29 June 2005

That dog's done hunting

I recently read a post elsewhere about the recent Ed Klein book on the Clintons and its coverage on The Drudge Report. My first thought is that we need a new expression, parallel to “that dog won’t hunt”, for situations where the issue has completely polarized. The post in question was making a big deal about some photos of Clinton interacting with attractive women not his wife and how the images were misleading. All I could think was, even if the images were 100% dead on and correct, they still would be pointless. Who, exactly, is going to care or more importantly change their opinion on former President Clinton and Senator Clinton even if Drudge published soft core porn of Bill Clinton’s infidelity?

On the other hand, the progressive partisans in some sense have to react with outrage because of their “it’s all about the sex” defense of Clinton during the impeachment. Having failed to address any of the substantive complaints about the Clinton Administration they are stuck denying or defending Clinton’s amatory adventures and claims thereof. And so the poster had to defend Clinton against even the mildest of accusations (kissing another woman on the mouth). I suppose just another example of “be careful who you pretend to be”.

27 June 2005

The voice of reason (one time only)

I have to agree with the US Supreme Court and SCOTUSBlog on the Grokster case. My reading is that the SCOTUS has, for once, outlined clear and reasonable law in this area. Despite what the doom cryers and RIAA boosters claim, it seems to me that this decision won’t make a whole lot of difference in the long run.

The essence of the decision is that Grokster actively and primarily promoted the software as something to be used in an illegal activity1. So, as one commentor notes, BitTorrent would seem to be fine, as the primary uses promoted by the builders are not illegal. For some reason, many angry people seem to think that the SCOTUS ruled that if technology can be used for illegal acts, it should be banned, but that’s not at all how I read the decision. Here’s a key quote:

Respondents are not merely passive recipients of information about infringement. The record is replete with evidence that when they began to distribute their free software, each of them clearly voiced the objective that recipients use the software to download copyrighted works and took active steps to encourage infringement. [emphasis added]

Note that the SCOTUS is saying that even knowning that your technology is primarily used for illegal copying isn’t enough to generate liability, it requires active steps and a clear voicing in favor of illegal copying. I can’t see that as much of a difficult thing to avoid. Because of this, I don’t see this as much of a win for the RIAA and its fellow-travelers. It just means that the Grokster replacement will be put out by anonymous and silent authors.

1 We can debate whether copyright law makes sense, but like immigration laws they are the law of the land and the USSC is properly not dealing with the legislative issue of whether the laws “work” in the real world.

24 June 2005

Speech without words

Over at the Captain’s Quarters i a discussion about the passage of an anti-flag desecration Admendment. I think the Captain makes two good points, but then goes off track in a way that illustrates the difficulties of trying to be a little bit restrictive.

The first is that the Admendment itself is un-American, idolatry wrapped up in a false skin of patriotism. It has always been America’s greatest strength that it is a nation founded on ideas, not blood, soil or icons. It demeans this great nation to pay such attention to the petty twerps who pretend to be “dissenters” by burning a flag. It just reenforces their delusional belief that such acts have any real meaning other than to broadcast “I’m a stupid jerk who can’t find any coherent way to express myself”.

The second is that this is blowback from an activist court that seems to favor petty and pointless speech over real citizen involvement in politics. Of course, if we had a Supreme Court that actually read the Constitution instead of foreign laws, it wouldn’t be striking down laws because of the “rights in the penumbra” but because the Constitution does not authorize Congress to issue such law. Instead of a “right to privacy” it should have been “no clause found in the Constitution authorize this law”. Of course, FDR has to take much of the blame for this situation when he forced the Supreme Court to turn the Commerce Clause in to a general justification for any legislative action. The USSC, apparently unwilling to return to a proper view of that clause, was left with the specious “rights” doctrines that have been the source of such much bad law from that Court.

Where I think the Captain goes wrong is in his suggested Admendment:

The amendment in this case shouldn’t be that narrow — it should recognize that speech doesn’t consist of anything else but the verbal or written publication of actual speech, not arson, nude dancing, or blowing up buildings, which is the logical extension of the 1989 decision. Everything else should be left to the Legislature to regulate.

The problem with this is that there is quite a lot of very valid, important political “speech” that contains no literal speech. An excellent example is by Fox and Corkum which frequently have few words. Unless one counts labels as “actual speech”, most of these would be excluded under the Captain’s Admendment. Is that a good idea?

