An unambitious year in review

At this time last year I put up a “Year in Review” post going over what I’d done in 2003 and what I expected of 2004. I suppose it’s a good practice to do that again and make a tradition of it. So, without further ado…
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Virtual snowball fight

Winter is here, but significant snow has yet to fall here in D.C. Disappointed by a holiday season without any snowball action? Try out this addictive little Shockwave game. Click on your red players to move them around and power up for long distance throws. Knock out the green team before they bury you in the white stuff. Hide behind the fort for a little added protection.

The game starts off evenly matched, but as you progress through the levels you get increasingly outnumbered. Have fun!

[Link via Today @ PC World.]

Getting lucky in the air

No, not like that. With tickets. I returned late last night from a short trip back home to Spring, TX and had a few fortunate experiences with American Airlines coming and going.

The first was the familiar situation of having a flight that’s over capacity. When this happens the airlines entice willing passengers to take a later flight with various offers. This is a win-win situation: over-booking flights creates lower costs for airlines and passengers, and when too many passengers show up the auction ensures that those who can most easily afford to change their schedules are the ones to do so. In my case, that meant agreeing to hang out at Reagan International for a few extra hours in exhange for a free flight voucher and an upgrade to first class.

This is a routine occurence now, but econ-savvy readers know that it took the brilliance of economist Julian Simon to make it happen. In the bad old days, airlines dealt with over capacity flights by arbitrarily bumping the passengers they believed would offer the least complaint. This made flying an unreliable mode of transportation and did nothing to efficiently distribute costs. Simon came up with the idea of offering passengers inducements to switch. The airlines scoffed until, finally, American Airlines gave it a try. Today they all do it. As I landed at Houston Intercontinental in the comfort of a leather seat and with a free ticket voucher in my bag, I silently thanked Julian Simon for his simple idea.

Walking back into Houston Intercontinental, I almost lost that ticket voucher just as easily as I had obtained it. My dad had dropped me off and as I approached the short line at the check-in counter I anticipated an easy, unhurried walk through security and onto my plane. I swiped my credit card through the reader, and it recognized me as Jacob R Grier. It could do this because it’s standard industry practice to put a customer’s name on the first stripe of magnetic data on a card’s magstripe. As I reflected on this thoroughly useless fact, I silently thanked the in-flight magazine that taught it to me the last time I traveled.

The machine asked for the first three letters of my destination, I typed in “WAS,” and it dutifully searched for my itinerary. After an abnormally long wait, it informed me none could be found. “That’s odd,” I thought, and tried again for my stop over in Dallas. “DAL” I typed and the machine once again performed a long search, found nothing, and suggested I talk to a ticket agent.

The agent came over, I gave her my name and flight number, and she looked for it in the computer. To our mutual confusion, nothing came up. Then she figured it out. “Oh, you’re supposed to be at Houston Hobby.” Of course. Houston has two large airports, located many miles apart. An hour before boarding I was checking in at the wrong one. This was a typically Jacob Grier kind of thing to be doing.

I weighed my options. Should I hustle for a cab and make a mad dash for the other airport? Or should I waste my precious flight voucher on another flight to D.C. to make up for the one I was about to idiotically miss? Luckily for me, the kind ticket agent was able to change my booking to a flight leaving Hobby for Dallas just three minutes later than my original flight would be leaving Intercontinental. Boarding my flight, I silently thanked her and American for not taking advantage of my inattention to detail.

In hindsight, I almost wish that they did make me use my voucher on the return leg of the very same trip I earned it on, just because that would have made a better story. Almost, but not quite.

Faking the plunge

The myth of lemmings engaging in mass suicidal cliff dives dies hard, having entered our language as a metaphor for senseless crowd behavior. From an evolutionary perspective, of course, it makes no sense whatsoever. Not even kin selection could justify such genetic line-ending behavior as pack suicide.

This article from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation debunks the myth and explains how a staged plunge debuted in a Disney documentary and spread into our cultural heritage. It also lists a few other lemming tales that explain the rodents’ populations swings by their arrival from the sky.

Link via BoingBoing and the Disney Blog, which notes, “Disney’s True Life Adventures film series did great things for the advancement of understanding the world around us. However, the lemming suicide plunge debacle was not one of them.”

My life in pictures

Thanks to Mr. Gintis, this website now has a very useful photo gallery to replace the hand-coded page I used to use. I posted a whole lot of new photos this weekend, so check them out here if you’re a friend, family member, curious reader, and/or stalker.

“Hey, that’s great, but when are you going to post a substantive update to your blog again?”

Lay off, man, I’ve been busy!

Espresso bling-hiato

It wasn’t really the baddest assed espresso machine in D.C. until Nick added the neon blue trim lights.

Real Men of Vanderbilt

I’m a little late on this — Joel [del 8/29/05] says the links have been spreading like the clap at Tri-Delt — but Vandy people might enjoy these ad parodies by the Dodecs. These are take offs of the Bud Light Real American Heroes commercials, dedicated to the real men of Vanderbilt: Mr. Flip-flop Wearin’, Popped Collar Frat Guy and Mr. Obsessive-Compulsive Facebook Checker. Perhaps the next one will be for Mr. Aerobie Tossin’ Latte Drinker, but I doubt it. Joel has the MP3s here.

