Sunday, September 7, 2014

Lies, Damned Lies, and Statistics

Here are two Forbes articles that use data to reach opposite conclusions about the performance of the economy:

Pro Obama

Anti Obama

It's amazing how the data makes two incompatible claims each seem perfectly objective and incontrovertible.

I think the first article is completely flawed, and I think the second one hits pretty close to the mark. But I admit I push harder on the claims in the first one and I more readily accept the claims in the second one because it confirms my priors.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Super Fly Defensive Driving

A couple years ago I got a speeding ticket and took an online defensive driving course. It got me thinking, and a couple of weeks ago my family and I launched Pretty stoked to be in entrepreneurial high gear. :)

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Tweet 'n Blog Tuesday

I'm starting this new thing called Tweet 'n Blog Tuesday. I have several blogs I neglect for months, and if I would only set aside a little bit of time once in a while I could keep them relatively up-to-date. So the idea is to make the first Tuesday of the month Tweet 'n Blog Tuesday: a day to update blogs and social media.

So that's what I'm doing! I just knocked out four new Go Musicals entries that I will post throughout the month, as well as a couple new posts for the Epstein Blog.

I did my share of political ranting on Facebook today, so my post this month is going to merely be this introduction to my latest initiative.

Blog! Tweet! Today!


Monday, June 16, 2014


"Liberalism" as a philosophical tradition begins with the Scottish Enlightenment thinkers Locke, Hume, and particularly Smith, who is considered the first to use the term "liberal" in this context.

Just like how Darwin's observations aboard the HMS Beagle gave him insight into the origin of species, these Scotsmen were trying to make sense of the natural order they saw in flourishing English markets. How were these markets so well-coordinated without any direction from a central authority?

Liberalism was their attempt to work out the processes of natural order - processes that the next two hundred years of economics and political theory would continue to explicate and formalize. The central point of liberalism is that freedom works. Whether it works, how it works, and how well it works are all valid questions. But liberal theory is the theory of how freedom works. It is emphatically NOT a theory of how political majorities can pursue their collective ambitions.

Liberalism as it is used in modern English discourse is a total misnomer. Words change their meanings, fine. But if you don't understand that 18th and 19th century liberalism is virtually the opposite of 20th century liberalism, you will totally misread American history.

Liberals wrote the Constitution, freed the slaves, and invented the market economy on a theory of liberty - both economic and civil. We can pursue an entirely different theory if we want - one that thinks the most important thing to know about markets is their failure; one that imagines we can achieve anything through government if we just elect the right angels; one that thinks majoritarian democracy on every issue is more legitimate than individual choice - we can do that, but let's not call it liberalism, and let's not call its proponents liberals.

Happy #LiberalismDay!

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Should US Doctors Practice In Africa?

Oftentimes newly minted MDs will go to third world countries to practice where the need for medicine is most dire. But is this really a sensible way to help the suffering?

In the US, doctors can earn several hundred thousand a year just a few years out of their residency. In Africa they probably make little or nothing. So the question is whether doctors can help more people with their money than with their labor.

Undoubtedly there is need in Africa for oncologists, cardiologists, and other specialists, but the low-hanging fruit are the people who lack access to basic things like food, clean water, mosquito nets, vaccinations, etc. Of the people who do need urgent medical care, most of them probably suffer from the same ailments: aids, cholera, malnutrition, dysentery, etc. A dedicated nurse in Africa has much more experience diagnosing and treating these things than does your average graduate from Johns Hopkins.

Presumably Africa has less restrictive laws on who can practice medicine, and the cost to educate and train a medical worker in Africa is much lower. Their knowledge of local languages and customs will likely make them much better nurses and doctors for the region, too. Do we really need our doctors overseas giving routine vaccinations to people who are inclined not to trust them? Wouldn't it make more sense to finance an army of African doctors and nurses?

Rather than go to Africa after medical school and residency, our best and brightest should try to make as much money as they can in the US. If they are really such angels (and I hope they are), they will use their earning potential here to help the neediest abroad. If you're willing to work for nothing in Africa, why not make a half million a year here and send $400k to Africa to train nurses, fund hospitals, supply aid, etc?

In Africa, your labor is worth less and your money is worth than it is in the US. So this is a great opportunity for arbitrage: work here, send your money there. Giving Africans your labor instead of your money just doesn't make sense.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

