“A pretty amazing little beastie”

I made the previous fish entry a week too soon. Mark emailed me last night to let me know about Haplophryne mollis, an odd little fish he just posted to the museum site. This one is notable for both its strange appearance and unusual mating behavior:

Mature males are usually seen permanently attached to females. When a free-living male encounters a female, it bites the female and the skin of his mouth eventually fuses with that of the female. The male then becomes parasitic on the female.

I missed my best shot at such a relationship when I left Vanderbilt without having married a wealthy Tri-Delt (can’t say I regret that too much). Despite the endless possibilities, this fish doesn’t have a common name yet. It surely deserves something more creative than H. mollis.

Star Wars Episode 3 trailer

This parody preview of the next Star Wars movie is great. Who knew Obi-Wan was a functioning alcoholic?

Hat tip to Joel [del 8/29/05].

Claiming the Founders

It’s a truism in America that people advocating just about anything will try to claim the Founding Fathers for their cause. I find this sentence in a hard-selling letter soliciting donations to D.C.’s public radio station, WETA, particularly amusing:

Since the time of Thomas Jefferson, there have been three great American institutions of public learning: public schools; public libraries; and now, public broadcasting.

The gratuitous name drop of Jefferson and the obvious self-contradiction combine to make that about the most vacuous sentence I’ve ever read. The letter did include some very handy address labels though, so I guess it all evens out.

How much does it cost to get Ann Coulter to talk to a liberal?*

I don’t know for sure, but I’d guess it’s somewhere in the five figure range. Whatever the amount, Vanderbilt’s IMPACT Symposium is paying it this year to stage a debate between Ann Coulter and Al Sharpton. Why don’t they just host a mud wrestling event instead? They would save a lot of money and the level of intellectual discourse would be just as high.

Now that I think about it, perhaps IMPACT should put a mud pit on stage between them and see what happens? With a bucket or two of falafel added in they could probably even get Bill O’Reilly to referee at no extra charge; Hire James Carville to announce the play-by-play and we’re talking about the political debate of the century.

On a more serious note, IMPACT selected well with its choice of Howard Dean for the primary speaking spot. As with Condoleeza Rice’s Senior Day speech last May, they pulled off the trick of arranging a speaker far in advance who would happen to be big in the news at the time of the event. As an innovative campaigner and newly elected DNC Chair, Dean is exactly the kind of speaker IMPACT should be looking for: someone who’s both provocative and relevant.

Coulter and Sharpton will speak and/or thrash about wildly on March 21st. Dean speaks the next evening. Tickets are $10 for the public.

*Correction: I noticed after writing this entry that Coulter and Sharpton won’t actually be debating. Disappointingly, they will just be giving separate monologues on the same evening. Perhaps even Vanderbilt’s considerable resources were not enough to get Ann to talk to a liberal.

Another dip into the deep

I noticed that the Australian Museum Fish Site, home of Eternal Recurrence favorite Mr. Blobby, have been popping up a few times in the news recently. The first was in the form of a rapidly spreading hoax email sent after the tsunami disaster. The email included photos of many very unusual creatures and claimed they had washed up during the flood. In fact, they were lifted from the NORFANZ deep sea expedition site without permission. The NORFANZ site has many more photos and details about these amazing fish.

More recently, BoingBoing linked to this story about a ribbon oarfish found on an Australian beach. The oarfish is the longest known bony fish, by some reports growing up to 17 m in length. It prefers the deep but occasionally appears on the surface; some surmise that it’s behind sea serpent legends appearing in marine lore. Once again, the Australian Fish Museum Site has a good page dedicated to it.

Finally, since it’s been a while since I did an odd fish update here, I once again checked in with Mark McGrouther (thanks, Mark!) to see if he’s put up anything new at the Australian Museum. He noted that there hadn’t been any recent toothy fishes of the sort that tend to capture people’s attention, but pointed me to the newest update, the ribbon barracudina. The Museum’s complete listing is here and is also fun to browse.

Bonus fish: the museum’s page on the famous Coelacanth.

[Note 2/23/05: Links corrected.]

A peek at EU airline regulations

Chad Wilcox tipped me off to this article about new airline regulations going into effect in the EU. I was tempted to write about it but don’t know anything at all about the European airline system. Fortunately, the Adam Smith Institute blog has saved me the trouble by hitting all the major points. Dr. Eamonn Butler elucidates many of the possible drawbacks and unintended consequences that could arise from the situation.

