Tuesday, November 27, 2012

How to Play the Lottery, If You're Gonna Play It at All


Readers of this blog may remember that I played the lottery once before - back when the MegaMillions lottery jackpot reached an all-time high, and my back-of-the-envelope calculations showed that the expected value of a lottery ticket was actually greater than the price of the ticket, thanks to the huge jackpot.

Well, the Powerball lottery jackpot has reached similar heights, with an estimated payout of $500 million ($327.4 million cash value) - I haven't done the math, but I figured I'd play the lottery one more time, as I'd definitely like to be a multimillionaire with no effort.

So, here is the Angry Bureaucrat's guide to playing the lottery:
  1. Don't play the lottery. You're not going to win. I forget where I heard this, but I overheard some wise statistician who was asked how to maximize one's chances of winning the lottery. He thought about it, and he said to buy a ticket on the day the drawing was happening, because the odds of you dying on a given day was higher than the chance of winning the lottery, so buying the ticket on the day of the drawing increased the odds of you being alive to claim your winnings, if you win.
  2. If, in spite of #1, you're going to buy a lottery ticket anyway (like I did), buy 1, exactly 1, and only 1 ticket. The reason for only buying one ticket is this - if you buy one ticket, you're infinitely increasing your odds of winning (i.e. your chance of winning the jackpot goes from 0% to more than 0% - to 0.00000057%, to be exact). However, each additional ticket only increases your chance of winning the jackpot by another 0.00000057% - such a small amount that the additional increase in probability of winning isn't worth the cost of the additional ticket.
So - to summarize: Don't play the lottery. If you do, going from 0 to 1 ticket infinitely increases your chances of winning. Going from 1 to more than 1 ticket doesn't increase your chance of winning, statistically speaking. Therefore, only buy 1 ticket.

Hope this helps, and bad luck to all of you playing tomorrow ;)

Monday, November 26, 2012

Roomba by the Numbers - 50+ Countries and 2.1 Billion Pounds of Dirt

There aren't a lot of products out there that I heartily endorse - but I do love my Roomba, so I just had to share this rather random infographic (via Daily Infographic) about the Roomba. I had no idea that Roombas have made the equivalent of 28 trips to the sun and back while cleaning people's floors for them.

In fact, in the consumerist spirit of Cyber Monday, I'll share the few endorsements I have for specific products that have improved my quality of live dramatically more than I thought they would and are all completely worth the money:
  1. Roombas. There are few things more awesome than watching a robot vacuum your floors for you.
  2. Amazon Prime. I hate hate HATE shopping. Therefore, I buy almost everything that is non-perishable from the Internet, so free two-day shipping on anything my household needs or my heart desires is an unbeatable value.
  3. Sodastream water carbonator. I developed a taste for fizzy water during my many years in Europe, and this a water carbonator is definitely the best, easiest, and cheapest way to have fizzy water here in the US.
  4. Delonghi EC155 espresso machine - makes great coffee, considering the price of the machine. To get better coffee, you'll have to spend 10x as much on an espresso machine.
That's it for my Cyber Monday endorsements - if you go buy those things, I promise you won't regret it.

Anyway, now for the main event - an infographic telling you more than you ever wanted to know about how much Roombas have cleaned up this dirty world of ours:



Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Infringement Nation - How We All Rack Up $12.5 Million in Violations Daily

Were you alive today and did you participate in the modern world?
Then please feed the copyright troll $12.5 million, thanks!
 
As a follow up to my post yesterday about how the House Republicans proposed a set of unprecedentedly wise and common-sense reforms to the U.S. copyright system (and then folded under withering pressure from MPAA and RIAA lobbyists in less than 24 hours), I thought I'd post the following story to illustrate just how screwed up the current copyright system is.

This is a story taken from "Infringement Nation: Copyright Reform and the Law/Norm Gap," a SSRN paper by John Tehranian. It is a brilliant demonstration of the gap between how we use (and disregard) copyright laws in our daily lives and the steep penalties for which we could be held responsible, if copyright holders were able to impose 100% of current copyright laws' penalties 100% of the time.

