Sunday, May 19, 2019

I am sick to death of "firsts" that aren't

If you're going to claim to be "first" with some invention, try -- just for a change -- to actually be first.

There is a decided trend toward hype, hype, and over-hype regarding the originality of inventions. More than anywhere else, you'll see this on Kickstarter. And more often than not, it's bogus. Even if it's a great idea, even if it's very cool, I tend to give these things a pass, because I simply can't stand the disingenuous self-aggrandizement that's taking place. I refuse to fund those particular lies.

Let's look at a couple:

SQUARE OFF: World's first robotic chessboard

This was the product that got me paying attention to this trend. In October 2018 there was an ad on Facebook describing it as the world's "first robotic chessboard". They subsequently backed off that claim. It was toned down to the world's first telerobotic chessboard, and now it's described as the world's smartest chessboard.

The reason for my ire was simple. The Fidelity Phantom models played on a physical board back in the 1980s. Dedicated chess computers were all the rage back then. The patent for the Phantom expired in 2000. Obviously, the cool factor of moving pieces around by moving magnets under the board is as wonderful and impressive now as it was "back in the day". But while the Phantom was a very cool device, it didn't change the world as the hype for the Square Off claims for itself. In the real world, the Square Off probably has the same chance of changing the world as the Phantom had.

Respect to Square Off for ditching the "first" claims. I was genuinely mad at them when the ads first came out, and I'm very happy to see them reign it back. I wish them well. Nevertheless, this was the bit of hype that set me off.


ECOAC: World’s first desktop thermoelectric cooler/heater
Here's the Kickstarter

Bullshit. This device operates on the Peltier effect. It's a well-known principle of thermocoupling that was invented in 1834 by Jean Charles Athanase Peltier. That's 185 years ago. Do you think somebody might have thought to try this out as a portable A/C unit since then? Just maybe?

Of course they have! You can even search YouTube and other websites for plans to build your own. You can buy the frakking thermocouples. But guess what you can't do? You can't really cool anything down beyond blowing a bit of cool air on your face, and you certainly can't pat yourself on the back about being "eco-friendly" while you're doing it. In fact, there are clear reasons why this hasn't caught on as an A/C option. And there are other reasons why putting an unvented A/C unit on your desk won't do what you're promised. The two biggest reasons are science and math.

BTW, can it work? 
Of course it can; it's a real effect. You're going to feel some cool air if you're close to it and it's pointed at you. And in reverse you'd get a little warm if you're close to it and it's pointed at you... but no more than if you were heating yourself with a 60 watt light bulb. For that, it's consuming 100 watts of electricity (and I'm seriously doubtful about the power claims, but they don't get very specific). Certainly it can't give you more energy than it can draw out of the heat sink (water tank ). It also can't cool down anything once the heat sink (water tank) is saturated. Does it use a chemical coolant? Absolutely yes; it uses water (a very abundant and safe chemical). But the tank doesn't have much capacity. So you'll spend a lot of time either waiting for the water to cool down/heat up or you'll have to change out the water. And because it consumes energy, and the Laws of Thermodynamics have not been repealed, it will always have the effect of a net raising of the temperature in any environment, regardless of whether it's used to generate cool or warm air.

I'm going to simplify this, but remember, it's generating 60W, consuming 100W, and wasting that other 40W. You might be thinking, 60W cool - 40W heat = 20W net cooling. Not really. That 20W is the capacity of your heat sink. After that it stops working, and then the heat is re-released into the room as your water cools down. Net result: on A/C the room ends up warmer than you started. You're better off pushing the heat out of your environment than trying to capture it right there on your desk. This is why even though other people have built portable Peltier units (making the ECOAC not the first) the tech has not really caught on commercially. For what it's worth, it makes more sense to vent warm air outside than use the water heat sink, but this is marketed as a desktop unit.

The marketing is there not to sell you on numbers, but on feelz. You're told it's eco-friendly, so you're supposed to believe it is, even if you're sucking 100W from a coal-fired generator in the next county. Honestly, if they really wanted to make it eco-friendly, they wouldn't put unnecessary power-wasters on it like Bluetooth and speakers. So don't think about that... just feeeeelz.


More World's Firsts


Try it yourself: search Google for world's firsts on Kickstarter. I got 833,000 results. See how many promise to "change the way you think about [yadda yadda yadda]". It has become a bit of a tired meme among Kickstarter projects. Obviously, people think that their projects will not become successful unless they adopt a standard sales template over-hyping innovative, game-changing aspects of whatever it is they're selling. In almost all of the cases I've seen, it's just a convenient label that tells me to stay far, far away from the decidedly non-world-changing thingamabob being marketed.





