30 November 2010

"Ray Kurzweil's Slippery Futurism"

The IEEE Spectrum's cover story this month is a solid critique up of Ray Kurzweil's futurism pseudo-prophetic chicanery.
IEEE Spectrum | John Rennie | Ray Kurzweil's Slippery Futurism

On close examination, his clearest and most successful predictions often lack originality or profundity. And most of his predictions come with so many loopholes that they border on the unfalsifiable. Yet he continues to be taken seriously enough as an oracle of technology to command very impressive speaker fees at pricey conferences, to author best-selling books,"

Ray Kurzweil's genius is beyond dispute.
Indeed, but his genius is firmly in the realm of signals processing. If I had some tricky questions about that domain I would totally listen to Kurzweil's opinions. But when it comes to "What is the future of AI, computing, and society?" I wouldn't stake anything on his answers being any better than any other mildly informed observer.

(Actually, I'd wager his answers will be qualitatively worse, for three reasons. One, he has a terrible track record when it comes to predictions. Two, his incentive is not to make correct predictions, it's to make notable, provocative predictions that people will want to pay him to talk about. Three, he already has a dedicated group of cult-like followers who are predisposed to believe his predictions, lessening the incentive to be accurate.)

While Rennie presents a pretty firm criticism of Kurzweil, I think he erred on the side of leniency.

PS I am pleased that Kurzweil is willing to place bets on his predictions. More people making public claims ought to be willign to do that.
Kurzweil is confident, for instance, that by 2029 researchers, having reverse engineered the human brain, will build an AI that can pass as human. (He has a US $20 000 bet to that effect with computing pioneer Mitchell Kapor riding at the Long Bets Web site.)
I think he's going to lose that money, but my hat is off to him for wagering it.  I'd put $5 grand down on the other side of that bet, if we could work out an acceptable agreement for what "pass as human" means.

29 November 2010

Guns! Robots! Thankfully not working together!

JamulBlog | SlightlyLoony | Super-Weapon for Infantrymen is Now in Afghanistan...

The XM25 rifle fires 25mm (about 1 inch) diameter rounds that explode behind or over cover hiding enemy soldiers. It's a game-changer that has the potential to revolutionize infantry warfare – and very much to our troops' advantage, since our current enemies are unlikely to be able to duplicate (or even understand) the technology.

Combat trials of this weapon system have begun, and the initial reports are very positive. The weapon is at least as effective as advertised, and is unexpectedly easy for our troops to pick up and use.

The Taliban just got some bad news.

The video below explains how the XM25 works, and here's more information.

First of all: wow. One step closer to Starship Troopers.

Second of all: Judge John Hodgman's recently ruled in the negative to the question of "Are machine guns robots?" (And quite correctly so, if I may add.) HOWEVER! as a result of the above video new shit has come to light. Is this grounds for an appeal? I put the question to you, fake internet jurists.

Third of all: Let's have a video of something which is indisputably a robot!

I've read plenty of papers with Reinforcement Learning-derived and other controllers for the inverted pendulum problem, but I've never seen a double pendulum.  All I have to say is "yowzers."  (Yes, I just said "yowzers."  I stand by that decision.)  I shall have to look into this beauty when time permits.

(Via Mungowitz)

I left one out

I said in the previous post that I have three meta-problems with the way Washington went about health care reform, problems above and beyond the actual contents of the bill.

I either left out the most obvious of these meta-problems, or this is a meta-meta-problem, the ur-problem from which all others derive.  So let me add...

4. The terrible, slapdash haste with which this thing was undertaken.

This was no emergency. We've been limping along with the same system for years. A delay of another 30 or 90 or even 365 days was not going to ruin anything. Especially since (almost) none of this legislation actually goes into effect for several years after passage. The only thing that would be affected by a delay of a month or three would be several incumbents prospects of re-election.

It now looks like this madcap "we'll know what's in it after we vote on it" bullshit might turn out to be something of a major problem. (Besides the problems that you always wind up with when you rush a large project, of course.)
Reason: Hit & Run | Peter Suderman | Whoops, We Forgot to Include A Severability Clause in a Law That Was Sure to Be Challenged in Court

Judges in both Florida and Virginia have indicated that they may accept some of the key constitutional arguments against the law’s individual mandate, which requires everyone to purchase health insurance or pay a fine. As The New York Times reported over the holiday, if either of those judges eventually rules that the mandate is unconstitutional, then the judge will have to choose whether or not to let implementation of the rest of the law proceed:
Virginia’s attorney general, Kenneth T. Cuccinelli II, a Republican who filed the Richmond lawsuit, argues that if Judge Hudson rejects the insurance requirement he should instantly invalidate the entire act on a nationwide basis.

Mr. Cuccinelli and the plaintiffs in the Florida case, who include attorneys general or governors from 20 states, have emphasized that Congressional bill writers did not include a “severability clause” that would explicitly protect other parts of the sprawling law if certain provisions were struck down.

An earlier version of the legislation, which passed the House last November, included severability language. But that clause did not make it into the Senate version, which ultimately became law. A Democratic aide who helped write the bill characterized the omission as an oversight.

Without such language, the Supreme Court, through its prior rulings, essentially requires judges to try to determine whether Congress would have enacted the rest of a law without the unconstitutional provisions.
The first thing to note from this passage is that the severability clause was left out by mistake—despite the absolute certainty that the mandate would be challenged—indicating the haste with which the bill was cobbled together, and the overall sloppiness of its construction. The law we got was not a polished, considered piece of legislation. It was a rush job with a lot of glitches. As I’ve written before, in software terms, the legislation that passed was still in beta form.

Legislative Refactoring -or- Where's Trebonian when you need him?

Tyler Cowen has an excellent run-down of the current sticky points / potential causes of catastrophic failure in the health care system.

I had three meta-problems with Obamacare. (Along with many concrete problems with the plan we actually got. These are just problems with the entire way Congress & the White House went about this issue.)

1. You can use all of the revenue proposals to launch a new program, or you can use them to get us squared away fiscally, but you can't do both. Our fearless leaders opted for the former rather than the latter, which I think was irresponsible.

2. Every large, unpopular bill becomes more popular (amongst legislators) by buying them off with their desired pet regulations or spending. You end up gaining more votes not by crafting a better bill, but a kludgier, worse one.

3. More relevant to Cowen's list, I saw the HCR debate as our best opportunity for refactoring.*

Our healthcare system is a massive legacy system that no sane person would ever opt for if we were starting from scratch. (Even the people who come out ahead of the game in our system wouldn't have designed it the way it is now.) We're stuck with a bunch of cruft that's left over from historical accidents and unintended consequences and bunch of other unforseen shit that weve been dragging along for most of a century.

HCR was the time to finally do some dangerously delayed house cleaning. Instead we bolted a bunch of new shit on top of the old shit, making the system even cruftier, clumsier, more brittle, and more inoperable. Instead of refactoring like we should have, we glued a bunch of new features (not to mention bugs) onto the rickety old, barely operable code base.

I see many of the nine things Cowen lists as those brittle joints and poorly aligned junctions in the structure of the system that were either left in or created as a result of this "reform."

* Code refactoring: "Code refactoring is the process of changing a computer program's source code without modifying its external functional behavior in order to improve some of the nonfunctional attributes of the software. Advantages include improved code readability and reduced complexity to improve the maintainability of the source code, as well as a more expressive internal architecture or object model to improve extensibility."

Like bad legacy software systems, our legislation is never refactored enough. (Frankly our legislation is almost never refactored at all.) Refactoring is not sexy. No engineer or politicians wants to spend time on it. You can't trumpet a successful refactoring to your boss or the electorate. But like all things, especially complex things, maintenance of software and legislation is vitally important.

"The Corner Pub"

The Bellows | Ryan Avent | The Corner Pub

London, like cities and towns across the British Isles, is filled with pubs. They vary in type, quality, and clientele. I was very lucky this time around to find a near-perfect gastropub just a five minute walk from my flat. It was quiet and well-maintained with a great menu, and while there were always people there, there was also always a free seat. Kids were welcome during the day, as were dogs. Every time I went I thought to myself how great it would be to have such a place close by back in Washington. And every time I thought that, I immediately reminded myself that such a place, back in Washington, would be perpetually packed and fairly unpleasant. In the Washington area, you can’t have a place that’s both really good and quiet in a neighborhood-y sort of way.

