Sunday, August 30, 2009


Is it okay to kill leaders? Let's not quibble over state vs. business vs. terrorist vs. religious; let's just say they are leaders of some force and leave it at that. Is that oversimplifying? Perhaps. But I do it because otherwise we get into "well it's okay to kill terrorist leaders but not state leaders" and then next thing we have to define terrorist vs. freedom fighter vs. a leader who is making practical decisions for his state, possibly at the cost of others. It's a mess best avoided, so let's just straight to the generic: leaders.

Is it okay to kill them? I see two good ways to look at this. There are many bad ways, but I won't waste time with them.

One way is to say that it is the ideal action. Would we rather kill millions in a vast war or assassinate Hitler? I'd go with the second option. The idea behind this is that people are generally not all that harmful, not to say they're nice, but the average German won't invade Poland and shoot a lot of Russians without someone convincing him to do so. So shooting the Germans is really just going after symptoms, like ice packs for a fever when you really need anti-viral drugs (or actually anything except ice packs, you get a fever because the extra heat helps fight the disease). Instead go for the root problem: the leader. It is direct and much less harmful.

But is the leader the root problem? Perhaps not. Hitler did not magically become the leader of Germany; he was elected and there were many points at which he could have been removed from power. Leaders are no more powerful than their followers. In fact, the entire reason that tyrannicide would seem to work well is that leaders are not special, they die just like the rest of us, they have no ability beyond that of anyone else except for that which is given to them. In other words, the leader is just the focus of a larger societal problem. Killing the leader would not solve the problem, it could actually make it worse by triggering a power struggle which in the short term it would weaken the threat to the outside world, but when it ends it is likely that the remaining leader is the more dangerous one.

To twist the social problem back in favor of assassination, perhaps the lack of assassination is the social problem. When the legal processes are subverted and freedoms are overthrown, there are points at which the leader can be eliminated. It is not as if a state goes instantly from free and open to a fascist state of enslaved citizens; there are times when the leader is clearly bad but does not yet have total control. The fairy tale myth of the popular leader who rises to power and then shows his true colors, is just that, a myth. The failure to recognize and eliminate such a leader is the social problem and so elimination solves that problem.

Or does it? The problem with pre-WWII Germany was much more than just "they didn't shoot Hitler." There were others who would have seized power, though they'd have taken Germany on much different paths. Would he have gained power if not for the Communist rise in Russia spreading communism but also anti-communist sentiments which would then form the basis for many power struggles in the decades to come? What if the German economy was not weak? What if Europe wasn't plagued throughout history with anti-Semitic crusades? What if there was less racism and beliefs in the superiority of this or that ethnicity? Hitler wasn't born a violent anti-Semite, he became one and Nazi ideology, though not called it, existed before him.

Nevertheless, leaders are focal points and without them, otherwise dangerous forces may be dispersed or at least set back temporarily as a new leader grows.

I realize now that I never really directly addressed the idea of right or wrong, but instead only of practicality. However I feel I touched on it indirectly; when dealing with evil the main question is one of the practicality of various ways to control evil. If tyrannicide is practical, then it is moral. Well, it is if we could agree on who is an evil leader. We can't, so I just invalidated my previous statements and in fact made this entire post worthless. Damn.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Why is not How

This has been a long-standing pet peeve of mine. On the forums I often see threads with titles like "Why Blizzard fails at X." With a title like why you should expect a post like "They don't care enough, so they don't bother to put effort into X." Instead the post is more of a set of subjective proofs that "Blizzard is bad at X." A better title would be "How I can tell that Blizzard fails at X."

Why is about purpose or reason, often with implied intellect behind the event. Why does humanity exist? That's a hard one. You'd have to ask God and he might say he was lonely or the world was incomplete. Or you'd have to say there is no why, that humanity is the product of chance and therefore purposeless and without a Why.