Thursday, May 16, 2019

No they didn't (part 2)



This was reported by Phys.org today:

https://phys.org/news/2019-05-bristol-academic-voynich-code-century-old.html

The article describes a paper by Gerard Cheshire which claims to have determined that the Voynich Manuscript is written in a proto-Romance language using an unfamiliar alphabet. This hypothetical language is presented as the precursor of modern Romance languages such as Italian, Spanish, French, and Portuguese. This would basically make the document a substitution cypher of Vulgar Latin.
Gerard Cheshire, The Language and Writing System of MS408 (Voynich) Explained, Romance Studies (2019). DOI: 10.1080/02639904.2019.1599566
Here's a link to the paper itself.

My response is, "not bloody likely". Here's why:

There is no single 'proto-Romance language' other than Latin. To be more precise, there's no such single language that is the common precursor of today's Romance languages. Each of today's Romance languages began as a pidgin-turned-creole of Latin mixed with the local languages of the conquered areas and further corrupted by time, much as English is a creole of Germanic and French influences on the aboriginal languages of Britain. 'Vulgar Latin' (a somewhat obsolete term used interchangeably with 'proto-Romance' by Cheshire) is not 'a language' either. It's a description of any of the many corrupt dialects spoken locally. And this makes the "lateral thinking" of Cheshire highly suspect, to put it kindly.

There was a tower in Babylon,
but it looked nothing like this.
And "proto-Romance" looked
nothing like the Voynich Manuscript.
Much like the Biblical account,
Latin fractured into many languages
spread far and wide.
What Cheshire does, which is linguistically -- well -- wrong, is to drag in a bunch of words from disparate localities, implying that they were all in the proto-language. Actually, the hypothetical proto-language itself would be a corruption of Latin. And that's what happened with Old French, Old Spanish, etc. Where Cheshire fails spectacularly is in implying that these changes were homogenous within the tatters of the Roman Empire. They weren't. They were localized, and became French, Spanish, etc. because of said localization. You just can't take a word of Romanian, a word of Castilian, and a word of French that resemble the letters you've decided to lay out in your two whole weeks of 'lateral thinking', put them all together in a sentence and claim that this represents a heretofore unknown common dead language.

Another problem with Cheshire's theory is that Latin did not die out. You read that right... Latin is not a dead language. It survived as a language of liturgy, scholarship, and official communication for centuries past the demise of the Roman empire. In fact, it survived well into the modern era. I myself took four years of Latin in high school, and it was within my lifetime that the Roman Catholic Church in America started using the vernacular instead of Latin in the rituals of the Mass. The differences between classical and late Latin works, as well as ecclesiastical Latin, are pronounced and recognizable. The point is, for the most part we know what happened to Latin. While the spoken vernacular diverged from written Latin, it did so according to linguistic rules.

Someone who has studied Latin generally doesn't have that much trouble recognizing its descendents. Even when corrupt, any reconstruction of a descendent should bridge the gap between Latin and the language that eventually arose from it in a particular area. With a knowledge of Latin you can generally work out any of the Romance languages. Such should be doubly simple when dealing with a vulgar Latin far closer to the classical source. But the Voynich does not appear to be a cipher of corrupt Latin.

Gerard Cheshire argues that the Voynich Manuscript is written in a common-but-forgotten language; using an alphabet that has no precursors, no descendents, and no other examples surviving as either manuscripts or inscriptions. I doubt the document was a plaintext intended to be read and impart homely advice, as Cheshire argues. The more likely conclusion is that the Voynich manuscript is indecipherable because it was intended to be. The illustrations, if intended to give homely advice, should be recognizable; however,  all of the drawings, even of plants, are fanciful in some way. Few are recognizable species. So the document may have been a sincere cipher; but it may have been a hoax (what today we'd call a "troll").

In fact, I'm not convinced that Cheshire's own document is not an elaborate troll itself. I have reasons.

The first is that he spent two weeks on his research. That's just about enough time to write the first draft of the paper itself. Another is that I can't find anything by Cheshire on Academia.edu on any subject other than the Voynich Manuscript. Yet another is that he uses terms such as 'tripthong' (normally used to describe sound) where one would expect 'trigraph' (descriptive of text). This isn't necessarily problematic; it's just weird. Another is the grandiose claims including the 'fact' that the Manuscript is the only example of a proto-Italic script, though we have no intermediate forms among the numerous contemporary documents. Another is the description of his paper as being 'peer-reviewed' with no mention of what the peers think of it. Any trash can be 'peer-reviewed': failing to mention its reception is just a common-literature way of giving it gravitas divorced from merit.

