June 2014 Archives

Does it appear to you that the AP might be biased in favor of "free" contraception?

The Supreme Court says corporations can hold religious objections that allow them to opt out of the new health law requirement that they cover contraceptives for women.

The justices' 5-4 decision Monday is the first time that the high court has ruled that profit-seeking businesses can hold religious views under federal law. And it means the Obama administration must search for a different way of providing free contraception to women who are covered under objecting companies' health insurance plans.

But of course there is no such thing as "free" contraception (except perhaps abstinence, which has its own opportunity cost). As for pharmaceutical contraception, someone has to pay for it even if the payer isn't the user. The Supreme Court has decided that corporations (really, their shareholders) can't be forced to pay something that violates their religious beliefs. Freedom of religion is protected by the Constitution, and getting someone else to pay for your contraception isn't. Seems simple to me.

If you haven't played Diplomacy then you aren't a serious board-gamer. Not to brag, but I've played a full game five times and been in the winning alliance three times. Since none of our players were proficient Diplomacy players my wins were probably due to luck and cunning more than skill. Diplomacy is a game I recommend for everyone to try, but it probably won't be a frequent selection for your game nights. Why? It requires seven players, it takes at least six hours to play and often more, and it is extremely emotional.

If you've ever heard of Diplomacy, chances are you know it as "the game that ruins friendships." It's also likely you've never finished an entire game. That's because Diplomacy requires seven players and seven or eight hours to complete. Games played by postal mail, the way most played for the first 30 years of its existence, could take longer than a year to finish. Despite this, Diplomacy is one of the most popular strategic board games in history. Since its invention in 1954 by Harvard grad Allan B. Calhamer, Diplomacy has sold over 300,000 copies and was inducted into Games Magazine's hall of fame alongside Monopoly, Clue, and Scrabble.

The game is incredibly simple. The game board is a map of 1914 Europe divided into 19 sea regions and 56 land regions, 34 of which contain what are known as "supply centers." Each player plays as a major power (Austria-Hungary, Turkey, Italy, England, France, Russia, Germany) with three pieces on the board (four for Russia) known as "home supply centers." Each piece can move one space at a time, and each piece has equal strength. When two pieces try to move to the same space, neither moves. If two pieces move to the same space but one of those pieces has "support" from a third piece, the piece with support will win the standoff and take the space. The goal is to control 18 supply centers, which rarely happens. What's more common is for two or more players to agree to end the game in a draw. Aside from a few other special situations, that's pretty much it for rules.

There are two things that make Diplomacy so unique and challenging. The first is that, unlike in most board games, players don't take turns moving. Everyone writes down their moves and puts them in a box. The moves are then read aloud, every piece on the board moving simultaneously. The second is that prior to each move the players are given time to negotiate with each other, as a group or privately. The result is something like a cross between Risk, poker, and Survivor -- with no dice or cards or cameras. There's no element of luck. The only variable factor in the game is each player's ability to convince others to do what they want. The core game mechanic, then, is negotiation. This is both what draws and repels people to Diplomacy in equal force; because when it comes to those negotiations, anything goes. And anything usually does.

Awesome. Why the heck am I buying nylon rope???


Cpl. Kyle Carpenter has been awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for his service in Afghanistan. My family, and our whole country, are grateful and humbled by the service and sacrifice of Cpl. Carpenter and his fellows who give so much on our behalf.

The President of the United States, in the name of the Congress, takes pleasure in presenting the Medal of Honor to Lance Corporal William Kyle Carpenter, United States Marine Corps, for conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty while serving as an automatic rifleman with Company F, 2nd Battalion, 9th Marines, Regimental Combat Team One, 1st Marine Division (Forward), 1st Marine Expeditionary Force (Forward), in Helmand Province, Afghanistan in support of Operation Enduring Freedom on 21 November, 2010.