I do want to comment broadly, however, on the ridiculous epistemics involved in making these regulations. The new rules define how much compensation airlines must pay passengers for cancellations due to certain causes, setting higher penalties based on how long the missed flight is. They also stipulate that after a two hour delay airlines must provide snacks or meal service. After five hours, refunds and possibly hotel accommodations are in order.

Do those penalties sound reasonable? I guess so, but how would I know? How does the committee drafting the regulations know? The short answer is, they don’t. They choose what seem to be reasonable numbers in 2005 and impose them on all manner of flights. These rules will remain rigidly in place until bureaucrats decide to revise them; they’ll do so based on inputs from lobbying groups representing passengers, airlines, and perhaps other groups. Who benefits from those revisions will depend on who has the most influence on the regulatory agency.

It seems that a better approach for the EU would have been to ensure that consumers have access to information about what they can expect from various airlines, who would be relatively free to set their own policies. Allowing markets to handle the problem would have numerous benefits. Airlines would have to compete against each other to meet travelers’ needs. Travelers and airlines could work out different levels of ticket security for different types of travel, with leisurely vacationers taking discount fares while business class fliers pay a premium fare for better guarantees of timeliness. Most importantly, the policies of different airlines could be changed dynamically in response to a feedback loop provided by customer demand. Leaving aside the particular regulations at issue, which process would one expect to create better policies over time? Perhaps the EU should have examined what needs to be done to improve the transparency of its travel markets rather than overriding them.

To the EU’s credit, the new regulations do permit airlines to offer benefits to passengers to free up overbooked space. According to the NYTimes article, about 250,000 passengers lost their seats to overbooking in 2002, so it’s a real problem. I’ve noted before that a reverse auction system works great here in the U.S. and am amazed that it’s taken this long to be adopted in the EU. Regrettably, the regulations referenced above set a de facto price ceiling on the process. If a carrier can’t find volunteers to be bumped from an overbooked flight before reaching the amount of the mandated penalty, it appears that it can arbitrarily choose someone at that price. Perhaps the ceiling will be set high enough that that rarely happens, but it’s hard to see how giving airlines this escape clause is good for the consumers the regulations are supposed to protect. Again, why would one believe that EU bureaucrats can set a fairer price than an on the spot auction?

Finally, the new regulations subvert market solutions in another way the Times article barely mentions: they’ve been extended to charter airlines for the first time. By definition, charter airlines exist to cover the needs that the major market misses. And unless the European travel system is very different from that in the U.S., they probably tend to cater to a wealthier clientele that doesn’t need government intervention to protect its interests. What justification is there for making the charter market play by the same rules as everyone else? Is this a case of the mainstream airlines capturing the regulatory agency and trying to hamper the competition, or is it just run of the mill regulatory overreach?

In conclusion: If composing this post has taught me anything, it’s that I’m glad I write about regulatory policies as just a hobby and not as a living. I already want to bang my head against the wall and I don’t even live in Europe.

Laffing it up

After writing the previous entry, it’s a nice to be reminded that the public’s grasp of economics isn’t generally so bad. This interview in the Pittsburgh Trib reveals a wonderfully optimistic Arthur Laffer making note of the real progress that’s been made in the last thirty years. I think he’s a little too forgiving of Bush, but overall it’s a nice piece. The questioner is Bill Steigerwald:

Q: What’s the most prevalent and most dangerous economic myth that the public believes that needs to be debunked?

A: Bottom line, I think the public’s got it.

Q: Really?

A: I’m really impressed with the public. The electorate really sees through all this crap. They understand free trade. They understand low, flat-rate taxes. They understand sound money. The electorate is really cool. I’m superbly impressed by democracy — and I’m not natively that way inclined, just so you know.

Q: I was going to ask you whether the public and its leaders were getting smarter in economics. I guess you answered it.

A: They’ve been great. Look at what’s happening. Since that ’79 interview we had, OK, let’s take a look at what happened to marginal tax rates. The highest rate has gone from what — 70 percent — down to what, 35 percent? What’s happened to inflation? What’s happened to regulation restrictions? What’s happened to America and the world? What’s happened to the stock market? What’s happened to everything you and I believe in? Do you remember what unemployment rates looked like back in 1979? Do you remember what the prime was when Ronald Reagan came into office on Jan. 20, 1981? It was 21 percent.