That’s largely because it’s very difficult to open new bars. And the result is a pernicious feedback loop. With too few bars around, most good bars are typically crowded. This crowdedness alienates neighbors, and it also has a selecting effect on the types of people who choose to go to bars — those interested in a loud, rowdy environment, who will often tend to be loud and rowdy. This alienates neighbors even more, leading to tighter restrictions still and exacerbating the problem.

Sadly, this is the kind of dynamic that’s very difficult to change. No city council will pass the let-one-thousand-bars-bloom act...
We don't need a "Let One Thousand Bars Bloom Act," we need a "No City Councilman Is So Wise As To Know Where And How Businesses Ought To Be Distributed Throughout His City Act."

Of course I'm not holding me breath for that to pass any time sooner, either. Not as long as we've got a bunch of Clint Webbs trying to make it in politics.

Most well adjusted, sane men would be hesitant to take a job where their decisions would so drastically affect the lives of so many. Not me.

I posses a sort of sociopathic narcissism that makes me think that I should be in charge of everyone.

Prohibition Anecdotes

Reason: Hit & Run | Jacob Sullum | David Katz, M.D.: I Don't Get It, So It Should Be Banned

Although The Huffington Post is ostensibly intended for adults, Katz's clueless condescension (and exclamation points!) would offend even a reasonably bright 11-year-old. It is enough to turn you against 'sanity and safety' once and for all. Unlike Katz, I do not have an M.D., but I do not think his assertion that anyone who dares to drink an Irish coffee or a rum and coke must be insane qualifies as a medical judgment. As evidence that drinking such a 'crazy' combination 'has an excellent chance of hurting you, and a fairly good chance of killing you,' Katz offers a single datum: an accident in which a 21-year-old who had been drinking Four Loko died after slamming her pickup truck into a telephone pole. He also falsely claims that Four Loko contains 'highly concentrated alcohol,' when in fact the product, at 12 percent alcohol by volume, is less potent than Chardonnay.
Is anyone else noticing a similarity between Four Loko and absinthe prohibition?

Jean Lanfray murdered his wife after having two glasses of the stuff with lunch, which contributed greatly to the moral panic against it, leading to its eventual century-long ban in Switzerland. Little reported was that his lunch also included seven wines, six cognacs, two brandies, and two creme de menthes.

Of course there are going to be incidents of people doing stupid shit after having Four Loko. But there are thousands of people doing stupid shit every day after having Miller Lite.  Why is this one particular, rare cause of stupid behavior more deserving of the public wrath than all the rest?

28 November 2010

A Violent Slimeball Businessman

(Lest people think I only complain about violent slimeballs in government.)

Via Alex Tabarrok, here's a NYTimes story of an extremely slimy business which revels in its own bad publicity, since even negative mentions boosts its search engine rankings.

What interests me is the way the story is framed around this being Google's fault. I'm not exaggerating:
"In short, a Google side stage — Google Shopping — is now hosting a marathon reading of [COMPANY NAME] horror stories. But those tales aren’t even hinted at in the company’s premier arena, its main search page.

“It’s fair to say,” Mr. Sullivan concludes, “that this is a failure on Google’s part.”
(NB: Like Tabarrok I have removed the name of the odious company because I do not want contribute to juicing their PageRank mojo. This is not a measure the NYTimes decided to take. Make of that what you will.)

It would be cool if Google could link these things together, but it doesn't do that. Doing so would almost certainly be more complicated than you or I (or a random journo) thinks. It's also under no obligation to do so. Google actually promises to avoid editorializing in its search rankings, and all in all, people like it that way. Just run the algorithm and report what it says.

I see this as another example of seeing something distasteful in the world and searching around for the nearest entity with deep pockets or potentially bad image and blaming them because they're nearby.  It's not satisfying enough to blame Tony Russo for being a thuggish, thieving ass. You've got to blame Big Something to have a story.

Top Gear America

Apparently there is an American version of Top Gear premiering on TV right this minute.

I think this is a worthwhile idea, but I am very skeptical of it working well since I think so much of the success of the British show revolves around the appeal of hosts Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond and James May.  (Mostly Clarkson.)

I've listened to every single episode of Car Talk for the last six (seven?) years. That's because Tom and Ray Magliozzi are that charming, not because I particularly care about cars. I think Top Gear has the same appeal.

Speaking of which, the American Top Gear ought to have Tom & Ray make guest appearances once in a while. That would just be worlds colliding in the best possible way.  Are you listening, producers?

"Happy Thanksgiving from Nassim Taleb"

Kids Prefer Cheese | Angus | Happy Thanksgiving from Nassim Taleb

He sees 25 years into the future, people! And it's not good:
'The great top-down nation-state will be only cosmetically alive, weakened by deficits, politicians’ misalignment of interests and the magnification of errors by centralised systems. The pre-modernist robust model of city-states and statelings will prevail, with obsessive fiscal prudence. Currencies might still exist, but, after the disastrous experience of America’s Federal Reserve, they will peg to some currency without a government, such as gold.'
Yep, it's the middle ages with coffee-makers for us."
The end of the nation-state sounds ... pretty awesome.  Seriously. Let's make this happen.  (See also Cowen's "politics vs. finance".*)

On the other hand...
Is anybody besides me getting real tired of this guy?
Yeah, I've been tired of him since I knew who he was. Which is odd in a way, because I actually agree with a lot of what he says, but he grates for some reason.
Yes, asset returns have too fat of tails to be correctly modeled by a normal distribution. Thanks, pal. We already know that. It doesn't make you a prophet.
Agreed.  It's no secret we need to move past Gaussianism. Theoreticians have got to get off their fetishistic addiction to bell curves.

I value theory, but I feel like saying it's worthwhile at least partially discounting any theoretical result about modeling that  can't be backed up with a (solidly verified and validated) monte carlo sim.  It's not like we're scavenging for CPU cycles, which makes all this chalkboard derivation less valuable than it was a couple decades ago.

* "In a nutshell, we're watching the most pitched, highest-stakes, most determined battle between politics and finance which has been staged. I am expecting finance to win. It's not just about PIGS and the future of the eurozone, it's settling a very general question about the relative power of politics and finance. Either way, it is an event of momentous importance."

25 November 2010

"They should set corn every man for his own particular, and in that regard trust to themselves. ... And so assigned to every family a parcel of land."

Hi boys and girls! Happy Thanksgiving.

If you're like me, then your teachers never bothered to tell you what made the first Thanksgiving possible.  They must have though making turkeys and head dresses out of construction paper was more valuable.

Just in case your teachers had the same priorities mine did, here's another video from Reason.TV to fill in one of the gaps in your education.

And here's John Stossel from several years ago with the same story.
Real Clear Politics | John Stossel | The Tragedy of the Commons

Every year around this time, schoolchildren are taught about that wonderful day when Pilgrims and Native Americans shared the fruits of the harvest. "Isn't sharing wonderful?" say the teachers.

They miss the point.

Because of sharing, the first Thanksgiving in 1623 almost didn't happen. [...]

When the Pilgrims first settled the Plymouth Colony, they organized their farm economy along communal lines. The goal was to share everything equally, work and produce.

They nearly all starved.

Why? When people can get the same return with a small amount of effort as with a large amount, most people will make little effort. Plymouth settlers faked illness rather than working the common property. Some even stole, despite their Puritan convictions. Total production was too meager to support the population, and famine resulted. Some ate rats, dogs, horses and cats. This went on for two years. [...]

The people of Plymouth moved from socialism to private farming. The results were dramatic. [...]

24 November 2010

Intellectual Poker

Reason.tv | Richard Epstein on Barack Obama, his former Chicago Law Colleague

As Epstein told Reason in a 1995 interview, "I took some pride in the fact that [Sen.] Joe Biden (D-Del.) held a copy of Takings up to a hapless Clarence Thomas back in 1991 and said that anyone who believes what's in this book is certifiably unqualified to sit in on the Supreme Court. That's a compliment of sorts.... But I took even more pride in the fact that, during the Breyer hearings [in 199X], there were no such theatrics, even as the nominee was constantly questioned on whether he agreed with the Epstein position on deregulation as if that position could not be held by responsible people."
Ha! I don't trust anyone who doesn't have enemies. You know you're on the right track when you anger the right people.

