Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Mr. Biggins in Love

While I’m on the subject of New Babbage, I saw that episode 261 of Designing Worlds returned to New Babbage with a little intrigue (as usual) and the timely subject of love - Mr. Jebediah Biggins, in particular, as the love-lorn but ingenious fellow.

Monday, February 16, 2015

New Babbage's Quarry Hill

At some point, when I wasn’t looking, the town of New Babbage extended its borders once again, this time to an area called Quarry Hill. I strolled around the place one winter’s day.

Quarry Hill  New Babbage 001
McLachlan estate

Quarry Hill  New Babbage 002
Carpe Diem Coffee House and Tea Room

Quarry Hill  New Babbage 003
Carpe Diem interior

Quarry Hill  New Babbage 004
Baron Insurance Agency and Catacomb

Quarry Hill  New Babbage 005
New Cocoa Java Cafe

Quarry Hill  New Babbage 006

Friday, February 6, 2015

Addendum on the minimum wage

Just after I posted yesterday’s piece on the minimum wage, I saw this column by Larry Elder, noting the views of two prominent - even infamous - economists on the Left.

MIT economist and Obamacare architect Jon Gruber, in 2011: Let's say the government rolled in and set a minimum wage. ... Workers want to supply more hours than firms want to hire. ... You end up with excess supply. And we call that excess supply ‘unemployment.’” And: "We have a downward sloping demand curve, and why is it downward sloping? Because the higher the wage, the fewer workers the firm wants to hire. It would rather use machines instead."

Here’s Elder quoting Princeton economics professor (and New York Times columnist) Paul Krugman:
In 1998, Krugman reviewed a book that supported the living wage, titled "The Living Wage: Building a Fair Economy." But Krugman slammed the idea: "The living wage movement is simply a move to raise minimum wages through local action. So what are the effects of increasing minimum wages? Any Econ 101 student can tell you the answer: The higher wage reduces the quantity of labor demanded, and hence leads to unemployment." 
Krugman even dismissed Card-Krueger, the widely cited minimum-wage study that purports to show its positive effect. Krugman pretty much dismissed it. "Indeed," he wrote, "much-cited studies by two well-regarded labor economists, David Card and Alan Krueger, find that where there have been more or less controlled experiments, for example when New Jersey raised minimum wages but Pennsylvania did not, the effects of the increase on employment have been negligible or even positive. Exactly what to make of this result is a source of great dispute. Card and Krueger offered some complex theoretical rationales, but most of their colleagues are unconvinced; the centrist view is probably that minimum wages 'do,' in fact, reduce employment, but that the effects are small and swamped by other forces. ... 
"In short, what the living wage is really about is not living standards, or even economics, but morality. Its advocates are basically opposed to the idea that wages are a market price -? determined by supply and demand, the same as the price of apples or coal. And it is for that reason, rather than the practical details, that the broader political movement of which the demand for a living wage is the leading edge is ultimately doomed to failure: For the amorality of the market economy is part of its essence, and cannot be legislated away."

Thursday, February 5, 2015

The Minimum Wage - A Perpetual Motion Machine?

I recently tweeted a link to a story about a bookstore in San Francisco that announced it would be closing because the owner couldn’t afford to pay his employees the new, higher minimum wage ($15 an hour after being full phased in over a few years). The irony in the story is that the owner, a devout liberal, thinks the minimum wage hike is a good idea even though it killed his business. (At least he has the courage of his convictions, so kudos to the guy for consistency.)

That link precipitated a brief back-and-forth with a twitter friend regarding the effectiveness of minimum wages and the effect of such laws on employment. Because a limit of 140 characters isn’t really a help in parsing complicated subjects, I thought I’d expand on those points here.

First, a great deal of research has gone into understanding the relationship between increases in the minimum wage and changes in employment. It’s a tough problem for a number of reasons:
  • The vast majority of workers earn more than the minimum wage, so small increases in the minimum don’t directly affect those workers
  • Changes in employment because of national events (e.g., a recession or recovery) or local events (e.g., jobs flowing to Silicon Valley or away from the Rust Belt) often swamp small changes in the minimum wage
  • To the extent that changes in the minimum wage lag changes in actual wages, and thus the law isn’t a binding constraint on employers (that is, they’re already paying more than the minimum), as has often been the case, one wouldn’t expect much, if any, change in employment.

