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Friday, December 21, 2012

Sailing, Sailing

I'm leaving this weekend for a family sailing vacation in the British Virgin Islands.  We're renting a 37 foot sailboat and will sail hither and thither around the islands for a week.  Hopefully, we won't run into any pirates!

Happy Holidays!

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Public Shooting Musings

With any change in government policy there are always winners and losers.  Modifying gun control laws would be no exception whether making them stricter of less strict.  Different people will die at different times depending on the changes.

Whenever I put significant effort into yet again contemplating gun control, I start by re-reading "Of Holocausts and Gun Control".  There are many chilling excerpts in it, and the two I found most chilling and focusing are (emphasis added):
"Governments have exterminated or cooperated in the extermination of something like one hundred and seventy million of their own people in the twentieth century"; and

" is nevertheless an arresting reality that not one of the principal genocides of the twentieth century, and there have been dozens, has been inflicted on a population that was armed..."
If you think that something like that can't happen here, as explained by the essay mentioned above it almost did at least twice.  Examples include Japanese internment camps during World War II and the violence of the KKK in the south.

I then notice that:
"With a single exception, every multiple-victim public shooting in the U.S. in which more than three people have been killed since at least 1950 has taken place where citizens are not allowed to carry their own firearms."
This follows the genocide paradigm on a smaller scale.  In this case, the killings are too few to be a statistic, not too many to be a terrible tragedy (to paraphrase Joseph Stalin). We feel the pain of public shootings more intimately than a genocide lost in history, because they are more intimate.  We can watch each parent cry on TV and cry along with them.  We can read the notes that the small children wrote to their parents that they would meet them in heaven as tears well up in our eyes.  Anything but this, we say.  Anything but this, I say.

But then I dry my eyes and realize that the similarity is striking.  Unarmed people are sitting ducks, whether for populations of millions or for a building full of school children and unarmed teachers, administrators and other workers.  Predators are attracted to the easiest prey: the sick, the weak, the old, and the unarmed.  School-zone mass shootings didn’t begin until after passing Clinton’s Gun Free Schools Act. The gun-free zone designation is a giant neon sign to the predator: "We're here and helpless. Kill us."  And killed they were.

So the choices are: take weapons away from predators or arm as many people as possible so there's a chance of defense against the predators.  The former seems impossible.  Building guns is not rocket science. Even if every gun magically were confiscated, anyone with minimum determination could build one and each day it gets easier and easier to do so.

That leaves arming as many people as possible.  School teachers should be heavily encouraged to get concealed carry permits.  They should be reimbursed for training to use those weapons.  Same with administrators and even janitors.

But in the end it is a judgment call, a matter of opinion.  I'm not risk adverse, I value individual freedom and responsibility heavily, I don't trust governments, and I'm wildly skeptical that any form of gun control will substantially reduce access to guns by criminals and psychopaths.  If someone else believes the opposite on most or all of these things, they're likely to reach the opposite conclusion.

Since the process is incremental in either direction, there will be more mass killings, more tragedies and more tears.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Minimum Wage Arithmetic

A recent article in the Economist discusses minimum wage laws.  Some representative excerpts about the current state of empirical evidence include:  "... minimum wage has done little or no harm..." and "... a moderate minimum wage probably does not do much harm and may do some good...".

This hardly seem like a ringing endorsement of minimum wage laws to me.  I interpret the article as basically saying that this particular government intrusion and loss of freedom at best has little effect other than to increase the size and power of government and limit freedom of the populace.

While that seems like a bad thing to me, many are thrilled to know that their favored approach of having the government do as much as possible is probably not going to screw things up too badly in this particular instance.  The Economist, for example, seems quite happy with minimum wage laws.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Barbarism and Tolerance

Richard Fernandez describes a couple of events in far reaches of the world (Tunisia and the Philippines) and concludes that barbarism is at least partly made possible by tolerance.

Possibly that is because moderation itself — with its emphasis on tolerance and rational cogitation — is vulnerable to violence in ways that the raw human instinct is not.  The moderate Tunisians are far too well mannered to act against extremists. Like tolerant people the world over, they withhold judgment until the last. Their moment of presentiment never happens; rational thought is retrospective to start with and the decision point may come not at all.

The basic man still has some advantages over the supreme intellectual in the immediate face of danger. What saved [some people] was not their education or refinement. It was the memory of living in dangerous places and the instincts formed thereby. ... education as much as anything else, prepared many Jews to voluntarily walk into the gates of Auschwitz. They could not conceive of something as awful, as barbarous as that death camp, even as they passed it portals. Only the men who had seen others at their worst could perceive the danger and ready themselves to resist what rational man could not apprehend.
He explains in more detail (In the comments):
It is fundamentally a good thing to be tolerant and civilized. But in order for civilization to work, barbarism must be constantly kept at bay. In the state of nature tolerance is repaid with death. Hence, it is the duty of the King’s Justice to keep totalitarian influences in check in order to preserve the luxury of civility. You need a fund of safety in order to afford to be decent. Run out of safety and you run out of civility.
Tolerance spent wastefully may eventually so empower extremists that it will destroy the tolerance itself in the long run. So while tolerance is good it must shelter beneath a roof through which the rain must never pour.
Barbarism was defeated so thoroughly 70 years ago that most of the Western World think it is just a boogeyman story; something that never existed except in the stories of old people to scare children today. They feel so secure they can’t comprehend the dangers of letting the plague get a foothold again. It is unfortunate they cannot conceive of the Design Margin running out.
In Michigan today, barbarism reared its ugly head.  In addition to a union thug punching out conservative comedian Steven Crowder at a protest, the crowd pulled down a tent and began walking across without knowing whether or not people were left inside the tent.  If there had been people inside, they would've been killed.

We're seeing more violent protests like this one in the west and in the United States.  Violent mobs that don't meet violent resistance and/or rapid retribution and punishment for their violence are likely to embolden others who have a penchant and/or use for violence, possibly causing violence, intimidation, and terrorism to snowball.  Like the moderate Tunisians, conservatives in the west may also be too well mannered to resist effectively.  The curse of interesting times may be rapidly approaching.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Employer of Last Resort

Businesses are subjected to lots of constraints such as competition, regulation, and taxes for example.  Each of the constraints renders certain activities either unprofitable or unable to provide an adequate return on investment to be viable.  That's how the world works and it's no big deal.

From the perspective of a business, a minimum wage law falls in that category.  It makes certain activities not worth doing because the value that potential employees could provide does not provide an adequate return after taking the wages required by the minimum wage law into account.  Again, no big deal, just another constraint.

However, from the perspective of an unskilled and inexperienced person who cannot provide adequate value to justify being paid the minimum wage, minimum wage laws are egregiously unfair.  The minimum wage law says to that person, "you may not work for anybody, any time, under any circumstances since no rational business person can justify hiring you at the required wage".

One way to rectify this situation is to have the government offer employment to all takers at or somewhat below the minimum wage.  That way the incredible imposition of the minimum wage law on the unskilled worker is mitigated by providing employment in the public sector.  The concept is that the government becomes the "Employer of Last Resort" (ELR). 

As you can probably tell, I personally am strongly opposed to minimum wage laws because of their severe oppression of young, unskilled workers.  However, given that we're probably stuck with them, having an ELR sounds almost reasonable to me.  There have been some experiments with this sort of thing (for example, one in Britain), and the results haven't been terrible.

Nonetheless, I think the concept is very dangerous.

The problem I have with it is that setting it up puts us one very short step away from all out communism.  All a regime has to do once an ELR mechanism is in place is to begin raising the minimum wage.  This would cause layoffs requiring an expansion of the ELR program.  Further incremental increases in the minimum wage would drive even more workers out of the private sector into the ELR program.

The ELR program would need capital equipment, other assets, and an ever growing management structure to successfully employ the workers and would end up inefficiently producing ever more goods and services.   Eventually, this would drive the vast majority of companies out of business and we'd all end up working for the government and that'd be the end of history.

Saturday, December 01, 2012

Might Makes Right: Marauding Bandits

Marauding bandits use violence or the threat of violence to steal and then use the resulting gains for whatever they fancy.  While marauding bandits are generally considered immoral, the legend of Robin Hood shows that marauding bandits are not universally considered inherently immoral, since Robin Hood and His Merry Men were nothing if not marauding bandits*.  In the case of Robin Hood, it seems that the ends can justify the means if the bandits take from those who are rich and/or not well-liked and/or not particularly innocent and the bandits give at least part of the plunder to the poor or other "deserving" group or cause (I suspect they kept most of the loot for themselves - that's why they were merry, or as Robin Hood sings in the animated film "Shrek", "I steal from the rich and give to the needy, I take a wee percentage, but I'm not greedy").  The tales of Robin Hood and other similar stories and legends transform Marauding Banditry from being immoral and despicable into at least sometimes being honorable and even heroic.

