Nonsense, horsefeathers, and idle musings from a decade in South Korea (2002-2012).

31 March, 2010

Recent Reads

By Aaron
31 March, 2010

As the eyes continue to recover from my recent LASEK surgery, I've found myself more and more able to slide back into the books, albeit for short periods of time. I'll take whatever I can get, though, so sick am I of audiobooks. Here's a few recommendations from what I've gotten into recently.

Men at Work: The Craft of Baseball (George Will) - Whatever you think of his politics, George Will is undoubtedly one of the finest writers working in the English language today. Any person striving to improve their own writing could scarcely choose a better role model. His 1989 book Men at Work will have the largest appeal to those who are already ardent baseball fans, though anyone wishing to learn about the game - or, as said, the craft of writing - will benefit greatly by reading this book. Without a doubt, it is the best book I've read to date on baseball. A few choice quotes:

"Baseball encourages a kind of stoicism that would have caused Marcus Aurelius to say (if he had had Catfish Hunter's flair for colorful summation) that "'the sun don't shine on the same dog's ass all the time.'"

"Getting a fastball past [Hank] Aaron was, as folks said, like sneaking the sun past a rooster."

"Once a flustered rookie pitcher was facing Rogers Hornsby and threw three consecutive pitches that were close to the plate but were called balls. The rookie complained and the umpire responded, 'Young man, when you pitch a strike, Mr. Hornsby will let you know.'"

The Cleanest Race: How North Koreans See Themselves and Why It Matters (B.R. Myers) - For those seeking to understand North Korea, this book is indispensable. Christopher Hitchens did up a solid review in Slate in February, so I'll simply direct you to his piece for a proper write-up. As for the policy implications of Myers' analysis, here's a quote from the book:

Pyongyang...negotiates with Washington not to defuse tension but to manage it, to keep it from tipping into all-out war or an equally perilous all-out peace. Ignorant of this, because ignorant of the North's ideology, Americans tend to blame problems in US-DPRK relations on whoever happens to be in the Oval Office, thinking either too soft or too hard on Pyongyang. The right talks in moralistic terms of Kim Jong-il's evil and perfidy in refusing to disarm, with no apparent understanding that he cannot disarm and hope to stay in power. The left, meanwhile, continues to call for bold American trust-building measures. In so doing, it overlooks the failure of ROK's Sunshine Policy (a decade of generous and unconditional aid) to generate even a modicum of good will from the North. To expect Washington to succeed with Pyongyang where the South Korean left failed is to take American exceptionalism to a new extreme. The unpleasant truth is that one can neither bully nor cajole a regime - least of all one with nuclear weapons - into committing political suicide.

Intellectuals and Society (Thomas Sowell) - A warning: this is not the book to read if you're already having doubts about the ultimate value of that graduate degree you're currently pursuing in one of the social sciences. It is, however, a well-reasoned and much needed assault on the insularity of academia and the tendency of those within it to imagine that they know what's best for everyone else:

“Why the transfer of decisions from those with personal experience and a stake in the outcome to those with neither can be expected to lead to better decisions is a question seldom asked, much less answered.”

Not coincidentally, Sowell appeared on Uncommon Knowledge in December, 2009 to discuss the broad outlines of Intellectuals and Society. While no substitute for the book, the video is a good way to pass the time if you're at the office and don't really want to be working. Here it is, in full:

30 March, 2010

Boudreaux on Earth Hour and North Korea

By Aaron
30 March, 2010

A nighttime image of the Korean peninsula.

Like me, Don Boudreaux of George Mason University and Cafe Hayek was unimpressed by the candlelit smugness of Earth Hour 2010. As he notes, North Korea uses precious little electricity, so little in fact that "North Koreans show their reverence for mother nature not with a mere Earth Hour but, rather, with an entire 'Earth Lifetime.'"

28 March, 2010

No Surprise Here: AMD Praises Korean FTC

By Aaron
28 March, 2010

In yet another story for the "News That Didn't Exactly Shake the Earth" files, the Joong Ang Daily reported today that "the [Korean] Fair Trade Commission’s decision in 2008 to impose massive fines on U.S. chipmaker Intel Corporation is earning belated praise from at least one party: the company’s main competitor [AMD]."

You don't say.

As the article notes, Intel was fined 26 billion won ($22.8 million) for offering rebates and discounts to computer manufacturers that agreed to buy only from Intel. AMD, unable to compete with Intel on price or, apparently, on quality, filed suit with the Korean FTC. And why not? After all, as the old adage says, "if you can't beat 'em, get the government to prosecute 'em."

