What in the World… Oh, I Get It.

A recent xkcd:

[Definition of e]

Mouseover: "Yeah, my math teacher back in high school set up the system to try to teach us something or other, but the 100% rate was unbelievably good, so I engineered a hostile takeover of his bank and now use it to make extra cash on the side."

Need some help? See the first formula in the "History" section of the relevant Wikipedia page.

Briefly noted:

  • Especially not "Minnesota nice". George F. Will exposes legalized theft in Hennepin County: The county seized her condo, sold it and kept all the money. Not nice..

    Minnesota nice,” the stereotype of the Upper Midwest’s congeniality, needs an asterisk denoting an exception. The state’s amiability expires when grasping government wants to steal your house. Just ask Geraldine Tyler, 94, the Black grandmother whose lawyers will, in Wednesday’s oral arguments, ask the Supreme Court to remind Minnesota of Magna Carta, and of the Constitution’s takings clause and the excessive fines clause. Both provisions, it would be nice for Minnesota to acknowledge, are in the Bill of Rights.

    Minnesota governments began doing this under a Depression-era (1936) delinquent-property-tax-forfeiture statute enacted when governments were, even more than usual, ravenous for revenue. As Tyler’s lawyers note, between 2014 and 2021 at least 1,350 Minnesotans lost their homes and equity averaging $155,000 per home. This is many times the average tax liability. Nebraska took a $1 million farm after a widow missed an $8,276 tax bill when she was moved to a retirement home. Such predatory forfeiture is done by a dozen states and the District of Columbia, which took a $200,000 home from a man with dementia and a $133 tax debt. (Michigan has mostly mended its ways since a county pocketed $24,500 from the sale of an octogenarian’s home seized because of his $8.41 tax underpayment, and a court frowned on government’s unbounded power to confiscate.)

    For more information, see Frédéric Bastiat's theory of plunder (1850).

  • Is everything gonna be OK? I seem to be getting more cynical and pessimistic as the years pass. But I'm willing to hear out the debate at Reason. Katherine Mangu-Ward thinks we should Be Optimistic About the World.

    Let's stipulate that politics—domestically and globally—are legitimate cause for pessimism among those concerned about the rise of populist authoritarianism and the decline of liberalism and pluralism. To worry about politics isn't irrational; there have been times in human history when the political outpaced and swallowed the personal, private, and commercial.

    Now is not one of those times. The world outside of politics continues to get bigger, richer, and more interesting every day. We are all swimming in the primordial soup of the Great Enrichment; more than 200 years of spectacular increases in wealth, health, education, mobility, and choice that extends around the globe. In 1820, 84 percent of people lived in extreme poverty; today that number is 8 percent. In 1820, 90 percent of the world's population was illiterate; now it's 10 percent.

    KMW gives C.J. Ciaramella equal time for the pessimism side.

  • Let's give Tony some points for chutzpah. Eric Boehm seems to be shaking his head in disbelief: Fauci Says Don't Blame Him for COVID Lockdowns and School Closures.

    If you're looking for someone to blame for the infamous "15 days to slow the spread" that turned into more than a year of shuttered schools, closed businesses, and fraying social connections, Anthony Fauci says don't look at him.

    "Show me a school that I shut down and show me a factory that I shut down," says Fauci, the former White House coronavirus czar and now-retired public health official who became the face of both the Trump and Biden administrations' handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, in a lengthy sit-down with The New York Times. "Never. I never did."

    The interview is framed by the Times as an inside look at Fauci as he "wrestles with the hard lessons of the pandemic—and the decisions that will define his legacy." But when it comes time to answer the tough questions about who was at fault for America's botched response to COVID-19, the good doctor is happy to pass the buck. The blame is spread around, not only to the CDC and the other public health apparatuses for which Fauci became a convenient (and willing) personification but also to the politicians who followed public health recommendations without any consideration of the costs involved.

    Unfortunately for Tony, people are digging up his contemporaneous quotes, when he was happy to claim his influence over policy.

    Also, if you can stand it: see Randi Weingarten.

  • The word "social" in "social justice" should be taken to mean "not really". Jeff Jacoby lets fly at the latest government pickpocketing: Your credit score is excellent, so prepare to be penalized.

    YOU'VE ALWAYS dreamed of owning your own home. For years you've worked to make that dream a reality, putting part of each paycheck aside as you save up for a down payment. You know that to get a favorable mortgage rate you'll need to have a good credit score, so you've been scrupulous about paying your bills on time, never maxing out your credit cards, and sticking to a budget you can afford.

    Now, at last, you're ready to become a homeowner. Thanks to your excellent financial habits, your credit score is a solid 740. You've found the house of your dreams and applied for a mortgage loan. You've accumulated enough in savings to be able to make an extremely respectable down payment of 20 percent. Based on everything you've learned about mortgage borrowing, that should more than qualify you for the most favorable interest rate and fees available. Right?