From a sheep's perspective, a shepherd and a wolf have a lot in common and they both look like marauding bandits.  One fleeces you and eats your young (and maybe you) and the other eats you and your young.  The sheep might be somewhat grateful to the shepherd for protecting it from the wolf, but that protection comes with a cost and if the shepherd is particularly incompetent or bad, the sheep might be better off with just the wolf.  The primary difference is that the shepherd is more powerful than the wolf and might makes right so "shepherd" has a good connotation while "wolf" has a bad one.

A government has many things in common with marauding bandits.  Both use violence or the threat of violence to take from those too weak to resist and use the resulting gains for whatever they fancy. "Government" generally has a better connotation than "bandit", but from the perspective of the populace, the government may actually be worse than bandits because the populace at least has a prayer of protecting themselves from bandits while the might of the government is overwhelming.  It's a popular notion that the government provides benefits that couldn't otherwise be obtained by the populace, while the bandit does not, but this notion assumes that the populace could not provide those benefits for themselves.  This notion seems unlikely to me, since the government is comprised of people - the same people that make up the populace, so it's unclear why those same people in government would suddenly be able to provide those benefits.

Each of us has some shepherd, wolf, and sheep in us.  Each of us is tempted to be part of the government to shepherd (and take from) others to do those things we think should be done (i.e. that which we fancy), each of us is tempted to swindle, loot, beg, borrow, or steal and play the part of the wolf, and each of us is consigned to live in society and play the part of the sheep.  In the end, each of us is going to attempt to maximise our power and the power of those people and things that are important to us by playing our roles as best we can.

* Depending on exactly which version of the folklore of Robin Hood one is considering.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Assimilation Anecdote

My ancestors all came from Eastern Europe from what is now Poland, Belarus/Lithuania, and western Russia.  English was not the first language for three out of four of my grandparents.

By the time I came along, none of them had any foreign accent at all.  It was very important to them to adopt the language and culture of their new home when they immigrated here and they worked very hard at speaking English with perfect fluency and no accent.  They felt that opportunity, success and perhaps even survival were dependent on it.

I never once heard any of my grandparents speak anything but English (except for Hebrew during religious services).  In fact, it never occurred to me that they even knew another language.

Apparently, that they might know other languages never occurred to my sister either.  My sister is nine years younger than I am and when she was around four years old she was staying for a few days at our grandmother's house.  My grandmother received a call (extremely rare) from family back in Lithuania, and since the other party didn't speak any English, she began speaking Lithuanian (her native tongue).

My sister completely freaked out.  She had only ever heard grandma speak English and all of the sudden grandma was spewing forth what sounded like bizarre gibberish to my little sister.  My sister got really scared that something was seriously wrong with grandma and started crying and it took a while to get her to calm down.

That shows the extent to which my grandparents completely rejected their heritage and completely adopted as many aspects as they could of the United States.  You would never guess that they were immigrants.

The melting pot worked.

Now, the emphasis is on multiculturalism.  Immigrants and children of immigrants are encouraged to keep their language and culture.  They're not encouraged to assimilate.  Member of their group, sorted by culture, first; citizen of the United States second (or possibly third behind religious affiliation).

We'll see where that takes us, but as we seem to become ever more polarized and fractured, I wonder if that's part of the reason.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Breaking: CFTC Shuts Down Intrade in US

You've got to be kidding me.

From the Commodity Futures Trading Commission website:
Washington, DC – The U.S. Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) today filed a civil complaint in federal district court in Washington, DC, charging Intrade The Prediction Market Limited (Intrade) and Trade Exchange Network Limited (TEN), Irish companies based in Dublin, Ireland, with offering commodity option contracts to U.S. customers for trading, as well as soliciting, accepting, and confirming the execution of orders from U.S. customers, all in violation of the CFTC’s ban on off-exchange options trading. ...
Why aren't prediction markets a form of free speech?

Update: Harry Eagar points out that Intrade claims that it will be back shortly with a U.S. compliant platform.

HT: Marginal Revolution

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Resilience and Collapse

In 1992, Francis Fukuyama famously claimed that we're at "The End of History" because the "struggle between ideologies is largely at an end".  While not everyone agrees with Fukuyama's assessment, the end of history implies that western civilization will also have no end and will continue forever.  Forever is a long time, but perhaps the end of history could mean that the span of our current civilization might be measured in tens of millennia instead of the tens of decades that have measured the length of every civilization that began and ended before this one.

On the other hand, many scholars, including Joseph Tainter ("The Collapse of Complex Societies") and Mancur Olson ("The Rise and Decline of Nations") identify powerful forces inherent in the formation of civilizations that sow the seeds for the decline and eventual collapse of the extended order.

Civilization is a society that surpasses a minimum level of complexity where complexity is, according to Tainter, "generally understood to refer to such things as the size of a society, the number and distinctiveness of its parts, the variety of specialized social roles that it incorporates, the number of distinct social personalities present, and the variety of mechanisms for organizing these into a coherent, functioning whole. Augmenting any of these dimensions increases the complexity of a society."

Complexity is created in order to solve problems according to Tainter.  The main problem is to support ever more people with ever more material comfort but also includes problems such as competition and warfare.

Complexity has a cost.  Layers of management, analysis, research, and other functions are required, none of which directly produce anything but each layer requires energy and resources.  At this level, these resource are the same, in theory, whether or not they are part of private or public institutions.

At first the benefits of the added complexity far outweigh the costs.  For example, the minimal complexity needed to go from hunter/gatherer tribes to an agrarian society increase human edible food per acre by a large multiple without adding all that much cost.

But eventually, the incremental level of innovation and specialization to increase prosperity and/or populations or even maintain them at current levels in the face of decreasing natural resources per capita becomes ever more difficult and costly.  According to Tainter, once this diminishing marginal return for additional complexity is surpassed by the impact of declining resources, the civilization begins to decline.

During the decline, the civilization is less able to deal with new adversity and eventually a problem that might have been trivial to overcome a few decades or centuries earlier, becomes catastrophic and the civilization collapses.  In other words, the civilization becomes increasingly less resilient after complexity increases beyond a certain point and becomes unable to respond adequately to a wider range of shocks and events.

Collapse also has a specific definition in this context.  Collapse is the rapid simplification of society.  In other words, the society loses much or all of its complexity in a relatively short period of time, where the time frame is typically less than a couple of generations.  A great simplification is sometimes associated with a greatly reduced population, but not always - if the cost of maintaining the complexity prior to the collapse far outweighed the benefits, the population can be better off and better fed after the collapse.

Tainter's models are based on resource depletion.  All of the numerous civilizations he studied were ultimately unable to maintain even the status quo as the resources available given the technology of the era diminished on a per capita basis.

We're probably not terribly near the diminished resource per capita wall yet, and we probably won't be there for decades or centuries.  At least not according to Julian Simon who has been fairly accurate in his many predictions so far:
“Our supplies of natural resources are not finite in any economic sense. Nor does past experience give reason to expect natural resources to become more scarce. Rather, if history is any guide, natural resources will progressively become less costly, hence less scarce, and will constitute a smaller proportion of our expenses in future years.”
So maybe our current civilization is safe for a while, or at least won't collapse due to lack of resources.  Let's turn to the individual nations that make up our civilization.  Here we need to consider the structure of socio-economic complexity.  This is where Mancur Olson's work (and also the work of Public Choice Theorists) is important:
"The idea is that small distributional coalitions tend to form over time in countries. Groups like cotton-farmers, steel-producers, and labor unions will have the incentives to form lobby groups and influence policies in their favor. These policies will tend to be protectionist and anti-technology, and will therefore hurt economic growth; but since the benefits of these policies are selective incentives concentrated amongst the few coalitions members, while the costs are diffused throughout the whole population, the "Logic" dictates that there will be little public resistance to them. Hence as time goes on, and these distributional coalitions accumulate in greater and greater numbers, the nation burdened by them will fall into economic decline."
The burden imposed by the  lobby groups described by Olson has a similar effect to the burden of reduced resources per capita described by Tainter.  They both increase the cost and decrease the benefit derived from increasing complexity while decreasing the resilience of society.  The difference is that resource limitations may be a civilization-wide constraint (if Julian Simon is wrong) while the sclerosis Olson identified is primarily (but not completely) associated with governments within a nation state.  As a result, nation states can collapse without bringing the surrounding civilization down with them.

