May 2003 Archives

Despite getting a 99% "fresh" rating from RottenTomatoes.com, Pixar/Disney's new release, Finding Nemo, totally sucked. The computer animation was cool, yay, but the plot was incredibly weak and I could barely stay awake.

As any English major can tell you, the key to any story is conflict. Finding Nemo has no conflict. There are no bad guys -- it's basically a man (fish) vs. nature story, except that nature pretty much does everything it can to help out along the way.

Along with this underwhelming story they toss in a few cheap anti-American knocks that really serve no purpose at all considering that the movie takes place near Australia. The fish don't know where Sydney is, but they can crack wise about arrogant Americans. Screw you, Pixar and Disney.

Overall it was boring and monotonous. Marlin, the dad, would escape from one mildly threatening situation and fall right into another, only to be rescued by whatever friendly sea creature happened to be swimming by. Nemo eventually frees himself from the dentist's aquarium by getting tossed down a sink, and somehow manages to reach the ocean by passing through a waste treatment plant alive. Whatever; trying to analyze the plot is like beating up a little kid with a nerf bat.


HOLLYWOOD GETS IT WRONG: Stephen Stanton explains how Hollywood gets capitalism all wrong, and why we should care.


DO GUNS REALLY INCREASE SECURITY?: I'm generally very pro-gun. I think law-abiding citizens should be allowed to own and carry pretty much any type of gun they want without government involvement. I believe that wide-spread gun ownership can reduce crime and ultimately save lives. There are some statistics that bear out these beliefs, but what I'd really like to focus on at the moment is a situation that appears to stand in stark contrast: the on-going barbarism in the Congo.

The Telegraph article describes how crazed, drug-infused, cannibalistic militias (with periodic military support) have been devastating the country for the past five years, resulting in between 3 and 5 million deaths thus far. It's an awful, inconceivably evil conflict with no apparent end in sight, and it's being perpetrated on the populace despite the apparent widespread availability of guns.

Along the town's main street shop doors hung drunkenly from their hinges. Windows on many buildings were smashed, their contents looted. The few establishments that escaped pillaging were firmly shuttered. A Hema boy, aged no more than eight or nine, sauntered down the street dressed in a ridiculously oversized military uniform, his camouflage jacket flapping about his calves.

He disappeared into a building for a moment and re-emerged casually swinging an AK47 from his hip.

A pick-up truck filled with grim-faced Hema soldiers and mounted with a fearsomely large machinegun roared down the street.

So what's the deal? I buy into the idea that guns can make society safer, so why isn't it working in the Congo?

One might argue that civil order has already broken down, and that the problem is that there is no central authority with enough firepower to restore it. However, there don't appear to be significant quantities of heavy weapons involved on the side of the militias, so why can't the rest of the population at least organize to contain and restrain them? Lack of will? Pure fear? Do I have a mistaken impression of the quantity of guns in play? Do the militias have a monopoly on firearms that the population as a whole does not have access to?

Perhaps there is some law and order threshold such that in circumstances where peace already prevails gun ownership can reduce crime, but in circumstances where violence dominates throwing more guns into the mix just exacerbates the problem. Maybe this threshold is somehow related to mob psychology in the sense that individuals will tend to follow the existing status quo, be that peace or violence. Does anyone have any insight?

(Telegraph link via Mean Mr. Mustard.)

WAR IS GOOD FOR CHILDREN AND OTHER LIVING THINGS: Not only have all the children that Saddam locked up been released, but the terrible environmental damage he caused is beginning to be repaired, as can be seen from these satellite photos. From the UN, no less!

Hopefully someone will credit this environmental clean-up to Bush's account during the 2004 election. I have no doubt that it will win over a great many Green party members.

(Thanks for the photos, OpinionJournal.)


POST-WAR IRAQ: Robert Pollock has a very different view of the Iraqi street than I opined on yesterday. It's also a much more encouraging report than that from WaPo, which bemoaned the current lack of Iraqi local governance.

On the street, opinion of Iraq's would-be leaders [prospective Iraqi leaders] is decidedly more skeptical--perhaps understandable in a country that has not learned to expect great things from politicians. "No to [Shiite religious leader] Hakim, no to Chalabi," is a common refrain. "I want America to stay here . . . kill Saddam and stay." Of all the preconceptions I had before my visit, the idea that Iraqis would demand a provisional government of their own at the earliest possible date was most wrong.
Unfortunately, many of the Iraqis who are offering themselves up for leadership positions are former Baathists and Saddam cronies who the local populace is understandably afraid of. Almost everyone who was in the old Iraqi bureaucracy was also involved with the Baathist regime, and so there aren't many experienced administrators available to take control.

I don't see this as a bad thing, considering how corrupt the old government was -- what it does mean, however, is that the American administration will have to train a new bureaucracy from the ground up. Luckily, if there's one thing we're good at here it's bureaucracy!


PAPER INTERNET: One of my aunts was at my house the other day and saw the anti-anti-war poster I was holding in this infamous AP photograph taken at the big anti-war walkout at UCLA in early March (link's broken, great... I'll find another later). She remarked, "that's the poster that from the protest; it's so neat that you got onto the internet!" I smiled and nodded, but her perspective on the internet (really the WWW) made me think.

My aunt's statement would have made much more sense if she was talking about me being on television, for example. It's unusual for any specific person to be on TV, and no doubt that was the connection she was making in her mind. However, the web isn't really like TV at all. Anyone can put anything up on the web, basically at will and for no cost. There's nothing significant about having your picture on a web page somewhere. In this instance, the only reason it was significant was because the photo was taken by an AP photographer and was carried by a few wire subscribers, as well as Instapundit.

If anything, the web is like paper more than it's like TV. Anyone can write something down or have their picture taken -- what makes it noteworthy is how that paper is then positioned and who sees it. The mere fact that my picture was available on the web is not remarkable, but its positioning was.


DIVINE INTERVENTION: As I mentioned yesterday, I passed my Written Qualifying Exams. They were difficult, and after I took them last week I was pretty sure that I had not done very well. I took the exams once before and failed, and I was mildly stressed out about the possibility of failing again (that's about as stressed out as I get).

During the six months of preparation, the few weeks of cramming, the 10 hours of testing, and the 10 days of waiting to get my scores back, I did a lot of praying. I asked God to give me wisdom as I studied, a clear mind, focus, encouragement, some lenient professors... and of course, I ask him to help me pass. And I did pass. So, did God answer my prayers, or did God just sit back and watch while I did my thing?

SDB believes that "the material universe is all that exists, and that everything we see around us is a manifestation of matter and the way it interacts according to the laws of physics". So he would clearly say that my prayers had no impact on my actual performance, other than perhaps psychological. But then, that assertion would be predicated on his existing philosophy and not really based on any evidence in this particular case -- indeed, my prayers were such that they could be answered without there being any incontrovertable evidence of God taking direct action.

What about free will? Some have claimed that God cannot act directly in the world or intervene in human affairs without undermining free will. That's an interesting position, and it relates closely to my prayers regarding my exam. It seems obvious that God could, for example, manipulate natural forces without interfering with free will (or even leaving noticable indications that he was meddling), but in order to answer my specific prayers in the affirmative God would have to tweak my own behavior, at the very least.

I asked for wisdom and focus, so if God assented and somehow helped me be more dedicated to my studies did he violate my free will? Not if he was only doing what I myself asked him to do. The very process of asking for God to act implies that I consent to the requested involvement.

The request for lenient professors is a bit trickier. Speculatively, God could cause memories to arise of the professors' own examination experiences which could lead to generosity when they graded mine; that would not necessarily subvert their free will (since such remembrance is not generally a conscious process), but would certainly be somewhat manipulative.

In the end, there's no real proof either way. But I did pass, and my intelligence and opportunities at the very least came from God's grace.


POST-WAR IRAQ: Local governance in Basra is shaping up to be rather difficult. I didn't buy all the overly optimistic predictions that had an Iraqi government in place and our military out in six months, but I also didn't think it would be quite this hard to set up local city councils. I still stand by my initial guess that it will be two years or so before the Iraqis really control their country again.

I'm also sick and tired of reading about their complaints. Boohoo, you're not "free" yet. You're also not being tortured and mutilated anymore either. Just chill!


NANOG: Kinda like egg nog, except that "nanog" is the name genetic researchers are giving the "master gene" that they've discovered which they believe is responsible for giving embryonic stem cells their pluripotency. That is, stem cells can mature into any type of cell, whereas most human cells have their nature fixed within a few days of creation.

The article says that:

In one crucial experiment, Smith's team inserted copies of the human nanog gene into mouse embryonic stem cells, and subjected those cells to laboratory conditions that normally force such cells to mature and become one kind of tissue. The human nanog gene prevented that process.

That suggests that if scientists were to reawaken the dormant nanog gene in adult human cells -- something the Japanese group and others would like to try soon -- they might "reprogram" the gene activity patterns in those adult cells and turn them into cells that, for all practical purposes, are embryonic stem cells.

If this ability can be turned on and off at will at different locations throughout the body it will be possible to heal many currently untreatable conditions: nerve damage, lost or damaged organs, severe burns, brain diseases like Alzheimer's, nerve diseases like Parkinson's and muscular dystrophy, cancer, heart disease... you name it.

In theory, it would also be possible to reverse/eliminate aging and extend fertility indefinitely.


CALIFORNIA POLITICS: I rather enjoy politics, and California has quite a bit going on. We've got a $30 billion (or $20 billion) budget crisis, an attempt to recall governor Gray Davis circulating for signatures, a highly partisan legislature, massive immigration problems, &c. &c. The problem is, most of the news blogs and sites I read deal on a more national level, and it's hard to find out what's going on locally. I get most of my California politics from local talk radio in the afternoons, but it's not entirely satisfying. So, I'm happy to have discovered Rough & Tumble, a blog that givs us "a daily snapshot of California public policy and politics". I'm sticking a link on the blogroll to the left.


I'M THE BEST AROUND! AND NOTHING'S GONNA EVER KEEP ME DOWN!: Just as Daniel-san recovered from the Cobra Kai's vicious leg-sweep, I have defeated the mighty WQE despite its initial, short-lived, victory. Yes, that's right, I passed my Written Qualifying Exams! Woohoo!

I suggest a new strategy, WQE: let the Michael win!


RESTORING MY FAITH IN THE MEDIA: Or at least taking a shot at it. In the wake of the recent New York Times debacles, it was refreshing to come across this LA Times memo via Courtney.

The reason I'm sending this note to all section editors is that I want everyone to understand how serious I am about purging all political bias from our coverage. We may happen to live in a political atmosphere that is suffused with liberal values (and is unreflective of the nation as a whole), but we are not going to push a liberal agenda in the news pages of the Times.

I'm no expert on abortion, but I know enough to believe that it presents a profound philosophical, religious and scientific question, and I respect people on both sides of the debate. A newspaper that is intelligent and fair-minded will do the same.

Bravo.


SUPREMACY OF INDIVIDUAL RIGHTS: Erik over at Brainville takes a rather absolutist view of individual rights that I admit is rather appealing given the socialist/collectivist view of freedom that permeates much of the world; however, in his zeal I think he has moved too far to the other end of the spectrum. As with nearly all things, moderation is the key. Individuals rights should certainly reign supreme in the natural order, but as members of society we voluntarily abridge some of our rights in order to live together peacefully and securely.

For instance, I believe very strongly that individuals bear the primary responsibility for their own defense, and that the right to keep arms towards this end is fundamental and essential to human dignity and liberty. However, given the requirements of a functioning society, I do not believe that this right should be entirely unlimited. The question is, how limited should it be? It's easy to draw a bright line and deal with the world in black and white -- there should be no limits on private weapons. Indeed, in the natural order of the world this would necessarily be the only acceptable view. However, society is artificial and we do not exist in a "natural order"; I do not believe that unlimited freedom to keep every sort of weapon is the optimal strategy for my own security and prosperity. For instance, I am very strongly in favor of laws that prevent my neighbor from constructing a nuclear weapon in his basement, even if he is doing so to protect his family or to resist a potentially tyrannical government. Similarly, I do not believe that felons or psychotics should be allowed to possess weapons.

Free speech should also be limited to some degree. Britain's libel laws are far too restrictive, but ours in America are not particularly burdensome and I have no problem with them in general. Likewise, threatening speech should not be permitted, nor should fraudulent advertising. Drunk driving should be illegal for the same reasons that it's illegal to fire a gun into the air in the middle of a city.

It is emotionally and intellectually satisfying to believe that no one should sacrifice or abridge any of their natural rights under any circumstances, but I don't think that this perspective is practical or optimal for either the individual or the community. We are right to be concerned about the potential erosion of our liberty, but it's a matter of degree -- and not every slope is slippery. It is possible for me to voluntarily yield my right to own a nuclear weapon without later yielding my right to possess a handgun or a rifle or (for that matter) a tank. Society is built on compromise, and some freedoms can safely be surrendered in exchange for security, comfort, and prosperity. The trick is in finding where to draw the lines.

I do think that our current system has moved too far towards the collectivist viewpoint and that many of our fundamental rights are being slowly taken away by people who hope to shape society into their version of utopia wherein the elite few "guide" the mindless masses of sheeple in the direction that is "best for them". In particular, the right to possess the means to protect oneself from violent assault is overly restricted here in California. However, it would be possible to go too far in the other direction, as well. Who then should possess the power to determine the limits of our rights?

Why, we outselves, of course! That's the beauty of democracy. We have the power to reclaim our rights; our system is not hopelessly flawed and we do not require violent revolution, we simply need to state our positions clearly and disseminate them as broadly as possible, and then allow the people to decide. Unlike the socialists, I am not afraid to let the populace determine our destiny. As it is, we have already decided that certain rights are outside the power of the majority, and I am not advocating strict majority rule. Our tradition, history, and founding documents outline the rules of the game, and I trust the majority to deal with the specific details.


TONGUE TWISTERS: Here are some of my favorites --

Red leather, yellow leather. Red leather, yellow leather. Red leather, yellow leather.

