31 July 2007

It doesn't pay to get a faster drive if you don't like the destination

I was reading some screed in New Scientist the other day, about how voters in the USA shouldn’t vote for politicians that don’t believe in evolution, because they obviously don’t trust Science.

I thought about that a bit and came to the conclusion that the article had it exactly backwards. I take as a starting point that almost all politicians decide what they want done first, or get bribed by supporters in to doing what the supporters want, and then cherry pick evidence to justify their pre-determined actions. Where the screed writer goes wrong is in presuming that a familiarity with the rhetoric of Science prevents this kind of thing, a view for which I have never observed the slightest bit of corroboration (something that the author himself demonstrates by presuming such an unsupported theory).

However, the two sides are not equal because we live in a secular, Scientistic society for the most part. Those demagogues claiming the imprimatur of Science are likely to get much further in their efforts to damage society for their own group’s benefit. That makes them much more dangerous. Anti-evolutionists, on the other hand, tend to get a lot more mockery, particularly from Old Media, meaning they have much less scope for damage. Clearly, then, such politicians should be the preferred choice.

30 July 2007

Active Help

Cathy Young writes, in part

What’s not going to help is dismissing the risk of a terrorist attack—an argument that can easily backfire, in a reversal of the story of the boy who cried wolf, if a major strike does happen. An even greater mistake is to is downplay the consequences of such an attack. Thus, in his Foreign Affairs article, Mueller writes, “Even if there were a 9/11-scale attack every three months for the next five years, the likelihood that an individual American would number among the dead would be two hundredths of a percent (or one in 5,000).”

But this argument ignores the impact of such attacks on the friends and families of the victims—and the psychological impact on the entire nation (not to mention the economic devastation). It is true, as some have pointed out, that even in Mueller’s extreme scenario, the annual casualties would still be far below the toll of auto accidents. But that does not mean we are irrational in our response to terrorism. For one, a large-scale disaster, even a natural one, draws more attention and thus elicits far more shock than many small incidents with a higher cumulative death toll. Perhaps more importantly, there are many things one can do to reduce one’s risk of dying in a car crash. There is nothing one can do, short of moving into a bomb shelter, to minimize the risk of being killed or maimed in a random terrorist attack.

This touches on some key points, but doesn’t quite follow its premises to their conclusion. To me, the clear message here is that we should make dealing with terrorism more like dealing with auto accidents — create ways in which citizens can make a difference. It’s the “pack, not a herd” concept in another guise and while it’s an annoying catch phrase, it does encapsulate something that would be of far more benefit that additional government provided “security”.

That Young doesn’t touch on that says something about the modern civil liberties crew. Her choices seem to be between the childish nay-saying of the ACLU vs. a more moderate trade off of liberties for security. Young is concerned that such nay-saying will polarize the issue in to favoring the rights of terrorists vs. protecting citizens, which I agree is not a good place for the debate to end up.

But I think that’s a false dichotomy, that supporting a mobilized citizenry is another choice, superior to either of those. The real problem for the Left is that it has boxed itself in to an ideological corner that can’t tolerate the level of self sufficiency and independent thought such a mobilized citizenry would require. In the hey day of modern liberalism, it was presumed that free thinking citizens would naturally conclude that liberalism was superior. Very few liberals believe that anymore, so the pack option is not politically viable for them.

One need only look at the recent John Doe or “King Amendment” issue. I cannot imagine any explanation for the effort to strike down this provision than Senators too embedded in political correctness and loyalty to the noisiest and richest special interests. And even those Senators know it’s a sell out, or they wouldn’t have tried to be so sneaky about it. The complaints about potential racism, harassment, etc. are just ludicrous. The amendment would have protected people reporting to responsible actors (law enforcement, trained airline personel, etc.) who would then be able to take real responsibility, filter out the crazies, and keep track of hot spots1. I would accuse those Democratic Senators of trying to suppress anything that would encourage citizens to be more aware of what’s going on around them, but I can’t believe those Senators are themselves sufficiently aware of the real world to plan and act at such a level. I suspect it’s just the hind brain twitching of a dead ending ideology.