Perhaps even the United States could collapse without dragging the rest of western civilization down with it.  However, there's tremendous risk if the United States collapses because of a number of factors:

  • As sclerotic and fragile as the United States government and economy are getting to be, most of the other governments that comprise western civilization are even worse - a US collapse could easily be the first domino to fall taking a slew of other countries with it;
  • All bets are off regarding Simon's prediction of essentially infinite resources if the drivers of innovation in the US and other western countries suddenly find themselves without a functioning society in which they can continue to innovate putting civilization solidly into Tainter's reduced resources per capita state of decline coupled with the chaos of one or several non-functioning nations;
  • Efficiency via specialization and resilience are often opposites and therefore the efficiencies gained by specialization within the global order can become an Achilles Heel when one or more nations collapse - an example was the 2011 Japanese tsunami (not all that huge of a natural disaster) that damaged global automobile production for months.

The last point deserves more elaboration.  In the short term, resilience is increased by redundancy since if a resource becomes unavailable a redundant resource can be used instead.  Redundancy is generally the opposite of efficiency as it implies either resources that are typically not used or at least not optimized for a specific use so they can be used for multiple functions.  Specialization generally increases efficiency since each component is optimized for its task but reduces redundancy and resilience since the component isn't as easily available for alternative uses.

However, in the bigger picture, in the longer time frame, efficiency in a complex society may increase overall resilience because it enables more rapid growth of knowledge, experience, and wealth which may be called upon to mitigate the impact of adverse events.  So efficiency can increase resilience in dealing with slow decline but can decrease resilience relative to short-term shocks or rapid collapse.

Centralization of resource and/or the management and control over those resources generally reduces resilience.  In addition to Olson's insight regarding the burdens of special interests that are both inherent to a central government and more easily extracted from the concentrated target represented by a large, centralized entity, damage to the command and control of the centralized entity is more difficult to recover from than a decentralized, redundant decision making regime.  Examples* include large and centralized mainframe servers versus the Internet (for which the primary design criteria was to be fault tolerant and resilient) and cloud computing; a single large distribution center for a given commodity such as gasoline which could cause grave problems in the case of failure or attack versus multiple production and distribution centers run by different organization and spread out in terms of geography; a single monopoly producing a product where poor and wasteful decisions can lead to both inefficiency and catastrophic failure of that market versus a vibrant competitive market with many companies involved where poor decisions lead to bankruptcy of some with the recycling of the associated resources but the probability of at least some companies making good decisions is increased; and so forth.

Yet in certain cases, centralization of resource can add to resilience.  In addition to obvious cases like defense, the re-insurance market with governments being the insurer of last resort comes to mind.  This alleviates the need for small communities and even entire regions to produce adequate savings to fund their entire redevelopment should catastrophe strike (note that this doesn't imply that the central government should be involved in actually performing disaster relief and redevelopment - only that it be able to make the resources, in this case money, available for disaster relief and redevelopment).

Overall, it's clear to me that the debate about whether or not various functions being performed by a central government make a society more or less resilient is going to be split along ideological lines with Libertarians and Conservatives claiming that virtually everything done by government makes society less resilient and Statists and Collectivists claiming the exact opposite.  But the framework above allows everybody to think through the different possibilities and come up with their own conclusions.

I've been thinking about the rise and fall of civilizations because I've encountered quite a number of libertarian/conservative/republican blogs and websites panicking about Obama's reelection because they are certain that collapse is now imminent for the United States and even Western Civilization:  "The Titanic is sinking" (where the Titanic is the United States) in a post by one of Instapundit's recent co-bloggers, Sarah Hoyt; "piling up our own funeral pyre" in an article by Roger Kimball (who was predicting a Romney landslide - oops!); etc.

Nothing has changed.  Same President, same Republican House (more or less), and the Senate is still run by Democrats and the level of sclerosis due to lobbying probably won't accelerate much due to split government.  We have stable or expanding exploitable resources per capita (with the exception of helium) so we're not a lot closer the style of collapse described by Tainter.  In my analysis, while we may well be getting ever less resilient, the process is very slow and near term collapse isn't much more likely than it was before the election.  Obamacare was and continues to be a large unknown and might easily make our health care system brittle, but as a society, we can probably easily survive that even if it's horrendously bad for individuals.

My advice?  Stop worrying, relax and enjoy life!

*Thank you readers for the examples!

Monday, November 19, 2012

Searching for Resilience

I'm trying to write a post on resilience, complexity, and (perhaps) self-organizing criticality and I'm looking for an example of a complex system that is or can be objectively made more resilient by decentralization.  I've done a google search and haven't found anything I like.

Anybody have any ideas?

Friday, November 09, 2012

Media Divergence

This dialog in the comments of a recent Great Guys post ("Congrats to Romney") has been enlightening to me.  The dialog involves a discussion of an event where Romney is helping deliver water to hurricane victims and allegedly ignored questions from reporters about his views regarding eliminating FEMA.

Loyal Great Guys commenter Harry Eagar sees Romney ignoring reporters while delivering water to hurricane victims as cowardice.  That's what Harry sees and those Harry associates with and writes for apparently see it the exact same way.

I look at the same event and see Romney as reasonably and perhaps even wisely ignoring the reporters and that his actions of working to deliver water were at worst somewhat staged to help his campaign and at best an honorable thing to do (and most likely a mix of the two).

While Harry and I often or even usually disagree, I can usually at least understand why Harry sees and thinks what he does.

In this case, I cannot.  I simply cannot look at the event described by Harry and see cowardice and dishonor in Romney.  I can see from the non-liberal commenters here that they cannot see cowardice and dishonor either.

It's becoming clear to me that there will ultimately be a liberal media for liberals and a conservative media for conservatives.  As this dialog has shown, I can't reliably glean any information from the liberal media.  And I know my liberal friends try and fail to ever get useful information from conservative media (fox news, townhall, etc.).

This media divergence is leading to hundreds of millions of Americans being completely unable and unwilling to communicate with each other excepts to shout epithets at each other when forced to interact.  Conservatives will only interact with conservatives, work with conservatives, and buy and sell from conservatives.  For example, I read a story where a business owner fired everybody with an Obama sticker on their car after the election.  Liberals already play the same game (conservatives rarely are able to get tenure at universities, for example) and the trend will intensify.  This will essentially be a cold civil war between liberals and conservatives.

I doubt there's a solution.  When people can't communicate, they can't interact, and they can't solve problems.

The one hope is forums like this one.  As long as we try to understand each other, though often failing, at least there's a chance.

Thursday, November 08, 2012

Empowering, Sustaining, and Efficiency Innovations

Clayton Christensen, a Harvard business professor and author of "The Innovator's Dilemma" recently had a very interesting article in the NY Times.  He refines Schmupeter's Creative Destruction characterization of the economy into empowering, sustaining, and efficiency innovations where empowering innovations mostly generate new economic activity and employment, efficiency innovations liberate capital but reduce employment, and sustaining innovations have little effect on employment though they do increase wealth over time.  To create new jobs, one should therefore focus on empowering innovations.

He makes a second point as well: most government policy and private investment approaches were formulated when capital was extremely scarce.  Something has clearly changed in that the Fed is creating huge sums of money yet people are just sitting on the cash and not investing.  This implies that capital itself isn't nearly as scarce as it once was and that the policies and strategies of yesteryear no longer apply.  He makes some policy suggestions to push investors towards empowering innovations.

Definitely an interesting and well written read.

Wednesday, November 07, 2012

Congrats to Romney

No, you didn't misread the title and I didn't mistype it.  I mean it.

From my observations not only is Romney a pretty good guy who ran a pretty decent campaign (not flawless, but hey, nobody's perfect), he made this election a real and clear choice for the american people between ever increasing government "solutions" (spending) with reduced liberty (especially for the productive class) versus more limited government reach with more reliance on private sector and community based solutions.  For that, I believe Romney deserves a great deal of credit.

It was a clear choice and Americans clearly chose (though it was fairly close).

Now we know clearly what the game is and now we can optimize how we play the game given that we know what the rules are.  We can also guide our children (and descendants in general) to play the game as best possible.

Resilience and flexibility are the keys to surviving and thriving in any complex system and the political environment going forward is no exception.

Sorry about slow comment moderation

For some reason, blogger is identifying some of aog's and harry's comments as spam.  Unfortunately, I've been out of town a lot and have been slow to notice them in the "waiting for moderation" mailbox.

I apologize profusely for not keeping up with comments and appreciate all of your support.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

We're All Education Experts

Well, perhaps not experts at education, but if you're reading this, you're at minimum fairly experienced at learning.  If nothing else, you learned a language and how to read that language.  You've probably learned the meaning of tens of thousands of words in that language so that, all by itself, is some pretty impressive learning.

