Archive for the 'Blogging' Category

Chips off the Block

Last week, I wrote to condemn the gang of angry yahoos who have piled onto Walter Block for making a perfectly reasonable argument about slavery, involuntary association, and Civil Rights legislation. Today I write to give Walter’s argument the respect it deserves by trying to pick it apart.

It’s important to recognize that Walter wasn’t making a formal argument. Instead, he was offering a rhetorical framework to clarify some of the issues. His (informal) argument, if I understand it, comes down to essentially this:

Look. We all agree that slavery is bad. And when you think about it, pretty much all of the badness stems from its involuntary nature. This should make us wary of involuntary associations in general, and hesitant to impose them. This applies, for example, to laws that require restaurant owners to serve people they don’t want to serve.

Now I happen to be quite sympathetic to that argument (indeed, I’ve been known to make essentially the same argument myself). In fact, I’ll go further and say that I think any reasonable person ought to be at least somewhat moved by that argument. But I can see where it’s not airtight.

To see why not, let’s take a pass at formalizing this:

1) Slavery is bad.
2) For a thing to be bad, some aspect of it must be bad.
3) Slavery has no bad aspects except possibly involuntary association.
4) From 1), 2) and 3), we can deduce that involuntary association is a bad aspect of slavery.
5) From 4), we deduce that involuntary association is bad.
6) Involuntary association is an aspect of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
7) Anything with a bad aspect is at least partially bad.
8) From 5), 6) and 7), we can deduce that the 1964 Civil Rights Act is at least partially bad.

Now let’s see where the problems are.

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AAGGHH!

This morning’s post on the market for novels was marked up wrong, and as a result it jumped from the middle of the first paragraph to somewhere around the fourth, probably making it pretty hard to follow. It’s fixed now.

Destruction Paper

It’s well understood that if you see the world through sufficiently Keynesian eyes, you might welcome a destructive hurricane or the threat of an alien invasion (together with the frantic spending it would stimulate) as just the ticket to lift the economy out of a recession.

What seems to have been largely overlooked is that even in a thoroughly non-Keynesian world where markets work perfectly (or as perfectly as they can in the presence of a distortionary income tax), and recessions cure themselves, we might still want that hurricane.

Or, because we can’t always call forth hurricanes when we need them, we might want our government to simulate their effects by diverting funds from useful to destructive spending projects — or just occasionally showing up at people’s houses and trashing their furniture.

Here’s why: Hurricanes make us collectively poorer. When we’re poorer, we work more. When we work more, the government collects additional income tax revenue. But — taking total government spending as given — the government can’t continue to collect additional revenue forever; sooner or later it must lower tax rates. (This assumes we’re on the good side of the Laffer curve, where the way to collect less revenue is to lower rates, not raise them.) When tax rates fall, labor markets work more efficiently. So much so, in fact, that the efficiency gains can more than compensate for the initial destruction.

I only realized this recently, and it surprised me (along with several others I showed it to) enough that I wrote it up as a short paper. (Update: A more recent version of the paper is here.) I also looked back through my blog archives to see how badly I’d gotten this wrong in the past.

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Fortune Comes a-Crawlin’


With great humility, I am honored to inform you that Eric Crampton of Offsetting Behavior has nominated me for sainthood.

Riffing off yesterday’s Acta Sanctorum post, Eric is asking for your help in making this a reality:

So, here’s the campaign for Saint Steven.

  1. Any of you who have any kind of illness at all pray to Steven Landsburg for intervention.
  2. If you do not receive divine Landsburgean intervention, don’t tell me about it.
  3. If you do receive divine Landsburgean intervention, please leave a record of such in the comments. Preferably with a link to a doctor’s note saying that your recovery was unexpected and pretty remarkable. This should happen in maybe 1% of cases.
  4. We submit the documented evidence of the successes, while ignoring the failures. Ta-dah! Saint Steven.

My hope is to beat John Paul II’s record of two reported cures, plus the toppling of one Evil Empire, or, at a minimum, the National Endowment for the Arts. Oh, and while I’m at it I have a couple of other worldly improvements in mind. Watch your step, Paul Krugman!