While we’re on the subject of parodies, here’s a great send up of “Candid Camera” called “Kicked in the Nuts”. Extremely juvenile, but I enjoyed it. Credit goes to Justin Logan for pointing out this little gem.

Illogical Circles of Death

Growing up in wide-open states of Texas and Tennessee has its advantages, but the lack of preparation for driving in a congested city isn’t one of them. Anyone who’s ridden with me as I try to parallel park the Aztek can attest to that. D.C.’s traffic circles are a second obstacle I’d never learned to maneuver. On first moving here, it amazed me that people managed every day to travel unscathed through these illogical circles of death. I eventually concluded that that was exactly the reason why they worked: with everyone equally confused about what the heck they’re doing, they drive extra carefully and thereby avoid disaster.

Alex Tabarrok points to this article in Wired explaining how this way of thinking is changing the way planners design roads. By making drivers rely more on their own judgments and interactions instead of rule-based signs, traffic can be made more efficient, safe, and pedestrian-friendly.

Illogical circles of death? More like welcoming roundabouts of spontaneous order.

Old man finds God

[Update 12/11/04: Reports of Flew's theism were slightly exaggerated. Via Radley.]

[Update to the update 12/11/04: Oops. Nevermind.]

Renowned atheist Antony Flew says that he now believes in God. This may or may not have anything to do with the fact that he’s eighty-one years old.

In other news of the weird:

Rich people like tax cuts!

Politician accused of corruption!

And, believe it or not…

Dog bites man!

Sheesh, what a crazy, mixed-up world we live in.

Uncivil blogging

Max Borders announced today that he’s signing off early from the blogging world. I don’t know if that’s a direct result of Matthew Barganier’s post on anti-war.com encouraging people to write to his employer, the Institute for Humane Studies, in response to Max’s posts. I haven’t talked to Max or anyone else at IHS about it (and I certainly hope that an organization so committed to the free exchange of ideas would not have put pressure on him). Whatever the reason, I think it’s a damn shame that he’s quit.

Full disclosure: Max and I are friends, we used to be coworkers, and I occassionally write for the IHS websites he maintains.

Barganier’s original post is here. He links to Max’s post and quotes him as saying, “If boiling people alive best served the interests of the American people, then it would neither be moral or immoral.” Then, a few paragraphs later, Barganier says, “Feel free to express your disgust to Max Borders’ employers.” The sentence is linked to the IHS contact page.

There are a number of things wrong with this. First among them is that Max’s quote was taken quite out of context. Here’s the full paragraph:

If boiling people alive best served the interests of the American people, then it would neither be moral or immoral. It would just be grotesque, or indecent, or harsh. But since it doesn’t have any strategic value, we don’t boil people or nuke them. A “sentimental should” means that most of us find such behavior unsavory, even barbaric–but it doesn’t match up against any grand moral standard etched into a Libertarian Rosetta Stone. To momentarily digress into pop-philosophical obscurantism, it’s intersubjectively “wrong,” not objectively wrong (i.e. politically circumscribed).

Max is making an abstract point about how morals are defined. He’s not saying, “You know, I think we really ought to consider boiling people alive.” In fact, he says that would be grotesque and pointless. His argument is that it’s an issue that isn’t defined by his contractarian moral framework. That’s a philosophical stance with which one can agree or disagree, but no one reading the quote on Barganier’s weblog would have any idea it’s what Max was talking about.

A second problem with Barganier’s post is the argument he makes before directing people to IHS:

Some issues are beyond debate for libertarians, and even if you don’t count preemptive war among those issues, you damn well better include the impermissibility of boiling people alive. Vegans don’t debate skinning baby seals. Libertarians don’t debate boiling people alive. Period.

I dissent! Libertarians, and anyone else for that matter, can debate whatever the hell they want. Should torture be permitted in exceptional circumstances, perhaps as a necessary means of getting information about an imminent terrorist attack that would take thousands of lives? That’s a question libertarians could reasonably disagree about. Similarly, I’d expect vegans to debate whether they could kill a seal if they were shipwrecked in Alaska with no other source of food. Both are examples of unlikely scenarios, but people should not fear posing them at the risk of being drummed out of their jobs or ideological communities. Forbidding edgy questions is a terribly illiberal way to support inquiry.

Which brings me to my last point. Barganier’s suggestion that his readers complain to IHS crosses a line that bloggers should be very wary of crossing. Barganier is in the fairly unique position of getting paid to blog. The rest of us have regular jobs and do our blogging on the side. We do our best to clarify that our views are our own and do not represent those of our employers. We enjoy having a public space where we don’t have to be as concerned with decorum as we are while working at the office or writing for the think tank. Most of all, we enjoy being a part of a community of bloggers engaged in the free exchange of ideas. Friendly disagreement and unfriendly flame wars are risks we gladly accept. Having a fellow blogger try to get us fired or reprimanded is a whole different story. That kind of behavior bodes poorly for all of us and could have a chillling effect on our lively discourse if practiced too often.

