Friday, December 28, 2012

Theology in action

The dentist who fired his assistant for being "too sexy" (after 10 years of working together!) didn't do it in a vacuum. He consulted his wife (or rather, was driven to it by his wife), and he got a second opinion:

The Knights consulted with their pastor, who agreed that terminating Nelson was appropriate.

Thanks, nameless pastor, for making it perfectly clear that the sanctity of the marriage bed trumps any concerns about fairness, and reminding us that if a man can't control his physical desires, it must be a woman's fault.

It's not enough that this guy was legally supported in this act (which, arguably is an unhappy but necessary result); no, he also got moral support. And not from the Playboy club or the Elks Lodge or some bastion of patriarchal oppression, but from... oh. Never mind.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Don't try this unless you're Alexander

“I’m afraid,” she told me. “Write that. We’re scared to death.”

The Blues Cruise

Fear motivates people. Unfortunately, it's hard to stop once it's started.

The most powerful military tactic in the ancient world was the feigned withdrawal; to have your battle line retreat, or even appear to break and flee. Invariably the enemy would break ranks to pursue. Partially because they were never that well disciplined, and pursing weakness is as common to a man as a dog; partially because it was when the enemy broke that one could actually inflict damage on the enemy army. A full day of battle could produce as little as 3% causalities, but a single rout could do 15% to 50%.

The problem, of course, was convincing your troops to feign withdrawal, and prevent it from turning into a real rout. Once your men started running away, the panic pretended by the generals always had the danger of becoming real. This was so dangerous that few generals ever attempted it, despite the incredible success rate.

This is what the Right-Wing noise machine has done; feigned panic so long that their troops are now truly in panic. It is true that the D's played on fears of Romney's election, but those were rational fears: that he would continue the status quo or do the things he said he wanted to do. The fears of the R's were that Obama would reveal his secret agenda and do things opposite to his speeches. And now they've lost control; their own base is so afraid they are turning on their leaders.

Where does it stop?

Monday, December 24, 2012

A litmus test for Fascism

I have been struck by the opposition to legalized marijuana that I have encountered Down Under.

The arguments invariably follow the same pattern; first, the dangers of the drug are cited. This is usually a fact-free argument, and it must be, because science has found no particular danger aside from an utterly wasted life.

When alcohol is presented as an example of a more harmful drug, and therefore even more deserving of banning under this principle, the discussion invariably slips to the defense of the traditional: alcohol is too entrenched to combat, but why should we encourage even more drug use?

But this position assumes that the only reason people aren't out getting stoned all the time is because a man with a gun is telling them not to. So, fascism alert #1: people can't be trusted to act on their own behalf.

Fascism alert #2, of course, is the idea that if an injustice is traditional, it's OK. By that logic we'd still have slavery.

But it runs deeper than that. When faced with facts such as the relative quantities of harm that alcohol and marijuana inflict (and how society would be better off with one instead of the other), or with the evidence that legalizing marijuana does not materially affect the number of users (particularly in a country like America which already has 40 million users or so), the truth eventually slips out: marijuana represents a lifestyle that people generally oppose.

And why not? Pot-smoking hippies are the butt of jokes for many well-deserved reasons. I, personally, have no more use for them than George Will does. Wasting your life smoking dope is only marginally less repulsive than wasting your life drinking, and that only because smoking is less likely to harm others.

But herein lies the ultimate endorsement of fascism: the idea that lifestyle choices should be compelled by men with guns.

Not by the market place, or personal choice, or education, or social norms, or peer pressure; but by men with guns.

Alcoholism is a disease, with social support for cures, and baked-in legal exceptions (try running over someone in a car while drunk and then while sober; one is manslaughter and the other first degree murder). But marijuana addiction is a moral failing, akin to robbery, rape, and murder. Why? I don't know. I have never gotten a coherent answer.

Human beings will always self-medicate. It is regrettable, but true. Therefore my preferred solution (eliminating all intoxicants and filling the shelf-space with condoms and sex toys) will never happen. I accept this. But I find it disheartening how many people unthinkingly reach for the power of the state to enforce their personal decisions on everyone else.

I think the next time I get involved in one of these discussions, I'm going to try a personal tack. I'm going to ask if the person I am debating ever chooses to self-medicate their emotional difficulties with alcohol (knowing full well, of course, that the answer is invariably yes). Then I'm going to ask them what they think I should do, when I feel the desire to self-medicate. Because, you see, I can't drink. The sugars will kill me. It will be interesting to see how someone defends their right to engage in an act while denying me the right to do the same.

Which reminds me of one of my favorite quotes:

It is always to be taken for granted, that those who oppose an equality of rights never mean the exclusion should take place on themselves. -- Thomas Paine

Monday, December 17, 2012

The Next Big Thing

The next big thing is a series of tag team blog posts by writers about their next novel, whether about to be published or in development. I was tagged by the ever gracious Keith Stevenson, the former editor of Aurealis magazine back when Sara was the Associate Editor.

Since everyone knows I'm a sucker for chain mail, I'm in. Wait - that's the wrong kind of chainmail... oh well.

1) What is the [working] title of your next book?

The working title was Prudence Falling, but both my agent and editor rolled their eyes until I changed it. So now it's The Kassa Gambit.

2) Where did the idea come from for the book?

Firefly + the Iraq war.

3) What genre does your book fall under?

I thought of it as space opera, in a style I call Vance-light. Apparently it has defied easy categorization, however, as various reviewers have called it political thriller, mystery, who-dun-it, or even romance.

4) What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?

The hero - David Boreanaz
The heroine - Kate Beckinsale

5) What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

Aliens attack! Followed by much heroic brooding (hence the David Boreanaz angle) .

6) Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

It's published by TOR, due out on January 8th.

7) How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?

Three months.

8) What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

Song of Scarabaeus, by Sara Creasy, which was a perhaps-not-surprisingly large influence. Jack Vance's Demon Princes series, and Dave Duncan's Hero, though not without suitable admonishments of unworthiness.

9) Who or what inspired you to write this book?

My wife doesn't like fantasy. So I wrote her a sci-fi story where everything was exploding on the first page.

10) What else about the book might pique the reader's interest?

"Earth" is used as a curse word.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

House auctions

There was a house auction in the neighborhood yesterday, so we stayed and watched.

There were about 10 families there, but when the auctioneer started the bidding, only one family was willing to bid. They started a bit low; the auctioneer eventually called a "Vendor" bid, which is to say he bid over them by $20K on the seller's behalf. They've always had plants in the audience raising the bidding, but these days they have to identify themselves instead of pretending to be genuinely interested parties. The original bidder finally made a second bid. The auctioneer outright said he was disappointed, and made another vendor bid. Then he passed the house in - that is, declined to sell

I can't imagine buying a house this way; not only am I unwilling to walk around with 10% of the purchase price in my pocket, on the off chance that I win an auction, but the deal is final: you need to have already hired a house inspector and made your inspection, because whatever state the house is in, you are stuck with. This is crazy; before I can even find out how much a house costs (because they never tell you beforehand) I have to make a full inspection? Why not find out if the seller and I can even hope to reach an agreement before we start spending money on inspections?

Immediately after the auction was over, a different family signaled the auctioneer and went inside to make an offer. The original bidder did the same. At that point it was just like an American house sale, with interested parties making offers and the seller making counter-offers. I'm not sure how final the deal was, but I imagine you could make your offer conditional on the house not having any major undisclosed flaws.

I've talked to several Aussies about this, and they all have the same take: suppose you're selling your house and somebody really falls in love with it. You could have a bidding war and the sky's the limit! Except, how ridiculous is that? People don't suddenly decide to spend an extra $50K on a house because they're impulsive. Who has that kind of money? And even if they did, the entire auction system - wherein the seller is hoping to sell for far more than the house is worth, and the buyer is hoping to find someone so desperate that they'll sell for far less - is just distasteful. It's an arrangement where both parties are hoping to screw over the other one. That's never a good business model.

The American method seems to be growing; only about half of houses go to auction these days, and half of those get passed in (to eventually be sold through ordinary wheel-and-dealing, I guess). More and more houses are listed in the ads with actual prices, so you know if it's in your range or not. This is one part of American culture I won't mind seeing displant the local flora.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Too big to jail

A major bank, HSBC, has just pleaded guilty to laundering money for drug lords and terrorists. These are crimes that would put any of us in jail for decades. The bank? A fine, amounting to a few weeks of earnings.
 Our banking system's latest disgrace 
Meanwhile, the dreaded plague of moochers who are bankrupting America with their $29 a week of food-stamps remains the hot topic of conversation. And people caught with a joint can lose months or years of their lives, their cars, even their houses. Is this politics? Am I talking politics again? Or just despair?

