How We Got Screwed - an Economics Lesson

I've been reading the posts at We are the 99 Percent and watching the Occupy Wall Street protests in fascination. While a lot of this is probably going to sound pretty heartless, I do have sympathy for the protestors. Most of them are in terrible predicaments, which will be very hard if not impossible to get out of. But none of them seem to have any idea how they wound up that way, or whose fault it is.

And that's the thing -- it's not really anyone's fault. Not even the rich people. It's an entirely natural consequence of the kind of economy we have, and a bunch of these weak spots breaking at the same time.

Here's the general principle: any time the cost for a product is dissociated in time or direct payment from the consumer who chooses that product, the price will rise, unchecked by normal market forces.

Currently-relevant examples:

  • Housing, when paid by loans.
  • College education, when paid by loans.
  • Medical expenses, when paid by insurance.

I was working for a real estate attorney in an expensive suburb when the housing boom was going on. Every day we boggled over the loans people were getting. How can buyers believe they can pay this much? How can banks be stupid enough to give out these loans? What is going to happen when this all falls apart?

We all saw: near worldwide financial collapse. And while banks are greedy, heartless bastards as a rule, it wasn't like this was their intent. It was just that people, banks, and builders all found a way to optimize that system to leak the most money. 

The same thing has been happening with college loans. You need a degree to get a good job, right? So it's worth going into debt. And if every student can get a guaranteed loan to pay any sort of tuition… what's to stop those tuition rates from rising forever? Unlimited demand! Unlimited money! Private schools with clever marketing pop up, and state school see an easier way than taxes to make a few dollars. And now it seems like everyone goes to an expensive college, winds up with a ton of debt, and can't get a decent job.

And finally, the big one: medical insurance. This is a double whammy, because you do pay for it before you receive anything, so if anything, people are motivated to get something for their money. Often the more expensive something is, the more desirable it is to the consumer, because the hated insurance company has to pay for it. 

None of these were organized eville big money schemes to shaft the middle class, working class, or poor. They're just natural consequences of things that were a good idea at the time, but under-regulated and taken advantage of for so long, have spiraled out of control. Without financing/insuring big-expense items, only the rich could buy houses or go to college or get serious medical care. No one wants that. 

The problem is simple and unavoidable: people. Given the chance, almost everyone will take advantage of a situation. If they can pay less for something than it's worth, or get paid more for a job than the value they're contributing, or defer payment, or get something for free… well, who passes that up? And when enough people behave that way, the whole system falls apart.

The guys on Wall Street -- the "top 1%" -- had enough luck, starting capital, and savvy to situate themselves on the side of the equation where the money flows, and avoid the building-up-debts side. While increasing taxes on the wealthy is completely reasonable given the amount of government debt, it isn't going to fix the problems of those protesting. 

I don't know a viable governmental solution. I'm afraid life is going to suck for a lot of people for a very long time. 

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Recent Reading

I keep telling myself I'll post a thorough review of everything I read, but I seem to read a lot faster than I post. So instead I'll settle for some quick comments on the latest books.

The Fabric of the Cosmos, Brian Greene
I saw that Greene's latest had just come out, so I figured I should read this first. As always, Greene is excellent at using examples and metaphors to explain extremely complicated subjects. This time he takes on the nature of space and time, the origins of the universe, and the underlying reality of matter, now informed by recent discoveries in cosmology.

Unfortunately, I've done some real study since reading his first book, so this wound up feeling remedial and boring. And I'm still not sold on string theory, his favorite. But for someone who wants to get an understanding of what quantum mechanics and relativity mean, without doing all the heavy math lifting, no one explains it better than Greene. Now with Simpsons characters in all examples, for that extra serious touch!

A Fire Upon the Deep, Vernor Vinge
Yay, for epic science fiction! I'd been saving this as a treat. :)

This is set in a universe where the speed of light is no longer a limit in certain regions of space. The farther away from a galactic core you get, the faster space ships and signals can travel. So civilizations in the outer regions become extremely advanced, right up until they point they reach singularity and become gods.

Out near the realm of the gods, some humans undertook some ill-advised archaeology, dug up and reactivated a malevolent godlike being. They fled, but only one ship escaped, carrying some children in suspended animation and a secret which may be the only thing which can stop the being which is quickly destroying every advanced civilization it contacts.

