I Am A Sit-Com Character

A “funny” thing happened to me yesterday. I got robbed.

Well, not exactly.

After a nice week’s vacation in Las Vegas, my wife and son and I planned to go to breakfast and then off to the airport. As usual, I was carrying the heavy luggage down to the car by myself and was in a hurry to get it done. I carried one full-size suitcase and one carry-on bag (my son’s) down the flight of stairs to our silver Hyundai Elantra rental car. One strange thing that happened was that my car remote failed to open the trunk, no matter how long I held the button down. But, it did seem to unlock the doors, so I opened driver’s-side door, released the trunk manually and loaded the bags into the car.

But, then I noticed that the remote also failed to lock the doors. I heard a faint clicking, but the door didn’t lock. I tried to lock it manually with the key (first time I tried the key in the door) but the key didn’t turn. Seemed like an artifact of some stupid modern anti-theft system that depended on the remote. I wondered how we were going to lock the car at the restaurant, but figured that was a problem for later; now I just wanted to finish loading the car.

I walked back up to the room, told my wife about the remote-control and key issues, and brought down the second suitcase.

When I got back down to the car something seemed a little off. I noticed that the trunk was open (I was sure I’d closed it) and then saw that it was empty!! WTF??? Somebody had taken our stuff in the one minute it took me to go up and get the other bag. Maybe they jammed the remote somehow (???). I asked around but nobody saw anything. We spent time complaining to the resort management and security who were nice and polite, and would review any security footage (didn’t cover the car itself) for suspicious activity, but denied any liability, since I had left the car unattended.

We felt terrible and violated. It was too late to go to breakfast, so we just went to the airport, complained to Budget about the faulty remote helping to get our things stolen. From the airport, I called the police and filed a report (they wouldn’t do anything, but maybe it would help to try to recover something from Budget, or maybe American Express had some coverage that would help).

The whole thing was very upsetting.

We spent the afternoon trying to console ourselves. It was only stuff that could be replaced. Nobody got hurt. The thieves got very little of value to them (lots of laundry, an old laptop, toiletries). My wife and son kept thinking of other things in those bags that were problematic (including lots of DRM’d songs from Apple, some photos on the laptop, a gift that I’d bought for my wife, a library book, etc.). And, there were things (including the suitcase itself) that were memories of my wife’s mom (who died this year) that caused grief to lose. My son was worried that he should change all of his passwords (a process I helped him start with my phone).

But, all in all, I think we handled it pretty well. We were rattled, lost some faith in humanity, but reminded ourselves that we were still okay and had each other for support.

After we got home, my wife brought our phone to me and told me that there was a voice mail that I had to hear.

The manager from the resort had called to say that another guest had found our luggage. Apparently, the bags had been placed into their car.

What an idiot!!!! I put our bags into the wrong car!!! We’ll have to pay to have our bags shipped back to us, but we’ll get them back.

In retrospect, a few things conspired against me.

  1. There was another, nearly-identical car parked in the area where I had parked late the night before.
  2. It was unlocked!!
  3. It didn’t have any stuff in it that made it obviously not our car.
  4. They left right after I’d loaded it (it wasn’t around when we were looking for witnesses and places for the bags to have been stashed).
  5. I was in a hurry and eager to believe that the car was closer than it really was.
  6. I wasn’t familiar enough with the car to know that what happened wasn’t possible.
  7. There must have been a large vehicle between the cars, obscuring the one the remote was working on.

But, I still feel really dumb. I should have been more suspicious when the key didn’t turn in the lock. I think that since the doors had apparently unlocked, I had no doubt that this was the right car. Also, I should have noticed that it wasn’t the same spot (I now think our car was two spots further away), but when I saw the open trunk I was too distracted to focus on that. And, I should have been more suspicious about the remote starting to work fine again (but I was already blaming the thief).

Also, nobody hearing the tale asked: “Are you sure it was the right car?”

But, I still feel really dumb.

We’ll work on having our stuff shipped back. It will be an expensive lesson, and a good (but really, really embarrassing) story to tell.

I’m sure that some day it will seem more funny than humiliating. But that day is not today.

Wealth Inequality Concern: Do You Hate Wealth or Poverty?

I watched a recording of last week’s Stossel today, and was struck by something that Johan Norberg said.

I’m paraphrasing, but in response to Stossel’s mentioning the concern about wealth inequality, Norberg said something like “Those who are primarily concerned about wealth inequality hate wealth more than they hate poverty.”

Now, I know that this isn’t true about everyone concerned about wealth inequality, but those who are aware of the tremendous advancement that the poor have made due to markets should be cautious about calling for too much interference and redistribution. Unless, as Norberg says, they are more concerned with taking from the wealthy than the are for the longterm welfare of the poor.

It was a great point.

The System of Liberty

Since I haven’t written any posts here for a while, I figured I might just pass along what I’ve been reading lately.

The most recent book I’ve been reading is The System of Liberty, by George H. Smith.