Toy boat. Toy boat. Toy boat.

The pyrite pirate's playwright playmate played right.

Peter Piper picked a peck of pickeled peppers;
A peck of pickeled peppers Peter Piper picked.
But if Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers,
Where's the peck of pickled peppers Peter Piper picked?


HISTORICAL ACCURACY: Along the same line as the textbook post below, Clayton Cramer points me to a post by Eric Muller that recounts an experience with real discrimination during a historical re-enactment at Colonial Williamsburg. I've been to CW before and found it mildly interesting, mainly because of the attention to historical details. However, is it appropriate to discriminate among visitors by race and religion so that they can get a feel for what past discrimination was actually like?

Then the bailiff explained that the members of the panel of justices would have to meet the requirements of the period—they would have to be white, male, Protestant, over a certain age (I don't remember what it was), and land owners. Then he said, “the law at the time would have required you to swear an anti-papist oath too, but”—and here he broke into a broad smile—“we're not going to push it that far.” Many in the crowd laughed.

Then he asked for volunteers. He must have noticed the enthusiasm in my face, because he specifically pointed to me and asked if I wanted to participate. I was confused—had all of that stuff about the requirements for serving been a joke? He said nothing that indicated he wasn't serious. And he'd even said that there was an eighteenth-century requirement that they weren't enforcing—the anti-papist oath—so that led me to think that maybe they were serious about the other ones. Anyway, I answered him that I didn't meet the requirements. (I'm Jewish.) “Thanks for being honest,” he said, and then turned to get other volunteers.

The point could have been made without enforcing the discriminatory rules, and would certainly have raised fewer eyebrows... but was this actual discrimination or what? Was it wrong? I can't quite put my finger on it.

Clayton Cramer mentions that in the past, black employees at CW were said to be playing the role of "servents" rather than "slaves" for fear of offending anyone, but that particular change seems very revisionist to me. It's one thing to hire actors to play historically accurate parts that involve discrimination, but it's quite another to impose racism on visitors for the sake of accuracy. The Holocaust Museum here in Los Angeles doesn't require Jewish guests to sew yellow stars onto the clothing when they enter, for example.

COMMIES: I don't know if I hate all communists, but I sure hate communism. Most young, American commies that I come into contact with are just misguided idealists, but that doesn't really make them any less dangerous. Communism has killed more people than fascism has, but it isn't recognized as being as evil because its intentions are better (on the surface, anyway). I saw a hippie wearing a Che Guevara t-shirt at In-N-Out last night and I wanted to start an arguement with him, but I didn't. What's the point? Other than pure entertainment, I mean.

Communism is seductive because it sounds so nice, but it doesn't work, and when it fails it fails spectacularly.


THINK OF THE CHILDREN: Lincoln said that "you can't please all the people all of the time", but apparently textbook writers are care less about pleasing everyone than they worry about offending anyone. Dianne Ravitch's new book, "The Language Police", gives a list of 500 words that the four major textbook publishers have banned from their products for fear of offending various groups of people. This is hardly a new issue, but it makes me cringe every time I see it.

Among the words and phrases excluded:

... you can't find anyone riding on a yacht or playing polo in the pages of an American textbook either. The texts also can't say someone has a boyish figure, or is a busboy, or is blind, or suffers a birth defect, or is a biddy, or the best man for the job, a babe, a bookworm, or even a barbarian.

All these words are banned from U.S. textbooks on the grounds that they either elitist (polo, yacht) sexist (babe, boyish figure), offensive (blind, bookworm) ageist (biddy) or just too strong (hell which is replaced with darn or heck). God is also a banned word in the textbooks because he or she is too religious.

Obviously this type of nerfing is counterproductive -- it clearly inhibits actual learning, which is the point of textbooks. If a student is never exposed to anything different than what he already knows, how can he ever learn or grow? Textbooks should teach facts. Sometimes facts are unpleasant. People who live in the real world (as opposed to education-fantasyland) need to learn to deal with things they don't like without getting "offended".

Even the concept of being "offended" is ridiculous to me. People are different than you, deal with it. Some people do own yachts, some people are barbarians, whatever. Understand the context behind the words you don't like, learn where the connotations come from, and decide for yourself whether or not they're justified. That's what education is about.

Some people want to nerf the whole world and cover all the sharp corners with soft, squishy foam so that no one ever gets hurt or experiences an unpleasant moment. There already are such places: they're called insane asylums. Go live there and leave the rest of us alone. What will happen when your child is confronted with a real live blind person who own a yacht and plays polo?

I've written several times about so-called campaign finance reform, and there's another aspect that I want to address. I said before that one of the reasons that there is a problem with "special interests" unduly influencing elections is that the legislative branch of our government has usurped too much power from the states themselves, and that's a fact. It would be good to drastically cut taxes and "entitlements", but how could such a thing be accomplished under our current system?

Well, it probably can't. However, the current system isn't the only possible way to do things; until 1913 the federal legislative playing field was quite different. Before the enactment of the 17th Amendment Senators were not elected directly by the people of each state, but were instead selected by the state legislatures. John Dean wrote an essay in 2002 in which he argues that this change to our republic is really what is responsible for the federal bloat we've seen since FDR, and that such cannot be laid solely at the feet of the Progressive movement.

I think Dean has a valid point. The 17th Amendment doesn't account for the explosion of state governments, but I'm sure it at least played a role in the subversion of our federal government. Why was it enacted in the first place? John Dean bases his conclusions on the research of George Mason law professor Todd Zywicki and demolishes two traditional explanations for the 17th. He then says:

Fortuntely, Professor Zywicki offers an explanation for the Amendment's enactment that makes much more sense. He contends that the true backers of the Seventeenth Amendment were special interests, which had had great difficultly influencing the system when state legislatures controlled the Senate. (Recall that it had been set up by the Framers precisely to thwart them.) They hoped direct elections would increase their control, since they would let them appeal directly to the electorate, as well as provide their essential political fuel - money.

This explanation troubles many. However, as Zywicki observes, "[a]thought some might find this reality 'distasteful,' that does not make it any less accurate."

The permanent solution to the corruption in Washington is to split Congress back into its original form, so that state legislatures can provide a balance against the federal government's insatiable appetite for power (and vice versa). The "checks and balances" of our political system are its greatest strength; competition eliminates the long-term problems that arise when too much power is concentrated in any one institution.


A COMMON THREAD: I want to briefly mention a topic that's been bouncing around in my brain for a while. I think it was brought to the forefront by something I heard on the radio today, but I'm not sure.

In a country with a parlimentary system of government, the Democratic Party would be five or six seperate parties. Because of our electoral system these disparate factions have banded into one party, and there are a few important threads that tie them all together. What do labor unions, NOW, environmentalists, urban blacks, Hollywood stars, teachers' unions, welfare mothers, and all the rest have in common? Well, the most obvious answer is that they all benefit greatly from big government and think that it's better for everyone if the elite have the power to tell you how to run your life. Longing for a big, powerful, unlimited government that can usher in Utopia is the major platform that all these groups stand on; only slightly beneath the surface is the desire to profit off this concentration of power, to use the government as leverage to attain wealth and easy living.

More subtle, though, is the issue of abortion-on-demand. There are/were many Democrat politicians who used to be pro-life (such as Al Gore, Dick Gephardt, Ed Kennedy, Bill Clinton, and Jesse Jackson, to name only a few) but who have since changed their position. Why is that? The fact of the matter is that no Democrat will get political support from the party apparatus these days if he/she is not stridently pro-abortion. Ideological diversity is unacceptable to the people who value other arbitrary/involuntary forms of diversity above all else.

Abortion is the hidden tie that binds. I'm not exactly sure why, though. Most blacks and hispanics (who largely identify themselves with the Democrats) aren't knee-jerk pro-choicers, so what's the deal with the party? I guess the party elites just know better than the plebes do, and they're intent on pushing their own agenda. It hurts the party politically, however, and I suspect that many of the minority voters that they count on are going to wake up sooner or later.


POST-WAR IRAQ: Donald Rumsfeld has an article up at OpinionJournal.com in which he outlines some of the broad principles that the Coalition Provisional Authority will be putting into place in post-war Iraq. Some are pretty direct, but some are more subtle. The very first one is:

Assert authority. Our goal is to put functional and political authority in the hands of Iraqis as soon as possible. The Coalition Provisional Authority has the responsibility to fill the vacuum of power in a country that has been a dictatorship for decades, by asserting authority over the country. It will do so. It will not tolerate self-appointed "leaders."
That's very direct, and clearly an important thing to do.
Contracts--promoting Iraq's recovery. Whenever possible, contracts for work in Iraq will go to those who will use Iraqi workers and to countries that supported the Iraqi people's liberation so as to contribute to greater regional economic activity and to accelerate Iraq's and the region's economic recovery.
Translation: French and Russian contracts will not be honored, and nations which opposed the war will be locked-out of the rebuilding process.
The international community. Other countries and international organizations, including the United Nations and non-governmental organizations, will be welcomed to assist in Iraq. They can play an important role. The Coalition Provisional Authority will work with them to maintain a focus of effort.
That's a little more subtle -- the UN and other organizations can come and help, and we'll tell them how to focus their efforts.
Priority sources of funds. In assisting the Iraqi people, the U.S. will play its role but should not be considered the funder of first and last resort. The American people have already made a significant investment to liberate Iraq, and stand ready to contribute to rebuilding efforts. But when funds are needed, before turning to the U.S. taxpayers, the coalition will turn first to Iraqi regime funds located in Iraq; Iraqi funds in the U.N. Oil-for-Food program; seized frozen Iraqi regime assets in the U.S. and other countries; and international donors from across the globe, many of whom are already assisting.
Good, that's how it should work. There's no reason that America or Britain or anyone else should have to finance Iraq's recovery when the country is floating on oil.


MATRIX RELOADED: Yeah, what he said. I don't really have much to say about the movie. If you like the process of tearing through wrapping paper more than you actually enjoy getting to the present, you'll like the movie. Otherwise, you might be disappointed when you discover there's really nothing inside the gaudy packaging.

Update:
Mark Aveyard blasts Lileks' critique of the movie. He also claims that the woman who ate the magic cake was having an orgasm, but uh, if that's the case, then it was a more subdued orgasm than I've ever seen. Ahem.


THE SPICE OF LIFE: I think the quarter system is superior to the semester system for a lot of reasons. One of the primary is that I have a short attention span, and I'd rather learn a subject in 10 weeks than in 18. For some things, like math, we cover the same amount of material in three quarters as is otherwise done in two semesters, so there's no real net gain. But for other subjects (such as when I had to take an "ethics in engineering" course) it's quite a relief to finish up as quickly as possible.

I like variety, I like change, I like doing new things -- as long as they're below a certain threshold. For example, I enjoy rearranging my furniture but I hate moving. Changing a room around can give it a whole new vibe and completely realign it mentally. You can wash out all the old memories of past experiences that took place there and end up with an entirely new place.

Moving, on the other hand, always makes me feel empty and alone. Even once I've got my phone and my internet connection hooked up I still feel isolated and distant in my new location. What if someone is trying to reach me, and they don't know where I am?! Geesh, I don't even know where I am! A couple of weeks later the new house starts to feel like home, and everything mentally falls into its proper niche. The secret to success is to will yourself into taking that first step.

Many people have told me about feeling trapped or stuck in places or experiences in life, such as jobs or relationships or what-have-you. That's not something I've ever really had trouble dealing with, myself. There have certainly been times when I've felt that I'm not making sufficient progress in the direction that I want to go, but I've never felt trapped anywhere with no escape. Most such "traps" are really just mental hills we have to climb, fears we have to overcome, and motivational thresholds we have to surpass. We need to take the first step, and the rest is easy (even if it's not always comfortable).

For myself, I try and recognize such situations in my own life early on, and then move quickly to escape before I invest too much time or energy in a losing proposition. I'd rather face unpleasant truths than live enveloped in comforting lies, and so when a job or relationship or circumstance goes sour I do my best to muster up the courage and energy to escape as soon as possible. It's important to consider the situation carefully, but once the truth is clear I never waste time making the hard decision that will inevitably be required.

He who hesitates is lost. Who dares, wins. Just do it.


WON'T SOMEONE PLEASE THINK OF THE CHILDREN?: Apparently, Iraqi doctors are now confirming that the spike in the infant death rate in Iraq in the 1990s was Saddam's fault, and not really due to sanctions. Who'd've thunk it?


HAPPY MEMORIAL DAY:

Pic from USMemorialDay.org.


CONTAINMENT: Because of the containment problem I just mentioned I don't believe that humanity will ever develop artificial intelligence that rivals our own. I don't think that we'll ever be able to understand the true nature of our minds, because our comprehension is itself contained within that system. That's why research into AI relies heavily on trying to generate emergent effects -- complex results from simple inputs. Getting complex results from complex inputs is easy, but so far no one has been able to come up with a system of rules that fully describes human behavior. Constructing simple inputs is easy, but it's almost always impossible to get more complexity out of a system than you put into it in the first place.


APPEAL TO CONSEQUENCES: SDB asks "Do you prefer unpleasant truths or pleasing falsehoods?" In almost every instance I believe it's better to know the truth than to believe in something false just because it's more comfortable. There are plenty of examples, particularly that relate to religion, but since I said "in almost every instance" let me briefly discuss one case in which the truth seems irrelevent.

Is there such a thing as "free will"? I believe there is -- if man is created in God's image, then the most significant implcation of that is our existence as free moral agents. It gets to the root of one of the biggest questions that many people have about God: if God is completely good and also all-powerful, why is there so much evil in the world? Because he gave us the ability to make choices, even choices that don't coincide with his desires. Free will is essential to Christianity, because without it there would be no value in talking about good or evil, both of which rely on intentionality. God imbued this physical bodies with a supernatural essence, a spirit if you will, that transcends the mere material universe.

