Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Simulating the effectiveness of guns

As far back as I can remember, any time there is a mass shooting, there are always these two generic responses, among many others: "gun control/ban would have prevented it" and "more guns would have prevented it."  The general logic of each is that one tries to stop the shooter from ever becoming a shooter and the other tries to stop the shooter once he's started.  Of course no law has the total intended effect, so the first idea would in practice act as a reducer, not eliminator.  And the second, well that's what this post is about.

Why not run some simulations of the effect of particular staff having weapons available?

Make someone the shooter.  Make a bunch of people students or whoever is the victim in the particular incident.  Make a few people the armed but otherwise normal members.  The shooter tries to maximize body count or reach some goal and escape, whatever was the goal at a particular incident.  The victims try to survive.  The armed members try to keep victims alive.

On the most basic level, it would be just a custom first-person shooter level.  If we want to make it more advanced, go all the way up to actual training exercises used by military and police, though obviously the first is a lot cheaper.

Run multiple trials.  That's key: get a sample of more than one, so we can see not just how a particular incident turns out, but how they turn out in general.  Find the trend.  See what the average is, just as we'd do in a scientific experiment.  That's the goal, to see whether adding guns helps, harms, or has no overall effect, in a manner similar to a drug trial.

 I would not make this open to the general public.  Making it a training ground for shooters would defeat the purpose.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

The streetlight and the keys

There is a short story intended to be humorous and enlighten us about the human mind.  As copied from Wikipedia (since other people tell it better than me),
A policeman sees a drunk man searching for something under a streetlight and asks what the drunk has lost. He says he lost his keys and they both look under the streetlight together. After a few minutes the policeman asks if he is sure he lost them here, and the drunk replies, no, that he lost them in the park. The policeman asks why he is searching here, and the drunk replies, "this is where the light is."

This is supposed to be about the stupidity of looking in the obviously wrong place just because we can find something.  But is that the actual situation?

Let's step back and actually analyze the situation.  We may be biased against him from the start because he is described as drunk.  We label him and see his actions through that lens.  Let us instead imagine that a complete sober Einstein is doing the crawling.

Is it still stupid?  Maybe.  What are the alternate courses of action?

He could not look, but that will be of no help.  He could try in the park, where he apparently cannot see.  So now he is under the streetlight.

What are his chances of finding his keys?  You may say no chance at all, but why?  We don't know that he actually lost them in the park.  Maybe he misspoke and meant that he noticed in the park.  Or simply that he only noticed when he was in the park and is back-tracking, searching where he at least has some chance to find them.  Maybe he kicked them as he went along and now they are near the light, even if they did not start there.

So far what we have is a choice between a few bad options: not searching, searching where we cannot see, and searching where we can see but they have a low probability to be.

The smart thing to do is to break out of these three scenarios.  Find a flashlight.  Get better tools so you can broaden your search.

Alas, that is rarely the lesson people take away.  They are content to look at the surface and declare the search to be stupid, failing to recognize that of the available options, it is hardly the worst and is not guaranteed to fail.  They criticize the attempt without offering the alternatives.

Friday, November 30, 2012

Numbers are People

It's easy to forget this, that numbers are meant to reflect reality (except in pure mathematics in which case they are reality).  I ran into this the other day, when a chart was misunderstood and so transportation costs were double-counted.  With a connection to the real world it was clear that if you're not shipping goods to the dock (it was about forgone export income), then you shouldn't count the cost to ship to the dock (at least not the way we were doing the accounting; I suppose you could use a different method and have them as a savings).

On a larger scale, we often hear about unemployment.  It's always some percent or other.  But people are rarely at 8% unemployment themselves; maybe hours are cut, but they tend to be at either 100% or 0%.  In aggregate things might not look so bad, but no one lives in aggregate; they live their own lives.

Unemployment is actual people without jobs.  People without jobs suffering under stress and lost opportunity.

I ran across an interesting study a few weeks ago, which I have sadly forgotten the name of, which looked at employment decisions by MBA students.  The researchers gave two ways for the students to decide what to do with workers.  One was to give them a set of formulas about productivity and labor and benefit costs.  They'd solve the formulas just like any other.  The other method was to give them lists of workers.  Guess which group laid off more workers.

We don't need job-creators.  We need employers.

Monday, November 26, 2012


I saw this the other day.  I'm not sure this is a review.  It will be in two parts: first, my whining about it; second, my feeble attempts to grasp the symbolism.

There are spoilers, though I try to keep particular scenes vague.


Can we get some basic security?  How about this: Don't have any physical connections, whether cables or wireless, between the newly-recovered laptop of the crazed hacker genius and the network that controls everything at MI6.  Even if you don't expect the laptop to unlock all the security doors, wouldn't you at least want to keep it isolated to ensure that you don't have other malware slipping into your system?

When it appears that there is an assassination plot aimed at M or MI-6 in general, don't you lock the court doors?  I'd expect that a hearing filled with ministers would at least have more security than a few cops in an unlocked room and apparently no response teams when alarms are tripped (such as the metal detector, and surely someone in the courtroom could trigger a distress).  Also, why did MI-6 not have anyone sent to the hearing once they thought M was being targeted there?

The timing on the train was ridiculous.  Also, why not just have two explosions, one a little closer, so you don't need to rely on the train?  Or why not include a gun in the package and shoot Bond when he goes around the corner?  I suppose since it took 15 years to plan he had some time to throw in a few useless-but-flashy gestures.  While we're on the subject, for all the planning, he appeared to be completely unprepared for the actual assassination and escape, as if he'd mapped out every single step up to the moment when he enters the hearing... and is suddenly stuck firing a couple clips into hardwood before fleeing.

Was I the only person who thought that sneaking into the shower of the sex slave was perhaps not the nicest thing?

Q was not particularly good. I have no problem with the actor, but the character was useless.  The gun and radio were straightforward and useful (though I think the gun should have gotten more use than just not being fired once).  However his much-vaunted computer skills seemed to accomplish nothing.  He was the one who stuck the laptop in place to take over everything.  He couldn't even seem to unlock the computer (granted it was pretty nifty, but as a movie character, it's his job to be able to crack that sort of thing).

I think Javier Bardiem is good at villains.  His performance in No Country for Old Men was perfect.  His performance here was great.  But I don't know that he was the right type of villain.  He wasn't power-hungry, greedy, or ideological.  He wasn't even just bitter and after revenge (as in Goldeneye).  Instead he was insane.  He was obsessed.  There is focus and determination, implacability, but those are not the same as a man who had a stronger argument for an asylum than a knife in the back; except of course for the problem that he'd escape and get right back at it, so I still think it is best that he was killed.

I don't like it when the villain murders dozens or more people and in the end all the hero does is kill him.  I don't mean that he needed to be tortured or put on trial, but that he clearly had a lot of help and yet the network he created, all the other plots he had, are left entirely untouched.  Presumably his island was taken care of, but beside that, nothing.  In the end it is rather depressing.  I know that that is realistic, that single crazy people commit horrible crimes and are stopped without any larger context of evil being removed, but if I need depressing news about terrorism, I have the news.

It felt as if they were trying to make computers the new weapon, information and deception the new battlefields.  But they should know that they aren't new anymore.  Goldeneye was based in part on the nerd who lacked hacking everything.  Tomorrow Never Dies used control of media and manipulation of public perception.  Terrorism of the non-supervillain sort got only a couple tangential references with a few agents embedded in terrorist cells and one being executed by them.

I don't like it much when an entire plot line depends on one single bit of luck.  No, not Moneypenny missing the shot.  Instead, the cyanide capsule failing.  If he'd just died, no problem!  This ties in with my dislike of lone-wolf enemies (except when the hero is alone as well).

The movie seemed to be filled with it, and then I forgot most of it.

The house was Britain: filled with relics, the cold home, and the island which would be defended to the end.  No matter what happened in the rest of the world, the island would be defended.  That is perhaps the entire modern Bond franchise: refuge in a secure past.  And then they blew it up without even killing the bad guy.

The conflict between MI-6 and the civilian government felt like something that is almost happening in the real world.  We're almost questioning what our secret sides do, but not quite.  I think we should.  The film seemed to take a "shut up and let them get the job done" approach.  Certainly the ministers appeared to have nothing to contribute.

Bond always seemed to have missed the train.

Monday, November 12, 2012

The Home and the Apartment

I'm currently renting and probably will for the foreseeable future.  I've been at my current place for about a few months over a year and I'm used to it.  It feels like home, a secure place.  My place.

Of course I don't own it.  Someone else does, and they can dictate the rules.  One such rule is that they can show it to potential renters.  They must give at least 24 hours notice, but I cannot refuse it.  They need only tell me 24 hours in advance and then they can intrude.

In my opinion, that's part of what defines a home: the inability of others to intrude.  Legally or culturally they cannot enter without permission.  That's why even though I'm not a fan of guns or the "get off my property" attitude, I do think people should be able to defend their homes.

I never actually saw anyone in my apartment.  The showing was when I was at work; 4-5pm and I get back at around 5:15.  I'm not sure if that was better or worse.  I unlocked my door, knowing that someone else had unlocked it and locked it not long ago.  I went in cautiously.  It had fully struck me: people can get in when I'm not there, without my permission, and I don't even know who those people are.  I turned on the light near the door and then continued back toward my bedroom.  On the way through the doorway I picked up the bat for some comfort.  Checking the bathroom I knew it was all empty.

