2011 in Review

The Stone Soup blog was viewed about 22,000 times in 2011. In 2011, there were 24 new posts, growing the total archive of this blog to 121 posts. The busiest day of the year was January 21st with 1,464 views. The most popular post that day was How The Other Side Thinks.

The most popular referrers were: facebook.com, reddit.comtumblr.com, afternoonsnoozebutton.com, and twitter.com. Some readers found us through search terms. The most popular searches were: “antibiotic[s]” (1,074), “christopher hitchens [smoking]” (584), “vietnam war medals” (65), “leaders” (64), and “importance of export” (48). A few of the more amusing search terms include: “did andy dufresne kill his wife” (9), “farm subsidies are good” (3), and “where does america rank?” (2).

Attractions of 2011:

Here are the posts that got the most views in 2011.

1. How The Other Side Thinks – 6,785 views

2. The Antibiotics Shortage and How to Solve It. – 1,842 views

3. Guest Post: A Deserved Toast To Christopher Hitchens – 935 views

4. Federal Funding Received by State per Dollar Sent. – 773 views

5. Recipe: The Best Braised Short Ribs, with Coffee and Chili – 628 views

 

A few of our favorite posts by author: 

Alex Taubes – Summer Vacation and Teachers

Thomas Miller – A Regruntled Democrat on the State of the Union

David Yin – How The Other Side Thinks

Josh Morrison – the kidney donation series, thus far:

1. My Kidney Donation

2. Pre-Op Testing — Blood Work

3. Vegetarianism and Kidney Donation

4. Hurry Up and Wait

5. False Starts

6. A New Normal

7. Day (after the Day) of Days

8. Not So Easy 

 

Thanks for reading Stone Soup in 2011!

In Defense of Clarence Thomas

(This piece was cross-posted at the HLPR blog, where I’ve been writing this semester, but I had long-ago intended it as part deux of the “In Defense of” series, which started with farm subsidies.)

I recently asked my Facebook network which Supreme Court justice, modern or historical, would they elect to partner with on a Constitutional Law final exam, assuming the justice had taken the class with them that semester. John Marshall, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., Robert Jackson, and William Brennan were predictable choices as powerful writers and influential molders of constitutional thought. Scalia, well-known for his bombastic style yet clear exposition of facts and law, was popular. Clarence Thomas received no votes. Perhaps it is to be expected that among the constellation of judicial stars, Thomas would pale in popularity–his legacy, after all, has yet to be defined. No doubt for others his judicial philosophy, hewing tightly to original intent and historical understanding, leaves progressive-minded comrades ill at ease. Yet if a motivating factor for unpopularity is Thomas’ silence at oral argument, I would ask my friends to reconsider.

Clarence Thomas joined the Supreme Court in October 1991. On February 22, 2006, Thomas posed a question during oral argument, and has stayed silent ever since. His silence has been the subject of much commentary and speculation, and perhaps inevitably, ridicule and accusations of un-intellectualism. This disparaging category of charges is unfair, and deserves some scrutiny.

In a piece on the fifth anniversary of Thomas’ silence, Adam Liptak of the New York Times quoted a law review article which opined: “If Justice Thomas holds a strong view of the law in a case, he should offer it . . . It is not enough that Justice Thomas merely attend oral argument if he does not participate in argument meaningfully.” One Huffington Post author, writing on important questions Thomas had asked, noted, “. . . Thomas’ silence has also left many casual observers — that is, ordinary American citizens — with the impression that the man either does not care about the cases or cannot intellectually compete with his colleagues.”

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Federal Funding Received by State per Dollar Sent.

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During the presidential debate for Bartlett’s reelection in The West Wing, the Democratic president turns to the Republican nominee and says:

“There are times when we’re fifty states and there are times when we’re one country, and have national needs. And the way I know this is that Florida

didn’t fight Germany in World War II or establish civil rights. You think states should do the governing wall-to-wall. That’s a perfectly valid opinion. But your state of Florida got $12.6 billion in federal money last year – from Nebraskans, and Virginians, and New Yorkers, and Alaskans, with their Eskimo poetry. 12.6 out of a state budget of $50 billion. I’m supposed to be using this time for a question, so here it is: Can we have it back, please?”

Like Governor Ritchie and the Republicans in the West Wing, real-life Republicans and Tea Partyers abhor big government. But as President Bartlett pointed out, we do not operate as a collection of states, and the federal government gives considerable aid to the various states to supplement state funding. This is inevitably a redistribution from wealthier states to poorer states–from Wall St. and Silicon Valley to Main St. and Tin Pan Alley. But the latter is not so grateful for the assistance of the former, and even as they accept federal dollars, Republicans vilify the source of their extra income.