Without a small sense of irony, I'm reproducing the below story completely without permission, thereby racking up a small part of the $12.5 million in copyright infringement I'll probably (mostly) unwittingly commit today. If you want to check out the (occasionally hilarious) footnotes to the below story, which detail why and how our fictitious John might be held liable for all of his infringing activities, check out the original paper.
To illustrate the unwitting infringement that has become quotidian for the average American, take an ordinary day in the life  of a hypothetical law professor named John. For the purposes of this  Gedankenexperiment, we assume the worst-case scenario of full enforcement of rights by copyright holders and an uncharitable, though perfectly plausible, reading of existing case law and the fair use doctrine. Fair use is, after all, notoriously fickle and the defense offers little ex ante refuge to users of copyrighted works.

In the morning, John checks his email, and, in so doing, begins to tally up the liability. Following common practice, he has set his mail browser to automatically reproduce the text to which he is responding in any email he drafts. Each unauthorized reproduction of someone else’s copyrighted text—their email—represents a separate act of brazen infringement, as does each instance of email forwarding. Within an hour, the twenty reply and forward emails sent by John have exposed him to $3 million in statutory damages.
After spending some time catching up on the latest  news, John attends his Constitutional Law class, where he distributes copies of three just-published Internet articles presenting analyses of a Supreme  Court decision handed down only hours ago. Unfortunately, despite his concern  for his students’ edification, John has just engaged in the unauthorized reproduction of three literary works in violation of the Copyright Act.
Professor John then attends a faculty meeting that  fails to capture his full attention. Doodling on his notepad provides an ideal escape. A fan of post-modern architecture, he finds himself thinking of Frank Gehry’s early sketches for the Bilbao Guggenheim as he draws a series of swirling lines that roughly approximate the design of the building. He has created an unauthorized derivative of a copyrighted architectural rendering.

Later that afternoon, John attends his Law and Literature class, where the focus of the day is on morality and duty. He has assigned e.e. cumming’s 1931 poem  i sing of Olaf glad and big to the students. As a prelude to class discussion, he reads the poem in its entirety, thereby engaging in an unauthorized public performance of the copyrighted literary work.

Before leaving work, he remembers to email his family five photographs of the Utes football game he attended the previous Saturday. His friend had taken the photographs. And while she had given him the prints, ownership of the physical work and its underlying intellectual property are not tied together. Quite simply, the copyright to the photograph subsists in and remains with its author, John’s friend. As such, by copying, distributing, and publicly displaying the copyrighted photographs, John is once again piling up the infringements.

In the late afternoon, John takes his daily swim at the university pool. Before he jumps into the water, he discards his T-shirt, revealing a Captain Caveman tattoo on his right shoulder. Not only did he violate Hanna-Barbera’s copyright when he got the tattoo—after all, it is an unauthorized reproduction of a copyrighted work—he has now engaged in a unauthorized public display of the animated character. More ominously, the Copyright Act allows for the “impounding” and “destruction or other reasonable disposition” of any infringing work. Sporting the tattoo, John has become the infringing work. At best, therefore, he will have to undergo court-mandated laser tattoo removal. At worst, he faces imminent “destruction.”

That evening, John attends a restaurant dinner celebrating a friend’s birthday. At the end of the evening, he joins the other guests in singing “Happy Birthday.” The moment is captured on his cellphone camera. He  has consequently infringed on the copyrighted musical composition by publicly  performing the song and reproducing the song in the video recording without authorization. Additionally, his video footage captures not only his friend but  clearly documents the art work hanging on the wall behind his friend—Wives with Knives—a print by renowned retro-themed painter Shag. John’s incidental and even accidental use of Wives with Knives in the video nevertheless constitutes an unauthorized reproduction of Shag’s work.

At the end of the day, John checks his mailbox, where he finds the latest issue of an artsy hipster rag to which he subscribes. The’zine, named  Found, is a nationally distributed quarterly that collects and  catalogues curious notes, drawings, and other items of interest that readers  find lying in city streets, public transportation, and other random places. In short,  John has purchased a magazine containing the unauthorized reproduction, distribution, and public display of fifty copyrighted notes and drawings. His knowing, material contribution to  Found’s fifty acts of infringement subjects John to potential secondary liability in the amount of $7.5 million.