How is about the process. How does humanity exist? You could ask God which sort of hand-waving he used or read the Bible and it would describe the shaping of dust. Or you'd see if you could track a series of genetic mutations. Or some other method.

How is not Why. Sometimes in context they can have similar or overlapping meanings, but too often they are used almost interchangeably. I must admit that I probably do not use words perfectly, so it could be that officially Why and How are much more similar than I think; but fuck official!

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Do trolls believe what they say?

I bring this up because I'm trying to decide what to be scared of.

Let's take a famous troll: Rush Limbaugh. What, you think he's not a troll? He's a troll. No, he's not provoking discussion. He'd calm the fuck down and scream less if he was trying to provoke discussion. He's a troll. He's no different than the 50000th person making a post on the tanking forums saying DKs should be nerfed and giving half-ass reasons based on terrible logic and inaccurate information. Both should be banned from their areas of 'expertise.'

Imagine if they don't believe what they say. The implications are frightening. It means that someone out there is gaining a wide audience through lies. And we're not talking regurgitated lies which they might think are true. Oh no, these are original lies. They spend their time thinking up new lies to tell people. And they are believed. These aren't even convenient lies to get things done, such as fake terror warnings in order to prevent complacency. Oh no, these are just power-grabbing, greedy lies with not a hint of regard for a greater good.

But could it not be more frightening if they believed what they say? Imagine for a moment that, despite what we might assume, that the troll screaming for DK nerfs is not an agry child in his room who just got killed in an arena. What if he is instead a father who is just trying to enjoy his game more? He sits down calmly to write a post expressing his opinions, trying to remember the facts to back his arguments, certain that he can make some small difference if he can only say it just right. Or maybe he's being a bit more loose with the truth, but he believes that as long as the underlying fact is that DKs are overpowered, it doesn't matter if he gets some facts wrong or twists the truth. It's more important to rally the crowd, to get this fixed.

These trolls may be more frightening. The outraged troll is on a crusade and no amount of factual evidence will deter them. They know what they know, dammit! Maybe this is the troll screaming about death panels at a town hall.

The calm troll, oh now this is even more worrisome. This person has no excessive emotion to blame. They are not riding high on anger or grief. They are cool and collected and completely wrong. But it gets worse! Despite their cool heads, they are still not thinking clearly. And while their thoughts are bad, their presentation is worse. Maybe Rush thinks he really is laying out the issues in a clear and concise manner so that the American people can be informed. If that is indeed the case, then we must ask: why is such a terrible presenter so popular?

When Ahmadinejad asked if the Holocaust was a hoax, did he actually think it might have not happened? We have to ask, which is a more frightening leader of a rising power in the Middle East: one who intentionally asks stupid questions to offend his neighbors or one who is so oblivious to history that he cannot see what is obvious? I really want to think the best of him, I want to believe that he is a sensible guy who simply has a different set of base assumptions about the world, someone who we could negotiate with and make mutual progress with. But it's very hard to believe that.

I suppose I should end with a question I should have asked at the start: Is it a troll if they believe what they say? Technically, no. But in practical terms, yes. The though process is different, but the behavior is the same and the reactions to counter-arguments are the same. What is a 'troll who believes what he says?' It's an idiot. It is someone who is ignorant or stupid or both. Whether troll or idiot, logic and fact do not work against them. They want attention and acknowledgment that they are correct. The only way to correct the problem of their existence is to end their existence, to ban them from whatever medium they exploit to spread their rotten messages. This may be online forums, radio, TV, or the street corner at which some lunatic is shouting.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Hot Potato Homes

Rising home prices were stupid. Done.

Wtf do you mean I should explain? Fine.

Buy a house, and presumably the land under it. Five years later it's worth more. Makes sense, right? Well, let's run it through the two tests: added value and supply/demand.

Added value
Did you fix up the home? Was it enough to raise the price by whatever amount?
Maybe not. But maybe the neighborhood is better now; perhaps the schools have improved. That's added value, even if you aren't the one who added it. Either way, the home is truly worth more.