The story shifts between various sects of the pack-intelligence aliens on the world where the escaping ship landed, a few surviving humans (and allies) headed out to try to retrieve it, and usenet-type messages discussing, misinterpreting, and acting on events. It's a big, complicated book and I liked it a lot, though the ending wasn't quite as spectacular as A Deepness in the Sky.

One interesting detail -- the Kindle version includes hyperlinks to revision notes, both from the author, his editor, and some other people whose initials I couldn't identify.

Jesus of Nazareth, Parts One and Two, Pope Benedict XVI

A fascinating pair of books -- I've never read anything like them. Possibly why they already very busy Cardinal Ratzinger/Pope Benedict took the time to write.

The author takes gospel events, assumes them to be essentially factual, puts them in historical context and uses what we know of the era, cultures, and languages to tease out what actually happened, and what that means for Christians. Reading was sometimes tough going -- following the meaning of a specific word through several pages of analysis is not a skill I've kept up lately.

He insists that this is not a magisterial document. He's not teaching or declaring anything -- it's just a scholarly investigation, but it sure is amazing reading. Looking forward to the next volume.

The Immortality Virus, Christine Amsden

I know Christine from Codex, and this had just been released and was on sale when I was looking for my next book, so I thought I'd give it a shot. Good choice.

In a world where people mysteriously stopped aging a few hundred years ago, Grace has been hired to find the guy who may have caused it. But looking for him means that everyone wants to find her, now, either to stop her, or get whatever information she's collected. Fast paced, interesting, good characters, clean style. Very fun read.

From Words to Brain, Livia Blackburne

A short essay on what our brains are doing when we read. Interesting, though I'm not sure I can do much with the information. Was hoping for a little more in the way of tools than just info.

Starve Better, Nick Mamatas

Various collected essays from nihilistic_kid. Includes one of of his best LJ posts ever. Loved this, though I never write non-fiction and rarely write short stories. Still lots of fun with useful advice. Writing books are always better with professional wrestling metaphors.

Remood Playlist

Like many people, under prolonged stress or adverse hormones I can slide into a depression, and it's hard to get back out. Even when I'm fully aware that I'm just experiencing a brain hiccup, the depression itself takes away all motivation to do anything substantive to feel better.

I've found a trick that works most of the time. Maybe it'll be useful to share.

I get very involved with music and I have an enormous library of songs. I've put together a playlist with a sequence of songs to gradually adjust my mood, and since I can shift slowly enough, as long as I'm enjoying what I'm listening to my emotions will generally go along with it. This doesn't always work, but probably 90% of the time.

So here's what the list looks like, with just a few sample songs (my actual playlists are usually much longer, even many hours long):

First set of songs feature pure misery and despair, so I have no trouble identifying.
["King of Pain" by The Police, "Bother" by Stone Sour]

Shift to angry songs. Not a big step in mood.
["Ugly" The Exies, "Thoughtless" by Korn]

Follow that with with defiant songs. Again, it's not a big change.
["Defy You" by The Offspring, "I Will Not Bow" by Breaking Benjamin, "Do you Call My Name" by Ra]

Once I've shifted entirely from angry to defiant (it's a spectrum) shift from defiant to aggressive/arrogant/confident songs.
["This is War" by 30 Seconds To Mars, "Noise" by Tokio Hotel, "Maybe" by Sick Puppies]

And clearly, once I'm all the way to arrogant and confident, it's not too hard to start slipping a little hope in there.
["Kill Your Heroes" by AWOLNATION, "Iridescent" by Linkin Park, "Long Forgotten Sons" by Rise Against]

Finally ease into some outright hopeful and happy songs.
["Hope" by Anything Box, "Unputdownable" by De/Vision, "Elevator" by House of Heroes]

I don't know if this concept is useful to anyone else, but I figured it couldn't hurt to share. If you're interested in a sequence like this and you don't know what songs to use, let me know what sort of music you prefer and I can probably come up with some examples.
  • Current Music
    "Die Die Die" - The Avett Brothers
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San Francisco Trip Report

A trip report in small (if numerous) bites: [FOGcon report here if that's what you're looking for.]

My TSA "pat down" was more like being petted. Kind of relaxing, actually.

San Francisco is the happiest, friendliest city I have thus far encountered.

I believe the lack of grumpiness must be because of the hills, at least in part. I myself got grumpy for a while, but after two hills I couldn't manage to hold onto it.