Above we see two maps of the United States. The one on the bottom is a familiar Electoral Map from Bush v. Kerry, 2004. On the top is a map I created (alas, I could not find a snazzier map-making program) using data from the Tax Foundation. It shows Federal Dollars Received by State Per Dollar Sent to Washington. Notice anything? To a large extent, the red states correlate from map to map. That is, Republican states in favor of smaller government were actually the biggest beneficiaries of big government. For every dollar Mississippi sent to the federal government, it received $2.02; for every dollar New Jersey sent to the federal government, it saw only $0.61. Yet Mississippi voters don’t berate their Senators and Representatives for being so effective at bringing home the bacon. In Mississippi, the 2007 budget was composed of $8.4 billion from state-source funds, and $5.9 billion from federal funds. Over 40% of Mississippi’s state budget that year came from the federal government, and of that over half came from out-of-state taxpayers, including liberal elites in places like New Jersey, New York, and Connecticut. Can we have it back please? (funnily enough, Gov. Ritchie’s Florida just about breaks even at $0.97 received per dollar sent. The other odd blue state, Texas, is also close at $0.94.)

The other irony is that, living in D.C., I see license plates every day that complain “Taxation Without Representation”, and lawn signs campaigning for DC Voting Rights. Yet although New Mexico and Mississippi have the highest returns of any states, the District of Columbia blows them out of the water. For every dollar D.C. sent to the Treasury, the federal government paid $5.55 back. For that kind of money, I’d happily trade the services of my representative, Scott Garrett from the NJ-5th.

Full rankings of federal funding below the fold:

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Recipe: 10-Minute Mussels

Like a lot of humble working-class fare in recent years, moules frites has been elevated to bistros and fancy dining rooms. At NYC’s Flex Mussels, 17 different versions of the classic Belgian dish anchor the menu, for $18 (classic) to $21 (“Maine”: w/ lobster, smoked bacon, corn, white chowder, parsley). I much prefer to make mussels at home because I don’t feel like choosing between paying $20 for mussels (seriously, they’re only $3.99/lb. at Whole Foods), or getting food poisoning at a less reputable establishment. Fortunately, they’re incredibly easy to make. Here’s a simple recipe that takes less than 10 minutes from beginning to end, and tastes great!

Ingredients:

1 lb. Mussels (per person)

4 cloves garlic, chopped

1 Andouille or Chorizo sausage, sliced

1/2 bunch Parsley, chopped roughly

2 tbsp. Butter

1 cup White Wine or Dry Vermouth

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Instructions:

1) Clean your mussels by scrubbing them under cold water, and pulling off the “beards”. There are only two things to know about eating mussels safely: (a) Don’t buy/use any raw mussels that are already opened. Ask the fish monger to sort them out if you’re buying by the pound. (b) Don’t eat any cooked mussels that haven’t opened. Do not force them open.
2) Heat a pot with a lid, preferably a clear lid. Add butter to hot pot. Add sausage, and cook through. The sausage is obviously optional, though I think it enriches the broth and gives it a bit of a smokey flavor. You can leave it out, but in that case I might add a diced shallot. Add garlic, brown.
3) Add cleaned mussels. Quickly sprinkle some salt (not too much, the mussels are naturally salty from the sea), and pepper. Add chopped parsley and splash over white wine. Cover quickly with lid.
4) While holding down the lid, vigorously shake the pot back and forth to turn over the mussels. Once the mussels open from the steaming, they are cooked–this took 90 seconds for 1 lb; I can’t imagine it taking more than 3-4 min. even for larger portions. Some recipes say 8-10 minutes… but that will completely overcook them. Live dangerously, I say.
5) Portion mussels into bowls, remember to throw out unopened mussels. Pour over broth, and mop it up with warm, crusty bread!

Earthquakes and Efficient Markets Theory

The Efficient Markets Hypothesis is an oft-debated theory in financial economics, and important to consider for people who want to make money by “beating the market.” In particular, it implies that it is difficult for investors to outperform the market in the long-term. Investopedia describes EMH as saying that “at any given time, prices fully reflect all available information on a particular stock and/or market. Thus, according to the EMH, no investor has an advantage in predicting a return on a stock price because no one has access to information not already available to everyone else.” (note: this also assumes regulation that makes relevant information public, and market liquidity).

Today I wanted to contribute evidence against the Efficient Markets Hypothesis, and give a somewhat cynical example of a specific missed opportunity to profit immensely from a natural disaster.

  • On Friday March 11, 2011 an earthquake measuring 9.0 on the Richter scale struck near the coast of Japan’s main island of Honshu. This earthquake occurred at 2:46pm local time in Tokyo.
  • The Tokyo Stock Exchange closes at 3pm local time.
  • Japan has a $1 billion earthquake early-warning system comprised of over 1000 GPS-sensors, that gave people “enough time for people to switch off their gas lines and get beneath a table or a door frame. And was especially helpful to those in Tokyo who were 230 miles from the epicenter and therefore may have had an additional 80 seconds to prepare.”
  • On Monday following the earthquake and tsunami, “[Japanese construction firms] Hazama Corp. and Kumagai Gumi, for example, jumped more than 40 percent, and Kajima Corp., one of the biggest in the sector, rose 22.2 percent. Many others saw gains of well over 10 percent.” It was also very possible to make money from shorting stock in companies like Toyota and Sony, but slightly riskier, so for now let’s only consider the companies that saw huge gains.
  • Trading for Hazama Corp. closed at 73.00 on Friday, March 2011.

