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“The basic underlying problem does not entail misbehavior or incompetence but rather stems from the nature of the provision of labor-intensive services”*…

Agatha Christie with her daughter Rosalind in 1924 [source]

Why is it that stuff– clothing, electronics, toys– keep getting cheaper, while services– healthcare, education, child care– continue to rise on price?

Agatha Christie’s autobiography, published posthumously in 1977, provides a fascinating window into the economic life of middle-class Britons a century ago. The year was 1919, the Great War had just ended, and Christie’s husband Archie had just been demobilized as an officer in the British military.

The couple’s annual income was around around £700 ($50,000 in today’s dollars)—£500 ($36,000) from his salary and another £200 ($14,000) in passive income.

hey rented a fourth-floor walk-up apartment in London with four bedrooms, two sitting rooms, and a “nice outlook on green.” The rent was £90 for a year ($530 per month in today’s dollars). To keep it tidy, they hired a live-in maid for £36 ($2,600) per year, which Christie described as “an enormous sum in those days.”

The couple was expecting their first child, a girl, and they hired a nurse to look after her. Still, Christie didn’t consider herself wealthy.

“Looking back, it seems to me extraordinary that we should have contemplated having both a nurse and a servant,” Christie wrote. “But they were considered essentials of life in those days, and were the last things we would have thought of dispensing with. To have committed the extravagance of a car, for instance, would never have entered our minds. Only the rich had cars.”…

By modern standards, these numbers seem totally out of whack. An American family today with a household income of $50,000 might have one or even two cars. But they definitely wouldn’t have a live-in maid or nanny. Even if it were legal today to offer someone a job that paid $2,600 per year, nobody would take it.

The price shifts Christie observed during her lifetime continued to widen after her death…

As you can see, cars aren’t the only things that get cheaper over time. In the last 30 years, clothing, children’s toys, and televisions have all gotten steadily cheaper as well—as have lots of other products not on the chart.

It’s one of the most important economic mysteries of the modern world. While the material things in life are cheaper than ever, labor-intensive services are getting more and more expensive. Middle-class Americans today have little trouble affording a car, but they struggle to afford a spot in day care. Only the rich have nannies.

Who is to blame? Some paint the government as the villain, blaming excessive regulations and poorly targeted subsidies. They aren’t entirely wrong. But the main cause is something more fundamental—and not actually sinister at all.

Back in the 1960s, the economist William Baumol observed that it took exactly as much labor to play a string quartet in 1965 as it did in 1865—in economics jargon, violinists hadn’t gotten any more productive. Yet the wages of a professional violinist in 1965 were a lot higher than in 1865.

The basic reason for this is that workers in other industries were getting more productive, and that gave musicians bargaining power. If an orchestra didn’t pay musicians in line with economy-wide norms, it would constantly lose talent as its musicians decided to become plumbers or accountants instead. So over time, the incomes of professional musicians have risen.

Today economists call this phenomenon “Baumol’s cost disease,” and they see it as one of the most important forces driving the price trends in my chart above. I think it’s unfortunate that this bit of economics jargon is framed in negative terms. From my perspective as a parent, it might be a bummer that child care costs are rising. But my daughter’s nanny probably doesn’t see it that way—the Baumol effect means her income goes up…

A thoughtful consideration of a counterintuitive phenomenon: “Why Agatha Christie could afford a maid and a nanny but not a car,” from Timothy B. Lee (@binarybits) in Full Stack Economics (@fullstackecon).

From Baumol himself…

Briefly, the book’s central arguments are these:

1. Rapid productivity growth in the modern economy has led to cost trends that divide its output into two sectors, which I call “the stagnant sector” and “the progressive sector.” In this book, productivity growth is defined as a labor-saving change in a production process so that the output supplied by an hour of labor increases, presumably significantly (Chapter 2).