Lance Corporal Carpenter was a member of a platoon-sized coalition force comprised of two reinforced Marine rifle squads, partnered with an Afghan National Army squad. The platoon had established Patrol Base Dakota two days earlier in a small village in the Marja District in order to disrupt enemy activity and provide security for the local Afghan population.

Lance Corporal Carpenter and a fellow Marine were manning a rooftop security position on the perimeter of Patrol Base Dakota when the enemy initiated a daylight attack with hand grenades, one of which landed inside their sandbagged position. Without hesitation and with complete disregard for his own safety, Lance Corporal Carpenter moved towards the grenade in an attempt to shield his fellow Marine from the deadly blast. When the grenade detonated, his body absorbed the brunt of the blast, severely wounding him but saving the life of his fellow Marine.

By his undaunted courage, bold fighting spirit, and unwavering devotion to duty in the face of almost certain death, Lance Corporal Carpenter reflected great credit upon himself and upheld the highest traditions of the Marine Corps and the United States Naval Service.

So all of Lois Lerner's emails from 2009-2011 were lost when her hard drive crashed, and now that hard drive has been destroyed. Anyone with any familiarity with enterprise IT systems will agree that this is a complete joke. Emails are easily, routinely backed up, and losing a client hard drive will have absolutely no impact on the availability of the backup sets.

I don't need to know the ins and outs of the IRS IT infrastructure to know that if Lerner's emails aren't available or don't exist it's because they were intentionally destroyed. To whose benefit?

This charade is a joke that shouldn't fool anyone. We know that the dog didn't eat your homework.

Glenn Reynolds suggests collective punishment for the IRS, which seems pretty close to what the Republicans in the House are planning with their 15% budget cut for the agency. Writes Reynolds:

For now, if I were a member of Congress I'd zero out the IRS's travel and conference budget -- the service spent tens of millions of dollars on videos spoofing Star Trek, Gilligan's Island, etc. in past years, for conferences held in cushy locations like Anaheim -- and look at other ways to make the agency pay.

Targeting Americans is unforgivable; covering it up is worse, and if the IRS has made it impossible to target the individuals responsible, then the IRS as a whole should pay the price. That's not an ideal solution, but such misbehavior should not go unpunished.

My view is different. I don't think the IRS or its employees need to be punished... bureaucracies are best understood as psychopaths whose fixations and behavior are inwardly focused and governed by their internal rules and culture. Like psychopaths, you can't really "reform" them. Fortunately, unlike human psychopaths, you can disband a harmful bureaucracy and start over. I've called this institutional capital punishment, and I think it's the only way to properly resolve the IRS debacle.

Obviously America needs an agency to collect tax revenue, but the IRS -- its rules, its internal culture -- are so broken that it can't be trusted to do the job any more. This doesn't mean that the employees are bad people, but they're working in a bad, broken system. Rather than trying to fix the psychopathic system, just "execute" it and start over from scratch with a new tax collection agency.

Jack Hamilton "defends" the Game of Thrones series from his own presumption that its "inauthenticity" should damn the show to unimportance. Is our culture such that every creation must conceal layers of ironic commentary about the real world in order to be valuable?

Game of Thrones is a terrifically fun and immensely popular show, but can a work so flagrantly inauthentic actually be important television?

The answer is yes, and precisely for its unreality, its joyful hostility toward anything like allegory, commentary, or social relevance. Much like Star Wars and Hogwarts and other great Neverlands, Game of Thrones doesn't hold a mirror to anything. It is aggressively false, a work of far-fetched imagination so intricate and finely realized it becomes compelling on its own terms, disorienting and dazzling us in the ways that only the best storytelling can. This is a show where we cheer on an adolescent girl's precocious transformation into a serial murderer; this is a show in which a character's desire to release people from slavery is convincingly rendered as a conundrum. The most recent episode ended with yet another shocking death, a character we're coming to hate killing a character we'd come to pity, to save the life of a character we've come to love. How are we even supposed to feel? Other than, yet again, totally thrilled.