Monday, December 10, 2012

Welcome to the future

The owners of the Miami Family Medical Centre on the Gold Coast fear they may have to pay $4000 to the extortionists, who hacked into a server and encrypted the medical records.
"We're trying to work out how to pay the hackers or find someone to decrypt the information," the centre's co-owner David Wood told ABC Online on Monday.
He said the information hadn't been stolen and the centre would continue to operate, but admitted it would be very difficult without patient records.
There have been 11 similar offences in Queensland this year, according to police.

This kind of thing is no longer a novelty item; soon it won't even be news.Except in the real world hackers aren't cool nerds or sexy high-functioning autistics. They're just thugs with computers instead of crowbars.

Meanwhile, everyone needs to keep backups. We keep our writing backups on Amazon's cloud; it costs a few dollars a month and you can upload from Firefox. But if you have a business, you need to have your data on physical media, somewhere in your building.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

TKG Audio

I got to feel a little like George R. R. Martin today. Auditioned narrators for the audio book of The Kassa Gambit. OK, it's not as exciting as auditioning actors for a TV show, and actually, I kinda hated it, because I had to pick just one, and they were both great.

On the other hand, I feel like good old George every weekend that goes by without any progress on the next book, so there's that.

It was very strange to hear a stranger reading my words. I cringe every time I hear the sound of my own voice in a recording, and oddly, listening to my book being narrated by someone else induced almost the exact same response.

Luckily our darling Sophie won't suffer from that debility; she can watch videos of herself forever. And slide shows on the TV. And she has books full of pictures of herself (Artscow rules!) that she reads for her bedtime story. This has to be the first generation that has grown up watching itself in virtually real-time; I wonder how it will affect them?

Saturday, November 24, 2012


In one of the versions of Sim City, your city got to the point where it could build arcologies: super-buildings that were a self contained environment.

And now, this:

Sky City will boast a hospital, a school, 17 helipads, and enough apartments to house 30,000.

Above the world in 90 days: China building world’s tallest skyscraper — 220 storeys — in just three months

Just think about living there - the social aspects aside, I can't believe they can run water for that many households. Can you imagine taking a shower on one of the top floors? I know we need more urban density, but I don't think this will work. In 30 years it will be a slum, just like many of the huge housing projects in Britain, and for the same reason. The Brits committed what one writer called the "arithmetic heresy:" the idea that if 8 families in a block of flats could live together in good community, then 800 could do the same in a skyscraper. The Chinese perhaps have stronger cultural and social norms; but 30,000 people is a town, not a neighborhood. The building will need its own mayor and police force.

On the other hand they won't need a gym. Just going for a walk up and down the stairs will keep everybody fit for a marathon.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

The End of Politics

It's over. Sanity prevailed; presumably people will conclude that not releasing your taxes, flip-flopping with abandon, and telling outright lies (Jeeps to China!) does not win elections; and thus, the next election will abound with disclosure, principle, and integrity.

Already my prediction is coming true. Bill O'Reilly speaks with naked candor now:

The white establishment is now the minority.

The "w" word has crawled out into the open, like Nosferatu at the end of the movie, blinking in the revealing light of day. Just before he bursts into flames.

In any case I can shut up about it for a while. I am sure that is a welcome development to everyone.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Socrates had the same problem, really

On The O’Reilly Factor on Nov. 1, John Stossel, former correspondent for ABC’s 20/20 and current host of the Fox Business Network show Stossel, said that “the government should stop insuring areas” prone to disaster.

“What if nobody wants to insure you?” O’Reilly asked.

“Then you take your own risk. Then the private insurance market is saying, you live in a risky place, don’t build there.”

Stossel himself once received $250,000 in FEMA money, but said during the program he would not do so again.

What a libertarian looks like when he opens his mouth
Socrates had almost the same exact problem. That is, he used the Athenian right of free speech to call for a revolution to end free speech. And I'm sure, when someone pointed out that the only reason he was still alive was because of the Athenian tolerance for free speech, he was just as smarmy, self-righteous, and outstandingly hypocritical as John "I've got mine, screw you" Stossel.

Eventually, of course, the Athenians did take him at his word, and offered the choice between drinking poison or leaving the city. In one of history's greatest acts of narcissism, Socrates chose death rather than admit he might be wrong about something. His acolytes wrote the history books, and now we think of Socrates as a heroic martyr instead of the way the Athenians thought of him, which was as a trouble-making conspirator whose nephew had twice overthrown the government to create a police state.

Poor Stossel won't have such loyal acolytes to remake his historical image; but then, I think we all know perfectly well that if FEMA showed up and offered Stossel the loose change in their pockets, he'd vacuum it up without moving his lips out of that permanently self-entitled pout.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

A new culture of idiots

A very long article that details the many ways in which serious thought can be derailed by bad behavior. It's all worth reading (although it should be taken with some tongue-in-cheek, as its choice of language makes clear). I just want to pull out the serious nuggets:
Bar Patron 1 seems moved not by facts but by a certain idea of a capitalist society, the idea that, in a free market, people get what they deserve.

Even on philosophical grounds, however, this view is exceedingly hard to defend. That is true according to none other than the archconservative twentieth-century apologist for capitalism, F. A. Hayek. He writes:
There is little a man can do to alter the fact that his special talents are very common or exceedingly rare. A good mind or a fine voice, a beautiful face or a skilful hand, a ready wit or an attractive personality are in a large measure as independent of a person’s efforts as the opportunities or the experiences he has had. In all these instances the value which a person’s capacities or services have for us and for which he is recompensed has little relation to anything that we can call moral merit or “deserts.”
The billionaire investor and oracular philosopher Warren Buffett echoes the point:
My luck was accentuated by my living in a market system that sometimes produces distorted results, though overall it serves our country well. I’ve worked in an economy that rewards someone who saves the lives of others on a battlefield with a medal, rewards a great teacher with thank-you notes from parents, but rewards those who can detect the mispricing of securities with sums reaching into the billions. In short, fate’s distribution of long straws is wildly capricious.
In other words, ideas of deserts just don’t justify the going rate of rewards. Bar Patron 1 cannot infer his IQ or his deservingness from his paycheck.
 How Fox News created a new culture of idiots
 As an ironic example of the decay of modern discourse, note how the piece consistently misspells "desserts." It's even wrong in the Hayek quote, which leads me to conclude that Slate has replaced its editors with interns and/or Microsoft Word.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Practical arbitrage, or how to be a hedge-fund manager in your own backyard

Right now, Intrade has Obama at $5.55 a share. That means odds of 1.80 to 1.

Sportsbet has Romney at 2.63 to 1 (and Obama at a far more reasonable 1.50 to 1).

This means if you bet $10,000 on Obama at Intrade, and $7,000 on Romney at Sportsbet, you win no matter what!

You spend a total of $17,000; if Obama wins, you get $18,000; if Romney wins, you get $18,400. Either way you make at least a grand.

And,. you get to call yourself a hedge-fund manager, with an 8% return for 2 weeks worth of arbitrage, or a roughly 200% annual return.

This is what high-finance does; it makes money on the margin, the difference between what two groups of people think is reasonable. No wonder there is so much unreasonableness in the world; there is an entire financial market dedicated to exploiting it, and thus, perpetuating it.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Obama is our Gorbachev

Why do America's Super-Rich Feel Victimized?
Evident throughout the letter is a sense of victimization prevalent among so many of America’s wealthiest people. In an extreme version of this, the rich feel that they have become the new, vilified underclass. 

This is the triumph of Any Rand's fiction; the source of Romney's 47%. These people actually believe that half the nation are takers, being carried on the heroic shoulders of the makers. They actually think that everyone should be grateful to them for amassing huge fortunes and concentrating wealth while others starve.

Because they, and their poor, deluded, co-dependent victims/voters, actually think this is how economies work. I have had Right-Wingers tell me time and time again, if it weren't for these rich sugar-daddies, we would all starve. They really believe that.

And no amount of facts makes any difference. Common sense, Nobel-prize winning economic theory, empirical observation - none of it is sufficient to challenge the fantasy Ayn Rand unleashed. Those that have, made it, because of their innate genius, and without them, that wealth would not exist. If there wasn't a capitalist to cut worker pay while increasing hours and pocketing the result, why, there wouldn't be any work at all.

The mere fact that every nation with a tax rate close to %50 is a nice place to live - and every nation without is not - has no impact. The mere history of America's climb to greatness after WWII - when the top tax rate was 90%! - has no impact. The worship of a military that can do no wrong and never spend too much coexists, side-by-side, with the adamant belief that the government cannot even deliver mail efficiently.