Barganier responds to this kind of criticism with this challenge:

If I were still a teacher, would it be unethical for people to contact my employers about opinions I expressed on the World Wide Web? What if I wrote the following?

“If molesting children best served the interests of the American people, then it would neither be moral or immoral.”

Think that would be fair game?

That depends, Matthew. If you were using hyperbole to make an abstract point in a philosophical debate, then no. I certainly wouldn’t quote you out of context and send a letter to the PTA. On the other hand, if you were actually advocating or seriously proposing that children should be molested, then that would be fair game. Your directing of readers to IHS lands on the wrong side of the analogy.

None of this is to say that I believe employers should take a completely hands off approach to their blogging employees. Delta Airlines recently fired a flight attendant for posting suggestive photos of herself in uniform and I think they were completely justified in doing so. Similarly, I have no objection to think tanks telling their blogging analysts to be somewhat mindful of the institution’s image. Those are pragmatic decisions that employers can handle on their own. Fortunately, most weblogs have a relatively small readership and most employers pretty much let them be. Barganier skewed that perspective when he suggested that his readers “express their disgust” to Max’s employers, creating the appearance of a PR problem where none previously existed. That’s a low tactic for one blogger to use against another.

Libertarians disagree on a lot of things, but we in the libertarian intellectual/blogging community should at least agree that open argument and inquiry is a wonderful thing. Perhaps it’s inevitable that the free-wheeling world of bloggers will become more staid as it grows and matures, but we should treasure it while it lasts and do our best to preserve it. Matthew Barganier has done the complete opposite. On Friday, he directed his readers to complain to the employer of a blogger with whom he took issue. On Tuesday, that blogger abandoned his site. Well, congratulations to Matthew. The blogosphere is a tiny bit less libertarian for his efforts.

[Cross-posted on The Agitator.]

Love Don’t Cost a Thing

It’s about this time of year that many bloggers hang up their cyberspace stockings with care and ask that their readers show their appreciation with a dollar or two. I’m not going to do that because a) I think that’s kind of tacky, b) I run this site for fun, and c) there are other blogs that are a lot more deserving of gifts and money than this one is.

That said, running this site does take a small investment of cash and a large investment of time on my part. If you happen to enjoy reading it, I’ve provided an easy way to help support it without having to actually make a donation. Just click on the “Support this site” link under the Site Guide portion of the sidebar and buy something from Amazon.com. It’s the holiday season so you’re probably buying things from there anyway. Clicking here first won’t change any prices for you, but it will send a percentage of the sale my way in the form of Amazon Associates gift certificates. It’s a win-win situation: you get your gifts and I can get that Tiny Tim Christmas Album I’ve always wanted.

As an added bonus, I’ve put together a list of books I recommend. It’s an unabashedly idiosyncratic compilation, but it’s a good sampling of books that I’ve found particularly enjoyable or thought provoking over the past few years. Continue reading to see the list; clicking on any of the links also works for the Amazon Associates deal. Enjoy and be thankful for holiday shopping that can be done from your couch.
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In search of the ultimate beverage

aloe1.gifBack in 1996, when its beverages could be found in places other than the refrigerators of esoteric bookstores, Clearly Canadian tried to reach out to the youth market with a wonderfully inventive drink called Orbitz. This was the short-lived carbonated water with weird gelatinous balls suspended in it. The colored orbs swirled around the drink, neither floating nor sinking thanks to their perfectly calibrated density. In the mouth they could be popped with the teeth, mashed with the tongue, or simply swished down the throat. Many people hated it and the drink was soon discontinued, but I thought it was awesome. I was also fourteen at the time. Ever since Orbitz’ untimely end, I have yearned to find a similarly exciting concoction. Something light, bubbly, refreshing, and full of texture. In short, the ultimate beverage.

I’m still waiting to find it. In the meantime, though, I’ve found a close approximation in the Asian aisle at the local supermarket: Assi brand aloe vera juice. I’d never encountered this before and, after hearing a negative review from a fellow barista, kept it on the shelf for a few weeks. Then on one thirsty night I cracked the bottle open and took a sip. And it was good. It’s sweet, light, slightly syrupy, and goes down smooth. Best of all, though, is the texture. The drink has little bits of aloe plant suspended throughout, ready to be popped in the mouth like tasty little flavor balloons. I poured some in a wine glass and placed it in front of candlelight so you can see them. Billy Joel’s “Just the Way you Are” was playing in the background. It was a very romantic moment.aloe2.gif

It’s even Agitator approved. Radley says, “It should be gross, but it’s not.”

Aloe vera juice is pretty healthy, too. Just 1g of sugar per serving. That’s a lot better than the average soda, for those who care about such things.

So why isn’t this the ultimate beverage? I have to reserve that title for something with carbonation. I need bubbles! Something with the fizziness of ginger ale, something that tickles the nose and makes the tastebuds dance a jig. Perhaps an Orbitz champagne with strawberry flavored orbs would fit the bill. Alas, the terrible failure of Orbitz may have poisoned the idea of floaty ball drinks for years to come. For now, I must continue to enjoy aloe vera juice for near-ultimate refreshment… and seduction.

[Cross-posted on The Agitator.]