Cap'n Arbyte's


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October 29, 2007


Thank you for your interest in the Markley Home for Wayward Youth. This institution of refuge is committed to helping dislocated Portland-area refugees stay away from the Midwest.

We offer private bed- and bathrooms and a modest menu of food lovingly prepared "just like Aunt Carol used to make." We feature a low-stress, easy-going environment suitable for relaxation with the potential for boredom.

Other amenities include electricity, running water, and driveway parking. We are currently remodeling to offer you an even nicer experience, but this has caused a temporary shortage of seating. Please bear with us during this period.

Admission is currently open to friends, relatives, and seductive women. Inquire privately for details. Skills in Halloween costume alterations preferred but not required.

Who you gonna call?

Kyle's Ghostbuster costume

October 24, 2007

Hillsboro 34-145

I got my ballot in the mail today and was surprised to see more than just Oregon measures 49 and 50 on the ballot. The city of Hillsboro has one of its own, 34-145, which would replace the city's charter. The explanatory statement in the voter's pamphlet was unhelpful and I don't know how to find the text of the current or proposed charters. The only useful information I was able to find with a brief search come from an Argus editorial (emphasis added):

Unlike every other city in Oregon, Hillsboro's current charter follows a limited powers model. It lists every responsibility of city government, including providing for "measuring wood and weighing hay and other commodities bought and sold." That's the problem with charters. Like the Constitution, they are not easy to change so antique clauses remain though no longer needed. Former City Attorney Tim Sercombe made initiation of a Charter Review Commission one of his final goals before moving on to become a judge on the Oregon Court of Appeals. He recommended reworking Hillsboro's charter to follow a general powers format based on the model charters for the League of Oregon Cities.

That's all I need to know. This is a power grab under the guise of harmless simplification. I dare say that the removal of quaint "antique clauses" can be achieved without fundamentally changing the nature of city government.

Useful rule of thumb: Whenever someone asks you to vote to increase the power of government, say "no".

October 23, 2007

Tests vs. the Real World

Last Saturday was national Mensa Testing Day, and at the urging of a friend, I decided to go take the test. I won't have my results for several weeks, but I thought the contrast between the test and the real world was interesting enough to write about.

The most striking difference between the way they test for intelligence and the way intelligence is used in the real world is that the Mensa sub-tests have time limits… and they're short! You have to be fast even to be able to complete all the questions. The proctor explained that they don't deduct points for incorrect guesses, so the incentive is clearly to attempt as many questions as possible.

In the real world, haste is bad. If I'm working on a difficult problem at work it is absolutely essential to work slowly and methodically. Getting it wrong means not only that you'll have to fix it later, but also that you'll have to spend time — usually a lot of time — debugging something that shouldn't have been broken in the first place. In the real world the penalty for being wrong is much higher than the reward for being right! It is better to go slowly or even to give up than to arrive quickly at the wrong answer.

As I was taking the test I was surprised (although in hindsight it is sensible) at the number of calculation questions. At work I am surrounded — sometimes literally — by computers. We do not calculate by hand. It simply doesn't make sense to do so when computers are better and faster at calculation than humans are. Naturally, my manual calculation skills are way off from when I was in school. (I think my mathematical reasoning skills are still intact, but there was little testing for that.) If I didn't make the Mensa cut, I'm sure this will be the culprit. Here again, the type of testing they do is contrary to how intelligence is used in the real world.

There were far more questions than I expected where the task was to identify some attribute or relationship among things, and pick the item from the answer list that has the same (or opposite) attribute or relationship. I personally greatly dislike these questions on methodological grounds. The test authors have some particular "correct" relationship in mind, but it is often reasonable to see a different but real relationship, leading you to the "wrong" answer even though you've recognized something genuine. I don't know how (or if) this problem is addressed by test authors. Obviously I don't know how many questions I or others might have gotten wrong for this reason.

I thought the language/vocabulary portion was very easy. This was amusing because as a child I always scored better on the math portions of standardized tests than on the language portions. Despite getting a math minor in college and taking only the bare minimum english classes, my skills may have flipped. This is probably explained by the fact that I use language all day every day, but almost never do manual calculations anymore.

The final amusement was that I did better on the memory test than I thought I would. I often joke about my poor memory, and my friends know how I forget things, but it seems that when I'm actively trying to remember I can do a respectable job.

The Mensa test is no doubt very good at measuring what it's designed to measure. But I'm concerned about how well that correlates to the way intelligence is used in the real world.

October 22, 2007

Well Put

Sometimes I get a little long winded. It's nice to see a succinct real-world example. They're more accessible than my theoretical exposition, and are a useful reminder that all this economics stuff is relevant to the real world. :)

October 17, 2007


I'm happy to announce that my cousin, who has been staying with me for the past two weeks (see my Oct. 7th post), has landed both a job and a place to live. Condolences to everyone in Iowa who wanted her back — she'll be staying in Oregon for a while.

Anyone else want to give Oregon a try?

October 07, 2007

Organs and Babies (and Baby Organs, oh my!)

It's very popular to make selling some things illegal. Popular, but wrong.

You can donate a kidney, but you can't sell one. Anyone who has half-slept through Econ 101 could tell you that this price ceiling holds down the supply of kidneys. People die waiting for kidney transplants that they could easily get if there were a real market for kidneys.

I know, I know, everyone's worried about kidney selling creating vast criminal gangs of organ-snatchers. That's why this market has been blocked on the demand side, too: there's a waiting list to get a kidney, and you can't pay to jump the queue.

But the organ-snatching scare story is silly. It lets some people feel good about condemning others to death, but it isn't a realistic fear. Everybody involved in the transplant operation — donor, recipient, and surgeons on both sides — understand that to prevent organ-snatching they must require a clear chain of custody for the kidney. They must verify that the donor is selling the kidney voluntarily and that the donor is the one who gets paid for it. Refuse any kidney that doesn't meet these criteria.

On to a more shocking example. It's illegal to sell a baby:

Chau told detectives that her boyfriend had returned to China, and she sold the baby because she was destitute and needed money.

Chau was charged with tampering with public records, falsifying business records, child abandonment and endangering the welfare of a child.

It doesn't look like there's any specific law against baby-selling but she's clearly being prosecuted for related acts. People think it's absolutely abhorrent to sell a baby. But giving a baby up for adoption is totally fine, and even encouraged for people in this mother's situation.

Selling a baby, unlike selling a kidney, isn't a life-or-death matter. But other that that the two scenarios aren't so different.

I wonder if whether the thing that truly upsets people about these situations is merely the fact that money is involved. Giving up a kidney or a baby for free is morally praiseworthy. Giving up a kidney or a baby for money is terrible and anyone who would do it is evil. Why do people cling so stubbornly to anti-profit bias in these cases when the pursuit of profit is otherwise (at least grudgingly) tolerated?

I think that opening organ donation and adoption to money and profit would improve the lives of the people who would take part. The current restrictions on these activities are, after all, preventing voluntary transactions.

Toe in the Water

It's time for me to dip my toe back into the water.

My life isn't completely back to normal yet, but it's getting there. The major current deviation from normality is that I have a 20-year-old girl living with me.

And you, dear reader, have a very naughty mind! She's a relative and it's only temporary while she's getting settled in Portland. (But I agree, it's a pity that your immediate suspicions were wrong.)

I must have some Portland-area readers who could tell us something about having fun in the area. What's fun for an out-of-towner to do when it's overcast and drizzling?

Tiny Island