Because, in the end, it is all about this:
“The idea that the rich deserve to be rich is a very comforting idea if you are rich.”
And all those blue-collar factory workers voting for Romney? They are rich, in a global sense; and they got rich in no small part because America exploited the world, 1/16 of the globe's population consuming 1/3 of the globe's resources. The billionaires are speaking for all Americans, who are after all the elites of the world.
And everyone understands that if being rich is not a sign of divine favor and personal character, then all those people are starving to death in Africa for no reason. All tjose kids in Asia are building our iPhones are being robbed; all that oil we bought for the trivial price of a few gold coins and a lot of guns to the biggest thugs in the region was theft.

To admit that the poor in our nation are poor through no fault of their own would be to admit that the poor in the world are poor through no fault of their own. When they accuse Obama of "apologizing" for America, this is what they mean.

This is why rattling sabers and God and guns and climate denial and Sharia fear and no sympathy for the 47% all mix up together. Because, in the end, it is about protecting what we have, whether we deserve it or not. And Obama, and Liberals, and Socialists, and Progressives, and all those people who talk about fairness - there is the strong, strong suspicion that they might mean global fairness.

To allow the light of fairness in, to admit even one chink in the perfection of the capitalist system, is to surrender our Empire. All the other facts are irrelevant; all the lies and truths are beside the point. Either things are the way they are supposed to be, or they aren't. Either you are voting for the continuation of the American Empire by armed force (as Romney has made clear), or you are not. Not to say Obama does not embrace the security state, the military, the banks, the hedge funds; but he does so reluctantly, instead of with full-throated zeal. It is not that they fear Obama will dismantle the Empire thorough direct action (despite all their nonsense claims of his Islamic Marxism); it is that they understand that he will let it decay through inaction, through failure to enforce the harshest terms of servitude on our commercial colonies, because he is merely a centrist instead of a full-on right wing zealot, and in these waning days of our empire, centrism might as well be surrender.

Obama is our Gorbachev.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Welcome to the clubbing

Watching the debate now... Obama is beating Romney like a baby seal. The way he comes out in his second set of comments, dissing Romney's "one-point" plan, is almost enough to make me think he threw the first debate on purpose. He wanted Romney to be totally unprepared for this. No more Mr. Nice Guy! Obama is downright hostile, right from the get-go.

And now Romney is talking about how he won't tax interest on dividends. Your bank account won't be taxed. WTF? When was the last time any working-class person in America got interest on a bank account? Does Romney still think it's 1980, or is he so stratospheric he doesn't know how bank accounts work when you have less than a million dollars in them? Mitt, middle-class people don't get dividends!

Candy Crowley is nailing it. Like Martha Raddatz, she is controlling the debate, asking follow-ups, even occasionally calling them out when they lie. Sorry, Jim. I loved ya, baby, but from now on, Presidential debates need to be moderated by women.

Romney just said he ran the Olympics and balanced the budget. Hang on - he got the Olympics a federal bailout! Does that count as "balancing?"

And now Romney said we're on the path to Greece. Yes, Mitt, we are; because, just like Greece, we have a national addiction to not paying taxes.

Obama just got asked a question about gender equality, and told a story about his grandmother training her bosses. How do you beat that? And now he's yakking about one of my favorite moves - when they killed the student loan guarantee program. Instead of paying banks to lend the government's money to students, the Obama administration now lends its money directly.

And the reason this is my favorite policy move (well, aside from ~DADT and ACA)? Because it is a precursor of how the ACA is going to play out. In 20 or 30 years, some clever administration will just cut out the middle-men and provide insurance directly to the people.

Romney is not bad; he still sounds like Reagan to me (except when he runs over the moderator). But he's saying things that aren't true, and Obama is not letting him slide. And the audience is not on his side, like it was with Reagan; some lady just asked Romney what was the difference between him and Bush. Ouch!

Romney just called himself a small businessman! W! T! F!  For the sake of my WTF keys, I am going to have to stop live-blogging this. But the fix is in; the O is back, and rope-a-dope is going to be a semester paper in every PoliSci class from now on.

Friday, October 12, 2012

A trenchant analysis

E. M. Caldawar has a particularly insightful (and long) post on automation here:Automation, Service Economy, and the Welfare State. I think he gets all the facts right, and I like his discussion of "non-productive" work - although I disagree with his conclusion.

I have longed explained to people who complained about the Welfare state that 100% employment is easy - just ban farm machinery (I forget who I originally heard that from). Once you lower the required skill set to poking in the ground with a stick, everyone can be profitably employed. But who wants to live like that - or even live in a society where anyone lives like that? So the problem with deriding the lazy unemployed is that, as automation increases, sooner or later your job will pass under the bar.

Eventually work will become a privilege; the chance to engage in a corporate exercise and become part of something greater will be a reward, not a requirement. Eventually a life well lived, with loves and passions, with joys and personal triumphs, will be justification enough for sustenance. Each life will be a work of art, valuable for its own sake.

Yes, I know, from our perspective, such a level of wealth seems farcical; but to some extent we are already there. We live in the only time in history in which poor people are fat. The problems posed by such a technological achievement would seem equally absurd to the ancient Greeks (or indeed, any ancient philosophers). Homer could never imagine that someday the "demon in men's bellies" would be defeated (not that it has, everywhere, yet).

Such a place would be the existentialist's nightmare, as well as the religious zealot's hell; people who have no fear or needs have no religion, but neither do they have convenient distractions from the innate meaninglessness of their lives. But for the rest of us, who just want to make our friends smile and our children healthy, it would be Paradise.

Monday, October 8, 2012

A glimpse into the mind of the Right Wing

Warning: it's not pretty.

I received a chain email that starts with some pictures of Hiroshima being nuked, follows with some pictures of the vibrant city it is now, and then has some pictures of crumbling Detroit. It then spits out these pearls of wisdom (in big fonts and many colors, natch):

What has caused more long term destruction: the A-bomb,or Government welfare programs created to buy the votes of those who want someone to take care of them?

Japan does not have a welfare system.

Work for it or do without.

These are possibly the 5 best sentences you'll ever read and all applicable to this experiment:

1. You cannot legislate the poor into prosperity by legislating the wealthy out of prosperity.

2. What one person receives without working for, another person must work for without receiving.

3. The government cannot give to anybody anything that the government does not first take from somebody else.

4. You cannot multiply wealth by dividing it!

5. When half of the people get the idea that they do not have to work because the other half is going to take care of them, and when the other half gets the idea that it does no good to work because somebody else is going to get what they work for, that is the beginning of the end of any nation.

Can you think of a reason for not sharing this? Neither could I.


Why yes, "Kurt", I can think of a good reason for not sharing it: because it is not true.

5 seconds with Google shows this:

Social welfare, assistance for the ill or otherwise disabled and for the old, has long been provided in Japan by both the government and private companies. Beginning in the 1920s, the government enacted a series of welfare programs, based mainly on European models, to provide medical care and financial support. During the postwar period, a comprehensive system of social security was gradually established.[1][2] Government expenditures for all forms of social welfare increased from 6% of the national income in the early 1970s, to 18% in 1989.

Never mind the wisdom of advancing a political argument through pictures; the entire message is simply a lie.

Worse, the message is predicated on a fantasy. A cruel, sick fantasy. A sociopath's fantasy.
"Work for it or do without."
What if people can't find jobs, "Kurt"? Do you really think all those unemployed people are unemployed by choice? The bankers crashed the economy, but they took home billions in bonuses; and now you want the people who were living paycheck to paycheck to just starve?

This email is like an x-ray; it exposes the implicit assumption of Right Wing Morality Economics: that people who are poor are poor because they deserve it; by the choices they made. The idea that fate could have some impact, that people could be affected by the decisions made by others, never sees the light of day.

I want to know if "Kurt" ever went to a war. I want him to tell me how every man who died there deserved it, how those bullets sought out only the lazy, the incompetent, and the stupid. To tell me how every guy who was drafted deserved whatever he got, for being too poor to buy a deferment or just so plain stupid he thought he owed his society something when they called for him. To tell me how we all make our own fate, independent of anyone else's actions, even under artillery fire on the other side of the globe.

And if we can't choose our own fates in a war, then, really, when can we? Is there some magic glass wall that appears once the war is over that protects us from chance, misfortune, criminals, or the law of unintended consequences?