But it wasn't empty.  It was filled with the sense that others had been there, in my space, without my invitation.  I'd shown it to relatives and my brother had stayed a couple nights, but those were family, using a key that I gave him.

This worries me, as a general societal trend.  We're renting more and more.  Not just homes, but everything else.  That includes software, where we tend to get licenses, not ownership.  And so we get terms of service, rules about how we can use it, and at times a loss of privacy.

Maybe I'm just weird.  I get annoyed when I wake up my computers and realize that they had a patch overnight.  I'm glad for it; I prefer that Microsoft get security updates out with as little delay as possible, and overnight it doesn't interrupt me.  It would probably annoy me if I was interrupted by a restart.  Yet it still bugs me to have someone reach out into my computer while I slept, when I thought it was asleep too.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Maybe secret shadowy scary money isn't so bad after all

After billions were spent the election left things unchanged.  Obama was reelected.  Democrats still have a majority in the Senate (I'd not call it control).  Republicans still have a majority in the House.  Some governors moved around.

The net result was the status quo.  On the macro level, it appears that all the ads and spending netted out to nothing.  That means that we can't make a "harmful to democracy" argument.  Though the lack of effect does suggest a "wasteful and useless" argument.  But that's largely a problem of excessive income disparity driving wasteful spending, not of the particular type of spending.  If it wasn't dishonest attack ads, it would be yachts.  At least attack ads just waste TV time and advertising executives, rather than resources that could reasonably be expected to go to something useful.

So let's not worry about the spending.

In related news, I didn't find either of the speeches to be particularly good.  The Obama one was nice and had some energy, but it didn't connect for me.  I wasn't inspired.  Romney's speech had a good message, but he just does not seem capable of projecting human feeling.  Also, why the one last "job creators" drop?  I'm sick of that term.  Why not use "business owners"?  Seems like a more accurate term.  I much preferred the speeches of four years ago, particularly McCain's speech, which I thought was an excellent unifying speech.

And finally, I was glad to see that the rape candidates were defeated.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Of course voter ID makes sense, says the person who was automatically handed one at age 16

If you're like me, you had driver's ed taught in high school, starting at 15, and eventually you got your license at 16.  From then on, having photo ID was a trivial matter, maybe a few hours at the DMV for a renewal or new license, but nothing more than a bit of wasted time.  No paperwork or hoops, just time.

From this perspective, voter ID seems simple enough.  We have state-issued IDs, so why not have us show them and magically we'll have fixed voter fraud.

The first problem is that this doesn't actually fix anything.  Vote fraud, when it happens, is not done in-person.

The second problem is that this would disenfranchise hundreds of thousands of voters, maybe more, who do not have driver's licenses.  Maybe they didn't need to drive.  Maybe it wasn't offered and the hurdles were too high.  Whichever way, the end result is that they were not handed their photo ID at age 16.

I've voted in three elections now; two for president and three for Congress.  At none of them have I been asked for any ID.  I'd registered ahead of time, again, without showing ID.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Three tries at election reform

It may be hard to fully abolish the Electoral College.  It will also be hard to do this.  But let's try for this one change: Remove senators from the formula for calculating electoral college votes.

If that somehow passes, then move to the next stage of election reform: moving it to the federal level.  This has many advantages for democracy.

First, it removes irregularities between state voting rules.  In other words, states can no longer selectively manipulate their voting rules to disenfranchise those groups that they don't like.

Second, it would actually reduce voter fraud.  Voter ID won't do anything to fix that because the voter fraud that does happen is not in-person.  Instead it is through the mail, taking advantage of the state-level monitoring, allowing people to vote in multiple states.  Federal-level monitoring would catch this.

These might both be impossible.  The first because the same states which are disproportionately represented in the Electoral College are also disproportionately represented in the Senate.  The second because states are always reluctant to give up their right to take away yours.

So let's try one last change: Make November 6 a national holiday, every two years.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Don't put King and MLK right next to each other

I had a bad morning.  First I set out on my journey to a part of Madison that I rarely go to.  I left way too early and got there with 20 or so minutes to spare.  So I wandered about in the cold, seeing something new at least.  Time for the meeting and I went into the address on King.  Except that there did not seem to be a third floor, not in that part of the building.  Hm...  I recheck and notice that I have the address wrong, off by one.  But that address isn't across the street.

At this point I'm late and rather frustrated.  I'd gotten there early, not late!  Thankfully, the people walking down the street were friendly and helpful, pointing out that there are two Kings, Martin Luther King that I was on, and King just around the corner.  I tried that one and managed to get to the meeting only 20 minutes late.

This leads me to a modest proposal: Do not put streets with similar names so close to each other.  This is especially problematic if they would be shortened in similar ways, such as King.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

It's okay, that was just the primary

For months there has been the attempt to moderate Romney's image.  He won in part by taking the more extreme path.  He didn't go off the deep end like Ron Paul, but he clearly was not running in the primary as a centrist.  Now he's tacking back toward the center, shaking the etch-a-sketch if you will.

Which Romney are we supposed to believe is the real one?  If the primary Romney was the real one, then he's currently running a nation-wide, by which I mean a half-dozen states, campaign of deception.  If that was the real one then I'm rather terrified by the prospect of putting him in the White House.

On the other hand, if the real Mitt Romney is a centrist, then that may be even worse.  It means that he was willing to spend months lying to Republican voters, pandering and spinning to appeal, with varying success to the far-right.  I'm rather wary of someone who not only runs a massive deception campaign, but who succeeds at it as well (the failures are less worrisome, due to their failure).

A centrist Romney might appeal to me.  But a centrist Romney who got there by lying on a massive scale, that's not appealing.  It means he was willing to take on, not just different, but opposite positions, to get elected.  To get power.  That raises the question, why?  We didn't need a second centrist candidate; we already have one.  Maybe Romney thought that he was the only one who could get the job done.  Not that he was offering a different vision, but the same vision but better.

I'm a fan of the notion of "same idea, but implemented better."  I'm a fan of fixing government before we throw it out.  I do think that Obama could have done some things better, even while staying approximately where he is on the political spectrum.  I think it would be great to see two left-of-center candidates fight it out in the competence battles.  But we're not getting that.  Instead we're getting a left-of-center moderate facing off against the Great Deceiver.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Milk is Murder

Humans are a strange species for many reasons.  Among them, we drink milk our entire lives.  For some reason we continue to produce the enzyme which breaks down lactose.  The linked article demonstrates the strangeness of this and gives a few theories for why this mutation is evolutionarily advantageous, though there is no definitive answer.

Milk was not necessarily an advantage by itself.  That is to say, the milk may have offered no new nutrients, so it was not a better food source (particularly since the common milk derivatives such as yoghurt and cheese have most of the lactose converted anyway, so most people can eat them without the mutation).

I offer this theory: it's not the milk that gave an advantage, but the animals and from them, the disease.  Those who could digest milk would have more reason to keep milk-producing animals around.  They would be the ones who are therefore constantly exchanging disease with animals.  Given their proximity, they'd be more likely to be resistant and survive, relative to those who have little contact with animals and therefore are more vulnerable to cross-species diseases.  While those who had direct contact would be more often sick, those who were not in direct contact would suffer more serious consequences, such as mass death.

We saw this demonstrated on a large scale in the Americas, where the Europeans who had frequent contact with animals and their diseases, and who had suffered terribly for it, did survive them, while the Native Americans were devastated by them.  Could this have happened on a small scale earlier in human history, centered around milk-producing animals?

Monday, October 22, 2012

If I'm not perpetually terrified, I'll sue you

You might have seen the recent story of a few Italian scientists and public officials being convicted of manslaughter related to a 2009 earthquake.  In short, they didn't tell everyone to be terrified, consequently they were not, and then an earthquake hit and killed a lot of people.  The BBC has more detail.  There are a few problems here.

First off, they look more like scapegoats than convicted criminals.  If the goal was to sweep for public officials who could have prevented deaths, why limit it to prediction?  Shouldn't building inspectors, building code writers, and construction companies and employees be going to prison as well?  Surely they are at least partially responsible for the buildings which collapsed.  A better prediction wouldn't have made their buildings not fall down.  That they are left unscathed suggests that the goal was not to systematically punish those responsible, but instead to pick a few high-ranking people to make an example of, thereby deflecting blame from all others.

Second, earthquake prediction is not an exact science.  It has gotten better and is certainly valuable, but to expect predictions with sufficient precision to prevent this incident is ridiculous.  Surely we aren't expecting them to have announced months before that a quake could strike in the coming months.  What do the residents do with that information beside panic?

Seismologists in Italy must be rather nervous and after this, more prone to reporting false positives, all in the name of caution.  Of course they aren't doing this out of public welfare, since they were already doing that and crying wolf does no good, but instead because of their own self-interest.  This isn't me attacking them, just noting that people tend to respond to incentives and punishments and at the current time, the punishment for a false negative has spiked.