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The Road Not Taken

Paul Krugman, having apparently received another of his divine revelations, proclaims that if we demand (somewhat) better working conditions in Third World countries (backed up, presumably, with boycott threats), “we can achieve an improvement in workers’ lives … And we should go ahead and do it.”

Don’t ask how he knows; the ways of the Oracle are mysterious and beyond human ken.

Look. A well designed policy of boycotts and boycott threats can certainly improve working conditions in the Third World. It can also lower either wages, employment or both. Whether or not that package amounts to “an improvement in worker’s lives”, as Krugman puts it, is an interesting and important question, and well worth thinking about. But apparently the last thing Krugman wants you to do is think about it, since he’s already told you the answer, and seems to presume you won’t have the slightest interest in where it came from.

Now, among the many differences between me and Paul Krugman, there are probably some that redound to his credit. But his propensity to hide all of his reasoning (if any) is not one of them. Compare, for example, my blog post of a few years ago on working conditions in 1911 New York City, when the Triangle Shirtwaist fire claimed 146 lives, most of them young women, partly because the fire exits were blocked to prevent pilfering. Would workers in 1911 have wanted safer working conditions (including unblocked fire exits)? This was my answer:

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Keep Them Coming

The extremely interesting boxcar discussion is now up to 233 comments, many of them extremely insightful. This morning, comments were briefly closed, but this was a glitch and it’s now fixed. (Thanks to Ken B. for alerting me.) Keep those comments coming!

Comments are turned off on this post because I want to keep the discussion all in one place. I’ll soon be back with more content, not all of it boxcar-related.

To Hold You Over….

Sorry to have been so silent this week; various deadlines have kept me away from this corner of the Internet. I’ll be back in force next week for sure. Meanwhile, if you’re looking for some good reading, this is the best thing I’ve seen all morning.

Edited to add: “Best all morning” was not intended as damning-by-faint-praise. It’s actually the best of many mornings.

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Friedman on Psychic Harm

Four terrific posts by David Friedman, partly on psychic harm, partly on talking about psychic harm. I’d recommend these highly even if they hadn’t invoked my name.

Landsburg v Bork: What Counts As Injury?

Response to Bork and Landsburg

Frightening Ideas

Why Landsburg’s Puzzle is Interesting

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Blog Notes

Note added on 4/5: Readers who want the short version can skip down to where it says “Edited to Add”.

I’m somewhat hesitant to post this, since I believe my regular readers will find it all to be entirely obvious and hence entirely unnecessary. But we’ve had more than the usual number of non-regular readers here the past few days, largely in response to my post on psychic harm, and more than a few of them have made the mistake of plunging into a conversation they didn’t understand (often, apparently, without even reading the post they were responding to). Per my usual policy in long threads, I’ve deleted comments that failed to advance the discussion, either because they were off topic or did no more than repeat things that had already been said. In most, but not all, such cases, I drop short notes to the commenters, explaining why their posts were deleted and inviting them to come back with something more germane. Often (and this week has been no exception), I get notes back from these people saying they’ve learned something, which is gratifying enough that I keep on sending those explanatory notes. (If your post was deleted and you didn’t get a note, you probably just had the bad luck to post at a time when I was unusually busy or distracted.) But since certain points come up repeatedly, it might be more efficient to mention them here.

1. This was not a post about censorship, or about the environment, or about rape. It was a post about where to draw lines between purely psychic harm that should receive policy weight and purely psychic harm that shouldn’t. This is an issue I raise from time to time, because I find it both perplexing and important. And it interacts with lot of other standard issues in public policy in ways that make it impossible (for those of us who care about such things) to ignore.

2. The post was laden with unrealistic hypotheticals. That’s the only way I know of to approach these questions. Take rape, for example. Rape frequently has ghastly physical and psychological consequences for the victim. We all know that, which is precisely why it’s important (in this kind of discussion) to assume those consequences away. The whole point is to focus on the stuff we’re not sure of, such as: Should my distress over someone else‘s rape receive policy weight? To focus on that question, it helps to imagine a scenario where that’s the only distress. In other words, we assume away all the usual harm to the victim precisely because we’re already know that this harm is dreadful and merits policy weight. To focus on examples where the victim sustains damage would be to say, in effect, that we’re not sure how to feel about that damage. (Otherwise, why investigate those examples?)