Along the way, many people assisted (or attempted to assist) that learning.  Some of them may have had positive effect, others may have had negative effect, but I'd bet that most had limited effect.  Yet nearly all of those that were "officially" involved in your education are likely to believe they were absolutely critical to your success in being able to learn a language and read.

I find it very unlikely that most educators make much of a difference at all since nearly everyone who has normal brain function learns a language and learns to read whether or not they have good teachers, bad teachers, multiple teachers, or no teachers (e.g. home-schooled).  They learn to read whether or not the school they go to is well funded or poorly funded.  They learn to read whether they dream of becoming a writer or whether they're content to play video games for the rest of their lives.

Learning is an innate human behavior.

No doubt you'll take exception with at least a little bit of what I've written above.  You've likely had a teacher or two that you thought were great.  Perhaps they were inspirational, perhaps they really did make it easier for you to learn something, or perhaps they just made learning fun.  I'm not claiming none of that is possible, only that you probably would've at least learned things like language and reading even if you never had those teachers.

I studied education and learning at one point and even have a chapter in a book about education.  What I've concluded after studying, observing, and thinking about learning for years, is that with one critically important exception, almost nothing makes much of a difference in how much a child learns.  After accounting for that exception (which is very difficult), intelligence, IQ, teachers, education funding, government policy, teaching methods, etc. all have relatively minuscule effect, at least for fundamental skills such as basic language and reading.

The things that matters, indeed the only thing that really matters from my observations, is the parents' attitude and familial attitude towards learning.

I don't just mean that Pops say, "you'll do me proud if you learn real good."  It's rather that the parents are into learning themselves.  As a result, they read to their children all the time starting at a young age.  They play counting games like counting the number of lights in a tunnel while driving.  They'll talk about the world and the universe and gravity and the planets and engines and heat and leaders and history and on and on and on.  They show curiosity and instill that curiosity in their children.

Then their children are good at learning.  Nothing else much matters.

I read an instapundit post that the French were banning homework with great bemusement this morning:
As Education Minister Vincent Peillon told Le Monde, the state needs to “support all students in their personal work, rather than abandon them to their private resources, including financial, as is too often the case today.” The problem, in other words, isn’t with homework per se. It’s that some homes are more conducive to homework than others.
But this is exactly right in an upside-down sort of way.  The children with parents who don't much care about learning have an overwhelming disadvantage in doing homework.  Of course they also have an overwhelming disadvantage in all things educational.

So ultimately, we'll have to follow Swift's Lilliput and take all children from their parents at birth in order to ensure that "No Child Gets Ahead".

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

My Voting Recommendation

I know you've been waiting for this monumental moment - the moment when I give my recommendation as to which candidate you should vote for to be the next president of the United States.

What's that?  You weren't waiting for this moment?  That this moment might come hadn't even crossed your mind?


Well, in that case I won't give an explicit recommendation, just some ideas to consider.

First and foremost: RELAX!!!!!

Regardless of who wins, the economy is NOT going to suddenly rocket forward, the oceans are NOT going to stop rising, the planet will NOT begin to heal, and the problems of the world will NOT suddenly be resolved.  The president has very little real influence on any of these things as they are far bigger and more complex than anyone can understand, much less control in any sort of predictable fashion.

Second, be careful what you wish for.  For those of you who are sure that the world will end if your candidate doesn't win, what happens if he does win and the economy continues to suck and the world continues to fall apart for the next four years?  Then what?  Won't the brand of your preferred candidate's party be badly or even irreparably damaged?  I think there is some serious downside for the winning party - more so than in any other election in my lifetime.

Third, if you live in a State where the result is already known (like California that will go to Obama no matter what and Kansas that will go to Romney no matter what), why not consider a 3rd party candidate?  It's true that the 3rd party candidates are usually pretty lame but you're not really voting for the candidate, you're showing interest in alternatives to the main parties.  And sometimes the candidates are almost plausible.  For example, Gary Johnson, this election's libertarian candidate, was a State governor (New Mexico) and could almost be an okay President.

Fourth: RELAX!!!!  Oh, did I say that already?

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Great Quote

"Surveying the ruins of industrial America Hanson notes elsewhere that “Hiroshima looks a lot better today than does Detroit”, raising the interesting possibility that recovering from a nuclear blast may be possible or at least a lot more likely than surviving terminally stupid political projects." --Richard Fernandez, The Past Future Tense

Sunday, August 12, 2012

The new Roger Kimball book

I recently read The Fortunes of Permanence: Culture and Anarchy in an Age of Amnesia by Roger Kimball.
Anyone familiar with his work knows that he is tremendously knowledgeable and a terrific writer.  He does not disappoint.

This review by Bruce Thornton gives a good overview of the book:
Roger Kimball has long been one of America’s most learned commentators on intellectual history, contemporary politics, fine art, and architecture. Longtime editor of The New Criterion and more recently publisher of Encounter Books, Kimball authored two of the best exposés of the left-wing corruption of the American university: Tenured Radicals and The Long March. The 21 essays in Kimball’s new book, The Fortunes of Permanence, cover a remarkable range of topics: relativism, multiculturalism, radical egalitarianism, the enduring importance of tradition, the delusions of socialism, “democratic despotism,” the dangers of sentimental “benevolence,” and the cultural significance of the terrorist attacks of 9/11. The essays also discuss a wide variety of individual writers: those unfairly demonized, like Rudyard Kipling; those insufficiently well known, like Leszek Kołakowski, Richard Weaver, and James Burnham; and those familiar yet still worthy of explication and reconsideration, like G. K. Chesterton and Friedrich Hayek.
 Kimball’s survey articulates his two great themes. The first is the need to battle what he has elsewhere called “cultural amnesia”; the struggle requires recovering the great thinkers and writers of the past, “the salient figures whose works helped weave the great unfolding tapestry of our civilization” but “whose voices have been drowned out by the demotic inanities of pop culture or embalmed by the dead hand of the academy.” Second is the importance of “discrimination,” or what Kimball calls “the gritty job of intellectual and cultural trash collector,” in which one identifies and disposes of the faddish and politicized ephemera that make up most of the art and writing celebrated by the bien-pensant elite.
Kimball’s “anatomy of servitude,” as he calls it—his analysis of cultural, educational, and political degeneration—doesn’t end on a Spenglerian note of inevitable decline. Such determinism would contradict the celebration of human freedom that recurs throughout these essays. We can choose a different course, and we have the resources to do so.
"Intellectual and cultural trash collector" is a pretty good description of the task of debunking so much of what I now call Postmodernist dreck.  The failure to grasp the intellectual embarrassment entailed in such ideas is part of the problem.  Perhaps it is of less consequence than the power lust that promotes such nonsense. 

What follows, for your enjoyment,  are excerpts from two of the essays included in the book:

First, from   Leszek Kolakowski & the anatomy of totalitarianism :
No, Marxism has been as wrong as it is possible for a theory to be wrong. Addicted to “the self-deification of mankind,” it continually bears witness to what Kolakowski calls “the farcical aspect of human bondage.” Why then was Marxism like moral catnip—not so much among its proposed beneficiaries, the working classes, but among the educated elite? Well, beguiling simplicity was part of it. “One of the causes of the popularity of Marxism among educated people,” Kolakowski notes, “was the fact that in its simple form it was very easy.” Marxism—like Freudianism, like Darwinism, like Hegelianism—is a “one key fits all locks” philosophy.  All aspects of human experience can be referred to the operation of a single all-governing process which thereby offers the illusion of universal explanation.

Marxism also spoke powerfully to mankind’s unsatisfied utopian impulses. How imperfect a construct is capitalist society: how much conflict does it abet, how many desires does it leave unsatisfied! Can we not imagine a world beyond those tensions and conflicts in which we could realize our full human potential without competition, without scarcity, without want? Sure, we can imagine it, but there is a reason that “utopia” means “nowhere.”
Of course, it is not just to mankind’s spiritual cravings that Marxism appeals. It also speaks to its inherent thuggishness. This cannot be emphasized too much. These days, Stalin and Stalinism are in bad odor. We forget the romance that Western intellectuals indulged for this mass murderer.  We also tend to overlook the fact that thuggishness is an integral, not an accidental, feature of Marxism.
To be an anatomist of totalitarianism is also to be a connoisseur of freedom, its many beguiling counterfeits as well as its genuine aspirations.The question—the lure, the never fulfilled but inescapable promise—of freedom stands at the center of much of Kolakowski’s work.
Part of what makes Kolakowski’s reflections on freedom and its vicissitudes so fruitful is his understanding that human freedom is inextricably tied to a recognition of limits, which in the end involves a recognition of the sacred.This has been a leitmotif of his work from the beginning. In The Alienation of Reason (1966), he criticizes positivism as “an attempt to consolidate science as a self-sufficient activity, which exhausts all the possible ways of appropriating the world intellectually.”