Q: This is a happy economist. It’s not dismal at all, is it?

A: I cannot believe how wonderful it is. When (Nobel Prize-winning economist) Bob Mundell and I sat there at the University of Chicago in 1967, ’68 and ’69, we dreamt of a world. That world is now. Can you imagine a world with no inflation? Everything that’s happened. It’s absolutely spectacular. I’m just so happy about what’s happened to this world. Don’t you feel that way?

Link via David Tufte’s voluntaryXchange, one of my favorite weblogs of late.

“Do my columns make any sense?”

From the same man who asked, “Are libertarians and communists any different?” comes another compelling question: “Does free trade lead to totalitarianism?

[Update: Tim Boyd provides his own response.]

I submitted a rather lengthy response to his column. It may take a while for The Hustler to post it, so I’ve copied it here below the fold…
[Read more...]

How to make your own magic dragon

This three dimensional paper dragon is one of the weirdest things I’ve seen in a while. If you look at him (I can’t help but personify the little critter) and move around, his entire head appears to follow you. He’ll rotate it left and right or crane it up and down to hold you within his unblinking gaze. The effect is bizarre; I put him up on a shelf at work today and he’s stirred up quite a bit of curiousity.

The illusion works because the dragon’s head is actually concave, although it’s folded and drawn to appear convex like a real face (i.e. the snout appears to jut forward but actually recedes into the head). With one eye closed, the brain misinterprets the visual cues it’s receiving and constructs an animated 3-D object. There are two ways you can experience the illusion for yourself:

The hard way: It’s not actually that hard to print the dragon out from the provided .pdf file and fold it properly. The instructions look a little daunting but are actually quite simple. I’ve found that the best way to look at him is to place him on a shelf with his body rotated slightly to the right. Stand a few of feet away, close one eye, and move around. He’ll appear to follow you.

It’s also possible to make this work by holding the dragon in your hand and rotating it. This is a bit trickier, as the brain’s interpretation has a tendency to flip back and forth between the illusion and reality (like looking at a Necker cube). By focusing on the inner corner of the snout I’ve been able to make the desired interpretation click into place.

The easy way: Just watch the video (first link on the page). Since the camera doesn’t film with stereoscopic vision you don’t even have to close an eye (you lazy bum, you).

The dragon was designed by sceptic and illusion designer Jerry Andrus for an event held in honor of Martin Gardner in 1998. Additional examples of his work can be found here, where he also sums up how he approaches his work:

“I can fool you because you’re a human,” says Andrus, “You have a wonderful human mind that works no different from my human mind. Usually when we’re fooled, the mind hasn’t made a mistake. It’s come to the wrong conclusion for the right reason.”

The obligatory V Day post

Writing humor bits on Valentine’s Day has become something of a tradition here at Eternal Recurrence. This year it was Vanko’s personal ad. Big thanks to Will for going along with my silly joke.

From 2004: The Hemingway Star asked 10 big names in Washington about their Valentine’s Day plans.

From 2003: A Vanderbilt RA shares a bastard confession with The Slant.

From 2002: I actually posted this in January 2003, but the 2002 science experiment reported in Slanted Beds and Throbbing Heads offers a way for loveless males to increase their virility.

Also dipping into his Valentine Vault, Steve at The Sneeze takes one for the team and samples a 5th Avenue Bar. And if you didn’t catch The Onion’s hilarious report on Osama bin Laden’s Valentine’s Day greeting to the United States, it’s available here.

Tacky Jacquie

What are trackbacks for? They’re for letting bloggers and readers know that you’ve linked to them, providing an easy way for people to find the commentary and reactions to a post that piques their interest.

They’re not for shameless self-promotion aimed at becoming the next hot libertarian blog chick with a picture on her sidebar. Case in point: Jacqueline Passey, who has sent trackbacks to just about everyone who linked to Catallarchy’s Libertarian Girl revelation. Readers following those trackbacks will find no mentions of the blog they were just looking at, but they will find Jacqueline linking to eight pictures of herself and a story about how short her skirts are.

