Pretty much the most interesting blog on the Internet.— Prof. Steven Landsburg

Once you get past the title, and the subtitle, and the equations, and the foreign quotes, and the computer code, and the various hapax legomena, a solid 50% English content!—The Proprietor

Saturday, April 30, 2011

Practical Advice: How to Circumvent the Wall Street Journal's Paywall

In a change of pace—Dalhia Lithwick hasn't written anything recently, has she?—here is a piece of practical advice for those of us who don't want to go through our work computers (or other sites which have a permanent subscription) to read the Wall Street Journal's pay-walled articles:

Most Wall Street Journal articles are hidden by a pay wall. Unless you are accessing the site from a computer that is recognized as paid-for by the Journal’s web servers, all you will receive for most of these articles is a “stub” of a paragraph or two. This is annoying if you are trying to access the Journal from your home computer and you do not have a personal subscription.

Fortunately, this block is easily circumvented. Google, in order to completely index a website—something the Journal and other newspapers places great value on—must have the entire content of the site available to it. Google in turn requires operators to return the same version of the website to browsers who click on a Google search link as they do when Google itself follows the link. So to get all of the Journal, one just needs to pretend that one found the article with a Google search.

This only takes a second. When you run across a “stub article” just copy the beginning of the stub (typically about thirty words, but usually picking the first paragraph does the trick). Then paste the stub into a Google search box and hit search. Usually the first article that comes up in the search is the full copy of the Journal article. If it is not, it usually will be a copy of the Journal article on another website. If necessary, one can ensure that one gets the official version by adding the string “” to the Google search box before hitting search.

Update: The WSJ has apparently become wise to this workaround and will at some point only display stubs, even after Google searches described above. Their method is cookie-based, so it is easily circumvented. Just continue reading WSJ articles on another computer, on another browser on the same computer, or delete your (and subdomain) cookies from your current browser for a fresh start.

Update 2: With at least the current version 12 of Google Chrome it is possible to block (and subdomain) cookies using Options/Under the Hood/Content Settings/Cookies/Manage Exceptions..., thereby permanently solving the problem. This may make commenting on WSJ articles impossible, but you can always use a separate browser (or separate Google Chrome Profile) for that.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Dahlia Lithwick Is Not Very Principled, Either

As part of the ongoing series of posts demonstrating the dubious value of Ms. Lithwick's commentary to anybody in search of intelligent argument, here is another example.

As recently as last year, in the course of belittling Ms. O'Donnell's Senate candidacy, Ms. Lithwick—informedly, a law school graduate—deemed it advised to mock as "weird" the candidates views:

I have been fascinated by Christine O'Donnell's constitutional worldview since her debate with her opponent Chris Coons last week. O'Donnell explained that "when I go to Washington, D.C., the litmus test by which I cast my vote for every piece of legislation that comes across my desk will be whether or not it is constitutional." How weird is that, I thought. Isn't it a court's job to determine whether or not something is, in fact, constitutional? And isn't that sort of provided for in, well, the Constitution?

Decoding Christine O'Donnell, Slate (Sept. 22, 2010).

Setting aside the question of whether a bill's constitutionality should be the sole basis for a legislator's vote—surely there must be constitutional yet inadvisable bills: let's say incorporating Mickey Mouse into the flag of the United States?—it hardly seems remarkable that a legislator, who has sworn an oath to uphold the Constitution, should at least give some thought to the issue before voting.

But then Ms. Lithwick deemed any such legislative cogitation to be no less than in violation of the Constitution itself. Now, however, Ms. Lithwick informs us of the opposite conclusion, bewailing the fact that:

Gone are the days in which legislatures at least attempted to ensure state regulations conformed to the broadest interpretation of the Roe constraints.

The Death of Roe v. Wade, Slate (April 19, 2011).

So it appears to be Ms. Lithwick's position that it is weird and unconstitutional for legislators to consider whether the bills they are voting on are in violation of the Constitution itself, but a necessity for law makers to only advance bills which are in full conformance of recent and controversial Supreme Court interpretations of the Constitution.