In fact, Intel has become the target du jour of anti-trust regulators of late, which, as the Wall Street Journal reported in December, 2009, has made other chipmakers downright giddy:

When the Federal Trade Commission announced its suit against Intel on Wednesday, longtime rival and critic Advanced Micro Devices flashed a simple thumbs-up. Nvidia, another Silicon Valley chip maker, was turning cartwheels.

“We’re ecstatic,” says Dan Vivoli, an Nvidia senior vice president.

Not to be left out, the European Union also took the chipmaker to the woodshed with a $1.45 billion fine, arguing that Intel had denied consumers a choice of chips.

Oh yes, consumers.

Given that consumption is the whole point of production, shouldn't we focus our concern on the impact of Intel's so-called market power on the folks who actually buy computers? The chart below, courtesy of Mark Perry, shows the average price of a personal computer between 1998 and 2009, during which time prices fell substantially. In fact, as Perry points out, "adjusting for quality improvements, computer equipment today costs only about 10% of what the same equipment cost in 1998." To judge by the chart, I find it nearly impossible to argue that Intel is anything like a textbook monopoly.

As I mentioned above, Intel got spanked by Korean regulators for offering lower prices to its customers. Writes Perry: "A real anti-competitive monopolist, with true market power, possibly insulated from market competition (often because of a grant or license FROM the government), would be in a position to RAISE prices, not LOWER prices."

Ultimately, in one of the world's more exquisite ironies, a monopoly firm can only maintain its monopoly by not behaving like a monopoly. That is, without protection by the state, any firm that charges prices that are too high for the good or service being offered thereby opens a space for another firm to offer that same (or a better) product at a lower price. Joseph Schumpeter understood this and, as a result, didn't lose much sleep in fretting over monopolies. Nor should we.

Adding some empirical ballast to this theory is Clifford Winston's Government Failure Vs. Market Failure, published in 2006. In his study, Winston seeks to test the notion that government intervention - such as anti-trust action - is necessary in order to protect consumer welfare. His conclusion:

Antitrust policies toward monopolization, mergers, and collusion have done little to raise consumer welfare, while economic regulation of agricultural products and international trade has produced large deadweight losses in the process of transferring resources from consumers to producers. (p. 13)

No wonder AMD is happy.

Earth Hour: An Illuminating Exhibition

By Aaron

From the Joong Ang Daily: HSBC employees pledge to take part in the Earth Hour, a worldwide campaign to turn off the lights for one hour beginning at 8:30 p.m. on March 27, at the bank’s headquarters in downtown Seoul yesterday. The event is aimed at raising awareness about climate change.

It's confesion time: I kept my electric lights switched on during Earth Hour this year. By doing so, I obviously forfeited my chance to act smug and show that I care more than you do about the fate of the world, but hey, life's full of trade-offs. And if nothing else, I can take solace in the fact that I didn't, as PJ O'Rourke put it, find myself on a high horse facing the wrong way.

As Luke Weston writes in an excellent post, "The widespread practice of misguided eco-Luddites turning off their lights for Earth Hour and burning candles as a source of light is grossly misguided and actually contributes to increased carbon dioxide emissions."

Candles are generally made from a product commonly known as parrafin, the official name of which is parrafin hydrocarbon. The majority of natural hydrocarbons are found in crude oil and parrafin is no exception. Not only are most candles a product of fossil fuels, they are also inefficient sources of energy. As Weston notes, for equivalent amounts of light produced, candles produce approximately ten times the amount of CO2 as an incandescent lightbulb. Fortunately for the Earth Hour 2010 participants, however, irony is not a source of greenhouse gases.

21 March, 2010

The LASEK Hiatus

By Aaron
21 March, 2010

Well, there you have it: another hiatus. I'm afraid that by now I've probably alienated at least two of my remaining three loyal readers with these periodic disappearances.

The latest lull in this site's jackassery comes on the heels of the laser eye surgery I received on 12 February. Not being eligible for the more convenient LASIK procedure - which offers an almost immediate recovery - I opted for LASEK, which puts the patient on a longer and more frustrating road to improved vision. Since having the surgery, I've found reading to be an unpleasant task and thus opted to ice this site until my eyes were in better shape.

Which, even now, they're not. It's just that I never quite realized how much of my days were consumed by reading until I was suddenly not able to read as much as I'd like. For the past five weeks, then, I've had these enormous blocks of time on my hands. I've filled these hours as much as possible with podcasts and audiobooks, but a man can only take so much of This American Life and its twaddling introspection before he finally says, screw it, I'll go back to the library. Anything, dear god, to save me from another hour with Ira Glass.

As negative as I sound here, I should point out that such frustrations are (apparently) par for the course when it comes to LASEK recovery. Or rather, some folks recover quite quickly while others just have to hitch themselves to an iPod and wait for their vision to stabilize, which can take up to six months.

Guess I'll have to put off my plans for that sniper badge until at least August.