I’d read Smith’s Atheism – The Case Against God in the 80’s (I believe), before I knew he had anything to do with libertarianism. I’ve since seen a few of his lectures (both in person, and in online videos) and have enjoyed his columns in various places including libertarianism.org.

I’m not really much for reading history, but I am interested in the ideas of classical liberalism (libertarianism), so the history of those ideas does hold my interest, and this book is a great presentation of that history (some of which I was already pretty familiar with, but much of which I was not).

It’s very well written, and researched, and should be read by anyone who wants to understand what libertarianism is all about, where many of the ideas came from, and what the major debates have been.

How People React To Their Lying President

Of course, many of us were well aware that the President had no factual basis for his claims that people could keep their health insurance plans after Obamacare would take effect. But, now that the truth is becoming starkly evident, it’s interesting to watch how people react to the reality that he was knowingly, blatantly, lying to them.

Some are honestly surprised and offended, but most supporters are still twisting themselves into ethical knots trying to minimize and justify the deception.

As the Rube-Goldberg scheme continues to unravel, it will be interesting to see how people will react in the face of further and further evidence that this was always a stupid plan and will make the world worse for far more people than it helps. Many people will come to accept the truth, but many others will cling tenaciously to their romantic vision of the state as a hyper-competent problem solver. I wonder how long it will take for the balance to shift enough to try to recover from the blunder. The sooner the better.

If it wouldn’t do so much damage to the health care market, it might even have been worth it for the important lesson and the pure spectacle of it.

But, it isn’t worth it.

Inside Jokes

Inside Jokes: Using Humor to Reverse-Engineer the Mind by Matthew M. Hurley, Daniel C. Dennett, Reginald B. Adams Jr. contains the best theory I’m familiar with that explains humor.

As longtime readers of this blog know, I’ve been interested in what makes things funny for a long time, and wrote an early post about it.

I cannot hope to do justice to the theory of the book, so I won’t really try. I hope all who are interested will read the book itself. It’s very rewarding. While it does spend a bit of time on background issues, it’s very readable and is peppered with lots of good jokes and witticisms used for illustration.

For those who won’t read it, or are curious about the theory, I’ll try to give a small taste.

Humor, like beauty, is in the mind of the beholder. There isn’t a formula guaranteed to generate mirth, but mirth is something that happens within the receiver’s brain, and different people will have different reactions to the same stimulus (of course).

The basic idea is that various reward systems have evolved to help human genes propagate. Just as we evolved a “Sweet Tooth” reward system that leads us to find pleasure in tastes that are correlated with high-energy content, we also evolved a “Joy of Debugging” reward system that leads us to find pleasure (mirth) in detecting and refuting certain sorts of errors that make their way into our thinking. Basically, the sorts of error-detections that generate mirth tend to be that of refuting covertly entered, active, committed, beliefs.

In the book, the details are explained and refined. There is much discussion of mental-spaces, JITSA (Just-In-Time Spreading Activation), etc., as well as many variations (first-person, third-person, recursive levels of modeling various intentional agents) and lots of analysis of how various types of mirth-inducing stimuli (including tickling!) conform to the theory, and much discussion of related issues.

Again, if you’re interested in what humor is all about, I’m sure you’ll find the book well worth your time.


Yesterday morning, just after getting off of my commuter bus and it started driving away, I realized that I had left my Kindle on the bus.

I really didn’t want to lose it, and forgot how old and out of shape I am, so I started chasing after it, running quickly (for me) waving my arms like a lunatic… I wasn’t feeling optimistic, but after a while I saw that the bus had stopped at a red light just over a block ahead, so I thought there might be a chance to catch up with it. Unfortunately, in the middle of a street, my weight got too far forward and I fell on the asphalt.

I got right back up and started running again and, fortunately, a construction worker up ahead saw me and figured out from my wild gesturing that I was trying to get to that bus, and he got the driver to wait for me.

So, I recovered my Kindle!

Unfortunately, I had scraped my left palm a little and my right arm (below the elbow) more, but the brunt of the impact was borne by my ribs, which were already hurting.

Today, I feel like I was hit in the chest with a baseball bat. Everything is sore, but the pain is mostly in my ribs and stomach, which seem to be more involved in every movement than I realized. It hurts to lie down, to get up, to sneeze (!!!), to walk, to stand, to sit down, to lift my arms, and to breathe (deeply). My left hand is so tender I can’t grip anything with it. But, if I sit fairly still and work on the computer (as I do most of the day), the discomfort level is fairly low.

So, I’m working from home today and trying not to move too much or quickly.

Even though I would pay much more than the price of a Kindle to avoid this experience, it seems like it would be much much worse if I’d lost the Kindle too. Maybe it’s just my desperate attempt to see a bright side, but I’m sticking to it.

A Toilet Paper Solution

Over ten years ago, I posed, and answered, The Toilet Paper Question (read it now, if you aren’t familiar with it).