But lo, the idiocy continues; it gusheth forth. Yes, in fact, you can multiply wealth by dividing it; that is the basis of the entire modern economy. The industrial revolution can be essentially explained by multiplying wealth by dividing it (i.e. the division of labor, where each person does the same amount of work but the output is magically increased). You can, in fact, legislate the poor into prosperity by redistributing wealth; and when you do, you make the wealthy even wealthier. Yes, even wealthy people benefit from living in a society that minimizes income disparity, which is why billionaires of every third-world country fly to the West for health care. And as for the government taking what it gives, there were a lot of people who gave our government everything so that we could be free (see the aforementioned war); I think paying back a few tax dollars is more than fair.

This text was written by a sociopath. A creature who revels in a fantasy of power and independence, who has no empathy for others, who views every piece of good luck as his just reward and every piece of bad luck as someone else's fault, who would destroy every ounce of trust and connection that has built modern society so they can return to feudal savagery. And, incidentally, who has absolutely no idea how society, economics, or physics work.

But I know for a fact that the people reading and passing on the email are not sociopaths. So how does that work? How do decent, ordinary people participate in this kind of stuff?

The answer is, by degrees and dog-whistles. Because the underlying premise of the message agrees with their moral principle, they accept the message. But because the moral principle is essentially indefensible (you know as well as I do that the people passing this message are Christians, and thus are perfectly aware of "What you do to the least among you, you do to me"), they cannot face it directly, which means they cannot pick out the factual errors.

Instead, they respond to the tone instead of the specifics. And the tone is, "get off your butt and get to work." But the specifics get passed along, too, and they reinforce the tone in unintended ways. Thus by small steps did Reserve Police Battalion 101 find its way into history. At every stage, those men responded to the tone of duty, brotherhood, and obedience, without facing the specifics; if at any point they had challenged the factual claims presented to them, the whole thing would have fallen apart. Which is why they very carefully never challenged those claims (see Albert Speer, for example).

It is no accident that these are pictures of Detroit. There are many crumbling cities in America, thanks to thirty years of tax dodging as a national sport, but they chose Detroit. The reason is obvious; but again, merely facing that fact would destroy the entire illusion.

And the illusion is what it always is: the pretense of power, the fantasy of control over one's own fate. The comforting lie that those other bastards deserved it, but you've been good and thus will be spared. This lie is only necessary when you are afraid. Poverty makes people afraid. Thirty years of Reaganomics have made people poor. And in their fear, they turn to... Reaganomics: the idea the financial success is a measure of moral purity. Because if they just are morally pure enough, they'll be saved.

To his credit, Reagan may have started the spiral that will completely unwind democracy. That's a legacy few can match (I'm looking at you, Augustus Ceaser!).

But he didn't. Obama's going to win, and this too shall pass, because in the end, the American people are not a people of small fears and despair.

And if not.... sucks to be an American, eh? Glad I was smart enough to make a better choice.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

The Etch-a-sketch in action

Romney definitely deserves credit for political shrewdness here. He properly understood that he could say anything at this debate without fear of retaliation from his base.

Witness his full-throated endorsement of regulation, his claim that we need more teachers., and his utterly incoherent defense of Romney care (it's fine to have government take-over of health care at the State level!). Why hasn't the Tea Party leapt on him for these deviations from orthodoxy?

Because he was beating Obama. All along, all he had to do was win, and they would forgive him anything. Once he gets the lead, he will be free to remake himself as a moderate to win the election; the Right won't hold him to what he says, since they will assume he's only saying it to win. It was never dishonesty that bothered them; it was just defeat.

Fortunately, it's too late; there isn't enough time left for Romney to convince the low-information voters of his secret new plan, and Obama's team has enough money to keep people reminded of what Romney has been saying for the last year.

Just to remind you what's at stake, here is a quote from a Republican congressman, "a physician by training, sits on the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology:"

“God’s word is true,” Broun said, according to a video posted on the church’s website. “I’ve come to understand that. All that stuff I was taught about evolution and embryology and Big Bang theory, all that is lies straight from the pit of hell. And it’s lies to try to keep me and all the folks who are taught that from understanding that they need a savior.”

Oh, and more credit to Romney: apparently we're never going to see his taxes after all, and apparently that's OK. Romney refused to release the taxes, then kept bringing it up in the most maladroit way, and it doesn't matter; it's been two weeks and the media/electorate has totally forgotten about it.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Mitt Romney won the debate

Years ago, I read this story on the internet:

When I was in high school, I was on one of the debate teams my sophomore year. Our debate team had the distinctive honor of being the only debate team to ever beat the teacher's debate team.

Now, this was overseas at a DoD school where nearly every teacher was a full professor that also taught University of Maryland courses for the troops.

Why did we win? We all agreed ahead of time that we would just lie.  Being the evil bastards that we were, we would cite a source, but then just make up whatever we wanted. Since the debate 'winner' was picked by popular vote and the cote of the other teams immediately after the debate, the other team didn't have time to go fact check everything.

This is what Romney did; the Gish Gallop. He said he didn't have a $5T tax cut, claimed he would cut every non-essential program like PBS but would expand education, said regulation was necessary but rejected every banking regulation without suggesting any, claimed Obama should have followed Simpson-Bowles even though he wouldn't have, and basically through every position under the bus if it made him look good at the moment.

Obama, meanwhile, sucked. He didn't call Romney on any of his lies - including the $700B "stolen" from Medicare. And neither did Jim Lehrer.

I thought Romney sound like Reagan, which made him sound presidential, at first. But the more he went on, the more he sounded like a guy trying to sell me a line of bullshit. Also, running over the moderator made him look like a bully; the illusion of presidentiality evaporated every time he did that. Still, since the audience (pundits included) react solely to emotion and not facts, Romney won, and deserves credit for a good performance.

The only outcome for me, personally, is that I lost an immense amount of respect for Jim Lehrer. Only once did he call Romney out on a logical fallacy, and he let him off after one go. It distresses me no end that there is no forum in which these two men have to answer to facts; at no point in this campaign will the penalty for telling a bald-faced lie on national TV be any more than a few articles in independent media or a couple of partisan ads. "Balance" requires that any charge of falseness against one party must always be accompanied by an equal charge against the other; to their credit, the Republicans have realized that as long as Democrats stick anywhere near the truth, the Republicans can just lie all the time.

Obama will still win the election; but America will have to wait for a full-throated defender of the radical notions that taxes must go up, government is a force for good, and science is truth.

Monday, October 1, 2012

I know where God comes from now

"It's time to go to bed, Sophie."


"Because it's dark and cold out."


"Because the sun went down."


"Because it's bedtime, even for the sun."


"Because... the laws of physics, that's why."

In our house it's TLoP, but I can totally see why someone would finally devolve to Goddidit or even just because-I-said-so. The invention of theology is a consequence of having two-year-olds.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Peggy Noonan accidentally mentions the truth

While bitterly complaining about Romney's mismanaged campaign, Peggy Noonan remarks:
A campaign is a communal exercise. It isn't about individual entrepreneurs. It's people pitching in together, aiming their high talents at one single objective: victory.
And so is a country, Ms. Noonan, except the goal is survival, which is somewhat more important than victory.

Amazing, isn't it, that Republican philosophy asserts that all economic progress comes from the genius of Promethean job-creators, that without the direct oversight of these individual, singular heroes we would all starve like lemmings... but the trivial act of winning a dog-and-pony show apparently requires communism.

Nothing like watching a Reagan speech-writer throw the entire Republican philosophy under a bus just so they can win an election. Tells you what they really think is important, doesn't it?

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Reality has a liberal bias

The whole article is well worth reading, but it is summed up here:

My old Republican worldview was flawed because it was based upon a small and particularly rosy sliver of reality.  To preserve that worldview, I had to believe that people had morally earned their “just” desserts, and I had to ignore those whining liberals who tried to point out that the world didn’t actually work that way.

Why I left the GOP

I have heard that sentiment from people who should know better; people who actually worked their way up from nothing and somehow decided that because they could, anyone can. People who acknowledge that they have been lucky - people who have literally won the lottery - and yet still feel that economic success is directly tied to personal character.

The bias of self-justification is strong. It affects all of us. Many people seem afraid to acknowledge the true strength of luck in their success, as if that would somehow cheapen its value. That, itself, is an absurd concept: there is no success, anywhere, ever, that did not depend upon a thousand factors aligning out of the blue. In the old days they knew this, and counted such luck as the favor of the gods; in our modern, secular era, we think men are gods and make their own luck - or lack of it. As little as I value the concept of gods, it was a still a superior theory than the Ayn Randian fantasy of self-creation.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Two years before the mast

I've been in Australia two years now. Honestly, it feels like one. Maybe time just goes slower on this side of the globe?