The bloggers she pinged without linking to are:
Radley Balko
Courtney Knapp
Tim Swanson
TJIC
Truck and Barter
Blogosphere out of Countrol
Wizbang
Hammer of Truth
et moi

That’s nine blogs I’m aware of and there could possibly be more. As for the trackback she posted here, I think Homestar Runner says it best: BALETED!

[Instant update: I'm an accidental ass. I tried to be conscientious and turned off the feature that automatically pings the blogs listed above. It turns out I missed a step and, as Steve of Hammer of Truth points out, sent my own round of unrelated trackbacks. My apologies to them and please feel free to delete the pings.]

Sidebar deceptions

Like most geeky libertarian policy guys, I had big plans for this Valentine’s Day: curling up on the couch with a cheap bottle of wine, a big bag full of Oreos, and the archives of the Libertarian Girl weblog. Alas, Catallarchy’s Micha Ghertner has ruined my night by revealing that LG’s photo was lifted from a Ukrainian mail order bride page. I’ve been officially had.

I’m not angry though. It was an excellent hoax and, as my flatmate and I discussed, taking model photos from Eastern European personal ads and posting them on one’s sidebar to increase traffic is an established practice in the blogging world. In fact, even one of D.C.’s most respected bloggers has resorted to this underhanded maneuver. I have uncovered incontrovertible proof that the supposed “Will Wilkinson” is none other than Vanko, a Ukrainian acrobat who’s looking for a little love (and a kidney):

willvalko.jpg
Will Wilkinson, blogger

willvalko.jpg
Vanko, Ukrainian mail order husband

Need further proof? Just examine Vanko’s complete profile:
http://www.russian-men.net/husbands/nr8357.shtml

I rest my case.

If I were an editor at Simon and Schuster…

this book would have been called Queer Eye for the Confederacy. The Washington Post cuts through the hype here.

Here we go again

Gene Healy points out that D.C. City Councilman Jim Graham has a poll up on the sidebar his website about the proposed smoking ban in restaurants and bars. Right now the nanny staters are winning 70% to 30%. For what little it’s worth, click on over and vote against this governmental intrusion into people’s lives.

Though an online poll is by no means scientific, it’s also worth noting how misleading the question is. The site asks, “Should the DC Council act to eliminate smoking in indoor workplaces?” When I think of “workplaces,” I think of office buildings and cubicles, not the restaurants and bars I visit for enjoyment. I understand that the smoking ban would ostensibly be on behalf of the waiters, waitresses, and bartenders who do work in such places, but that’s a rather deceptive way of asking the question.

Note: I don’t smoke. I don’t enjoy being around people who are smoking. I also don’t believe that I should be able to impose this preference on everyone around me. Furthermore, if I cared that strongly about it I could patronize the nearly 200 non-fast food restaurants and bars in D.C. that have gone completely smoke free in the absence of government intervention.

[Update 2/13/05: Good work, chaps and chapesses! As of this writing at 11:12 pm, the good guys are up 51%-49%. Will and Radley's vastly larger readerships may have had something to do with it as well.]

*$ $$$!

The WSJ is reporting (the link may not work for long) that Starbucks will soon be offering hot breakfasts like egg McMuffins in many of its D.C. area locations. They’re obviously not calling them McMuffins, but that’s the basic idea. The move comes after a successful trial run in Seattle and is likely a prelude to a much larger rollout.

The benefit to Starbucks is obvious: there’s a limit to how much coffee any one location can sell and they’ve already raised their prices. The company seems to be betting that the best way to increase revenue is to expand the retail part of its business. The upside is more choices for customers; the downside is that Starbucks becomes less like a cafe and more like, well, McDonalds.

If the shift toward retail is successful it’s worth pondering the possible effects it will have on smaller chains and independent stores. Starbucks provides many consumers’ first experience with gourmet coffee and in many ways defines their expectations of what a coffee shop should be. Expanded product selection could raise the bar for the corporation’s competitors.

The risk to Starbucks is that they will lose their focus on making quality coffee drinks. Serving hot foods adds one more thing for employees to learn and managers to oversee. The sheer size of the corporation (currently around 9,000 stores) has already led to its replacement of skill intensive espresso machines with ones that are nearly automatic. Additional complications to the running of an individual shop will only make it harder for them to be innovative with coffee.

