October 18th, 2011


Last night at book group, we got to talking about e-readers and tablets. This was partly my fault; I was reading _Mennonites in Early Modern Poland and Prussia_ (<-- family history research. Altho it's a good enough book I might read it anyway. I think.) on a k3 before book group and then towards the end, when M. said next month's book was _Five Skies_ by Mclarty (sic), I went to look it up on the iPad because I was a little confused about the author (it's by Ron Carlson). My friend A. commented about how much computer power there was in such a tiny form and then segued into her feelings about seeing ten year olds walking around with such an expensive device. I noted that the iPad wasn't the only tablet out there and there were more all the time and that the kFire was coming out at a lower price point, and also that the iPad (and hopefully similar devices) was really fantastic for special needs kids since it didn't require as much fine motor control or abstraction as a mouse or trackpad nor as much language as a keyboard. But she was kind of hung up on the idea that it was really expensive at $500+, so I hauled out my old chestnut about the Commodore 64 being $600 when it debuted in the early 1980s -- but she didn't think that many people had them, that many kids used them and also that it was a shared device for the whole family. Given they almost all got monopolized for gaming by the gaming-inclined young male(s) in the families that owned them, I more or less dropped it at that point, because beyond pointing out that families spend whatever they have on their kids -- if they have more, they spend more -- I didn't understand why what A. was saying bothered me so much and I hate getting into a debate when I don't understand my own position. I wind up dismantling the other side rather than presenting a compelling case for my perspective. I think it's a natural human tendency.

In any event, I think what A. was getting at was that if you give a young person an expensive device, when they get older, they will expect that as a part of their life and they might not be able to afford it on their own. You could be setting them up for adult disappointment when they cannot reproduce the lifestyle they have grown to expect. Trivially, this is a stupid way to attack the iPad: by this argument, we shouldn't drive nice cars or live in nice houses, because when kids grow up and move out, they can only afford to share crappy dorm rooms and apartments or rented rooms and zipcar. I don't think A. would think we shouldn't house our families and transport them in a comfortable and enjoyable way, so something else must be going on here.

A.'s comment, in many ways, was how amazing the device is. Yes, it is expensive, but computing devices of the recent past were larger, more annoying and much more expensive. I think what tripped me up about A. was the idea that as computing devices become less expensive and more powerful and easier to use (cheaper and better), children shouldn't be allowed to use them because it sets their expectations too high. I would argue this is comprehensively confused. The devices of the next few months will be much cheaper, and probably not a lot worse -- and it's not a trend I expect to reverse any time soon. I keep _thinking_ it'll slow down, but mostly it just changes, so that instead of more or faster of any one component, it's something else entirely, like e-ink or touch screens or whatever.

After talking to M. about the conundrum (why would people assume a $500 device is for executives to be more productive, when anyone who actually uses it recognizes it's the most fun toy ever and probably most beneficial for the developmentally delayed and/or extremely young?), I've concluded that A. may well be remembering past expensive electronic devices and how they tended to be rapidly destroyed or at least damaged by contact with young people (particularly young people who didn't have to pay for it themselves out of newspaper or lawn mowing money -- I'm speaking about the comparatively distant past now, before today's parents were attempting to conceive the under 18s of today). Handing a beautiful, fun, powerful, $500+ device to a young'un who is just going to break it grates. A. doesn't realize -- because no one really can, until they've seen it in action -- how freakishly durable an iPad is. It survives toddler temper tantrums, sticky fingers and chocolate milk spills. It is a miracle. And a much more affordable miracle than, say, a new car.

Just to be clear: I know most families cannot afford iPads for their children. It _is_ expensive. But I'm not seeing the argument for a family which can afford one or more for their kids to not buy them. If the money is needed for more important things (food, shelter, heat/cooling, medical care, savings for emergencies/retirement/college fund, etc.), each family needs to figure out its own priorities. But having the money to spend on an iPad and not spending it on one because it might set expectations too high seems silly. I've seen what people spend on American Girl dolls and their outfits. (I have in fact contributed to that spending.)