Another is this: remember that thing you can't do? Taking words from different languages and then hypothesizing a common language based on the differences (not the similarities)? Well, he does it. A lot. For instance:

Figure 33 (from Cheshire's paper)
Figure 33 shows two women dealing with five children in a bath. The words describe different temperaments: tozosr (buzzing: too noisy), orla la (on the edge: losing patience), tolora (silly/foolish), noror (cloudy: dull/sad), or aus (golden bird: well behaved), oleios (oiled: slippery). These words survive in Catalan [tozos], Portuguese [orla], Portuguese [tolos], Romanian [noros], Catalan [or aus] and Portuguese [oleio]. The words orla la describe the mood of the woman on the left and may well be the root of the French phrase ‘oh là là’, which has a very similar sentiment.
Can't find the word locally? Then just cast the net wide. Grab any similar word out of any Mediterranean language. And the bit about ‘oh là là’ just reeks of trolling. For what it's worth, ‘oh là là’ is risque in English, but in French it's an interjection that can be widely applied.

Then there's this bit:

Figure 32. Detail from Folio 77 (from Cheshire's paper)

Figure 32 shows a diagrammatic representation of a miscarriage or abortion, as a baby swaddled in bandages and a mass of blood exiting a tube, accompanied by the words ‘omor néna’ (killed/dead baby). The word ‘omor’ survives in Romanian, where it means ‘to murder’. The word ‘néna’ survives in Spanish, where it now means ‘female baby’ [‘néne’ is male baby].
I'm calling bullshit. I happen to have a PDF copy of the Voynich Manuscript. Here's Folio 77:

Folio 77. Click to 'embiggen'

Yeah, I know. The Voynich Manuscript is filled with illustrations ranging from perfectly pedestrian plants to psychedelic fever dreams. And it contains a lot of drawings of fat naked women. You definitely get the feeling that the author wouldn't have shied away from showing an abortion if he or she had wanted to. And if that was the message, he or she probably wouldn't have hooked up the 'vagina' to four other vaginas by means of a common tube at the ends of which two naked humans were showering while some Dr. Seuss shit is going on beneath them. Not even given Medieval schematics such as the T&O maps of the world. But where's that "baby swaddled in bandages" we were promised? It's very much not there. Frankly, this looks to me a lot more like (left to right) Air, Water, Spirit, Fire, and Earth than what Cheshire is imagining.

I could drag through the rest of his paper, but that would be tedious. And I don't really want to accuse the guy of being a monumental troll, even though I don't discount it. I'd rather believe he was "not even wrong".

In any case, if you're interested, read his paper (the link's above), apply his alleged cipher to a few sentences of the Voynich Manuscript, and see if you get anything other than cherry picked wishful thinking and post-hoc reasoning applied to the accompanying drawings.

--==//oOo\\==--

UPDATES: This is an odd thing. Having now done a bit more digging, I found a blog post on this subject by Nick Pelling (who writes like a man after my own heart) written 10 Nov 2017. So why in the almost two years since have I found nothing else written by Cheshire? Curiouser and curiouser. In any event, Pelling tears this theory apart for the same reasons I do, and has some much better detail regarding linguistic analysis.

And it looks like Ars Technica's not convinced either.

Also, this blog post by JK Petersen is just delicious.

The University of Bristol has published a retraction of their news release.

And now Phys.org has deleted their embarrassing hype-filled article, too. My link to the original article still works, though.



Wednesday, May 15, 2019

No they didn't (part 1)

As today's unfortunate headline, I present, from Phys.org,
Study finds scientific reproducibility does not equate to scientific truth

I call this an unfortunate headline because it's usual with such statements that they don't accurately represent what was actually found.

The referenced study consisted of modeling various scientific communities with a variety of research strategies to discover a modeled "scientific truth"... in this case, the shape of a target polygon. Keep in mind that these were not actual scientific communities, but computer models. As with all such models, certain assumptions are made and biases can be introduced by the programmers. Such models may, but do not necessarily, accurately reflect reality. As is the way with models, the model is extremely simplified. Reality is more variable, and this can muddy the water.