Says Epstein of Obama:
"He passed through Chicago without absorbing much of the internal culture," says Epstein of the president. "He's amazingly good at playing intellectual poker. But that's a disadvantage, because if you don't put your ideas out there to be shot down, you're never gonna figure out what kind of revision you want."
We've got a problem on our hands. The people who end up getting ahead in American politics are the people who've been angling for that goal since they got to college, and have been refusing to express any ideas outside the mainstream for fear of having their opinions be unpopular later. (e.g. ?)

We ought to be asking people not only what their successes have been, but also what their history of being wrong is. Anyone ought to be able to point to mistakes they've made, incorrect predictions, hasty judgements, etc. There's no shame in that. There is shame in pretending you've never been wrong, or mincing about your life for fear of being shown to be wrong.  I respect people who get things wrong but do so in the process of getting their hands dirty mixing things up in the agora.

23 November 2010

Adam Savage on the crack job the TSA has done

(This is apparently my designated morning to make fun of the TSA's laughably lackluster efforts.)

That's exactly why security theater is not successfully providing a "pageant to reassure passengers that flying is safe," no matter what George Will says. While security theater might make us feel falsely safer, we don't have theater. We have farce. And too many people notice the joke to feel much reassurance.

(Via Ars Technica)

TSA Mocking + Big Lebowski Reference = Substance & Style

8 year olds, Dude.

Get yours here.

"Instead of looking for bombs, we should be looking for terrorists."

New York Magazine | Dan Amira | The TSA Is Literally Killing Americans With Its Pat-Downs

According to Steven Horowitz, a transportation economist from St. Lawrence University, the TSA's intimate pat-downs — which could get you all the way to third base, if you're lucky — will encourage some people to forgo flying for driving. Since driving is statistically much more dangerous than flying, the pat-downs will, in effect, "kill more Americans on the highway" — ironic, since their entire purpose is to keep Americans safe.
And more specifically to keep us safe while traveling.
Of course, this would not be a new phenomenon. A 2005 Cornell study concluded that 1,200 traffic fatalities were attributable to the post-9/11 shift from flying to driving. The authors of the study posited that the shift happened for two reasons. The first is the same as the pat-down effect — that the inconvenience of increased air-travel-security requirements made driving more attractive. The second was that fears about the dangers of air travel convinced people to take a car — the supposedly "safer" mode of transport. Which shows that people are going to kill themselves via driving whether flying is not safe enough or too safe for its own good.
Not so fast.  That second group of people didn't shift to driving because flying wasn't safe enough. They shifted because they thought flying wasn't safe enough. That mistaken impression was caused in no small part by our national pants-shitting about how undersecured air travel was and how critical it was that we go all in on passenger air security immediately.

Via Mungowitz, who absolutely nails it with the line that appears as the title to this post.  Bravo for that.

He is wrong, however, to say that George Will makes a good point when he says "What the TSA is doing is mostly security theater, a pageant to reassure passengers that flying is safe. Reassurance is necessary if commerce is going to flourish..."

Maybe people will find the TSA reassuring and activity will flourish.  But maybe the opposite will happen.

Maybe the TSA running around trying to slam barn doors shut after the fact reinforces the idea that they have no clue how to keep us safe. Maybe people conclude that they're having their delicates fondled because they're in grave, mortal, imminent danger all the time. Maybe being felt up by rent-a-cop-level guards who are obviously barely wrapping their feeble minds around the rote script they'be been handed and can not tell the difference between nail clippers and automatic weapons does not reassure the populace.  Maybe every time someone with a tattoo that says "bomb" is thrown off a plane people realize the security apparatus has no god damned clue how to keep people safe.  Maybe people will just think that all these drastic and intrusive measures are necessary because shit is going to happen at any moment and OH MY GOD WE'RE ALL GOING TO DIE!

Maybe the way to reassure people that they're exceedingly unlikely to die from a terrorist bomb on an airplane is to calm the hell down and act like things are under control. Maybe you remind people that all this screening has never succeeded in catching a single terrorist, and as such all the real efforts are going on behind the scenes, investigating, watching, listening, being proactive, rather than waiting for some nutjob to show up with C4 sutffed down his drawers and hoping we notice.  Maybe the way to instill confidence is to act confidently.

The TSA annoys me. But that's utterly irrelevant.

Mother Jones | Kevin Drum | My TSA Anti-Rant

I hate the TSA screening process. Everyone hates the TSA screening process. You'd be crazy not to. It's intrusive, annoying, and time-wasting. It treats us all like common criminals even though most of us are just ordinary schlubs trying to get on a plane and go somewhere.

But guess what? The fact that you personally are annoyed — you! an educated white-collar professional! — doesn't mean that the process is idiotic.
True. But the contrapositive is also true: the fact that Kevin Drum doesn't find it unduly odious doesn't meant that the process isn't idiotic.

That's why I (and many other people with a modicum of critical thinking skills) have not made our decisions based on how annoying the process is, or our feelings and moods generally, but instead have come to conclusions based on analysis and thought.

For instance:
Coyote Blog | Warren Meyer | Missing the Point

The point is not, as implied by Drum, that current TSA screening isn’t protection against certain types of threats. Let’s be generous and assume that the TSA’s screening, generally concocted in a barn-door approach after someone tries a particular approach, is effective at catching the threats it is designed to catch.

The point is that nearly anyone with a room temperature IQ can think of 20 ways to attack an airplane that is not covered by the screening. If there are, say, a hundred imaginable threats, how much privacy do you want to give up to protect yourself from 35 of them?

For example, you know what is in the cargo hold below your seat? The US Mail. You know how much screening is performed on the US Mail? Zero. How hard would it be to wire up a package with a bomb and an altimeter, or perhaps just a noise sensor, and send it off airmail. They screen the crap out of your bags and body and then throw them on the plane right next to a bunch of anonymous, unscrutinized cargo. And that is just one example.

21 November 2010

"The Source Code"

The trailer for Duncan Jones' new movie was released this weekend. (Higher res versions available through Apple.)

Jones' Moon was tied for my favorite movie of 2009 (with Hurt Locker). I've got a lot of trust in him as a director, especially working with this sort of psychological sci-fi material. Can't wait for this one on April 15th.

By the way, have you all seen the full length trailer for True Grit?  Gahhhhh -- the Coen Bros. making another morally ambiguous western?  And they're getting back together with Jeff Bridges?  With Brolin and Damon? Tidal wave of awesome.

Between True Grit and Tron: Legacy it's going to be a very Dude Christmas.

What is this "us" business?

View From The Porch | Tam | Step up and show some leadership, Mr. President.

the man who breezes on and off Air Force One with a smile and a wave mumbled some nonsense about how this 'tough situation' was necessary for our safety and said
'One of the most frustrating aspects of this fight against terrorism is that it has created a whole security apparatus around us that causes huge inconvenience for all of us,'


What you mean 'us', Kemosabe?

The day you're standing there watching while some anonymous McDonald's washout of a rent-a-cop is giving Michelle and the girls a full probulation at Andrews AFB before y'all jet off to Martha's Vineyard or Madrid is the day you will show a shred of leadership on this issue.
I love the passivity of that statement too. "It has created." "It" hasn't done shit. Bush created this, and Obama doubled down on it. There's no blaming our "security apparatus" on "it." Only individual humans have responsibility for things.  Knock it off with the buck-passing bullshit.

And while we're talking about it, John Boehner better be getting his hide in line with the rest of us plebs for his groping. There's no room for any of this "gangway for congressmen" nonsense in America.

The "No Lose" Lottery

This episode of Freakonomics Radio was fascinating.

Apparently 50% of Americans could not get their hands on $2000 to deal with an emergency in 30 days.  This includes money they're saved, or could borrow through a credit card, from another financial institution, or from friends or family.  And it isn't just poor people.  IIRC 30% of people making between $100k and $125k couldn't come up with two grand in a month.  I'm frankly baffled how someone making that much money couldn't have about a week and half worth their income in savings OR credit available.