If we accept that drawings such as those are speech, what of people acting out the drawings? What about instrumental music? Should rap music be privileged over classic because the latter doesn’t have words? I think it’s necessary to allow purely symbolic, non-verbal communications as “speech” because much of it is powerful and relevant. The problem, which I also accept, is that it now becomes very hard to draw a line between politically powerful sketch acted out in a public place and burning a flag, especially in something as concise as a Constitutional Admendment. As flawed and problematic as the First Admendment is, I think other choices are even worse.

23 June 2005

Supreme Court just says "no" to property rights


Today, the U.S. Supreme Court delivered a blow to home and small business owners throughout the country by allowing the government to use eminent domain to take homes so that businesses can make more money off that land and possibly pay more taxes as a result.

I guess it’s the establishment of a truly privileged class in the USA, with the ability to arbitrarily expropriate the property of the peasants. So completely disgusting that I’m not certain the evisceration of the First Admendment from McCain-Feingold was worse.

Trusting the children

Thoughts Online writes about the US Constitution, claiming that the country would have been better off with a more specific (and therefore verbose) Constitution. I strongly disagree.

The Framers were right to produce a minimalist document for the Constitution. The problems with detailed Constitutions is many-fold and is a cure far worse than the disease.

The first is how would the Framers even know of many of the divisive issues that would arise centuries later? Some, such as abortion, are political issues because of technological advances, which the Framers could not possibly have known.

Moreover, had the Framers been speciic they very likely would have specified things in a way not particularly favored by our current society. Thoughts Online uses the example of “discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation”.

TO can’t really believe that the Framers would have found it impermissable and therefore had it been specified, it would have been permitted. Would that have stopped the activism pushing for it? We’d just be fighting over amending the Constitution instead. Or the right to bear arms — could the Framers conceive of a society in which guns were as plentiful, varied, powerful and cheap? What would they have written about anti-aircraft guns or biological weapons? Finally, there’s the issue of slavery — would TO have preferred a clause expliciting permitting it instead of the vagueness that was there?

The result would have been far more amending of the Constitution, which is a degenerative process as the voter initiative problems in California demonstrate.

The other major problem with a detailed Constitution is internal consistency. How can one know that the Constitution agrees with itself? If it doesn’t, the government is in for no end of problems. The longer and more detailed the document, the less likely it is to be internally consistent. This is (IMHO) the biggest problem with the EU Constitution and why it was objectionable to both the left and the right — it called for free markets and state corporatism at the same time (plus, it was bulked up with the text of every existing EU treaty). As the author himself stated, “It is not possible for anyone to understand the full text”. Having as the founding document one that nobody can understand doesn’t seem like a better plan that the one the Framers implemented.

One of the things I admire most about the Framers was their faith in their descendants, to leave so much for them to work out for themselves. The temptation is great to overspecify and force others to adhere to whatever the passion of the day is, but the Framers were true conservatives who knew that if they got the basic, timeless principles right, those who came after could work out the details as befitted those future ages.

22 June 2005

When a picture isn't worth a thousand words

While searching for paper supplies for Boy Two, I found this, something that has amused me for years. It’s the bottom of box of blank flash cards. What’s hilarious to me is that the designers felt it necessary to provide an illustration of what the blank card would look like, front and back. I just have to wonder at what these people thought of the intelligence of the likely purchasers of these cards.

When the Law is willing but the Politics are weak

In this post about the increasingly desperate recruitment efforts by the Caliphascists in Iraq, Orrin Judd asks rhetorically “Why shouldn’t they be trying to drive the Americans out of their country?”.

Of course, as the article cited notes, the goal wasn’t to drive out the Americans but to kill them. Other commentors note that the suicide bombers are mostly (if not entirely) foreign, so they can hardly be trying to get Americans out of their country.

On the other hand, there is a real point that a big part of the problem is our own conflicted response to enemies who don’t follow our Rules of War. Judd comments that these rules were written for “our” benefit and therefore it’s irrational to expect our enemies to follow them. However, the rules were really written for the benefit of nations at war, to minimize damage to the nation from war. But even so, the point remains that if our enemies are unconcerned about the fate of their or other nations, one can hardly expect them to follow rules with such purposes.