From a scientific perspective, however, there isn't much explanation or allowance for free will; additionally every conceivable investigator is himself trapped within the phenomenon in question. How can I possibly determine whether my own thoughts and actions are the result of choice, or whether they are predetermined by chemistry and physics? My decision-making process is hopelessly and fundamentally tainted and depends entirely on the result being generated. This difficulty is what I call a "containment problem", because our reasoning itself relies on the answer we're trying to come up with.

Most of the non-Christians that I've asked believe that there is such a thing as free will (does SDB?), but none of them has a credible conjecture on the source or nature of it. If our intelligence is wholly dependent on the biology of our brains, then how can we be anything but complicated deterministic machines? Some have turned to quantum mechanics, but no one yet has an understanding of quantum effects that could be used to explain the origin of free will. Even if QM plays a significant role in the high-level operation of our brains (questionable), this just serves to introduce macroscopic randomness to the system... would they argue that this is the same as free will? If so, it's a different definition than I would use.

In the end, I don't think it matters. Although SDB wouldn't like it, an argument based on "appeal to consequences" appears to give the most satisfying answer possible. If there is no such thing as free will, then the question itself becomes rather pointless. If we're all just biological computers running complex, chaotic programs, then why even bother having the discussion? Acting as if we do have free will is the only practical option (how would you act otherwise?), and so we may as well believe it to be true.


TODAY: Been out for 20 hours, and I just got home. Work was crazy again so I didn't really have much time to post anything today, and then I went to a baseball game this evening, a bbq, and then just hung out for a while. I'm totally wiped out, and I've got two parties to go to tomorrow. It's funny, because there are some weekends that I've got nothing to do and I feel bored, and then there are weekends like this one where I wish I had nothing to do. At least it's a three day weekend.

I've come to realize that it's a lot easier for me to meet new people when there aren't people around that I know. I'd rather go to a party where I don't know anyone than go to a party where I only know one or two people. I have no problem striking up conversations with strangers when I'm flying solo, but when there are other people around that I know I'm always much more self-conscious. It seems kinda paradoxical to me, since I would expect someone to feel less inhibited around their friends than around strangers, but that's not the way it works for me.

I find it pretty easy to strike up conversations with girls, but I never know what to do once I've got it going. I can make people laugh, and I'm a good listener so I can generally get girls to share their life story while I act interested, but then what? I'm not good at closing the deal. Whenever I do ask for a number it sounds awkward and then afterwards it seems too early. But if I don't say anything then the moment will seem to pass and it'll be even worse. Timing is everything, and I just don't have it down yet.

I met a few beautiful babies tonight, but I couldn't even get a decent conversation going because there were too many people around who I sorta knew but not really, if you know what I mean. I knew them well enough that we couldn't make small talk, but not well enough that I didn't care about looking stupid in front of them. Acquaintances are the worst for me to be around, at least when I'm trying to meet girls.

Anyway, I'm just rambling. It's almost 3am and I need to hit the sack.

Donald Sensing mentions the Christian doctrine of original sin and I wanted to toss in my 3 cents.

It's common to hear it said that "most people are basically good", but whenever someone tells me that I wonder if they're living in the same world I am.

Me: Are you good?
Them: Well, mostly I guess. I try to be.
Me: Have you ever murdered anyone?
Them: No, of course not!
Me: Oh, well that's good. Have you ever lied?
Them: Sure, sure, sometimes I do.
Me: Ever steal anything?
Them: Haha, when I was a kid maybe.
Me: Never fudge your time cards then at work, I suppose?
Them: Maybe a little....
Me: Ever rape anyone?
Them: What?! No!
Me: Not even in your mind?
Them: Well you certainly can't judge me for the things I think about....
Me: So you're a liar, a thief, and you've at least contemplated rape --
Them: Bye.

The point is that no one is "basically good". Everyone is depraved, self-centered, and evil -- the fact that we don't act on these desires isn't due to some inner virtue, it's because of fear. That's the purpose of society, to pit my selfishness against yours and thereby restain both of us from our true nature. I'm planning another article on this topic as it relates to my previous post on game theory.

Anyone who has ever seen or been a part of a mob knows what can happen when societal restraint breaks down. Otherwise orderly, good, decent, normal human beings can go completely nuts when their fear of retribution and punishment disappears, and this is our natural condition. Anyone who is honest with theirself knows this to be true -- I alone know the beast that lives within me.

It was horrifying to me to read about the terror that Saddam's regime perpetrated on the Iraqi people. How could anyone commit such atrocities? The countless murders and rapes, children tortured, mass graves, medical experimentation... we've only begun to discover the carnage. One of the scariest things to me was that I could see kernels of that same evil in my own heart. Sure, I'm a long way from there in action, but somewhere deep inside of me is a sliver of darkness just looking for tiny ways to break free each and every day. What about you?


CONSCIOUSNESS: How much time each day do you actually spend conscious? I don't mean merely awake, I mean self-aware. How much time do you spend just following patterns of action and mindlessly executing one program after another? Wake up, get dressed, drive to work/school, sit/stand around for a few hours, drive home, watch TV, go to sleep. If you're like most people, you turn the radio on in the car while you're driving to keep your mind occupied, so that you don't have to actually think about anything during this otherwise dead time. Most of our daily activities do not require conscious thought to perform. We do it once, learn the ropes, and then just follow the same pattern over and over again.

How many of us truely are intelligent beings? Every single human? Most? A few? None? Cogito ergo sum -- I think, therefore I am. I have no doubt that every human has some periods of self-awareness, but I think they're rare and spread far between, and most people don't even realize it. Thinking is a lot of work, and it's more efficient to develop patterns and heuristics to help us make decisions and carry out our every-day activities. I'm certainly not saying that these routines are bad; can you imagine how frustrating it would be if you had to devote considerable mental energy every time you drove to work?

It seems as if the goal of many people is to think as little as possible.


GUNS AND TYRANNY: As wrote about women and crime, no one thinks bad things will happen to them. In America, most people will scoff if you cite "defense against tyranny" as a justification for the Second Amendment, but at the lowest level that really is the whole point. Dave Kopel compares guns to fire extinguishers:

One never knows if one will need a fire extinguisher. Many people go their whole lives without needing to use a fire extinguisher, and most people never need firearms to resist genocide. But if you don't prepare to have a life-saving tool on hand during an unexpected emergency, then you and your family may not survive.
It's a good analogy, but it misses one critical difference: owning a fire extinguisher won't make it less likely that a fire will start, it will only make it easier to deal with; if people own a guns it will make it less likely that tyranny will ever gain a foothold.

People who say they would feel unsafe owning or carrying a gun remind me of people who say that they don't wear seatbelts because they don't want to get trapped in a burning car. Sure, that's happened before, no doubt; and yes, people are killed by their own guns from time to time (discounting suicides, even). But the vast majority of the time you're going to be safer if you wear your seatbelt than if you don't, and you're going to be safer if you carry a gun than if you don't.

No one thinks that a ruthless dictator is going to rise to power in their country, but if you look back at history it happens all the time. Pol Pot and Hitler are obvious examples, but even the Roman Republic was undermined by Julius Ceasar. If you think it can't possibly happen in America, ask yourself why not? There's really only one reason: there are more than 200,000,000 guns in America in the hands of private citizens.

(Kopel article via Instapundit.)


"IT WAS A MASSACRE...": I talked to the computer science graduate student administrator about the WQE this afternoon and asked if any other students or professors had said anything about it to her. She rolled her eyes and said that dozens of students had gone to her to complain, that there was lots of yelling and screaming, and that the test was, in her words, "a massacre". So I feel a little better. I don't know if it means I'll pass, but at least I wasn't the only one frustrated by the whole experience.

Courtney has a couple of posts up on the subject I raised previously, and enlightens us as to why many women seem to have an irrational aversion to guns. As if women need a reason to be irrational, pffft.

Anyway, one thing she wrote that I'd like to take minor issue with:

... However, more often it seems men are finding very successful women sexy. Women who pull in a huge salary or have a lot of power become sexually charged.
She treats money and power in roughly the same fashion, but I'm not sure men are equally attracted to both. I wrote earlier about the androgynation of the sexes and I do think that in many ways there is some confluence, but there are still quite a lot of differences. A woman who earns a lot of money is one thing, but I think most men would still hesitate before marrying a senator, for example.

Guys like a girl who is assertive and confident, as long as the girl still defers to him. This is somewhat paradoxical, but no more so than the fact that women want tough men who like to cuddle and play with kittens.

To be honest, I don't really find pictures of women with guns to be any more sexy than pictures of the same women without guns. I think it's great for women to own them and carry them, etc, it just doesn't do anything for me. I'm more into the pretty-pretty-princess type of girl though, at least from the outside. Girly-girls are the best, as long as they know when it's time to turn it off and take care of business. Let me open the door for you and let me buy you dinner, but then when the date's over let's act like normal people again.

Everyone wants the best of everything all combined into one person -- that goes for women and men. In the end, we settle for reality. Stupid reality... be more sexy!

STILL BRAIN DEAD: And work was crazy today, too. Maybe I'll have something to write later. My aunt and uncle are in town and I'm going to eat dinner with them tonight; my uncle is a gun-nut, so I'm hoping he'll go with me to buy a gun later this week.

It's nice that I don't have to study tonight, anyway.


DONE... FOR NOW: I say "for now" because I have a sinking feeling that tells me that I'm going to have to take my exams again in six months. The questions today were unbelievably hard. Altogether, this test was harder than the one six months ago -- a lot harder.

The AI question was absurd, had nothing to do with AI, and was not even vaguely related to the material on the syllabus. Which sucks, because AI is one of the fields that I would expect to be able to do! The networking question wasn't too hard, but I am not an expert on networks. I think I did ok, but I don't know if I passed it. The software systems question was mostly just BS, and I think I did well. Architecture was hard, but I believe I did well on four ot of the five parts... I have no idea how the parts are weighted, though. The theory question was as difficult as Greibach's questions typically are, and I really have no idea how leniently she'll score me on it.

Overall, it's possible that I passed AI (if they end up throwing out the out-of-domain part), architecture, and software systems. It's conceivable that I passed theory and networking too, but that would be lucky. I guess it's possible that I passed the exams, but I'm doubtful at the moment. Sigh.

Talking to other students after the test was over, I got the sense that everyone thought it was hard. I got a couple things right that other people may not have, and I mostly did ok based on the answers other people got. The networking question was my weakest, relative to everyone else. Maybe I need to take a networking course or something. Many people seemed to get the one part of the architecture question I had trouble with, also. But I got part two of the AI question right and some others missed it. I really don't know. I'm tired and mentally exhausted. I can't imagine a worse fate than having to study all this material yet again. Well, failing out of grad school, maybe.

On a brighter note, I had ice cream for dinner and spent two hours wandering around a bookstore. It doesn't get much better than that. Oh, except if you ace a major exam right beforehand, I imagine.


JUST FOR FUN: In case anyone is curious, here's the essence of the five questions I dealt with today.

Artificial Intelligence: Four-peg tower of Hanoi problem. Exhaustive and heuristic optimal algorithms, estimate time and space complexity, develop heuristic. Not too hard.

Theory: Four strings: a1, a2, b1, b2. Does a string w exist such that it can be constructed by interleaving a1 with a2 and b1 with b2. Write a "fast" algorithm to determine whether or not w exists given any input strings. I wrote an exponential recursive algorithm, but it can be done in polynomial time using dynamic programing. Doh!

Databases: Some random database questions about NULL values in aggregate functions. Then some questions about updating through views and the various errors that can occur. Easy, I think.

Architecture: Three four-stage pipelines. Write three programs, each of which will run fastest on one of the three pipelines. Then design a pipeline that executes all three of those programs at the same speed. Then design a pipeline that handles a given program in as few control cycles as possible. Very hard. No one I talked to thinks they got it right.

Networking: Some BS about TCP tear-down protocol. Then some questions about calculating throughput on TCP with some very strange error conditions. I didn't do it since I figured I'd mostly be guessing; some people think they did well on it, however.

Ok, now I'm really going to bed.


ONE DOWN, ONE TO GO: Done with one day of testing. There are two days, and five questions per day. Only the six highest-scored questions count towards my final grade. Today, out of five questions, I think I did very well on two, pretty well on one, poor on one, and the final question I didn't answer. So, if I passed three of the questions for today then that leaves me needing three out of five tomorrow as well in order to pass the exam.

The architecture question was really hard, and no one sounded confident of their answer after the test. That's the one I did poorly on. I didn't answer the networking question because I knew that it would be a waste of time since I'd be mostly guessing; if you get a score of less than 70 on a question then you wasted time even answering it. I think I did well on the artificial intelligence question and on the database question. I had a good algorithm on the theory question, but I discovered afterwards that it wasn't optimal; I didn't consider using dynamic programming, bah. Otherwise my answer was good... I don't know how many points I'll lose, but I don't think it will make me fail the question.

I'm still nervous about tomorrow. There will probably be a question on traps and interrupts; those seem easy, but we'll see. There will probably be an architecture design problem which shouldn't be too bad. AI will deal with natural language I predict, and the theory problem will probably be based on graphs. Networking... I don't know -- possibly compare/contrast different protocols or something of that nature. I think tomorrow will be easier than today, since I think we had the hard architecture and hard networking question today, and those are my weakest areas.

Time for bed. First I'll say my prayers though!


GONE TESTIN': I've got my Written Qualifying Exams today and tomorrow, so I don't expect I'll be writing much.

Go check out SDB's latest post on atheism or whatever Donald Sensing has going today. Since entering the blogosphere I have gained a new respect for my elders. Despite the fact that I'm smarter than all these people, their advanced age and breadth of experience has shown me that my opinions and reasoning aren't the last word on every subject, and it's quite a pleasure.

What's the deal with women and guns? I told one of my friends this evening that I'm going to buy a handgun soon, and she couldn't fathom why I would want to do such a crazy thing. I tried to explain to her that I wanted it for home protection and that I have a responsibility to be able to protect myself (and my family, in the future). It just didn't register. Guns are bad!