I'd love to know what these people are spending their money on instead of saving it.  The only thing Freakonomics addressed is lottery gambling, which is distressingly common of course.

All of this was just a pre-amble to discussing a relatively new banking product which combines a bank account with a lottery.  You deposit your money, earn no interest, and are entered into a drawing for prizes.

I have very mixed feelings about this.  On the one hand, it does increase savings rates.  On the other hand, it still relies on the innumeracy, irrationality, and undisciplined nature of its customers, just like a lottery.  On the gripping hand, the state lotteries are pure predation, and at least customers are tricked/patronized into deriving some benefit for themselves.

Unsurprisingly, governments which have given themselves monopolies running numbers games don't take to these accounts so well.

I do have a problem with Dubner describing these accounts as "No Lose Lotteries."  Customers lose by definition (if there is a non-negative inflation rate).  They just don't lose in nominal terms, which is to say they lose, but most won't notice they are losing.

If people want to gamble in this way, I suppose I'm okay with it.  But let's not be complicit in pretending they aren't losing.

Politics through the lens of Marry/F***/Kill

Don't miss P.J. O'Rourke discussing his new book, Don't Vote It Just Encourages the Bastards, at Cato.

O'Rourke is a delight.

20 November 2010

Thought / Rhetoric Experiment

The Agitator | Radley Balko | Saturday Links
  • Police union succeeds in having hearings on questionable uses of force closed to the public. Fun experiment: Next time you see a lefty defend teachers unions, substitute “police union” and see if they’re willing to make the same arguments. The procedure could probably be reversed for your favorite law-and-order conservative.
The only dispute I have with this is the "probably" in there.

19 November 2010

TSA: Testicle Searchers of America

"It's not a grope. It's a Freedom Pat."

Bruce Schneier has a massive load of links on the TSA's new toys.

This one stood out:
There's talk about the health risks of the machines, but I can't believe you won't get more radiation on the flight. Here's some data:
A typical dental X-ray exposes the patient to about 2 millirems of radiation. According to one widely cited estimate, exposing each of 10,000 people to one rem (that is, 1,000 millirems) of radiation will likely lead to 8 excess cancer deaths. Using our assumption of linearity, that means that exposure to the 2 millirems of a typical dental X-ray would lead an individual to have an increased risk of dying from cancer of 16 hundred-thousandths of one percent. Given that very small risk, it is easy to see why most rational people would choose to undergo dental X-rays every few years to protect their teeth.

More importantly for our purposes, assuming that the radiation in a backscatter X-ray is about a hundredth the dose of a dental X-ray, we find that a backscatter X-ray increases the odds of dying from cancer by about 16 ten millionths of one percent. That suggests that for every billion passengers screened with backscatter radiation, about 16 will die from cancer as a result.
Given that there will be 600 million airplane passengers per year, that makes the machines deadlier than the terrorists.
Let's just repeat that: backscatter screening devices are more deadly than terrorists.

And that doesn't take into account the number of people who will decide to opt for highway travel rather than the safer air travel.

(BTW Whether you get more radiation on he flight is immaterial: that is an unavoidable consequence of flying, whereas the x-rays in screening are entirely avoidable.  Stairs are one of the most statistically dangerous things in your homes, but they are unavoidable.  We still ban many much less dangerous items from homes.  This is not incongruous.)

I am passing this information on to the fair Mrs. SB7, a multiple-time survivor of melanoma.  Of course the alternative is some minimum wage thug pawing at her delicate bits, which I admit to not being terribly comfortable with either.

It should also scare us that the makers of these machines,and their partners in DC have decided that it is unncessary to release full details of their health effects.  You think they'd let SB7 Corp. get away with sweeping the effects of a new radiation device under the rug like this? Perhaps I'm being cynical, but maybe it has something to do with the likes Michael Chertoff, and George Soros, not to mention scads of lobbyists and Obama donors, getting rich off these things.

It's official: we're all character in a world-spanning farce.

Red State | Another TSA Outrage

As the Chalk Leader for my flight home from Afghanistan, I witnessed the following:

When we were on our way back from Afghanistan, we flew out of Baghram Air Field. We went through customs at BAF, full body scanners (no groping), had all of our bags searched, the whole nine yards.

Our first stop was Shannon, Ireland to refuel. After that, we had to stop at Indianapolis, Indiana to drop off about 100 folks from the Indiana National Guard. That’s where the stupid started. [...]
These guys were coming back FROM A WAR ZONE and the stupid didn't start until they came face to face with the TSA.
It’s probably important to mention that we were ALL carrying weapons. Everyone was carrying an M4 Carbine (rifle) and some, like me, were also carrying an M9 pistol. Oh, and our gunners had M-240B machine guns. Of course, the weapons weren’t loaded. And we had been cleared of all ammo well before we even got to customs at Baghram, then AGAIN at customs.

The TSA personnel at the airport seriously considered making us unload all of the baggage from the SECURE cargo hold to have it reinspected. Keep in mind, this cargo had been unpacked, inspected piece by piece by U.S. Customs officials, resealed and had bomb-sniffing dogs give it a one-hour run through. After two hours of sitting in this holding area, the TSA decided not to reinspect our Cargo–just to inspect us again: Soldiers on the way home from war, who had already been inspected, reinspected and kept in a SECURE holding area for 2 hours. Ok, whatever. So we lined up to go through security AGAIN.

This is probably another good time to remind you all that all of us were carrying actual assault rifles, and some of us were also carrying pistols.

So we’re in line, going through one at a time. One of our Soldiers had his Gerber multi-tool. TSA confiscated it. Kind of ridiculous, but it gets better. A few minutes later, a guy empties his pockets and has a pair of nail clippers. Nail clippers. TSA informs the Soldier that they’re going to confiscate his nail clippers. The conversation went something like this:

TSA Guy: You can’t take those on the plane.

Soldier: What? I’ve had them since we left country.

TSA Guy: You’re not suppose to have them.

Soldier: Why?

TSA Guy: They can be used as a weapon.

Soldier: [touches butt stock of the rifle] But this actually is a weapon. And I’m allowed to take it on.

TSA Guy: Yeah but you can’t use it to take over the plane. You don’t have bullets.

Soldier: And I can take over the plane with nail clippers?

TSA Guy: [awkward silence]

Me: Dude, just give him your damn nail clippers so we can get the f**k out of here. I’ll buy you a new set.

Soldier: [hands nail clippers to TSA guy, makes it through security]

This might be a good time to remind everyone that approximately 233 people re-boarded that plane with assault rifles, pistols, and machine guns–but nothing that could have been used as a weapon.
Albert Camus, Tom Stoppard and Terry Gilliam couldn't have come up with something this deranged if they camped out on Mt Parnassus for a month with a wheelbarrow full of mushrooms.

Choice in Commerce

(This is like the eighth DCist post by Morrissey I've commented on this week. I have no idea why. I don't have it out for the guy or anything, it's just a coincidence.)
DCist | Aaron Morrissey | Would Walmart Help Alleviate D.C.'s Food Desert Problem?

There are plenty of legitimate reasons for Washingtonians to oppose Walmart's arrival in the District of Columbia. Whether you oppose big box retail as but a precursor to vacant concrete slabs and unused space, or find the company's labor policies appalling, or think that Walmart's arrival will signal an end to D.C.'s small business renaissance -- let's just say that there is no shortage of arguments you can make against the company.
True. But there is a shortage of arguments which actually carry water.
Of course, there are plenty of people who will argue for it: of note, people who really like cheap stuff and those who believe that Walmart could bring jobs and revenue into the District. Alex Baca, in fact, has already verbalized this cognitive dissonance nicely: "Wal-Mart...[is] going to plunk its ass down somewhere with plenty of yardage and make people come to it."
No. This is the essence of the confused arguments against Walmart. Neither Walmart nor any other store can not make anyone come to it. People shop there by choice.

Walmart has never put an independent or mom-and-pop out of business. Customers have chosen to spend their money at Walmart rather than elsewhere.

Walmart has never forced anyone to work under certain labor policies. Employees have chosen to work there.

