America is going to buy the bednets with the money if we don't go to war.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Important Comments Announcements

Starting this Friday, we are going to turn on Google+ comment integration. This means that when this blog post is shared public via Google+, comments on those sharings will appear on the blog. I'm not sure what will happen with future Blogger comments, but we shall see.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Bradley Manning 2016

Policy over the last several years has given civil libertarians a lot to be unhappy about. I don't know how many of them are willing to trust presidential candidates' promises at this point, but it looks like there's going to be a lot of support in the Democratic primary for anyone who can make credible promises to them on these issues. (What makes someone credible here? I guess if they've meaningfully contributed to better outcomes on these issues, or if they've been speaking out on them for a long time.) I could see some candidate pledging to pardon Bradley Manning. While I don't understand the dynamics over there quite as well, it's also possible that you'd see some kind of similar action on the Republican side too, perhaps from Rand Paul or someone trying to absorb the Ron Paul constituency. I don't see it taking a Bradley Manning-related shape, though, since Rand doesn't seem to like him very much.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Richard Arenberg's Confused And Pessimistic Defense Of The Filibuster

Yglesias is right about how Richard Arenberg's Politico article defending the filibuster is thoroughly confused. The minority rights worth protecting are the rights of minorities among the people. Nobody should care about defending the rights of a minority of Senators to determine policy. Assuming that democracy is operating properly in their elections, there's a very good reason why those Senators are in the minority -- most people opposed their ideas. As happened in the Civil Rights era, a minority of Senators may keep filibustering legislation that would support equal rights for a minority of the people. Then we should support the minority among the people (who likely have backing from a majority of people, which is why they have majority backing in the Senate (setting aside issues about Senate overrepresentation of unpopulated states, which Arenberg isn't interested in fixing)) and against the Senators. 

Here I think Arenberg is even more wrong than Yglesias suggests. One great thing about America that should give us optimism is our history of overturning race, class, gender, and sexual orientation-related prejudices. It's not just true of America, but of societies around the world over the last few centuries. Things were worse long ago than they are now, and I'm willing to extrapolate towards their getting even better. If you think this is what's going to happen, you want it to be easier to change the status quo. If you think things are going to get worse for minority rights, so we'd better defend the status quo against change, you might support the filibuster. But I think the last few centuries of history support more optimistic bets. 

Monday, August 19, 2013

Gay Sex With Eye Contact For Congresswoman Jiménez Ortiz

Mexican congresswoman Ana María Jiménez Ortiz has come up with a novel reason for restricting marriage only to heterosexuals. On her view, "marriage should only be considered in those relationships in which the members have sex while facing each other." As she explains, "A marriage should only be considered amongst people that can look at each other in the eye while having sexual intercourse... Something that does not happen in homosexual couples."

We can debate the merits of restricting marriage based on whether face-to-face sexual positions are possible. But we can also debate whether gay people can have sex facing each other. My impression, confirmed by online research, is that a variety of sexual positions permit them to do this. Even if we can't convince Jiménez Ortiz that her proposed restriction was mistaken, we might be able to convince her that homosexuals can satisfy her restriction, with the help of enough photographic evidence. Mailing her enough proof of this might be a helpful way to align public policy with the empirical data.

Amazon's Value Had Better Not Be Its Capital Equipment

Yglesias suggests that can be an valuable enterprise not by actually becoming profitable on a cash-flow basis, but as an ever-growing stockpile of valuable capital equipment. That's what they're spending a whole lot of their money on, and it's not like that stuff disappears at the end of the year. They still have it, and its value is part of the value of their business. So can Amazon live up to its valuation ($130 billion in market cap at present) as a whole lot of capital equipment?