Our conflicted response is that our Rules of War do, in fact, address this very point by placing those who don’t follow the rules out of the bounds of those rules. This used to be exemplified by the Jacksonian view of honorable and dishonorable enemies, i.e. those who followed the rules and those who didn’t. Now, however, there is a large contingent of the chatterati who effectively favor treating dishonorable enemies better than honorable ones. For example, enemies who are lawful combatants get stuck in a POW camp but enemies who are unlawful combatants get the full rights of an American civilian. The Geneva Conventions that the USA has signed , despite the constant appeals by the chatterati, are effectively Jacksonian in that the Occupying Power can do whatever it wants to unlawful combatants, including summary execution.

It is not that we have no provision, no way to deal with enemies such as the Caliphascists, but that we no longer have the will to employ them.

16 June 2005

When enough is enough

The previous post discussed the issue of Europe and in particular the EUlite reacting negatively to the prospect of Europe becoming a relatively poor nation among richer nations of the world. One of my main points was that this is purely a perceptual problem, even the absolute standard of living in Europe continues to improve.

Mike Earl posted a comment that relates well to this:

I’m wondering if some of the increase in the spread of American incomes isn’t actually due to an excess of prosperity. The difference in volume levels of car stereos has become much higher in the last ten years, not because car stereo sales have become less fair, but because they have become so cheap that most people have all they want. Similarly, a bigger income distribution may be in part because those who really care can get plenty, and those who don’t don’t have to stay close to that level to have a decent living.

I found this very interesting for two reasons.

One is its relationship to my point about Europe and its economic future. While European economic policies obviously prevent it from being competitive, that’s far more of a lifestyle choice in this era of plenty. Why shouldn’t the Europeans favor their particular form of economic solidarity to Anglospheric capitalism? Is not the emerging gap between Europe and the Anglosphere the result of a choice just as Earl brings up?

On a personal note, I’m in the middle of a long process of starting my own business and one of the key choices to make is what kind of business to build. I could have gone for a model with massive growth potential but I rejected that because of the non-monetary costs of such a venture. Instead I chose something that will do quite well but will certainly not be on the cover of Barron’s.

It may be that this is a contribution to the falling fortunes of the Democratic Party and their class warfare. As more and more people can get to be as rich as they want, the fact that others are richer will become increasingly less relevant.

Staying within your means

Yet another in a long series of “Europe is failing” posts simply reinforces my view that Europe is suffering from a doubly self inflicted problem.

There is much talk about the unstainability of the European economy, but I think that’s overwrought. One notes that despite all of the problems, the European economy, even in Old Europe, continues to grow. What is viewed as a problem is that it doesn’t grow as fast as other economies.

Not keeping pace with the rest of the world is not a real problem, only a percieved problem. An economy that grows, even if very slowly, is enough to sustain the Europeans at their current level of prosperity. In fact, even if by itself the European economy would contract, the surging of other economies, particularly the USA, could well provide enough backdraft to keep the European economy working. It’s always easier to catch up than to pull ahead, as South East Asia has discovered.

In essence, the state of the European economy is a problem because it increasingly does not allow the EUlite to play in the Great Game as it falls behind the rest of the world. Absent such imperial pretensions I don’t see why Europe can get by for quite a long time the equivalent of a quiet, retirement village. There will be no bustle of the leading edge and nothing important will happen there but that is only a problem if one believes it to be. I am reminded of the whining about the increasing gap between rich and poor, even as the poor become far wealthier in absolute terms. That is the situation Europe is in, that of becoming relatively poor. But, if one is not consumed with envy and values things other than pure material wealth, such a state is nothing to be upset about.

I suspect that the average European would be fine with that state of affairs. It is the EUlite who cannot abide retirement. One wonders how much damage in pursuit of futile dreams of relevance will be tolerated by the citizenry. The recent electoral defeats of the EU Constitution may mark the limits of such tolerance.

13 June 2005

Things that aren't like us really aren't like us

There was some discussion of the Technology Singularity via Instapundit the other day. This is an extrapolation that the rate of technological progress acclerates without bound until it becomes effectively infinite.

I personally don’t believe in the Singularity. I think that the rate of the rate of increase will taper off basically because the more we know, the more we can know. The Singularity requires that our rate of learning grow faster than the set of things to know, which is hardly a given. The expanding amount of knowledge required for further advancement and the growing store of existing knowledge will act against an ever increasing rate of advancement. I think human and computational limitations will prevent true runaway growth.