If there is any rational basis for Ms. Lithwick's position other than a complete and unprincipled disregard for the Constitution except when useful as a stick to beat upon political opponents, it escapes this author.

Barack Obama's Advice to Investors: Buy High, Sell Low!

Well, that is not exactly what the President said, but it is its logical equivalent:

Obama blames speculators for high gasoline prices

ANNANDALE, Virginia — US President Barack Obama blamed oil "speculators" on Tuesday for soaring gasoline prices that risk weighing down the US recovery and could dampen his 2012 election hopes. "It is true that a lot of what's driving oil prices up right now is not the lack of supply. There's enough supply. There's enough oil out there for world demand," Obama said at a campaign-style event not far from Washington.

Commodity speculation is the purchase (or sale) of a commodity, not because you plan to use it (or you produced it and need to dispose of it), but because you expect that you'll be able to sell (or re-purchase) it at a later time for a higher (or lower) price. And—contrary to the instinctive reaction of a vast majority of the population of the United States and even an alleged sophisticate like the President—it is a social good.

A good speculator must accurately predict price movements (or, to be more precise, their probability distribution). To make a profit, they must buy when prices are low and sell when prices are high. But adding speculative demand when prices are low will tend to increase prices and adding speculative supply when prices are high will tend to decrease prices. In other words, successful speculation tends to even out price spikes and troughs, not cause them.

Successful speculation also helps market prices reflect longer-term trends and risks and indirectly causes physical storage (if possible) and investment decisions to be made which reflect and compensate for these factors rather than merely immediate demand.

Indeed, at some level, the Pres. Obama appears to understand this:

"The problem is, is that oil is sold on these world markets, and speculators and people make various bets, and they say, 'you know what, we think that maybe there's a 20 percent chance that something might happen in the Middle East that might disrupt oil supply,'" he said.

"'So we're going to bet that oil is going to go up real high.' And that spikes up prices significantly," said the president, who recently launched his reelection campaign.

That could conceivably be true. But it can only be a sensible investment strategy if these hypothetical speculators sincerely believe (and back with their own money) that in the 80 percent chance that nothing bad happens in the Middle East—these are the President's odds, but they seem a tad optimistic—the price of oil will fall by less than one quarter than the amount from the allegedly speculation-induced price that it will rise above that price if something bad does happen.

But in that case speculators have bought positive expected value insurance for oil prices and helped smooth them out (on average), rather than caused an irrational price spike for their selfish, greedy gain. The President (and the general population) should be thanking, not condemning, them.

The alternative hypothesis is that these alleged speculators are just not very smart and are messing with the market by making incorrect predictions about the risks of future price movements. But such bad speculators are also a social good. While they may cause market volatility, they effectively give away their money to other market participants by selling low and buying high. And eventually they go out of business as they run out of capital.

When Pres. Obama accuses the speculation of malefactors of great wealth of responsibility for high oil prices, he must assume that they are all bad ones. That leaves the question of why he does not believe that the "problem" will solve itself.

Not that the opposition is much better:

Obama's Republicans foes have pounded him over the rise in fuel prices, accusing him of putting on hold new oil drilling that could eventually lead to lower prices.

Increasing U.S. oil production may or may not be a good idea. To blame the unavailability of the relatively small amounts still to tapped domestically for day-to-day or even year-to-year movements in the global oil markets is inane.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Macaulay—What a man! (Second Try)

As promised, please find quoted below, translated into HTML, and with some of the most obvious typographer's mistakes corrected (for the remainder the typographer and I shall accept joint and several liability), the McLuhan essay on Macaulay mentioned in yesterday's post.

Macaulay—What a man!

By Marshall J. McLuhan

It will be recalled that Arnold once said, "Posterity alarmed at the way in which its literary baggage grown upon it, always seeks to leave behind it as much as it can, as much as it dares." In late years Macaulay has lost favor with Posterity, his capricious palladium, and indeed it is rumored that due to the recent acquisition of a huge mass of "baggage," Macaulay must go. This is not "a consummation devoutly to be wished."