For my part, a statement to be closely considered is the following:
"We found that, within the model, some research strategies that lead to reproducible results could actually slow down the scientific process, meaning reproducibility may not always be the best—or at least the only—indicator of good science," said Erkan Buzbas, U of I assistant professor in the College of Science, Department of Statistical Science and a co-author on the paper. "Insisting on reproducibility as the only criterion might have undesirable consequences for scientific progress."
Notice that what Buzbas says here does not support the headline... not by a long shot.  Buzbas isn't complaining about the insistence on reproducibility: rather, he's opining on the insistence on reproducibility alone... which in practice, nobody does.

We all know from numerous historical examples that scientific discoveries can be made by accident. The discoveries of X-rays and penicillin are two such examples. A careful reading of the above statement reveals nothing more or less.  If you are not rigorous in your method, then you might discover something new more quickly than otherwise. And indeed, the application of rigorous method may slow progress.

However, this says nothing about the value of reproducibility. "Innovative" (let's face it: sloppy) method might get you the correct answer by accident, but it doesn't prove a damned thing. The problem is that with irreproducible experiments, you can't show a definitive cause for the observation you witnessed. Any number of uncontrolled environmental or experimental factors might be the cause. This can skew the researchers' hypotheses and lead to the wrong explanations for observed effects. So long as the research is irreproducible, it has dubious explanatory value and no practical applications. Obviously, you can't reliably use a principle that you can't reliably reproduce. That part of science... the part that leads to engineering... is just common sense.

On the other hand, if you can control and reliably bring into existence an effect based on manipulation of predictable and consistent factors, then you are far more likely to have discovered the truth than if you were to have stumbled across an effect that no one else can observe or make happen.

Far from the implied message of this Phys.org article, "innovative experiments" do not supplant the value of rigorous, controlled experiments. Every accidental discovery must be followed by rigor if you want to claim that what you discovered is most likely the Truth. And if you cannot reproduce your results, you don't get to shelter under the Umbrella of Laziness and whine that your progress is being impeded.  Oh yes, Mr. Innovator, your discovery of Cold Fusion (or whatever) could change the world... but if and only if you can make it happen on demand.

The history of serendipitous discoveries alone tells us that it is not, nor has it ever been, innovation that is criticized when scientists talk about the replication crisis. Rather, it's the hyping and premature conclusions that are drawn when innovative experiments are not followed up with sound method.

If you truly "fucking love science", avoid




Sunday, April 21, 2019

Some Light Reading


Do you think you spot the fake news better than the "other side"?
Liberals and Conservatives Are Both Susceptible to Fake News, but for Different Reasons
https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/beautiful-minds/liberals-and-conservatives-are-both-susceptible-to-fake-news-but-for-different-reasons/


Do you think the "other side" is evil and wicked, but you got it right?
New studies suggest liberals are as blinkered and biased as conservativeshttps://digest.bps.org.uk/2017/04/25/new-studies-suggest-liberals-are-as-blinkered-and-biased-as-conservatives/
The “Other Side” Is Not Dumbhttps://medium.com/@SeanBlanda/the-other-side-is-not-dumb-2670c1294063


Do you think that just because you're liberal you "fucking love science"?
Liberals and low IQ believe in astrology morehttp://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp/2007/09/liberals-and-low-iq-believe-in-astrology-more/#.XLxeQXVKjHw
Liberals Don’t Really F**king Love Sciencehttps://reason.com/2016/11/21/liberals-dont-really-love-fking-science/
Scientific literacy, optimism about science and conservatismhttps://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0191886916300472?np=y
Why Everyone Believes in Magic (Even You) - Live Science
https://www.livescience.com/19665-belief-magic.html
Who is More Anti-Science: Conservatives or Liberals?
https://psmag.com/environment/who-is-more-anti-science-conservatives-or-liberals
(I myself have previously described the "cargo cult" understanding of science that I've observed among many of those who proclaim that they "fucking love science". They treat science as if it were magic; and worse: they treat science as if it were a person or set of conclusions instead of a process by which we evaluate data and make our own conclusions. As a result, "science" to them is no different, conceptually, to the sort of deference to authority that you'd get from any religion. You can't "fucking love science" if you don't fucking know what it fucking is.)