2. Over time, the goods and services supplied by the stagnant sector will grow increasingly unaffordable relative to those supplied by the progressive sector. The rapidly increasing cost of a hospital stay and rising college tuition fees are prime examples of persistently rising costs in two key stagnant-sector services, health care and education (Chapters 2 and 3).

3. Despite their ever increasing costs, stagnant-sector services will never become unaffordable to society. This is because the economy’s constantly growing productivity simultaneously increases the community’s overall purchasing power and makes for ever improving overall living standards (Chapter 4).

4. The other side of the coin is the increasing affordability and the declining relative costs of the products of the progressive sector, including some products we may wish were less affordable and therefore less prevalent, such as weapons of all kinds, automobiles, and other mass-manufactured products that contribute to environmental pollution (Chapter 5).

5. The declining affordability of stagnant-sector products makes them politically contentious and a source of disquiet for average citizens. But paradoxically, it is the developments in the progressive sector that pose the greater threat to the general welfare by stimulating such threatening problems as terrorism and climate change. This book will argue that some of the gravest threats to humanity’s future stem from the falling costs of these products, rather than from the rising costs of services like health care and education (Chapter 5).

The central purpose of this book is to explain why the costs of some labor-intensive services—notably health care and education—increase at persistently above-average rates. As long as productivity continues to increase, these cost increases will persist. But even more important, as the economist Joan Robinson rightly pointed out so many years ago, as productivity grows, so too will our ability to pay for all of these ever more expensive services.

William J. Baumol, from the Introduction to The Cost Disease: Why Computers Get Cheaper and Health Care Doesn’t

* William J. Baumol

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As we interrogate inflation, we might recall that it was in this date in 1933 that United Artists released the animated short “Three Little Pigs,” part of the Silly Symphonies series produced by Walt Disney (though some film historians give the date as May 25). A hit, it won the Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film. In 1994 a poll of 1,000 animators voted it #11 of the 50 Greatest Cartoons of all time.

Its song, “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf,” written by Frank Churchill, was a huge hit and was often used as an anthem during the Great Depression.

“Since there is no real silence / Silence will contain all the sounds”*…

Sound: it’s so ubiquitous that, unless we’re momentarily thrilled or annoyed by it, we tend to take it for granted. But what is it? Tim Urban to the rescue…

We think of sound as something we hear—something that makes noise. But in pure physics terms, sound is just a vibration going through matter. The way a vibration “goes through” matter is in the form of a sound wave [as per the illustration above]…

Ears are an evolutionary innovation that allows us to register sound waves in the air around us and process them as information—without ears, most sound waves would be imperceptible to a human with only the loudest sounds registering as a felt vibration on our skin. Ears give us a magical ability to sense even slight sound waves in a way so nuanced, it can usually tell us exactly where the sound is coming from and what the meaning of it is. And it enables us to talk. The most important kind of human communication happens when our brains send information to other brains through complex patterns of air pressure waves. Have you ever stopped and thought about how incredible that is?…

The next time you’re talking to someone, I want you to stop and think about what’s happening. Your brain has a thought. It translates that thought into a pattern of pressure waves. Then your lungs send air out of your body, but as you do that, you vibrate your vocal chords in just the right way and you move your mouth and tongue into just the right shapes that by the time the air leaves you, it’s embedded with a pattern of high- and low-pressure areas. The code in that air then spreads out to all the air in the vicinity, a little bit of which ends up in your friend’s ear, where it passes by their eardrum. When it does, it vibrates their eardrum in such a way as to pass on not only the code, but exactly where in the room it came from and the particular tone of voice it came with. The eardrum’s vibrations are transmitted through three tiny bones and into a little sac of fluid, which then transmits the information into electrical impulses and sends them up the auditory nerve and into the brain, where the information is decoded. And all of that happens in an eighth of a second, without any effort from either of you. Talking is a miracle

And so much more: “Everything You Should Know About Sound,” from @waitbutwhy.

See also: 32 Sounds

*  Since there is no real silence,
Silence will contain all the sounds,
All the words, all the languages,
All knowledge, all memory.”

