Wednesday, July 11 2012

Government Economics Made Stupid I

In capitalism, I spend time and effort to produce something, which I trade for money. I use that money to buy something, which is more valuable to me than the time and effort I spent to make the money.  The more things that I produce, the more money I normally get to consume things.  Things in this case includes physical products, consumables, services, quality of service (I'm willing to pay more for better service), charity (goodwill) and even savings (in the sense I'm paying into savings now for 'insurance against future fiscal problems' later).  When I choose to spend money on something, I do so knowing that what I get is more valuable to me than the money I trade for it.

The government sucks at producing things efficiently.  Because you don't have a choice about how much to give them, they don't compete for your money and work to make sure they provide a service that is worth the money you give them.  The reason I'm not a complete libertarian is that I recognize there are things only the government can do due to scale, complexity, and uniqueness factors, such as build and maintain a road network (although they can, should and do contract out individual portions of the construction and maintenance on a competitive basis, I'm talking about the total system), run a justice and legal system, and kill Nazis and terrorists.

Consumption, in total among the whole population, is limited by production.  You can't consume what isn't produced.  Since government production is inefficient, having the government produce things results in a net loss of production than if the same resources were used privately.  If you redistribute money, you redistribute consumption for the same production, so there are always winners and losers.  To boost the economy, you need to increase production, so people get more things they want.  Relying on the government to spend our way out of economic problems doesn't work.

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Wednesday, June 20 2012

No-knock Raids and the Quality Process

To get it out of the way, what happened to the Avina family was horrible.  But to me, the truly horrible thing isn't the details of the raid itself, but what came before and after the raid.

The horror story presented about the raid, the 11-year old girl traumatized and handcuffed, is indeed horrible, but it's horrible because the raid was unjustified.  I would be happy if no innocent 11 year-olds ever ended up with a gun held to their heads ever again.  But it's not that simple; the law enforcement agents didn't know who was in the house.  I grant law enforcement some degree of leeway with regards to safety in the conduct of operations where there is an expectation of an armed suspect.  The normal conduct of a law enforcement raid will probably be traumatic, and we can't expect law enforcement to never make mistakes.

However, the mistakes made here were avoidable.  While no-knock raids have their place, using such a potentially dangerous tactic should require as much care as possible, and should only be used as a last resort.  The limited evidence on which this raid was based should be enough to rule out the use of the tactic.

Compounding the situation is the poor quality of the follow-up, both in the field and afterwards.  If the raid had been properly planned, it would have been obvious that a mistake had been made.  It shouldn't have taken two hours to determine that the Avina family was not the suspect they were looking for.  Further, it's obvious that mistakes were made.  The fact that there doesn't seem to be any effort made to determine what went wrong and examine the use of no-knock tactics.

Looking at what happened through a simplified quality process (plan what you're going to do, do it, verify to make sure that it was done right, and use the feedback to improve the process), it's obvious that the 'do it' section is the only section that was handled reasonably well.  Focusing on what was done that seems horrible in retrospect without looking at why it was done and how to fix it is a guarantee that further avoidable mistakes will be made.

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Wednesday, June 06 2012

The Great Crusade Redux

Today is the 68th anniversary of D-Day. On this day in 1944, nine divisions of allied troops landed on the beaches and in the fields of Normandy, France. I can think of no more fitting tribute than to include Gen. Eisenhower's address to the troops on June 6th:

Soldiers, Sailors and Airmen of the Allied Expeditionary Force!

You are about to embark upon the Great Crusade, toward which we have striven these many months. The eyes of the world are upon you. The hopes and prayers of liberty-loving people everywhere march with you. In company with our brave Allies and brothers-in-arms on other Fronts, you will bring about the destruction of the German war machine, the elimination of Nazi tyranny over the oppressed peoples of Europe, and security for ourselves in a free world.

Your task will not be an easy one. Your enemy is well trained, wellequipped and battle hardened. He will fight savagely.

But this is the year 1944! Much has happened since the Nazi triumphs of 1940-41. The United Nations have inflicted upon the Germans great defeats,in open battle, man-to-man. Our air offensive has seriously reduced their strength in the air and their capacity to wage war on the ground. Our Home Fronts have given us an overwhelming superiority in weapons and munitions of war, and placed at our disposal great reserves of trained fighting men.The tide has turned! The free men of the world are marching together to Victory!