1 It’s one thing if one or two socially similar people say, “that guy over there sure is acting funny” and a different thing if 30 people of many social backgorunds say the same thing. But no single citizen will have access to that information.

28 July 2007

Not only unaccountable, but invisible

The BATFE has filed a legal complaint which, as a basis, claims that ordinary citizens cannot photograph or record public officials in public places doing public things while on official duty. Only “authorized journalists” can do that, and the BATFE claims sole jurisdiction to make that determination when BATFE agents are involved. I am just left wondering at the mentality that causes someone to enter public service then do things they know are unpopular with said public. But the BATFE hasn’t been much for logic and coherence for quite a while.

Coup beans

That reminds me, I need to start promoting my own conspiracy theory based on this post at the Daily Duck about some screed on how we have to impeach President Bush right now or it’ll be coup time.

My conspiracy theory is that Bush is, as he is often portrayed, a moron run by a sinister cabal of Halliburtonists. The entire impeachment push isn’t to stop the coup, it is the coup. Bush has served his purpose in getting elected and then being used to put Halliburtonists in key positions. Now he’s an impediment. What the cabal wants is Bush out of the way, which puts Cheney in charge. Before Cheney can be impeached, martial law will be declared and the coup implemented, while the people are distracted and partying from the joy of being out from under the fascist Bush regime.

Even better, by secreting creating the impeachment groundswell while pretending to oppose it, the cabal gets a three-fer

  1. Bush is removed.
  2. Their opponents take the political heat from the effort.
  3. The leaders of any opposition to the Halliburtonist rule are identified by their actions during the impeachment run up and proceedings so that the KILLITARY trained thugs (created by the Rumsfeld / Cheney military restructuring) can take them out quickly before they can get organized.

End result, the loyal dissenters pay the price to put Darth Vader Dick Cheney and his Halliburtonist cabal in power! Would could be more pleasing to those beings of Pure Evil?

Limits to mixing

Now this is disappointing. It seems that Warren Ellis, a well known comic book writer, has gone either loopy or completely cynical even for an artist. He’s written a new comic book series that asks the question, “if super heroes fight crime, why wouldn’t they take on criminal political regimes?” and answers it “no, they’d kill President Bush and his entire cabinet instead”.

This is wrong in so many ways, the biggest being that the in-story reason is that Bush started an “illegal” war that caused deaths in “four figures”. What Al Qaeda and its ilk in Iraq, who have kill in the five figures? What about other regimes that are in five figures, such as Sudan, or six figures, like North Korea? They’re not Rich White Americans, and so are of no interest to Ellis.

But beyond the base level stupidity is what I think of as the “Captain Hook” problem. This is from the movie Hook. It was a bad movie becaues it tried to mix incompatible things — a children’s movie of a children’s book with gritty realism. So at one point the Lost Boys are throwing eggs and the next some one is getting gutted by a cutlass. Ellis is doing the same thing, trying to mix fantasy tales with real world politics and it just doesn’t work. The standard “it’s just a story” excuse is eviscerated by the use of real politics, but those politics are handled in a very shallow way, because otherwise you don’t get a good story. You end up with something lousy that is only liked by people who want to use it as another thread in their reality cocoon.

27 July 2007

If it's in the market, somebody finds it useful

I have finally realized why some people carry around those little voice recorders. I had this great idea for a post this morning, but the distractions of getting the kids ready it dropped out of my short term memory without a write through to long term. Frequently I can regenerate such thoughts, but it takes a lot of time, which is bad because I tend to obsess about it to the detriment of other, just as useful things. I had thought that the recorders were for detailed notes, but I think now that it’s would work to just record a title or a short paragraph, because once I have a handle on the basic concept the rest comes back easily. Unfortunately, I already carry too much electronic stuff and I don’t have good idea that often. But at least I understand my fellow humans a bit better.

Go 'Tubing, guys

There’s been some discussion about the GOP Presidential candidates avoiding a “debate” with questions from YouTube subscribers. Personally, given that we’ve had one, and it wasn’t much more of a disaster than the standard kind, the GOP field would be stupid to not do it at least once.