I am so deeply confused about this next passage. I have no idea how you would get to this conclusion rationally. Maybe someone can fill me in.
Of course, there are those who would tell you that it's not just about the availability of groceries that transforms a [food] desert into an oasis:
Building a Walmart to eliminate food deserts only serves as a cheap, "lesser evil" Band-Aid to the real, gaping problems that create them: poverty and inequality. Billion-dollar corporations like Walmart could throw all the fresh tomatoes and organic bananas at local residents they'd like, writes Eric Holt Gimenez, executive director of Food First, but it won't allow people in these communities to be lifted out of poverty and overcome the economic, health, and racial inequalities that cause food inequality. "The solution to food security in America must come through a revitalized food economy — one that pays workers a living wage, that includes worker and minority owned businesses, and that keeps food dollars in local communities," Gimenez wrote on the Huffington Post. "Walmart does none of that." To many people living in food deserts, Walmart isn't the answer, but rather a patronizing slap in the face.
How is offering someone a new choice of commerce an insult?

If poverty and prosperity are different ends of a spectrum of living conditions, how can adding new grocery choices only be papering over a problem? Isn't lowering the cost of things people consume making a real, tangible benefit to their living conditions, and therefore to their poverty?

What does having minority owned businesses have to do with whether people can get food on their table? Is the goal to feed people, or to use this issue as a wedge to agitate for tangential social changes

Why would you debate the right of Walmart to open a store on the basis of its effect on the Gini coefficient of income? Why does that never come up when someone is opening a new coffee shop?

If a "living wage" is one on which someone can live (and I confess I've always been confused about what this actually means beyond "what I think people ought to be paid") then wouldn't lowering the prices of consumables bring all people in the community closer to this standard?

Why is any of this Walmart's responsibility, besides "they have deep pockets and are rhetorically close at hand"?

The M-16 as public choice case study

My buddy MikeK pointed me to this story in last month's Esquire about the introduction of the original M-16 model in response to the Kalishnikov in Vietnam. I did not realize it at the time, but the article is an excerpt from C.J. Chivers's book The Gun.

Quite a good story. Also a fine example of public choice theory in action. The Pentagon brass was far more interested in maintaining their veil of credibility than in doing things like supplying their infantrymen with rifles that actually fired.

(You've all read Fierce Invalids Home from Hot Climates, right? You know how Switters expectorates whenever anyone mentions Robert McNamara? This article made it clear why.)

I'm really not sure how American conservatism made it though that era and maintained the idea that the government was not to be trusted, unless it was a branch of the government that was headquartered in a five-sided office building just south of the Potomac.

(Strike that last.  I think understand exactly how that could have happened. As long as you dislike the people that strongly oppose the DOD, you end up finding common cause with jackasses like McNamara -- hey, at least he's opposing the communists, right?  Or so I imagine conservatives of the era thinking.  Not that that's an excuse, but I can see why it might have happened.

I don't like to admit it, but I was doing the same thing regarding Iraq and Gitmo back in 2003-'05 or so. All the people who most strongly objected to the war and the prison seemed to be making poor arguments (e.g. we rushed into an invasion; captured terrorists have rights under the Geneva Conventions) so I lined up on the opposite side of the matter for several years. I let myself get focused on the often erroneous ways in which the other side typically justified their conclusions, rather than on the conclusions themselves, or whether "my" side had better ones.  Not my proudest stance, let me tell you.)

Taking Leaders Seriously

The American Scene | Conor Friedersdorf | Taking Her Seriously

In light of Matthew Continetti’s latest blog post about Sarah Palin, her presidential aspirations, and the media’s treatment of those subjects, I’d like to reiterate a question I posed but that he never answered: Do you, Matthew Continetti, think that Sarah Palin is qualified to be President of the United States?

And why not add a few more specific inquiries while we’re at it. Would you be comfortable with Sarah Palin as Commander In Chief of the United States Armed Forces? What do you regard as the most insightful direct quotation she has ever uttered? In the whole of her time in public life what is her most impressive policy achievement? During a foreign policy crisis, is she the Republican you’d most trust to lead the country? Is she in the top five? The top ten? The top twenty? If you were the owner of five Applebee’s restaurants in California’s Inland Empire, would you trust the managerial capacity of Sarah Palin enough to put them in her care while you took an extended vacation abroad? [...]
That last one is actually a great question. I don't think I would trust hardly anyone in power currently with managing a business for me. Perhaps Paul Ryan. And Andy Harris. Austan Goolsbee?  A few other folks.  But it's a very short list.

But Palin? Rangel? Biden? No F'ing way.  I wouldn't even trust most of those people to walk my dog while I'm away.

18 November 2010

Where's the FBI investigation of *this* crooked cop?

Oh, that's right, it's non-existent because this scumbag never tried to cheat the tax man.
DCist | Aaron Morrissey | MoCo Cop Given $185 Ticket For Accident Which Paralyzed Child

Here's a story that will be sure to ruffle a few feathers: Montgomery County Police Officer Jason Cokinos was in uniform and driving a police cruiser 26 miles per hour over the speed limit in July 2008, en route to an off-duty job, when he struck a child. Cokinos' punishment? A $185 ticket -- and a position back on patrol duty. The now 14-year-old boy, Luis Jovel, Jr., is a quadriplegic, suffering from permanent brain damage which requires him to receive 24-hour medical care. The Examiner attempted to look into whether Cokinos was disciplined internally by the department, but was shot down due to state confidentiality laws -- despite the fact that, according to a police investigation, Jovel would not have been struck had Cokinos been driving the speed limit. In a civil suit, the Jovel family was awarded $400,000 in damages -- though I imagine that Luis' medical bills will run through that sum pretty quickly.

Sen Rockefeller: "There's a little bug inside of me which wants to ignore the First Amendment"

I'm not sure why I'm surprised, since this is a guy who voted to give the president power to suspend habeus corpus whenever he wanted, and to block any internet traffic at his own discretion.
Real Clear Politics | Sen. Rockefeller: FCC Should Take FOX News, MSNBC Off Airwaves

SEN. JAY ROCKEFELLER (D-WV): "There's a little bug inside of me which wants to get the FCC to say to FOX and to MSNBC: 'Out. Off. End. Goodbye.' It would be a big favor to political discourse; our ability to do our work here in Congress, and to the American people, to be able to talk with each other and have some faith in their government and more importantly, in their future."
I don't have the patience for this horseshit this morning. Rockefeller can take a short drop for all I care.

Are you shitting me, Rockefller? You know what would be best for "political discourse," you scurrilous scion of privilege and leisure?  You know what would be best for the rest of us to hear about you and your colleagues?  And I should trust you with that judgement?  Screw right on out of here, you reprobate blowhard.

The very fact that you're foolish enough to say such shit out loud, on camera demonstrates your unfitness to make these decisions. "Openly pining for the ability to censor any and all of their critics," indeed.  Like Coyote says,
This last election demonstrated exactly what politicians don’t like about election law when they complain about things like Citizens United. ... Any law that makes it harder for them to be criticized in the press or by challengers is good. Anything that increases public criticism of them is bad.
You can't earn people's faith through fiat and censorship. If you want Americans to have faith in their government THEN F'ING ACT IN A WAY WHICH WILL CAUSE THEM TO RESPECT YOU.  Congress has no one to blame for people's lack of respect but themselves.  Perhaps if they didn't act like vulgar, pompous, meddlesome, thick-skulled, self-aggrandizing, corrupt, willfully-ignorant bandits they wouldn't have to fret about people not respecting them.

PS How's this for "political discourse," you shameless jackass?

Inelegant Laws

Reason: Hit & Run Blog | Jacob Sullum | Michigan Liquor Commission Bans Nonexistent Product

Last week, when the Michigan Liquor Control Commission banned "alcohol energy drinks," its list of newly forbidden beverages included Smirnoff Raw Tea. There are a couple of problems with that:
1) Smirnoff Raw Tea, a malt beverage similar to Mike's Hard Lemonade but with a flavor reminiscent of iced tea, was never marketed as an "energy drink." According to a spokewoman for Diageo, which owns the Smirnoff brand, it contained "a negligible amount of caffeine—no more than a can of soda."