The perpetuation of Macaulay's place depends upon his younger readers. His life and writings are preeminently qualified to attract, fascinate and instruct the impressionable adolescent. As a scholar, conversationalist, orator, statesman, essayist and historian, he has few peers. The enthusiasm, profound good sense, learning, and mental power that he brought to bear upon every situation make him an inspiration to anyone that has a spark of verve in him.

Let us briefly regard his life. Very few lives indeed can equal for industry, usefulness, purity or interest that of Macaulay. In his biographer he was extremely fortunate. Trevelyan has produced a book that, after Boswell 's, stands in the very first rank. There is a natural curiosity on the part of everyone to observe renound and eminent men in their intimate relations with their fellows. Excluding Boswell and Pepys I know of no book that satisfies this curiosity in a more profitable, healthy, or less Stracheyfied manner. Few ages in any history offer greater interest from political, literary or social standpoints than the reign of Victoria. These three aspects are unfolded before us in a delightfully intimate fashion. We are taken behind the scenes during the intense and critical days that preceded the passing of the great reform bill. The fall of governments, ministeries in the making, and bitter debates are often described by Macaulay's own pen. Nearly every important literary man of that fertile era is either presented to us in person or is directly alluded to. And we see the relations and understandings which existed between several great journalists and their editors. Perhaps the social side is most interesting of all. It was an age when the cultivation of wit and brilliant conversation reached its peak; and when breakfast parties, levees, great dinners, musicales, and fancy balls, occurred in endless sequence. Many of these affairs are described in faithful detail by Macaulay in his correspondence. During his first burst of popularity Macaulay took advantage of his many invitations and was for several years the brilliant ornament of a brilliant society. His taste for these affairs slackened, but not so his popularity.

It would not be profitable in so brief a sketch to expatiate upon Macaulay's precocity. His bon mots, the fact that he wrote a Compendium of Universal History when he was seven, and that he had a remarkable memory, these are impressions held by many Who know little else concerning him. Listen to an extract from a letter written to an anxious parent. Macaulay was fourteen and in attendance at Mr. Preston's school.

"I am sorry to hear that some nameless friend of Papa's denounced my voice as remarkably loud. I have accordingly resolved to speak in a moderate key except on the undermentioned occasions. Imprimis, when I am speaking at the same time with three others. Secondly, when I am praising the Christian Observer (his father's paper.) Thirdly, when I am praising Mr. Preston or his sisters I may be allowed to speak in my loudest voice, that they may hear me."

When he entered university he became intensely interested in politics. This interest attracted him on one occasion to a violent demonstration, staged by a body of disappointed electors. "His ardour was cooled by receiving a dead cat full in the face. The man who was responsible for the animal came up and apologized very civilly, assuring him that there was no town and gown feeling in the matter and that the cat had been meant for Mr. Adeane. 'I wish,' replied Macaulay, 'that you had meant it for me, and hit Mr. Adeane.' Despite this severe set-back, Macaulay's love of politics grew steadily stronger, and we know with what brilliant results."

Another of many amusing incidents occurred on an occasion when he had sprained his wrist. Macaulay usually shaved himself but this made it necessary to call in a barber. When the man had finished with him, Macaulay said to him, "How much do I owe you ?" "Oh, give me whatever you usually give the man that shaves you." "In that case," Macaulay laughingly replied, "I should give you a great gash on either cheek."

A corroborating circumstance is that after his voyage to India there were found in his cabin dozens of broken razors, and strops cut and slashed beyond cognizance. This is in part accounted for when it is remembered that, dressing, shaving, eating, or walking, he was never without a book before him.

Few men have attained such eminent distinction so early in life. Fewer still have augmented it so consistently to the very last day of their lives, as did Macaulay. We doubt whether any man may be pointed out who handled such weighty affairs, who took so many important steps, or who was subjected to a more scrutinizing criticism, and of whom it may be said, as it may of Macaulay, that he never made a mistake. His judgment and wisdom in both personal and public affairs was uncanny. No one ever guided the course of his life more consciously than Macaulay.