Let's look at the supply side of it. Obviously if the supply goes down, prices will go up. Makes sense. But we had a construction boom, not a mass destruction of homes.

Maybe it's on the demand side. Was there a population surge? Well it did go up, but hardly a surge, and it's always been going up.

Do we suddenly want houses more? I have no clue.

However I've noticed a trend in assumptions: we say "oh they do this or that because they want to" ignoring any other factor. For example, it was claimed that black people are irresponsible for so much conspicuous consumption (as a percentage of income it is unusually, and stupidly, high). Clear proof of poor values and maybe even justification of racism, right? Wrong. In fact high conspicuous consumption is high among the poor and those who are perceived as poor, as a way of demonstrating wealth. Poor white people do the same, though I think it was to a lesser extent, since white people have less 'need' to prove their wealth. So anyway, don't try to explain mass changes with "they wanted to do that."

What could have suddenly made people buy like that? Aha!

Cheap credit and poor understanding of anything relevant to the situation.
- Adjustable rate... that means it goes down, right?
- Why wouldn't home prices keep going up? It's not as if this is the 1920s stock market.
Oh, then there's easy credit: Why would someone give me a loan that I can't afford? Clearly I must be able to afford it.

In the end we had a pyramid. We'd buy overpriced houses because someone else would pay even more in a few years. Then it corrected itself and all that false value went away, resulting in mortgages for more than the home was worth. Here's the scary part: this isn't due to the crash in housing prices: those mortgages were always higher than the home was worth. It was only speculation and ignorance that pushed prices so high.

Short version: homes were not worth more because of reduced supply. They were not worth more because they were better. They were worth more because demand was inflated by terrible loan practices and equally terrible concepts of debt.

In totally unrelated news, after the fact I realized that I probably sounded critical of Governor Sanford. In reality I don't really care all that much. His conduct is his own. My only concern would be use of state funds. And hey, maybe he just had a change of heart and woke up one day thinking "You know, Clinton actually had a pretty good idea" and there you go.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Hypocrisy and Health Care

Is it really that bad?

Well, yes. It is pretty bad. However misuse of it is just about as bad.

So, the friendly and 99% boring governor of South Carolina has been in the news a few weeks ago. He was having an affair. Earlier he'd attacked Clinton for his affairs. That makes him a hypocrite, right? Right.

But so what? Does him being a hypocrite negate his attacks on Clinton? Him being a hypocrite does not make Clinton's affairs no have happened or does it makes his affairs okay. The hypocrisy is an entirely separate issue, so your opinion on Clinton's conduct should be entirely independent of the hypocrisy of his accusers (he had many hypocritical accusers).

On the other hand, the hypocrisy should influence the perception of Sanford. If he simply had an affair then that's not good, but different people have different standards and who am I to judge? However his previous attacks on Clinton set a standard of affairs being bad, a standard which he then violated.

Or to give this a more recent context, let's look at the conflicts over health care reform. There is a huge outcry and some people are being very uncivilized, threatening their representatives and even the president. Many in favor of reform are calling them out on this and claiming that the opposition is noisy but small, or influenced by the health care industry, or perhaps just stupid. In response there are people pointing out that Democrats were hardly nice to Bush. Let's pretend for a moment that the situations are at all similar. This leads to an obvious result: Democrats were roudy, Republicans say Democrats can't criticize since they did it too. There's hypocrisy on both sides, but it does not eliminate the legitimacy of the call on both sides for more civility.

On the subject of health care debate, I want to point out two statements I heard recently.

-We don't want socialism like Russia.
Russia is not socialist and has been nothing socialist-like for almost two decades. When it was part of the Soviet Union it was not socialist either, it was a collapsing empire, which started somewhat poorly and was then absolute ruined by Stalin. It is hardly an example of socialism. Want better examples? Look at Sweden or Cuba: one is pretty good, the other not so much. There's the ultimate lesson: you can't just say an idea works or doesn't, the specific nation matters a great deal.