2) Smirnoff Raw Tea, which was "taken off the market more than a year ago for commercial reasons," does not exist anymore.
A perusal of the commission's three-page list (PDF) reveals a few other curiosities. In addition to fruit-flavored, caffeinated malt beverages like Four Loko and Joose, it includes MateVeza, an IPA brewed with the caffeine-containing herb yerba maté; 808-brand products that contain vodka, cognac, and fruit liqueur as well as caffeine; and Black Jack Cola, the Jack Daniel's Country Cocktail that is supposed to taste like Coke with Tennessee whiskey (although it does not contain any of the latter). But the list does not include any other craft beers that contain caffeine (such as Lagunitas Brewing Company's Cappuccino Stout or Founders Brewing Company's Kentucky Breakfast Stout), and it omits caffeinated distilled spirits such as Pink Vodka. Even if it were true that caffeinated alcoholic beverages posed a uniquely intolerable threat to public health and morals, there would be little rhyme or reason to the liquor commission's targets, especially since nothing it does can stop drinkers from mixing Red Bull with vodka (or coffee with Irish whiskey).
Legislation, like a computer programs, are a system for control. Either for control of people's behaviors, or control of an information processing machine. And like programs, there are better and worse ways to write legislation. Many of these ways overlap between the two domains.

I've helped teach introductory programming classes a few times. And everytime some people in the class make the same mistakes.

Imagine your assignment is to write a program which prints out all the even numbers between 1 and 100. There are two ways you could do that. Here's one:
print "2"
print "4"
print "6"
print "100"
Here's another
for i = 1 to 100
  if i % 2 == 0 then
    print i
  end if
end for
(That percent sign is the modulo operator. It gives you the remainder of an integer division operation.)

Both of these programs will produce the same output. Both of them are, in that sense, identical. But the latter program is indisputably better.  It's more elegant.  It's more modifiable and flexible.  It's more obvious what you trying to do.

All three times I've taught there have been students that have tried to solve problems with the first method: just list the exact things you want to do.  It's always an uphill battle trying to explain why this is the wrong way to do things.  The applied answer is that when I give them the next assignment and ask for all even numbers between 1 and 1000, or between two numbers x and y that won't be decided until I run the program to grade it, or all the numbers between x and y that are divisible by 7 rather than 2, the first approach will be inadequate.

The more theoretical answer is that programming isn't about telling the computer what the answer to a problem is and getting it to reproduce the answer. The first approach requires the programmer to solve the problem in advance, rather than letting the program do it. The point of programming is to give a computer a general method for solving a class of problems itself.

What does this have to do with legislation?  The law that Michigan passed is an example of the first type of thinking: create a list of all the things citizens can or can't do.  Laws should be more like the second example: create a system for describing what is and is not allowed in general.  The Michigan law is fragile.  It adapts poorly to changing situations.  It is harder to understand what is being done.  In short, it suffers from all the same problems as merely listing the even numbers.  A better solution, a more just and understandable and complete and robust solution, would be something that gives rules like "no beverages with a concentration of alcohol above X and concentration of caffeine above Y."  That's how a programmer would do it, anyway.

17 November 2010

Valuable Lessons

The Agitator | Radley Balko | City Councilman Calls Cops on Kids Selling Cupcakes

What a dick.
A politician in a New York suburb called police on two 13-year-old boys for selling cupcakes and other baked goods without a permit, according to a report Monday. [...]
I think I’ve changed my mind about these stories. If the point of having your kid start a lemonade stand, cupcake stand, or some other little venture is for him to learn what it’s like to be an entrepreneur, he might as well learn early on that part of being an entrepreneur is dealing with asshole politicians, petty bureaucrats, and rivals willing to use the law to shut you down rather than compete with you. It also means understanding that the costs of complying with all the bullshit hurdles the government puts in the way of starting up a business may mean you can never get your business off the ground, no matter how good your idea.
In high school I got tangled up in some petty bureaucratic bullshit treatment from my school administration.  There was plenty of the usual foolishness: ex post rule-making, power grabs, CYA, determining policy by deferring to who ever bitched the loudest in public.  This situation became a bit of a thing in my community.

A well meaning neighbor said that he felt sorry for what had happened to me, but that he hoped it wouldn't make me cynical.*  I said something along the lines of "thanks, but I think it's too late for that," but what I still regret not having said is "if this hasn't made you cynical then you haven't been paying attention."*

I'm just one more data point in support of Balko's theory that "libertarianism happens to people," one bullshit interaction with the state at a time.  That event is when I realized that it's not just "bad apples" and "isolated incidents" -- the state is an amoral entity that serves itself first and foremost.

* I mean, by the way, cynical in the first sense, "skeptical of the [stated] motives of others."

Bottom elephant: caring about those who care about themselves

dispatches from TJICistan | tjic | You can’t give more of a !@# about their problems than they give about their problems

DF has a phrase about helping friends:
You can’t give more of a !@# about their problems than they give about their problems

Lack of jetpacks and flying cars does not mean Science is regressing.

Scientific American: Cross-check Blog | John Horgan | Scientific regress: When science goes backward

Just last week, The New York Times Science Times section celebrated its, um, 32nd birthday with a special issue on "What's next in science". [...]

If the Times had asked me to chime in, I would have pointed out areas of science, technology and medicine that are regressing. I don't mean what the philosopher Imre Lakatos referred to as a "degenerating research program," which produces diminishing returns. That's merely declining progress. I mean fields of research that actually go backward, as measured by some specific benchmark. Some examples:

*The end of infectious disease: Decades ago antibiotics, vaccines, pesticides, water chlorination and other public health measures were vanquishing diseases such as malaria, yellow fever, polio, whooping cough, tuberculosis and smallpox, particularly in First World nations. In The Coming Plague: Newly Emerging Diseases in a World out of Balance (Penguin, 1995), the journalist Laurie Garrett noted that in 1967 U.S. Surgeon General William Stewart said that it was "time to close the books on infectious diseases" ...
That's not a problem of Science going backwards. That's scientists being overly optimistic.

We know just as much about infectious diseases as we did in '67. It's the implementation -- the engineering -- that's the problem, and that's because the goalposts have moved. Fighting evolving enemies is a constantly shifting battle, quite literally.

I could also counter this by saying that when I was growing up I was told that AIDS would kill us all. It was only a matter of time before everyone had some scary sexual virus. Well AIDS is rather over in the first world. It's expensive to treat, but we can more or less fight it to a standstill at this point.
*Space colonization: While I was still in journalism school in 1983 I wrote a story about the L5 Society, a group of space enthusiasts, and their guru, the Princeton physicist Gerard O'Neill. O'Neill and his supporters proposed building factories, solar-energy generators and huge, cylindrical, rotating (to create artificial gravity) habitats in the L5 region of space, where the gravity of Earth and the moon cancel each other. ...
Again, this is an engineering challenge, not a scientific one. And an economic challenge of course. The fact that we don't have O'Neil cans sitting at Lagrange points says more about our priorities than it does about our knowledge. (Priorities I happen to agree with, by the way.  There's simply not a reason to hang out in space.)
*Supersonic transport: Fifty years ago, supersonic commercial flight seemed poised for takeoff. The Anglo-French Concorde began regular transatlantic flights in the 1960s. [...] But from the beginning supersonic flight was plagued by problems, especially huge fuel costs, noisy takeoffs and sonic booms. The last commercial SST flight took place in 2003. At the moment, prospects for revival of commercial SSTs are slim to none.
Again, this is an economic matter, not a scientific one.

It's also very narrowly defined. The Concorde is out, but the A380 is in. Who's to say we're worse off with one than the other?
*Commercial fusion power: In 1983 I visited Princeton University to ogle its tokamak machine, an experimental magnetic-confinement fusion reactor the size of a small house, covered in cables, gauges, transformers and other gear. I was awestruck, and when the physicists working on it told us that fusion reactors could be generating electricity within 20 years, naturally I believed them.
We haven't regressed with respect to the science of 20 years ago, we've failed to live up to the high expectations of 20 years ago. There's a world of difference.
*The origin of life: In 1953 Harold Urey of the University of Chicago and his graduate student Stanley Miller simulated the "primordial soup" in which life supposedly began on Earth some four billion years ago. [...] This famous experiment raised the hopes of many scientists that one of nature's deepest mysteries—genesis, the origin of life on Earth—would soon be replicated in the laboratory and hence solved. It hasn't worked out that way.
Ditto. This wasn't scientific knowledge, it was an unverified claim made by some scientists. There will always be false starts and dead ends in scientific research. It's completely necessary, just like failed businesses are to the vitality of a market economy.