My prediction is that if their strategy succeeds the biggest threat will be to the smaller chains like Caribou. Consumer expectations may force them to adapt and expand their own product lines, but going head to head against Starbucks’ economies of scale may prove quite the challenge.

I expect that independent coffee shops will have much less reason to fear, as they will always be able to compete with corporate coffee on atmosphere and quality. Their advantage on the former is obvious; on the latter, they can afford to nimbly make changes to their equipment, beans, and techniques that would be terribly painful for the Starbucks giant to adopt.

Long time readers of this blog know that I’m no enemy of Starbucks. They treat their employees well, they’ve been hugely successful in expanding the market for cafes, they serve some high quality products, and, contrary to the common image, they’re not out destroying the little guy. I just hope their expanded food sales don’t cause them neglect coffee drinks and start treating them as just one product among many.

One more note: the other innovation mentioned in the WSJ article, HearMusic CD burning stations on which one can burn a customized seven song CD for $7.99, strikes me as a little odd. They’re apparently profitable in test runs, but it seems like Starbucks could be hitting the tail end of a trend as upscale customers transition to MP3 players. This would have been a great idea two years ago; I’m not sure I’d want to invest in these for half my stores right about now. It’s their money on the line though, so I’ll trust they’ve done better research than I can do from my couch.

[Hat tip: Starbucks Gossip.]

“And the Oscar goes to…”

“…Steven Spielberg for his placement of a Snickers bar in Terminal!”*

What am I talking about? Grant McCracken has an interesting post up today about how an unbranded soda can distracted him while watching an episode of “Columbo.” Normally it’s the obvious brand placement in cheap TV shows or movies that shatters our suspension of disbelief and reminds us that we’re watching a commercial scene. But as Grant points out, a fictional world full of unbranded items is equally contrived. His solution:

I donít object to the presence of brands on TV or at the movies. After all, the real world is thoroughly branded, and an imaginary world should follow suit. What I do object to is the presence of a brand: one brand, a sudden can of Coke that looks less like naturalism than a Martian landing.

Hollywood, repeat after me:

Many brands. Good. One brand. Bad.

Alice, may I have your full attention:

Many brands. Good. No brand. Bad.

He has a good point. It’s not the mere presence of brands that’s annoying, but rather their unsubtle placement; the shot of a product that lasts just a moment too long or a brand’s unnatural ubiquity throughout a film is what jars us.

So given that placing brands in movies often makes sense both financially and aesthetically, why don’t we stop denigrating the practice and embrace it as part of the modern filmmaker’s art? Why not give an Academy Award to the director who can most subtly and logically weave brands into a film?

Would that be too crass? Perhaps. But directors who are above the practice wouldn’t care about such a minor prize anyway, and for those who do incorporate branding it would provide a reward for doing it well. Besides, if the Atlas Shrugged epic movie ever gets made this would give it an appropriately capitalist Oscar to aspire to.

On the other hand, I only see 2-3 movies a year so I’m hardly the best judge of the matter.

*I have no idea if a Snickers bar actually appears in this movie, but it would be my candy bar of choice were I forced to live in an airport terminal.

Google maps

Is it possible to say enough good things about Google lately? The company has now launched a beta version of Google Maps. Like MapQuest, it allows you to quickly and easily find maps and driving directions. But this is Google we’re talking about here, so this software does so much more than that.

One of the first things you’ll notice is that the maps loads quickly and are, in my opinion, easier to read. More importantly, they’re draggable. That means that if you want to shift the map in some direction or recenter it a certain point you don’t have to wait for a new graphic to download. Just click and drag with your mouse or use the arrow keys on your keyboard and the map moves with you. Zooming in and out works just as quickly.

Where Google Maps really blows away the competition is in its local searches. By tapping into its database of local businesses and services, it can help you find the kind of place you’re looking for. For example, searching for “pho 22201″ brings up this map of pho restaurants (and a couple of false positives) in my ZIP code. Clicking on any individual location brings up a tab with its phone number, address, options to get driving directions, and sometimes links to restaurant reviews.

As noted before, the service is still in beta phase and my impression from a few experimental searches is that its local databases could use some improvement. I’m sure that will come with time. It’s already an amazing tool in it’s current form and I’m sure it will only get better. Try it out!

[Update 2/9/05: For a geeky behind the scenes look at how the service works, click here. Via Slashdot.]