You don't believe those links?
The Real War on Sciencehttps://www.city-journal.org/html/real-war-science-14782.html


Do you think your political and economic views are well reasoned?
Millennials' Political Views Don't Make Any Sense
https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2014/07/millennials-economics-voting-clueless-kids-these-days/374427/

Do you want to fix that? Subscribe to this site: https://fee.org/


Do you think the "other side" is full of hypocrites, but you're ok?
Are Liberals Bigger Drug Users?https://www.newsmax.com/insidecover/liberals-drug-use/2008/06/16/id/324135/ 


Do you think that bias is always bad?
Editorial Bias
https://fee.org/articles/editorial-bias/


(Know your biases and control them. Treat them as tools. Do not be so "open minded" that your brain falls out.)


Monday, April 01, 2019

Peterson vs Hitchens. Some thoughts.

I don't usually take time to comment on a YouTube vid, but here we are:


First of all, this is NOT "Peterson vs Hitchens". For one thing, Hitchens is dead. This is a collection of clips from each of them, so as debates go, this doesn't. Neither is responding to the other. Rather, these are quotes on the same general topic, but more about that later.

The general topic is from what does an atheist derive morality? Or, can atheists be moral without God?

From here on, I'm going to assume you watched the video.

Viewing the video and reading the comments, I think it's safe to say that my impressions are quite different from many of the other commenters. When Peterson talks about morality, he's very careful to speak of archetypes and functional equivalents for religion. Hitchens' response to the base question is to state that he is offended by it. Sadly, this is a purely emotional argument, and not a rational one at all. This is deflection, not reason.

Meanwhile, Hitchens does not explain the source of his morality other than to say what it is not. He's quite sure that it's not God, but he's also quite clear that he doesn't know why he doesn't do terrible things. (at 8:36) (As an aside, it's perfectly fine to not know something and say so plainly. More people should do it.)

Peterson explains this psychologically through functional equivalence, and he takes a great deal of care in his choice of words. Regardless of what you choose to call it, there is some underlying acknowledgement that there is something of moral value that transcends purely rational choices based in self interest. Peterson is not hung up on calling it "God", preferring to set aside the cultural baggage of particular labels to focus on the psychological reality that there is something there. Hitchens does not deny that... he simply is adamant that it is not God. Hitchens addresses the psychology only briefly (at 6:00), focusing the entirety of his responses on the cultural baggage.

Both gentlemen refer to Dostoyevsky. Crime and Punishment is an exploration of the consequences of basing our actions on purely rational grounds... that is, using rationality itself as the only moral code. Hitchens is offended, as he contends that he isn't a rapist or a murderer despite having no religion. I do note in passing that being moral in some areas does not make one moral in general. Hitchens is quoted in A Letter to a Young Contrarian: "Do not live for others any more than you would expect others to live for you," an inversion of the Golden Rule, which enjoins you to treat others as you would wish to be treated, not as you expect to be treated by others. The Golden rule advises you to treat others in the best possible way. Hitchens' Rule advises you to take the least beneficial action toward others consistent with what you expect to receive from them. Also among his arguments, Hitchens refers to his oft-cited "challenge" ("Name me an ethical action taken or a moral statement made by a believer that could not have been made or performed by a non-believer" (at 8:49)). This is far from unanswerable, and I have dealt with it at length elsewhere.

Meanwhile, to Peterson, those who don't act as Raskolnikov does in the novel are not truly atheists, as -- setting aside the question of what to call it -- they have some deep underlying functional equivalent for religion that provides moral grounding. This underlying function is not merely non-rational, but inexplicable using pure reason. Unfortunately, Peterson spoils it a bit by intimating there's possibly some cowardice in play that prevents atheists from using the word "religion" in reference to this inexplicable phenomenon.

Now, if you're paying close attention here, each is not addressing the other's argument. That's to be expected, as this is a collection of clips. Quite frankly, I believe that if they were in the same room, then Hitchens' offense would be waved aside by Peterson, and that Hitchens would actually not disagree with Peterson's argument re: an underlying functional equivalent. Hitchens himself states that he doesn't know why he acts in accordance with morality, even when acting immorally would be in his self interest, even when he wouldn't get caught. This is evident when he argues that he acts without fear of retribution and without expectation of reward.

Here's where Hitchens spoils it a bit, though, by mis-characterizing Judeo-Christian belief on that matter, implying that fear and reward are the guiding forces there. In fact, most Christians are adamant that works buy you nothing. To a devout Christian, there's nothing you can do to earn your way into Heaven. Rather, that is a gift of grace: works are the sign of belief, not a cover charge for entry. Devout Jews act out of a deep-seated sense of obligation. To do a mitzvah because you are obliged to do it is more noble to Jewish sensibilities than to do the exact same deed because you want to.