Horgan seems to be confusing Science with science-related public policy and commercial endeavors. These bullet points have nothing to do with science regressing and everything to do with people failing to live up to Horgan's daydreams about what the future would be like.

This is what's wrong with technology education

DCis | Aaron Morrissey | Back In My Day, All We Had Was An Apple IIe and We Were Gladt:

Friendship Tech Prep Academy, a newish charter school which currently serves 240 students in sixth and seventh grades, not only boasts a wireless campus, but now, every single student enrolled at Friendship Tech will receive a free iPad. The D.C. Office of the State Superintendent, backed by the federal government, issued a $410,000 grant to the school to buy 240 of the fancy internet doohickeys. We're excited that these particular D.C. students are learning how to utilize advanced technology ...
(1) That's not advanced technology (in this context). That's a COTS retail gewgaw.  If they were learning how to design and build portable computers, then yes, that's some advanced engineering.  But learning how to use commodity hardware is not impressive.

(2) "Learning how to utilize" is exactly the problem I have with technology education.  We need to stop being content teaching kids how to utilize technology and instead teach them how to make it.

Stow the iPads and get these kids some clunky old linux boxes with a copy of gcc.

Of course bureaucrats and administrators can't brag about that they way they can about the whizbangery of an iPad grant.

Transportation tech that isn't electric cars or higher speed rail

I'm always interested in transportation technology that would improve efficiency and that doesn't involve white elephant gimcrackery like the Chevy "Bastiat." Here's an interesting one:
Bng Bng | Cory Doctorow | Gengineered concrete-patching bacteria: BacillaFilla

"BacillaFilla," is the pet-name given by University of Newcastle researchers to a gengineered bacterium based on Bacillus subtilis that has been modified to fill and bond cracks in cement caused by earthquakes and other violence. The bacteria burrow into the concrete until they have filled all its cracks, then they politely turn into calcium carbonite and die.
I have no idea if this is a good method or not, but we are sorely in need of a quick solution for pavement patching. Imagine being able to resurface a roadway without shutting down lanes, or doing so for a matter of minutes rather than days.

I've been interested in rapid paving since I talked to someone a couple of years back who had done some work for a start-up which was developing a paving technique for the military.  The idea was that you could take this magic spray they created, and squirt it down on top of sand and loose gravel, and it would dry in under an hour to make an instant roadway or helicopter landing patch or some such.  (Additionally it was transparent, so it would still look like sand to a casual observer, but I don't see that aspect having much civilian use.)  I think of that spray every time I'm stuck in a traffic jam caused by a paving crew.

16 November 2010

The red and blue teams' lack of internal consistency on the commerce clause

David Rittgers comments intelligently on the tortured logic of partisan politics, esp. w.r.t. Gonzalez v Raich and interstate commerce. (Or in the case of the Drug War and ObamaCare "interstate commerce.")

He has an article in the National Review which you can read here. You can also listen to him discuss this issue here on the Cato Daily Podcast.

15 November 2010

"My plumber also has a nice beard..."

"... and I would not trust him to play God with the economy."

Maybe not fully correct, but as correct as you're going to get in a seven minute machine animated cartoon.


Edited (16 Nov '10): David Henderson's post indirectly corrects one of the (or the?) biggest error in the above video. Like I said, I'm willing to let it slide in the circumstances, but it's good to keep in mind what perfectly accurate would be even when you're satisfied with inaccuracies.

The unpardonable offense

When cops in Maryland beat unarmed college students, or raid people's homes and arrest them for having the temerity to legally record on-duty officers, no one in power gives a shit.

But when police officers try to outflank the tax man... Lordy do the authorities sit up and take notice then.
DCist | Aaron Morrissey | Corruption Probe Digging Up Tons Of Prince George's Dirt

Things in Prince George's County just keep getting crazier and crazier. Word from various sources is that federal authorities are alleging that several County police officers were planning on illegally distributing cigarettes and alcohol in Maryland and Virginia, while a second indictment accuses other officers of planning to distribute cocaine. Not only that, but both those charges appear to be separate from the high-profile Jack Johnson case.

The first indictment, obtained by ABC7/TBD, accuses Sergeant Richard Delabrer, Corporal Chong Chin Kim, Tick Tock liquor store owner Amrik Singh Melhi, Melhi's wife and co-owner, Ravinder Kaul Melhi, and three others with conspiring to provide untaxed cigarettes and alcohol to various businesses in Maryland and Virginia. Each of those named in those charging documents face a maximum of 20 years in prison and fines of up to $250,000.
BTW, the FBI pulled a pretty clever maneuver on Johnson. While his phone was tapped and sent two agents knocking on his door when his wife was home and he was out. She called him in a panic, asking what she should do. He told her to destroy a kickback check and hide just shy of $100,000 in her undies. Boom. Instant evidence tampering charge, all wrapped up and good to go.

“Unquestioning compliance has diminished," and not a moment too soon.

Popehat | Ken | Gropers To Gropees: Shut Up And Take It, Or Hit The Road

I believe in American exceptionalism. That means I believe that our history and values and sacrifices and our learned-from wrongs combine to make something unique and wonderful and worth protecting and celebrating. That exceptionalism is not a function of geography or an accident of birth. It’s a result of fidelity — of adherence to shared values that make us mighty. I may disagree with others about what it means when it comes to policy and practice, but I believe firmly that it is true.

Americans can be murdered by terrorists, but shared values cannot be destroyed by guns and bombs and planes. Yet our adversaries in the “War on Terror” can most certainly win. They can win by frightening us into infidelity to our values, into betraying our best selves. Some would argue that they are already winning by that measure.

I can see what they mean. When we allow ourselves to be irrationally frightened into letting upjumped smirking thugs grope us, gape at our nads, and tell us we have to take it, we’re losing. We’re being unfaithful to what makes us great.

I’m talking, of course, about the Transportation Security Agency.
Goddamnright. Go read the rest of Ken's righteous denunciation. It is not to be missed.

NYTimes budget widget

EconLog | David Henderson | I Agree: Budget Cutting is Easy

Like Arnold and some of his commenters, I found it way easier than I thought it would be to cut the federal budget on the New York Times' interactive site.
Like Henderson, Kling, and many others, I also found fixing the budget extremely easy. Suspiciously easy, in fact.

Of course I have no sacred cows to spare, so perhaps that accounts for the ease.

This is also budgeting in a political vacuum.*  It's easy for me to tick the "Cut pay of civilian federal workers by 5%" check box on a website, it's a whole different story to make that actually happen in reality. (Difficulty remains a poor excuse for it not happening, obviously.)

(* Some of these exist in more than just a political vacuum.  How do you actually make "Cap Medicare growth" happen?  I mean beyond the unpopularity -- what mechanism are you going to use to do that?)

I have mixed feelings about Henderson's conclusion:
One of my objections to Tea Partiers is how uninformed some of them are about the numbers. Now, thanks to the New York Times, they don't have to be.
Here's a prediction: if the New York Times keeps this game up on its site, a whole lot of people are going to be more sympathetic to cutting government and more optimistic that it can be done.
I worry the opposite might happen. If people conclude this is easy they will be more willing to let it be pushed to a back burner.

Additionally the easier this seems to people the more they will be convinced that their sacred cow can be spared. If it's an easy problem then someone else can be expected to take on the sacrifices.

This is only an easy problem if you're willing to take a knife to everything, but the easier the problem seems, the more voluntary any particular cut will seem to people.

14 November 2010


David Friedman lays out why I consider "sustainability" a word that doesn't mean anything.

See his explanation for why:  part 1 & part 2.

Paper Mercenary

There's a fascinating article in the Chronicle of Higher Education by a guy who makes his living writing papers for students who can't or won't do it themselves. Here's an excerpt.
Chronicle of Higher Education | "Ed Dante" | The Shadow Scholar

I do a lot of work for seminary students. I like seminary students. They seem so blissfully unaware of the inherent contradiction in paying somebody to help them cheat in courses that are largely about walking in the light of God and providing an ethical model for others to follow. I have been commissioned to write many a passionate condemnation of America's moral decay as exemplified by abortion, gay marriage, or the teaching of evolution. All in all, we may presume that clerical authorities see these as a greater threat than the plagiarism committed by the future frocked.