Saturday, September 8, 2012

The only line you need to hear from Obama's speech

"Climate change is not a hoax."

Forget all the policy, and the economics, and everything else: those are details. At the core of everything is process; details are merely a product of process. Science, for example, is a process for generating facts/details; theology, ideology, and pulling things out of your ass are other processes.

And in that one statement, in the mere fact that Obama had to even issue the statement, it is revealed in stark clarity that one political party chooses science as a process, and one does not.

Regardless of your position on any other issue, this single fact alone compels rational voters to one and only one choice.

(I feel compelled by fairness to point out that this did not use to be true; that the Republican party has a long tradition of hard-nosed rationality while the Democrats were into moonbeams and unicorns; but things have changed.)

Thursday, September 6, 2012

The only line you need to hear from Bill Clinton's speech

"Since 1961 … our private economy produced 66 million private-sector jobs. So what's the jobs score? Republicans 24 million, Democrats 42 million."

Politifact says...
Clinton’s figures check out, and they also mirror the broader results we came up with two years ago. Partisans are free to interpret these findings as they wish, but on the numbers, Clinton’s right. We rate his claim True.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

The horses won't shut up

More Republican-bashing, from Republicans:

Today’s Republicans strongly believe that individuals determine their own fates. In a Pew Research Center poll, for example, 57 percent of Republicans believe people are poor because they don’t work hard...

The fact is our destinies are shaped by social forces much more than the current G.O.P. is willing to admit. The skills that enable people to flourish are not innate but constructed by circumstances.

David Brooks

Is it fair to call it bashing when it's just the simple truth?

I would be remiss if I didn't link to this:

Paul Ryan's speech in 3 words- dazzling, deceiving, and distracting

Bobo is a well-known shill for the Republicans, so his criticism carries a sting; I don't know Sally Kohn, but her criticism appears on Fox News website, so I think that counts as a Republican source.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Straight from the horse's mouth

There has been a suspicion among certain people that the Right has let slip the constricting bonds of reality, and sprung untethered into the world of fantasy. This started with the Laffer curve and back-of-the-napkin economics, grew stronger in light of the Bush party flack who said empires "create their own reality," and now has been revealed in plain, simple language by the Romneyites:
"We're not going to let our campaign be dictated by fact-checkers," said Neil Newhouse, a Romney pollster.
And here's a perfect example:

Coal miners lost pay for mandatory appearance at Romney photo-op

What more perfect illustration could you ask for? In the Romney world, working-class people are props that not only can be bossed around without compunction, but also without pay.

These aristocrats really think that white, working-class people are so afraid of losing your status and sinking to the level of poor coloreds that they'll vote for them no matter how they act. It would laughable... if it weren't working so well.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Romney needs to do better

This is supposed to be an election about Reaganomics; the country is supposed to be choosing between Keynes, FDR, and the New Deal vs. Hayek, Reagan, and Ayn Rand's 18th century plutocracy.

But Mitt Romney is such a terrible candidate that I am afraid he's going to lose all on his own. Which means we'll have to do it all over again in four more years.

Please, please, Mitt: stop making gaffes and endorsing extreme social policies. Just talk about economics!

Saturday, August 18, 2012

What's in Romney's taxes?

First, we know that he gave 23 years of taxes to John McCain, back in 2008. McCain has said that taxes weren't the issue, which isn't worth much, but the point is Romney really didn't object to revealing his taxes then.

Next we see that Romney is willing to release the last two years, and has already admitted he paid about 13% throughout the last decade. He's doubled down on the claim that he never paid 0%, which isn't worth much, but the point is that if all he had done was escape with a low tax rate, he's basically already admitted it.

Finally, we see the Obama campaign promising to stop asking after the last five.

All of this points to exactly one year: 2009. And what happened in 2009, that hadn't happened in 2008 and indeed didn't look like it would ever happen then?

The Swiss cracked. They agreed to open their books to the IRS. And tax cheats rushed to sign up for the amnesty program, trading a hefty penalty for immunity to prosecution.

My prediction is that Romney took the amnesty. If this comes out before the election, it will kill him; if it comes out after the election, it's an impeachable offense. And the idea that it won't ever come out is left over from the Nixon era. Which describes Romney, actually.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Snow White & the Hunstman

Just saw the movie. About halfway through I was a bit thrown out of the frame by seeing Al Sweargin, the filthy-mouthed ethically-challenged saloon owner from Deadwood, as a dwarf.

It was a little uneven, but overall I really enjoyed it. As a writer I am incredibly envious of the film-maker's ability to create visually stunning scenes, which SW&tH is full of (the White Hart transforming into a cloud of butterflies is my favorite).

But the movie only hinted at themes that a book would have been able to develop (or, to be honest, a better movie - the ending in particular showed a lack of imaginative use of the elements already developed). You can get deeper in a movie, but not if you have a sword fight; it's either Serious Drama or Action-Adventure. Any film that mixes genre too much risks confusing its audience. A book, on the other hand, is longer; people spend more than 90 minutes there, and that gives you time to show what's in your character's heads and why it matters.

So I came out of it inspired to write more fantasy. In my book (hehe) that qualifies it as a successful movie. I'm happy to have spent 56$ on it. Hmm... I wonder if I can write it off as an expense?

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Why I am glad Romney picked Ryan

I've been saying all along that Obama wanted to focus the election on supply-side economics. Obama's been saying it for the last few months. And now Mitt Romney is saying it.

For once we have an election around a very clear policy issue. Everybody agrees the current system aren't working; so much is obvious. The question is whether the current problems are because we're going in the wrong direction, or because we haven't gone far enough.

The good thing about Ryan is that he is willing to explain exactly what "far enough" means. The Ryan plan is the logical extension of Reaganomics; it's where trickle-down economics has to eventually go. The logical extension of the Obama plan, of course, is Europe or Australia.

Americans get to decide what they want. All the side issues, Romney's taxes and Obama's birth certificates and all that jazz, will fade into noise: what really matters is the direction of policy, and to his credit, Romney has joined Obama in making this choice clear and obvious for the electorate.

We get to choose our future. As unambiguously as the choice has ever been. Either we go back to the New Deal, or we abandon it. Either we forge ahead to Ryan's vision of the future, or we turn into some version Europe. There's no middle path, no imaginary compromise that leaves the USA unchanged except for the bad parts. We can't stall any longer, living off the past: we have to pick a direction and move.

I say we, but of course, I mean you. I've already picked a direction and moved. Speaking as it were from one possible future, I have to say: the nanny state can be silly at times or even slacking (we have laws against pornography to protect people, but still don't have gay marriage!), but it's wonderful to not live under a cloud of fear and gloom. Simply knowing that no matter what, I will always have access to health care, is a huge relief. Knowing that the clerks at the gas station are making a living wage, with the same health care, with the same educational opportunities for their children, makes a better life for me. Even if I can only go out to dinner once a month instead of once a week. (And have to pay 21% tax instead of 19%.)

Saturday, August 11, 2012

The least defaming defamation imaginable

So apparently Harry Reid is a "dirty lair" and the most despicable person on Earth for starting nasty rumors.

Never mind that for years various Republican politicians have refused to condemn the attacks made by other Republican figures. People as famous as Donald Trump question whether Obama is even an American, and the best Romney can come up with is "I wouldn't have used those words." Never mind that Obama has been called a secret Muslim Marxist member of the Gay alliance, out to destroy America.

Just consider what Harry Reid is accusing Mitt of. He is accusing Mitt of following the law. Of doing something perfectly legal, something that is not only plausible but already documented. He is accusing Mitt of being a really sharp financial whiz who knew how to game the system to his best interests.

And yet everybody Left and Right seems to be hitting the fainting couches.

This is what it looks like when the bullied kid finally hits back. Recall my post on privilege, and you'll see that Republicans are operating from a mind-set of privilege. They simply can't believe the other side is allowed to fight back, let alone begin to approximate their own tactics. Which makes a lot of sense, as the entire Right Wing freakout about Obama basically boils down to a fear of loss of privilege.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Privilege explained in a comment thread

This is a comment about religious privilege, but really, its central precepts can be extended to every form of privilege: racism, sexism, class warfare, etc. The central insight is that the privileged party has no idea they are privileged; they actually think they live in a fair and balanced place, and the people who keep squeaking are just being unreasonable. It has nothing to do with that boot on their throat. The second insight is that the privileged have absorbed their privilege so completely that they identify with it; challenging a racist's claim that some skin color is inferior is not merely a factual, scientific challenge, it is a threat to their own self-identity. They are so completely intertwined that if you suggest a world without racism, they see a world without them.