Or to put this yet another way: In this business, the way one acknowledges that an issue is settled is to assume it away. It is settled that damage to rape victims is real, great, important, and deserves the attention of the law. Thus we assume it away.

Edited to add: Two extremely thoughtful commenters have pointed out that the first post dealt both with psychic harm to the victim and with psychic harm to the general public, and that these are two different issues. Indeed they are, but both are difficult in the same way, and both of them are clarified by hypothetical examples.

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Public Service Announcement

The Big Questions is likely to be down intermittently between about 9PM and 11PM eastern time on Friday, 2/22 for scheduled maintenance.

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Public Service Announcement

I’ve been traveling and hence not blogging much the past several days. I’d intended to post something for today, but since I don’t know what’s going to happen at 10AM, and since that’s likely to be the only thing anybody wants to talk about today, I think I’ll hold off. I’ll be back soon though!

Meanwhile, once 10AM has come and gone, feel free to use this space for (thoughtful!) discussion of the Supreme Court decision, whatever it may be.

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Why Jews Don’t Farm

I’ve been a little swamped lately and my daily blogging has fallen off. Until things get back to normal, I think I’ll fill the breach by reprinting a few of my old columns from Slate. Today’s entry is on “Why Jews Don’t Farm”.

—————————-

In the 1890s, my Eastern European Jewish ancestors emigrated to an American Jewish farming community in Woodbine, N.J., where the millionaire philanthropist Baron de Hirsch provided land, tools, and training at one of the nation’s first agricultural colleges. But within a generation, the family had settled in Philadelphia where they became accountants, tailors, merchants, and eventually, lawyers and college professors.

De Hirsch had a vision of American Jews achieving economic liberation by working the land. If he’d had a better sense of history, he would have built not an agricultural college but a medical school, because for well over a millennium prior to the settlement of Woodbine, Jews had not been farmers—not in Palestine, not in the Muslim empire, not in Western Europe, not in Eastern Europe, not anywhere in the world.

You have to go back almost 2,000 years to find a time when Jews, like virtually every other identifiable group, were primarily an agricultural people. Around A.D. 200, Jews began to quit the land. By the seventh century, Jews had left their farms in large numbers to become craftsmen, artisans, merchants, and moneylenders—the only group to have given up on agriculture. Jewish participation in farming fell to about 10 percent through most of the world; even in Palestine it was only about 25 percent. Everyone else stayed on the farms.

(Even in the modern state of Israel, where agriculture has been an important component of the economy, it’s been a peculiarly capital-intensive form of agriculture, one that employed well under a quarter of the population at the height of the Kibbutz movement, and less than 3 percent of the population today.)

The obvious question is: Why? Why did Jews and only Jews take up urban occupations, and why did it happen so dramatically throughout the world? Two economic historians—Maristella Botticini (of Boston University and Universitá di Torino) and Zvi Eckstein (of Tel Aviv University and the University of Minnesota)—have recently been giving that question a lot of thought.

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Public Service Announcement

Monday’s post generated an unusually large number of comments that consisted of nothing but namecalling, directed in almost all cases at Paul Krugman (though in exactly one case at me). I’ve deleted all of these comments, in most cases before they were ever posted.

I strongly encourage spirited discussion. I understand that spirited discussion can get pretty heated, and that in heated discussion people (including me) sometimes say nasty things. I prefer to keep that to a minimum, but I still allow a fair amount of it as long as the comments advance the discussion. But if your post consists of 100% pure nastiness, with no conceivable way for anybody to learn anything from it, I will usually delete it. One exception: Being very funny can compensate for a lot of nastiness, especially if it’s the kind of funny that draws the reader’s attention to a genuine flaw in someone’s reasoning. The many posts I’ve deleted over the past 48 hours were nasty without even trying to be funny.