Dejan Stojanović

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As we listen, we might we might recall that it was on this date in 1931 that Alam Ara was released. the first “talkie” (feature film with a sound track), it birthed the modern Indian film business, and set the high-romance, all-singing, all-dancing template for what we now know as Bollywood films (which sell more tickets worldwide than Hollywood films– though with lower grosses, as admission prices are generally lower). Sadly, no copy of Alam Ara survives; in 2017, the British Film Institute joined most Indian film scholars in declaring it the most important of all lost films produced in India.

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Written by (Roughly) Daily

March 15, 2022 at 1:00 am

Getting away with murder…

There are loopholes, and then there are loopholes…

A panel of Idaho lawmakers is recommending the Legislature ask Congress to fix a legal loophole that has some calling a portion of Yellowstone National Park the “Zone of Death,” where crimes could arguably go unprosecuted.

The vast majority of the 3,471-square-mile (8,990-square-kilometer) park sits in Wyoming, but about 3% of it stretches into Montana and 1% of the park is in eastern Idaho. When Congress created the park in 1872, the federal court in the District of Wyoming was given jurisdiction over the crimes committed within park borders.

Boise Democratic Rep. Colin Nash, an attorney, told the House Judiciary and Rules Committee on Thursday that he first learned about the “zone of death” in law school. The phrase refers to a legal theory advanced by Michigan State Law professor Brian Kalt in 2005, which says a jurisdictional loophole could force the federal government to dismiss charges against anyone accused of committing a federal crime in the Idaho portion of the park.

In an academic paper titled “The Perfect Crime,” Kalt noted the Sixth Amendment says that people charged with crimes have a right to be tried by a jury of their peers, selected from the state and region where the crime took place.

That’s a problem for Yellowstone, because the only beings living in Idaho’s roughly 50-square-mile portion of Yellowstone are grizzly bears, elk and other wildlife — and they aren’t eligible for jury duty. Kalt theorized that someone who committed a murder in Idaho’s portion of Yellowstone could get away with it, since the federal government would be unable to seat a constitutionally sound jury…

The ‘Zone of Death’: “Lawmaker wants federal fix in Yellowstone’s legal blind spot.”

[image above: source]

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As we consider the angles, we might recall that it was on this date in 1931 that Dracula— the first in a line line of “classic” monster movies– premiered in New York.  Directed by the great Tod Browning and famously starring Bela Lugosi (in what many consider still to be the definitive portrayal of the blood-thirsty Count), the film was based on the 1924 stage play Dracula by Hamilton Deane and John L. Balderston, which in turn is adapted from the 1897 novel Dracula by Bram Stoker.  The film was was both a critical and commercial success on its release, and has earned it’s way into the canon, having been selected by the Library of Congress for preservation in the National Film Registry as “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”

220px-Dracula_-_1931_theatrical_poster

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Written by (Roughly) Daily

February 12, 2022 at 1:00 am

“History is humankind trying to get a grip. Obviously its not easy. But it could go better if you would pay a little more attention to certain details, like for instance your planet.”*…

A blast from the past…

In 1938, 20-year-old filmmaker Richard H. Lyford directed and starred in As the Earth Turns, a science-fiction silent movie about a mad scientist who purposely induces climate change as a way to end world violence.

But the 45-minute film became “lost,” only to resurface 80 years later, in 2018, when Lyford’s grandniece, Kim Lyford Bishop, discovered it. (After creating the film, Lyford went on to work at Disney and earn an Oscar for the 1950 documentary “The Titan: Story of Michelangelo.”)

Bishop then asked music composer Ed Hartman, who was her daughter’s percussions teacher, to score it.