Mind you, people don't get like this on purpose; it's just something that happens. Fish don't know they live in water, they just live. But as rational, sentient beings, it is required of us to step back and question with boldness even the most fundamental assumptions of our lives, and to that end, Rieux does a wonderful job.

To read the whole piece you need to go here and scroll through the comments  Here are some highlight:

Yes, from the perspective of a bigoted hegemon (and its fans), that hegemon's power plays rarely look like power plays. That's one of the uglier consequences of privilege: you don't have to give a shit about the interests or rights of the despised minorities you're trying to shove around; you can lie to yourself, and them, about what you're actually doing.

None of that disingenuousness changes the real world, though, in which you are in fact attempting to use privilege and hegemonic power to silence a minority for the high crime of making you uncomfortable.

More central to your problem, though, is that classic illogical privilege leap you've just made: from liberal theists' "defense of theism" to their fear that "once fundamentalism is gone, they"—theists—"are next on the list." In your hands, attacks on theism become attacks on theists, because you (and they) are too arrogant and privileged to notice the difference between ideas and people.

If, as you describe, theists worry that attacks on theism means that they personally are (or will be) targeted, then the problem is their privileged illusion that their ideas and their selves are the same thing. You obviously have bought into that bigoted fallacy, but it is nonetheless a fallacy, and a severely destructive one.

...Again, however deep your denial may be, theism is an idea, and the fundamental point of the free marketplace of ideas is that we all have the right to challenge and criticize (and deconstruct and attack and mock) ideas.

The "reassurance" you order is just another form of the power play you pretend doesn't exist: you demand that we forfeit our place in the free marketplace of ideas, our right to treat theism the way we see fit, in exchange for the theist hegemon's cooperation on public-policy issues that have nothing necessarily to do with theism. You are making your priorities entirely clear: silencing atheist criticism of religion is more important to you than protecting LBGT or reproductive rights or secular education.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Canadians are richer than Americans

As a kid, we used to make fun of Canadian money, because it was worth less than American money. Canada was our dull country cousin, always going on "aboot" Mounties and snow.

Now comes this:

For the first time in recent history, the average Canadian is richer than the average American.

How much more evidence will it take before people wake and realize: Reagonmics failed. It was a stupid idea in the first place, but whatever: it's now been tried for 30 years and the results are in. America lags the rest of the civilized world for the first time since we conquered it.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Gaffe: when a politician accidentally speaks the truth

Uninsured not the issue:

After host Chris Wallace asked McConnell what the Republican plan is to address the estimated 30 million uninsured Americans who would lose the chance to get health insurance if the Affordable Care Act was repealed, McConnell said he wasn't concerned.

"That is not the issue," he said bluntly in a video clip that seems destined for Democratic fundraising messages and left-leaning blogs. "We're not going to turn the American health care system into a Western European system. … We need to clean up the health care the federal government is already responsible for before we start immodestly trying to take over the rest of the health care system."

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Why you can't argue economics with a Republican

I actually noticed this back in the 80's, when convenience store clerks would argue that we couldn't afford to raise the minimum wage. The arguments always went in a circle; first they would claim we couldn't afford welfare, and when I showed how we could, they would switch to how it was immoral to give money to slackers. And when I destroyed that argument, they would switch back to how we couldn't afford it. Repeat, ad nausem.

What I missed at the time is that one of those arguments was simply a red herring. The truth is that Republican economics have never been about prosperity, or wealth, or economics; they have always and only been about morality.

Buried in this article is a quip from another report:

[T]he only social program ever to show documented success in impacting the marriage rates of poor people came in 1994, when the state of Minnesota accidentally reduced the divorce rate among poor black women by allowing them to keep some of their welfare benefits when they went to work rather than cutting them off. During the three-year experiment and for a few years afterward, the divorce rate for black women in the state fell 70 percent. The positive effects on kids also continued for several years.

Of course, no lesson was learned from this experiment, which in itself was accidental. The mere empirical facts were not allowed to interfere with ideological policy.

Reaganomics is not an economic theory, which explains why its adherents are so utterly unconcerned with the economic results of their doctrine. It is a moral position, and because it is embedded in an absolute, supernatural moral system, it (like any other deontological moral theory) is utterly unconcerned with empirical results. Ayn Rand is embraced not for her mathematical evidence (she doesn't have any) but for her narrative framing of a moral theory.

It is what used to be called Social Darwinism: the idea that society, like any other biosystem, rewards the strong and consumes the weak. This also explains their relationship to God, which is not one of a loving parent to a wayward child, but rather one of a powerful agent allying with a chosen people. The God of the Old Testament makes this perfectly clear; He will elevate the Jews above all other peoples as long as they worship him alone. He gets hosannahs and sacrifices; they get the lands of Cannan and all its little girls.

The Republicans have refined their position to the point that this should be obvious now. For example, during the entire Health Care debate, when Republicans were complaining that socialized medicine would bankrupt us, not once did they ever mention the fact that America pays twice as much for medicine as anyone else in the world. How could such an elemental fact of finance escape a financial discussion? Because, as the reaction to the SCOTUS ruling shows, the primary concern was never financial; that was just a smokescreen.

Look at the ongoing reactions - not fear of crushing debt, but fear of socialistic takeover. Some are calling it the death of America. Seriously? Over a freaking 2.5% tax? That's all it took to kill us? But of course it's not about the money.

It is about the moral idea that we owe anything at all to those weaker than ourselves. The ACA enshrines this idea into law, into the social fabric of the nation; and that leaves no room for the Libertarian notion of "I've got mine; screw you!" You might argue that we had already enshrined this notion with welfare, Social Security, and Medicare; but in case you hadn't noticed, the Republicans want to overturn those as well.

Some old-school Republicans still hold to the notion that charity to others is a private duty, not a public one; that the bonds that tie us together as a people must be voluntary instead of compelled by law. Of course they don't extend this the idea of military conscription; I've never met a Republican who thought it was wrong to draft people if that was the only way to save the nation. Still, it was a noble (if impractical) idea. But I don't need to argue against it anymore; Mitt Romney and his cronies have made it clear that their idea of charity is giving to those they like, not those who are in need. Christian charity always carried judgment with it; only the deserving poor were entitled to charity, and guess who decided who was deserving? Romney has only taken that to the next logical step: he still believes in charity for the deserving poor, he just thinks that if you're poor, that's proof you don't deserve anything.

Saturday, June 30, 2012

17 people who need to buy a clue

Here's a list of people so outraged by the Obamacare decision that they're going to flee American soil for some safer, saner non-socialist land... Canada.

People moving to canada because of obamacare

Seriously, Americans do not seem to understand that they are the only 1st world nation without public healthcare. And even a fistful of the developing world has it (Costa Rica, for example).

You know what other country has citizens so ignorant of the outside world that they think their crappy, miserable existence is as good as it gets? Thanks to Fox News, the media organization that actively makes people dumber, America finally has something in common with North Korea.

I bet Kim Jong-un is eager to learn our secrets. He spends a fortune on secret police to keep his people dumb; in America, Fox keeps people stupid and makes a profit at it.

Friday, June 29, 2012

Civilization not dead yet

By now you know that the Supreme Court did not give in totally to partisan politics, and managed to reach the legal result that almost every Constitutional scholar thought was correct.

What I want to point out is this:

Solicitor General Donald Verrilli—improperly maligned by people who should have known better—carefully organized both the government’s briefs and his oral argument to make the tax-power option clearly available to Kennedy and Roberts.

Score another one for sheer competence. In this age of charisma and PR, people seem to forget that ability still matters, at least when the cameras are off.

I can't wait for the presidential debates. There are many, many Republicans who have actually convinced themselves that Obama is dumb, slow, and unable to speak without a teleprompter. They really believe he coasted through Harvard on Affirmative Action and got to be president of the Law Review because of PC politics. They think the debates are going to be slam-dunk for their side.

These people live in such a bubble of delusional I think there is a chance that even Romney believes this.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

My greatest writing barrier

The single biggest obstacle in my writing is: Microsoft Word.

Every single time - and I mean that quite literally, every time without fail - I sit down to use this program, at some point it leaves me murderously frustrated.

How is it possible to create a program so unbearably difficult to use? Especially when I am using it for such a simple task.

I get that when I am doing page layout for publishing, things can be twitchy. But simple things, like formatting and styles and tracking changes, should be bullet-proof. At no point should I be able to click a button and wonder "WTF just happened, and how do I make it unhappen?" Especially when it is the same button I've clicked ten times before.