By the end of the day, John has infringed the copyrights of twenty emails, three legal articles, an architectural rendering, a poem, five photographs, an animated character, a musical composition, a painting, and fifty notes and drawings. All told, he has committed at least eighty-three acts of infringement and faces liability in the amount of $12.45 million (to say nothing of potential criminal charges). There is nothing particularly extraordinary about  John’s activities. Yet if copyright holders were inclined to enforce their rights to the maximum extent allowed by law, barring last minute salvation from  the notoriously ambiguous fair use defense, he would be liable for a mind-boggling  $4.544 billion in potential damages each year. And, surprisingly, he has not even committed a single act of infringement through P2P file-sharing. Such an outcome flies in the face of our basic sense of justice. Indeed, one must either irrationally conclude that John is a criminal infringer—a veritable grand larcenist—or blithely surmise that copyright law must not mean what it appears to say. Something is clearly amiss. Moreover, the troublesome gap between copyright law and norms has grown only wider in recent years.
So, yes, there we have it - a professor leading an unremarkable life, doing nothing that any of us normal people would consider illegal or out of the ordinary - and in the course of one day, he's managed to rack up $12.5 million in damages (and that's only civil damages - criminal damages would be on top of that amount), or $4.5 billion in damages per year. And in addition, he faces at least a mandated laser-removal of his tattoo, if not imminent destruction of his person. Ouch.

If, in the course of living a totally normal life, the laws are written such that you incur $12.5 million in damages EVERY DAY, then there is a serious disconnect between what the laws say and what they mean / how they are applied - and the laws are obviously wrong and have to change.

Saturday, the Republicans gave me hope that this would happen - but then they took away that hope, the bastards.

P.S. We'll see if SSRN tells me to remove this story that I have reproduced without permission - oh, that would be seriously delicious irony.

Monday, November 19, 2012

House Republicans and I Agree on Copyright Reform ... for 20 Hours Only

Come on, guys and gals, I was going to write this gushing blog post about how I finally agreed
with you all for once - and then you had to go and ruin it by being utterly spineless.

Well, that was short-lived.

Saturday morning, I came across some amazing news - an extremely influential group of Congressional Republicans called the Republican Study Committee (yes, House Republicans, even - you know, the ones that this blog has often pointed to as being the particularly crazy ones) published an astonishingly, shockingly, awesomely clear and smart briefing about how to reform U.S. copyright law to make it sensible again.

This blog has previously discussed how U.S. copyright law is an abomination and a total affront to the intentions of the Constitution as written by the Founding Fathers. Suddenly, briefly, I had hope that perhaps this was going to change - here was a large group of Republicans (170+, a majority of House Republicans, in fact), coming out in favor of sensible copyright reform. I'll let Techdirt summarize the contents of the report:
To give you a sense of where the document heads, note the final line:
Current copyright law does not merely distort some markets -- rather it destroys entire markets.
There is a lot in this document, and we can't go through it all, but I highly recommend reading through it. The three "myths" it attacks are:
  1. That the purpose of copyright is to compensate the creator. No, it correctly notes, it's about benefiting the public:
    Thus, according to the Constitution, the overriding purpose of the copyright system is to “promote the progress of science and useful arts.” In today’s terminology we may say that the purpose is to lead to maximum productivity and innovation. 

    This is a major distinction, because most legislative discussions on this topic, particularly during the extension of the copyright term, are not premised upon what is in the public good or what will promote the most productivity and innovation, but rather what the content creators “deserve” or are “entitled to” by virtue of their creation. This lexicon is appropriate in the realm of taxation and sometimes in the realm of trade protection, but it is inappropriate in the realm of patents and copyrights.
  2. That copyright is a representation of free market capitalization. The paper properly notes that the reality is the exact opposite:
    Copyright violates nearly every tenet of laissez faire capitalism. Under the current system of copyright, producers of content are entitled to a guaranteed, government instituted, government subsidized content-monopoly.
  3. That the current copyright regime leads to the greatest level of innovation and productivity. That makes no sense at all, the paper says:
    Today’s legal regime of copyright law is seen by many as a form of corporate welfare that hurts innovation and hurts the consumer. It is a system that picks winners and losers, and the losers are new industries that could generate new wealth and added value. We frankly may have no idea how it actually hurts innovation, because we don’t know what isn’t able to be produced as a result of our current system.
From there, it goes on to look at some of the specific harms of today's copyright law, including harming remix culture and a lot of commercial activity around it, that it "hampers scientific inquiry," discouraging value added industries and others. 