Most studies have concluded either that small changes in the minimum wage have no statistically significant effect on employment or that such an effect, while negative, is small. Few studies show that employment actually increases, a result that would be sharply at odds with basic economic theory. Almost invariably, making something cost more reduces the demand for it. The question is not whether higher (binding) minimum wages reduce employment, but how much such laws reduce employment. And my emphasis on small changes in the minimum wage is important: I presume that everyone accepts that sufficiently large increases will have a substantial impact on employment; otherwise, we’d just impose a $100/hour wage and everyone would be rich.

Another thing to keep in mind is the composition of which workers earn the minimum. In general, they are young, often still in school and in their first jobs, and often working part time. Full-time workers generally move quickly from a minimum-wage position to something paying above the minimum. This has important implications for public policy, as I’ll discuss below.

The logical argument in favor of increasing the minimum wage is that the small decrease in employment is more than offset by the greater purchasing power of the vast majority who keep their jobs, and that the social welfare net will backstop any job losses. To put it in economists’ terms, demand for (unskilled) labor is sufficiently inelastic that making such labor cost more doesn’t change the quantity demanded much.

Does this make sense? Keep in mind who earns the minimum wage: high school kids and adults with few marketable skills. Businesses don’t hire those people because they bring a lot to the business; businesses hire them because they’re cheap. What happens when they’re not as cheap? Businesses cut back. The summer hire who cleans out the stockroom might not be affordable any longer. When thinking about the value the business gets from having a cleaner stockroom, the owner may decide it’s not a good deal any more. The young woman who handles the cash register may no longer be affordable; customers will just have to wait in slightly longer lines. Business owners may increase their own hours instead of hiring now-more-expensive labor. Bigger businesses may decide to increase their amount of automation, such as having customers order food from an iPad rather than from a waitress.

And here’s the thing that few people keep in mind: most businesses aren’t going to fire an employee if the minimum wage increases. Instead, they just won’t hire the next employee. That job will simply never exist. But how can anyone keep track of that? It’s easy to keep track of existing jobs that are lost, such as those six employees of the San Francisco independent bookstore, but it’s impossible to collect anecdotes of jobs that would have been profitable to create under the old wage but are no longer profitable under the new wage.

I often hear a “fairness” argument in favor of higher minimum wages. It costs a lot to live in the city, and it’s not “fair” to employ someone at, say, $7.25 an hour. I have to reactions to that. First, if people are willing to offer their labor for $7.25 an hour, they clearly view the compensation as enough to take the job. Although people get emotional about labor, this decision is no different than saying a Mercedes is overpriced because at a lower price more people would drive one. I don’t have much patience for fairness arguments, because what’s fair to you might not be fair to me. If the government wants to insert itself into any market, including the labor market, it should have a sound basis for doing so. (Other government actions, such as how progressive the income tax schedule should be, or how much food stamps should be worth, are clearly and unavoidably subjective.) Second, while the people who remain employed are clearly better off, the people who fail to get jobs are not only worse off today, but may well remain worse off forever. The high school graduate who can’t get her first job can’t use that as a stepping stone to a better job. Thus the long-term implications of lower employment, which are even harder to measure than the immediate effect, may be much larger than the immediate implications.

One last thought: it’s one thing for the voters in, say, Seattle or San Francisco to vote for higher minimum wages in those cities, but it’s an entirely different thing to impose higher minimum wages everywhere, i.e., in a national law. In Seattle, for example, a high cost-of-living city, it may be the case that almost everyone already earns at least $15 an hour, so the law is not terribly binding, so the effect of the law is minimal. However, employers in low cost-of-living areas, where the prevailing minimum wage is, say, $7.50 an hour, would face a doubling of labor costs, so workers in those areas would be disproportionately hit by the law.

If increasing the minimum wage made almost everyone better off, it would be the economic version of a perpetual motion machine. Back in the real world, though, it’s just another price control, and works just as well as other efforts to monkey with market forces.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

More Tales from New Babbage

The third volume in the Tales of New Babbage series is out (and can be ordered through the link, hint, hint). Almost two years has passed since the previous volume, and at times I wondered if this one would ever see the light of day. (People have busy lives, I know, and this is a labor of love.) Seventeen new stories about the grimy, crazy, and wonderful Steampunk city. Stories of urchins and airships, carnivals and kraken, inventors and evil geniuses, monocles and megalomaniacs, raving lunatics and revenge. I don’t know who all was involved in assembling and editing the book, but Mr. A. E. Cleanslate, Miss Bookworm Hienrichs, and Miss Junie Ginsburg, and Mr. Mosseveno Tenk all played important roles, and all deserve a big round of applause. My apologies to anyone I have missed.