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On the Road Again

I’m traveling for the next week, and will probably not be on the net much. I’ll blog if anything catches my fancy, but most likely you won’t see me for at least a few days.

Turning the Crank: The Year in Review

crankSomething about this time of year brings out the cranks. Last year at this time, Lubos Motl (along with a few others, some just confused, others just pure trolls) was disputing the simple but surprising answer to a little probability puzzle. (See first here, then here, then here, then here, then here, and finally, for an enlightening coda, here — and then for one more afterthought, here, with approximately 1000 comments altogether).

This was a tricky puzzle and of course you don’t have to be a crank to get it wrong. But the cranks distinguish themselves by a) repeating exactly the same arguments over and over and over and over and over, while ignoring the fact that those arguments have been clearly refuted; b) reacting with outrage when it’s suggested that if they make an argument with multiple implications, they don’t get to pick and choose which implications to accept; c) dismissing the relevance of definitive counterexamples (e.g. “You’ve made an argument that appears to apply to a country of any size. Let’s see if your argument works for a country with only one family.” “That’s totally beside the point! I never assumed the country had only one family!”), d) rejecting all arguments by analogy by observing that the analogy is imperfect, even when the imperfections of the analogy have no bearing on the argument; e) constantly changing the subject so as to deflect attention from arguments they can’t answer; f) constantly changing their definitions midstream so that everything they’ve been saying, even when it is self-contadictory, becomes true by definition; g) discerning a conspiracy when multiple people take the time to simplify the arguments in the (always vain) hope of penetrating the crank’s thick skull; h) substituting mockery for discourse; and i) repeating the same arguments over and over and over and over, while ignoring the fact that those arguments have been clearly refuted.

This year, instead of a small cadre of cranks, we’ve been visited by a single crank, one Yoram Bauman, who’s cluttered up a long comment thread with repeated instances of behaviors a) through i). It’s not just the flimsiness of his arguments that makes Yoram a crank; it’s the way he repeats those arguments while completely ignoring every objection, or, on those rare occasions when he takes note of those objections, dismissing them as coming from an “echo chamber”. It’s his habit of making two arguments that directly contradict each other within a single paragraph, and then getting miffed when someone points that out. It’s his substitution of mockery for debate. (Note to future commenters: It’s okay, now and then, to adopt a mocking tone when you’ve demolished someone’s argument. It’s not okay to adopt a mocking tone by way of ignoring an argument.) Above all, it’s his intense and total disdain for the process of intellectual discourse, as if this were all just a game and getting things right doesn’t matter.

Well, of course, this is just an online discussion, and whether we get things right probably doesn’t matter very much in the grand scheme of things. But most of us are here because we take pleasure in trying to understand something. Yoram’s entire purpose here seems to be to undermine that pleasure with his clownish (and possibly feigned) stupidity. He’s the guy at the party who pisses on the table for attention and then, when everyone edges away at the same time, accuses them of sheeplike subservience to social norms.

Enough of that! While the year was bookended by cranks, it was filled with other lively discussions worth remembering.

Here were the most-commented-upon posts of 2011:

Continue reading ‘Turning the Crank: The Year in Review’

Happy Holidays

I’ll probably blog very little over the next ten days or so, in recognition of the fact that most of you won’t be reading. (On the other hand, if, say, the New York Times publishes something sufficiently egregious, I might not be able to restrain myself. Meanwhile, for your holiday pleasure, here’s the Christmas column I published in Slate in 2004:

What I Like About Scrooge

scroogeHere’s what I like about Ebenezer Scrooge: His meager lodgings were dark because darkness is cheap, and barely heated because coal is not free. His dinner was gruel, which he prepared himself. Scrooge paid no man to wait on him.

Scrooge has been called ungenerous. I say that’s a bum rap. What could be more generous than keeping your lamps unlit and your plate unfilled, leaving more fuel for others to burn and more food for others to eat? Who is a more benevolent neighbor than the man who employs no servants, freeing them to wait on someone else?

Oh, it might be slightly more complicated than that. Maybe when Scrooge demands less coal for his fire, less coal ends up being mined. But that’s fine, too. Instead of digging coal for Scrooge, some would-be miner is now free to perform some other service for himself or someone else.