It's just bad design. The entire program reeks of add-ons, tack-ons, and hacks. I would switch to Open Office, but I doubt it is any better. Just one of the ways Microsoft has poisoned the entire industry: their crap is now considered the gold standard.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Why Libertarians are wrong

Private school goes bankrupt

Some things cannot be privatized. Any function where the price of failure is catastrophic cannot be insured, because the risk/reward ratio is beyond any sane or prudent private company. And yet some of those functions must be done.

One of them is national defense. The price of failure is complete social destruction. Therefore the people, as a collective entity, have the right to supersede individual decisions and allocate for national defense. This right includes taxation but also conscription when necessary. Most libertarians understand this; most libertarians allow for national defense.

But there are other functions with the same risk/reward ratio. Disease control - demanding that each individual undergo the tiny risk of vaccination so that the entire society can avoid decimation. Few libertarians are willing to grant the CDC a pass, but that's only because they don't understand the science of vaccination.

And now we have a concrete example of another function. In a perfect libertarian world, insurance companies or lawsuits would redress the harm that Mobray College cause by its breach-of-contract. Except: how do you give a kid back his senior year? Time is not a fungible commodity. These kids, having been disrupted in the middle of their education, will carry that burden (however minor) for the rest of their lives. This is a time-sensitive endeavor, like cooking an egg. You can't make up for being 5 minutes late.

Given that the burden of not educating an entire graduating class of students is unacceptable to society, society must step in and fill the breach. The Victorian government has already shelled out $400K just to get these kids to their mid-year exams. If you can find a libertarian who thinks the government was wrong to do so - if you can find a libertarian who thinks those kids should have been left to rot because some private equity firm decided profits were more important than educating the next generation or because their parents weren't smart enough to detect a well-hidden scam that government regulators missed - punch him. (And I say him because we all know it will be a him).

And if government is going to have to bail out the private school system when it fails, then why in the hell should it even allow a private school system? If the government has to pick up the tab - and it does - then why doesn't it get to run the show?

Come to think of it, the same logic applies to banks.

Monday, June 11, 2012

The democritization of knowledge

They thought they were free

"To live in this process is absolutely not to be able to notice it—please try to believe me—unless one has a much greater degree of political awareness, acuity, than most of us had ever had occasion to develop. Each step was so small, so inconsequential, so well explained or, on occasion, ‘regretted,’ that, unless one were detached from the whole process from the beginning, unless one understood what the whole thing was in principle, what all these ‘little measures’ that no ‘patriotic German’ could resent must some day lead to, one no more saw it developing from day to day than a farmer in his field sees the corn growing. One day it is over his head.

The author is talking about the rise of fascism in Germany. What I find interesting is that the "lobster in a pot" problem is so universal. "Man is the creature that adapts;" if change is gradual enough, then any destination is possible.

In our case it is changing attitudes towards knowledge. The internet has killed expertise; everyone thinks Google makes them an expert now. Americans, it appears, score higher on confidence than anyone else - even while they score lower on correctness. This is the Dunning-Kruger effect in full force: the less you know, the less you realize you don't know.

The danger here is that we will continue to accept answers that sound good while moving away from standards that prevented us from doing that. The whole point of expertise, after all, is caution: to know when not to do something. The idea that we follow the person with the most confidence is precisely the wrong thing to do. Science knows this, which is why every statement of science is appended with studies, experiments, and data, not to mention qualifiers, exclusions, and limitations. The real danger is that it's easier to project confidence (and optimism) when you don't know you're wrong, which accounts for why our political leaders get dumber and dumber the worse the crises get.

The golden age of Science is a new phenomena; four hundred years out of the two million or so we've been on the planet. It is not inevitable; it can be lost. We used to rely on academics and PHds and white lab coats to preserve knowledge; but that way had its own pitfalls. The democratization of knowledge is a good thing, but only if we go all the way. People have to do it right.

The maxims are simple (though discovering them cost humanity a great deal):

"If somebody is telling you exactly what you want to hear, he has to be lying." - me

"Science is the art of not fooling yourself." - Richard Feynman

"Show your work: how you got the answer is as important as the answer." - every math teacher I ever had

I went through a libertarian stage where I argued with my math teachers. It took me forty years and Project Management to understand how right they were.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

The Guardian quotes me

In the end, that might be the worst part of all – one of two major political parties in America is engaging in scorched-earth economic policies that are undercutting the economic recovery, possibly on purpose, and is forcing job-killing austerity measures on the states. And they have paid absolutely no political price for doing so. If anything, it won them control of the House in 2010, and has kept win Obama's approval ratings in the political danger zone. It might even help them get control of the White House.

Sabotage or not, it's hard to argue with "success" – and it's hard to imagine we've seen the last of it, whoever wins in November.

Did republicans deliberately crash the economy?
Sound familiar? In particular that last line - although the Guardian has not quite pegged to the realization that this will soon be another American export to the rest of the world.

Monday, May 21, 2012

The Jesuits were right

The Jesuit's motto is: Give me a child until he is seven and I will give you the man.

Apparently, at least with regard to religion, they were right: East Germany is the most godless place on Earth.

All we need to do is break the cycle of abuse, and the future will be free! Well, not really, but at least free-er. And we don't even have to have a Communist revolution to get there: Norway will end State religion.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Another voice against Reaganomics

Nick Hanauer, a venture capitalist, speaking on capitalism:
It is astounding how significantly one idea can shape a society and its policies.  Consider this one.
If taxes on the rich go up, job creation will go down.
This idea is an article of faith for republicans and seldom challenged by democrats and has shaped much of today’s economic landscape.
But sometimes the ideas that we know to be true are dead wrong.
For instance:
Anyone who’s ever run a business knows that hiring more people is a capitalists course of last resort, something we do only when increasing customer demand requires it.  In this sense, calling ourselves job creators isn’t just inaccurate, it’s disingenuous.
And his most incredible fact:
If the typical American family still got today the same share of income they earned in 1980, they would earn about 25% more and have an astounding $13,000 more a year. Where would the economy be if that were the case?
This is what Reaganomics has cost everyone reading this blog: $13,000 a year in income.

Go read the speech, where he explains in very simple terms why Reaganomics cannot possibly work (and demonstrates that it has not worked). What he is saying is so obviously true you have to wonder: how did anyone ever believe the opposite? And yet, here we are...

Saturday, May 19, 2012

One way to win an election

Keep your opponent off the ballot.

Arizona's Secretary of State goes birther, says Obama might not be on ballot

If this were happening in a foreign country, Americans - Republicans! - would be the first to condemn it as a violation of democratic principles.

And now they're doing it. They are acting exactly like the Communist politburo. It's like no one in the Republican party owns a mirror.

Time to quote Sinclair Lewis: "When fascism comes to America, it will be wrapped in a flag and carrying a cross."

Sunday, May 13, 2012

The ultimate political flip-flop

For everyone who has felt like they didn't leave the Republican party, it left them, here's why you feel that way:
...over the past half-century, the two parties completely switched roles, with the G.O.P. turning into rebels and the Democrats defending the status quo.

The Big Flip

It is true: the Republicans are the wild-eyed revolutionaries of today, seeking to tear down the tawdry machinery of state and replace it with pure, pristine Utopia.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Patriotism on display

Michelle Bachmann just became a Swiss Citizen.

Seriously. After all that kvetching and conspiracy talk about whether or not Obama is a citizen, and now Michelle Bachmann chooses to become a citizen of another country. One where they don't even speak English. The Queen of the Tea Party now has a passport to a socialist nation with socialist health care. While still serving as a member of the US government.

How can any Republican look this shit in the face and still have the gall to breathe? I honestly don't know.

I am not speaking metaphorically here. I honestly do not know how any Republican failes to see the swindle going on.

EDIT: Apparently, she has surrendered her Swiss citizenship, after a firestorm of criticism. Leaving aside how the Swiss must feel about this, one has to wonder about her judgement. Did she not realize becoming a citizen of another country while serving in the government of ours might be a tad controversial? Should she be running a country with this kind of judgement?

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Obama's big move

All those Lefties moaning and bitching that Obama never showed "leadership." So here he is, out in front and possibly risking his presidency, and what do the Lefties say?

"Too little, too late!"

Even P.Z. Myers was taking that line, and most of the time, he's a grown-up.

Nonetheless, as even a Fox news anchor acknowledged, Obama is on the "right side of history." Sometimes I'm proud to be American. (Are you listening, Julia?)