No. Not even close. Amazon's price to book value ratio is about 15:1. In other words, their total assets minus their liabilities are one fifteenth of their stock price. If Amazon were liquidated tomorrow, shareholders would lose about 93% of their money. And if you look at the balance sheet, "Property, Plant, and Equipment" is about $7 billion -- a bit over one twentieth of what the company is worth. Amazon's cash on hand actually exceeds that. (For what it's worth, I don't know whether Amazon's warehouses and offices and such are company-owned -- my guess would've been that a lot of the property is rented, and you don't get to sell that.) So the proceeds from liquidating Amazon's capital equipment don't play any significant role in justifying the value of the company.

Which is as you'd expect. Capital equipment is illiquid -- you can't buy it, use it a bit, and turn around and sell it for near the purchase price. Especially bad in Amazon's case is that it's a one-of-a-kind business. If it had, say, two competitors who were trying to grow fast and become the dominant online retail juggernaut, maybe they'd bid against each other for Amazon's stuff and drive the price up to pretty close to the price of buying stuff new. But actually zero other companies are doing that, and if Amazon couldn't make a profit and had to liquidate, that'd strike people as a bad sign for the whole idea. Maybe some other companies could retool some of Amazon's stuff to their smaller mission, but they wouldn't be inclined to pay full price. So a lot of value would just be lost. 

Friday, August 16, 2013

Friday Obama Caption Contest & Kitsch Cover

Original Caption: "President Barack Obama meets with Secretary of State John Kerry in the Oval Office, July 29, 2013."

Today's Kitsch Cover is Adele performing The Cure's "Lovesong"

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Google's Litigation Defense Highlights The Need For Legislative Solutions to Privacy Questions

According to Google, we should figure out how to put wax seals
on our email correspondence to ensure that couriers such as
Google don't read them during transit.

Some Pennsylvania residents who are not Gmail users have tried to bring a class-action lawsuit against Google for inspecting their email when sent to Gmail users. The premise of this particular suit is a little silly, but Google's recent defense points to the problem with the lack of clarity in American privacy law:
Just as a sender of a letter to a business colleague cannot be surprised that the recipient's assistant opens the letter, people who use Web-based email today cannot be surprised if their emails are processed by the recipient's [email provider] in the course of delivery. Indeed, 'a person has no legitimate expectation of privacy in information he voluntarily turns over to third parties'
Taken to the extreme, Google's defense would lead to some absurd results. It would imply that letters sent via Pony Express in the 1870s are not private because the riders could open them at any time. It would imply that those sending telegraphs in the 1890s would have no expectation that Western Union would keep its customers' telegrams private. But neither of those implications pass the smell test. We generally expect person-to-person communication to involve some level of privacy, regardless of the technical means by which we engage in that communication.

With rare exception, legislators have allowed communications privacy law to develop through the courts. But we now live in a very different era than even the 1980s. A huge number of citizens engage in electronic communication on a day-to-day basis. The government and private enterprises now have the capability of capturing, monitoring, and querying some or all of that communication. But we have very few laws on the books that set any rules of the road for how law enforcement, advertisers, retailers, and social can use this data. It's time for that to change.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Could Some Olympic Events Leave Russia?

A lot of people are rightly upset that the Olympics will be held in Russia, even as it institutes draconian antigay laws. At the same time, one can understand how Olympic athletes who have spent their entire lives training for these events are unwilling to boycott them in protest.

I wonder if the athletes could agree to not go to Russia, and instead meet up somewhere else and hold para-Olympic (but not, uh, Paralympic) competitions. The body of athletes as a whole is probably too unwieldy for such coordination, but doing it sport-by-sport might be more feasible. And since a fair number of the countries that are prominent in the Winter Olympics are socially liberal, athletes might have institutional support from their national Olympic committees. Obviously the Russians are going to stay in Russia, but all the A-list stars from some non-Russian-dominated events might be able to entirely move elsewhere. There would probably be plenty of media coverage and support for these alternate-venue events, since they had the top athletes, and that's what people really want to see. 

Friday, August 9, 2013

Friday Obama Caption Contest & Kitsch Cover

Original caption: "President Barack Obama jokes with members of the Chilean delegation as President Sebastián Piñera of Chile sits at the Resolute Desk following a bilateral meeting in the Oval Office, June 4, 2013."