    You've done everything you were supposed to do, so this may come as an unwelcome surprise: Because your credit rating is so good and your down payment is so high, the Biden administration has decided to penalize you with a hefty new fee and a higher mortgage rate. As of May 1, mortgage costs for home buyers with risky credit backgrounds will be reduced, resulting in more favorable interest rates. In order to subsidize that discount for less creditworthy borrowers, someone has to pay more. That someone is you and buyers like you — those with credit scores higher than 680 and down payments of 15 percent or more.

    JJ concludes: "You shouldn't be punished for having done the right thing, and no one who didn't should be getting a reward."

    But (as noted above) that's exactly what "social justice" is all about.

  • Car owners behaving badly? Say it ain't so! Henry Grabar notes Yet Another Menace: Fake license plates are on the rise..

    It’s a problem from Manhattan to the Rio Grande, as cheap paper license plates proliferate on Craigslist and Facebook Marketplace. The rise in camera-generated tolling and ticketing and a pullback in traffic policing have combined to create some very strong incentives to opt out of America’s century-old system of traffic control.

    This fraud unfolds against the backdrop of a roadway safety crisis. More pedestrians are being killed than at any point in the past 40 years; for motorists, the per-mile fatality rate has gone up more than 20 percent just since 2019. This has happened while our peer nations have all made enormous strides in reducing roadway deaths; the U.S. is going in the opposite direction. It’s hard to say if there’s a strong correlation between fake license plates and bad driving, though the former clearly abets the latter.

    Well, that's bad. I guess. But guess how I ran across this article?

    [Fake license plate] popularity seems to jibe with this new, live-free-or-die status quo on the road, a cynical exploitation of a unique moment in policing. The left has soured on traffic stops, recognizing their discriminatory qualities and tendency to lead to tragic police-citizen interactions. The right has blocked automated traffic policing in many statehouses, because freedom. The police are wary of both cameras and enforcement.

    Yup, my trusty LFOD Google News alert. Is there anything Slate writers can't blame on pernicious creeping libertarianism?

Radical Uncertainty

Decision-Making Beyond the Numbers

[Amazon Link]
(paid link)

This book explores the thorny nature of uncertainty, considering the related topics of risk, probability, predictability, etc.. The authors concentrate on economics (John Kay is, among other things, an econ prof at Oxford; Mervyn King was the Governor of the Bank of England) but their discussion is very wide-ranging, slopping over to other areas where our knowledge is less than perfectly complete. Which is, pretty much, everywhere.

Their discussion of probability is a fine example of how weird the concept can get. Physics folks know that (for example) an atom of carbon-14 will undergo beta decay sometime in the next 5700 years with probability 50%. And we've all heard about Schrödinger's kitty. But once you get beyond that, things get hairy. We also think of a coin-flip coming up heads as having probability ½; but that's only because we don't pay very much attention to the details of the coin's trajectory, which is (after all) deterministic, with no quantum funny business involved.

Things get a lot more fuzzy when we look at betting odds. As I type, the FiveThirtyEight website tells me the Boston Celtics have a 28% chance of winning the NBA finals; the Election Betting Odds nails down a 37.1% probability that Joe Biden will win the 2024 presidential election. What's that mean?

And finally, the discussion preceding Obama's 2011 decision to send the SEALs into Abbottabad to get Osama bin Laden is examined. One CIA advisor put the probability that Osama was present in the compound at 95%. "But others were less sure. Most placed their probability estimate at about 80%. Some were as low as 40% or even 30%."

If that sort of quantification strikes you as absurd, good. It gets stranger:

The President summed up the discussion. 'This is 50-50. Look guys, this is a flip of the coin. I can't base this decision on the notion that we have any greater certainty than that.' Obama did not mean that the probability that the man in the compound was bin Laden was 0.5; still less that he planned to decide by flipping a coin. His summary recognized that he had to make his decision without knowing whether the terrorist leader was in the compound or not. Obama would reflect on that discussion in a subsequent interview: 'In this situation, what you started getting was probabilities that disguised uncertainty as opposed to actually providing you with more useful information.

That gets pretty far afield from our Carbon-14 atom. Kay and King do a fine philosophical job of teasing out distinctions and confusions in the language surrounding uncertainty.

I winced a bit at the authors' mangled history of the early personal computer market (page 29), which implies that Apple's desktop GUI was present from the company's origin. But in other spots, Kay and King can get downright hilarious (in a staid British manner) in describing the efforts of firms and regulators as they try to quantify the unquantifiable. Their advice on how (better) to handle situations where you just don't know the inherently unknowable is (probably) good.

Last Modified 2024-01-13 1:01 PM EDT