Dickens tells us that the Lord Mayor, in the stronghold of the mighty Mansion House, gave orders to his 50 cooks and butlers to keep Christmas as a Lord Mayor’s household should—presumably for a houseful of guests who lavishly praised his generosity. The bricks, mortar, and labor that built the Mansion House might otherwise have built housing for hundreds; Scrooge, by living in three sparse rooms, deprived no man of a home. By employing no cooks or butlers, he ensured that cooks and butlers were available to some other household where guests reveled in ignorance of their debt to Ebenezer Scrooge.

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Stopped Clocks

Incidentally, Paul Krugman made an incisive point last week when he wrote:

Here’s a question I haven’t seen asked: If fear of future regulations and taxes is holding business back, as everyone on the right asserts, why didn’t the Republican victory in the midterms set off a surge in employment?

After all, if you really believed that fears of Obamanite socialism were the key factor depressing employment, the GOP victory — with the clear possibility that the party will take the Senate and maybe the White House next year — should greatly reduce those fears. So, where’s the hiring surge?

I even set out to write a blogpost citing this argument with approval — but around the time I was composing it, Krugman followed up with this bit of idiocy, to which a response seemed more urgent.

Now that that’s out of the way, I can come back to the bit about the missing Boehner Boom. It’s a more-than-fair question. How would you respond to it?

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Travel Report

Thanks to Hurricane Irene, my trip to Brazil turned into a trip to Dulles Airport, from which I am now (after much scrambling) returned. I hope to make it to Brazil in the near future!

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Public Service Announcement

For the next several days, I’ll be in at the Liberty and Democracy Forum in Brazil, and likely out of Internet range. I’ll
see you late next week.

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Mea Culpa

For the first time ever, I am deleting a post.

The numbers in this morning’s post (now missing) were completely wrong as were, therefore, the conclusions I drew from them.

For the record, all of the numbers concerned what happens if you save $1000 a month. I often show these numbers to my students, and when I do, I get the assumption right. But this time, I somehow a) convinced myself that the assumption was $100 a month, not $1000 a month and b) therefore concluded that saving is a whole lot easier than what I tell my students every year, and c) said a lot of nonsense that followed from this.

(I tell my students that for *them*, saving $1000 a month will soon probably be a plausible strategy, which is likely to be true. Having conflated $1000 with $100, I drew implausible conclusions in the blog post about what you could do on $25,000 a year.)

I could say things about the folly of posting at 2AM, but I think the wiser course is simply to apologize.

Home Again, Home Again

houseI spent most of July in the UK, with limited Internet access (exacerbated by my Verizon iPhone’s inability to communicate with the European cellular services), and (I’ve only just realized this now) without buying even a single newspaper. So I know almost nothing of what’s gone on in the U.S. over the past several weeks, except for some vague sense that there was a brouhaha over raising the debt ceiling. Even over the few days I’ve been back, I’ve felt no urgency about catching up, though I’m sure that will kick in any day now.

There was, of course, never any need to raise the debt ceiling; there was only a need to prioritize debt service over other stuff the government shouldn’t be doing anyway. To a very rough approximation, the annual budgets of the Departments of Commerce, Agriculture and Labor add up to the annual interest payments on the national debt.

Be that as it may, it will be interesting to catch up on the news and see what got cut. For now, I’ll just say that if we still have a Department of Commerce, then they didn’t cut enough. If we still have a Corporation for Public Broadcasting, or a National Endowment for the Arts or Humanities, then they didn’t even try.

But now that I’m back, I’m unlikely to dwell on what’s become old news. My plan is to ramp back up to regular blogging, starting with a few things that struck me as noteworthy while I was traveling in Britain. I hope you’ll forgive my long absence. It’s good to be back.

Public Service Announcement

Obviously, blogging has slowed pretty much to a crawl around here the past several weeks, due largely to a big writing project that I’ll tell you more about in the fall. That project is done, but now I’ll be traveling pretty much non-stop for the entire month of July. I’ll try to file an occasional foreign dispatch, but it will be sometime in August before we get back to our regular daily schedule. I’m aiming to ramp up to that schedule by the beginning of the academic year at the latest. Thank you all for bearing with me.