The near universal wardrobe of SF is this: blue jeans, practical shoes (usually running shoes), layered tee-shirts, and over it all a hoodie and/or shell, plus casual, unsyled hair. I finally found someplace I fit in. :D

At one point (due to Lenten fasting) I almost asked the person picking our dinner restaurant to make sure it had vegetarian options. Then I remembered where I was.

The Exploratorium is way neat and full of cool things to play with. The exterior is gorgeous and utterly incongruous with the interior.

The interior of the Exploratorium:

The exterior of the Exploratorium, otherwise known as "The Palace of Fine Art":

Inside the Exploratorium is something called The Tactile Dome. This is a large geodesic dome with an obstacle course-like route through it, which, after paying a small fee and getting an appointment, you and a small group of friends can try to make your way through. Oh, and it's in complete darkness.

Inside the Tactile Dome, I was convinced several times that my weak noodley arms were not going to pull me up the steep, slippery tube, or up the wobbly net, and that my giant butt was not going to fit through several narrow openings and twisty passages, but I made it through. Twice. With a lot of giggling.

Inside the triple-masted cargo ship Balclutha it smells like tar and salt and wood, which is not unpleasant. All the rooms and passages are as small as they can possibly be, and the stairs really are incredibly narrow and steep. By contrast, the cargo holds were huge. All the doorways are raised, so you have to step up and over to get inside, which totally makes sense, but I never thought of it.

Every member of Chris's family called or texted him on Friday morning to warn him about the tsunami. Like the city wouldn't have any provisions for that kind of thing, and we need notification from Illinois.

Thanks to my requesting (and paying a small amount extra for) an upgraded hotel room, and that upgraded room turning out to be the place where a contractor needed access to do construction, we wound up in the hotel's penthouse suite.

San Fransciso is not that architecturally interesting, at a distance, compared to Chicago. Still, we were consistently delayed an hour every morning as we got stuck looking out the windows.

You wouldn't think that I'd have one of my frequent "where the heck am I again?" moments while walking across the Golden Gate Bridge, but you'd be wrong.

The Golden Gate Bridge is very pretty, really long, and full of deafening traffic noise. And there's nothing for pedestrians on the other side but a lookout point and some grubby bathrooms. Not even a vending machine. Like Gary Kloster (who walked with us) said, that's just un-American.

There was a huge concentration of hipsters going to and from the Golden Gate Bridge. Why? Posing for their indie band's album covers? I do not understand it.

If you're wearing frictionless pants, don't sit in the last sideways-facing seat on the bus. Between the jerky acceleration of the electric-powered motor, and the hills, it was a constant struggle not to hit the floor. Or that poor old lady's lap.

It is totally possible to write a complete story in an hour, and I have the notes on how to do it.

At FOGcon I got to play Ophelia in a Hamlet-themed LARP. And I won. :)

In San Francisco, things like "peace" and "love" were occasionally scratched in to sidewalks, but Oakland has the most impressive graffiti I've ever seen.

Made friends with a former fighting pit bull, currently in therapy. Was a mite nervewracking until she warmed up to me, but once she did, I felt really safe! *g*

Chris wound up on TV again, but at least this time he wasn't walking three four girls on leashes.

Chinatown was a fabulous juxtaposition of cheap tourist crap, utterly beautiful art and antiques, stores which look like they're selling herbs (but I'm pretty sure were actually pharmacies), dive-y little restaurants, and Chinese-esque architecture. I especially liked the Oriental-styled Wells Fargo.

One of the Chinese herb/pharmacies had a whole display which, well, I think those were probably roots of some kind, but… it sure looked like bushel after bushel of dried poop.

I was unable to find pandan ice cream, so New York's Chinatown still wins in that regard. :( I did find egg custard tarts, though, which makes up for a lot!

Was a fun trip. :)

FOGcon 1, some thoughts

FOGcon Report

(This is just about the convention, not the trip.)

It's hard to separate a convention from its location, its venue, and the people who attend it, because all those factors contribute. Especially since this was the first FOGcon, it's even harder to tease out which parts of my experience were the essentials of the convention. But I'll give it a try.