There is no space in which to cite any instances of his magnanimity, save this one. It is, however, characteristic of the man. When in India he undeservingly incurred the enmity of the press for his advocacy of a very necessary reform. While he was being reviled and covered with obloquy, in terms so violent that they could never stand reprinting, Macaulay was earnestly supporting a motion whereby these very newspapers might be granted further liberty of expression. He left more than a reputation for magnanimity in India. The Indian Penal Code, which was the product of three years' hard work, would alone entitle him to a high place in the regard of posterity.

For many years after Macaulay left India, there lingered a tradition which inseparably associated him with Richardson's great novel, Clarissa Harlowe. The occasion of its origin is rather interesting. A number of officials, of whom Macaulay was one, were isolated up in the hills during the rainy season. For a month on end they were unable to venture outside. As there were no books save those Macaulay had with him, even his resources were severely tried; while "his companions were ready to hang themselves for very dullness." Most fortunately among his books was Clarissa Harlowe. He soon talked his favorite romance into general favor. Thackeray, who describes the story as he had it from Macaulay, says, "As soon as they began to read the whole station was in a passion of excitement about Miss Harlowe and her misfortunes, and her scoundrelly Lovelace. The Governor's wife seized the book, the Secretary waited for it, the Chief Justice could not read it for tears." A hardened old Scotch doctor cried over the last volume until he was too ill to appear at dinner; while "Sir William Mcnaughten, the hero and victim of the darkest episode in our Indian history, declared that reading this copy of Clarissa under the inspiration of the owner's enthusiasm was nothing less than an epoch in his life."

After his return from India he again sat in parliament and made it evident that if he were willing to devote himself to politics, no one was more fit for the part of prime minister than he. The thought of his History, however, had already become dear to him. He could not help but be aware that many were capable of guiding the government of the country, but that he alone was fitted to produce the great work that he ultimately left us.

The essay, as we know it, well nigh owes its origin to Macaulay. His power to clothe apparently barren subjects in attractive form, greatly widens the scope of the average reader's horizon. To quote Thackeray again: "Take at hazard any three pages of the Essays or History; and glimmering below the stream of the narrative, you, an average reader, see one, two, three, a half a score of allusions to other historic facts, characters, literature, poetry, with which you are acquainted. Your neighbor who has his reading and his little stock of literature stowed away in his mind shall detect more points, allusions, happy touches, indicating not only the prodigious memory and vast learning of this master, but the wonderful industry, the honest humble previous toil of this great scholar. He reads twenty books to write a sentence; he travels a hundred miles to make a line of description." When one considers the conditions under which he wrote half of his essays, the moments thriftily snatched before breakfast from a day so busy that even a modern American businessman would stare and gasp, when one considers this, it is difficult to speak temperately. Anyone who is willing to read a dozen pages for hearty laugh, would do well to scan the "Willingtoniad" and "Scenes from the Athenian Revels," both written for the university magazine. Of his later and best essays at least, it may be said that he wrote almost entirely for pleasure. He desired no more money, his fame needed no augmentation; and as he regarded these works as purely ephemeral he cannot be accused of writing them for posterity. His pleasure in writing was exceeded only by that of the readers who perused his articles. It is by this ability to impart enthusiasm through his pen that Macaulay has made his most valuable contribution to society. No other man possesses the same power to send the young reader to dip into Herodotus, Pepys, Swift, St. Simon, Addison, Johnson, Boswell, or any of a host of writers. In this particular posterity owes Macaulay a debt that is not susceptible of measurement, but certainly one that is of great and constantly increasing magnitude.

For the task of an historian Macaulay was qualified as few men ever were. "His was the combination of literary power, historical learning, and practical familiarity with the conduct of great affairs."