This leads me to the rocketing cost of healthcare.  Much of that cost comes, not from actual care or even the astronomically expensive new cancer treatments, but from the tests and more tests.    Doctors, like the scientists, are worried about false negatives.  So they order more tests.  Of course we'd want to rule out those things which are easily detected or most dangerous, but eventually there comes a point when the added information from the tests is not worth the money spent on the added tests.  And yet, if the doctor's freedom and finances are on the line, why wouldn't he order more tests?  It only takes the one time that he acts sensibly and is wrong for the malpractice suit to roll in.

I'm a cautious person by nature, the sort who is prone to indecision, always wanting to know a little bit more.  Yet even I can see that this is absurd, to attack experts for making judgements in their area of expertise.  Sometimes they will be wrong.  That isn't their fault, but merely a property of the universe.  Sometimes things go badly.  We should prepare for that and try to prevent it, but we should not becomes so focused on the possible negative events in the future that we create a certain one now.

It's the bargaining power, not the contributiion, that determines wealth

One of the fundemental flawed assumptions in our economy, and one which hinders reform, is the assumption of a meritocracy.  This is tied in part to what I discussed a few posts back, the way our langauge is permeated with loaded words.  We use terms such as "earned" and "made" rather than "got" or "received" when discussing income.  These suggest that salaries are entirely justified, subconsciously reinforcing the myth of the meritocracy.

While one's contribution to society matters, that is only one aspect when determining income.  Bargaining power matters as well.  History supports this.

Look at the impact of unions.  Did they make workers more productive?  Beside the slow effects of bargaining for training, no.  In the short term their effect was not an increase in the contribution of workers, but the bargaining power.  They gained leverage.

While the contribution matters, it is the bargaining power which can be changed.  This is why the solution to inequality is not training or education (though those will help), but increased bargaining power for workers.  This takes the form of not just unions, but also laws to protect the right to form unions and bring complaints.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Polygamy and the 1%

The scientists are still out on whether humans are monogamous or polygamous.  In the meantime, monogamy is pretty common.  More broadly, women are expected to have one husband or boyfriend, though a man may have several wives.  Cultures treat this in many ways.  Some use it almost as a form of a safety net for widows who would have trouble remarrying: men marry the widows of their brothers.  Others just require that men be able to financially support the women they marry.  And at the lowest end are the cultures which give no rules at all to the men while the women are sluts if they look for a second boyfriend or husband when the first cannot support them.  There are better and worse ways to do polygyny (multiple wives), but the end result is bad for men.

Yes, I did say bad for men.  Women may end up in a bad relationship or social structure, but there is at least the possibility for polygyny to be a step up from poverty and a cluster of fatherless children.  For men it means that some men have many wives.  Naturally there will be slightly more women born than men (it gets worse with sex-specific abortion and child abandonment), but not by enough to support much polygyny.  There will be men who are unmarried, not because they are bad people, but because there are not enough women or because they are concentrated with too few husbands.

These unmarried men don't like their situation.  They tend toward extremism and violence.  And why not?  They have no children and no hope, why would they not try something extreme?  Why would they not be jealous and resentful toward those who have all the women?

Concentration of women does society no good.  It isn't likely to help the women and it is guaranteed to harm the men.

Should we believe that money is any different?  I see no reason that excessive concentration of wealth won't deprive a large segment of the population, creating a large group that has no interest in a safe, stable society because it does not benefit from the safe, stable society.  Of course the pie can grow, and it does, but if most of the growth is all consumed by the 1% and the remaining pie is growing slower than population, then the pie is effectively shrinking.

Monogamy might be less fun and have less stature than polygyny, but it is safer.  In the same way, jobs and wealth must have something near an even distribution to avoid instability.  Not perfectly even, but when a falling tide raises some boats, something is not working properly and cannot continue for long.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Putting other people's money where your mouth is

Republicans are obsessed with markets.  They profess that markets will fix anything, that the best solution to anything is to let the market do its thing and everything will be fixed.

They attack using the tax code to manipulate people.  They declare that such things distort the market and don't even work.

I propose the removal of a tax benefit which is doing just that.  Remove a tax break which acts as a handout to the order of tens of billions every year.

Remove the tax deduction for charitable giving.  This gives unfair, market distorting preference to non-profit groups, groups which are not regulated by the market and therefore can be exceptionally inefficient and wasteful.

It's time the GOP put other people's money where their mouths are.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Stand BACK! I have a loaded word and I am not afraid to use it

How much did you earn this year?  Whatever answer you gave is arbitrary.
How much did you make?  Unless you are working on an assembly line and giving production numbers, it's also arbitrary.

We use these words to talk about income.  We shouldn't.  They make it difficult to talk about anything that influences income, such as taxes and salary limits.  After all, if you earned your salary then you're justified in being resistant to any questions about it.  What if instead you just got your salary?  Maybe you earned it, maybe not.  This word choice is neutral and therefore allows us to talk about income without a heavy bias toward the status quo.

Similarly, companies are eager to use the words theft and piracy when talking about intellectual property.  These aren't merely biased words, they're blatantly inaccurate.  If I stole your car I'd have a car but you would no longer have a car.  It is a zero-sum game (assuming I didn't damage anything to get it).  If I copied your music collection I'd have a music collection, and so would you.  It is a positive-sum game.

Both of these ignore the long-term effects, and those are why I'm not a fan of excessive copywrite violation.  In the long term too much copying without payment means reduced incentive to develop new ideas, new designs, and new art.  However this is a different problem than theft, in which one person is directly and immediately deprived of wealth.  They are different problems and require different solutions.  To treat them as similar only makes it harder to fix the problem.

Add these to the pile of words that have been changed so much as to barely resemble their original meanings.  The result is that in the crossfire of political exchanges everyone is missing, and all the onlookers are being slaughtered.

Monday, August 6, 2012

The True Media Bias

Liberal media?  Maybe once upon a time, but not any more.  These days the true media bias is conservative.

Let's start off with 'balance'.  If one person tells the truth and one person lies, what should you do?  You should fact-check.  This is one of the purposes of the media.  Supposedly.  But in practice, the media strives for the illusion of balance, which means that the liar gets equal weight as the honest man.  Given that a truly fair system would call out the lies rather than reprint them without pause, this 'balanced' approach gives a bias to the liar.  In these times, by which I mean my entire lifetime (which admittedly is barely a quarter-century), that has been the Republican Party.  Not that Democrats are paragons of honesty and virtue, but that lies have not been the primary driven of their support and agenda.

But there is a more fundemental source of the bias.  It is in the companies.  They are not there to bring truth and spread information, nor to enlighten, observe, or check the powers that be.  Instead, they are there to pursue profit, with no regard for any of the previously-listed values.  That is the essence of modern conservatism, pursuit of profit regardless of the social harm.

So the next time you think you're seeing spin and bias, remember that there is no agenda behind it beyond appealing to viewers in an attempt to attract advertisers and therefore profit.  In fact, if you believe there is a liberal bias to the media, then it means that the media thinks that a liberal bias is what is most appealing to the widest base of viewers of advertisements.  Of course there are always niche audiences, which is why there is FOX News and various other right-wing sources, because there are sufficient viewers to attract advertisers.  Ultimately though, it is not ideology, but greed, which drives broadcasting.  If you want an objective media, then you're going to have to work against that greed, but good luck with that, liberal.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Feeding the Culture War

It makes me sad that people hate or are afraid of gay people.  I don't know quite why they are.  Maybe they're insecure and overreacting, as I once did.  Maybe they place too much value on old books, detached from context and filtered by generations of agendas and biases.  Maybe it's what they learned growing up and couldn't quite challenge it, whether due to a lack of intellectual ability* or fear of challenging their beliefs.

I'd love to live in a world where people shared my view: not caring.  Maybe that's not entirely accurate.  I do care.  I'd hate it if gay people took over the world and made all the porn gay and had naked man statues everywhere.  But beside that absurd extreme, I don't care.  Why should I?

The whole Chik-fil-A debacle is stupid.  Boycotting it won't change anyone's mind, or even cost the president of the company anything.  Similarly, those who are going out of their way to buy it are doing the exact same thing: using random third parties as symbols in their culture wars.  It's ridiculous.

Let's not pretend that this is all just some innocent comment that got taken out of context and blown up into a fake scandal.  He knew what he was saying.  He could have evaded, toned-down, or refused to talk.  Instead he decided to go ahead, guns blazing.  And why not?  It's a quick and easy way to start up the culture wars and get people rallying around random symbols.  A boycott just feeds the absurdly ironic persecution narrative of bigots.

Eat where you will get the best mix of taste, nutrition, and value.  If it matters to you, add to that things directly-related to the business, such as company policies on worker pay and rights, material sourcing (fair trade, organic, local, whatever else), or even where the company sends its money (such as which super-PAC they steal shareholder profits to fund).

But however you feel about gay marriage, refusing to, or clamoring to, buy chicken from a particular fast food chain is just silly.  It doesn't teach anyone anything and it doesn't advance any cause except a sense of self-righteous superiority for driving a block to a different fast food chain.  Let's hope Ronald McDonald doesn't come out of the closet.

[edit] After reading a bit more, I'm starting to see a point to a boycott, since company revenues go to fund hate groups.  It's not merely a problem of an individual citizen being a hateful bigot.