With respect to America's nurses, fear not. Our lives are in capable hands —just hands that can't write a lick. Nursing students account for one of my company's biggest customer bases. I've written case-management plans, reports on nursing ethics, and essays on why nurse practitioners are lighting the way to the future of medicine. I've even written pharmaceutical-treatment courses, for patients who I hope were hypothetical.

I, who have no name, no opinions, and no style, have written so many papers at this point, including legal briefs, military-strategy assessments, poems, lab reports, and, yes, even papers on academic integrity, that it's hard to determine which course of study is most infested with cheating. But I'd say education is the worst. I've written papers for students in elementary-education programs, special-education majors, and ESL-training courses. I've written lesson plans for aspiring high-school teachers, and I've synthesized reports from notes that customers have taken during classroom observations. I've written essays for those studying to become school administrators, and I've completed theses for those on course to become principals. In the enormous conspiracy that is student cheating, the frontline intelligence community is infiltrated by double agents. (Future educators of America, I know who you are.)
He divides his customers into three camps: the lazy rich, those who don't know English, and the utterly incompetent.

The instructions he gets from his clients are frighteningly inept.  If you can't even construct an email with instructions for what you want, how could you ever create the paper yourself?  How are you even in school?  Here's one: "You did me business ethics propsal for me I need propsal got approved pls can you will write me paper?"

Related to the English as a Second Language clients,  I'm all for people comign here to study from other countries. It's good for them and for us.  But if you don't speak English well enough to even describe what your assignment is you need to reconsider studying here.  And universities need to reconsider letting such people study here.

I know a lot of students in my department who not only can't communicate their ideas in written English after several years of residence, and not only can't shoulder any of the TA load, and not only can't participate in class discussions, they can't tell you what floor they're going to when you're in an elevator with them.

The Treachery of Text Tattoos

The Daily What | Security Threat of the Day

Yesterday morning, LA food stylist Adam C. Pearson was removed from a Delta plane after a fellow passenger brought Pearson’s suspicious behavior to the attention of the flight crew. That “suspicious behavior”? Pearson’s knuckle tattoo, which reads “Atom Bomb” — a reference to a childhood nickname. “I was just shocked,” Pearson told the LA Times. “All eyes were on me, I felt everyone staring at me and I was like, ‘I didn’t do anything.’ “
We already know that the flight security apparatus can't tell the difference between a thing and a picture of the thing. Apparently they can't tell the difference between a thing and the name of the thing.

This isn't Earthsea. No one speaks the Old Speech. You can't will something into existence just by knowing what it's called.

PS This is one more blackmark in my book against Delta.  At this point I'll pay a premium of $40 not to fly Delta, all things equal.

Irish Tea

Marginal Revolution | Tyler Cowen | Profile of Morgan Kelly

He is the Irish economist and sage who predicted the decline in property prices and also predicts future political chaos in Ireland. The profile, unnecessarily snarky at points, is here. [...]

Here is Kelly on TV. His current prediction?:
Now he is forecasting mass mortgage defaults and an ugly popular uprising. The first stirrings are already visible, he says, with "anxiety giving way to the first upwellings of an inchoate rage and despair that will transform Irish politics along the lines of the Tea Party in America", giving rise to a new "hard-right, anti-Europe, anti-traveller party".
I suppose it's yet to be seen, but has the Tea Party movement really been that transformative in America? For all the talk of how revolutionary (figuratively and literally) they are, all I've seen is that the incumbency rate in congress dropped to 84%. That's low compared to recent history, but it's still pretty gradual change.

I now very little about Irish government, but AFAIK they are a parliamentary republic, so maybe a similar movement would have more impact there than here. Nevertheless I think Europeans systematically overestimate how transformative the Tea Party is in America.

None of this is to say Ireland isn't headed for serious instability.  My (mostly uninformed) opinion is that it is. I just think Kelly's choice of comparison is weak.

I'm interested to see if their real estate mess turns into a battle between defaulters and performing borrowers, as I get the impression it will in Ireland.  That's bubbling under the surface in a lot of places, the US being one of them, and we've only seen proxies of that conflict thus far.  That's a more interesting duel than another left-vs-right match-up, or hard-right-vs-centrist, or one of the other pairings we've already seen.

13 November 2010


Amidst the attention given to the sciences as how they can lead to the cure of all diseases and daily problems of mankind, I believe that the biggest breakthrough will be the realization that the arts, which are conventionally considered ‘useless,’ will be recognized as the whole reason why we ever try to live longer or live more prosperously.

— John Maeda
(1) It is imperative that we keep the "Why" in mind, so Maeda is on to something.

(2) Nevertheless, we need lots of people putting their shoulders to the wheel and working on the "How."

(3) I love Art and I think it far from useless, but it's only one of many things that gives life reason.

(4a) There are a great many answers to the Why questions, and I'm likely to disagree with a lot of the experts as to what they are.

(4b) There's only a small and finite set of answers to the How questions, and they're much more objective.

(5) We've made little visible progress in human history of sorting out the Why questions; we've made tremendous progress on How questions within my lifetime.

(Via theSteward)

Anti-engineering policies

I've said repeatedly that both parties will throw Science under the bus if it's inconvenient politically.*  Well our legislators don't care for Engineering either.
The Market Ticker | Karl Denninger | More Government Idiocy: Internet Black Lists

There's dumb - and then there's really dumb, predicated on people who simply don't understand what they're doing, and should be barred from authoring legislation until they consult with some people who do know what they're doing.
The Combating Online Infringement and Counterfeits Act (COICA) was introduced just one week ago, but it's greased and ready to move, with a hearing in front of the Judiciary Committee this Thursday. If people don't speak out, US citizens could soon find themselves joining Iranians and Chinese in being blocked from accessing broad chunks of the public Internet.

Help us stop this bill in its tracks! Click here to sign our petition.

COICA creates two blacklists of Internet domain names. Courts could add sites to the first list; the Attorney General would have control over the second. Internet service providers and others (everyone from Comcast to PayPal to Google AdSense) would be required to block any domains on the first list. They would also receive immunity (and presumably the good favor of the government) if they block domains on the second list.

The lists are for sites "dedicated to infringing activity," but that's defined very broadly -- any domain name where counterfeit goods or copyrighted material are "central to the activity of the Internet site" could be blocked.
This sounds ok, right? A site that is dedicated to stealing intellectual property isn't a good thing, and setting up a "blacklist" thus sounds pretty reasonable.

Well, it might be. If it could work.

But it won't, because it can't. [...]
Denninger doesn't mean "can't" as in "unlikely" -- he means can't. He proceeds to lay out in easy-to-follow bullet points how the DNS system works, and exactly what this law would do and how easy it would be to subvert it. It's a simple explanation. One that a moderately competent layman could be made to understand in about 20 minutes, generously.

But of course our lawmakers never bothered to try to understand this newfangled internet thing. And why bother to understand it when you can just sign your name to some legislation and remake the world the way you want it to be?
This is just a demonstration of the intellectual vapidity in our so-called legislative process. I, along with thousands of others who know how DNS and The Internet work, could have told these fine legislators that this was totally idiotic and would do nothing - if Senator Leahy, the bill's sponsor, or the 16 co-sponsors, had bothered to ask.

This much I guarantee you: They didn't and all seventeen of them are too stupid to know what they don't understand.
This law is the engineering equivalent of mandating that pi = 3.0, or that the tides recede.

I'm not sure what about this story disappoints me more:
  • how unfamiliar congress is with the infrastructure that makes contemporary society work
  • that legislators wouldn't bother to figure out how the thing they're asserting control of works
  • that they wouldn't care how it works as long as they get credit for passing a new law
  • that this is a symptom of how cavalier they are about interfering with any complex system and remaking it by fiat
(Via View from the Porch)

* Jeffrey Ellis has a good recent example of the Blue Team doing this: "White House caught altering science findings on oil spill."