The result of this rare combination of gifts was a work that satisfied the tyrannical expectation of knowledge and the indefinite expectation of ignorance. Macaulay once half humorously said, "I shall not be satisfied unless I produce something that will for a few days supersede the last fashionable novel on the tables of young ladies." He accomplished this truly prodigious feat. Today the tendency in history is to get away from the "drowsy spell of narrative." A descendent of Macaulay's, himself a prominent historian, has aptly remarked that they have broken away from the "spell" at least. The fact that he was able to produce but a fragment of his design and that the reign of Anne, his favorite portion of history, was left untouched is more to be lamented than the discontinuance of Pepys' diary.

I have have to omit allusion to Macaulay's poetry and many other interesting features in his life; but to omit a reference to Macaulay as an orator would be to overlook one of the most considerable aspects of his life and work. Macaulay was a born orator. His style, a spontaneous self-expression, is admirably adapted to declamation. His first speech was almost as successful as his last. His was the true Demosthenic wish, the despair of reporters, the terror of his opponents and the pride of his party. Many of the old members in the House, who had heard both Burke and Macaulay, felt that the latter could well sustain a comparison with the former. An idea very current in his day was that Macaulay's speeches were laborously prepared and memorized. The newspaper reports often contain the phrase "he never forgot a word." The truth is that he never committed to writing anything intended to be spoken. Trevelyan says, "His speeches on Copyright, on the Government of India and on the Dissenters' Chapels Bill turned votes by the score and in some cases, hundred. A respected statesman who makes a specialty of the Factory Laws and of popular Education, used to declare that everything worth saying about the principles of those two great questions might be found in Macaulay's republished speeches." And indeed the host of apt historical and literary allusions make these speeches in no way less readable than the Essays. I thought the following excerpt from a newspaper of the day quite worthy of insertion.

"It was pleasanter talking on Wednesday when the position of Mr. Macaulay in Great Britain was measured in a great way. The talk was not interesting—on a Wednesday it seldom is—and you were loitering along the committee lobby upstairs, wondering which of the rooms you should take next, when as you paused uncertain you were bumped against by somebody. He begged your pardon and rushed on—a Member; a stout Member; a man you couldn't conceive in a run and yet he is running like mad. You are still staring at him when two more men trot past you, one on each side, and they are Members too. The door close to you, marked 'Members Entrance,' is flung open and five Members dash from it, and plunge furiously down the lobby. More doors open; more Members rush out; Members are tearing past you from all points, but in one direction. Then wigs and gown appear. Their owners tell you with happy faces that their Committees have adjourned; and then come a third class, the gentlemen of the Press, hilarious. Why, what's the matter? Matter? Macaulay is up. It was an announcement that one had not heard for years and it had emptied the committee rooms as of old, it emptied clubs." As Dr. Glover would have said, "What a man!"

(H/T still: McLUHAN on MAUI blog)

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Marshall McLuhan: Macaulay—What a Man!

Update: Google Docs has made a right mess of the document and I do not recommend anybody trying to read it in its current form. I've posted a PDF version above.

Please find a link to an essay (link to useless PDF removed) by a young Marshall McLuhan on my idol Thomas Macaulay which I happened to run across.

(H/T: McLUHAN on MAUI blog).

Monday, April 4, 2011

Dahlia Lithwick Is Not Very Bright

As part of an ongoing series belaboring the same obvious point, let me repeat that for an alleged legal professional who gets paid by a nationally read publication to explain the law and Constitutional issues, Ms. Lithwick really does not appear to be awfully familiar with either.

From her latest wail:

Say what you want about how Congress forced Obama's hand today by making it all but impossible to try the 9/11 conspirators in regular Article II courts.

Cato...? Anybody...? Would you please send Dahlia a copy of the actual Constitution? She talks a great deal about it, but she might be surprised to learn what is in Article II. Or Article III.

Bonus Lithwick Inanity: We shall not even inquire for a justification of her statement that Citizens United created special laws for corporations. Regardless of the merits of the decision, which are considerable, it indisputably only permits corporations (and unions) to do what everybody else is constitutionally entitled to do—spend money to criticize or praise candidates or policies.