Monday, July 16, 2012

The "Here's Why I'm Saying Something Different Now" Speech

I don't see this as likely to become a trend, but I'd love to see a habit of politicians giving either speeches or substantial articles explaining why they have a different position.

The first part would explicitly acknowledging that they had a particular position in the past and now have a different position.  Ideally they would even break down the particular changes.

The second part would explain why they changed their minds.  They would not only justify their current positions, but also demonstrate that their current position is better than the previous one.

This would server several purposes.  Most obviously, it would reduce the claims that an individual is a spineless flip-flopper who is easily pushed around or who changes to suit the political climate.  I wouldn't eliminate the accusations or the incidents, but it would help.  It would also have the effect of forcing politicians to create explicit positions rather than merely talking in vague terms and hoping no one remembers what they said last week.  In terms of creating rational policies, it would have the effect of making them justify their current positions in a logical manner.  Ideally it might even make each policy position an improvement over the previous one.  With this format, they could cite new evidence as justification, without needing to compromise their values or change their perspective.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Job as noun

In the perpetual process of finding simple divisions for people, I propose this:

There are those who think of job and it is a noun.
There are those who think of work and it is a verb.

The first group is trying to get something.  They want a job.  It's a physical thing for them, as if you could have it, hold it, and also lose it.  A job is a possession and therefore it can be stolen.

The second group wants something to happen.  They want cleaning and making and designing.  They don't want a thing, but a process.  As such, there is no ownership, but rather just something to start and stop.

This is why "job creation" is such a strange term.  Those with capital, the second type, aren't going to "create jobs" because they don't see jobs as a thing to create or destroy.  For them, hiring and layoffs are turning on and off a faucet.  You'd not think of a faucet as a "water creator", just a tool to turn on and off the flow when you need water.

It's time we ditched the notion of the wealthy as "job creators".  They will not create jobs because to them, jobs are not something to create.  If we want to create jobs, then the means to do so must be held by those who perceive jobs as a thing.

And indeed, jobs are a thing: they are security, safety, and stability.  They are car payments, mortgages, groceries.  That's why having a job is so important for workers: it's the thing that contains everything else.  To lose a job is to lose everything until a new one can be found.  But the job creators do not exist.

Monday, July 2, 2012


There US Supreme Court ruled that the individual mandate is constitutional.  And made absolutely no sense in the process.

Scalia, Alito, and Thomas dissented on the grounds that they despise humanity, but that's to be expected.  Kennedy said something (I'm still reading into his bits).

Then there was Roberts.

First, the mandate is unconstitutional because the commerce clause only regulates activity.  Fine.  That works if we narrow the focus to only the insurance market, in which case a non-buyer is inactive.  However, the whole point of the mandate is that people are not inactive in the healthcare market, of which insurance is only a facet, not truly a market unto itself.  After all, you can get healthcare without insurance, but you'd not get insurance if you somehow were immune to all disease because you'd not get healthcare either.

Then came the "necessary and proper" clause, which essentially says that Congress can do what needs to be done.  It's a bit of a terrifying blank check, but blame the Founding Fathers, not evil conspiracies by politicians.  This was rejected too, on the grounds that the mandate was not necessary, which also demonstrates a remarkable failure to get the point of the mandate.  Well okay, I suppose the mandate isn't truly necessary: Congress could have gone with the more socialist model of a single-payer plan, such as by extending Medicare to all ages and raising taxes to compensate.  But the Court isn't there to debate policy, only constitutionality.

Finally we get to the strange part.   By now it would seem that Roberts isn't a fan of the mandate.  It's regulating inactivity and not necessary or proper.  But... it's a tax.  Or tax-like.  It's taxing uh... something... inactivity, which apparently you can tax.  Even a property tax is a tax on having property.  I have yet to see an "existing" tax in which a person is taxed for existence.  If the tax went directly to the government health programs, then I could see it as being a healthcare tax, a tax on the presumption that you are using, going to use, or at least given the peace of mind from being able to use, healthcare.

I don't mind taxes.  They pay for stuff we need, and also that we don't, but that's not the fault of the taxes.  But this interpretation of the taxing power of Congress makes no sense.  It's not saying that Congress gets to tax and spend and the programs which are taxed and spent are constitutional as well and therefore it's all okay.  Instead Roberts just went with "Congress gets to pass taxes".  That's it.  Congress can pass taxes, without any justification beyond that.  I suppose this is true by a literal and stupid reading of the Constitution, akin to saying that Congress has the power to declare war, so it's okay that Congress declared war on Canada.  But hey, the Court only rules on constitutionality, not policy.

It's impressive, really.  In the years leading up to this (because we knew it was going to get challenged), supporters had to constantly fend off the absurd "broccoli mandate" argument.  Yet, with the way the Court ruled on this, it appears that a broccoli mandate is perfectly constitutional.  I tip my hat to you, Justice Roberts, for having upheld the law I support, but in the almost the worst way possible.  Bravo.

Monday, June 25, 2012

The Master Race

Ever run into a racial supremacist?  They're a surprisingly diverse bunch.  Seems every way we can divide up humanity, someone is convinced that that is the correct way and coincidentally, they're part of the best one.  Weird how often that happens.

To start off, I don't actually think the concept of a superior race is impossible.  If we fully understood genetics, which we don't, it seems possible to determine which racial group or subgroup is the best-suited to the modern human existence and as an added bonus, will do well in the predicted future.  That would be the master race.

There's a problem, well several, but let's start with our ignorance: we are nowhere near the point of actually being able to identify the best genes for humans.  That means that anyone claiming to have identified the master race is just making things up.  You knew that, of course.

Maybe you've tried to point this out.  I don't think there's much use to it.  I'm sure that if I thought I was descended from gods or at least not ascended from monkeys, I'd be pretty eager to keep my own delusional sense of superiority.  So the "you don't know what you're talking about" line of argument isn't going to get anywhere.  People don't like not knowing things, which is why we invented spies and lies, so we could know or at least pretend.

On the opposite spectrum, I bet we'd have a shot at identifying inferior genes.  We've already found many debilitating genetic diseases.  This hints at a process of elimination approach, of identifying the inferior and steadily removing them until all that is left is superior.  Beside that phrasing making that an utterly absurd statement, there is another problem: evolution.

Even if we could, and we can't, identify a superior or inferior race, it would be stupid to act on that information.  Why?  Let's try an analogy.

Imagine that we're designing rocket fuel.  I make a fuel that provides more thrust per unit of mass than yours and the cost difference is negligible compared to the performance gain.  Obviously the rocket surgeons are going to use my fuel for their rockets.  And that's that.  Notice how I don't mention that your rocket fuel and formula will be banned, destroyed, and forgotten.  Why would we destroy knowledge?  At some point, we might be launching from Mars and find that the particular characteristics of the atmosphere there make your fuel the one with the greater thrust and it's cheaper too.  Or maybe the combustion product of your fuel kills Martians and our ambassadors aren't making any progress on preventing war.  Now your inferior fuel is actually the superior one.  Sometimes at least.  It's a good thing we didn't destroy the formula.

But that is exactly what happens when people try to purify the gene pool.  The genes which were useful in certain contexts are gone.  The genes which were harmless mutations are gone.  The genes that are insignificantly different are gone.  But change is not gone.  So when the world changes and humanity is pressured, suddenly it seems pretty stupid to not have those genes around anymore.  It reduces our ability to adapt and survive.

That's the great irony of it all, the pursuit of a master race: it weakens humanity rather than strengthening it.  It is precisely diversity which allows survival because it is through diverse beings that we get diverse responses to the world.

As a concrete example, imagine a world where all African genes are eliminated (let's overlook the human origin in Africa, since we are playing by the absurd assumptions of racists).  And then malaria mutates and finds a new way to spread, without needing mosquitoes, and breaks free of geographic barriers.  The sickle cell mutation isn't of much use when malaria is far away, and sometimes very harmful or difficult to treat, but if malaria were to spread, then suddenly a minor genetic 'disease' is actually a major genetic savior.

No one knows how many other genetic diseases may have been adaptations to past conditions, or may be waiting for a future when they are useful.  Even if we knew exactly what was best for the present, we will never know what is best for the future, so let's not throw away something that may very well be useful.  That's the thing about evolution: it isn't an upward trajectory, or any trajectory at all: it's survival in the situation and survival in the next.

And of course I'm not much a fan of starting multi-generational international wars over delusions of truth.

Monday, June 18, 2012

"Unsympathetic pragmatism" is an oxymoron

Last week I mentioned pie, with the implication that people who feel shorted on their share of the pie may feel inclined to do something about it.  I mostly meant it as a sort of self-interested behavior: if most people would do better off under system A than under system B, even if system B has greater overall wealth, happiness, or whatever other metric you like, most people will support system A (assuming informed actors, which is a terrible assumption).  Though this dichotomy fails to account for a system C which is more evenly-distributed than B, though not as much as A, but due to a "just right" distribution, leads to a larger pie, making everyone better off than they'd be under systems A or B.

But onward to unsympathetic pragmatism.  To contradict myself as soon as possible, this is a sensible notion in certain contexts, such as the doctor who cleans and patches the otherwise-deadly wound, despite the lack of anesthetic making the procedure unimaginably painful.  However, that's not a very good analogy to take to higher scales, such as economies, healthcare, and human survival.