This has been a very typical response from many of my otherwise conservative and sensible female friends. It's really surprising to me, considering that almost every woman is of below average strength (for humans) and is far more likely to be attacked than a man is. Logically, a woman should be eager to get her hands on any device that would allow her to overcome the natural disadvantage she is at when it comes to physical confrontation.

Guns are the great equalizer between the sexes. Maybe someone with more historical knowledge than I have can tell me if it's a coincidence that firearm development/availability and equality for women seem to go hand-in-hand. Force and the threat of force are nature's trump cards for protecting your rights and enforcing equality. Before the advent of handguns women were almost powerless in direct confrontations with men, and it seems pretty clear to me that this would put them at a distinct disadvantage in many other realms as well.


I'D LIKE TO BUY A VOWEL: Here's a couple of word problems for you:

1. What's the most number of vowels in a row that any English word can have? I can think of a word with 5 vowels in a row, are there any with more?
2. How may words can you think of with 2 "i"s in a row? I can think of two, and I thought I knew a third but I can't remember it now.


CO-ED BABY SHOWERS: Who thought of this idea? I mean, it's great to get together with friends who are having a baby, and there's certainly no reason to invite only one gender... but that doesn't mean you should organize the party in the same fashion as if it were a traditional baby shower. Babies make women do silly things -- and I don't mean silly in an entertaining way like when someone falls down a manhole. When I try to join in the fun by making dead baby jokes all the guys think it's hilarious and all the girls act all aghast, like they aren't even funny!

Q: What's the difference between babies and onions?
A: Sometimes I cry when I chop up onions.

Q: Why do you always put a baby in the blender feet first?
A: So you can see the expression on her face.

Q: What's blue and flops around on the ground?
A: A baby playing in a plastic bag.

Come on, these are way more amusing than tiny socks with Winnie the Pooh's disembodied head stitched onto the feet! The girls would have thought so too, in a different setting. The only reason boys ever start acting like grown-ups is because women start taking things so seriously.

I got my friends a "baby aquarium" they had on their gift registry, but apparently the baby doesn't actually go in the aquarium like I had envisioned. Most of the gifts were terribly practical things that every baby needs, like underwear. Oh no wait, babies don't wear underwear. I think some of my friends don't know anything whatsoever about babies, unlike me. I'm great with kids; I love kids. Especially other people's kids, because that way I can dismiss them when they stop entertaining me.

I look forward to having kids of my own, but what if they turn out to be losers? Then what? You're pretty much stuck with them. So I worry about that sometimes. Ok, now I'm just rambling.

All-in-all, it's very strange that any of my friends are having babies. It's great, but very surreal.


POST-WAR IRAQ AND CHRISTIAN MISSIONARIES 2: I predicted last month that once peace was restored in Iraq there would be a flood of Christian missionary/relief organizations into the country. Apparently this prospect is not greeted with much enthusiasm by some here at home, and I wonder why?

I doubt that the same people would complain with equal vigor if Muslim missionaries came to America.


WHO WILL LIBERATE CHINA?: Claudia Rosett has a brilliant and insightful article up at Opinion Journal that details some of the more horrific practices of communism in China. I don't want to give it all away, but here's one of my favorite quotes:

Let's start with a joke now making the rounds on Chinese Web sites: You remember Baghdad Bob, the Iraqi Minister of Information? Don't bother looking for him in Baghdad. He's got a new job, in Beijing, doing the SARS briefings.

Why would anyone think that's funny? Well, apart from the WHO itself questioning China's SARS statistics, and the anecdotal evidence suggesting the virus may be far more widespread than Beijing officialdom has said, there's the angle that China's regime has spent decades providing incentives for its citizens to lie to officials and to utterly mistrust what might loosely be called the healthcare system.

That's not solely because salaries are so low, and incentives so twisted, that the quality of surgery in China is widely described as being a direct function of the size of the bribe paid to the surgical team. There's also the matter that China's government has for years poured medical resources into the state's one-child policy, with its penalties, forced abortions and sterilizations. ...

One recent product of China's health-care arrangements has been the spread of AIDS via hideously irresponsible techniques such as collecting blood for plasma and then retransfusing pooled, processed blood back into donors, in some instances infecting entire villages.

Forced abortion is one of the most horrible things I can contemplate. The people in China don't trust their government to take care of them (with good reason) and so it's impossible for China to successfully quarantine SARS.

Some people see China as an up-and-coming great power, but I think the truth of the matter is that although it looks good from the outside, China is just a giant balloon waiting for the final pin-prick. Mean Mr. Mustard chronicles the millions of deaths that communism is directly responsible for in China, and I think it's only a matter of time before the entire charade collapses in on itself. SARS is almost certainly afflicting many more people than the Chinese government is admitting even now, and AIDS may be as widespread in southeast Asia as it is in Africa (just better-hidden). These problems don't go away if you ignore them hard enough.

I don't know enough about the region to know what the aftermath might look like... will China break apart like the USSR did? The Soviet Union was made up of seperate entities, and China is very divided along ethnic lines, I believe. I can only speculate.


YOU CAN'T HANDLE THE TRUTH: Dominique de Villepin (who is a man) wants 'Lies' About France to Stop. In a letter by Ambassador Jean-David Levitte, France asks the US government to stop the media from reporting "alleged French weapons sales to Iraq and a report last week that French officials provided passports to Iraqis trying to escape the U.S.-led invasion", among other "denigration and lies".

They may not realize that the American media isn't a tool of the US government, and that the President can't simply order them to stop printing negative things about France; they must be thinking of the French media. Maybe the boycotts that would "never work" are actually having an effect on France's pathetic economy? Who knows. But more importantly, who cares?

You screw with the US and you get smacked down -- welcome to reality. Instead of complaining about negative media coverage, maybe the French should be asking themselves that all-important question: why do they hate us? What have you done, France, that has provoked this response by the American Street? You need to examine the root causes before you will be able to solve the problem. Personally, I suggest that you propose a UN resolution on the matter immediately.


SO LONG, AND THANKS FOR NOTHING: US armed forces are leaving Germany and moving to "more friendly countries like Romania and Bulgaria". And we're taking our billions of dollars with us. We sincerely hope that this doesn't cause your economy to utterly evaporate. Really.

Of course, this has nothing to do with you back-stabbing us in the very distant past all those months ago! As Rumsfeld says, "It seems to me that so many things have changed in the world since those forces were put there [during the Cold War era], they're now spread out through dozens and dozens of places throughout the world. That's not efficient." It's all about efficiency -- nothing personal. You're still our bestest friend and ally, it's just that we need a little time apart, that's all. Look, we'll call you in a couple of weeks ok?


DEMOCRATS GONE WILD!: Hopefully we won't have to see Teddy "The Drunk" Kennedy lifting his shirt or anything, but Democrats all around the country sure are acting hysterically. In the United States Senate, the Democrat minority is using end-of-the-world (and possibly unconstitutional) tactics to prevent Bush's judicial nominees from being confirmed, and in Texas the Democrat minority in the state legistlature actually fled the state and refused to return until the Republicans gave in to their demands (what do you think about that, Courtney?).

In both cases, Democrat cry-babies are taking advantage of procedural rules to block the democratic process and to prevent the lawfully elected majority from presiding over the business of the legislature in question. Rather than acting like adults and playing their role in government, the Democrats are acting like children who take their ball and go home when they start losing.

These two examples should make one thing very clear to everyone: the Democrats are more concerned with maintaining their power than with actually serving the people. The Democrats are not content to follow the lead of the population they claim to serve, and are more than willing to go to any possible length to frustrate the will of the people if it doesn't match up with their own. They forget that they do not hold office to further their own agenda or to empower themselves: they are employees of the American people and their only mandate is to carry out our desires.

By undermining the duly elected majorities, these Democrats have shown their true colors. They are self-absorbed opportunists who believe that the people of the United States exist to serve them, rather than the other way around -- particularly ironic for "Democrats", don't you think? So, Democrats, put the bottles down and take off those tacky beads; it's all very entertaining to the rest of us but you're embarrassing youself, and your grandmother might be watching.

Game Theory is a method for formalizing interactions between players. You have a set of players, a set of strategies that the players can use, and a set of outcomes that result from the cross product of the players and the strategies. If you have a 10 player game and a selection of 5 strategies there are 5*10^10 (50,000,000,000) possible outcomes. That's a lot. Let's look at a 2 player, 2 strategy game instead. The one I like is the ever-distressing question of "should I call her/him or not?"

There's a girl/guy that you like and you don't know if she/he likes you or not. Your two options are to either call her/him or not to. If you call and she/he doesn't like you, you might look dumb, but if you don't call and she/he does like you then you'll miss out. So, what do you do? Just apply game theory! The numbers in the table below indicate how much benefit you gain from your strategy, depending on her feelings for you. (Don't get caught up on exact values, I'm going to pick them arbitrarily. The numbers are very important, however, since they determine what the best strategy is.)





You \ SheLikes youDoesn't like you
Call+2-1
Don't call-1+1
You want to pick the strategy that maximizes your benefit. If you knew her feelings it would be easy to pick -- call if she likes you, don't if she doesn't. However, since you don't know she feels you'll have to pick the strategy with the highest likely payoff. If you estimate the chances are 50/50 that she likes you then you can estimate your expected gain for each strategy.

If you call, you'd expect a 50% chance of getting +2, and a 50% chance of getting -1.
(0.5)*(+2) + (0.5)*(-1) = 0.5

If you don't call, you'd expect a 50% chance of getting -1, and a 50% chance of getting +1.
(0.5)*(-1) + (0.5)*(+1) = 0

So with those outcome payoffs and those predictions for her behavior you're better off to call than not to call. However, if you think there's only a 25% chance that she likes you then you shouldn't call.

A lot of the trickiness comes from choosing the payoff numbers. Do you really lose something if you call and she doesn't like you? Maybe instead of a "-1" in that position there should be a "0". Similarly, if you really really really super duper like her, then maybe the payoff for calling if she likes you will be much higher than merely "+2". The relative values of these numbers really determine the most beneficial outcome of the game.

That simple example only deals with the benefit to you of your strategy. Let's look at a more complicated game that has benefits for both players: The Prisoners' Dilemma. To set the stage, imagine there are two thieves who have been caught by the police. The cops get the crooks, but they can't convict them unless they find the loot as well, and they don't know where it is. So the police separate the crooks into two rooms so that they can't communicate to each other and they tell each of the crooks: "If you tell us where the loot is and turn on your partner we'll go easy on you, but if your partner turns on you first then we're going to go easy on him and you're going to take all the heat." What do the prisoners choose to do? We can represent the situation with a table similar to the one above, except that this time there will be payoff numbers for both crooks -- the first number in the parenthesis represents the payoff for crook 1, and the second number represents the payoff for crook 2 (the payoffs are negative because they represent how many years the crooks will spend in jail, say).





Crook 1 \ Crook 2Doesn't talkTalks
Doesn't talk(0, 0)(-10, 0)
Talks(0, -10)(-5, -5)
Crook 1 has a decision to make: does he talk and squeal on his partner or doesn't he? If neither talks then both get to go free, but crook 1 knows that if he doesn't talk and crook 2 does then he's going to get screwed. If both talk, then both go to jail, but at least they'll get some time off for cooperating with the cops.

So crook 1 draws the table above and examines his options. If his partner doesn't talk, then crook 1 doesn't go to jail at all no matter what he himself does; however, if his partner does talk then the length of crook 1's sentence will hinge on whether or not he himself cooperated. So, even though crook 1 has no idea what crook 2 will do, he knows that he'll be better off if he talks to the cops, and so he does. If you've ever watched Law & Order then you know that the cops actually do this kind of thing all the time, and it's very effective.

Bah, games! What good are they in real life? Well, they're good for a lot and game theory is very useful in any situation where there is negotiation, such as diplomacy or economics. Saddam Hussein made the determination that he would benefit most by not cooperating with the UN and destroying his WMD, and his mistake was miscalculating the chance that the United States would attack. He knew that the cost of such an attack would be high, but he thought that the likelihood of it actually happening was low. Additionally, there was a cost associated with getting rid of his weapons because it would have weakened his position in the Arab world and within his own country. He may have constructed a table like this:





America \ SaddamGets rid of WMDKeeps WMD
Invades(-20, -100)(-20*, -100)
Doesn't invade(+10*, -20)(-20, +50)
So based on this table, Saddam would determine that no matter what America does he is better off keeping his weapons. If he gets invaded then it won't matter what he does, since he'll be deposed, but if he's not invaded then he will gain a lot of prestige for having faced down the US and will be able to keep his weapons. I put (*) next to two of the values because I wanted to point out that these were Saddam's miscalculations. He believed that America would benefit most by not invading whether he kept his weapons or not, and so he thought that America would use these values and thus not attack. However, these numbers were incorrect.

Once the United States had deployed troops on his border it was inevitable that we would invade and occupy his country, whether he gave up his weapons or not. Why? Because we can't allow countries to manipulate us into spending that kind of money and effort and then escape us just by changing their minds. If Saddam had changed his mind at the last moment and we had withdrawn our troops, then nothing would stop him from simply waiting until they were far away again and then starting his WMD programs. We would begin to deploy, and then at the last moment he could change his mind yet again. America couldn't afford to play this game, and so from the moment we had serious troops on the ground we were committed to an attack. By America's calculation the "+10*" was really a "-20".

Saddam also thought that if he kept his WMD and America did attack, he would be able to inflict substantial losses on our troops. The "-20*" represents this belief -- even if America attacked he thought that it would cost us a lot to do it, and he thought this would dissuade us. Many people around the world didn't think that the US was serious; based on recent history, they believed that as soon as we started taking casualties we would pull out. In fact, we never did start taking heavy casualties, but even if we had we would not have withdrawn our forces. In America's game theory table, this number was more like "+20". We wanted to go in there and shake up the region, undermine support for terrorism, and give the Arabs a bloody nose.