Status Report

I’m on the road in beautiful Bellingham, Washington, with very little opportunity to blog. Otherwise, I’d have chimed in a few times in the ongoing discussion of the “Who Owes Whom” post that immediately precedes this one. As it is, I’ll save all my comments till I return next week.

D’oh — The First in a Series

homerWhen something is wrong on the Internet, bloggers love to pounce. But since no blogger is infallible, most of us can find ample fodder in our own past writing, if we go back and reread it with a sufficiently critical eye. Over the next few weeks, I plan to revisit some things I got wrong the first time around. (You’ll recognize those posts by the Homer Simpson logo.) I hope others will be inspired to do the same.

To lead off this series: In December, 2009 I blogged about space scientiest James Hansen, who prefers carbon taxation to cap-and-trade. His argument: A carbon tax allows for the possibility of additional carbon abatements through altruism. Under cap-and-trade, if I altruistically decide to buy a fuel-efficient car, someone else gets to buy an SUV. Whereas under a carbon tax, if I altruistically decide to buy a fuel-efficient car, less gas gets consumed.

Wait a second, though. Under a carbon tax, if I decide to buy a fuel-efficient car, I drive the price of gas down, which encourages someone else to buy an SUV. So altruism is equally ineffective under either policy, no?

That’s the argument I made in December, 2009. I now believe that:

  • Under a plausible interpretation of Hansen’s argument, I was wrong.
  • But Hansen is still unconvincing, though for somewhat subtler reasons.

Continue reading ‘D’oh — The First in a Series’

Big Numbers

Sorry to have been uncharacteristically absent all week; I’ve been busy in a good way, though I hope and expect to get back to more regular blogging before long. In the meantime, to keep you busy, let me give you a pointer to a marvelous essay I’ve long been a fan of, and just happened to get reminded of today: Scott Aaronson’s take on the old riddle of who can name the biggest number. Have fun with this, and I’ll see you soon.

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Call for Technical Support

WordPress (which provides the software that drives this blog) provides me with a button that says “delete all spam”. I keep pushing the button, but I’ve noticed that there’s still spam on the Internet. Do I just have to push harder, or what?

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The Intellectual and the Marketplace

stiglerToday is the 100th birthday of the late George Stigler, who won a Nobel prize for his economics and would have won a second if they gave one for dry wit. This is not the best example of that wit, but it’s the one I remember most vividly: One day long ago I was walking across the quadrangle at the University of Chicago, when I felt a hand on my shoulder — a very large hand, because Stigler was a very large man (in the tall-and-lanky sense of large). He’d been away for a few months, so I was a little surprised to see him. Before I could say anything like “Welcome back”, Stigler asked me: “So, what’s become of that young lady you were squiring around before I left town?”. In a fit of circumspection, all I said was “Oh, she still exists”, and Stigler immediately replied, “Oh, how lovely. You know, I’ve never been a subscriber to this theory that says you should destroy them when you leave them.”

The Intellectual and the Market Place — Stigler’s classic defense of the marketplace against the discomfort felt by so many intellectuals — is well worth a quick read. Parts of it have been paraphrased so often by so many imitators that they’ve begun to seem almost trite, but none of the imitators has ever achieved Stigler’s panache. Besides, it’s been imitated so much precisely because there’s so much here worth saying. A few sample paragraphs to whet your appetite:

Continue reading ‘The Intellectual and the Marketplace’

Public Service Announcement

I’m traveling, and blogging is likely to be pretty light for the rest of the week. I won’t be gone long.

Public Service Announcement

Things have gotten a little busy around here (in entirely a good way), so blog posts are likely to appear a little less frequently for the next couple of weeks — maybe two or three times a week instead of the usual five. I hope yesterday’s puzzle will keep you entertained for another day or two. See you soon!

Thanksgiving Break

Along with half of everyone else who works at a University, I’m starting my Thanksgiving break a little early. I’ll see you all after the holiday weekend, hoping to find you well fed, healthy, and reflective of your blessings.