Francis Vierboom's Blog

A blog about things. Mostly news, ideas, and Sydney

Archive for December 2009

What English sounds like to foreigners

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I have honestly always wondered this. And now I know – at least as far as Italians go: it sounds like English, but doesn’t make any sense! Plus I think it is actually a pretty catchy song!

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December 17, 2009 at 2:27 pm

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Dept of cute kids

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Combined with one of my favourite songs. This kid definitely needs a drum kit (or at least an MPC) for Christmas:

Two Weeks by Grizzly Bear. Link goes to the band’s original clip, which is good too, although I would also suggest that this fan made video clip is even better.

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December 15, 2009 at 5:12 pm

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The Obama/Rahm secret plan

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For anyone following the US healthcare debate closely, today’s news is that the Senate Democrats have decided to roll over and die in the face of the utterly nonsensical and obdurate opposition from bitter ex-Democrat independent Joe Lieberman:

Senate Democrats Jay Rockefeller and Tom Harkin said they would be willing to drop a “public option” government insurance program to win passage of a health-care overhaul.

… Harkin, an Iowa senator and chairman of the Senate health committee, said he also would be willing to drop a proposal to let people as young as 55 buy into the Medicare program for the elderly.

Furious headlines abound. Ezra Klein has made some news himself for attacking Lieberman on the ‘lives saved’ basis, which is to date a taboo topic of the debate. As Ezra notes, the only alternative to compromise with Lieberman is the reconciliation process, which avoids the requirement for 60 votes to end debate, instead just needing a simple majority of 50. But:

…reconciliation, which short-circuits the filibuster, can only be used for legislation that directly affects the federal budget. Anything that “indirectly” affects the budget — think insurance regulations, like the ban on preexisting conditions — would be ineligible.

What would be eligible? Well, Medicare buy-in, for one thing. Medicaid expansions. The public option. Anything, in short, that relies on a public program, rather than a new regulation in the private market.

Everyone today – Bernie Sanders, Burris, Rockefeller, Harkin – all seem to have just given up. Obama’s fixer Emmanuel Rahm has apparently visited Harry Reid to tell him to just drop it and do a deal. It may be that it has dawned on them just how nihilist Lieberman’s approach is to this.

But because this is a blog, there is an another more interesting and more conspiratorial alternative. Rahm quietly says to Reid, OK, pretend to fight on this one, but roll over eventually. Then next year we simply roll out a Medicare extension, or a public option, or whatever can get 50 votes, via reconciliation next year.

Indeed, no conspiracy is required. It actually seems quite obvious, and if nobody realises it now then they will soon. And it could mean a better outcome with stronger reforms, albeit delayed by a few months – rather than a crippled compromise now.

A lot of the writing on the topic seems to assume that the reconciliation bill would come first, and this would piss off too many people to give the regular insurance reforms any hope of going through. I am not sure why this would be the case.

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December 15, 2009 at 1:59 pm

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Fakery

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One of the many fascinating results in the great New York Times Magazine’s Year in Ideas 2009: a study on the psychological toll of being issued with ‘real’ or ‘fake’ sunglasses:

In one situation, which was ostensibly part of a product evaluation, the women wore the shades while answering a set of very simple math problems… They had been told they’d be paid for each answer they reported getting right, thus creating an incentive to inflate their scores… Math performance was the same for the two groups — but whereas 30 percent of those in the “authentic” condition inflated their scores, a whopping 71 percent of the counterfeit-wearing participants did so.

I always find it fascinating just how susceptible the human character is to such ‘external’ effects. This strikes me as an extension of the ‘act as if’ idea (which could also be called the ‘Mean Girls’ effect) – the idea that you can alter traits in your personality or lifestyle simply by ‘pretending’ for some period of time, whether you mean to or not. I put a lot of stock in it myself, because I actually think I have done it myself a lot. I guess I should start acting as if I am someone who blogs all the time.

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December 14, 2009 at 8:01 pm

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The poor old fat cat bankers

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A problem struck me a long time ago. I was in year five, on the excursion to Canberra that every primary school kid in Australia goes on. We visited the Royal Australian Mint, where Australia’s currency is manufactured, and, from behind the windows, we watched the people wheeling around gigantic bins full of two dollar coins. It looked like a lot of money then, and it still would now.