Although “As the Earth Turns” was finally released in 2019 and took part in 123 film festivals, it will finally premiere on television on Halloween night, this Sunday on Turner Classic Movies at 9pm PST…

From The Seattle Times:

… “As the Earth Turns is the work of an exuberant, ambitious young man: Lyford wrote, directed and shot the film, and managed to corral a stable of actors and crew to capture his vision. You can see his fascination with the craft of filmmaking: Lyford experiments with miniatures and models (then used in Hollywood films, and a remarkable accomplishment for a barely-out-of-his-teens hobbyist), explosions, earthquakes and special makeup effects, all on a budget of next to nothing.”

A 1938 sci-fi film about climate change was lost. It’s making its TV debut 83 years later,” from Carla Sinclair (@Carla_Sinclair) and @BoingBoing.

* Kim Stanley Robinson, New York 2140

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As we ponder prescience, we might recall that it was on this date in 2012 that Hurricane Sandy (AKA Superstorm Sandy) hit the east coast of the United States, killing 148 directly and 138 indirectly, wreaking nearly $70 billion in damages, and causing major power outages. In New York City streets, tunnels, and subway lines were flooded.

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“Some people worry that artificial intelligence will make us feel inferior, but then, anybody in his right mind should have an inferiority complex every time he looks at a flower”*…

Humor is said to be the quintessential humor capacity, last thing that AI could– will?– conquer…

New Yorker cartoons are inextricably woven into the fabric of American visual culture. With an instantly recognizable formula — usually, a black-and-white drawing of an imagined scenario followed by a quippy caption in sleek Caslon Pro Italic — the daily gags are delightful satires of our shared human experience, riffing on everything from cats and produce shopping to climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic. The New Yorker‘s famous Cartoon Caption Contest, which asks readers to submit their wittiest one-liners, gets an average 5,732 entries each week, and the magazine receives thousands of drawings every month from hopeful artists.

What if a computer tried its hand at the iconic comics?

Playing on their ubiquity and familiarity, comics artist Ilan Manouach and AI engineer Ioannis [or Yiannis] Siglidis developed the Neural Yorker, an artificial intelligence (AI) engine that posts computer-generated cartoons on Twitter. The project consists of image-and-caption combinations produced by a generative adversarial network (GAN), a deep-learning-based model. The network is trained using a database of punchlines and images of cartoons found online and then “learns” to create new gags in the New Yorker‘s iconic style, with hilarious (and sometimes unsettling) results…

Comics artist Ilan Manouach (@IlanManouach) and AI engineer Yiannis Siglidis created The Neural Yorker: “Computer-Generated New Yorker Cartoons Are Delightfully Weird.”

For comparison’s sake, see “142 Of The Funniest New Yorker Cartoons Ever.”

Alan Kay

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As we go for the guffaw, we might recall that it was on this date in 1922 that the first chapter in Walt Disney’s career as an animator came to a close when he released the 7th and next-to-last “Laugh-O-Gram” cartoon adaption of a fairy tale, “Jack the Giant Killer.”

Disney’s first animated films began in 1920 as after-work projects when Disney was a commercial artist for an advertising company in Kansas City. He made these cartoons by himself and with the help of a few friends.

He started by persuading Frank Newman, Kansas City’s leading exhibitor, to include short snippets of animation in the series of weekly newsreels Newman produced for his chain of three theaters. Tactfully called “Newman Laugh-O-grams,” Disney’s footage was meant to mix advertising with topical humor…

The Laugh-O-grams were a hit, leading to commissions for animated intermission fillers and coming attractions slides for Newman’s theaters. Spurred by his success, the 19-year-old Disney decided to try something more ambitious: animated fairy tales. Influenced by New York animator Paul Terry’s spoofs of Aesop’s Fables, which had premiered in June 1920, Disney decided not only to parody fairy-tale classics but also to modernize them by having them playing off recent events. With the help of high school student Rudy Ising, who later co-founded the Warner Brothers and MGM cartoon studios, and other local would-be cartoonists, Disney [made 7 animated shorts, of which “Jack, the Giant Killer” was the penultimate].

Walt Disney’s Laugh-O-grams

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