In America we have some people who put on a front of seriousness, people like Paul Ryan who want to balance the budget and will do so by any means necessary (except raising taxes, because those have to go down further).  As they explain it, we need to be pragmatic, to deal with some short term pain, because it will make us better off in the long run.  They may turn to the doctor analogy (I have not yet seen them use it, but it seems like a great misleading analogy) to prove this.  They're wrong on many levels, such as using analogy as a substitute for logic, exceptionally bad math (they use imaginary numbers in entirely the wrong context), and heartlessness.

Heartlessness?  How can that be bad if they're the unsympathetic pragmatist?  Let's go with the doctor analogy, but try to spruce it up a bit.  First off, give the patient a gun and if it hurts to much, he shoots the doctor, himself, or someone else in line of sight.  Oh hey, Greek austerity riots, a surge in crime, and some members of Parliament who would make me nervous if Greece was as awesome as Germany.  Also if they patient suffers too much pain he dies (which literally happens when your budget-balancing involves cutting food assistance, heating, and healthcare).  Furthermore, the patient may suffer serious, possibly permanent damage if the procedure is done wrong (underfed and undereducated children aren't typically superstars in anything).  If the patient thinks the doctor is doing it wrong he can fire the doctor and get a new one, assuming the transition doesn't kill him as well, and assuming the first doctor doesn't get to hang around blocking the other doctor from working while whispering lies in the ears of the patient.  I'm referencing the Republican Party, if you didn't pick that up.  In America.  Not to be confused with the political parties in other countries which tend to be little more than coalitions of unprincipled demagogues selling their influence to the highest bidder with no regard for the safety of their supposed constituents, whilst not speaking English.

My point is that "unsympathetic pragmatism" is not actually pragmatic if the unsympathetic part dominates too much.  The problem arises when people get the notion that the key part is "unsympathetic" rather than "pragmatism", and as a result, they focus entirely on not caring about the harm they do to others, justifying it all with some vague mention of the improving/saving the world part.  The goal should be the goal, not the method.  Alas, being an unsympathetic sociopath is branded as "courageous" rather than "useless heartlessness."  We only need to look at the American War Against Paying Taxes for the War That Just Saved Us (also known as the American Revolution or Tea Party), in which the unsympathetic pragmatist of a king wisely chose to impose the necessary taxes to pay for the war and military might to enforce them, without taking into account the sentiments of the people, such as representation and not having unrelated soldiers sleeping in their beds.  Imagine if the colonies had gained representation in Parliament and didn't have Redcoats looting their larders.  I suspect the British Empire would have been better off under the "sympathetic pragmatist" approach.  Though the downside cannot be emphasized enough: We'd all be speaking English English.

Monday, June 11, 2012

The Solution to Negative Political Ads

Why doesn't Pepsi run ads that call Coke executives fascist pedophiles?  Why doesn't McDonalds suggest that Burger King is for un-American monarchists?  You might say that these have nothing to do with the product, but this is advertising.  Advertising isn't about the product.  If all they cared about was a good product they'd make a good product and let Consumer Reports tell you about it.  Advertising is about selling mental states: horniness for cars, satiation and fun for fast food, and of course the fear for politics.

Advertising doesn't go negative because sales are not exclusive.  I can buy coke and pepsi and a dozen generic store brands.  Even more importantly, I'm always buying something (not literally), so the key is to get me to buy their product rather than the other one.  Merely bashing the other product may spoil the entire thing.  Or make them look like total assholes.  Besides, it's not as if there are any major problems if I buy the wrong cola.  I drink a few less-than-satisfactory cans and next time I go to the store I buy something else.

The ability to buy multiple products means that the competition is different.  I can buy anything and everything, so by that sense, even if I buy coke, pepsi is fine as long as I also buy pepsi.  What matters is that I buy their product: it doesn't matter if I also buy another.  Contrast this with elections, where if I vote for Romney, I cannot vote for Obama, and the reverse.

In addition to this, the goal is different.  Pepsi wants a lot of sales.  So does Coke.  They even share many interests, such as cheap sugar supplies and high demand for colas, and if these happen, they can both benefit.  It isn't a winner-take-all system.  Elections are winner-take-all.  Obama wins or Romney wins.  They don't win by absolute vote numbers, but by relative votes, specifically: more than the other guy.

Let's imagine I'm a candidate.  If I want to have more votes than someone else and voting is exclusive, what should I do?  Getting more votes has two parts: me getting votes and him not getting votes.  To work on the second part, a negative ad may help.  Portray the other guy as a fascist pedophile monarchist and some people who would vote for him won't.  In effect, preventing a vote for my opponent is as useful as getting a vote for myself.  Conveniently, negative adds also help with the first aspect, of getting votes.  If I create more undecided voters, or even voters who don't like the other guy, then those are more voters which I can potentially get.  It doesn't sound as nice, but if I can get people to vote for me just to keep the other guy away, that's a vote for me.

Negative ads make perfect sense in a winner-take-all system with exclusive votes.  Unless we move to a parliamentary system, the winner-take-all aspect is going to remain, and frankly I prefer that we can at least pretend to have "formed a government" even if a over-represented minority effectively nullifies the process.

However there is some ability to improve: allow multiple votes on a ballot.  This means that even if I am an Obama supporter, I could mark Romney as a way to indicate that I think he still has some decent ideas (note that this is purely hypothetical).  Or even better, I could mark a third-party candidate.  This would remove the spoiler concept and make alternatives possible, since I don't need to go tot he ballot thinking about electability, only about whether I think someone would make a good leader.

Under this system, I'm going to care more about getting people to the polls and voting for me.  Maybe they'll vote for Obama too.  But if I can boost my tally, that adds political capital.

Unfortunately I might have this completely backward.  It could be that once voters can pick multiple candidates, then it becomes even more important to trash the opponent, and not just to independent or dissenting voters.  A vote for me and my rival is as good as no vote at all in terms of a majority, so I need to be sure that he doesn't get a vote.

Maybe politics is doomed to be negative.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Pie Distribution

Buy-in is important.  Unless distracted or ignorant, people tend to get upset when they feel cheated.  Note that I use the word "feel" rather than "are".  This is because it doesn't matter whether people actually have been cheated or how we'd even determine the objective reality of it.  Action is based on perception, not reality.  Onward to pie.

Imagine two pies and two ways of slicing them.  To simplify things, let's assume that these pies are of equal quality and the only differences are the size (as measured by the number of blueberries used to make them) and slicing method (as measured by the size of the slice you get).  The first pie has 10 pounds of blueberries in it.  It is cut into ten slices and you get one.  In effect, you have 10% or 1 pound of blueberries.  The second pie has 15 pounds of blueberries it it.  It is cut into twenty slices and you get one.  In effect, you have 5% or .75 pounds of blueberries.

In Capitalism 101 we're told that the best result comes from everyone looking out for themselves (in 102 they cover externalities and information asymmetry, but no one takes that class).  What is the best result?  Well strangely enough, we're often told it in terms of "the economy" or "unemployment", broad, abstract concepts which can be thought of as generalized social benefit.  That's nice and all, but teacher told us to look out for ourselves.  So why are we concerned about that social benefit stuff?

If we follow the rules we're taught, to look out for ourselves, we'll take the first pie, because it gives us the bigger slices.  Why would we care about the overall pie if we're supposed to look out for ourselves?

These were, of course, stupid pies.  A more realistic pie would instead be one which accounts for how distribution affects size.  Excessively skewed distributions can cause problems.  If someone is promised too small a slice, then merely cutting it will reduce it to crumbs.  In this analogy the cutting is taxes and cost of living, since by my measure, merely continuing to live is not as good as getting pie.  We could cut taxes, and of course that would help, but the efficient method is to even out the slices, to ensure that no slice is so small as to not be worth cutting.

Promise me a bigger piece and I'll pick more blueberries.  This is good.  Though there is the potential for the promised piece size to rise faster than the blueberry picking, so that, for example, if 20% of people are promised half the pie, the remaining 80% might see themselves as getting cheated.  The perception has come back to us.

Whether you believe the system of the market is fair, the outcomes can quite easily feel unfair.  We could argue that they are not, but that's not going to fix perception.  It's not going to fix action.  By action I mean people getting aggressive: taking and revolting.  We could hire a few to imprison the rest, but as a rule, security is an enabler of wealth, not a creator, so now a certain part of the pie is being used to ensure that others don't ask for more pie.  That's hardly efficient.

Ultimately, the American-style market tends to be self-destructive.  The theoretical perfect market may emerge, but as success is rewarded, it unbalances the field and ceases to as perfectly reward success, with an increasing negative slide.  A few exceptions do not disprove a trend.  Moving away from the economics to the sociology, the mentality needed for a market, of looking out for oneself, is precisely the mentality which would lead a majority of people away from the market because regardless of what it does for the overall pie, it is not the way to maximize their own pie.

In other words, the majority of the world is not extraordinary so a system which places the majority of the rewards with the extraordinary will be unacceptable to the majority.  Thankfully for the wealthy, there are religion, race, and region to distract people from the cause of their misery.