In “Man Does Not Live by Reason Alone” (1991), Kolakowski argues that “mankind can never get rid of the need for religious self-identification: who am I, where did I come from, where do I fit in, why am I responsible, what does my life mean, how will I face death? Religion is a paramount aspect of human culture. Religious need cannot be ex-communicated from culture by rationalist incantation. Man does not live by reason alone.” He shows how the tendency to believe that all human problems have a technical solution is an unfortunate inheritance from the Enlightenment—“even,” he notes, “from the best aspects of the Enlightenment: from its struggle against intolerance, self-complacency, superstitions, and uncritical worship of tradition.” There is much about human life that is not susceptible to human remedy or intervention. Our allegiance to the ideal of unlimited progress is, paradoxically, a dangerous moral limitation that is closely bound up with what Kolakowski calls the loss of the sacred. “With the disappearance of the sacred,” he writes,
which imposed limits to the perfection that could be attained by the profane, arises one of the most dangerous illusions of our civilization—the illusion that there are no limits to the changes that human life can undergo, that society is “in principle” an endlessly flexible thing, and that to deny this flexibility and this perfectibility is to deny man’s total autonomy and thus to deny man himself.
These are wise words, grippingly pertinent to an age conjuring with the immense technological novelties of cloning, genetic engineering, and other Promethean temptations. We pride ourselves today on our “openness” and commitment to liberal ideals, our empathy for other cultures, and our sophisticated understanding that our way of viewing the world is, after all, only our way of viewing the world. But Kolakowski reminds us that, without a prior commitment to substantive values—to an ideal of the good and (just as important) an acknowledgment of evil—openness threatens to degenerate into vacuousness. Given the shape of our post-Soviet, technologically infatuated world, perhaps it is that admonition, even more than his heroic demolition of Marxism, for which Leszek Kolakowski will be honored in the decades to come.
Oh, the misery unleashed by the unconstrained vision!

The final essay is   The Anglosphere & the future of liberty:
English, Bishop Sprat thought, is conspicuously the friend of empirical truth. It is also conspicuously the friend of liberty. Andrew Roberts, reflecting on the pedigree of certain ideas in the lexicon of freedom, notes that such key phrases as “liberty of conscience” (1580), “civil liberty” (1644, a Miltonic coinage), and “liberty of the press” (1769) were first expressed in English. Why is it that English-speaking countries produced Adam Smith and John Locke, David Hume and James Madison, but not Hegel, Marx, or Foucault? “The tongue and the philosophy are not unrelated,” the philologist Robert Claiborne writes in The Life and Times of the English Language. “Both reflect the ingrained Anglo-American distrust of unlimited authority, whether in language or in life.”
 I have nothing by way of an explanation for this filiation between the English language and the habit of liberty. I merely note its existence. Alan Macfarlane, in his classic Origins of English Individualism (1978), shows that the habit is far older than we have been taught to believe. According to the Marxist narrative, individualism is a “bourgeois construct” whose motor belongs to the eighteenth-century. Macfarlane shows that, on the contrary, “since at least the thirteenth century England has been a country where the individual has been more important than the group.” “Peasant” was a term the English used about others but not themselves. Why? Macfarlane locates the answer in the presence of a market economy, an “individualistic pattern of ownership,” and strong recourse to local initiative that were prominent features of English life at least since 1250. “In many respects,” he writes, “England had probably long been different from almost every other major agrarian society we know.”
The anatomy of servitude, which bulks large in what follows, tells a depressing story. But it is not all of the story. Even the “apocalyptic” Mark Steyn points to the way out. He is quite right that “you cannot wage a sustained ideological assault on your own civilization without profound consequence.” We’ve had the assault and we are living with the consequences. He is also right that “without serious course correction, we will see the end of the Anglo-American era, and the eclipse of the powers that built the modern world.” The hopeful part of that prediction comes in the apodosis: the course may still be corrected. As Hayek noted about his own dire diagnosis: “The consequences can of course be averted if that spirit reasserts itself in time.” There are, I believe, two main sources of hope. One lies in the past, in the depth and strength of the Anglosphere’s traditional commitment to individual freedom and local initiative against the meddlesome intrusion of any central authority. “The future is unknowable,” said Churchill, “but the past should give us hope.” The Anglosphere, James Bennett writes, “is not a fragile hothouse flower that can be easily uprooted and disappear forever.”

The second main ground for hope lies in the present and immediate future. In the United States, anyway, we have lately witnessed a new “revolt of the masses,” different from, in fact more or less the opposite of, the socialistic eruption Ortega y Gasset limned in his famous essay on the subject. A specter is haunting America, the specter of freedom. What happened on November 2 was not an instance of business as usual in the world of partisan politics. It was stage one in the rejection of that business as usual: the big-government, top-down, elitist egalitarianism practiced by both major parties in the United States. I recently spoke on a cruise sponsored by National Review at which the pollster Scott Rasmussen observed that one thing November’s election demonstrated was that Americans do not want to be governed by Democrats or by Republicans: they want to govern themselves. If he is right—there’s that little word “if” again—the Anglosphere has a lot more mileage in it. Are things bad? Is it late? Yes, and yes again. But as Lord D’Abernon memorably put it, “An Englishman’s mind works best when it is almost too late.”
 Lovers of liberty(and dignity) can hope that his optimism is not misplaced and do their part to aid in such an outcome!

Tuesday, August 07, 2012

More damaging than he knows

Over at National Review Online    Reihan Salam links to three articles  inspired by the “You Didn’t Build That” remark of the President:
Yuval Levin argues that the president’s Roanoke speech illustrates a broader belief that doing things together means doing things through government. The mediating institutions between the individual and the state thus get short shrift in his worldview. This difference of opinion regarding the role of civil society represents, in Yuval’s view, a fundamental divide between the left and the right:

The Left tends to believe that the great advantage of our liberal society is that it enables the application of technical knowledge that can make our lives better, and that this knowledge can overcome our biggest problems. This is the technocratic promise of progressivism. The Right tends to believe that the great advantage of our liberal society is that it has evolved to channel deep social knowledge through free institutions — knowledge that often cannot be articulated in technical terms but is the most important knowledge we have. For the Left, therefore, the mediating institutions (and at times even our constitutional forms) are obstacles to the application of liberal knowledge. For the Right, the mediating institutions (and our constitutional forms) are the embodiment of liberal knowledge.

Earlier in the article Levin provides some interesting perspective:
This remarkable window into the president’s thinking shows us not only a man chilly toward the potential of individual initiative, and not only a man deluded about the nature of his opponents and their views, but also (and perhaps most important) a man with a staggeringly thin idea of common action in American life.
The president simply equates doing things together with doing things through government. He sees the citizen and the state, and nothing in between — and thus sees every political question as a choice between radical individualism and a federal program.
But most of life is lived somewhere between those two extremes, and American life in particular has given rise to unprecedented human flourishing because we have allowed the institutions that occupy the middle ground — the family, civil society, and the private economy — to thrive in relative freedom. Obama’s remarks in Virginia shed a bright light on his attitude toward that middle ground, and in that light a great deal of what his administration has done in this three and a half years suddenly grows clearer and more coherent, and even more disconcerting.
This attitude toward mediating institutions is by no means novel or unique to the Obama administration. It has been essential to the progressive cause for more than a century, and indeed has been an element of more radical strands of liberalism for far longer than that. As far back as 1791, Thomas Paine, in defending the French revolutionaries, complained of the distance that traditional institutions established between the citizen and the regime, which he described as an “artificial chasm [that] is filled up with a succession of barriers, or sort of turnpike gates, through which [the citizen] has to pass.”
Conservative voices have defended these mediating layers precisely for creating such barriers, which can guard the citizen from direct exposure to the searing power of the state. Alexis de Tocqueville celebrated America’s bewildering array of associations, institutions, and corporations of civil society for their ability to offer individual citizens some protection from the domineering sway of political majorities.
Edmund Burke, Paine’s great nemesis, argued that such mediating structures also express in their very forms the actual shape of our society — evolved over time out of affectionate sentiments, practical needs, and common aspirations. “We begin our public affections in our families,” Burke wrote. “We pass on to our neighborhoods, and our habitual provincial connections. These are inns and resting-places. Such divisions of our country as have been formed by habit, and not by a sudden jerk of authority, were so many little images of the great country in which the heart found something which it could fill.” To sweep them away and leave only the citizen and the state would rob society of its sources of warmth, loyalty, and affinity, and of the most effective means of enacting significant social improvements.
The second article mentioned here expresses conservative sentiments as follows:
Conservatives do have solutions. Our answer is not “no government”; our answer is a government that is more natural. Choice and diversity, if entrusted to people, require — and create — economic freedom. Conservatives need to learn the language of the environmental and civil-rights movements, not only because it is more marketable, but also because it more accurately reflects the organic liberty and self-government we cherish.