What’s the missed opportunity here? Apparently no intrepid/cynical trader had a computer program that would (1) Link to the earthquake early warning system and know instantly when a 8.5+ earthquake was on its way, (2) use the two minutes of notice to vacuum up construction company stocks. Notice that the design of the earthquake detection and early warning system incorporates high confidence that an earthquake is real and dangerous. And the risk appears very low as long as you don’t overpay for these stocks, since they seem to trade at very stable prices. The profit-potential was large: one-day returns in the double-digits.

Perhaps no one did this because of the morally-questionable nature of profiting from human suffering (something to cover in a future post). But given that speculators routinely show no qualms in profiting from failure or disaster in other cases, and in some ways may even induce it (e.g. short-selling), I have to suspect that this is an example of market inefficiency.

restaurant review: A taste of North Korea at Pyongyang Soondae (Northern Virginia)

Pyongyang Soondae

6499 Little River Turnpike, Alexandria, VA

A while back I read my friend Tao’s Facebook note detailing an exciting culinary adventure. While visiting Dubai, he found a restaurant called Okyru-Gwan that serves North Korean food. It’s operated by the state of North Korea, and the other branches are in Beijing and Cambodia–expansion to the United States seems unlikely. Despite the small size of the peninsula they share, North Korean food is apparently different from food in the South, and as a foodie I envied Tao’s opportunity to sample such an exotic product, and was dismayed that the only apparent place to find it was at an institution that serves as a source of foreign currency and money laundering for Kim Jong-Il.

Then a few weeks ago I read a great article in everyone’s favorite local D.C. publication, the Washington City Paper. They reviewed a restaurant owned and operated by North Koreans. The owner is a North Korean woman who formerly worked as a spy before defecting (her story is quite thrilling, so I encourage you to read the article), and now lives in Northern Virginia. Not only does her restaurant serve authentic North Korean food, it employs many North Korean refugees. I knew I had to visit Pyongyang Soondae. Not only would I get to eat a new food, and in so doing travel to a new and completely restricted place, but I would thumb my nose at Kim at the same time by supporting the economic activities of North Korean refugees.

Let me diverge from the restaurant review for a moment and discuss an anxiety I feel when eating food from cultures that typically do not dine as sumptuously as Americans: Is it wrong to enjoy large, protein-rich meals prepared in the style of Ethiopia, Laos, or North Korea when actual people in those countries rarely eat protein abundantly, and millions are starving in North Korea? Perhaps conveniently, I’ve concluded ‘no’. Few would say that tourism to Laos or Ethiopia and observation of their history and culture is wrong, even if most residents of those countries couldn’t share that experience, perhaps because foreign tourism directly benefits a local economy. At a place like Pyongyong Soondae, where our own waitress had escaped North Korea, eating there, in some small way, supports the livelihoods of those who represent by their very survival a courageous opposition to tyranny. Second, there’s the common reaction of “you had North Korean/Ethiopian food? What is that, dirt and worms?” Such trite jabs are ultimately mistaken–while the current populations of those countries may be impoverished, their culture and history are still rich, and their pride in their civilization is not diminished. I’m a big fan of No Reservations, and you can see on the show how his hosts in poorer countries pull out all the stops and prepare veritable feasts for Bourdain and his crew. Every country has some version of the Greek xenia–the guest-host relationship–and all over the world guests are feted precisely to impress them with the special offerings of a family, a heritage, or a country. On a more abstract level, I like to think of ideas as engaged in an evolutionary game of survival. We want our values to be shared, because the more adherents the more powerful (and perhaps the more validated) the idea, and because with greater numbers our ideas can survive the attrition of time. So in that way, I don’t think it’s callous to enjoy the cuisines of poor countries, because we pay tribute to them in broadening our horizons, and with our appreciation we strengthen the fitness of their culture. Anyway.

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How are the U.S./Japan/Sweden different from U.K./China/Norway?

I took a list of the top 30 economies in the world, and sorted them by one variable. 

These countries were in one group: United States, Japan, Italy, Russia, Spain, Mexico, Netherlands, Belgium, Sweden, Saudi Arabia, Taiwan, Austria, South Africa, Iran, and Thailand. (15)

These countries were in the other: China, Germany, France, United Kingdom, Brazil, Canada, India, Australia, South Korea, Turkey, Indonesia, Switzerland, Poland, Norway, and Argentina. (15)

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On what variable were they sorted?

Find out below the fold…

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