Monday, May 28, 2012

"Most wars we've fought have been fought over ideology and philosophy"

This came from Idaho's Sen. Jim Risch.


Here's a list of conflicts in which the US was involved and my opinion on whether it was motivated by ideology or by material concerns such as resources or keeping up friendly governments.  These are not perfectly ambiguous, as I'll note during the Cold War.  Stating that a war was not motivated by ideology does not mean that it was the wrong thing to do, such as if we are protecting our own territorial sovereignty.  Similarly, just because a war was motivated by ideology does not mean it was the right thing to do.

Revolutionary War - Yes.  Representation, ore more accurately, lack thereof in Parliament was the real problem and what did we do?  We made a representative government.  Sorta.

Northwest Indian War - No.  Britain was supposed to give us the Northwest Territory but supported the local Indians with forts and whatnot.  We could argue that this was about the philosophy of treaties or some other spin, but essentially it's about territorial control, which if that's "ideology or philosophy" then every general is a philosopher.

Quasi-War - No.  France was being a dick, so we shot at each other a bit and they stopped attacking our ships.

First Barbary War - No.  We got into a fight with pirates who were capturing our merchants.

Tecumseh's War - No.  More fighting over the Northwest Territory.

War of 1812 - No.  Britain was attacking our merchants, enslaving sailors, and supporting Indian attacks.  We started a fight, we lost a lot, they eventually left again.  Oh, and Canada added another notch to its list of Failed Invasions of Canada.  Those Canadians are like sneaky Russians, in that they are hard to invade and cold, but speak something like English.

Second Barbary War - No.  We fought pirates again.

Seminole Wars - Multiple Nos.  We started fights with Spain and captured Florida, which given the democracy record of the state was clearly just a trap (have you heard Rick Scott is claiming US citizens are foreign and unable to vote?).

You know what?  Let's cut out some of the little stuff.  We chased more pirates, we got in fights with natives around the world.  It wasn't philosophical, but calling each little thing a war is a stretch anyway.  So let's lump it all together as a single No.  While we're at it, let's stop counting the fights with Native Indians and just stick those in with the other Nos.  In other words, unless we're shooting white people, it doesn't count (I'm trying to pretend that my arbitrary grouping of what were as deadly as 'real' wars is actually ironic racism rather than just racism).

Mexican-American War - Yes.  Texas declared independence and we backed it up.  Though the Texans might have all just been Americans who were encouraged to settle there to push out the natives and revolted because they were worried about losing their slaves, but let's call it an independence movement and add the second Yes of the day.

Then we got into fights with China, including one where we sided with the British who were trying to expand the opium and slave trade with China.  That's so damn awful that I'm counting it as an anti-Yes.

Civil War - Yes and Yes.  One side was protecting institutional racism and economic disparity (poor whites weren't so well off either) and the other side was protecting the union.  I don't agree with the philosophy, but I'll accept evil as the philosophical backing for secession and count the war as a double-Yes.

Spanish-American War - Yes.  Spain was horribly suppressing independence movements.  We kicked out Spain.  Then we started our own oppression, but that's not part of the war, so it's still a Yes.

World War I - No.  Beside a few revolutionaries in the Balkans, there wasn't much ideology going on here.  We wandered in to join the winning side (which was going to win without us, thanks to impending famine in Germany) after Germany sunk one too many ships (which they had to do because they needed to stop the flow of supplies to their enemies).

Russian Revolution - No.  We joined the invasion to try to put down those scary Bolsheviks, because they wanted to pull Russia out of the war, and as a general rule of thumb, the winning side is the one that has Russia to most of the dying.

World War II - Yes.  We were definitely on the not-Fascist side and went to great lengths to supply Britain and stopped trading with Japan.  However we didn't actually join the war until we were attacked.  I suspect we would have eventually, even if Japan hadn't done so.

When we get to the Cold War things become murky.  Was opposition to Communism an ideological matter or a territorial matter, since we believed that Communism was a Russian plot rather than a completely independent ideology.

Korean War - No.  We supported the genocidal government of South Korea (the roles were somewhat flipped back then) to keep the Soviet Union out (despite the invasion being supported by the Chinese).

Bay of Pigs - No.  This could have been an actual ideological Capitalism vs. Communism fight if we'd had the courage to actually fight it, rather than send Cuban exiles to die without the promised US support.

Vietnam War/Cambodian Civil War - Yes.  In Vietnam they voted for a Communist government.  We decided to go with the dictator instead.  Cambodia had its own Communists, so we had to fight there too, and it all added up to a big mess in which a lot of Americans died.

Dominican Republic - Yes.  Communism or dictator?  Dictator of course!  Screw all that democracy and self-determination nonsense.

Grenada - Yes.  Grenada wins independence from Britain and establishes a government (which was ambiguously democratic.  Popular leftists stage a coup and overthrow the government.  Military leftists kill those leftists.  US invades to re-establish a stable government (not the one with the leftists).

Panama - Yes.  Noriega stopped being useful to us and started just being a generic asshole who was crushing democracy and people in Panama, so we invaded and arrested him.

First Gulf War - Yes.  Iraq invaded its neighbor.  Granted its neighbor happened to have a lot of oil that we wanted, but this was not a purely materialistic war.

NATO/UN actions in the Balkans - Yes.  There was not much to gain strategically by ending the civil war (though there was the effect of preventing a Jihad in the area; we weren't so focused on that yet); it was just the right thing to do, ending the massacres and fighting.

Haiti - Yes.  There was a coup against the elected President.  With the support of the UN, we stared really hard at the Hatian army, which backed down.  Peacekeepers ensured that the democratic government stayed in place.

Afghanistan - No.  We didn't worry much about oppressive theocracies as long as they weren't harboring people responsible for 9/11.

Second Gulf War - Yes.  Hussein was a horrible person, but he was a useful check on Iran and  knew what happened the last time he threatened US interests in the region.  However, a bunch of blind idiots and liars led us to war on the promise of WMDs that didn't exist, in order to start a domino effect of democracy that didn't happen.

Libya - Yes.  We clearly weren't just trying to end the civil war to get the oil flowing or we'd have  done more for the rebels, or backed the regime.

Yemen, Somalia, Pakistan, etc. - No.  We're supporting a variety of dictators and shady characters through at-best legally ambiguous actions in the interest of security.

As I add it up, I'm getting 14 Yes and 15 No.  It would only take one to flip it to a majority yes.  I did lump together a lot of Noes.  However it doesn't make much sense to count wars as if each one is equal, particularly to make it a Yes or No absolute.  Every war, with the possible exception of the interventions in the Balkans, has some mix of philosophy and pragmatism.

However I do think we can say that to claim that most wars were over ideology or philosophy, as opposed to the usual national security interest or the support of the military-industrial complex, is a ridiculous overreach.  As much as we want to put a good face on our history, the US is not unambiguously good.  It's not even necessarily good from an international standpoint, bullying those who don't go along with its economic or strategic interests, just as all countries do.  There are no nice countries, only one which aren't as bad when compared to evil ones.  So sure, we're no North Korea, but we're not a nation of saints either and to pretend that we are is dangerous.  Once we assume sainthood, we stop striving to prove it.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Real Family Values

What is killing America's families?  Is it the gay menace?  Certainly children need male and female role models.  Two men just don't cut it.  Neither do two women.  Or one man and one woman.  These aren't families.

Two people are little more than a baby-making unit.  That's a nuclear family: two things that make babies and a collection of babies of various ages.  Hardly a real family.

That's what is killing America's families: the false ideology of the nuclear family.  With only two people, someone must lose.  The man works and the woman raises children and cleans the house and takes opiates to survive.  Or the man stays home and we call him a sissy.  Or both parents work and the kids are sent off to be raised by strangers.  What a great family.  Someone loses.  At the least.

Once upon a time less than two or three generations ago people lived with or near their parents, and grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins, and so on.  Children weren't raised by parents to then grow up and leave them behind and be parents and raise their own kids to grow up and leave them behind in an endless cycle of abandonment.  Instead, children were raised by family.

My own family believes in traditional concepts of family.  I was watched and raised by a grandmother, aunts, uncles, and had a cousin I treated as a brother.  Everyone helped everyone.  It made more sense that way.  Someone with two children can watch a third with no great extra burden, but to relieve one person of children entirely is a wonderful blessing.  This was how one tradition started which has run to this day, of my uncle taking my brothers and me to dinner on Christmas Eve so my mother doesn't have to deal with us.  At other times my brothers would be watched by my godmother (whose son would go to great lengths to frighten them, but maybe that is their own faults for watching Ghostbusters).

If you're going to artificially define families as a pair of baby factories, then I can almost understand the argument against gay marriage.  But that's a ridiculous starting point.  It's starting with a limitation which already is not to the benefit of the children or the parents and then rather than fixing the problem, tacking on another limitation as the weakest of bandaids.  Once you see that a family is more than just two people making sex cells and putting them together, that a family is a network of mutual support, then a couple gay people here and there aren't any problem at all.  So what if a couple people aren't baby factories?  There are plenty of those and they're perfectly capable of raising children, especially as part of a family rather than two people isolated from any social or family support.

I say it's time we brought back traditional marriage and real family values.  No more of this nonsense of blocking marriages to people who have the same genitals.  I say we block marriages to people who live too far away from their families.