I won’t try to summarize all the pieces in the book, but here is a flavor of what one might expect:

The title of Tepic Harlequin’s “Hunt Reversed” is apt, as the story is one in which the hunters become the hunted. “Test Flight,” by Joseph Gatch, is a humorous piece about the trials of inventors - and their hapless assistants. “Elements of Revenge: A Trio of Travelers Tale,” by Travis I. Sivart, is a straight-ahead adventure story - except that nothing in New Babbage is straightforward. Emerson Lighthouse has two pieces in the book, and the longer of the two, “The Great Race,” is a wonderfully comic story of racing, danger, and one-upmanship. A.E. Cleanslate gives us “The Expedition,” which explores the mysteries of the air kraken (and which I hope is merely the first installment of a much longer work, as I was left by the end wanting to know more). Other stories are no less worthy of the reader’s attention. I’ll confess to having a story in there as well, inspired by Erin Morgenstern’s novel The Night Circus.

If New Babbage is indeed a “consensual hallucination of a Victorian-era steampunk city in a time that never was,” as the back cover proclaims, then it’s a mighty satisfying one. And if, one day, that consensual hallucination disappears forever, I will be glad to have these memoirs of that time that never was.

Friday, January 16, 2015

What Not to Say...

…during a job interview. What follows is complete hearsay, but I don’t doubt a word of it.

In my profession, most hires of those with newly-minted Ph.Ds occur during the annual meetings of the American Economic Association, which take place over several days in early January. Because that’s where so much of the labor market clears, even people out of school several years often find it useful to seek job interviews at the meetings.

At my agency, the hiring process involves several steps: the job-seeker sends in an application package, the recruiting team eliminates the weakest candidates and sets up interviews with the remainder at the annual meetings, then flies the top candidates to Washington for a seminar and meetings with managers, after which the agency starts making job offers. The seminar usually revolves around the candidate’s job market paper, which is usually a chapter out of his or her dissertation.

This year, one of the candidates was a guy several years out of graduate school, working for a consulting firm. During the initial interview, when he gets a chance to ask questions, he asks, “So… when am I getting a job offer?” Talk about chutzpah! The interviewer describes the process as in the prior paragraph. When the interviewer gets to the part about making a presentation in DC, the candidate exclaims, “A seminar? Don’t you know I’ve been in consulting since I left school - I don’t have a paper to present!”

A cooler head might have taken in the information at the interview and said nothing in response. If called for a seminar, that might be an opportunity to remind the recruiting coordinator that one’s most recent research was done in graduate school, and inquire politely whether presenting that work would be allowed. A smarter head might have understood that the interviewer knew full well where the candidate has been working, as the interviewer clearly has the candidate’s vita. (A well-prepared candidate would have known all this already, and never asked the question in the first place.)

All of which goes to show that there are many, many ways to blow a job interview.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

The Pirates of Pensans?

I heard a rumor the other day that Caledon Penzance was no more. Indeed, that venerable sim has been replaced by a homestead sim now called Pensans (with what I assume is the same pronunciation) and owned by Wrath Constantine and Aevalle Galicia-Constantine. Although the area is still under construction, I took a few shots of its current icy state:

Caledon Pensans 1 6 15 001

Caledon Pensans 1 6 15 002

Caledon Pensans 1 6 15 004

And here are a few pictures of Penzance from 2009 and 2010:

Penzance Airfield 003
The RCAF airfield on fire as I fly past (January 2010)

Penzance 4 18 09 002
 A pirate ship? (April 2009)

Penzance Birthday 006
The Gaiety Theatre (November 2008)

Penzance 1 30 11 005
An emporium (January 2011)

Penzance  Guvnahs Head Public House 003
An odd police box (June 2011)

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Doctor Who, "Last Christmas"

Santa Claus, sassy elves, dream crabs that suck out your brain, the Doctor and Clara together again, and Christmas - how could it miss?

I wasn’t a huge fan of “Last Christmas” my first time through, even though the episode had a great many things I liked, including a sarcastically funny Santa (played by the wonderfully-named Nick Frost) with his aforementioned sassy elves, some great dialogue, one last hurrah from Danny Pink (of sorts), and not one but two touching endings.