Today's Kitsch Cover is violinist Lindsey Stirling and a capella group Pentatonix performing Imagine Dragons' "Radioactive":

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Tomorrow's Right-Wing Conspiracy Theory Today

Given all the debate about government mandated broccoli purchases, I would have thought that some talk radio host in Scottsdale or Pensacola or West Texas would have raised the profile of the USDA Supertracker. Government encouragement to engage in healthy eating habits combined with widespread tracking of citizen behavior seems tailor-made for a mixture of Obamacare and surveillance-state paranoia.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

How The Netflix Original Series Got Its Credits

The opening credits to Netflix's latest original series Orange is the New Black are an impressive marriage of the technical limitations of the medium (web video) with artistic considerations. If you've been watching the show, you might have wondered why the creators wasted 62 seconds on an opening credit sequence that consists mostly of still images.

You might ask yourself, "why on earth would Netflix do this?" For the most part, credit sequences have been getting shorter over time, and one of the other main functions of the title sequence—to give the editors a few seconds slack if an episode runs too long or too short—doesn't apply in this situation.

One potential reason is that Netflix now needs your video stream to "warm up". You may have noticed that lately videos served by Netflix begins very blurry and sharpen over the first few minutes. If this occurs, do not adjust your television. The first few bits of video that Netflix sends are intentionally of lower bandwidth. Generally speaking, lower bandwidth means lower quality, so why do this? Because they can deliver lower-bandwidth video to your laptop/Xbox/Roku faster. And speed kills; even when watching videos from a TV, forcing viewers to wait as little as two seconds for video to start can decrease engagement.

Which leads into the next part—the decision to use all of these still or nearly-still images. This lets Netflix keep the visual quality of the credits relatively high despite the lower level of bandwidth, by (essentially) repeating the same frame of video over and over again.

It's not clear that the exact structure of the credits are intentionally mitigating the limitations of Netflix's delivery platform, but it's at least awfully convenient.

Innovations in Intra-Firm Corporate Communication

In the furious search for Bezos-related content pegged to his purchase of the Washington Post, a 2012 piece from CNN Money contains a notable nuggets on Amazon internal culture around the "six-pager" (emphasis mine):
More revealing is that the Amazon CEO's fondness for the written word drives one of his primary, and peculiar, tools for managing his company: Meetings of his "S-team" of senior executives begin with participants quietly absorbing the written word. Specifically, before any discussion begins, members of the team -- including Bezos -- consume six-page printed memos in total silence for as long as 30 minutes. (Yes, the e-ink purveyor prefers paper. Ironic, no?) They scribble notes in the margins while the authors of the memos wait for Bezos and his minions to finish reading.

Amazon (AMZN) executives call these documents "narratives," and even Bezos realizes that for the uninitiated -- and fans of the PowerPoint presentation -- the process is a bit odd. "For new employees, it's a strange initial experience," he tells Fortune. "They're just not accustomed to sitting silently in a room and doing study hall with a bunch of executives." Bezos says the act of communal reading guarantees the group's undivided attention. Writing a memo is an even more important skill to master. "Full sentences are harder to write," he says. "They have verbs. The paragraphs have topic sentences. There is no way to write a six-page, narratively structured memo and not have clear thinking."
When I mentioned the awesomeness of this idea on my Twitter feed, it sparked a remarkable level of interest, which is to say more than zero. A number of folks seem genuinely surprised by the concept. On the one hand, some suggested that mandatory reading periods are a waste of senior leadership's time. Others were transfixed by Bezos's radical new technology for improving corporate communication called getting people to read documents that are sent to them. As you can see from that phrasing, the second group provides the answer to the first. Yes, at first blush it looks like bit of a time sink to have senior executives sit around a table reading memos. But if the most likely alternative is that staff spend hours writing carefully crafted memos only to have senior executives (a) largely ignore them, and then (b) spend an hour pontificating in a semi-informed or ill-informed manner on topics addressed by the memos, that's an even bigger waste of company resources. Obviously if there were some technological means of ensuring that everyone carefully considered all meeting-related documents before the meeting takes place, that might be superior, but I'm unaware of such a magical device. It also might not be much of an improvement, since the reading session puts the memo in the front of everyone's mind. Reading the memo the night before means that you're trying to recall what you thought about it instead of hearing what others have to say.