- Hitler would have liked this plan, he was a socialist.
Well sure, he was a member of the National Socialist party. It was originally a German socialist party, and not a particularly successful one. When Hitler took it over he pretty much eliminated any focus on socialism, instead focusing on the nationalism and actually pursued a strong anti-Communist agenda.

- So how about in honor of the American soldier, ya quit making things up?
Thank you. Oh wait...

-The America I know and love is not one in which my parents or my baby with Down syndrome will have to stand in front of Obama’s ‘death panel’ so his bureaucrats can decide, based on a subjective judgment of their ‘level of productivity in society,’ whether they are worthy of health care. Such a system is downright evil
Never mind.

On a lighter note.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

This is why I support the death penalty

But only online. Yes, I support the execution of some people. Their virtual lives are simply too terrible to be allowed to go on. Perhaps they spread hatred and preach violence. Perhaps they simply spread nothing but lies, but we all know the dangers of lies.

Hal Turner said on his blog that a few judges deserve to be killed due to their rulings on some gun laws in my area. He's in a little tiny bit of trouble due to that comment. I'm thinking he deserves the online death penalty.

Oh, what would online execution be? Basically a person is no longer allowed to live any virtual lives. They cannot use the internet for avocation of any opinions or for any social interaction beyond relationships which are first created in real life. They can pay bills and do other boring stuff like that. However they would be unable to blog, post on any forums, join chat rooms, or play any online games with any communication with others. They are dead online.

In this case the person displays not alone malice, but also stupidity. Obviously there's the bit of saying US judges should be killed, you know, potential death threats. I doubt it's something he'd have done himself. However ordering a murder isn't all that far from doing it oneself, maybe worse since you involve an extra person, ruining their lives as well. The stupid part is that he says this not over a law which will affect him. This isn't a ruling that federal agents can take his guns (if he has any) and ignore the third amendment, just for good measure. Yes, I did say third, why would I say second? That would be redundant (this isn't implying that local gun laws violate the second amendment). He's getting violent about something which has no effect on him and which those it does affect, they have ways to remove it which do not involve murder.

I also support the existence of lower penalties, such as temporary imprisonment from the internet. Short sentences would be excellent for team-killers and 3/4 of the people in trade chat. In related news, I decided to check out Gevlon's blog again, since he'd hinted that he was going to save Shadow Labyrinth. I wasted my time, he had nothing remotely worth reading on the first page, just his usual insulting of everyone except himself. In his case I'd support online torture, the slow removal of his blog, replacing it with a Hello Kitty blog written by poor mentally disabled adults who live on state support.

Just to clarify, as I attempted to indicate with the paying bills part, online execution is intended to have absolutely no effect on real life. So unlike the idiot blogger I mentioned (no the first one), I am not advocating murdering anyone. Murder is bad.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

"Elections have consequences"

This was the reasoning of Lindsey Graham, US senator from South Carolina for voting in favor of Sonya Sotomayor. I won't criticize his voting for her, or against her (if he had), but his logic here is terrible. He goes on to essentially say that Obama is president and it is the duty of the Senate to confirm the justices that he brings to them.


It is not the job of the Senate to bow down to the President. If anything it would be the opposite, to fight him, to make him justify everything he does and says. Remember checks and balances?

I'll make a small concession: if Obama had 100% of the vote (okay 99.99%, since I think some people have such flawed minds that their votes really should be counted as double for the other candidate), then I'd say that Congress should work with him very closely, almost to the point of doing everything he asks. In that improbably scenario he would have the mandate of the American people. But even still, it would not be right to do everything he asks.

Obama clearly won. We're not looking at a slim victory (if even that) like 2000. He won. However he did not carry the nation. There was still a very large block of voters who voted against him. In South Carolina there was a large block who voted against him. They would not want to see their representative betray them by blindly following the man they voted again. He should be representing them and their views, not to say he should blindly follow them, but nevertheless, they count.