Saturday, April 28, 2012

One thing I disagree on Obama about

Their vision is that if there’s a sliver of folks doing well at the top who are unencumbered by any regulatory restraints whatsoever, that the nation will grow and prosperity will trickle down. The challenge that they’re going to have is: We tried it. From 2000 to 2008, that was the agenda. It wasn’t like we have to engage in some theoretical debate – we’ve got evidence of how it worked out. It did not work out well, and I think the American people understand that.

Ready for the Fight

While I am happy that we are, in fact, having a conversation about Reaganomics, I have to disagree with Obama on that last point. It would seem self-evident that the American people do not understand things based on evidence.

So not only does Obama have to win his argument, he has to educate his audience as to the basic terms of arguments in the first place. Good thing he's a professor.

Monday, April 23, 2012

A Dance of Dragons

Sara got me a surprise birthday present (very surprising, since it's not my birthday yet); A Dance of Dragons. Even in paperback this thing is immense; I've spent 5 straight nights reading the thing (hence my complete absence from the computer).

It is clearly the weakest of the series, and much of what the negative reviews say about it is true: far too much ink is spent on food, bodily functions, gratuitous graphic sex, repetition, and pointless characters. The man should have my agent; she would never let that slide. Basically, Martin's weak points have been magnified, while his strong points have not gotten stronger - but then, they couldn't have. This is the problem with starting at the top, where the first three books are: there's nowhere to go but down.

One of the complaints, though, is that the main characters behaved in non-heroic ways; but this struck me as appropriate. The degeneration of Tyrion's character is understandable; he has pretty much hit rock-bottom as a human being. Daenerys is not an avenging angel, and Jon Snow is not a knight in shining armor. That was always the point of Martin's world. It makes for depressing reading, sure, but after this many pages, that can't be a surprise to anyone.

If anything, my chief concern is that his main characters are becoming too much the hero: Tyrion, in particular, seems to be acquiring the Hollywood gloss that means no matter how dire his circumstances, he'll always survive. I no longer believe Martin can kill any of his characters; these three, in particular, seem inviolate.

Which is fair enough, in any other book. History is written by the victors, and stories are written by the people who survived. But Martin made a point of a world where grim realism trumped dramatic narrative, and exempting even just three popular, decent characters seems jarring. Especially when they are in such incredible danger so much of the time.

On the other hand, for all I know, he's going to kill them off in the next book. That'll show the critics, eh?

But even at his weakest, Martin is a great read. The only truly bad thing about ADwD is how long we have to wait for the next one.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Global Atheist Convention

We went to the Global Atheist Convention last week, which I should have blogged about then, but I didn't (for reasons that will be explained in the next blog post).

Some highlights from the convention:

The loudest applause line of the first night was when the organizers announced that the State government had kicked in a little bit of funding for the convention, and in doing so, had treated the atheists exactly like any other group.

Yes, that's what we were applauding for: being treated exactly the same.

As for the speakers:

Dennet is not a particularly good public speaker. But his talk was so jam-packed with ideas that it was one of the best.

The other best was P.Z. Myers, who was not only funny and blasphemous but insightful.

A. C. Grayling was a delight to listen to. His presentation, vocabulary, voice, and sheer cleverness - he spoke for half an hour without notes and never paused to draw breath - were perfect. I have no idea what he was talking about, but I could listen to him for days.

Lawrence Krauss was good, too, explaining how something must come from nothing in terms non-technical enough that I could follow them.

Sam Harris was good, but he's still yapping on about meditation.

There was a terrifying talk by Leslie Cannold on how Australia is a soft theocracy - we don't have the kind of iron-clad separation of church and state that the American Constitution does. But then, almost nowhere else does. Is it ironic that the one thing I find most attractive about American government is the one thing the Republicans are hell-bent on eradicating?

The tribute to Hitchens was the best, but that's not fair: Hitch got to present all of his best material gathered over the years. No one can compete with that.

Most enlightening was Dawkins' talk, but not in the way expected. Dawkins covered old ground, whereas most of the others talked about new developments. So that was a little boring, but that wasn't the enlightening part.

Having seen Dawkins in the flesh, I now understand why people call him strident. He was, actually, despite his classic British politeness and his careful academic demeanor. P. Z. Myers gave a talk called "Sacking the City of God" (take that, Augustine!), and yet somehow he came off as less... angry.

I don't think that strident is the right word; I think a better word is peevish. The difference between Dawkins and Myers was hope; Myers' essentially gave a pep-talk wrapped around his philosophical/political observations. Dawkins, on the other hand, during a panel discussion, was asked by Dennet, "What happens when we bring the moderates over to our side, and nothing is left but the nut jobs?", and his response was, "Should we be worrying about that yet?"

Dawkins has been fighting this fight, and losing, for so long that he sounds like a tired, bitter old man. Everyone else at that conference (save for Leslie, who also sounded like a castle under siege; and perhaps Ayaan Hirsi Ali, but who can blame her?) was full of confidence and hope; everyone else felt like we were winning. Dawkins, clearly, does not.

I'm not saying he's wrong to be pessimistic. Nor should he be nicked for all the many things the theists nick him for. But from now on, when I hear Dawkins described as strident, I am going to think of despair. It is likely a feeling that Dawkins will never escape; his entire generation will remain immune to reason until he, and they, are beyond all arguments.

But the people who deal with the young; the teaching professors like Harris and Myers, the college organizers, the volunteer groups; these people know that the next generation is reachable. They have hope of the triumph of reason, in their lifetimes; and it shows.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Thomas Jefferson gives Republicans their true name

Men by their constitutions are naturally divided into two parties: 1. Those who fear and distrust the people, and wish to draw all powers from them into the hands of the higher classes. 2. Those who identify themselves with the people, have confidence in them, cherish and consider them as the most honest and safe, although not the most wise depositary of the public interests. In every country these two parties exist, and in every one where they are free to think, speak, and write, they will declare themselves. Call them, therefore, Liberals and Serviles, Jacobins and Ultras, Whigs and Tories, Republicans and Federalists, Aristocrats and Democrats, or by whatever name you please, they are the same parties still and pursue the same object. The last one of Aristocrats and Democrats is the true one expressing the essence of all. --Thomas Jefferson to Henry Lee, 1824.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Sam Harris and math

The issue that got Sam Harris into so much trouble was his assertion that decent, reasonable moderates were as much a part of the problem as the crazed religious zealots.

I think he's right. And I just read a fascinating passage in Stephen Pinker's The Better Angels of our Nature that helps explain why.

Pinker is discussing the Prisoner's Dilemma, and how the simple strategy Tit-for-Tat is generally the best algorithm for repeated iterations. You start out cooperating, and then you just do whatever other guy did last time. This not only accords with our natural moral senses, but it's also mathematically optimal (which of course is not a coincidence).

Not only does it work best for the individual, but it works for the community; over time, the Cheaters are weeded out, and soon you have nothing but rational players.

But, here's the thing. Suppose there are a group of Samaritans in with your population. They always cooperate, no matter what. Sounds noble, right? And for the Tit-for-Taters, it's fine; they'll always cooperate back. Everything's great.

Except it isn't. The presence of the Samaritans keeps the Cheaters alive. Because there is a population for the Cheaters to exploit, they stay in the game, cheating everyone else and forcing them to cheat, and in general ruining it for everyone.

Yes, the Cheaters are the bad guys; but the system would purge itself of them if it weren't for the Samaritans.

And this is (mathematically) how nice, reasonable, perfectly decent, respectable, admirable, honorable people... contribute to religious zealotry.

It's a little bit like how a perfectly decent pothead's habit contributes to South American police states. Or the weekend wine drinker makes alcoholism possible. At some point you have to draw a balance between your private indulgences and social harm. Frankly, I don't have a problem with weekend drinkers or potheads (the harm they cause should be solved by other means, like regulation and legalization). And I'd like to not have a problem with nice, moderate religious types... but religion has caused so much harm that I can't. Alcohol destroys lives; religion destroys societies.

Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe once we get the fire under control, weekend mysticism will be fine. Maybe I'm over-reacting. I dunno; all I have is my hunches and prejudices.

And, oh ya, math.

We're winning!

In 1965, at the end of the Council, there were 58,000 priests. Now there are 41,000. By 2020, if present trends continue (and there is no sign of a dramatic upsurge in vocations), there will be only 31,000 priests

State of the US Catholic Church

Albeit slowly... but not as slowly as it would appear. Presumably the decline of priests follows the same power law as everything else. Right now the decline is gradual, but as the average age inches up, the drop-off rate will increase sharply, and the renewal rate will presumably go down as there are less priests to create converts.

On the other hand, the Catholic priesthood has such a bad reputation, maybe getting rid of them will help the Catholic faith.