I liked the "Cities" theme a lot. I even attended a couple panels (one on cities, one on writing) which is more than my usual tally of no panels at all. I might even had hit three if I hadn't been out Sunday enjoying a visit with purdypiedad. Both the panels I saw were great, Pat Murphy's special presentation "write a story in an hour" especially so. Other people seemed positive about the panels they were on or attended, so I think the convention clearly was a win in the panel department. I also took part in the Hamlet-themed LARP that was offered, and that was great fun. :)

The "Honored Guests" (I never learned why they're not called "Guests of Honor") were a mix, for me. Pat Murphy is very friendly and completely awesome. The Vandermeers seemed standoffish, as I couldn't get either of them to even make eye contact so I could say hi, and they didn't seem to mingle outside of con staff and maybe a group of prior friends. (But that was only my very limited experience, and I've been wrong before!)

The convention was well run, well organized. Everything happened on time, clearly marked, and in the location specified. (You'd be surprised how often that's not the case…) The consuite was great. The dealers room looked like a normal, well-filled dealers room like you'd find at any convention that's been running for decades.

I thought the hotel was fine, but I was a guest there, and outside the convention itself, probably the guest who gave them the most money with a 7-night stay in an upgraded room, so they treated me well. Also, I don't care much about hotel wifi, as I'm used to having to bring my conectivity with me, and I use a vacation as an excuse to ignore it. :p The panel spaces and other convention rooms seemed perfect. The fact that the bar was hardly ever open was INSANE… and will lead to one of my bigger complaints, but I'm not sure where the fault is, there.

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Specific good things:

Con suite with good food and drink, including the one thing I can live on indefinitely: Clif Bars. Also home made convention-themed beer, lots of both diet soda and fizzy water. Also a magical Rice Krispie bar fairy, who always kept the snack table stocked with exactly three bars. (I want that fairy.) And a big patio!

The location. I thought the location was perfect, both being in San Francisco, and being in that neighborhood of San Francisco. Great restaurants, great transit options, not too touristy. Whole Foods half a block away.

And, a notable feature of the location: the people! I loved talking with a whole bunch of people who are locals, including various of Shannon's co-workers and the charming nihilistic_kid. Also, the ordinary hotel guests seemed to think that the convention was really cool, not the usual reaction of strange-bordering-on-scary.

Overall, I think it was a good convention. I assume the best parts will continue, and the less than optimal aspects will improve.


I spent the afternoon writing, seated in the comfy leather chair in the sunny window of a coffee shop. I ate lemon cake and sipped a ginormous matcha smoothie. At twilight a huge flock of crows came out and circled... well, the AT&T store across the street, then headed off to roost wherever it is they spend the night. It was gorgeous.

Soon I'm headed off to have incredibly good tapas.

I'm so spoiled. :-/
  • Current Music
    "Don't Carry it All" - The Decemberists

A Catholic Whine

I think there might be as many as three people here who even understand what I'm complaining about, but anyway.

I have spent almost all of my Catholic life in the Diocese of Peoria, which is, I believe, one of the best in the country. I can't think of anything improper I've seen in any parish there in the nearly 20 years I've been around that area.

Now, though, I'm spending a lot more time in the Chicago area. The nearby church is... I don't know, a third of a mile away? Easily walkable, which I thought was going to be GREAT! But instead it's so lame it's driving me bananas. The tabernacle is off in some other wing where I can't even see it. There's no crucifix visible, just... houseplants... behind the altar.

I am mildly tempted to join whatever committee has determined the church decor and suggesting adding maybe, I don't know, a fish tank to liven things up. Or kittens. C'mon, nothing says the love of God like kittens, amiright?!


Equally frustrating, they have what is easily the best choir I have ever heard, anywhere. I've been to cathedrals on Easter which did not come close to an ordinary Sunday here, performance-wise. But of course they're singing the most inane hymns I've ever encountered. When I would normally be singing, I'm instead gawking at the lyrics wondering where they even find this quality of drivel. (And I am by no means picky. The usual sappy hymns heard all over the USA are fine with me.)

Not sure what to do. I probably have six more months here, at least. If the weather wasn't so abysmal it'd be a lot easier to go further afield, but for the duration of winter at least, I guess I have to cope. Bleh.

Why We Get Fat -- Review

As mentioned on Twitter a while back, I recently got this book to review, and thought it might be of interest to some of my friends here.