Finally, it puts forth suggestions for copyright reform that go way, way, way beyond anything we've seen legitimately discussed in Congress, ever. Below I just show some snippets from the recommendations, so go read the full thing.
  1. Statutory Damages Reform: 

    Copyright infringement has statutory damages, which most copyright holders can and do use in litigation (rather than having to prove actual damages). The government sets a range – which is $750 to $30,000 per infringement – but that goes up to $150,000 if the infringement is "willful." Evidence suggests that the content holder almost always claims that it is willful. This fine is per infringement. Those rates might have made sense in commercial settings (though even then they arguably seemed high), but in a world where everyone copies stuff at home all the time, the idea that your iPod could make you liable for a billion dollars in damages is excessive. 
  2. Expand Fair Use: 

    Right now, it's somewhat arbitrary as to what is legally fair use based upon judicially created categories. One example: parodies are considered protected by fair use but satire is not. There's an excellent book (and a shorter paper) called Infringement Nation that details how things you do every single day are infringing and leave every single person liable for billions in damages each year (http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1029151). 
  3. Punish false copyright claims: 

    Because there is minimal or nearly non-existent punishment for bogus copyright claims today, false takedown requests are common and have a chilling effect upon legitimate speech. While those filing a takedown request have to swear on the threat of perjury, that swearing is only in regard to whether the work is theirs but not whether the work is actually infringing. The court has said that their needs to be “subjective bad faith” in order to be sanctioned for false takedown requests. This often leads to de facto censorship. 
  4. Heavily limit the terms for copyright, and create disincentives for renewal: 

    Current public policy should create a disincentive for companies to continue their copyright indefinitely because of the negative externalities explained in this paper. Unlike many forms of government revenue, generating revenue by disincentivizing activities with negative externalities is one way for the government to pay for its operations. This is a far superior way for the government to generate revenue rather than having a tax system that disincetivizes work.
It goes on to suggest a sliding scale for copyright renewal, after a free initial term of 12 years. The fee for renewal would be a percentage of revenue from the work, and that percentage increases with each additional renewal term. Under such a system, those who are still exploiting the copyright can continue to hold one, but for most, where there is greater benefit to have the work in the public domain, the work goes into the public domain.
Amazing! Astonishing! Visionary!

Techdirt was right in calling this a watershed moment - I was so happy that Congress was talking about accomplishing something truly remarkable and productive, and I was even happier that it was coming from the faction of Congress with whom I most often and most vehemently disagree!

I even had fleeting visions of U.S. patent system reforms that would accompany these copyright reforms, as the U.S. patent system is also a total failure. Ooh, I was giddy with excitement, I tell you, in ways that I almost never get giddy about politics, since everything in me tells me that it's far wiser to be horribly cynical about politics than hopeful and giddy.

It was a good day. Well, it was a good morning and early afternoon, anyway. Alas, but yet not surprisingly, it was to be short-lived. Cue cynicism being right:

Less than 24 hours later, under a withering onslaught from MPAA and RIAA lobbyists, the Republican Study Committee folded, tucked its tail between its legs, and withdrew the report.

Sigh.

House Republicans, I WANTED to agree with you on this. I was EXCITED to agree with you on this. And then you go and snatch my happiness and excitement away when your corporate masters demanded that you heel and return to serving them at their beck and call.

As Techdirt points out, pulling this kind of crap is exactly how NOT to try to win back the tech-savvy youth vote that you have lost so completely to the Democrats for the past several years - this kind of bait-and-switch just means that they (and I) won't believe you next time, when perhaps you publish a sensible solution that we can get behind, because we'll just be waiting for you to double-cross and screw us.