I would like to note, however, that the claim that these questions “come from ordinary Americans” is laughable. Given the nature of YouTube, there will be such a variety of questions that the editors (people who select the questions) will be able to select variants of their own questions that reflect their own political views. I understand that you’d never be able to explain that to most viewers, which is why I think the GOP will just have to deal with this new debate style.

Book Idea #1: Old genes vs. new genes

This post at the Daily Duck made me think about what a world with human genetic engineering might look like, and how one could create a plot for a novel from that.

In that vein, I think that we will discover that while fixing genetic problems will be easy, making improvements will be hard. The difference is when fixing a problem, we can find examples of the “right” genetic sequence in other people. We don’t have to have much understanding of why the right sequence is right, as we can see it works better by direct observation. When you want to go beyond that, then you need to know a lot more about what you’re doing. And, as has been noted, the design of the human genetic code is not a nice, clean, modular one. It’s far more akin to what you’d get by incomprehensibly jiggering stuff until you got lucky and it worked1. Having worked on such systems, making forward progress is very difficult, because any little change can break things anywhere.

Given that, how will progress be made? The cynical part of me2 thinks that wealthy first worlders will experiment on poor third worlders, to see what happens to various proposed improvements. Most of the time the third worlders will get hosed. But what happens if the improvement works? One could postulate a world on the brink of instability3 where genetically enhanced clans of the formerly poor are contesting for dominance as homo novus with the “old gene” clans who have the money but haven’t bred themselves superior yet. And what if the children of the Old Genetics think they have more in common with the similarly enhanced New Genetics? Seems likea nice brew for some cyberpunk writing.

1 We called this the “peturbation theory of programming” as we (the teaching assistants) watched students try to get the programming problem correct by cloning example code from the book and then crossing it with other example code until it passed enough of the tests to get a passing grade.

2 99 44/100%

3 If it isn’t, why write about it?

26 July 2007

Just a little trouble maker

Hey, I managed to get myself banned from another weblog. My comments now just disappear in to the ether, presumably via a junk filter. Dare, if you must, to read what I wrote that was so terribly offensive. One of my more intemperate outbursts, the kind that regular readers are quite used to here.

25 July 2007

Handling factionalism

Transterrestrial Musings has a post about the entrenchment in the legal code of the two main parties. That may be, although none of the posts in the chain provide any evidence to that effect. However, clearly the concept of having exactly two political parties is strongly embedded in much electoral law. Transterrestrial Musings wonders if we should change the law (via Constitutional Amendment) to support more parties. I wonder if this isn’t something our little group has beaten the horse’s skeleton to powder on. The change I would favor would be to let candidates run as candidates for more than one party, so that (for instance) the GOP candidate could also be the Libertarian Party candidate. Clearly this would encourage more factionalism, but I think it would be tolerable because ultimately the elections would force things toward the middle, as the Founders intended. It might promote more compromise and political adjustment before the actual election, while still providing a space for non-mainstream voices to have some input, without the problems of a real parlimentary system.

24 July 2007

Mental concentration

I wonder if we should feel sorry for tech support staff. Consider this — the trend over the last decade or so has been to provide additional network accessible resources to solve customer problems, such as downloading new drivers or find a copy of the assembly instructions. Who is going to make the most of use such resources? The clueful customers, who basically know what they’re doing and just need to find a bit of key information. In effect, every on-line resource skims off another layer of people who can help themselves, leaving an ever more concentrated residuum of those truly out of their depth. That’s who the tech support people have to deal with in ever stronger waves. And as far as I can see, it’s only going to get worse.

Competing against the me of yesterday

So a hardware vendor has publically complained about Microsoft Vista. Of course, the basic complaint is that Vista has failed to boost hardware sales because it’s a no value added upgrade, but still it’s at least aiming the blame in the general direction.

It also illustrates the fact that even if the Dark Empire were a monopoly, it would still have competition — it’s own time-shifted self, the Dark Empire of the past. Of course, eventually people will have to upgrade, but the worse Vista is, the longer that process will drag out, even in the absence of viable alternative operating systems. The Dark Empire has already felt the crunch from releasing Vista years late in terms of revenue, having an excessively long adoption period on top of that will just make it worse. The problem, though, is that Microsoft may well not be capable of making the necessary improvements promptly. I have worked on large scale software projects and getting things turned around and improved is no simple matter of sending out an e-mail encouraging better code quality.