First things first: a brief recap. Clara wakes to a noise on her rooftop, only to find that Santa and two elves have crashed the sleigh. The TARDIS arrives (after Clara tells Santa no longer believes in mythical creatures) and the Doctor insists Clara get in. The two arrive at the North Pole, where a four scientists are studying four alien life forms in the infirmary - dream crabs that have landed on the faces of the base’s crew, putting them in a dream state and coming active whenever someone thinks of the creatures. As the crabs wake, Santa arrives to save them. Clara falls under the influence of a crab and dreams that she’s having Christmas with Danny. When the Doctor fails to wake her, he goes into her dream (with another crab now attached to his face) to induce her to wake. The Doctor slowly realizes that they are all in a dream state, and Clara’s was only a dream-within-a dream. He convinces them of this by having each read the first word on a random page of their base manuals - each one is different. They all “wake,” and the Doctor prepares to leave with Clara before he understands that they’re still in the dream. Santa again saves the day, taking the crew away on his sleigh while each wakes. When the Doctor wakes, he uses the TARDIS to travel to Clara’s house, where she is still under the influence of a crab. He removes the crab, only to find that over sixty years have passed. He and the elderly Clara talk, before the Doctor realizes it is he who is still dreaming. Waking once again, he takes the TARDIS to Clara’s house, wakes her, and the two leave in the TARDIS.

The basic plot - the collective dreams, the dreams-within-dreams and the impossibility of knowing when one is actually awake - was good, and the monsters were downright scary. Others have compared this to “Inception,” but I haven’t seen the movie. I was uneasy about the plot the first time through, and I think the reason came down to: how do we know that any of those endings were real? I’d hate to sit through Season 9 and find out that it was all an extended dream of the Doctor’s. The second time through, this bothered me less, and I was able to enjoy the adventure. I suspect that knowing from the start that this was a collective dream state allowed me to ignore any strange logic, as dreams seem to have a logic of their own. The episode never explained how the Doctor was caught by the crabs on whatever alien planet he was visiting, which is fine. More perplexing is how the crabs also got to Earth to infect Clara and the four unfortunate members of the “North Pole expedition.” That part isn’t dream logic; it’s just a plot hole.

I did like a great deal of the episode. Santa and his elves were terrific, as were the toys that made periodic appearances - the balloon toy one elf used as a gun, and the army of toys, led by a whole bunch of Slinkeys, that arrived as Santa came to save the day. When Clara says she stopped believing in Santa when she was old enough to understand that her parents were the ones who left gifts, the elves sneer, “Sure, parents. Because they pick one day a year to just give you a pile of presents. Just because they looooove you." When the Doctor asks Santa how he manages to get all the presents on the sleight, Santa replies, straight-faced, “Bigger on the inside.” The scene with dream-Danny, Clara, and the Doctor was terrific, especially when the Doctor reminds Clara that this can’t be Danny because “he died saving the world.” Danny responds, “I did die, but not saving the world. I died saving Clara. The rest of you just got lucky.” The line that the North Pole crew all use when the Doctor asks a question - “It’s a long story” - let the Doctor realize they were in a collective dream, and the payoff came later in the episode, when Clara used it as well. When the Doctor visits Old Clara, there is a touching reversal of the scene in “Time of the Doctor,” in which Clara has to help the aged Doctor pull his part of the Christmas cracker. Here, Old Clara can’t manage the cracker, and the Doctor gently helps her. (He presents to her two paper hats that come in crackers and gives one to her, saying, “Everything seems funny” when people wear them.)

Listening to the Verity! podcast discussing the episode, Tansy Roberts said she was apprehensive watching the episode with her young children because she was afraid the episode would blow the cover on Santa’s existence. In the end, she thought they danced around the topic enough to preserve the holiday for the kids for a few more years. I re-watched the episode after listening to the podcast, and I thought the episode came awfully close to saying flat out that Santa was a fiction, appearing only in the dreams to give aid and comfort to the dreamers. Certainly no child who was on the fence about Santa’s existence would see the episode and come away with renewed faith in his existence.

Although the scene with Old Clara would have been an amazing exit for the character, I was glad to see Jenna Coleman signed on for more episodes and that we’ll see her in Season 9. Now to wait out the long time until then...