Regulatory Uncertainty

Here is an extended excerpt from Klassen's _Mennonites in Early Modern Poland and Prussia_, which I am hugely enjoying because it's an academic development of the "and then they moved around Europe alternately being persecuted and being encouraged to live somewhere so they would reclaim land by building dikes and windmills) that I grew up with. Mmmm. Family history. Mmmm. Academic development. Good times. For me, anyway.

Recently, AvalonBay decided _not_ to do a project they started during the boom and then put on hold during the bust. It was a pricey for-rent development on Manhattan next to a garbage truck facility and on leased land. This news item -- when it came out a month or more ago -- led to extended speculation between R. and I about very-long-term land leases. Today, Klassen has supplied a name for at least one way of doing these leases: emphyteusis (actually, he wrote emphyteutic tenure, and it isn't in a the kindle dictionary or whatever LJ uses to spellcheck while typing). You can look that up as easily as I and maybe you'll even be able to understand it.

Here's the excerpt. "In the 1550s, Michael Loitz, a city councilor in Danzig and member of a wealthy family that owned a noted banking house, was given a thirty-year lease by the crown on land near the Tiege (Tuja) River. He had made numerous loans to King Sigismund II Augustus, and when the loans were not repaid, he was given emphyteutic tenure of the village of Schonsee (Jeziernik) and surrounding land. Under emphyteutic tenure, leases were granted for an extended period of time, usually thirty or forty years, and were inheritable ... The Loitz brothers of the banking firm wanted to improve the condition of their unusable [walkitout sez: mostly underwater] land and felt that the newcomers from the Netherlands were most capable of doing this. In 1562 they invited such Mennonites to transform swamps into fertile, productive farmland. ... [Summary of intensive water engineering involved.] ... For several years, the Loitz family gave these Dutch Mennonites free use of the land and later emphyteutic leases ... [explanation of how the Mennonite side of lease handled] ... Unfortunately for the Loitz family, the king, Sigismund II Augustus, died in 1572 without having paid his debts. The Polish Sejm [legislative body/parliament/diet] was soon caught up in a difficult succession quarrel [yes, they elect their kings] and refused to accept responsibility for the royal debt. This default on the king's accumulated debt brought bankruptcy to the Loitz family. In 1575 a new king, Stefan Bathory, gained the Polish crown and became involved in a power struggle with Danzig [everything described previous occurred in environs of Danzig/Gdansk; Danzig had _lots_ of trade and thus tax revenue]. When the proud city refused to bend to the king's will, a military confrontation resulted in which Danzig mercenaries fought the king's army. Neither side gained a clear victory [and probably a good thing, too; clear victories in this time frame are not pretty], but Danzig agreed to pay homage to the king and swore allegiance to him. In turn, the king continued the traditional privileges of the city and also recognized Danzig's right to observe the Lutheran faith.

"During the struggle, Ernst von Weiher, one of the king's commanders, distinguished himself. The king rewarded him by giving him the land that had been leased to the Loitz family and that was now home to many Mennonites. [You might want to look up emphyteusis and really try hard to understand it at this point because I think it matters.] The new administrator demonstrated his control by canceling existing contracts and demanding initial payments from the Mennonite settlers. He then allowed them to acquire twenty-year leases. In 1601 the leases were extended for the more usual forty years."

Moral: People who are sufficiently motivated (viz. everyone else is persecuting/killing them) will engage in complex, productive work even if there is a lot of uncertainty about their ability to benefit from that productive work and even more about their ability to pass it along to their children. But if you stress them enough, they will engage in communism. [Yeah, I edited that part out.] Good news, tho: you can shake them down occasionally. I didn't really need to tell a story about early modern Poland and Dutch immigrant Mennonites to make that point, however. I could have told you about T., who has been in her apartment for 17 years and has replaced all the kitchen appliances as they broke and the landlord was nonresponsive and is now contemplating redoing the crooked countertops. The appliances she can take with her should she ever move; the countertop not so much.

Applicable lesson today: people who whine about regulatory uncertainty have no _idea_ what true regulatory uncertainty is all about.