By the way, when Hitchens speaks of his Jewish ancestors making it all the way to Sinai without knowing that rape and pillage are wrong, this is a mis-statement of morality as depicted in near-Eastern religious tradition, which -- fairly presented -- depicts Noahide laws existent prior to the covenant on Sinai. These are simply the things that we would expect of all decent human beings, regardless of religion. Among them are the establishment of courts of justice. Since those among the audience who are religious know their own beliefs and can recognize the straw man, the statement undermines his case.

Generally, I don't think that Hitchens makes a particularly strong case unless you walk into the argument predisposed to believing that. That could be an artifact of the editor having picked those particular quotes rather than more cogent arguments Hitchens could have -- and probably would have -- made. I'm fairly certain that were these gentlemen actually talking in the same room at the same time, Hitchens' "offense" wouldn't last a minute. With that in mind, I'm a bit disappointed with the editing. I'm sure that Hitchens had much better arguments that the editor could have used. I'm dismayed that the editor didn't ferret them out and use them instead. Hitchens was no idiot. He would never have repeated invitations to speak if his core rebuttal was to whine about how offended he was. Nevertheless, that's the impression that the editor gives us here. This is a shame, as finding something offensive is the weakest possible argument in any rational discourse. Being offended by someone else's logic doesn't invalidate the logic. It's a non-response. It's also a non-response that I don't think Hitchens himself would use in direct discourse with Peterson. As Peterson is arguing as a psychologist rather than a Christian, Hitchens would find that Peterson's arguments are very different from those of the Christians that Hitchens is used to debating, and would necessarily respond with better, more rational arguments. It would be a very different conversation than what we see here.

I also suspect that those YouTube commenters who think Peterson is waffling just aren't listening very closely to what he's actually saying. They think he's talking about "God" when in fact he's talking about something (for which, to him, the label is not important) that is not consistent with pure rationally derived self-interest. Giving it another label doesn't make it go away. Being offended by someone else's label doesn't make the thing being labeled go away, either. In short, this video presents an "debate" over language that mostly ignores the key concept.




Wednesday, March 06, 2019

The Sculptor

Imagine that you're a sculptor. You're working in marble, and it's your desire to create a beautiful statue made of marble. To that end, you have a large, unformed block of the stone in front of you.

Some of the stone is fractured. There are faults. But much of it is solid and sound. As an experienced sculptor, you recognize the flaws, plan your work, and begin on a project that is as much about destruction as it is creation.

Consider this: with each tap of your hammer, with each mark of your chisel you destroy, you remove, you damage some of the stone. It lies there on the floor to be swept away. As the project continues, you soon have excised more stone than remain in the sculpture itself. Even stone that is good and sound may not be part of the final design, and is chipped away.

At the end of this process you have the beautiful statue that you envisioned. But the entirety of the process aside from its conception... every bit of it... consisted of a systematic and planned destruction of portions of the stone before you.

Clearly, in this case, destruction isn't bad. It's a necessary part of achieving something very good.

Keep in mind, too, that at any time you could have raised your hammer in anger and frustration. You could have smashed the entire work with a sledgehammer. You could even have refrained from touching any of the sound stone, chipping away only the flawed portions. You could have sculpted it in a different way. No one denies your power to do it.

Yet, despite your power to act in that way, if you did you would not in the end have the beautiful statue of which you conceived. The fact that you did not destroy the statue does not in any way reflect on your power to do so.

--==//oOo\\==--

People often ask why bad things happen to good people, and why an omnipotent God allows evil to exist. God doesn't allow it... as Isaiah said, "I am the LORD, and there is none else.  I form the light and create darkness, I make peace and create evil.  I am the LORD, that does all these things" (Isaiah 45,6-7).


The statue of David by Michaelangelo.
Follow this link to Britannica
to read how this exquisite work of art was extracted
from stone that expert opinion has judged 'mediocre quality'

Saturday, February 16, 2019

AOC, Amazon, and Tax Breaks

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has made it clear that she has a massive misunderstanding of how tax breaks work. As quoted on camera for CBS News:
"If we were willing to give away away $3 billion for this deal, we could invest $3 billion in our district ourselves if we want to. We could hire more teachers, we can fix our subways, we can put a lot of people to work for that money if we wanted to," Ocasio-Cortez told reporters. "There was no guarantee those jobs for the New Yorkers that were here. We were looking at a deal that was not primarily putting the community first."
Notice this: she thinks the city was going to spend $3 billion, and now they can spend that money on other things. That's not remotely true. In reality, it's $3 billion that they wouldn't have collected as an incentive to gain 25,000 jobs. Tax revenues would have still increased somewhat in the local economy as Amazon's presence increased the revenues of surrounding businesses. Now NY won't get the $3B AND they won't get all those jobs. To be clear, it's future money that they did not save and will never collect.