Our theme, our brand, our identity? How about this: Republicans are the not the party of a decaying, old, static, industrial-age, top-down government in Washington. We are the communications-age party of genuinely democratic, dynamic government — of, for, and by real people. We want to get money and power out of Washington and into the hands of the people — not because we want no government, but because we believe people who live in liberty create the best government when they are trusted to govern themselves. Ours is a purpose-driven populism, determined to change Washington, because if we do that, Americans can achieve anything in the world.

Fellow conservatives, let’s learn to say it: We need more government, lots of it, but we need the kind that actually works: Bottom-up self-government by a mature people. And we need that government in our hands — because it is not natural, efficient, or beneficial to leave something so powerful in the hands of anyone else.
Slapping down multicultural nonsense and relativism will be an essential part of restoring the ability for self-government.

The most poignant assessment of the remarks are here as provided by Virginia Postrel:
Although his supporters pooh-pooh the controversy, claiming the statement has been taken out of context and that he was referring only to public infrastructure, the full video isn’t reassuring. Whatever the meaning of “that” was, the president on the whole was clearly trying to take business owners down a peg. He was dissing their accomplishments. As my Bloomberg View colleague Josh Barro has written, “You don’t have to make over $250,000 a year to be annoyed when the president mocks people for taking credit for their achievements.”
 “Bourgeois Dignity” is both the title of a recent book by the economic historian Deirdre N. McCloskey and, she argues, the attitude that accounts for the biggest story in economic history: the explosion of growth that took northern Europeans and eventually the world from living on about $3 a day, give or take a dollar or two (in today’s buying power), to the current global average of $30 -- and much higher in developed nations.

 That change, she argues, is way too big to be explained by normal economic behavior, however rational, disciplined or efficient. Hence the book’s subtitle: “Why Economics Can’t Explain the Modern World.”

 Something bigger was at work. McCloskey’s explanation is that people changed the way they thought, wrote and spoke about economic activity. “In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries,” she writes, “a great shift occurred in what Alexis de Tocqueville called ‘habits of the mind’ -- or more exactly, habits of the lip. People stopped sneering at market innovativeness and other bourgeois virtues.” As attitudes changed, so did behavior, leading to more than two centuries of constant innovation and rising living standards.
 There had always been enough capital. What was different, she maintains, is how people thought about new ideas. Creative destruction became not only accepted but also encouraged, as did individual enterprise. “What made us rich,” she writes, “was a new rhetoric that was favorable to unbounded innovation, imagination, alertness, persuasion, originality, with individual rewards often paid in a coin of honor or thankfulness -- not individual accumulation restlessly stirring, or mere duty to a calling, which are ancient and routine and uncreative.”
McCloskey’s book is not only a useful survey of how scholars answer the biggest question in economics: What causes growth? It is also a timely reminder that prosperity depends on more than effort or resources or infrastructure or good laws. Attitudes matter, too. You don’t build a wealthy society by deriding bourgeois enterprise -- or the people who take pride in it.  
By trampling on bourgeois liberty and dignity, rhetorically and otherwise, the President has done more damage than he knows.  He has also revealed something important to anyone paying attention.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Making Guns Is Not Rocket Science

The aurora shooting has re-inflamed the gun-rights versus gun-control debate.  There's one part of the gun-control advocates' position that I've never understood.

Let's say that somehow, via legislation and enforcement, every single existing civilian gun was removed from the face of the earth, and all military and police weapons were perfectly safeguarded.

What on earth would stop people such as criminals from building their own guns?

Guns were invented hundreds of years ago.  Many very lethal versions are extremely low technology items.  They were specifically designed to be easily built with minimal equipment.

I just did a google search with the terms "build your own gun" and got 126,000,000 hits.  That's a lot of hits.

An example link shows detailed plans on how to build an AK-47 style machine gun (and/or fully automatic handgun) in 24 hours or less using parts available at Home Depot and the like and tools you have at home.  Sure, you might only get a few thousand rounds off with such a weapon before it falls apart, but for a criminal or rampaging psychopath, it will probably do just fine.

Willing to engage machine shops and get parts built according to CAD drawings freely available on the Internet?  Well, then it might take several days to get your gun built, but it will be as accurate and reliable as a professionally manufactured weapon, because, well, it is professionally manufactured - you're only doing the final assembly.  Use several machine shops for the different parts and nobody will have any idea what you're building.

There's just no way to rid the earth of guns without also ridding the earth of metal.  Criminals will always have unfettered access to them.

This makes the concept of gun-control to be so utterly pointless as to be absurd.

Update: Via Instapundit, forget the machine shops, just use a 3D printer to print the gun.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Internal Alien

Two hikers in the woods encounter a grizzly bear.  The first hiker starts putting on his running shoes.  The second hiker says, "Don't be silly, you can't outrun a grizzly bear."  The first hiker replies, "I don't have to outrun the grizzly, I only have to outrun YOU!"

I used to tell that joke moderately often.

My wife and I were riding our mountain bikes on a country road a few years back.  The ride had been scenic and uneventful when suddenly, this enormous and ferocious looking dog with red eyes, huge teeth dripping saliva, and malice emanating from head to tail came charging at us.  My wife is perfect in many ways, but being a fast bike rider is not one of them.  It was clear that there was no way she could go fast enough to get away from the dog.  She said the first thing to come to her mind was the above joke about the bear and knew that I could easily ride faster than her.

My experience was quite odd and I've never experienced anything like it before or since.  Something farther down my brain stem, something instinctive and primal, took complete control of my body.  My conscious self was suddenly along for the ride, not only having no control, but not even having any input.  I heard my voice yell, "Go! Go!" to my wife and watched myself position my bike directly between her and the dog in what was clearly a protective maneuver.  I was quite surprised and remember thinking, "I wonder what my body is going to do next?" as the dog closed in.

Fortunately, my wife under these particular circumstances is actually quite a fast bicyclist.  She accelerated her bicycle through the speed of sound nearly instantaneously and the resulting sonic boom left broken windows in three counties.  Her superhuman effort left me in the dust, but fortunately I was able to go fast enough to get out of the dog's range as well.

I don't tell the bear joke very often anymore.  That experience made it too close to home.

My wife thought I was pretty chivalrous.  I haven't bothered to mention that it wasn't "me" that was chivalrous, at least not the "me" that's writing this post or the "me" that she usually interacts with.  It was some internal alien that was chivalrous, a "Mr. Hyde"-like creature who is apparently encoded in my genes to emerge when my wife and perhaps other loved ones are in imminent danger.  We live pretty safe lives and that was the most danger in which I've ever seen any of my loved ones, so the alien has always been dormant except this one time.

One thing I read about the Aurora shooting that brought tears to my eyes was the following:
In final acts of valor, Jon Blunk, Matt McQuinn and Alex Teves used their bodies to shield their girlfriends as accused madman James Holmes turned the Aurora cineplex into a shooting gallery.
Out of the 12 people who died, (at least) three did so for altruistic reasons.  Amazing!

I've always wondered if I would have the courage to do something like that.  If the emergent alien comes through, for sure.  If not, who knows?

Whether their actions were conscious or instinctual, they were heroes either way.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

I Laughed and I Cried

Here is a review I wrote on for the book "The Gardens of Democracy" by Eric Liu and Nick Hanauer:
I found this book to be contradictory, incoherent, and wildly naive. An example of the contradictory nature of this book is linked to the title and depicted in the book cover's illustration. The authors switch back and forth between a garden metaphor and an ecosystem metaphor as convenient to make their points. The problem is that a garden and an ecosystem are nearly exact opposites. An ecosystem is robust, resilient, and self sustaining while a garden is what you get after you annihilate an ecosystem and plant a limited number of flora. The garden is fragile and not self-sustaining and needs constant tending. Given that parts of the book are argued using the metaphor of the garden as depicted on the front cover (notice the neat and regular rows of crops) and other parts of the book are argued using the metaphor of the ecosystem, it's not surprising to me that it seems contradictory and incoherent. 
I laughed out loud several times when encountering incredibly simplistic and blatant use of strawman arguments. For example, the authors write, "Libertarianism ... rests ... on the falshood that humans are reliably and inherently rational, calculating, and selfish." Libertarianism rests on no such assumption. After setting up and beating down numerous such strawmen, the authors look across the resulting field of straw and claim that since none of the strawmen are left standing, their arguments must be right. 
I cried (not literally) when I then noticed the overwhelmingly positive reception this book has gotten. The positive reception is not only from amateur reviewers such as the ones here at Amazon, but also from well known thinkers and writers such as Francis Fukuyama. As a result, I fully expect that anyone reading this negative review will treat it with suspicion and/or skepticism. That's perfectly fair and I only ask that when you read the book you do so with your eyes open and your critical thinking skills fully engaged.
The good news is that I stumbled onto the book at scribd while looking for reviews so at least I didn't waste any money buying the book.  The book is just yet another call for a large, activist government that "tends" the citizenship, economic, and social "gardens" (or ecosystems, depending on what page you're on) of society.