Oh well, maybe next time, House Republicans - when you've managed to grow a spine.

In case you want to read the Republican Study Committee's report yourself, it's been mirrored here (.pdf warning) - obviously, it's been removed from the RSC's website on house.gov.

Friday, November 9, 2012

State-level Corruption Is the Only Reason Republicans Still Control Congress

Does this look like it should be the House of Representatives map of a State that Obama won by
5 percentage points, 52% to 47%? No, no it doesn't.

The day before the election, I wrote about how stupid it is that we in the U.S. vote on a Tuesday, and how that should really be changed - there's no excuse for continuing to allow a slavery-era law optimized for horse-and-buggy travel to determine the day that Americans vote.

Today, I'm writing about another extremely stupid artifact of American democracy (in most but not all states) - the fact that drawing Congressional districts is a political process overseen by partisan politicians. Again, in most modern democracies (well, those in which geography still plays an important role in defining representation such as the U.K. and Australia, which is not the case in all democracies), drawing the equivalent of Congressional districts is done by an independent and objective commission that is created specifically for the purpose of drawing electoral districts.

In most U.S. states, however, the power of redistricting lies with partisan politicians - usually the state legislature and/or the governor. This has the extremely insidious outcome that politicians have the power to choose their voters, and not the other way around, as the Constitution (and democracy in general) envisions. This practice may be legal currently, but I view it as an extremely corrosive form of political corruption.

The Founding Fathers wanted the House of Representatives to be the elected body most responsive to the will of the American people - that's why there have always been more elected members to the House of Representatives than any other federal body, and that's why House members are up for reelection every two years. But, thanks to gerrymandering, the House of Representatives is now actually the elected body LEAST responsive to the will of the American people. For an example of this, see the above map of the results of the 2012 Congressional election in Pennsylvania - in a state that Obama won, 52% to 47%, Republicans won 8 of Pennsylvania's 13 Congressional seats.

The story is similar in Ohio, where Obama won the state by 2 percentage points, but Democrats won only 4 of the state's 14 Congressional seats:


This story repeats itself in a number of states in which Republicans control the state legislature - e.g. Michigan, North Carolina, Texas, and others.

In fact, it turns out that Americans indeed voted for a Democratic House of Representatives - the best available current count gives the number of votes in favor of Democratic House candidates as 53,952,240 and the number of votes in favor of Republican House candidates as 53,402,643 - a 550,000 vote advantage for Democratic House candidates - a number that is only likely to grow as votes continue to be counted and certified.

The actual partisan breakdown of the 113th Congress will be very different from what the people want, however. Currently, Republicans enjoy a 233-193 advantage over Democrats, with 9 seats remaining undecided. That means that, in a year when Republicans earned less than half the popular vote, they will control a little under 54 percent of the House even if Democrats run the table on the undecided seats.

This is an absolute travesty and scandal, and it is an absolute insult to the principles of fair representation enshrined in the Constitution.

But the Republicans don't just have partisan, Republican state legislatures to thank; they also have the partisan, conservative Supreme Court to thank (a Court that I have previously argued has outlived its usefulness):
Partisan gerrymandering exists for one purpose: to cut off the ability of people who disagree with a state’s ruling party to influence future elections. It is a a clear violation of the First Amendment, which absolutely prohibits viewpoint discrimination. Yet the Supreme Court abdicated its responsibility to end this discrimination in its 5-4 decision in Vieth v. Jubelirer, where the conservative justices tossed out a lawsuit alleging that Pennsylvania’s congressional districts were unconstitutionally drawn to maximize Republican representation in Congress.
Americans voted for a Democratic president, a Democratic Senate, and, barring significant shifts in the vote tally, a Democratic House. Instead, they will get a House majority similar to the one that held the entire nation hostage during last year’s debt ceiling hostage crisis. If the American people wanted this to happen, they would have said so at the polls on Tuesday. Instead, Republican state lawmakers took away their right to democratically legitimate leadership — with a big assist from the conservatives on the Supreme Court.
Unfortunately, voters are almost totally powerless to change this situation - which is exactly how the Republicans designed it to be, to take the power of decision-making out of the hands of the voters. Gerrymandering could be abolished instantly with a law passed by Congress stating that all redistricting must be done by independent, nonpartisan commissions - but a Republican Congress would never pass such a law, since gerrymandering is the only reason they still control the House of Representatives.