Note that my main point here is that Ocasio-Cortez isn't familiar with economics... not that I'd expect her to be. As a self-described socialist, she has scant interest in learning the subject. Unfortunately, it's a subject that any politician should have at least a passing familiarity with.

Fortunately, my Facebook friends are somewhat more thoughtful than Ocasio-Cortez. One responded to me as follows, and I reprint it here because it makes more sense than anything Ocasio-Cortez has said:
FYI, Long Island City and the areas around it on the Queens/Brooklyn side are mostly commercial and residential. An increase in local business revenue is likely to result in an increase in rent, which is already pretty high. 
Additionally, the trains that run through there are also pretty trash and have always been. It would have been a nightmare for anyone passing through, which would likely result in ridiculous MTA fare increases, affecting all of NYC. 
Many NYCers already struggle with rent and fare increases on the regular. Amazon would have blown that up beyond belief.
Now, this is good information, and though none of those points were listed by Ocasio-Cortez, I can imagine that they were part of the discussion. However, they're far from convincing, in no small part because these concerns belie what both psychologists and businessmen call "fear of success". Success necessitates change, and change itself is exciting and scary; therefore we imagine the worst possible outcomes at the cost of the far more usual and likely beneficial outcomes.

In the following, keep in mind that NYC and Long Island are very different from my local rural/smaller city environs. Nevertheless, I have some observations based on our experiences here.

I live in an area to which businesses have been locating; including BMW, Michelin, Belk and Dollar General, etc. Some of these are manufacturers, some are distribution centers. They've located in the area as a result of a combination of lower cost of living (therefore lower cost of labor) as well as significant tax breaks.

The results have been dramatic. Tax breaks incentivized the companies to build not only their facilities, but to help shore up the infrastructure that they need. Employees have bought or built new housing. Other businesses that supply these larger companies have moved to the area. Local vendors -- retailers, restaurants, etc. -- sell to employees who have more disposable income. Our roads have improved and continue to do so. Major construction is underway in Greenville to improve the interchange at I-85/I-385 and I-26... something long past overdue. Workers displaced from the sagging textile industry have found new employment.

Keep in mind that tax incentives are neither an expense, nor a subsidy, nor an 'investment'. An investment indicates that you've put some capital in the pot. That's not what happens here. With tax incentives, the monies talked about are those that you don't have, and that you will not collect anyway if the businesses don't build in your area. Rather, tax incentives are a limited promise to temporarily stay out of the way so that the relocating businesses can make investments in your area... investments from which you will benefit.

And from what we've seen, tax incentives work.

What would Amazon have done with that money? To hear their detractors, you would imagine that they'd have pocketed it and gone sailing. But what would have happened is this: Amazon would have used the money that would otherwise have gone to taxes for that limited time ($270M/year, or $2.7B total) to actually construct their facilities and shore up the surrounding infrastructure to support their operations. In order to do this they would have hired local construction firms to do the bulk of the work. These firms would have seen their revenues increase, and the tax revenues for the city would have increased overall. Surrounding businesses would cater to the operation; and once construction was complete, 25,000 workers would have taken their places in new employment, earning money, paying rent, buying products, and paying income tax. At the end of the 10 year period, the city would begin collecting taxes on the revenues generated from Amazon's facility.

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In my area, we've also seen what happens when you take the other path... that of obstructionism. Keep in mind that this isn't a perfect parallel, but it's close enough to illustrate the point. Originally, I-26 was intended to go from Columbia to Spartanburg through my home county, Union. In the late '60s, local leaders were afraid that the increased traffic would result in many of those things my Facebook friend warns about: increased cost of housing and a general increase in the cost of living. Business leaders warned against the increased cost of labor, and felt that it would make them less competitive. Exhibiting fear of success, they blocked the proposal, and instead of taking the straight shot through Union, the highway was routed around the county borders through neighboring Newberry County.

The result was decades of economic stagnation for Union. The status quo was not maintained. Rather, traffic and business were diverted to the West. When the textile mills inevitably fell to competition from China, the prospects for our future were bleak; and that was the situation for the next 20 years. Shortly after I moved here, in the early '90s, US176 was widened to help alleviate the situation, but the economic damage was severe. Tax incentives have helped to turn some of that around, and we are still recovering. Learning from past mistakes, county planners are dusting off decades-old plans to beef up the route from Newberry and Union to Charlotte; a route that's currently woefully inadequate. These are expensive government projects are now required to lure businesses that the earlier planners had previously pushed away. That's the cost of fear of success.