Saturday, July 07, 2012

Crispy Crispy Benjamin Franklin

My daughter played the song "Chemo Limo" by Regina Spektor for me the other day.  I don't particularly like that artist and that song is terribly depressing.  It's about a mother dying from cancer, fighting it with chemo, but the chemo is making her intensely miserable and she's wondering if she should just blow the "Crispy Crispy Benjamin Franklins" (money for chemo) on a Limo instead, and "go out in style".  It's an interesting tradeoff: live well briefly then die or drag it out as long as possible.

What would you do?

But it got me thinking.  Imagine that you're quite old with not so many years left in the best of circumstances. Imagine Medicare didn't exist and you have no other insurance.  But you have $200,000 that you had saved over your lifetime to support retirement.  Your doctor tells you that you have cancer.  You learn that it will cost about $200,000 to fight it in which case you can expect to live a few years or you can let the disease take its course and then you'll die in a couple of months.  Assume that you have children.  In the first case you'll leave nothing for your children, but if you let the disease take its course, your children will inherit $200,000.  Your children aren't starving but they're not particularly well off either and could definitely use the money.

What would you do?

Now assume that you don't have $200,000, but you do have Medicare and/or other sufficient health coverage to get the $200,000 worth of treatment.  Your children will be no better or worse off regardless of whether or not you choose to fight the cancer.

What would you do?

If the government (i.e. everybody else) is going to pay for, why not fight it?  It doesn't cost you or your children anything.  But now let's say the government says, "Yes, we'll pay $200,000 over 5 years for your treatment if you want.  But if you choose not to take the treatment and let the disease run its course, we'll make you comfortable and we'll give you $100,000 to bequeath to your heirs when you die.  So if you refuse treatment, your children, grandchildren, etc. will be substantially better off.

What would you do?

The federal government estimates that 70 percent of health-care expenditures are spent on the elderly, 80 percent of that in the last month of life -- and often for aggressive, life-sustaining care that is futile.  What if we gave the option to those that are dying (but mentally competent to make such decisions) to forego treatment and instead give half the saved healthcare money to their children?  There are many benefits for society.  Many tens of billions of dollars per year would be saved, yet the children would be better off, doctors would have more time for other patients, hospital beds would be less overbooked, and healthcare facilities would, in general, have more capacity for other patients.  All it requires is that some people would say yes to foregoing end-of-life treatment.

What would you do?

Friday, July 06, 2012

Answer to: Let's Play Guess the Year and Party

For my recent post that highlighted a Senate debate espousing protectionism against foreign trade, the date of the debate was February 13, 1936 and the Senators were both Democrats.

A larger segment is available at Roger Pielke's blog and starts out by complaining about China.  Apparently China was a villain even back then.

Some things never change!

Thursday, July 05, 2012

Might Makes Right: Obamacare

I wasn't at all surprised by the SCOTUS decision regarding the individual mandate.  After all, it's really just semantics to say that an individual mandate to buy something or else pay a fine is any different than a tax with a deduction for buying something, the latter of which has been done over and over with no constitutional debate.

Whereas I don't personally think that Chief Justice Robert's writing in the majority decision showed particularly lucid reasoning, I think the gist was reasonable.  The individual mandate is not allowed by the Commerce Clause, but rather under the taxing clauses.

This is yet another example of taxation being in direct conflict with freedom and has been exacerbated by the 16th amendment: "The Congress shall have power to lay and collect taxes on incomes, from whatever source derived, without apportionment among the several States, and without regard to any census or enumeration." Without the 16th amendment, these sorts of tax versus tax credit bits of legislation would be a lot harder.

Any behavior can be thus enforced through taxation.  For example, Congress could legislate that everybody pay 100% of their income in taxes with deductions for various behaviors such as buying health insurance, eating broccoli, working for progressive causes, etc.  If you don't do enough of the "right" behaviors, you starve.

I'm not saying that Congress is about to do anything as extreme as that.

What I am saying is the constitution really is just a piece of paper that has virtually no protective or really even useful value.

Ultimately, Might Makes Right.

Update: According to Randy Barnett, who actually probably knows what he's talking about, I'm wrong - the level of taxation allowed in cases like this cannot amount to coercion, only incentive.

Sunday, July 01, 2012

Drat! Foiled Again!

I think that focus, tenacity, and perseverance are the three most human qualities most correlated with success. While I think that these are mostly innate qualities, I think they can be nurtured and significantly strengthened.

I got my electric guitar out of the attic for my older daughter who takes guitar classes at school. They do classical guitar the first half of the year and electric the second half.

My guitar has been calling to me. I don't mean that I've been having hallucinations, it's just that I feel a strong attraction to it.

When my younger daughter was 9, she and I were listening to "Johnny Winter And... Live" and we started talking about the music. She really dislikes his voice, especially when he hits the high notes using a sort of gargling falsetto scream. I told her I rather like that style of singing but could understand why she didn't like it.

I then went on to say the he was (is) a truly great guitarist. I wanted to then continue by turning that statement into a lecture about focus and tenacity so I pointed out that one of the reasons he's great is that he basically plays guitar or listens to music every waking second. I do believe that's one of life's most important lessons: success is more due to focus, tenacity, and perseverance than any other quality.

However, I was thwarted in delivering the rest of the lesson because the conversation went something like this:

Daughter: But you're a great guitarist and you don't play guitar all the time.

Me: No. I'm an okay guitar player[1], Johnny Winter is a great guitarist[2].

Daughter: Well, I think you're a great guitarist, daddy!

So she melted me then and there, rendering me incapable of continuing the lesson, even though my first thought was, "I'd better get her ears checked."

Unfortunately, the flip side of the focus, tenacity, and perseverance coin is obsession. Obsession is unhealthy in and of itself, but also seems to be closely related to drug addiction and alcohol dependence. That certainly was true for Johnny Winters and who knows how many other dead or ruined rock guitarists.

It's a fine balance between being obsessed enough to achieve success (how ever one wishes to define it) and staying healthy and reasonably balanced. I think it might be mostly genetic though.

[1] I feel that there are three levels of guitar virtuosity: guitar owner, guitar player, and guitarist. I'm somewhere in the guitar player range - on a good day.
[2] Great guitarists seem to have three qualities: (1) obsession, (2) huge hands, and (3) steel belted fingertips (mine blister quite easily).

Friday, June 29, 2012

War on Drugs is Getting Old

We've had the "War on Drugs" for nearly half a century and everybody's losing.  "Fast and Furious", the latest scandal, is just another drug-related operation gone awry.

The first problem is that it's not really a war on drugs:
The war, after all, cannot really be a war on drugs, since drugs cannot be arrested, prosecuted, or punished.  The war is against persons who use drugs.  As such, the war is a civil war, fought against the 28 million Americans who use illegal drugs annually. -Douglas Husak, Rutgers University.
It would be a devastating civil war if the 28 million drug users shot bullets instead of drugs, but fortunately, the vast majority have refrained from violent resistance against their oppressors.

Yet it's still devastating in numerous ways.  The first, as pointed out by Doug Bandow at Forbes, is financial:
Perhaps the most obvious cost of enforcing the drug laws is financial.  Government must create an expansive and expensive enforcement apparatus, including financial and military aid to other governments.  At the same time, the U.S. authorities must forgo any tax revenue from a licit drug market.  According to Harvard’s Jeffrey A. Miron and doctoral candidate Katherine Waldock, in the U.S. alone “legalizing drugs would save roughly $41.3 billion per year in government expenditure on enforcement of prohibition” and “yield tax revenue of $46.7 billion annually.”
For the length of the War on Drugs, that works out to nearly $5 trillion in the United States alone.  That's about 1/3 the total debt that could have been eliminated. As a nation, we've got to cut spending and revenues from taxes on drugs would help as well.  We simply cannot afford this nonsense any longer.