These two miscalculations resulted in Saddam's seemingly irrational behavior. If he had guessed these numbers correctly he would have seen that the strategy that would have given him the most benefit (and least loss) would have been to get rid of his WMD early and hope to avoid a US attack.

Game theory can be applied to almost every area of life. I'll write later about how our entire social fabric is based around game theory and the enforcement of cooperation, even though it is to everyone's individual benefit to cheat and steal.

Some game theory links:
GameTheory.net
The Prisoner's Dilemma: A Fable
The Prisoners' Dilemma simulation -- a neat Java applet.
Game Theory from Yahoo

Donald Sensing writes that all matters of government come down to the question of how to redistribute wealth. He's largely correct, but I don't think laws against murder fall into that category, for instance.

Donald says that even though conservatives want to cut taxes, they aren't really proposing to actually cut spending -- they just want to raise spending by smaller amounts than the Dems do. This is true. In Washington, if a budget item is expected to increase 5% but then only increases 4%, that's a "budget cut". In the real world, if I think I'm going to get a 5% raise but then only get a 4% raise... well, I still got a raise, not a pay cut. Things are different when you're spending Other People's Money, apparently.

As I wrote before in relation to campaign finance reform, the government simply has too much power and too much money. Donald talks about finding a tax point that maximizes government revenue, but I don't want to maximize government revenue. I want to cut government revenue and cut government spending. I've written before that government spending could be cut by 70% without hurting the military (one of the only essential functions of government, even though it's labeled "discretionary" in the budget) and still leave enough money to fund regulatory and law enforcement agencies such as the FBI and the (ugh) EPA.

The less money the government has the less power it has. Campaign finance "reform" wouldn't be an issue if government employees didn't have so much power which they are able to use to benefit their contributors. It's irrational to expect politicians to not use their power for their own benefit from time to time, so we really need to be careful what powers we give them. As it stands, they wield way too much of it over our daily lives and activities. The solution isn't to try to restrict the speech of the people who want to influence the politicians, the solution is to take away the power. As the saying goes, "power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely". If the power is reduced then the corruption will be too. Trying to eliminate corruption while leaving the power in place is foolish; it's never worked in the past, it won't work with CFR, and it will never work in the future.


STRAIGHT FROM THE SOURCE: I think that the government and us citizens would both benefit from this kind of direct refutation by a government spokesperson of faulty reporting by the media. That letter to the editor of Time Magazine was written by Barbara Comstock, Director of Public Affairs for the DOJ, and contains details on numerous errors made in the Time article -- she tears it to pieces.

I wish that the government wouldn't be so timid and afraid to fight back against biased/erroneous reporting. Sure, it's beneficial to be on the media's good side, but it's not as if the government needs to be wholly dependent on reporters for access to the population. Shake things up a bit! Rumsfeld does!

Via The Volokh Conspiracy.


BE CAREFUL WHAT YOU WISH FOR: Again from StrategyPage, bowing to political pressure the Navy has stopped using the Vieques bombing range in Puerto Rico. The people on the island have been complaining for years and they're finally getting what they want. I wonder if they'll regret it?

Of the 10,000 people living on the island (which already has a 12% unemployment rate) 1,200 work for the Navy. The base also pumped $300,000,000 a year into the Puerto Rican economy, and that's all going away as well. The people on the island want to sell the bombing range to developers and encourage tourism, but the range is littered with hundreds and thousands of unexploded bombs and shells from over 60 years of use; it would cost billions to clean up the 12,000 acre facility and make it safe for civilian use. The people on the island want us to pay that cost, but they're living in fantasyland. The Navy has turned the range over to the Department of the Interior for use as a nature reserve.


OPEN YOUR EYES: StrategyPage has a short post on North Korea using the Chinese ZM-87 anti-personel laser weapon to illuminate a couple US choppers flying two miles south of the DMZ. (When you shoot something with a laser you "illuminate" it.) These lasers are designed to overload mechanical optical sensors and to blind humans, and so they're particularly effective when used against aircraft where even a brief loss of vision can have catastrophic results.

Interestingly, Protocol IV of the "1980 Convention on Prohibitions or Restrictions on the Use of Certain Conventional Weapons Which May Be Deemed to Be Excessively Injurious or to Have Indiscriminate Effects" (yes, that's the actual name) prohibits "laser weapons specifically designed, as their sole combat function or as one of their combat functions, to cause permanent blindness to unenhanced vision, that is to the naked eye or to the eye with corrective eyesight devices", and this would appear to include just about every laser weapon system. Some laser systems that are designed to be used for targeting and navigation would presumably not be covered, since they aren't weapon systems at all. The protocol doesn't cover "blinding as an incidental or collateral effect of the legitimate military employment of laser systems".

It's basically impossible to design a laser weapon that is powerful enough to do damage to a target but that doesn't, as a primary or secondary effect, also have a very high chance of blinding a human that it is aimed at. Even range-finding lasers can cause permanent eye damage. Everyone knows not to aim $5 laser pointers into their eyes.

The whole thing seems silly to me. I'd rather be shot with a laser and blinded than shot with a rifle and killed, wouldn't you? Some people seem to think that "scientists" will be able to design a "completely eye-safe battlefield laser system" but that's absurd. That's like trying to design an eye-safe bullet. Lasers just don't fall into the same horrible category as nerve gas and small pox (or even land mines) in my mind. Yes, it would suck to be blinded by a laser weapon, but it would also suck to get shot with a rifle bullet or an artillery shell.

I wrote about adulthood a couple days ago, and here's an article that gives the results of a survey in which people were asked what ages are appropriate for various life events.

Financially independent: 20.9
Not living with parents: 21.2
Full-time employment: 21.2
Finishing school: 22.3
Able to support a family: 24.5
Marriage: 25.7
Have children: 26.2
I'm not sure how you're supposed to be living with your parents and financially independent at the same time, but whatever. The results don't take into account the fact that the median age for women's first marriage is 25 and the median age for men's first marriage is 27, but then it's just asking for peoples' opinions.

This Washington Times article describes how the attitude of young men towards marriage has changed over the past couple of decades and explores some of the reasons. The author, Cheryl Wetzstein, argues that "commitment phobic" men are are bad news for young women who are looking to build a family before their fertility starts to decline (at age 27, ladies), and she attributes much of this change in attitude to the decline of traditional social forces that used to push men towards marriage more strongly than they do now.

I think our generation is reaping what was sown during the "sexual revolution".

... but maybe I wouldn't if we had an 18-cent piece! This is why I love computer science -- you can make a lot of discoveries via simulation that might otherwise never be found or considered because they are so counter-intuitive.

In finding coin denominations that minimize the average cost of making change, Shallit assumed that every amount of change between 0 and 99 cents is equally likely. For the current four-denomination system, he found that, on average, a change-maker must return 4.70 coins with every transaction.

He discovered two sets of four denominations that minimize the transaction cost. The combination of 1 cent, 5 cents, 18 cents, and 25 cents requires only 3.89 coins in change per transaction, as does the combination of 1 cent, 5 cents, 18 cents, and 29 cents.

"We would therefore gain about 17 percent efficiency in change-making by switching to either of these four-coin systems," Shallit says. "The first system possesses the notable advantage that we only need make one small alteration in the current system. We could speed up customer service just by replacing the dime with an 18-cent piece."

"The trouble with 18-cent pieces," he admits, "is that it's hard to figure out the best way to make change in your head."

But in my opinion, the best way to simplify our change system would be to eliminate the penny and round everything to the nearest nickel. However, there are powerful political forces that resist the idea, such as the zinc industry which provides much of the metal that's used to make 12 billion pennies a year, and the states of Colorado and Pennsylvania where the pennies are minted.

Just imagine the huge aggregate amount of time that could be saved if people didn't have to dig through their pockets looking for pennies to make change! Many stores already have penny plates that customers can take pennies from when they need them, and this just goes to show that the penny is useless and out-moded. Bills have been proposed to eliminate the penny, but they've died in subcommittee. It's only a matter of time though... the bell tolls for thee, Penny!

Thanks GeekPress.

ELECTION 2004: Here's another Opinion Journal article touting Sen. Lieberman as the strongest Democratic candidate durrently in the running. Peter Beinart doesn't say that Lieberman is leading the pack, but he recognizes that the Senator from Connecticut has a lot going for him that the more left-wing, more dovish Democrats don't. I've said this before.

It's standard operating procedure to play to your base in the primaries and then pull towards center for the general election, so it may hurt Lieberman that he's seen as more conservative than any of the other candidates. However, he's also much stronger on defense than the others are, and that attract the more moderate Southern Democrats.

It's generally believed that women understand men more than men understand women. Partially, it's because women are just more complicated than men are, as the diagram illustrates. However, there is at least one aspect of male psychology that most women simply do not understand, and that's the overwhelming desire to appear masculine.

Courtney doesn't understand why a man would balk at attending Mary Washington College; she has probably attended several schools that were named after men and she may never have thought twice about it. Despite the fact that MWC has a 65:35 female:male ratio, they're having trouble recruiting male students, and the mens basketball team is even having difficulty in finding opponents to play against. Courtney doesn't understand why this is the case, but I suspect that almost every man reading this is quirking his eyebrow knowingly.

Men are very dependent on their masculinity for attracting women, and women need to understand that every single decision a man makes is designed to maximize their chances of having sex with as many women as possible. From our clothes, to the cars we drive, to our majors in college, to the movies we see, everything a man does is directly or indirectly focused on being attractive to women. Everything. I'm not joking. Sure, we try and act as if this isn't true... but that's only because it makes us more attractive when we act like we don't care.

Women who are into some male-type things are a real turn-on for most guys. Men who are into female-type things are generally (a) denigrated by other men, and (b) dismissed as potential mates by most women. Sure, gay guys have tons of female friends -- but it's largely because they're safe and gay, which defeats the whole purpose! (Incidentally, some straight men have tried to take advantage of this by pretending to be gay, but I've never heard of it working out well.)

To sum it up: girl + baseball cap == cute; boy + flowers in hair == gay. Extrapolate to Mary Washington College.


ERROR 404: FUD not found! Via Clayton Cramer.


WORLD HISTORY: If you always get Huor and Huan mixed up then you should head directly over to the Encyclopedia of Arda. As long as you've got a few hours to waste, that is.


CRAZY BUSY: Crazy day again today... I hope that nothing interesting happens in the world and I miss it. I was up way too late last night discussing speculative chemistry with a friend from school who knows much more about chemistry than I do; I kept her up way past her bed time asking silly questions about the possibility of creating an animal that uses a more energy-dense transport vector than ATP. Just imagine how strong and fast we could be if we could metabolize 50,000 calories a day! Anyway, I'll be back this afternoon.


CARRY A BIG STICK: If you walk too softly for too long you might have to actually use the stick, like we did in Iraq. Now we're back to walking softly again, but we're getting much better results than we were before. Imagine that!

During the past two weeks, the Syrian government has licensed its first three private banks, considered an essential step in modernizing the state-dominated economy, while approving two new private universities and four private radio stations. Officials are now reviewing the possibility of removing military training from the curriculum of schools and universities and eliminating a requirement that all students join youth groups affiliated with Syria's ruling Baath Party, according to sources close to the leadership. ...

In the three weeks since senior U.S. officials threatened retaliation against Syria, the government in Damascus has sharply changed direction. In addition to sealing the border, the rhetoric has shifted abruptly. Senior Syrian officials and the state-run press have stopped condemning the United States for "aggression" against Iraq and urging popular resistance. They now label the military campaign as a "war." ...

Syrians are increasingly saying that the disaster Hussein brought on his country underscores the need for a representative government in Damascus that will not invite a similar calamity.

"Whatever policy they make, whatever stance they take, people's lives and livelihoods will be affected. Seeing what happened in Iraq, it's not a joke anymore," said a university professor.

A university professor grounded in reality? We should get some of those here in America! It's too bad that it took a war to convince the Syrians that we weren't joking, but that's what happens if you feint with your stick too many times without ever following through. These developments are exactly according to Bush's plan, and if they are mirrored in other surrounding Arab states (such as Iran) then we may get to see an example of the domino effect, except with liberal democracy rather than communism.

It appears that Glenn Reynolds is in favor of allowing women into front line combat positions, but I wonder whether or not he believes that their presence actually degrades the performance of the military? I suspect that he thinks it does not, and yet there seems to be quite a bit of evidence that this is indeed the case. I've written on the topic before (post 1, post 2, post 3) and I believe there are very compelling reasons for us as a society to prevent women from taking part in front line combat.

The issue of violence against women was crystallized when former prisoners of war appeared before the Commission, including one of the two women captured during Operation Desert Storm. Testimony about the indecent assault on one of the women drew further attention to POW training programs already in place that "desensitize" male POWs to the brutalization of women with whom they may be held captive. An interview with trainers at the Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape training center at Fairchild Air Force Base uncovered a logical but disturbing consequence of assigning women to combat:

"If a policy change is made, and women are allowed into combat positions, there must be a concerted effort to educate the American public on the increased likelihood that women will be raped, will come home in bodybags, and will be exploited. The consequence of not undertaking such a program would be large-scale disillusionment with the military should the United States get in a protracted military engagement."

Maybe I'm a just a male chauvinist pig, but I don't particularly want to see that type of thing. Regardless of training, male soldiers will not see the women they serve with as "just one of the guys", and will inevitably take extra precautions to try and prevent their death or capture. This may lead to circumstances where a commander does not surrender when he otherwise would, for instance, or vice versa. Women may not understand this fact or like it (and some men may argue against it for PC reasons) but it's biological and not merely cultural.

There is no need for women to fight in front-line positions, and the peripheral issues that would come into play even if the women could meet the same physical requirements as the men would do more harm than good.


HIYA: I think I've gotten more traffic this morning than ever before -- thanks Bill! Of course, I've got a crazy schedule today at work and so I don't know if I'll have time to take advantage of the traffic and post anything new and interesting... but if you've never been here before then everything is new! Uh, and interesting, maybe.

