Death of an Economist

In recent days the news machine put a sad note through its persistent, insistent, constant-volume grinder. A noted academic economist died at the modern-day-early age of 58 years.

Alan Krueger Dead at 58, bloomberg.com

Mainstream news outlets did the usual sedated shuffle. Quotes were re-quoted, wire articles were passed through largely without click-bait headlines, obituaries were written on short deadlines. No normal people thought to make up a graph to go with the articles.

Coverage in the financial news sector was different. Besides trying to explain some of Mr. Krueger’s work, leading quote-ready economists expressed confusion. The death of this man simply should not have happened. It didn’t fit any of the conventional models!

If one rigorously develops a model of the age of an economist, using all available data, the appropriate model is clear and plain. Some will note that it is still only a math model, and the data set is limited, so an honest economist will add high and low tolerance bands. Based on statistics, the size of the source data set can give us the probability of a model diverging from reality to a high confidence (e.g. three standard deviations). With an adequate sample size, there is a 99.7% chance of reality keeping with the data-based model, and Mr. Krueger is quite rude for violating these well established principles.

But wait! This is how ‘modern’ economics has been done for a century, but now we have neo-modern economics, aided by much more sophisticated math cranked through by powerful computers. This is also how Nobel-winning economists generate influential papers and foundational theories which will be cited by default for a generation.

If one fits all the available data, including recent events, through a multi-variable matrix curve-fit, extending classical statistics into a much wider space, a curve that fits both past and future reality can now be generated with supreme confidence.

The New Model for Age of an Economist will win medals from every quarter. Textbooks will be updated. National budgets will be adjusted. Banks will go broke (unrelated, it just happens all the time). And everyone involved will spend their direct-deposited royalty checks long before the New Model blows up and a New New Model is published which integrates ‘all the latest data’ and ‘provides confident projections’.

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Easy Insanity in Seven LPs.

I was warned against this. In fact, it was Vince Harris who told me, “Dude, that is _evil_.” Yet I persist.

It’s a simple idea. It came to me years ago. It involves popular recorded music. It’s something of a challenge.

Imagine that you are somewhat involved in a young person’s life, enough to have that kid’s ear but not really day-to-day influence. You want to see him or her brought up right, exposed to decent music, titles which have stood the test of some little time. You can give the kid a stack of records to hear, but not outsize to your influence.

The challenge defined for you is this: pick just one album from each decade. JUST ONE. You can cheat a little, bumping the numbers off of the round zeros, or letting a double live LP slip in, but it has to come out to one every ten years.

“Oh, cool!” I thought. It’s fun at first. Some easy decisions are made quickly, like letting “Thriller” be taken as-read. I’m going to dig just a little deeper than that.

It’s still exciting thinking about the multi-way death match that will be the 70s, where Aqualung, Led Zeppelin II, Carole King, Day at the Races, Grand Illusion, and Live Bullet will all cut heads.

I knew going in that I would snarkily dismiss the 90s with some 80s holdover or a Diana Krall record.

But eventually I sat down to work things out in earnest… I started in the 1950s, where the 33 rpm LP finally grew in the market and 40+ minute albums really took hold for the first time. Immediately I was faced with a choice, between Frank Sinatra and Miles Davis. Let me say that again.

It’s Frank Sinatra, or Miles Davis.

There is no way to begin that comparison, let alone divine a conclusive result. Having even contemplated the problem will almost certainly drive me to insanity. I thought about it while working in the yard all weekend and wound up humming an entire Bangles album.

I have never heard an entire Bangles album.

My straight jacket size is 42 regular (I’ll want it comfortably snug). Send my mail to the asylum high security wing. Please write with little words so the pop-rap loving guards reading it to me can keep up.

Soap Tragic Opera

Lately we’re reading a lot of old Ernie Pyle (no, really old, as opposed to the “new” Ernie Pyle, which is barely 70 years old). It’s for background on the home front historical novels, and most comments on Pyle will go on the professional writery site [psst – www.sdmahaney.org], but the Bureau of the Impertinently Inane picked up on one story that is a better fit here.

Cincinnati, Ohio – …One more thing I learned about soap. You’ve heard the Saturday-night-bath gag all your life. Well, that joke is a bad understatement. Statistics show that the average American does not take even one bath a week. One in two weeks would come nearer to it. But even so, we are the best-washed nation in the world. [!!!]

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Here is the proof: Americans buy, on the average, twenty-five pounds of soap each year per person. Holland is next cleanest, with twenty-four pounds per person. Canada and Denmark tie for third, with twenty-two pounds each. Then Germany, twenty-one pounds; France and England, twenty pounds each; Cuba and Sweden, eighteen pounds each; and then clear down to Italy, with only about ten pounds.

The Chinese are a people after my own heart. They can’t be bothered with appearances. They use just two ounces of soap each, per year. That means a cake of ordinary toilet soap would last a Chinese couple a whole year, and it would do their laundry, too.

It seems the American public is funny about taking baths. That’s one question on which Americans have a completely closed mind. They are not open to propaganda about more baths. Fourteen of the biggest soap companies got together and put on a terrific national propaganda campaign designed to make people wash oftener, so the soap companies could sell more soap.