Monday, May 14, 2012

I think this is how the Fed does it, right?

The paper I was writing on the yuan and the effects of its value is complete, for a given definition of complete.  It was fun to write and research, but might have been more fun with a little more time (though for a student there is no such thing as more time, just more procrastination).

Monday, May 7, 2012

A US State as a Representative Body

Once upon a time the United States was just a bunch of colonies that, thanks to a combination of geography and France, broke away from England.  They were small in population, only about 2.4 million in all.  That's smaller than many states these days.  Smaller than cities.  New York City has about 8.4 million people.  Already that makes a single city larger than the entire original colonies.  On top of that, there are people in New York who don't live in the city, for a total of almost 19.5 million.
This puts the average American revolutionary at about 185 thousand people per representative unit.  Obviously a bit removed from your small town.  But let's compare to the modern New York state with 19.5 million, or 19,500 thousand people per representative unit.  The representative nature of the state is a bit diluted.  Wyoming, not a very populous state, is still at almost 570 thousand per representative unit.

Think about this next time someone speaks about states' rights.  Is giving power to the states actually giving it to The People, or is it merely shifting it to a different political arena?  Should states get to decide human rights?  Imagine if tomorrow you woke up and you were a second-class citizen.  If the federal government did it you can bet you'd find a lot of people to join you and a couple centuries of court decisions as ammunition.  Well, maybe only one, or a few decades, start with Brown v. Board and work your way up from there.  States have a long, proud history of oppression.  And that's exactly the problem, the myth that states are somehow a representative unit, when a single state is less representative than a pure federal system would have been in 1776 (which obviously isn't when the Constitution was ratified).

The solution isn't breaking apart the level of representation further.  It never was.  Instead, look at actual policy.  Ask if it improves your life or makes it worse.  Ask what precedent it sets and how that can be managed.  A great rule from Washington is better than a terrible rule from the city council.  One of those places has the funding to get the information needed to make good policy.

Monday, April 30, 2012

Government as a Household

It's a popular analogy, government and household.  If a household has a drop in income it spends less.  By analogy, if government has a drop in tax revenues, it should spend less.  Makes perfect sense.  Unless you actually look at the analogy beyond the simplistic first impression.

First, let's stick with the "government is like a household analogy."  If a family loses income they don't instantly cut spending.  They can't, not unless they want to starve, freeze, and get kicked out of their homes.  Over time they can cut back, but that takes time.  Meanwhile, they look for more income.  They look for new work, second jobs, extended hours, and might argue for a raise (though if unemployment is high this isn't likely).  When they balance their budgets they don't only look at spending; they also look at revenues.

An even greater absurdity is the notion that households must balance their budgets.  Over the long-term, yes.  But over spans of weeks, months, even years, they may run debts.  They take out mortgages, which are a massive source of debt which persists for potentially decades.  They get car loans, another source of debt.  They get college loans for even more.  Households can pile on huge amounts of debt.  The last one may even be necessary, as job prospects and income are far greater with a post-secondary degree, so that not taking on debt is the truly irresponsible action.

People have credit scores and incomes and these are used to determine home much to loan them and at what rate.  Excluding the recent lying-fueled financial bubble, markets are pretty good at loaning money.  If they predict an average loss, they don't loan.

They act the same with governments.  Except in a few cases such as Greece, where the public debt was covered up by a joint public-private partnering on a corrupt government and Goldman Sachs (who has engineered it to make money off the default, still showing that the banks look for profit, rather than civic duty), investors are loaning to governments because they think they will be paid back.  They think that the spending that is being done is either stimulative enough to outgrow interest rates or is at least preventing a loss of value, making the loans as safe place to put money even if not particularly profitable.  If they didn't think so, they'd not loan the money.  If you disagree with that, then you're attacking the very notion that actors in markets seek profits or suggesting that they are all incredibly stupid.

If spending were truly "out of control" relative to expected tax incomes, then the market would stop loaning money.  The government isn't forcing banks and individuals to loan it money.  They are doing it willingly.  If the government fails to pay them back, that's part of the risk of investing.

 The analogy with a household eventually breaks down.  Households are a few people and in the US, people have safety nets.  There are charities and welfare and food stamps.  If the breadwinners can no longer afford living expenses, they can cut spending and their children won't die.  I'm not saying the safety net is perfect in terms of being too strong or weak, but it's there and it means that a family isn't a job loss away from starvation and being beset by bandits.

The magnitudes are different, as well as the responsibilities.  If government stops spending, it ripples out, fast and wide, to hit every single family in America.  Social Security stops and suddenly seniors are without income.  But Social Security isn't the fiscal problem anyway: it won't be insolvent for decades and in the meantime, it's actually a net lender to the government: it holds Treasury bills.  We could cut welfare and food stamps, which are about 13% of the budget, thereby driving millions of citizens further into poverty and possibly starvation.  Private charities aren't going to pick up that slack.  There are not enough jobs for them to all "get a job", not in a recession.  So in effect, advocates of cutting the safety net are suggesting that potentially millions of Americans end up homeless and starving, which would eventually fix unemployment by attrition.  Health care could be cut which would at least have the effect of killing them faster than starvation and exposure.

Infrastructure is about 3%, which on one hand covers bridges to nowhere.  On the other hand, it also covers infrastructure, the roads, bridges, trains, ports, and air system which make it possible to do business here.  Look up the barriers to economic development in poor nations and somewhere between lack of education and perpetual war you'll find lack of paved roads.  Speaking of education, cutting funding there is a great way to ensure that future generations are even less employable, prolonging recessions and stagnation across generations.  Science and medical research are a mere 2% of federal spending and are another necessity for long-term growth.  Cutting any of these are equivalent to selling your arms: it might give some budget relief, but it make future growth and employment even harder.

Households can cut spending without major problems.   Governments cannot.  For all the talk of waste and excessive spending, most of what is spent is spent making this a country worth doing business in, worth living in, and safe enough to work and live in.

Beyond all that, taxes interact in a backward way with the economy.  In a recession, revenues fall.  This is where much of the current "Obama deficit" has come from.  Meeting the legal obligations to citizens, the safety net, tends to get more expensive as more people are unemployed.  None of these are due to bad policies or the particular actions of any adminstrations: neither the Obama or Bush administrations caused the recessions, though the tax cuts by both have increased the budget deficit.  Merely having an economic recovery, with no changes in tax rates or spending, will improve the budget situation.

In summary:
- Governments have obligations to their citizens and their actions have dramatic ripple effects.
- Households, and governments, are under no obligations to run balanced budgets at all times.
- Spending can be stimulative and stabilizing.
- Markets are ultimately responsible for debts as they are the ones who allow them.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

The Republic is a Failed Idea

Among other things, such as mass terror and murder, the French Revolution popularized the concept of the Republic.  It sounds really nice, doesn't it?  I don't mean that in a sarcastic way.  Imagine a government that, rather than being a monarch or oligopoly, is instead created by the people of the country.  If we had a say in government then it would probably be less likely to kill us and might even make the world better for us.  As a person of a country, I must say that on the surface, in theory, this Republic concept sounds pretty neat.

In practice it's a complete failure.  Just look at the world.  The People's Republic of China is a classic model of a corrupt, brutal government, rotting with corruption and cronyism, and definitely not looking out for the people of China.  Not far away at all is the Democratic People's Republic of Korea where we regularly see the product of Republicism: belligerence, mass starvation and murder, technological stagnation, and isolation from the world.

If you read the news you've probably heard of another hostile country, the Islamic Republic, which seeks to develop its own nuclear weapons.  In Africa there is the Democratic Republic of the Congo, a humanitarian disaster spawned by wars and revolutions by a seemingly-endless succession of cruel leaders.

If we look back at history, then there is another big one, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.  Stretching across Asia into Europe, this was the greatest enemy to human liberty that the world had ever seen.  It threatened Europe and all of Asia.  It triggered an arms race and wars around the world to spread its ideology.  Thankfully, in 1991 this giant experiment in Republicism collapsed, proving forever the failure of the idea of the Republic.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Sound Money is Unsound

Wouldn't it be great if a dollar was a dollar and you never had to worry about the Fed inflating you into poverty?  Well then I have a great plan for you!  What if we backed the dollar with a fixed amount of gold, or the reverse (it's a matter of phrasing, but the same thing in practice)?  Now your dollar isn't just a piece of paper, it's based on something solid, something real.

Hop in a time machine and see if your dollar is worth something a thousand years ago.  I bet not!  But your gold will be.  So keep that in mind.  It might work in the future too.

A gold bar is a gold bar is a gold bar.  Perfect, right?  Well, a dollar is a dollar is a dollar.

Gold is not magical.  It's a commodity.  It's just another thing subject to supply and demand.  Just like a dollar.  Increase the supply and the price goes down, increase demand and price goes up.  Aha, prices!  There's the key, we want price stability, right?  Price stability makes it easier to predict costs and that encourages investment and gives us that much more information when deciding whether to borrow or lend.  Price stability.

Enter inflation.  But first, let's break that apart and make sure we're all on the same page.  Money inflation will refer to the number of dollars, or gold.  Price inflation will refer to the price of what you tend to buy, so a 'basket', as the economists call it, of food, gasoline, cars (economists have a strange way of counting a typical shopping trip).  Over the long term, these follow each other.