I just wonder how close Microsoft is getting to the old IBM state, where third parties would sell replacement parts for various bits of the operating system to make it work better, which IBM was structurally incapable of doing.

Did we mean to do that?

It appears that Caliphascists are once again demonstrating their geo-strategic acumem by making an enemy of yet another global power, China. Now, China has been supressing Muslims for decades, so in that sense this isn’t anything new. On the other hand, bringing the situation to a boil while engaged in a hot conflict on other fronts (Afghanistan, Iraq, Chechnya) by widening the conflict through attacks on Chinese nationals in Pakistan doesn’t seem like the best strategic option at this point in time. I can only increase my confidence that Caliphascist strategy is driven by immanetizing the eschaton, that a global war against Caliphascists and (hopefully) Muslims will create conditions that necessitate the End Times.

Or they’re just stupid and uncontrollably violent and their use of our Old Media unplanned serendipity.

It's the law, not the enforcement

Instapundit doesn’t agree, but I think this FEC complaint against the DailyKos is an excellent idea. Some may whine that it’s a strike against free speech, but that’s blaming the knife instead of the chef. The strike against free speech is the existence of the FEC and the laws that powers it, not somebody filing a complaint. One of the key things that keeps such law in place is its selective enforcement, particularly that it is far more frequently enforced against people who tend to oppose such law more than those who tend to support it. This is because the enforcers will naturally be more compatible / sympathetic to ideologies that support the law they’re enforcing. One powerful weapon in fighting the very idea of such regulation is to get it enforced on its supporters, precisely what this complaint does. It’s just another aspect of something I wrote previously, that living in your own garbage makes you more likely to want to clean it up.

Old Fogey Rant of the Day

“Nondysfunctional”. It seems to be popular among the psychological research set. I would ask “what’s wrong with just ‘functional’” but I suspect I would find out that it’s discriminatory or too capability-normal a word to be used in proper company.

23 July 2007

Too much of a good thing

I read Building Harlequin’s Moon while traveling and I have to rate it as “eh”. Not bad, but not up to normal Niven standards. The backstory was clearly not thought out at all, but was simply a set of sometimes contradictory cliches to be used to provide dramatic tension or psychological motivation as needed. The main story suffered from having multiple obvious and better alternatives. Still, the writing was decent and it beat staring out the window at the endlessly fascinating mid-west scenery (not just corn fields, but soy bean fields as well!).

Then I read this article on the economics of magic by megan McArdle1 and I realized that my years of hanging out in the blogosphere has to a large extent ruined my ability to enjoy fiction. I do the same thing to books I read that McArdle does to Harry Potter. I don’t do it by conscious choice — my mind does the analysis in background and pops the results up for me as I read, just as I trained it to do while reading weblogs and comments. Just one of the sacrifices I have made to provide you all with quality content.

P.S. Andrea Harris weighs in as well.

1 A decent article, marred by her bizarre misreading of Tolkien. In Lord of the Rings, magic is restricted both by price and by rationing. This is a re-hash of what I’ve written previously on effectively the same subject.


Let me state for the record that I haven’t read any of the Harry Potter books, and can’t recall if I have seen any of the movies in their entirety (I saw the first part of the most recent movie in a theatre while on vacation, but Girl Three had a waste containment failure which required me to walk out in the middle).

22 July 2007

It's easy to litter when the garbage lands on someone else

Over at Harry’s Place is this quote

Probably the most interesting fact about this clip from Al-Jazeera is that the sane liberal lives in Cairo and the insane Islamist lives in… London (with the status of a political refugee).

Not at all surprising. It’s the same effect as that by the 70s or 80s, all real Communists were either members of the Party or well off Westerners. It’s another aspect of the End of History that nothing destroys the enthusiasm for alternates to liberal democracy like living in one.

I was going to write that Communism and Caliphascism rapidly reduce support to those who beneift from the regime. But now I think that’s not any different in a liberal democracy. The real difference is that, unlike its competitors, liberal democracy can have a majority who benefit. If the basis of your government is looting (as it is for Communism and Caliphascism) then only a minority can be better off than they would be without it. It is only (as far as we know now) liberal democracy that can make a majority better off than they would be otherwise.