The most surprising aspect of this essay is that the author apparently believes that Game of Thrones is "aggressively false" because the characters and their motivations are nuanced and complex -- there's no "good guy" and no "bad guy". This seems quite realistic to me, but the Hamilton's perspective on the show says a lot about his view of the world.

Finally, do you expect your entertainment to tell you how you're supposed to feel? Just feel.

Jean-Baptiste Quéru describes the depth and complexity of what happens when you visit a website -- there's a lot more going on that most people realize. I'll quote the very first bit, but read the rest if you're interested in getting a glimpse of the magic behind our technology. As Quéru writes, no one person or company can fully comprehend it.

You just went to the Google home page.

Simple, isn't it?

What just actually happened?

Well, when you know a bit of about how browsers work, it's not quite that simple. You've just put into play HTTP, HTML, CSS, ECMAscript, and more. Those are actually such incredibly complex technologies that they'll make any engineer dizzy if they think about them too much, and such that no single company can deal with that entire complexity.

Let's simplify.

On Quora someone asks why camouflage wasn't used before WW1 and the top-rated answer taught me something new: early camouflage was inspired by cubism!

Painting potential targets in ways designed to break down their form makes it difficult for adversaries to line those images up properly, particularly at longer distances, where atmospheric effects, battlefield smoke, surrounding terrain and other factors can make even an undisguised target difficult enough to fixate accurately. In other words, the very first types of camouflage were intended so that when you view them through an optical range-finder, you can never be quite sure just what you're looking at. These principles were used at sea (a warship painted with "dazzle" camouflage)

Roll Call has broken the news that the CBO has announced that it can no longer project the costs of Obamacare. All the CBO estimates for Obamacare over the past five years have turned out to be nonsense. Short version: President Obama has made so many unilateral modifications to the law that no one can figure out what the heck is going on anymore.

In its latest report on the law, the Congressional Budget Office said it is no longer possible to assess the overall fiscal impact of the law. That conclusion came as a surprise to some fiscal experts in Washington and is drawing concern. And without a clear picture of the law's overall financing, it could make it politically easier to continue delaying pieces of it, including revenue raisers, because any resulting cost increases might be hidden.

Charles Blahous, a senior research fellow at George Mason University's free market-oriented Mercatus Center, calls the CBO's inability to estimate the net effect of the law "a real problem."

"The ACA's financing provisions were assumed to be effective so as to get a favorable score out of CBO upon enactment, but no one is keeping track of whether they're being enforced," says Blahous, a public trustee for Social Security and Medicare. "We receive occasional updates on the gross costs of the law, but none on whether the previously projected savings provisions are producing what was originally projected."

As a result, Blahous says, "there's no barrier to continually rolling back the financing mechanisms without the effect on the ACA's finances ever being fully disclosed."

An ultra-dominant alpha-male brown bear is facing castration because he's too sexually prolific. Poor guy.

An elderly brown bear in the Pyrenees is facing castration or segregation amid fears that his sexual dominance is threatening the species' survival in the region by limiting genetic diversity.

Pyros, one of the oldest of the 30 or so bears who roam the mountains between France and Spain, is the father, grandfather or great-grandfather of nearly all of the cubs born in the Pyrenees over the past two decades. There are four other males in the colony - only one of them is not related to Pyros - and none of them have fathered any offspring.

Spanish officials said they were being forced to decide between castration or segregation for Pyros after the recent birth of a cub who was both his daughter and grand-daughter.

"If he keeps up this sexual vigour and dominant attitude for a few more years, the other males in the mountains have no chance of mating with any of the females," José Enrique Arró, the councillor who oversees environmental issues in the Val d'Aran, told La Vanguardia.

A brilliant new double-decker armrest design may be able to reduce arm contention between seat neighbors!


And airlines will be able to squeeze more people into the same space, which could save passengers money.

