Thursday, October 23, 2008

Republicans conceding election?

Self-styled "conservative" (read: social conservatives, people who believe in small government for businesses and big government for personal morality) Republicans are already floating the idea of a Sarah Palin presidential bid in 2012. The idea is so absurd -- even if she weren't, to any objective observer, so manifestly unqualified, her social policies make her completely unelectable nationally even if she could win the nomination -- you have to wonder if there is a hidden agenda behind the "Palin 2012" talking point.

My Republican friends (of which I have none) tell me this is an astute media move designed to prop up Palin's credentials in the face of withering criticism and concern for McCain's health: how can anybody continue to disparage her qualifications for VP if the party is already considering for the top of the ticket in 2012? Unfortunately, there's a huge flaw in this strategy: it only makes sense if the Republicans are already conceding 2008 to Barack Obama.

The other alternative is that Republicans still believe John McCain will win, but he has one of those TV diseases that kill you in a very precise span of time:

"I'm sorry, sir, it's terminal."
"Oh my God! How long do I have to live?"
"Four years, two months and seventeen days"

Monday, October 20, 2008

Eddies in the spacetime continuum

My son's school sent a note home reminding parents of upcoming holidays, and also advising that on November 2nd, "Time goes forward". Presumably this is for the benefit of people who worry about what happens to the spacetime continuum on the day that the clocks go back.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Another reason why obsessing about Star Trek is silly

Have you ever met one of those obsessive Star Trek fans that is really, deeply upset by continuity errors? Probably the funniest is listening to Trekkies complain about the change in appearance of the Klingons' foreheads between the original series and The Next Generation, and trying to come up with an "in universe" (as they say) explanation -- in other words, something better than "makeup techniques are better now and we have a larger budget" -- and debating endlessly about what is the "correct" explanation... as if things that haven't explicitly been depicted on screen "really happened" elsewhere in this fictional universe...

Although it's already pretty silly to care that much about a fictional universe, there's an even better reason to make fun of this obsession: if Star Trek technology existed, the universe actually could contain real "continuity errors". Not only does Star Trek's mythology encompass explicit time travel, faster-than-light travel (even if it's achieved by warping space) also implies time travel. With time travel possible, strict cause-and-effect is doomed -- history and your associated memory of it could actually contain discontinuities, paradoxes, and contradictions. Trek's many time travel stories certainly contain examples of individuals who are aware that time has changed to be inconsistent with their memories, as well as others who are not (often with no clear reason as to why some have memories and others don't...).

So the next time you get cornered by an obsessive Trekkie who wants your opinion on the critical Klingon Forehead question, just shrug and say "time travel".

Sunday, October 05, 2008

Palin Goes All In

It looks like the Republican campaign has decided that there's nothing left to lose by going all-in with the muck-raking and dirt-slinging. Sarah "Failin'" Palin is trying to establish a new world record for Guilt By Association between Obama and the Weather Underground. For the record, I think I'm closer to Kevin Bacon than Obama is to 1960s domestic terrorists.

The biggest problem with this smear campaign, though, is Palin's ongoing incomprehensibility. When she says "turrist", I never know whether she means "terrorist" or "tourist". You'd think that the context would make it clear. But not in her case.

Friday, October 03, 2008

The Three Economies

A serious one for a change. Chris Anderson of "Long Tail" fame has a post on his blog about how the world is diverging into two economies, which he succinctly labels Atoms (physical goods) and Bits (digital goods). This is an interesting idea but I think it misses a fundamental point. There are not TWO economies, but THREE: bits, atoms, and people.

Chris is, as ever, spot on about bits: the marginal costs of (re)production approach zero, and traditional economics no longer apply.

He is IMHO slightly wrong about atoms when he says that material goods tend to increase in price over time: in most material businesses, efficiencies go up with scale, marginal costs go down over time, and so do prices. Cars, air travel, you name it: mass production and process efficiencies push costs down. A TV costs the same in dollars that it did 40 years ago despite being vastly superior and despite (monetary) inflation. This is the lesson of 19th century industrialization and 20th century mass production.

HOWEVER the cost of atoms doesn't go down nearly as fast as the cost of bits, so by comparison atoms look increasingly expensive.

Thirdly, there is the economics of people: Business models where people are inherent to the value proposition (at least, for the immediate future). Musical performance, for example. The "care" part of healthcare. Education, especially higher education. Research. Skilled people scale even less well than material products. The costs of employing people for these jobs tends to stay the same over time (or rise), even as the Atoms and Bits that complement their tasks get cheaper, making the People costs an ever larger fraction of the total. Observers often complain that healthcare and college education costs consistently outpace inflation. Of course: it is because they are People businesses, so naturally their costs are going to rise relative to either Atoms or Bits.

This "Three Economies" model helps to understand the dislocations going on in some industries. Music is a great example. Before the 20th C it was essentially a People business: you paid to see people perform. Recording turned it into a People Plus Atoms business, and by the 1980s it was overwhelmingly Atoms: top bands often lost money touring, but did it to promote the sale of recordings. Then along comes the digital era, and now we are in the midst of a transition to a People Plus Bits business, where Pay For Performance once again dominates and recordings promote the performance rather than vice versa -- while backward-looking execs desperately cling to the People Plus Atoms model.