In fact, one might argue that the biggest impediment to the Singularity is life extension technologies. It’s commonly said that real scientific advancement requires the older generation of scientists to die off — what happens to the rate of progress when that takes centuries instead of decades? One might well wonder if that’s another Fermi Trap, that life extension turns in to a trap that stifles the technological advancement and personal interest necessary for colonizing the galaxy.

What I found most bizarre in the discussions was the worry about a post-human AI “taking over the world”, as if it would form a secret cabal to achieve world domination. I find that very idea ludicrous. Why would a post-human AI want to even waste its time interacting with humans, or being stuck on single planet? Such a construct would effectively be a super advanced alien and I noted before the most likely form of interaction is indifference. I can’t imagine a post-human AI conquering the human world, although I can imagine it re-arranging the surface features for its own convenience, which would be much worse from our point of view. I suspect, though, that Earth wouldn’t be a very useful or interesting place for such a being.

Newton’s Wake has the view that’s close to mine. In it, post-human AIs start competing for world domination, but rapidly get bored with it and abandon the effort for far more profitable (if incomprehensible to us) ventures. One of the more interesting aspects here (compared to similar books) is that humans advance by looting prototypes left behind by the post humans. Normally such stories have the post humans simply deduce, instantaneously, the ultimate secrets of reality. I find idea of post humans leaving behind scrap heaps of experiments far more plausible. On the whole, though, I expect the pace of change to be much slower than the Hard Rapture enthusiasts postulate.

Wolfowitz pack

Last night the BBC was on public radio and it had an amazing interview with someone from the World Bank. The basic thrust of the discussion was that previous World Bank lending to Africa had been a waste because of structural problems in the politics of the recipient nations. Not the legacy of colonialism or the rapaciousness of the West, but the fact that kleptomanial leaders stole and misspent the money. As a result, the World Bank wanted to look at means other than handing money to corrupt, oppresive governments to try and help Africa. If Wolfowitz’s appointment does nothing more than effect this attitude change, it will be worth it.

Lost in the mists of time

While wasting more time over at my favorite lefty website (it beats worrying about currency exchange rates) I realized two things.

One is that it’s very difficult to argue context with ahistorical people.

The other is that for the standard leftist model of how the USA came to invade Iraq has a lot of parallels with the Pacific War. In both cases, the President manuevered for war against a nation that was not directly threatening the USA, officially over the danger to neighboring countries. The sanctions imposed on Imperial Japan by the USA would have been economically crippling. In the Modern American Left view that the USA acts, everyone else reacts, what could Japan do except strike back? What business was it of the USA if Japan conquered China? Especially since America’s hands weren’t completely clean with respect to China either. And besides, it’s not like we fought Japan over access to strategic resources…oh wait, yes we did. Or that we occupied their country for years afterwards…oh wait, yes we did. But it’s not like we interfered with their post-war government…oh wait, yes we did. We wrote their Constitution. It’s just stunning to me that the completely ahistorical idea that Iraq, having lost a war, shouldn’t suffer occupation or political inference from the winning coalition has gained such wide credence.

08 June 2005

Signs of the times

I had to leave the house yesterday and while I was exposed to the unpleasantness commonly known as “outdoors”, I spotted the newspaper boy dropping off papers. He was wearing a Nuke the Moon T-shirt. I of course congratulated him on his good taste while thinking “it’s really gone mainstream now”.

06 June 2005

The decline of Europe

She Who Is Perfect In All Ways has been off to a couple of conferences in the last month. Mid-may she went to Niece, France and right now she’s off in Atlanta, Georgia. She reports that the food at this conference is much better than what she got in France. Not only was there a lot more food in Atlanta, but it was fresher and overall better quality (fresh fruit vs. stale donuts, for instance). After this, what’s left?

02 June 2005

It's best to not pick an example your opponents like

It’s definitely “mock NPR day”. Another story this morning was about the horrors of the Patriot Act.

The story, as far as I could gather, is that

  • Someone notices an apparently inflammatory passage hand written in a library book.
  • That someone notifies the FBI.
  • The FBI asks the library for records on who checked out the book.
  • The library board decides to fight the request.
  • A library staffer uses an internet search to discover that the passage is a quote from a Bin Laden speech.
  • Presented with this and resistance from the library, the FBI backs off.