That's my story

This article by Penelope Trunk is making the rounds, because Trunk’s thesis is that it’s OK for journalists to misquote people and create their own narratives for stories, and everyone else should accept it.

My first thought is whether Trunk will get in trouble from her fellow journalists for revealing that journalism is all about telling stories that please the journalist, rather than “facts”.

My other thought is, if Trunk really believes this, why would she ever interview an actual person in the first place? Why not just make up the quotes, or have an actor friend do the interview?

This makes an interesting juxtaposition with another article concerning Old Media coverage of the Duke Lacrosse case in which the infamous Evan Thomas of Newsweek magazine says

It was about race. Nifong’s motivations clearly were rooted in his need to win black votes. There were tensions between town and gown, that part was true. The narrative was properly about race, sex and class… We went a beat too fast in assuming that a rape took place… We just got the facts wrong. The narrative was right, but the facts were wrong.

Left unanswered by Trunk and Thomas is the question, if this is what modern day journalism is, why should we respect or even pay attention to it?

18 July 2007

Breaking the glass floor

I was listening to some report on the radio, which was discussing at length John Edwards, Presidential hopeful. I realized that Edwards had, in fact, made a significant breakthrough in our political system — he has made it OK to talk about the hairstyle, clothing, and general deportment of male politicians the way that is commonly done about female politicians. Maybe he really is more womanly.

17 July 2007

Just wrong

It is just wrong that “Air Jordan” T-shirts are manufactured in size XXXXL, for the same reason I never wear a Speedo.

06 July 2007

Out of the virtual office

Off on a week’s vacation. I don’t know what the connectivity will be, so this weblog may go dark until mid-week after next. Maybe I’ll catch up — I have piles and piles of things I want to write about but haven’t had the time and / or energy. You all behave while I’m gone.

05 July 2007

Designed to offend

What strikes me most about the entire immigration “reform” episode is how its proponents, particularly President Bush, seemed to have carefully followed a check list of ways to generate opposition and outrage.

  • Worked with Senator Ted Kennedy as a not just a co-sponsor but a collaborator.
  • Collaborating on the bill with radical, racist organizations.
  • Immediately branding any opposition to this legislation in specifc as “racist”.
  • Accuse opponents of having cynical motives then laud the legislation as a way to get more votes in future elections.
  • Support the legislation via the previous two mechanisms rather than arguing on the merits.
  • Rushing such a major piece of legislation through as fast as possible.
  • Going to some effort to avoid any input from conservative Senators.
  • Making an effort to prevent Senators from even reading the legislation before voting on it.
  • Arrogantly ignore the deep unpopularity of the legislation.

I can’t think of anything else significant that could have been done to more thoroughly enrage and condescend to the electorate. It continues to be a mystery why the proponents thought this approach would be a successful one. My theory is that the proponents knew from the start that this was a badly written, seriously flawed, ineffective mass of incoherent legislation. That is precisely why they took this approach, because they knew they would lose any substantive debate. I.e., the classic “if you don’t have the facts, pound on the table” style of debate. In retrospect, it is clear that despite the failure, this was the right choice, because the more people knew about the legislation, the less they liked it. A rush without judgment and the support of dubious allies was the only way.

This, however, leaves a bigger mystery. Why? What was the motivation for pushing legislation even its backers knew was bogus? Why risk careers, Presidential aspirations, etc., in support of legislation one doesn’t even understand? I suspect the dynamics of one of those doomsday cults, where everyone becomes convinced of things any normal person would laugh at because the cultists are living in an insular bubble of mindless repetition.

Still not getting it

Today’s example of lack of clue by the Wall Street Journal on modern technology is a headline in the “Personal Journal” section about the next wave of video game consoles and games. Ready for deep insight?

Hoping to spur console sales, videogame makers to unveil souped-up graphics, effects

Wow! Imagine that — the next wave of video game consoles will have better and more interesting graphics! This gets close to the “Unrest in the Middle East” type of headline. Do any of the people / editors who write this stuff ever interact with people in the industry they are reporting on?