The Random Conspiracy Generator is kinda fun if you don't want to read my random opinions about things. There's some short fiction over at The Forge.


TURN ME ON: Via SDB -- a picture that's worth a million words explains the difference between men and women.


TEACHING THE SOFT STUFF: In the comments of this post Mark Aveyard and I talk a bit more about teaching our kids useful skills versus teaching them arts and such.


POOR JUDGEMENT: Via the Volokh Conspiracy, some evidence that makes me rethink my plan of becoming a Canadian Supreme Court Justice.


I'M AS SMART AS MICHAEL BARONE: Or rather, Michael Barone is as smart as me. He just writes more words about the same ideas I had, like, days ago.


LABYRINTH: If you're bored, go check out my little pet game called Labyrinth. There are no graphics, just a windows gui with buttons and text, but it's a pretty elaborate adventure game. Lots of items, lots of monsters, lots of wandering around and watching your abilities get higher and higher! What more could you want?


TIVO INSTALLATION: The TiVo installation guy just showed up at 8am this morning... geesh. Who the heck is up this early on a Saturday? He's like seven feet tall and crawling around under the house right now. I really want to go back to sleep, but I also want to be able to record two channels at once which I can't do until he installs the second line from my dish to the receiver unit.


ADULTHOOD: Courtney has some interesting speculation on how "adulthood" has changed over the past few centuries. Additionally, nutrition and other factors have led to earlier menarche among girls in our culture than was common two hundred years ago. Thus, children are maturing sooner biologically and later socially than perhaps ever before; this certainly has an impact on our culture and society, but to what degree and in what form?

Lengthened adolescence and delayed assumption of responsibility do not bode well for the productivity of our civilization. Most college graduates are already over-educated for the jobs/careers that they end up in, and the 4 (or 5 or 6) extra years they spent paying to go to school rather than doing productive work are a drain on our economy. College graduates that then continue to live off the parental dole rather than get a job need a good kick in the pants. Sure, they probably won't be able to use their "Women's Studies" degree to pursue their dream job (if it even exists), but they should face that reality and try to learn a useful skill. Kids need to quit looking at college as a four year vacation and get serious about their lives.

The job market is tough right now. I've been helping some high school juniors with college applications and the like, and I've been advising them to major in something that will actually make them employable in a field other than retail. Accountants and nurses will always be able to get a job, for example; those who instead choose to major in "Chicano History" may be harder-pressed. If you choose to go to college, learn something useful or you're wasting your time. It's frowned upon these days, but many people would benefit a great deal more from attending a technical/trade school than a university.

I don't think I even need to go in to the horror of the drug abuse, sexual foolishness, and angst-ridden poetry that also results from this delayed adulthood.


WHY MEN DIE YOUNG: Well, younger than women at least -- by an average of five years. Dr. Sanjay Gupta (who performed emergency brain surgery on an Iraqi child while working as a medical correspondent during the recent war) discusses some of the behavioral factors that contribute to men's shorter lives.

According to David Williams, a senior research scientist at the University of Michigan's Institute for Social Research and the main author of the study, men outrank women in all of the 15 leading causes of death, except one: Alzheimer's. Men's death rates are at least twice as high as women's for suicide, homicide and cirrhosis of the liver. Men don't just have more accidents, they are accidents waiting to happen.

"At every age," Williams reports, "American males have poorer health and a higher risk of mortality than females." ...

These reasons alone would certainly contribute to a shorter life span for men, but the problem may be even more profound. Williams blames deep-seated cultural beliefs — a "macho" world view that rewards men for taking risks and tackling danger head on. Men are twice as likely to get hit by lightning or die in a flash flood, according to a report delivered last week in Atlanta at a meeting sponsored by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In low-lying flood zones, says Thomas Songer of the University of Pittsburgh School of Public Health, men are more likely to drive around barricades and drown in high water.

This isn't news; most of it has been known for a long time.

Genetics also plays a role, and it's pretty clear that X and Y chromosomes concern more than reproduction.


PREMONITION: I had an eerie feeling when I woke up this morning. For some reason, I was afraid that something really bad had happened and that I should turn on the news immediately and find out what it was. I thought perhaps New York had been nuked. Obviously nothing like that took place, but it left me with a strange feeling for the rest of the morning. Must have been the fading tendrils of a dream.


BUSTING FILLIBUSTERS: I'm not sure what I think about this proposed rule change in the Senate which would gradually lower the threshold number of votes required to end a fillibuster. In general, I like it to be hard for our government to enact new laws, and so I'm not too thrilled about any change that makes it easier for them (even if the rule they are eliminating is procedural in nature, and completely unrelated to the Constitution). However, in the case of affirming appointments by the president, I can see why permanent fillibustering can be a bad thing. There are a great many federal judgeships that are unfilled at the moment, and the Senate shouldn't be dragging their feet over the people that Bush nominates. That doesn't mean that they need to affirm everyone he sends their way, but I do think that they need to take a vote on each person rather than just leaving them in limbo.


ROMANTIC CONSERVATIVES: Via Donald Sensing I see that Armed Liberal writes over at Winds of Change:

And the concrete policies they [Romantic Conservatives] choose completely undermine the fantasy – another characteristic of Romantic politics. The centerpieces of Bush’s economic policy, if you look at them carefully, don’t benefit small business, professionals, or small entrepreneurs. The impact of these incentives is as targeted as a JDAM, and it is on the large corporations who make up the GOP’s core constituency.

It assumes that the best way to promote small business is to … give tax breaks and shift policies in favor of big businesses and big investors, thereby accelerating the concentration of economic power – which means shuttering the small businesses as they go under. It assures us that the best way to preserve our way of life is to … deprive us of the liberties and the equality before law that are central to it. In essence, GOP policies are aimed at using the power of the State to reward those who they think should be rewarded and enforce their ideals of human behavior…one of the basic definitions of liberalism, no?

It's just pure nonsense. As I quoted before, "With a soft-money ban in place, Republicans raised more than three times as much as Democrats during the first three months of this year. In recent years, Democrats had much better luck raising seven-figure checks from union leaders, trial lawyers and Hollywood moguls. In 2002, nine of the 10 biggest soft-money donors were Democrats, according to PoliticalMoneyLine." Republicans depend on many small donations, whereas Democrats depend on a few large donations. Which is more populist do you think?

Additionally, in 1998 nearly 50% of families owned stock... that was five years ago and I bet the stats are even higher now. Those are the people that Bush's dividend tax cut will help, because they are the owners of the giant corporations that the liberals seem to hate. Corporations aren't evil self-existing entities, they're just groups of people united for a common purpose. If you're a liberal and can't grasp this concept, think "labor union". Saying that Bush's tax cuts will only help corporations is nonsensical, since more than 50% of the population shares ownership of those corporations!


LIMITED GOVERNMENT: Out of curiousity I've located a website with the text of various national constitutions from around the world. I haven't read them all, but of the ones I have looked through it's amazing how few of them actually place any limits on government power.


BUY BUY BUY!: Somehow, I don't think that North Korean bonds that pay no interest are a wise investment.


GOVERNMENT REGULATION: There are some instances where government regulation is beneficial, and even critical. Economic situations such as natural monopolies present significant challenges to the private sector because there is little intrinsic competition, and so some government regulation may be useful.

What brings the topic to mind, however, is this awful story about passangers being sucked out the back door of a plane over the Congo. Without knowing many specifics, it isn't hard to speculate on the series of failures that led to these deaths. Poor maintenance and repair allowed the pressure system of the "several decades old" aircraft to fail catastrophically. In order for the passangers to be sucked out, they must not have been wearing seat belts -- even properly secured chairs would have given them protection and kept them inside the plane until it could land. As is common in the third world, this cargo plane likely had no chairs or security restraints at all, and most of the passangers were probably just sitting on the floor.

Safety regulations can prevent these types of accidents. It often isn't in a service provider's short-term economic interests to spend money on security devices that will only rarely be of use; they may calculate that it will be cheaper to put off spending the money on the securty and instead just spend money later paying off the victims' families. However, this passes the financial burden of their decision onto the rest of society (since the dead will no longer be working or caring for their families, for example). Even if the payments to the families of the victims cover all the lost productivity of the dead relative, there are many other hidden costs that are not taken into account, such as the psychological effects that disasters can have on the economy and on specific industries.

And of course a bunch of people end up dead. I don't think highly of regulations that try to protect people from their own stupidity (such as helmet laws), but I do think that people should be protected from others' stupidity. It shouldn't be illegal to drive a car without wearing a seatbelt, but I have no problem with it being illegal to manufacture and sell a car that doesn't have seatbelts.


COINCIDENCE?: I have the same birthday as "America's favorite dissident", Noam Chomsky.


SCIENCE VS. PHILOSOPHY: I wanted to point out, in agreement with Donald Sensing, that science and philosophy are very different beasts. Science tells us the facts of the universe; philosophy helps us interpret them. There is certainly an interplay between the two -- philosophy may help determine what science investigates, and science may support or refute philosophy with factual revelations -- but in many ways they do not overlap.

Every scientist brings to their work a particular philosophy, similar to the "anthropic principle" that SDB mentioned. Our science is inevitably tainted by our philosophy. A scientist who believes that the sun revolves around the earth will perform experiments based on that belief, and it can take quite a bit of time for science to demonstrate that even a clearly observable belief such as that is wrong. Likewise, belief or disbelief in God naturally brings strong predispositions to the scientific process.

Science produces a lot of facts, and different people see these same facts and interpret them in very different ways because of their differing philosophies. While it would probably be possible to convince someone who believes that the sun revolves around the earth that he is wrong, the factual evidence is not so clear when it comes to the existence of God. In fact, as SDB has argued it may be impossible because God's existence cannot be proven or disproven. The question is, literally, beyond the reach of science. Where SDB sees the universe and concludes that it somehow spontaneously arose due to random processes, I see the same universe and conclude that it's most likely that it was created in some way by God.

How can we see the same things and reach different answers? Not because either of us is ignorant of scientific fact, but because our philosophies are different and we see only pale shadows of reality.

SDB is continuing his excellent explanation of his atheistic beliefs, and Robin Goodfellow discusses it some more, Brian Chapin used to be an atheist and talks about evangelism, and Mark Byron mentions some studies on the power of prayer (and its non-power). Fascinating stuff to read by some very smart people.

I'm an engineer, as SDB is, and my general reaction to new knowledge seems to be the opposite of his. I want to know everything, and the more I learn the more certain I am that our universe could not exist as the result of pure chance. Life as we know it could not have just happened randomly... I've run enough evolutionary AI algorithms to be very skeptical of the power of the evolutionary process. (One of the main foci of artificial intelligence research is in so-called "evolutionary algorithms". These algorithms are patterned on the theory of biological evolution and attempt to harness recombination, mutation, and natural selection forces to generate "emergent effects" that are greater than the information content that is put into the system. That's it in a nutshell... I can write a more thorough description later if anyone is interested.)

The general concensus of the artificial intelligence folks that I know is that we just aren't doing evolutionary programming "right" yet, which is why we aren't getting the types of emergent effects that they believe real evolution produced... but because of my own pre-dispositions, I don't think that we'll ever get the type of power out of evolutionary programming that some hope for. We all look at the same evidence and come to different conclusions, based on our philisophical backgrounds.

The existence and nature of God is the central question of life, and a great deal depends on whether you are right or not. I'm a Christian, and if my beliefs are wrong then my beliefs are worthless.

I Corinthians 15:14 -- And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith.

Similarly, if I am right and SDB turns out to be wrong then there will be consequences for his wrong beliefs. The matter is not one to take lightly, no matter what you believe.


QUIT WHINING: Up Yours has a particularly offensive little screed up at the moment. I haven't really read the site before, but the tone of this post epitomizes the greed and selfishness of the liberal left.

The U.S. ranks 28th in a list of industrialized nations for infant mortality rates with 7.2 deaths per 1000 live births. CUBA WAS 27th. My heavens that is lame. Here are some of the reasons for this shameful statistic: 3.7% of all babies are born without their mother receiving any prenatal care, 7.5% are born with low birthweight due to poor maternal nutrition, and on an average day with a little over 11,000 births, 76 of those babies will die before they reach the age of one. 1 in 27 births are to mothers who received NO prenatal care. Why? Because health care in this country is UNAFFORDABLE and BEYOND ACCESS to those who most desperately need it. The uneducated and impoverished - and the growing number of unemployed - like myself.
Actually, most states have all sorts of free pre-natal programs. Free to the recipent, anyway... taxpayers (a.k.a., people with jobs) still pay for it.

If you don't have the money and resources to raise a child in the manner you think is necessary, then I have a simple solution. Don't have kids. Please, don't. It's incredibly selfish of you to have children when you won't be able to care for them, and there's no excuse for it considering how cheap and widely available birth control is these days. I don't understand why Dawn and Moxie think that society should bear the burden for their decision to have a child. Likewise, why should their employer have to pay them and give them time off?

I want a house and a Ferrari, but unfortunately I can't afford both of them -- so I had to make a choice. If circumstances won't permit you to have a child and at the same time have the career that you want, then you too will have to make a choice. Forcing society or your employer to pay you money so you can have time off and a secure job is absurd and selfish. Having children is a luxury, not a necessity, so budget wisely and decide what you want.

If you determine that you can't have it all... welcome to real life. I suggest you get used to it.

Check out their comment section where I wrote as well.

Update:
On a related subject, check out this MSNBC article about women who make more money than their husbands. (Link via GeekPress.)

CFR

In addition to being unconstitutional, the Bipartisan Campaign Finance Reform Act is also useless.

Democrats today are kicking off a roundabout way of helping to finance their 2004 congressional campaigns with the very type of unlimited donations from corporations, unions and individuals that many party leaders had vowed to flush from the political system.