Yesterday, while on vacation, I noticed an interesting design that
implements the solution:

The covered roll has a panel labeled “SLIDE DOOR OVER WHEN EMPTY” and it has a mechanism that makes it difficult to slide when the other roll
isn’t empty.

Now, there will be an entire roll available for use when an empty one is ready to be replaced; minimizing the chance that they will both be empty before maintenance workers can replace an empty roll.

This is a much better solution than waiting for most people to adopt this reasonable practice themselves.

Ed Snowden is a Hero

I just saw this article and interview of Edward Snowden, the whistleblower who leaked information about NSA activities.

It seems to me that he has exercised his personal judgment about something that he (along with many, many, others) thinks is wrong in a way that would expose what the public should know and would not endanger individuals. That is patriotism. It’s much more honorable than just following orders.

If the president really believes in transparency, as he has always claimed, he will issue a pardon for Edward Snowden.

Let’s see if he does.

Update: You can sign the whitehouse.gov petition here.

Bad Advice From The President

Last week, President Obama gave a commencement address at The Ohio State University.

Here are some excerpts that have garnered attention:

And that’s precisely what the Founders left us — the power, each of us, to adapt to changing times. They left us the keys to a system of self-government, the tools to do big things and important things together that we could not possibly do alone — to stretch railroads and electricity and a highway system across a sprawling continent. To
educate our people with a system of public schools and land-grant colleges, including The Ohio State University. To care for the sick and the vulnerable, and provide a basic level of protection from falling into abject poverty in the wealthiest nation on Earth. (Applause.) To conquer fascism and disease; to visit the Moon and Mars; to gradually secure our God-given rights for all of our citizens, regardless of who they are, or what they look like, or who they love. (Applause.)

We, the people, chose to do these things together — because we know this country cannot accomplish great things if we pursue nothing greater than our own individual ambition.

Unfortunately, you’ve grown up hearing voices that incessantly warn of government as nothing more than some separate, sinister entity that’s at the root of all our problems; some of these same voices also doing their best to gum up the works. They’ll warn that tyranny is always lurking just around the corner. You should reject these voices. Because what they suggest is that our brave and creative and unique experiment in self-rule is somehow just a sham with which we can’t be trusted.

The founders trusted us with this awesome authority. We should trust ourselves with it, too. Because when we don’t, when we turn away and get discouraged and cynical, and abdicate that authority, we grant our silent consent to someone who will gladly claim it. That’s how we end up with lobbyists who set the agenda; and policies detached from what middle-class families face every day; the well-connected who publicly demand that Washington stay out of their business — and then whisper in government’s ear for special treatment that you don’t get.

But more than anything, what we will need is political will — to harness the ingenuity of your generation, and encourage and inspire the hard work of dedicated citizens. To repair the middle class, to give more families a fair shake, to reject a country in which only a lucky few prosper because that’s antithetical to our ideals and our democracy — all of this is going to happen if you are involved, because it takes dogged determination — the dogged determination of our citizens.

There have been many responses to the speech that I liked. Here’s Gene Healy, Andrew Napolitano, Roger Pilon, and David Boaz (among others).

The speech was loaded with bad advice. The commentators above touched on the historical inaccuracy of the President’s characterization of what the founders thought, the conflation of private help and public help, the dangerous characterization of our relationship with strangers as like that of a family (which I’ve criticized before).

What bothers me most is the dangerously bad idea of replacing healthy skepticism of big government (which the President confuses with cynicism) with blind credulity in political leaders’ assertions about the great things that come from more government spending and power.

It’s as if the President is the leader of the statist religion, urging citizens to reject their own personal judgments about costs and benefits and put their faith behind the words of their political leaders. But, this faith isn’t merely harmless signaling of solidarity with other group members (as with most modern religions). This faith, while it also gives people self-righteous satisfaction and the joy of tribal efficacy, leads to people getting killed, people getting imprisoned for offending the sensibilities of neighbors and leaders, people obstructed from peacefully following their dreams, people impoverished by the satiating of egalitarian “crab-mentality” emotional reactions of their neighbors.

I’m sure the President doesn’t view himself as tyrannical, but he’s professing “virtues” that make tyranny easier.

I have some advice for graduates (and everybody else):

If you want to make the world a better place, do it peacefully through voluntary institutions; not through government. If your goal seems  great enough to justify forcing your neighbors to support, there should be strong enough arguments to garner plenty of support without coercing those who disagree.

If you feel the urge to improve the world through political action, try to expand the sphere of freedom and to shrink the sphere of coercion.


It’s a sad fact of life that it’s much easier to be destructive than constructive.

The recent bombings in Boston is our latest major reminder of this.

We’ll never be able to prevent determined, misguided, people from doing great harm to innocent people and property.

But, one thing we can do is to try to avoid reacting stupidly and adding our own self-inflicted damage to that of the attackers.

That will make us better off, and remove some of the incentive from the next would-be attackers.