02 July 2007

Forgivable wealth

I was thinking about wealth and wealthy people and the odd fact that people who get wealthy from business tend to be reviled, while multi-millionaire entertainers get a free pass to be as obnoxiously rich as they want. The current Live Earth concert is an excellent case in point, where the entertainers get to enjoy a massively lavish experience while promoting the idea that everyone else should tighten up. It’s not that they do this, it’s that they get away with it. Why?

I wonder if it’s not because being a successful entertainer seems more difficult to most people, based on personal experience. Not that many people run businesses, but most people have tried performing in sports or other forms of entertainment and have a better grasp of the difficulty of being good enough to make large sums of money.

An alternative explanation is the connection between the entertains actions and the benefits thereof is much clearer. A Streisand fan knows exactly why he’s willing to give money to her, but the average business mogul? That’s not so clear.

No different than summer camp memories, I suppose

Reading about the demise of Antioch College is an excellent source for your daily requirement of schadenfruede. Basically, it’s tolerance for bizarre student antics created a negative feedback cycle that devastated enrollment.

But the subject of today’s post is different, triggered by this section —

Bard College President Leon Botstein (who in the 1970s was president of the seriously far-out and short-lived Franconia College) came down hard on what he sees as a failure of liberals to support their institutions.

“One of the tragedies of the progressive liberal movement,” Botstein said, “is that unlike at a conservative institution — such as Princeton or Dartmouth, where the alumni are deeply loyal and give it support and money — for liberals, higher education is not a strong enough cause. Their causes are social causes, and higher education is left for the conservatives to fund.”

This sort of thing has always been a great mystery to me. I can understand why conservatives might donate to the endowment of a particular college or university, in order to promote a specific style or ideologically oriented education of the next generation. What baffles me is why this would be related to the college the donor attended. It seems to be a wide spread phenomenon that people are (in my view) fanatically devoted for no apparent reason to their “alma mater”. It’s just another part of the service industry, delivering a service in exchange for cash. Why such loyalty to a college and not to, for example, a book store? Particularly since rarely, if ever, can you use the service again.

I suppose someone will bring up the point of using the service for your children, but that’s at least a decade or two later on, at which time the institution might have changed radically, and your own geographically situation is likely to be completely different. Evaluating the currently extant options at that time seems far more sensible to me.

Is there just some college shaped hole in my soul?

01 July 2007

Single sourcing

Via Just One Minute is a book review by Nial Ferguson about a book that explores the causes of economic failure in Africa. It touches upon the “resource trap” in which a wealth of natural resources seems to be a curse rather than a blessing. As always, two thoughts —

I have my own thoughts on why this might be so, and I think one key is not resource wealth per se, but monocultural resource wealth. A frequent counter-argument to the resource trap is that the USA has a lot of resource wealth and it’s done OK. But the USA has a lot of different resources, so there is no one dominate resource. In places that seem trapped in dysfunction by resources, it’s a singular resource. E.g., oil, or diamonds, etc. But the key thing is that it’s a singular resource that dominates everything else about the nation. That creates the equivalent of a welfare system where major success consists solely of seizing control of that dominant resource (or a big chunk of it). The men of power are those who control that resource, and no competing power center can arise. As our Founders realized, it is in the inter-play of roughly equal factions that good governance can arise. A single source of wealth, a single font of power, is doomed to dysfunction.

On the other hand, it makes me wonder about how this would affect magic based societies. Would magic count as such a dominant resource that will mire such a society in dysfunction? Would access to such a resource destroy the ability of a society to advance in the manner the Anglosphere has? Perhaps all those sword and sorcery novels that had despotic, dysfunctional societies because it suited the plot were more insightful than they are given credit for being.

Weekend Imagery

My weekend —

Flies real good ‘cause it’s all wood

Green Rage Squadron

In Memorium

Fix it now before it fixes itself

Orrin Judd cites another article which claims that falling birthrates in Mexico will solve the illegal immigration problem. Judd writes

Places like Spain are already paying people to emigrate there. Within a few years aliens will be such a precious resource they’ll be able to write their own tickets.

Well, if that’s so, why bother doing anything about it now, as Judd so stridently supports? I am always very suspicious of projects that claim to fix a problem that’s going to fix itself.