If you wake up and everyone has twice as much gold and twice as much gold in their contracts (wages, salaries, bond payments, etc.) then after a brief bit of thinking they're rich, everyone will settle into a new habit of everything being exactly the same as it was before, just with all the numbers doubled, along with the population claiming that candy bars were a nickle back in their day.  Hint: Back when they'd have cost a nickle (by backtracking inflation), candy bars wouldn't have had so much inexpensive refined sugar and wouldn't be worth a nickle anyway.

Okay, so now here we are with price inflation and money inflation seemingly interchangeable because money sets the price.  It looks as if price stability is based on money stability.  But that would be wrong.

If the supply of wheat doubles, what happens to the price of wheat?  It falls.  What if the supply of everything except gold doubles?  The price of everything except gold falls, meaning that the price of gold has risen.  Even without any change in the money supply (gold), the price level has fallen.  Price inflation is not the same as money inflation.  Pour money in and sure, you'll get price inflation, so it's a bad idea to just dump money in willy-nilly (which the Fed knows and if you look at the amount of money actually flowing, it hasn't tripled as Ron Paul supporters would claim).  But even without changing the money supply, you're going to get price instability because money is relative to the economy.

Takeaway: A gold standard does not guaranteed price stability and therefore is not a guaranteed store of wealth or an economic panacea.

We can, of course, mine more gold.  Or less.  As the economy grows and technology advances, or as a recession comes and we produce less, we can change the gold supply.  Really?  No!  Gold is subject to the market like anything else.  It will be mined more when its value goes up (meaning a shortage of gold) and less when the prices go down (the inverse), but there are problems.  One is lag, that the gold supply will not react instantly.  Mining and purifying take time.  There would obviously be people keeping gold in reserve, partially out of the supply, who would then see the benefit of buying low and selling high.  This will help to stabilize the supply shocks, but cannot give price stability because the money supply (gold) will still be variable, managed (regulated?) by people around the world with gold reserves.  But we're not even in the long-term yet.  That's when it gets really bad.  In the long term, we don't know if the gold supply will increase in proportion with the economy.  That means that in the long term, there could be a significant amount of money deflation, relative to the economy, which as we saw before, is what really matters (money/economy moving in sync).  A stable money supply, with a growing economy, will trigger price deflation.

Imagine an economy which produces ten bushels of wheat a year and has ten bars of gold (it's a pretty bad economy).  We can't quite say what a bushel will cost, but I think we can recognize that if it produces twenty bushels, the cost of wheat, relative to gold, will drop.  That is price deflation and relative to the economy, money deflation.

Deflation kills economies.  Hyper[money]inflation will too, but it takes a lot of sustained inflation to do that, whereas just a bit of deflation can do the trick.  And it's a bubble.  Money inflation has a limit in the sense that only a money-printer can cause it (or loose loaning standards, but we're working with gold), and if there is no money-printer (central bank), then there cannot be money supply inflation except to the extent that gold gets dug up and that will be based on the value of that money, so in theory it is self-correcting.  Deflation does not have the same limit.  If gold rises in value, what will I do?  Sell?  Oh no, not if I see a trend, then I buy!  And so do others.  If not buy, then they hold.  After all, if a gold bar guys a ton of wheat today and two tons tomorrow, wouldn't you wait a day?  Of course.  So now we see hoarding and a slowdown in buying.  Which lowers the gold in circulation, raising the value, triggering more hoarding and buying up, and so on.  Eventually the 'flowing' gold is at a trickle and the economy has frozen up.

 So fine, fine, let's do this: let's print money but link it to gold.  Then if the economy grows faster than the gold, we print more money.  But now you're doing something wrong.  You're either assigning more dollars to each unit of gold, inflating the money relative to the gold, and therefore devaluing the very money you were supposed to be protecting with the gold link, or you're just lying and saying that money has gold linked to it, when it doesn't.  That's going to not only cause inflation of the money supply, but it's also going to create a false impression of the supply of gold and therefore the relative value of the dollar, effectively devaluing without telling anyone, which might work just fine... as long as not too many people ask for their gold.

Gold does have some things going for it.  As a physical substance it is rare, but not too rare.  It is stable: not reactive and not radioactive.  It's shiny, which is not a trivial matter and certainly played a role in its historical use as a standard of value.  It's traditional.  We think it is valuable because we've always thought it was valuable.  Just like a dollar for billions of people who grew up in a world where a dollar was money because that dollar, rather than being shiny or stable or old, was used to buy things in the biggest economy in world.

Money is what we use to buy things and that is entirely a social/economic construct.  Gold is only valuable as long as we thing it is.  In terms of practical value, it has some use in the jewelry industry (where much of the time we think it looks nice because it's expensive) as well as more practical purposes in industrial and electronic use, but "industrial and electronic use" are not strong foundations on which to stand.

If we really do what price stability then what we really need is a money supply that can grow with the economy.  That means some amount of money inflation.  Does that mean that the dollars i your pocket will be worth less?  Sure.  But your paycheck will go up in price, and the next, and so on, so that the supposed loss from inflation is just a small loss on a small amount of money, but in return you get predictable prices and a stronger economy.  Those are going to give you far more wealth than a pocket of gold coins.

This does not mean that a fiat currency is perfect.  It can be over-printed (or over-electroniced), or under-printed.  In part the Great Depression was worsened by a tightening of the money supply through bank behavior, something which could have been compensated for with, yes, some more printing of money to keep the overall flow constant and the economy moving.  It can be managed poorly.  But it can be managed and it can be tuned to work with the economy.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Innocent Until Proven Guilty

Florida's Stand Your Ground law creates a legal paradox.  Our legal system assumes innocence until guilt is proven.  Fortunately, it also has a 'limbo' state of being a suspect, so that when there is sufficient reason to suspect a lack of innocence, the police can apprehend a suspect.  This serves a few purposes, such as preventing escape and making destruction of evidence more difficult.  It may also protect the person.

That's why I think the safest thing for George Zimmerman is a trial.  Arrest him, put him on trial, and see what a jury decides.  He's already lost in the court of public opinion.  He has a bounty on his head, from a ridiculous almost entirely irrelevant fringe group, but it's there.  With tensions so high, with so much hatred flowing, I can easily imagine him being murdered.  Arrest would get him away from that.  A trial would put the backing of the state behind his innocence (if he is), rather than the legal assumption of innocence, which people don't accept very well, particularly when he very clearly did kill someone.  If he is found guilty, then he would receive an appropriate sentence, rather than vigilantism.

But let's return to the event itself and puzzle over the innocence.  We could interpret the Florida law two ways.  One way is just the plain perception of danger.  If someone perceives that they are in danger, they get to protect themselves without any need to retreat.  This is obviously an absurd interpretation because there are far too many situations in which someone may feel threatened, and note that I use the word feel, to distinguish from the reality of whether there is danger or intended threat.  Under this interpretation I could leave a dozen bodies during a five minute walk.  Maybe that homeless man is going to steal my backpack.  Maybe that black man walking in my direction is going to try the same.  Who are those young people there?  They might be drunk and dangerous.  It's very easy to feel threatened.

If we instead restrict the law to actual threats, something which can be proven without needing a mind-reader, then the shooting ends up being much different.  Now we have opposing assumptions of innocence.  If we assume Zimmerman is innocent, then we must be assuming that Trayvon is guilty because he would have been the aggressor.  If we assume Trayvon is innocent, meaning that he was not attacking or threatening Zimmerman, then we're assuming that Zimmerman is guilty of shooting an innocent person.  There is an interpretation of the event which I've not seen covered much: that Zimmerman was following Trayvon, which would make Trayvon the one who can feel threatened, so that even if he had attacked Zimmerman, he would be covered by the stand your ground law while Zimmerman would be an aggressor who escalated the situation without legal justification.

They cannot be simultaneously innocent, though we act as if they were by granting both of them innocence by default.  The law, and the way it has been interpreted, does this as well.  It doesn't care if there is an actual threat or danger.  It only goes by feeling.  That means that Zimmerman is innocent of murder even if he shoots an innocent person because all he had to do was feel.  That's a strange law.

This is where retreat requirements become useful.  If I retreat and the perceived threat follows, if I run and it runs, that's something more than a feeling, that's an action.  Chasing is an aggressive act.  A retreat requirement essentially generates evidence which supports the innocence of the defender and acts a buffer against biases.  A scary homeless man might just be my perception, but if a homeless man chases me, now the fear is justified (or at least more so than if we're just walking in the same direction).  A retreat requirement protects him from my unreasonable fear while also protecting me legally if I am forced to act.  Similarly, 'castle' laws which allow individuals to use deadly force within their own homes provide this buffer.  If someone is in my home without my invitation, something is clearly wrong.  Assuming locked doors, which if you have a gun handy at home, I'd guess you lock your doors, anyone in your home is either there by invitation or there by force.  Defense is clearly warranted and a retreat requirement for your own home would make no sense at all.

The streets aren't our homes.  They are public property (usually) and as such, are subject to different social and legal rules.  It seems to me that on public property, "avoid shooting people unless necessary" is a pretty good rule.