The strategy involves creating two new groups unmistakably aligned with the Democratic Party's long-standing campaign organizations for the House and Senate. Technically, however, the two groups are not arms of the Democratic Party. That is a key distinction, because the nation's new campaign finance law bars lawmakers from soliciting "soft money," the unlimited money that politicians still crave.

The BCFRA is causing the Dems more problems than it's causing the Republicans, mainly because the Democrats generally depend on a small number of large donations while the Republicans are financed by a larger number of small donations that are made up of more "hard money". This may be counter-intuitive if you had previously thought that the Democrats are the "party of the people" and the Republicans are "owned by the rich".
Some Democrats do not feel they have time to wait. With a soft-money ban in place, Republicans raised more than three times as much as Democrats during the first three months of this year. In recent years, Democrats had much better luck raising seven-figure checks from union leaders, trial lawyers and Hollywood moguls.

In 2002, nine of the 10 biggest soft-money donors were Democrats, according to PoliticalMoneyLine.

Don't worry, the Republicans are forming these new soft-money groups as well, and in the end there will be just as much money spent on campaigns as there was before the stupid law was passed. It's all smoke and mirrors folks. Money is like water: it follows the path of least resistance to the lowest point available, and there's no one lower than politicians.


US UNILATERALLY OPENS IRAQI ECONOMY: The US has unilaterally waived some sanctions on Iraq by Bush's order without bothering to ask the UN for permission. Meanwhile, the same groups that wanted to end scantions while Saddam was in power are luke-warm now that he's gone.

According to sources, Germany appears to be cooperative about lifting the sanctions.

France has offered to "suspend" sanctions until weapons of mass destruction are found and certified by the United Nations. Russia, however, continues to resist lifting sanctions, sources said.

"They are being so blatantly and shamelessly commercial," said one source, who is not American.

They want to protect their commercial interests in Iraq more than any other nation, said one source adding, in the end, "It will be a matter of buying them off" with concessions.

Well obviously, since it's all about oil. For them.

I hope we're beginning to see a pattern here in which the US pays less and less attention to the whinings of the petty dictators over at the UN. What do diplomats fear more than anything else? Irrelevancy. The best way to defeat them isn't to get involved in the endless negotiations which they see not as means towards and end but as an actual end unto themselves, but rather to circumvent them entirely and force the diplomats to play catch-up. They have no other choice, because if they don't end up endorsing America's actions then their actual powerlessness will be fully revealed.


LEVITATING FROGS: A how-to guide. Batteries not included.

I've got to say that I really respect Steven Den Beste because he is one of the most intellectually honest people that I have come across. He describes himself as a "mechanist atheist" who believes that the material universe is all that exists, and that it is wholly governed by the laws of physics. He has written a rather detailed essay explaining why his beliefs, and atheism in general, must be based on faith.

This is a point that most of the atheists I know refuse to conceed. I've argued endlessly merely trying to demonstrate to people that atheism cannot be rigorously proven to be true, and more often than not my logic is dismissed with handwaving and appeals to the "intellectual authority" of some writer or another. This dismissal of logic and reasoning only further demonstrate the religious fervor of some atheists and their refusal to accept the fact that their beliefs do, in the end, rely on faith.

Of course, there are some Christians who believe that God's existence can be proven; most of those also claim that it can be shown that the God who can be proven to exist is the Christian God and not the god of some other belief system. I think that these Christians are deluding themselves. If you claim to believe what the Bible says, then this is the only possible view:

Hebrews 11:1-2,6 -- Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see. This is what the ancients were commended for. ... And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.

Read the whole chapter, it's all about faith. Hebrews 11 describes the actions taken by dozens of people who put their faith in God, despite the fact that they could not see him or touch him. If God wanted to prove his existence he could certainly do it, but he has intentionally not done so because he wants us to come to him in faith.

Why? Well, that's a good question. I'm not entirely sure. Most likely it's a combination of two factors: his love for us, and the gift of free will. If he acted in such a way that his existence could be proven, then it would negate the usefulness of the free will that he gave us. I believe that when the Bible says that we are created "in his image" our possession of free will is a fundamental component of that. And because of his love for us, he didn't design us to be mindless robots. He wants us to love him in return, and love that is forced is not love at all.


HELP ME OUT: Here's a little problem to chew on if you're feeling clever tonight.

1000 == 7
101 == 10
110 == 15
200 == 25
10010 == 33

So...

1000001 == ?
21 == ?
112 == ?
120 == ?
1011 == ?

If you can describe your thought process after you get it, that would be helpful as well. People might put the answers in the comments, so don't go there until you finish your own work!

THEORY AND PRACTICE: In theory, theory and practice are the same; in practice, they aren't. Courtney has a post up about the miserable situation that Mugabe has brought about in Zimbabwe, but I'd like to focus on her closing question. She excerpts some quotes from a Zimbabwean 22 year old who admits "he burned houses, watched while children were raped, and shot a white farmer. But he says it was the alcohol and drugs, not him, that did these things." Courtney then asks what should be done with these people?

Hey, that's easy! Straight to the electric chair. Or, if electricity is scarce in Zimbabwe, just apply a bullet to the head. If one supports the death penalty (as I do) then there can be no more clear situation in which to apply it. He confessed to murder, rape, arson, &c.

Of course, that's not a realistic solution considering the vast number of armed youths who would then be subject to execution. There's an implementation problem, unfortunately. Realistically, the region is totally screwed for a couple of generations. That's the difference between theory and practice. Proper application of moral theory could turn Zimbabwe around quite quickly, but actually finding all these murderers and executing them is a rather difficult proposition. The country will be forced to reach some moral compromise and endure the continued existence of these cancers on their society.

Sigh... not that it will matter once SARS makes its way to Africa and hooks up with HIV. Again, in theory there is a lot that could be done to help the continent of Africa, but in practice it's all impossible.


WIDE MOUTH CANS: Is it just me, or do these new-fangled wide mouth soda cans splatter a lot more soda on your hand when you open them than the old narrow mouth cans did?


PUTTING THE "FUN" BACK IN FUNDAMENTALISM: Donald Sensing has a post up that he wrote in response to an email I sent him. It relates back to my previous post on Christians and Israel.

I don't agree with him that Mary's biological virginity is "centrally" important to fundamentalists. Although, the mere fact that it's not particularly important to me may mean that I'm not a "fundamentalist"....

Additionally, the term "literal interpretation" seems a bit prone to misuse. I consider myself to believe literally what the Bible says, but much of the Bible is clearly figurative in nature and the "literal" interpretation of such passages is to take them figuratively. If that makes sense to you. Many books are written as poetry and verse and would be complete nonsense if taken out of their figurative context.

People who couldn't care less about Christianity probably won't be interested in the topic; likewise, many serious Christians already know all this stuff. So, I suppose this is for whoever's in between.


ARGUMENT BY ABSURDITY: This comment thread from Mean Mr. Mustard encouraged me to write a little post on one of my favorite hobbies: argument by absurdity. Most people who hold opinions don't really understand what they believe (this goes for pretty much any belief system), and even if there are strong arguments in favor of their beliefs they generally aren't aware of them. Most often, they will state poorly formed versions of good arguments that miss some crucial points -- this is when you pounce.

There are two possible beginnings: sincerity or sarcasm. Sincerity can be fun if you're in a really wicked mood, because you can lead your mark along slowly and get them to agree with the conclusions you initially draw from their arguments. Sarcasm works too, but you have to strike more quickly because people tend to tune out sarcastic responses before you can get to the good stuff. Once you've found the flaw in their reasoning (whether you agree with their position or not is beside the point) decide how you will exploit it, and either go for the quick kill with sacrasm or lead them along the garden path of sincerity before rhetorically stabbing them in the back.

You've decided on an initial approach, now what? The sky's the limit! What you really want to work towards is a totally absurd conclusion that logically flows from the arguments that they've made; you have to do so without revealing the true strength of their arguments however, assuming there is any. Do your best to prop up the strawmen they've constructed and to nourish their false dichotomies. Work your way carefully towards your absurdity and then just toss it out, doing your best to imply that your mark really believes it. If you're trying to be sincere, you can pause to consider the absurdity before rejecting it, thereby gaining some credibility just for appearing thoughtful.

In the end, once the absurdity is rejected by everyone involved make sure that you tie that rejection together with all your mark's arguments, so that they will be rejected as well. If you're clever, you can discredit all his reasoning, even the parts that are legitimate and well-founded. Any attempt he makes at defending himself can be easily brushed aside by pointing at the absurd conclusion, and most people won't give him another thought.


LAKERS: It's really hard to stay on the Lakers playoff bandwagon sometimes.


ELECTION 2004: Best of the Web has a breakdown of the recent Democratic candidate debate, and James Taranto basically agrees with what I wrote earlier. Senator Lieberman is the most credible guy in the field.

However, I still stand by my earlier position: a Jew is nearly unelectable at the moment, particularly in a Democratic presidential primary. Many people may say that they don't see the type of anti-Semitism that I mentioned in my previous post, but I think it's an important underlying factor. It's also the type of liability that won't rally Democrats to the cause. Although Lieberman is the strongest candidate the Democrats have to offer, and would make the best president out of the lot on TV this weekend, he will not win the nomination.


I VO, YOU VO, WE ALL VO FOR TIVO: Ok, so I broke down and bought a TiVo through this special DirecTV program that my mom has access to. Got it for half the retail price, hardware and service. I don't really watch a lot of TV, and now I'm paying something like 50 bucks a month for DirecTV and TiVo... fantastic. I was reluctant to expand my TV-watching capabilities at first because I thought it would be a waste. I hadn't even had cable for several years and I didn't miss it at all. DirecTV is nice, but I still watch TV only rarely.

So I set up my TiVo and programmed it to find the only three shows I watch: The Simpsons, Law & Order, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I'm a simple man, what can I say? This was Saturday afternoon. I left the thing running at home while I went out Saturday night and didn't give it another thought until Sunday night just as I was heading for bed.

Let's see what TiVo has done for me, I thought to myself. Ho hum, turn on the TV and press a few buttons... what's this? My TiVo had recorded three episodes of Buffy, five Law & Orders, and six Simpsons. All in one day. Suddenly I didn't feel so sleepy, and it was hard to tear myself away from the stupid thing.

Six episodes of The Simpsons can be watched in two hours if you skip through the commercials.

CFR is a poor attempt to solve a very serious problem. Power corrupts, and those who wield government power tend to try and use that power to maintain their position. Likewise, the governed groups attempt to coerce the government into using its power to their advantage by passing laws that benefit the group in question. One of the main ways that these groups try to manipulate those in power is by contributing money to their election campaigns. It costs a lot of money to get elected to federal office so the candidates need the support; since they'll be up for election again a few years later they also need to stay in the good graces of their contributors. It's quite a cycle, and it rightly disturbs many people.

However, groups are funded by individuals who contibute money to the cause, and it's morally wrong and bad policy for the government to have the authority to decide when its citizens may speak and what they may say. This is particularly true when it comes to the political speech that is instrumental in determining who exactly gets to wield the government's power. It's as if the management executives of a corporation tried to forbid the board of directors from sharing financial information with shareholders.

The real problem isn't the speech, the real problem is that the people who wield government power use it for selfish gain. This is human nature, and no law can prevent it or even really detect it. You may "know it when you see it" but that's a rather subjective standard. The only real solution to the problem is the reduce the amount of power that the government wields so that there is less incentive to abuse it. In an ideal world, labor unions and corporations would have no reason to contribute money to candidates because they would know that the government could neither hurt their business nor help it by passing laws. The government wouldn't have fat subsidies to hand out to farmers, or control over elderly peoples' purse-strings.

My instinct tells me that we could cut our government budget by 70% and it could still fulfill all its essential functions. In 2002, we spent around 15% of the money on defense, which we should keep. Gut all the other "discretionary" spending (code for pork), and gut the majority of the "mandatory" spending (also code for pork, plus doomed Social Security) and we could all put a lot of money back in our pockets. Additionally, the vast majority of "special interests" would disappear, because the government just wouldn't have the power to help them anymore.


CHRISTIANS AND ISRAEL: Eugene Volokh has up a couple of posts refuting the (strange) charge that fundamentalist Christians are anti-Semitic. I fall into the category that many people would label as "fundamentalist Christian", so I thought I'd share my thoughts and anecdotal experience.

Everyone at my church is adamantly pro-Israel and basically loathes the Palestinians. The Palistinians are seen as murderous thugs, and the general sentiment is that Israel's government takes far too soft a line with them. When Sharon was elected, my politically-informed friends were glad because they thought he might finally crack down on Arafat's terror campaigns. There is zero sympathy for the Palestinian "cause" and no respect whatsoever for any of their attempts to justify their actions.

I had a conversation a few weeks ago with a few other guys my age, and the concensus among them was that if Israel gets into another war they would personally travel there to fight as mercenaries on their behalf. Would they actually follow through on this idea? Well, I'm doubtful; but the sentiment is there. Some of my Christian friends wear Star of David jewelry, and some have considered getting such tattoos as well (I don't know if anyone has done it yet).

I certainly can't speak for all "fundamentalist Christians" (love that label), but every one that I know is as strongly pro-Israel as any Jew I've met. Why is that?

Genesis 12:1-3 -- The LORD had said to Abram, "Leave your country, your people and your father's household and go to the land I will show you. I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you."
Christians believe that the Jewish people, and Israel in particular, have been specifically selected by God to be blessed; in my opinion, their mere continued existence is strong support for that belief.

I can write a lot more on this topic, if anyone's interested.


POINTLESS TESTING: I'm spending the weekend (and I'm going to spend the next few weeks) studying intensively for my Written Qualifying Exams, and it's hard to be enthusiastic. The WQE is a new test format that's only been in use for a couple of years and it replaces the old Major Field Exam that used to be required in order to proceed in the graduate degree program. The WQE is very different from the MFE, however.