More than Metadata? A Review of the Technology

The President said the NSA just collects metadata about our phone and email correspondences, but that doesn't comport with Snowden's claim that he could read private emails and phone conversations. What are the facts?
The other day when I first checked, the Wikipedia page on the NSA's new Utah Data Center said it's supposed to have a data capacity of 5 exabytes. Now it says "on the scale of yottabytes." NPR reported the other day that it's 5 zettabytes. In reality I think all that is just inference based on the size of the center and the 65 megawatts of power it is supposed to draw.
Whether it's exabytes, zettabytes, or yottabytes, it seems like way more data storage than necessary for just metadata, which for a single call or email might only be a few dozen bytes.
This is conspicuous because you wouldn't build data capacity for future use; you would surf Moore's Law and add capacity as it becomes needed. I think the data center corroborates Snowden's claim that the NSA collects content, not just metadata.
If that's the case, then does the UDC scan for keywords and phrases that might trigger an investigation, or does it merely compress and archive until there's a search warrant?
And are they collecting location data from our phones, too?
Facial recognition technology is already pretty well developed. More cutting edge research involves face detection that can interpret your mood and even work as a lie detector. The camera on the upcoming Xbox One is supposedly going to be able to measure your pulse! When this technology is more fully developed, will the NSA be using it to analyze security footage?
I don't know whether these things are legally feasible, but they're certainly technologically feasible - if not now, then in a few years. With gigantic multi-billion dollar data facilities, it's hard to imagine the NSA not putting them to use.
If terrorists suspect the government is doing these things, I expect they will adjust their behavior accordingly. So I don't see a big downside to the government being more transparent about this stuff. 
Ultimately I think the tradeoff between privacy and security should not be made in secret, but should be open to our input. This is such a difficult issue because we don't really know the scope of the threat to our safety. If the threat is another Boston Bombing, then I don't see a huge need for such invasive security. But just as technology enhances the government's ability to spy, it correspondingly enhances the power of terrorists. I'm not scared of pipebombs and machine guns; I'm scared of bio-terrorism and the like.
So how do we strike the right balance? I have no idea. My own suspicion is that the NSA will tend to exaggerate the threat and expand its own capabilities. Maybe the best we can do is preserve a strong legal check on the state's surveillance power and hope that the good outweighs the bad.
Regarding Snowden, a lot of people say he is self-aggrandizing, but I wonder whether these people watched the interview or read a transcript. In print, his words do seem dramatic, but in his interview he struck me as a very reasonable, intelligent, thoughtful guy. I like him!

Monday, May 27, 2013

100 Years of Actors' Equity

“One of the things about Actors’ Equity that we hold dear to our hearts is that there is no problem that cannot be solved with a committee. It is probably carved over our entrance." 
- Nick Wyman, current president of Actors' Equity
So yesterday was Actors' Equity's 100th birthday. Happy Birthday AEA! If you don't know, "Equity" is the union for stage actors. A lot of my friends are proud and well-deserving Equity card-holders, so I don't mean to ruffle any feathers with this post. The nice thing about identifying as "libertarian" is that most people regard you as kind of cartoonishly naive and harmless, so you can have friends at all ends of the political spectrum. So if you disagree with me, rather than get offended please feel free to regard this as just the inconsequential rambling of someone with a lot of wacky opinions. With that said...

It seems to me that the problem with all of the talent unions is that they help some of their members at the expense of everyone else. It's true that the unions prop up the wages of those members who can get work, but as a consequence theaters pay less to other actors. Is it better that Actor A receive $5000 for a role rather than Actors A-E receive $1000 each? And suppose there is another $1000 in union dues, fees, and other administrative costs that goes into hiring Actor A. That is $1000 that should be going to actors but is instead being wasted in order to secure a privileged position for Actor A. So all other things being equal, you get an artificial allocation of the $5000 budget to one actor instead of several, and any administrative costs associated with the union are a deadweight loss. That is all other things being equal.

In reality, the total budget allocated to actors is probably much less in the union situation than it would be otherwise. Imagine Actor A and Actor Z are both top-notch union talent, and the union minimum is $5000. That means it would cost $10,000 to cast both in one production. Now suppose the total budget for actors is $8000. With that budget, the producer will only spend $5000 hiring either Actor A or Actor Z. If not for the union constraint, the producer might have hired both at $4000 each, raising the total amount spent on actors by 60%. So that's one way union minimums can lower total spending on actors. Another way is simply that by limiting how producers can allocate their budgets, you decrease their return on investment which in turn can decrease their budget for actors. So actors unions are great for those union actors who land the gigs, but they probably reduce the total amount paid to actors overall. Furthermore, they even harm their members by making it harder for those actors to find work. An actor may be able to maximize their income by working five shows a year at wages between one and four thousand per show, but instead their entire income depends on landing one scarce $5000 gig. And they can't even do a play for fun.

By now I know people are screaming at me that without talent unions the producers would keep all the profits and not spend any more on talent. Well, there are a few problems with that argument. First, actors are actually not very interchangeable. Anyone who has ever been involved in casting knows how difficult it is to find the right person for the role. Casting directors hold auditions earlier and earlier in an attempt to have first dibs on the best talent. Think of actors not as factory workers, but as software engineers being courted by Google and Apple. The way to raise their wages is to bid them up through competition, so what you want is more successful theaters. Third, most theater producers don't actually make much profit if they make any at all. Competition with other theaters forces them to pay more for the best actors, more for the best crew, more for the best marketing, etc. Nor can they just raise ticket prices, because ticket prices are presumably set to maximize revenue already. Raising prices typically means fewer people buying tickets and less revenue overall. If you can raise more money by raising your prices, then you weren't charging enough to begin with. But if you don't believe that on theoretical grounds, then test it empirically and call a theater producer and ask them how much profit they raked in last season. They'll laugh at you.

I recognize there are probably some sob stories from the 1930's about actors being mistreated, and I'm sure a lot of those are legitimate. But oftentimes the situation is something as simple as the fact that nobody, I mean nobody had any idea that Gilligan's Island would still be playing on TV forty years later when they negotiated their contracts, yet we treat stories about those actors as if they were evidence of widespread exploitation. Of course you need basic worker protections, and there's nothing wrong with people belonging to a support organization where they can seek professional advice and advocacy in cases of abuse. But that's not the AEA, and the theater industry today in no way resembles the Woody Guthrie-type world we like to imagine. Fortunately the AEA is tempered by the fact that most theaters are small, nimble, independent operations that strongly incentivize actors not to go union. In the film and TV industry, on the other hand, SAG/AFTRA and the major studios are in such collusion that actors don't really have a choice but to join.

So that's my wacky crazy quasi-libertarian take on Actors Equity.