Where was I? Oh right: Just because Obama won the election doesn't mean that his justices get in automatically. Obviously they must be qualified. Sotomayor is. They must also have the ability to be unbiased, or at least not blatantly biased like most people. I'd hardly expect anyone to be perfectly unbiased, that just isn't possible for humans. If you claim you're unbiased you're either lying or not human, either way, you should feel bad (advanced alien races excluded).

In related news, the NRA needs to shut the fuck up. A vote for her is counted as a vote against guns rights according to them. America would be much better off if the NRA and similar ideological organizations would all die in a fire.

In other related news, I suggest reading Where the Right Went Wrong. I don't agree with much of it, but it's still worth reading. Sadly, he misses the biggest part where the right went wrong: getting taken over by Christian fundamentalists. The conservative movement was subverted and destroyed just so the Republican Party could get more votes. Skip that chapter and I hope you'll find it to be a good read.

Efficiency of Crime

I have a terrible habit of agreeing that bad people are bad, but for the wrong reasons. An example I thought of a while back was Enron. Generally I see two lines of criticism: the illegal and the economically stupid. I've seen no combination of the two: the economics of the illegal. Numbers vary, but they cost California something in the billions. How much did they make from that? That is the efficiency. I'll go ahead and pretend to be brilliant by defining the efficiency of a crime as the ratio of money gained to money stolen or otherwise deprived from a victim.

A high efficiency crime is theft of money. Sneak into a house, open (don't break) a window, and grab a few dollars. The money gained is the same as the money lost.

Lower efficiency would be stealing an object, perhaps jewelry. Selling it will give less than the original cost of it. The money gained is lower than the money lost.

Even lower efficiency is seen when property is damaged. This results in more loss with no gain.

In popular media the perceived brilliance of a plan is often related to the amount of money which is stolen. Enron looks like a smart crime because it got so much money. A guy that steals a wallet is shown as a bum. But the latter is much more efficient, getting what he's after with less proportional damage to the victim. For all the plotting and scheming of the folks at Enron, they wasted a lot of time being fancy when they could have been direct.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Theft is a strange thing

Or at least the way we punish it.

Imagine robbing enough homes to get a million dollars net profit. Let's make them upper middle class and you're really good at getting portable but valuable items. $10,000 per home sound good? I'd say that's a pretty good haul. Break into 100 homes. Imagine the sentence you'd get for being found guilty of breaking into 100 homes. Moving on...

A three-judge panel of the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with Nacchio's lawyers that the $52 million figure was too high. Instead, the figure used should have been Nacchio's net profit resulting from illegal insider trading.

This is absurd. Break into those 100 homes and do you get a discount on your punishment for the side costs you had to pay? Do you get a reduced sentence because you had to bribe a cop to look the other way? Do you get a reduced sentence because you can't resell a $200 purse for the full $200? No, you don't get to write all that off. You stole the million, even if you didn't get a million in profit.

Nacchio was ordered to forfeit $52 million, but the court said that amount should be adjusted to reflect brokerage, commission fees and other direct costs of trading. The appellate court ruled that the lower court misapplied the law in order Nacchio to forfeit the gross proceeds of the trades.

Using the higher figure to calculate a sentence for Nacchio, the court wrote, "ignored the myriad of factors unrelated to his criminal fraud" that could've affected the value of the securities.

Just because crime can be expensive doesn't mean the courts should subsidize it. We're not talking about something with social value here.

Fraud and theft of this sort aren't just about the profits. They aren't just the money taken from others. They're also the damage they do to the system. They increase the cost of the system and that cost gets passed along eventually to consumers in higher prices, lower salaries especially at the high end where a huge portion of compensation comes from stocks and other non-cash assets, and lower profits for the companies, meaning less for investment. It all cycles around and around and hurts far more people to a greater extent than more direct theft.

I'll have more on this later, an older post I wrote about the efficiency of crime.