I'm an occasional defender of PowerPoint, but it should not be the default
form of business communication.
It should be noted that the "six-pager" and subsequent reading session serve a useful forcing function both for a memo's author and its intended audience. For one, it ensures that upper management is actually doing their job, which is examining the advice of their underlings and making decisions, rather than feeling so busy because they're waving their arms really really fast. For two, it ensures that authors must think their message through to the point where they can write about it using coherent English sentences (or perhaps even in paragraphs!) rather than PowerPoint-ready sentence fragments. The specifics of the six-pager format might not be perfect, but it does at least ensure that technology workers are taking enough time to think about issues in a cohesive fashion.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Tom Stocky & American Dads

I've spent several weeks trying to figure out just what it is I wanted to add to Tom Stocky's Facebook post on why dads should do their part and take advantage of family leave, which has been floating around Facebook & Twitter for a while at this point. First things first. If you haven't taken twenty minutes to read Stocky's full post, you should do so now.

Now that you've had a chance to read it, I think the biggest things to observe here are that Stocky's ability to take significant paid paternity leave with only a modest career impact is highly unusual by American standards; that public policy changes are necessary to give more fathers the same opportunity Stocky had; and that while formal workplace and family leave equality is nice, if we want to achieve something closer to equity in housework we have to upend the social expectations that say to dads over and over again that parenting isn't really their job.

The U.S. has the stingiest family leave policy in the industrialized world. While some of the countries with
extremely generous leave rules have poor levels of gender equality in the workforce, increasing leave to the levels
seen in the Netherlands, Belgium, or Finland is totally compatible with high levels of gender equality
The first two points are well covered in liberal politics and policy circles. America is the only industrialized country without some form of universal paid parental leave (PDF, the report from 2008 shows Australia as offering only unpaid leave, but that changed in 2011). The fact that as a country we can't bring ourselves to adopt even Dutch or Belgian levels of family leave is a tremendous drag on both women's ability to advance their careers and men's ability to take a more active role in their children's lives. This is wrong and we can surely do much better.

'70s-era Swedish PR campaigns featured a famous weightlifter
encouraging fathers to do the job of "maternity dad", or something
that probably makes more sense in Swedish.
The third point is much more subtle. Stocky's experience as a stay-at-home-dad showed him just how low our expectations are for fathers' role in their children's lives. Paid family leave won't change those expectations. Nor will passage of the Paycheck Fairness Act. Nor will a broader ability for workers to bring employment discrimination claims. If not just formal legal equality but practical equity in the workplace and the home, it's going to take a change in culture. And changing the culture is ... hard. Some of the European countries with the most generous family leave policies (France, Germany, Spain) have the lowest level of employment among married women. But while making a cultural shift is difficult, it's not impossible! The Scandinavian countries have had the most success promoting a more active role for fathers. These campaigns have included both policy changes and significant PR geared towards getting dads to do their part. I tend to be a skeptic of public awareness campaigns, but something has to be done to push the boundary of what's culturally acceptable.

So, two cheers to Mr. Stocky for broadening his horizons by spending a good chunk of time with his daughter during her first year of life. We have a long way to go before every dad has the chance do what he did.

Friday, August 2, 2013

Friday Obama Caption Contest & Kitsch Cover

Original caption: "President Barack Obama and Prime Minister David Cameron of the United Kingdom talk during the G8 Summit at the Lough Erne Resort in Enniskillen, Northern Ireland, June 17, 2013."

Today's Kitsch Cover is Horse Feathers performing Nirvana's "Drain You"