An additional cost is the huge rate of incarceration of people for drug use (also from the Forbes article):
The Drug War has turned America into a prison state.  There were 13.7 million arrests in 2009, more than 10% of which, 1.7 million, were for drug offenses.  Nearly half of the latter were for marijuana.  In comparison, just 590,000 people were arrested for violent crimes.  Overall, 80% of drug arrests are for possession.  More than half of federal prisoners are serving time for drug offenses.  About 20% of state prisoners are incarcerated for drug crimes.
We need these people to be in the economy, producing, as opposed to being in jail, languishing.

Lastly, it's very clear to me that the "War on Drugs" is not coming anywhere close to its goals and may not be having any positive effect at all.
Various mixtures of these strategies and tactics have been implemented around the world over the last 50 years, but there is no evidence that any national government has been able to achieve anything like the objective of a controlled and diminished drug market, let alone a drug free world.
So the "War on Drugs" isn't helping, it's ruining people's lives by putting them in jail, and it's breaking the bank.  The last three presidents have all used drugs and tens of millions of Americans have tried illegal drugs.

It's time to take a radically different approach and declare peace: legalize and tax drugs.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Let's Play Guess the Year and Party

The following is an excerpt from the congressional record of a Senate floor debate.  Can you guess the year?  Or at least the decade?  Or at least the century?  How about the political party of the two Senators (hint: they're both from the same party)?
SENATOR 1. Another untoward situation that confronts the American producer is that machinery which we have perfected in this country, the best machinery in the world, is now available in every part of the world, and the people of other nations can use our machinery and produce as great a volume as we can at very much cheaper wages. 
SENATOR 2. Because they pay to their laborers engaged in the manufacture of [various items] about one-tenth of what is paid the American laborer. 
SENATOR 1. Exactly. . . 
SENATOR 2. . . . The great trouble that we are to meet, the great trouble that we shall be forced to face in this country sooner or later-and the time is almost here now-is how are we, under heaven, to be able to continue to maintain the high standards of living that we have maintained for the laboring men of this country?
It's amazing how the debate never changes!

King Putt

Obama has played 101 rounds of golf since becoming President.  While nowhere near the record for a president (both Wilson and Eisenhower played golf at more than double Obama's rate), it's still a fairway amount of time for the President to spend golfing.

When asked why he played so much golf, Obama replied, "I'm trying to appeal to the Tee Party."

Monday, June 25, 2012

Chaos and Trade

I'm not a very strong advocate for unfettered free trade.

The main reason is that more is not always better.  While people trading with each other enables efficiencies of specialization, economies of scale, etc., and there's little doubt that 10 people trading with each other are  better off than if each did everything for himself, and 100 is better than 10, and 1,000 is better than 100, it seems that increasing the size of a free trade area beyond a certain point is going to have minimal additional benefits.

There are lots of examples of this: eating more is good up to a point, then you get fat; increasing pressure when pumping fluid in a pipe increases flow until the flow becomes turbulent - then additional pressure has little effect other than possibly rupturing the pipe; entities get too big to fail (see Wall Street, GM, etc.); etc.  In general, complex systems with chaotic interactions can't be scaled without limitation.

An economy is such a system.

Would going from a free trade area of 500,000,000 (roughly the size of NAFTA) to 7,000,000,000 really enable significantly more wealth creation?  I doubt it (though I admit that there is no empirical evidence that supports my doubt).

As a result, I support across the board tariffs on all goods and services coming into NAFTA.  I think that NAFTA is a pretty ideal free trade area with first and third world countries with more than adequate resources.  If having free trade worldwide is in fact better, it won't be all that much better. The tariffs serve as "baffles" to help reduce chaotic interactions that could increase the risk of catastrophic failure.  Lastly, revenues for the government have to come from somewhere and tariffs are no worse of a source than anything else.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Intelligence: Of Ants and Men

According to the dictionary, "intelligence" means "capacity for learning, reasoning, understanding, and similar forms of mental activity".  Since it's a "capacity" sort of thing, there is therefore a range of intelligence, with some having more capacity than others.

Sometimes that range is compared to a threshold, usually arbitrary, above which the person or thing is considered intelligent.  For example, we might say, "she's intelligent but he's dumb as a rock", which just means that she exceeds some arbitrary level of intelligence, but he doesn't.  This assumes that a rock has zero or very limited intelligence (which may be a bad assumption given that silicon can be considered a type of rock).

When we consider the possibility of extraterrestrial intelligent life, we also compare it to a threshold.  We'd rather expect that the life, to be considered intelligent, can communicate, builds stuff, and probably lives in fairly large groups.  Of course, an ant colony qualifies as an intelligent life form by that description, and I've often wondered if aliens visited the planet, if at first blush, they could tell the difference between the intelligence of ants and the intelligence of humans.  We both scurry about, build stuff, communicate, have some understanding of the world, and act on that understanding to extract resources from the world to raise our young.

One can argue that ants don't actually "understand" anything.  They're just little machines and their behavior is completely emergent due to their simple "programming" interacting with the world.  That's true, but the same thing can be said of humans.  We're just bigger machines and our behavior is completely emergent due to our somewhat more complicated "programming" interacting with the world.  I believe that's also very likely to be true.

Let's look at it incrementally.  Humans certainly have "capacity for understanding".  How about other primates?  I'd say certainly.  Cats?  I'd still say certainly, but they're less intelligent than primates.  Mice?  Well, they certainly seems to understand that it's a bad idea to hang out around cats, but they're less intelligent still.  Ants?  I'd say an ant understands its world in a primitive way, but here we get to that arbitrary threshold thing where some will agree with me and some won't.  Roundworms?  I think most would say no.  Rocks? No.

By the above sequence, the level of intelligence according to an observer is clearly very closely related to number of neurons.  A roundworm has 302 neurons, an ant has about 250,000 neurons, a mouse has 75 million neurons, a cat has a cool billion neurons, a chimpanzee has two billion neurons, and a human has 85 billion neurons.

A neuron is a neuron is a neuron, regardless of species.  The more neurons, the more intelligent.  Intelligence is an emergent phenomenon from the activity of those neurons.  There really is no objective threshold that demarcates intelligence from non-intelligence or understanding from non-understanding (for example, you can't say any species with more than 97,423,014 neurons is intelligent, those with less aren't).

Intelligence for biological entities is all simply a matter of degree based on the number of neurons.

Friday, June 01, 2012

Unfair Advantage

I'm finding it humerous that someone with a nearly unspellable name (Snigdha Nandipati) won this year's national spelling bee.  After learning to spell her own name, I'm guessing that learning to spell words like "guetapens" (the winning word), "stochastically", "rhonchus", "luteovirescent",  "saccharolytic", and "arrondissement" was probably a piece of cake. (Also amusing is the fact that as I type these words, spell-check doesn't like a single one of them - perhaps I'm mistyping them so don't study from this list!).

Ms. Nadipati goes to my daughters' small and somewhat nerdy school, so she's quite a hero there.  She "studies 10-12 hours on weekends and six hours on weekdays."  Wow!  And I thought my younger daughter, who studies about half that, was way, way overboard on the whole studying thing!

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Low Profile Warming

In a recent speech at a conference on global warming sponsored by the Heartland Institute, climate skeptic Vaclav Klaus say he thinks that climate alarmists are changing their approach (emphasis added by Klaus):
Let me, therefore, start by thanking you for keeping the global warming issue alive. This is an important achievement in a moment when it has already become half-forgotten. It has not happened accidently, it was and is planned. It is a part of a carefully prepared tactic of global warming alarmists how to – once and for all – win their case. In the past two decades, they tried to do the opposite. They wanted to be as loud as possible to arouse our fears, now – when the whole issue becomes more and more suspicious – it is in their interest to stop any public discussion. This is the reason why they try to pretend that “the science is settled”, that the debate is over. We should not let them do it. [...]

The undeniable fact is that almost from one day to the next the global warming debate ceased to be fashionable. It disappeared from the headlines. It may weaken the position of the global warming fundamentalists but it makes it more difficult for us, the “deniers” or “skeptics”, as they call us, to motivate people to think about this issue and to openly and politically express their views about the irrational, human freedom curtailing, human prosperity undermining measures and policies introduced by the political establishments in most of the countries of the world in the last two decades, not to speak about the measures prepared for the future. We have to keep repeating that our planet is determined not only by anthropogenic influences but dominantly by long term exogenous and endogenous natural processes and that most of them are beyond any human control.

The alarmism has subsided, they want to make it “low profile”.
The general idea is that the alarmists have already succeeded in indoctrinating a whole generation of children and have already gotten many crazy regulations in place so now it is time to work the back channels: the politicians and the courts.