Conversely, tax incentives cost the taxpayers nothing. It's money that you don't have. You're simply saying to the company, "We're not going to take it from you right now." What you're bargaining with isn't cash, it's a promise of limited interference, and it's free. And companies like Amazon are right to seek such agreements. Without them, the company is faced with moving to a location that is unsuitable to their operations, and will never be made suitable by the government. Look at what Ocasio-Cortez wants to spend the fictional 'subsidy' money on instead; none of them will provide the facilities or infrastructure required to make the location profitable and thus generate the projected tax revenue. Not a single one. The local tax revenue depends on profitability. Not the profitability of Amazon, but that of that location. By waiting, the government stands to gain far more than they would have otherwise. And if your local government doesn't see that... fine: others will.

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These agreements aren't simple, and they're not suicidal. You bargain the details, so that if the company needs a railroad spur (for example), they pay for it. You condition the deal on certain kinds of income and/or property taxes, and you limit the deal to a specific time duration, etc. In Amazon's case, it would have been 10 years. This gives a company time to build their facilities, move in, and put them to work before you start banging on their door demanding rent like Joe Pesci in The Super. It's a reasonable, don't-be-a-dick way to start a working relationship.

But in it's basics, that's it. You're simply letting them alone to build facilities and put people to work, and the local government doesn't foot the lion's share of the up-front bill as they would if a large number of smaller companies occupied the same space. And when that happens and people are employed, all of the other surrounding businesses benefit from doing businesses with them... not to mention the investments in parks etc. that result because these large companies love seeing their names on things... as well as liking having those facilities for their employees to use.

That 'working relationship' I wrote of above is what Amazon is seeking. It was extremely clear that they weren't going to get it in New York. As reported in the New York Times:
While small protests greeted the company after its initial announcement in November, the first inkling that opposition had taken hold among the city’s Democratic politicians came during a hostile City Council hearing the next month. Protesters filled the seats, unfurled banners and chanted against the company. Not a single council member spoke up in defense of the deal or the company.
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Amazon did not need to relocate to the NYC area, as they had options, and plenty of other locales are aching to accommodate them, among them, Chicago. The frictions that you feel before you've even cohabitated are only amplified when you get married. And if you can't even get through the speed-dating... move on. So Amazon decided to terminate their plans. Here's a link to their full statement; and it's a well-crafted, highly professional, respectful document. It reads, in part:
We are disappointed to have reached this conclusion—we love New York, its incomparable dynamism, people, and culture—and particularly the community of Long Island City, where we have gotten to know so many optimistic, forward-leaning community leaders, small business owners, and residents. There are currently over 5,000 Amazon employees in Brooklyn, Manhattan, and Staten Island, and we plan to continue growing these teams.
They're not abandoning New York, nor are they walking away from it. They're simply not moving forward with this particular deal.


Contrast that with the sour grapes tweet by Bill de Blasio, with its passive-aggressive insults (implying that Amazon is neither 'tough' nor a 'good neighbor'). This only underscores the wisdom of Amazon's decision. As a general rule, you shouldn't do business with petty people who are more committed to ideology than facts. Those opposed have made the claim, for instance, that Amazon hired no spokespersons from the NY area, although the record shows they did. And they claim that Amazon gave no indication that they would pull out until it happened. However, Amazon was not alone in these negotiations. When a company says "we won't agree to such terms", and you're not willing to bend either, then you should reasonably expect the predictable result. NY Governor Andrew Cuomo seems to have understood the situation more clearly, as reported by Matt Binder. This isn't a Democrat/Republican tribal battle. Cuomo, Blasio, and Ocasio-Cortez are all Democrats. This is a divide between those who are economically savvy and those who aren't.

So from here, it looks like New York has tossed aside a golden opportunity to have someone else spend their coin to lift Long Island City's economy; instead choosing a proven downward spiral where poor people don't get better jobs because they can't afford the current shitty housing and transportation; even though they would be able to afford the better housing and transportation that they would gain given increased employment. My perspective is that the opposition to this deal was based on a combination of economic ignorance, ideological intransigence, and fear of the change that accompanies success. Well, if it's success that New York is afraid of, good news: the way they're going, I see a lot less of it in the future.