I won’t go in to why the FBI wasn’t bright enough to use an internet search engine, but what was amazing was the hysterical reaction of the library staff. One of them referred to this as “a life changing event”. And I thought my life was uninteresting. The discussion of the board deciding to resist was played like they were setting up barricades in the Warsaw Ghetto in 1943.

And this is the worst abuse of the Patriot Act that they could find? It’s another example of scraping the bottom of the barrel to reveal just how empty that barrel is. I object to the Patriot Act as not being worth cost in civil liberties not because I find the cost high but because I find the benefits miniscule, if not actually negative. I am, however, embarrassed to have people like this as my rhetorical allies. It’s almost enough to make me reconsider my position.

How dare you say such things!

Another NPR story this morning was about the excessive Christianity at the Air Force Academy1. I kept waiting for the ugliness and oppression to be described, but that never came through to me.

The worst thing that I heard was that some upper classman sent out an e-mail that contained Biblical passages. Almost as bad was a scene in which a cadet was struggling with a physical test and her classmates were shouting encouragements in the name of … Jesus. Horrors! And, believe it or not, at one Protestant service the worshippers were encouraged (in public!) to prosletyze. Just like it was part of the religion or something.

Perhaps I missed that part, but I did not hear a single allegation that anyone was denied rewards, promotions, privileges, etc. because of religious orientation. Only that people were exposed to the religious beliefs of others. This is what passes for a reign of theocratic oppression these days?

1 Personal bias note: I have a friend who attended the Academy who was also the most deeply religious person I’ve ever known and who, IMHO, was clearly a better person (even by my own criteria) than I was. I suspect that much of my personal respect for the truly religious stems from my friendship with her. She walked in faith and you can’t forget a thing like that.

If at first you can't succeed, hamstring the other guy

NPR had a story this morning on the impact of the “no” votes in France and Holland on the EU Constitution. What struck me in listening to the coverage was how the positive case was based on anti-Americanism rather than pro-Europeanism. The essence seemed to be that a politically unified EU (or approval of the EU Constitution, the two things be treated as if they were equivalent) was necessary to compete with or be a “counter-weight” to the USA. In at least one discussion, this was the only reason given. I realize that frequently the arguments against an EU polity are rehashed Luddism, but surely proponents can’t really believe that the European masses will give up their national sovereignity just to stick a finger in Uncle Sam’s eye?

While people natter on endless about the differences between Old Europe and the USA, this kind of spitefulness seems to me to be one of the key distinguishing characteristics. American competition is about moving faster than the other guy, while the EUlite emphasize hobbling the other guy. Even at the height of the Japanphobia craze in the USA, the emphasis about policies still remained on how the USA would be better, not about how those policies would cripple Japan. No wonder the EUlite get along so well with the Palestinian leadership, another gang that is far more enthusiastic about venting spite than self improvement.

01 June 2005

Sign the papers, old man!

In discussing some issues concerning finances for Boy One, his signature came up. He’s too young yet to know cursive writing or have a signature, but it set me wondering about what will happen to signatures as we move in to the electronic age.

Handwriting and cursive in particular are fading away as common skills. Even for those who learn them, infrequent use leaves the skills in suboptimal shape. What will happen with children who never learn cursive yet have to sign documents? Will we move to more of a ideograph style signature? Or a general increase in illegible ones (you can read all of the letters in my signature, whereas I’ve seen others from well educated people where you’d be hard pressed to guess as the initials and everything else was just a squiggly line).

It might just be a transitory thing, where in twenty years signatures will all be electronic keys or biometric measurements. I wonder, though, whether signatures might not turn out to be harder to forge than non-conscious artifacts. Any artifact not part of one’s body is, of course, subject to theft or loss. Biometric signatures are subject to replication (such as lifting someone’s fingerprint to generate fake plastic ones, or replicating DNA) or force just as signatures are. However, a good signature requires a higher level of cooperation on the part of the victim (you can get a finerprint or retina scan off an unconscious person more easily than a signature).

Whatever happens, though, I’m sure that the rise of numerous people who can’t write signatures, new authentication technologies and the interactions between them will be a bonanza for the lawyers.