They spent two million [1930s!] dollars, and they might as well have poured that two million dollars down the drain, or given part of it to me. Because when it was all over and the checkup was made, they found they had not increased the national bath-taking average by even so much as the dabble of one toe in the bathtub.

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– Ernie Pyle, July 2, 1938

Does anyone have a reference to what the 1930s soap ad campaign was about? I’ve read a few things over the years about trying to sell cleaning and personal care products, and one thing is consistent: It doesn’t work to tell people they stink! A recent example is Febreze. It was a commercial dud at first, when sold strictly as an odor eliminator. It didn’t take off until the marketing switched over to the standard “reward” scene, the diligent mom looking back with satisfaction into a freshly cleaned room, spritzing it with Febreze as a matter of course.

I suspect the problem with selling soap for humans was much the same.

Flipped Out

I don’t flip channels very often any more. It’s disheartening having umpteen-thousand channels and finding that among them there are about three premises going at any one time but now it takes an hour to cycle through and confirm that there is still nothing on.

But Saturday was a long day. I got home late, didn’t want to start anything, and so dove into the UVerse program guide for a cycle. My expectations were low, and were largely met. Well up into the thousands, I paused on the SEC indoor track championships, before moving on to where I absolutely had to stop. What in the world could “Mollie B’s Polka Party” be, about to come on at 10 pm Saturday night? Was it really new programming? Will Mollie B turn out to be the silver haired square-waisted matron that I imagine? How much of a euphemism is “party” in this context?

Pre-emptively judgemental me is wrong some times.

I spent the first number watching and wondering if there was really a pretty, glamorous, talented young woman leading a polka band at a civic hall dance, playing a tenor sax. You betcha! Then she picked up a trumpet and came out with an impossibly sweet tone, one that does not come with less than a decade of playing. I scooted over to the living room laptop to look her up.

Mollie Busta is a formally trained musician with a BFA in trumpet. Her MFA came later, in instruction. She could perform or teach anywhere, and a lot of acts would do well to have her as front man. But she grew up with polka music and really really loves this stuff! A life of playing halls to slow dancing elderly couples, apparent graduates of Lawrence Welk reruns, is quite a fine life.

Incidentally, Ms. Busta married her band mate, a pasty paunchy accordion player who much more looks the postcard part. He was smart enough to leave his wife in front and keep the show called after Mollie B.

The Only Question

I’m reading lately some ugly history and wretched anthropology. Previously it was a bunch of crime novels full of scared and evil people. Before that it was lots of Eastern philosophy and Western Ethics. The more I read the more I am sure that in all of life there is only one question: Ginger or Mary-Ann?

The question can be considered primarily two ways –
Who do you want to be? or,
Who do you want to do?

From there the question echoes in every choice presented in philosophy. What virtues will you espouse? To what do you aspire? What virtues do you really think will get you there? Does it matter if others recognize your integrity?

It’s all one question.

Here’s a hint on the answer:

Chumps Don’t Change

Don’t be fooled, don’t kid yourself — Guys are chumps. [Is there a word for that for women? I can’t see a lady being called a ‘chump’.] This exchange is as honest as real as guy can be about it.


“Sit down. I want to talk seriously to you.”

I sat down.

“Why did you go through all this with me — for me?” She was really serious now. “You didn’t have to, and it couldn’t have been pleasant. I was — I don’t know how bad I was.” She turned red from forehead to chest. “I know I was revolting, disgusting. I know how I must seem to you now. Why — why did you?”

I said:

“I’m twice your age, sister; an old man. I’m damned if I’ll make a chump of myself by telling you why I did it, why it was neither revolting nor disgusting, why I’d do it again and be glad of the chance.”

She jumped out of her chair, her eyes round and dark, her mouth trembling.

“You mean…?”

“I don’t mean anything that I’ll admit.”

[from The Dain Curse, Dashiell Hammett]

You Had One Job – Mega Container Ship Edition.

I stumbled across this story today. Didn’t get much mainstream press that I see, but it’s a huge deal in the shipping world, because it’s a HUGE mess.

One month ago a jumbo container ship leaving docks near Antwerp plowed directly up onto a river beach, effectively blocking access for everyone else at one of the world’s busiest ports. They say the ship was doing 13 knots and suffered a ‘steering failure’. I think that’s pretty fast for one of these loaded ships in a constricted channel, and I know the captain better hope an actual mechanical problem is found.

I first saw this cool drone video, showing the site and a dozen tug boats working the job (it would be 17 tugs eventually – it’s not like they had anything else to do!).

For sense of scale this video shows curious people wading right out to the bow of the giant ship.

I think this is the coolest one, showing satellite tracking data for every ship on the channel, including the busy tugs.

You can see the ship being hauled through locks back into the innermost harbor.

Latest news is the that the ship was inspected, repaired and is back in service. Current satellite data has her near Singapore. But before moving on all that cargo had to be off loaded and sent on another ship. The cost of all that was easily seven figures (in dollars or Euros), if not eight.