But I wondered in my head… how could you ever stop the people down on the factory floor from stealing the money? It looked so easy to just scoop a few hundred bucks off the top into your pockets! Sure, you could put someone in charge of checking the workers and counting the money. But then that person could just split the cash with factory workers. And so on all the way up the management chain to the prime minister. So how come all the money wasn’t just stolen?

The conclusion I came to was that the workers must just get paid a lot – far above the average person, definitely way more than my dad. Probably enough for a boat and a mansion, enough to make them pretty blasé about all that money. How else could you spend all day staring at millions of dollars and not end up stealing some?

Looking back, I presume that I underestimated the management and control processes in place at the Mint. It turns out it is not necessary to pay them like superstars (if you are interested, the Mint’s annual report including salary ranges is online). But I suspect I was probably right about something – about just how irritating it would be for your job to be to watch millions and billions of dollars float around if you weren’t getting paid much. And it’s what I think every time I hear stories about investment banker bonuses. If you’ve clicked a button to trade a billion bucks of shares before lunch, you’re probably going to be a bit annoyed if you’re not getting at least seven figures annually. Not that you necessarily should get it. But your greedy, indignant and opportunistically bolshie shoulder devil would probably think that.

Of course, if you want to take some of the cash that flows through an investment bank, it’s not just a matter of wearing pants with big pockets to cram coins into. But unlike the Mint, an investment bank is a place where the management chain actually IS happy to split it with you if you can figure out a smart and marketable way to nick some of your customers’ money. Which leads me to my favourite theory about what caused the financial crisis, from the NY Times a few months ago: smart people.

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December 14, 2009 at 7:21 pm

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Still time for a split…

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Malcolm takes his new backbencher licence for a spin on his blog:

First, let’s get this straight. You cannot cut emissions without a cost. To replace dirty coal fired power stations with cleaner gas fired ones, or renewables like wind let alone nuclear power or even coal fired power with carbon capture and storage is all going to cost money.

To get farmers to change the way they manage their land, or plant trees and vegetation all costs money.

Somebody has to pay.

So any suggestion that you can dramatically cut emissions without any cost is, to use a favourite term of Mr Abbott, “bullshit.” Moreover he knows it.

And it goes on. Definitely worth reading. The ‘split’ movement goes on in the blogosphere, and it might be largely a case of wishful thinking but it’s one I enjoy indulging in myself. Guy Rundle has christened them the ‘Liberal Movement’ party. ‘Movement Liberals’ sounds slightly more sensible to my ears.

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December 7, 2009 at 12:05 pm

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Game Theory with Ben Polak

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I have been studying at Yale for the last few weeks, via the online ‘iTunes U’ service, and I am in the middle of the Game Theory course taught by Ben Polak. It’s absolutely top-notch and I recommend it to anyone with just the vaguest interest in economics or politics. Polak is a great lecturer and it sounds like the class is having a fair bit of fun.

The iPhone is one of my favourite things about living in the future (we are almost there by Marty McFly standards) and riding a bike with the hands free kit on the Harbour Bridge on my way to Balls Head listening to a Yale lecture really does take the cake.

Then again, it’s not perfect; using the iPhone to listen to it is annoying because for some reason the lectures don’t get ordered correctly and they don’t show up on playlists. But that’s a pretty minor thing when the lectures are more than an hour long anyway. The bigger problem is actually working out which courses are any good! Listening to an hour of lecture is a costly way of working out whether you want to invest up to 15 more hours. I can say that the political science course at Yale had too much of a USA bent for me, plus the lecturer sounded a bit like Ben Stein in Ferris Bueller. And the economics courses from Rose State university sounded like they were recorded on a 50c mic. When I finish game theory I am going to try out anthropology at Oxford. But Apple would do well to work out a good way to encourage people to evaluate the online courses and make it easier to pick out the good ones.

And fix the crappy sorting on the iPhone. Boy is it annoying.

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December 3, 2009 at 6:05 pm

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