If airlines make our lives truly terrible, they may give us the Paperclip as consolation. Some are thinking about putting 10 seats in each row of the Boeing 777 where today there are nine, Robert Mann, an airline industry analyst said, which would bring in huge economic benefits. "If this sort of feature were to facilitate that without detracting from the customer experience," it would be worthwhile.

In an effort to spur lending the European Central Bank has introduced negative interest rates for bank deposits. Although it sounds strange, there's no reason that interest rates can't go negative -- in fact, negative interest rates are basically the same thing as traditional inflation. Spend (or lend) the money now because you'll have less in the future.

It cut its deposit rate for banks from zero to -0.1%, to encourage banks to lend to businesses rather than hold on to money.

The ECB is the first major central bank to introduce negative interest rates.

Howard Archer, chief UK and European economist at IHS Global Insight said: "Despite being widely anticipated and in some quarters criticised for occurring too late, it is still a bold and unusual move by the ECB to take its deposit rate into negative territory."

"There has to be considerable uncertainty as to how effective negative deposit rates will turn out to be," he added.

It has been tried before in smaller economies. Sweden and Denmark, who are both outside the Single Currency, attempted to use negative rates in recent years with mixed results.

Analysts said in Sweden it had little discernible impact; in Denmark it did have the effect of lowering the value of the currency, the Krone, but according to the Danish Banking Association it also hit the banks' bottom line profits.

Here's some more about what a negative interest rate even means.

Despite 26 million views there is no evidence that women are better multitaskers than men.

I asked Buser where he thinks things stand now. "The number of studies carried out so far is simply too small to come to a conclusive answer, especially because there are so many dimensions to multitasking," he replied. "It is entirely possible that women are better at some kinds of multitasking but not at others, but so far there is very little evidence for any gender differences."

Ann Althouse asks why people like to believe that women are better than men at multitasking, and offers a few suggestions.

Who benefits? Is it female ego-boosting? Is it another trick of the patriarchy that hoodwinks women into doing the housework and child-rearing?

I think she's on to something. Other possibilities:

  • Perhaps women excel at tasks that are more commonly performed in parallel due to the nature of the tasks themselves.
  • Perhaps women excel at multitasking some highly visible tasks, and this observation bias leads people to believe that women excel at multitasking in general.
  • Perhaps women exert greater effort while multitasking in a real environment, while men only exert themselves while multitasking in an experimental environment.

In light of the recent America-Taliban prisoner exchange it can be helpful to consider prisoners of war throughout history. Conditions have varied based on time and place, but the 1648 Peace of Westphalia it seems that more POWs were simply executed or enslaved. After Westphalia and the Geneva Convention, prisoner exchanges became more common.

It seems there is some controversy over whether Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl was deserting when he was captured by the Taliban in 2009. If there is sufficient evidence to support such a claim, then I hope Bergdahl is prosecuted appropriately.

However, it's still good to have an American POW released. Some people are responding to this prisoner exchange as if it were a hostage negotiation with terrorists, but I don't think the same rules should apply to POWs and hostages.

"If you negotiate here, you've sent a message to every Al Qaeda group in the world -- by the way, some who are holding U.S. hostages today -- that there is some value now in that hostage in a way that they didn't have before," Mr. Rogers said on the CNN program "State of the Union." He added, "That is dangerous."

Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl in a video released in 2010. Sergeant Bergdahl was freed on Saturday in a prisoner swap with the Taliban. Credit IntelCenter, via Associated Press
But Ms. Rice said: "Sergeant Bergdahl wasn't simply a hostage; he was an American prisoner of war captured on the battlefield. We have a sacred obligation that we have upheld since the founding of our republic to do our utmost to bring back our men and women who are taken in battle, and we did that in this instance." She was speaking on the ABC program "This Week."

It's hard for me to say if it was wise to trade five "senior Taliban commanders" for Bergdahl, but I'll give the President the benefit of the doubt.

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