It also looks like the legal system won't provide a solution either - the Supreme Court, siding as usual with powerful state politicians instead of voters who are being disenfranchised, has abdicated its responsibility to end this kind of voter discrimination.

So what can we do? I'm honestly not sure - a Constitutional amendment would also solve the problem, though those have to originate in Congress, so that's a no-go. If one of the conservative Supreme Court justices dies and Obama appoints a more liberal justice, the case could be revisited in the courts and the injustice purged from the system that way - I think that's our only hope, at this point.

In the mean time, I'm considering moving back to Europe - I've just about had enough of all of this American voter suppression bullsh*t.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Four. More. Years.

Suck it, Fox News. That's gotta hurt.

Hell yes. Disaster averted.

This blog hasn't exactly been quiet about the fact that we thought a Romney victory would be disastrous for America and disastrous for the American people (well, Americans who aren't rich, white, heterosexual, Christian males).

I hope the Republicans manage to shed their most extremist elements and work together with the moderate, centrist Obama to solve some of the more pressing problems facing the U.S. today. And if the Republicans refuse to compromise, I hope Obama has the courage to crush them in a way that he didn't seem prepared to do during his first term in office.

And with that, I'm heading to bed with the Babycrat, and probably not going to turn on the TV again until next week.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Why the Hell Do We Vote on a Tuesday?

Damn straight, Chris.

Why in God's name do we vote on a Tuesday?

It's so very stupid - practically every other modern democracy votes on the weekend, usually the ENTIRE weekend, to give everyone who wants to vote plenty of time and opportunity to do so.

But not in the greatest democracy in the world - no no, we expect people to somehow find time in the middle of the work week to go to polls that are often only open from 8AM to 6PM (or even shorter). Of course, this makes it hardest for hourly employees to go vote, as many salaried employees often have the leniency to come in a little late or go home a little early to vote - just one more subtle way in which the U.S. makes it more difficult for poorer people to vote than for richer people to vote.

But why do we have this stupid "vote on a Tuesday" system?

The answer, as explained thoroughly in the below video, is that Congress passed a law in 1845 - yes, 15 years prior to the onset of the Civil War - setting an official voting day. The logic at the time was that Congress didn't want people to have to travel on Sundays to vote and didn't want people to miss Wednesday market days, etc. etc. Eventually, Congress settled on Tuesday as the best day to accommodate the travel times required to get places in horse-drawn buggies so people could vote with the minimum disruption to their lives.


So, why do we vote on a Tuesday? Because Congress has never bothered to revisit the wisdom of a slavery-era law that set the optimal voting day according to the time needed to travel via horse-and-buggy.

Such a stupid practice that could be fixed by Congress so easily - but no.

And we wonder why America is in decline.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

The Babycrat Is Here!

Proud papa (i.e. me) with the Babycrat on the first night of her life,
just before the hurricane hit DC.

[Professor Farnsworth voice:] Good news, everyone! [/end voice]

About a week ago, right before the hurricane hit DC, the Babycrat decided to join us in the wider world! She, her mama, and I then rode out the hurricane in the hospital - good timing, little one ;) Thus far, the three of us are doing very well, in spite of the inevitable sleep deprivation.

So, that's why there's been no posting this week, and between the Babycrat and my ongoing politics-induced coma/depression, there probably won't be any more posting for another week or two. Then, once we've gotten over the election season (and Babycrat's mom and I have gotten a little more used to this whole being parents thing), I'll ramp back up again with my usual fare - i.e. whatever interests me, with a tilt towards economics, politics, and international affairs.

In the meantime, have fun, take care of yourselves, go vote on Tuesday if you live in a battleground state (and if you don't, it doesn't really matter if you vote or not, thanks to our stupid Electoral College system, now does it?), and for God's sake, don't turn on the TV until at least next Sunday.

-The Angry Bureaucrat