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Lending a Hand

Whiskey Monday, one of SL’s most intriguing artists, has been awarded a grant from the Linden Endowment for the Arts - essentially, the use of a sim for six months. What’s it about? Well, as Whiskey explains,
My project at this LEA sim will be creating a series of 3D settings meant to be used to create 2D art. There will be lots of them, and they’ll be tiny and huge and everything in between. I’ll set these up one at a time, and they’ll each stay up an indeterminate amount of time. Some may stay up for a day, others for two weeks, and others mere hours. I plan to announce when a new set is rezzed, but I won’t give any warning before deleting it.\ 
While these sets are up, my hope is that others will come use them to take their own photos. With no direction from me, folks can come find their own angles and windlights and stories to tell using the sets. Each photographer will offer a unique perspective, no two photos will be exactly the same. 
There’ll be a Flickr group for sharing shots, and in the last month of the exhibit, I’ll have an inworld gallery at the sim to show them off, as well. My hope is that folks who don’t normally see themselves as photographers might be inspired to take a shot or ten, and those who are seasoned artists might come explore, too.
But before the projects are finished, she’s looking for a little help. In her words:
My LEA Sim project is titled Nothing Endures But Change. If you’d like to review my actual vague project plans, they’re here. But the bottom line is, instead of creating one large, immersive build, I intend to build dozens of smaller builds to be used as photo sets over the next several months. My hope is that other folks will be inspired to come create their own 2D images of my 3D builds. My goal is to have a massive body of 2D work created by others to show off at the end. 
And so, I need a hand. Or twelve. I need props and I need full perm poses, chiefly.
High above the ground on LEA10, where the exhibit will be, is a very large outstretched hand, and on that hand is a tip jar for funds for the project, should you be inclined to donate.

Lending a hand 001

And if you’re looking for some of Whiskey’s work in the meanwhile, there’s an exhibit at Lauk’s Nest Across the Road (look for the Pure Whiskey gallery on one of the higher floors):

Lending a hand 002
I’m going to do my best to look into her exhibit as time permits.

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Home Repairs

After many years of home ownership - or the next-best thing, which is taking care of a house that the bank still technically owns - I’ve concluded that some people are good at various home repairs while others should leave well enough alone. I’m clearly in the latter category.

Several weeks ago, I had what I later termed the Most Expensive Lightbulb Change Ever. It started with the discovery of a bulb whose glass had become detached from the metal base that screws into the socket. I’m not sure why - cheap bulbs, sitting in the fixture for at least 15 years, gravity increasing over time - but there it was. Step one: shut off the power. Amazingly, I found the right circuit breaker the first time, even though about half were labeled “Lights.” (Not very helpful, electrician who installed the setup.) Step two: use pliers to remove the metal base. That’s when things went south. The pliers didn’t work, so I searched for a little rubber device that will help remove broken bulbs.* After 20 minutes of searching, I finally located it in a storage bin in the garage. Step three: obtain the bulb remover. In doing so, I tipped over something liquid into the storage bin. Oops. Step four: clean up the liquid. In doing so, I spilled some vermiculite (the little crystals of glowing embers in a gas fireplace). Step five: clean up the vermiculite. I broke not one but two vacuum cleaners in the process. Step five complete, I went back to step four, then step three. Finally, with the bulb remover in hand, I took out the bulb base in about fifteen seconds and finished the job. Total time: forty-five minutes. Total cost: about $400. Sigh.

Today, in a fit of industriousness, I decided to tackle a project that had been lingering for several years: removing a hard drive from an old PC. These days, I routinely remove the drive before getting rid of the old machine. This PC dated from a time when I didn’t do that, but I was still sufficiently aware to know that I shouldn’t dispose of the unit - a mini-tower - with the drive still intact. So it sat in the cellar until a more propitious time, which turned out to be today. I figured this was a five-minute job. Ha! I opened the tower without trouble, disconnected everything hooked to the power supply, and started to remove the hard drive. Screwed in, and at such an angle that I couldn’t get a good angle on a screwdriver. I took out the RAM in order to get a better angle and managed to remove two screws. I couldn’t even see the other screws holding in the drive. I took off one of the two fans - well, I say took off, but I really mean “broke,” as it snapped off after I tried to remove it from the motherboard even after removing its screws. I tried and failed to remove the motherboard. I finally resorted to trying to get at the drive enclosure from the other side, which was the outside of the tower. Still no luck. At that point, I decided brute force was the answer. I wiggled the drive up and down inside the drive enclosure, hoping to shear off the remaining two screws, but not even that worked. I just ended up with the drive stuck hard in the enclosure. Sigh. My only consolations were that the drive was pretty thoroughly stuck and that any data on there are at least a half-decade old and the important stuff was probably encrypted. Total time: about a half-hour. Total cost: wounded pride and scraped knuckles.

Thank goodness for professionals. Now if only they’d return my phone calls...

* Yes, I know it looks like it has a different use. Everyone laughs. Fair enough. But it’s a very useful tool for dealing with broken bulbs and bulbs stuck in the socket.