The MFE was written specfically for each student by his or her professors, and was based on the classes that the student had taken and the research that the student was doing. A PhD is supposed to be a narrowly focused degree, and the MFE was designed to ensure that the student was proficient in the field (within computer science) that he or she was going into. The tests explored the field in generous depth (so I'm told) and could be quite hard. However, it was generally understood that a student's chance of passing was mostly related to how much his advisor liked him and how confident his advisor and committee were that he would be a successful PhD candidate.

The WQE, on the other hand, was designed to be more objective and broader in scope. In theory, it doesn't go into as great a depth as the MFE did but covers a much wider range of topics -- most of which, by necessity, do not fall within the student's research focus. The main goal was to reduce the subjectivity of the grading, and so the scoring is done using a double-blind methodology wherein the students do not know which professor wrote each question, and the professors do not know which answer set belongs to which student. Questions are written by ten different professors, each an expert in their field, and these same professors then score the answers to the questions that they wrote.

It's an interesting idea, but I don't like the way it works in practice. The professors that I've talked to all admit that they would not be able to pass the WQE if they were to take it, because it's simply too broad. Despite the fact that the test is not supposed to be particularly deep or advanced, if a student hasn't recently taken a class with the professor who writes a question it is likely that the student won't know whatever nuance of the field the professor decides to incorporate into his question. Additionally, no notes or books are allowed to be used during the exam, which is unrealistic in my mind because in real life almost anyone would use a book (or a computer!) to help them calculate network flows or to design arithmatic logic units. Except experts in the various fields, of course.

The end result is that each time the exam is given there is an approximately 50% pass rate. This is a very scary thing, let me tell you. Even though we have three chances to pass, it's nerve-wracking to have to study and study and study and know that if you fail you'll have to spend another six months studying again. To top it off, when you get your test back there isn't much feedback on what you did wrong, so it's not very easy to correct yourself.

Since the exams have only been given in this format four times, no one has failed three times yet and been kicked out (as is supposed to happen, based on the information I have seen). Several people have taken it twice and failed and then just not taken it again because they're too scared. I've heard rumors that people won't actually be kicked out, but who knows? Who wants to be the first to test that hypothesis?

The grading of the MFE may have been subjective, but it seems to me that that's more in the spirit of what grad school should be about. Computer science is an incredibly broad field, and I think it's unreasonable to expect any one person to have expert knowledge of every area within it; likewise, I'm not sure what purpose a broad, shallow test format serves, since that's basically what being an undergrad is all about. Graduate school should be about research and innovation, not endlessly poring over undergrad textbooks and trying to guess what professor is going to get picked to write which question.


RANDOM CONSPIRACY REPORTER: I have way too much time on my hands, apparently. I wrote this little toy a few years ago in ASP and just translated it to PHP; go take a look at my Random Conspiracy Generator.


CALIFORNIA IS TOTALLY SCREWED: Clayton Cramer is my hero, and here he excerpts some choice quotes from an article titled Descent into Madness: 48 Hours in the California Legislative System.

California is struggling with the biggest budget crisis in its history. Take note: we are not talking about your run-of-the-mill budget shortfall where teachers and medical services are cut as a first-line response. California is so awash in red ink that on the day I arrived, the Sacramento District Attorney's office filed a proposal with the state under which it will simply stop prosecuting misdemeanor crimes because it cannot afford the staff. A subsequent component of that proposal will cease supervision of all paroled criminals, misdemeanor and felons alike, for lack of parole officers. Jails are releasing prisoners they can't afford to house. The implications of this are staggering. The message to criminals is clear-- hunting season is open on law-abiding Californians because the government can't afford to prosecute you!
Sigh.

Ah, the Democrats... scrambling puppies, nipping on issues that fall like scraps from Bush's dinner table. The Democratic candidates debated tonight in a taped format that I haven't had a chance to see yet (who knows when it will be broadcast), but here's a summary from WaPo. What's the only morsel they can dig their teeth into to use against Bush?

But the candidates, and moderator George Stephanopolous of ABC News, turned the focus mostly to the bread-and-butter domestic issues that Democrats hope will drive the 2004 campaign.
Of course they want so-called "bread-and-butter" issues to take center stage (WaPo got the DNC memo on which catch-phrases to use, I see) because they know they'll lose if world events are allowed to remain in the public eye.

Lieberman is the most hawkish of the Dems (and actually seems like a pretty good guy) but he could never represent the US effectively to the rest of the world. Why? Well, I hate to say it, but it's because he's Jewish. In case you haven't noticed, there's been quite a resurgence of anti-Semitism around the world, particularly in Europe. Oh right, and Arabs hate Jews almost as much as Europeans do. Frankly, there's probably enough anti-Semitism in America to keep Lieberman from winning as well, particularly among black Americans who make up a large Democratic constituency. If Lieberman were even nominated the conspiracy theorists would have a field day. Which could be quite entertaining, actually.

Most of the candidates are jokes that stopped being funny back in the '80s; the newcomers just don't have the gravitas necessary to displace Bush. In the end, it will probably be Sen. Edwards or Sen. Kerry up against the Pres, and the polls don't make it look like it will even be close. Sure, the election is 18 months away, and a lot can happen, but the economic cycle is just now starting to turn around and by next November I expect that the Dems' only issue will have dissipated into the ether.


PITH: Setting the World to Rights has a pithy response that can be used to undermine almost all anti-war/anti-Iraq partisans. The fact is, most such positions are based on obfuscation and distraction, and few anti-war polemicists actually have any beliefs they would risk their own lives for.


CALIFORNIA IS SCREWED: Ok, seriously, I'm about to go eat my food... but first I wanted to begin my new series titled "California is Screwed". I love California, don't get me wrong, but our great state is getting totally hosed by Gov. Gray Davis and the Democrats in our state legislature. I see this evening that our state controller is going to borrow maximum cash of $11 billion to try and get us through our current fiscal crisis. Hmmm, how about if you cut our massive overspending instead? Nah, better to apply a temporary fix that ensures we'll be screwed even harder later.

This is the last bit of money that we're allowed to borrow by law, and the state is already deep in debt. It's actually possible that we'll have to declare bankruptcy. I'll write more later, but meanwhile why don't you head over to RecallGrayDavis.Com, print the petition, sign it, and mail it in.


VARIETY SHOW: I just went to an elementary school Variety Show which featured three little girls who I work with at church. My girls were brilliant, of course, and performed magnificently -- but they were wise not to call it a "Talent Show". I was surprised to see many of the little girls performing rather risque song and dance numbers, but I guess that's just how pop culture is these days. The audience (mostly parents) wooooed and cheered when the kids shook their hips and stuck out their chests to Britney and Christina and J Lo, but it seemed a bit surreal to me.

By the time I left the school it had started to rain, so I decided to head on over to Tito's Tacos, naively thinking that it might not be crowded for once because of the outdoor lines. The inside was packed, but only a few people braved the weather and I managed to get my food in less than 15 minutes (surely a record for Tito's on a Friday night). Now I'm going to go watch Law & Order: SVU and eat my taco with cheese, bean and cheese burrito, and tamale.

Tomorrow: begin intensive study for my WQEs.


PEDANTIC: GeekPress quotes this Mercury News article which says: "IBM researchers have created the world's smallest solid-state flashlight -- a tube 50,000 times thinner than a human hair. It emits a glow that is invisible to our eyes, but ideal for devices that use light to send data in fiber-optic cables and the like." Nifty! Except, what does "50,000 times thinner than a human hair" mean?

Now, if something is 50,000 times thicker than a human hair then that's pretty clear, because "thickness" is a property that all physical objects possess and which can extend, in theory, to infinity. How thick is your car? How thick are you? Easy to answer. If a human hair has a thickness of 1 Human Hair Unit, then something 50,000 times as thick has a thickness of 50,000 HHUs. "Thinness" however, is a property which can only go down to zero, and which implies that a comparison has already been made to some "standard" thickness. The author is mixing denotation. If you're fat and your friend's waistline is half of yours, is he half as thick as you or twice as thin? Well, you're not really thin at all: you're negative thin, since you're fat. Likewise, I'm not a thousand times thinner than a skyscraper -- that just doesn't make any sense. "50,000 times" implies that the flashlight is much more something than a human hair, but "50,000 times thinner" attempts to say that it's "50,000 times more less thick" -- strange and twisted.

Although I'm sure everyone knows what the writer means when she says "50,000 times thinner than a human hair", it would annoy me less if she had written "1/50,000th as thick as a human hair".

I'm interested in education issues, largely because a good chunk of my tax dollars to towards it and I think our system is a miserable failure. Apparently, I'm not alone. Let me make a brief list of things that won't solve the education problem in our country:

  • Spend more money. We've tried this for the past 50 years, and hey, things keep getting worse. Between 1978 and 1999, inflation-adjusted spending on education in California increased 39%. Most of the money pays for beauracracy and overhead. In California, teachers "earn" tenure after two years and are then assured a job for life -- high school teachers and below shouldn't get tenure ever, what's the point? Of course, if Governor Davis wasn't such a special interests whore the teachers' union wouldn't have so much power.
  • Increase diversity. I know a lot of kids, and most of them are far less concerned with racial issues than adults are. Their biggest problem isn't that they can't get along with other races (because they generally can), it's that they have no discipline or interest in education.
  • Make school easier. Most high school graduates are illiterate and incapable of solving math problems; how much easier can it get? Heck, even college grads can't read (see subsequent slides for definition of terms).

    The problem with public education is the first word: "public". People don't value things they perceive as being free, even when in fact it is their tax money paying for education. The whole system is a socialistic relic that should be gutted and turned over to the private sector. Let capitalism and competition (overseen by limited government regulation) turn our pathetic education system around.


  • ONE OF THOSE DAYS: Good thing there isn't much going on today, I've been up to my neck in meetings. Just got a new list of Action Items to work on that should keep me pretty busy for the next few weeks... but first, time to surf the web.

    If anyone else out there lives in California and is considering buying a weapon and applying for a concealed-carry permit, allow me to point you to a couple of resources on the web.

    Equal Rights For CCW Home Page -- run by Jim March, and largely dedicated to exposing the hypocritical manner in which CCWs are (not) issued to law-abiding citizens of California. Contains this excellent page on California laws that govern carrying knives.

    Packing.Org -- awesome site that describes concealed-carry laws in all 50 states, and describes how they interact. There are also tips on how to write "cause statements" for each state.

    Ruger P95 -- this is the gun I'm going to buy (real soon now). I like the Rugers because they're good, reliable, cheap guns, and they have an ambidextrous safety -- important because I'm left-handed.


    KIDS THESE DAYS: My friend and I ran a workshop tonight for the high school juniors at our church, the purpose of which was to help them sign up for the SATand make them aware of the upcoming college application deadlines. We're going to be meeting again near the end of summer to help them with financial aid forms and the actual applications themselves. We announced the workshop in advance and talked to 12 or 15 juniors about coming, but in the end only 3 students showed up. I wonder why the others didn't come?

    It's not because they've filled out the forms on their own: we had asked them that previously and were met with blank stares. Most of them have no idea what kinds of things need to be done in order to successfully apply to a college. So why didn't they come? I guess that many of them don't plan on going to college, or they expect that they won't be able to get into a "good" college and will just end up at one of the local community colleges. Who knows, maybe they're right, but there are plenty of cheap state schools that are higher quality than the community colleges and that accept students who don't have stellar academic records. There is also financial aid available to help pay for school. The only reason that a high school graduate in California should end up at a community college is if they are too lazy to put in the effort to apply to one of the UCs or CSUs.

    Even with all the help we offered at the workshop I guess many of the kids were too lazy to show up. Or they just don't care. I don't know. I'm glad we had the opportunity to help a few of them, but I don't understand why the others weren't interested.


    RETREAT!: Here are a few pictures from the A-Life retreat. Courtesy of Yoosook Lee.

    Go read my previous post on the subject of intellectual property or else this one won't make sense.

    I've been thinking about intellectual property again, and the fact that digital encoding can basically reduce all IP to a number (or set of numbers) makes me think that it's going to be very difficult to enforce copyright laws in the future; basically, extend the effect Napster had on music to everything. This isn't a very profound realization, but the underlying question seems important to me: how can anyone ever claim to own a number?

    I was reading a little bit about how radio frequencies are licensed by companies for use but are considered to be "owned" by the public as a whole and administered by the government. If numbers can be considered to be owned by anyone, they should fall into the public domain in the same way that radio frequencies do. But then what? Government-run licensing for companies that want to monopolize certain numbers (such as the number that encodes a specific song in the MP3 format)? Would they have to pay to hold these licenses? How then would they make money, through advertising like a radio station? It just doesn't make any sense.

    The end result is that I think we're nearing the end of the period in human history wherein it has been possible to "own" a representation of an idea (through copyright). Inventions and processes that depend on physical constructions will be protectable into the forseeable future (until we have replicators?), but the concept of the copyright will probably disappear by 2050 (my conservative guess). As it is, many societies are incapable of / unwilling to enforce existing copyright treaties, and the difficulties will only grow. Social momentum will eventually overwhelm the existing order, and it will collapse.


    WHY ARE PRETTY GIRLS SO DUMB? 2: Who knew that the post I'd get the most comments on ever would be about pretty girls being dumb? Maybe I've found my niche!

    More seriously though, I've thought of a genetic angle to the question. I'm sure this is obvious to real biologists out there, but here it is anyway because I thought of it myself: men may show more variation in intelligence because they exhibit recessive genes carried on the X chromosome more strongly than women do. This is because men only have one X (and one Y); women have two Xs, of course, and any recessive genes carried on one of the two Xs will be damped out if there is a dominant gene on the other X. A man who gets a recessive gene on his one X will display it more strongly. One example of this is that while 1/12th of males are color-blind only 1/144th of females are -- due to the fact that the color-blindness gene is recessive and located on the X chromosome.

    If there are equivalent genes for certain types of intelligence, then it's clear that sex-linkage could account for the greater standard deviation in intelligence among men, even though both genders have the same mean intelligence.

    Update:
    I asked the girl from my population genetics class about my theory and she gave it a resounding endorsement: "yeah, maybe". QED.

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