Why We Get Fat, and What To do About It

I have been waiting for a book written from this angle for years. The "standard" theory of weight management is so simplistic it isn't of much help. Sure, people gain weight because they eat more than they burn, duh. Why does this imbalance exist? Why does it happen to some people and not others? Why is obesity on the rise? Why is it so hard to fix?

Saying that people are more slothful and gluttonous nowadays, while common, does not seem to be a reasonable answer, not when the weight gain is happening so fast, is so widespread, and occurring even to infants.

Gary Taubes has been pursuing the answers to these questions for a while. First, he presents evidence that the calories-in/calories-out model is fundamentally flawed. In animals, including humans, it appears that bodies set an internal standard for how much fat should be maintained and where it goes. Attempts to influence this value through changing caloric intake or activity might be temporarily successful, but they won't last. Gary presents ample evidence from history, scientific research, and population studies to prove his point.

So what's the cause of obesity, then? In some people it may just be genetic. Overall, though it looks like carbohydrates and sugar are the culprits. The author explains the effect that carbohydrate intake has on blood insulin levels, and the effect insulin has on fat stores. None of this biochemistry is debated at all, but there seems to be a glaring disconnect between the science of hormone signaling and theories of diet and weight loss.

To further prove his point, Gary next analyzes various diets and how successful they have been. In the end, it seems that a low carbohydrate diet is the best choice for weight loss, diabetes/insulin resistance, and overall health, *but* he warns, it hasn't been exhaustively tested long term yet. Initial tests are very promising though, showing improved blood lipids, and the most significant weight loss. A quick sample diet is provided in the appendix.

This is not a diet or weight loss book. This is an inquiry into why people get fat, starting without preconceived notions. As such, I think it's extremely valuable. This is a crucial subject, and the current set of theories and advice do not seem to be helping people much.

Which is not to say that I agreed 100% with the author. He has his theory and he pursues it fully, with the best evidence he can find. That's fine, but I noticed a few gaps. For one, just because the body has an idea how big its ideal fat stores should be, doesn't mean that people can't essentially force-feed themselves by eating beyond what hunger would dictate. Restaurant portions and addictive snacks are likely culprits in obesity too. See The End of Overeating: Taking Control of the Insatiable American Appetite for information on that.

Exercise, too, is dismissed as useless for weight loss. I agree that it's not effective for mere calorie burning. Appetite will counteract any deficit achieved. But exercise, especially long or high-intensity aerobic exercise uses up carbohydrates. And thus, by his theory regular aerobic exercise should have a similar effect to eating a low-carbohydrate diet. (I have read studies where this appears to be the case.)

Still, I think this is a fabulous book despite the occasional blind spot. If you are interested in the biology behind weight regulation, this is a must read.

[Originally posted to]
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World Fantasy 2010

The good and the bad, with a minimum of name dropping.

All the people I get to talk to. The Codex presence was huge. And new people! New awesome people! General hanging out, silliness and parties. Occasional bits of insight into both the art and business of writing stories.

The Hyatt hotel was pretty nice. The quality was good and the service very friendly if notably overwhelmed by all of us. Which I found strange -- is this not the big hotel connected to a giant convention center? Do you never get a bunch of guests all at once? Dunno.

I didn't get out into Columbus at all, so I can't comment on it as a convention locale, except to say that I got to finally meet ccfinlay! He's too busy to travel to other conventions, but since this WFC was local, he could stop by. He's so fun and charming! raecarson is a lucky, lucky girl. I think all conventions should be held in Columbus from now on. ;)

view of the Big Bar on 2 from above

This is the problem with WFC. It's you over there in a cluster of people. I know you, I like you, and we don't get to talk much in person. But… I also know you've got career considerations. Is that an important business discussion you're engaged in? Are you making a connection with someone new and important? I can't tell; I'm not going to interrupt. Maybe I'll say hi in the hall or the elevator or the dealer's room if I get a chance, but if you don't come over to me, it's not going to happen, not at WFC. (At WisCon you're fair game though, hah.)

I'm sad, because the weekend goes by and we never get a chance to talk. Maybe you're busy, or you didn't see me. Maybe you're thinking the same thing I am. It's not as if I don't have my own cluster of people around. Still, it would've been fun to catch up with you.

Also, I didn't drink enough water while preparing for the con, traveling, or on the first day, so by Friday night I developed a kidney stone. If I seemed cranky and obsessed with finding things to drink Friday night/Saturday morning, that's why.