I have full confidence in your courage and devotion to duty and skill in battle. We will accept nothing less than full Victory!

Good luck! And let us beseech the blessing of Almighty God upon this great and noble undertaking.

Dwight D. Eisenhower


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Monday, June 04 2012

Pedantic Rant Post

John Scalzi is generally a great SF author.  A few weeks back he wrote a provocative article that got cross-posted to Kotaku.  The article can be found here, go read it.  I'll wait.

Finished?  One of the reasons I've always admired Scalzi's SF writing in that he generally doesn't hit you over the head with his politics; while it's there, it's generally not getting in the way of the story.  While I disagree with many of his political opinions, I respect his opinions as sound and well thought out.

...with the exception of that article I just asked you to read.  It's an attempt to simplify a complicated and divisive issue, and then represent it with an analogy.  Simplifying a complex issue is hard; almost all writers will tend to lose the nuances of their opponent's arguments.  Analogizing even a simple argument is also hard, as analogies by their nature are imperfect.  Analogizing a complex argument is almost impossible.

The place where arguments by analogy tend to fail fastest is in places where the analogy isn't specific enough.  Scalzi's analogy is 'In the role playing game known as The Real World, "Straight White Male” is the lowest difficulty setting there is.'  Scalzi avoids the easy traps by enumerating that this is a generalization; specific results may vary.  He also limits his area of interest to the US and/or the Western World, which is probably a fair limit.

Where he sinks his argument is that he never explains how the difficulty settings work beyond

But because you’re playing on the "Straight White Male” setting, gaining points and leveling up will still by default be easier, all other things being equal, than for another player using a higher difficulty setting.
What does gaining points in the real world consist of?  Well, what does gaining points in a video game consist of?  (At this point, I'm going to be descending into the murky realms of analogy myself.  My analogies, like all analogies, are imperfect.  If you have a better example for my analogy, whether it supports or detracts from my thesis, please let me know in the comments.) 

First, in most games you gain points for accomplishing things.  Saving the princess, for example, or clearing to the next level.  A good real-world example of accomplishing things might be 'graduating high school' or 'graduating college' - fixed, unique milestones that come with specific power increases.

Second, many games give you points for accumulating treasures along the way to the larger milestones.  In the real world (as in many video games) this treasure is called 'money'.

Third, some games give you points for just surviving.  The longer you survive, the more points you get.  Normally, these games get more difficult the longer they progress, but you generally want to continue playing the game as long as possible.  In the real world, we call this aging.

Scalzi has a point, in that in all three categories 'Straight White Male' beats 'Gay Minority Female' for average final score.  But there's a massive 'but' lurking there.

To cut away from the video game analogy for a bit, and on to the RPG character creation analogy.  Since I don't have a choice in what class I play in the game, I roll up my character randomly and end up with a cleric (we're playing old school D&D).  My friend the power gamer tells me I'm lucky, as the versatile spell casting of a cleric means that the cleric is on average more powerful than non-clerics.  What's not to like?  I then look over at the power gamer's character.  I know from prior experience that the power gamer has sacrificed much to the dice god for incredible fortune (i.e. he fudges the rolls) and always has the best character class.  Does he have a cleric?  No.  Did he lie when he said my cleric was good?  No.  The cleric is more powerful than the average non-cleric, so he was right.  But non-cleric is a catch-all term.  In the non-cleric bucket with the fighters, thieves, rangers, and bards (all puny before my divine power) there are the almighty wizards. 

'Gay Minority Female' is a large bucket, especially the 'Minority' bucket.  If you break 'Minority' into it's component class offerings, the 'Asian' group looks downright comparable to the 'White' group (neither of them are homogenous groups anyways, to further complicate matters).  The Asian bucket, taken as a whole has higher college graduation rates, annual incomes, and life expectancy... all large components in the final score.  But that's not all, the 'woman' choice has a lower annual income, but comes with a higher life expectancy and college attendance rate.  Furthermore, some of that higher score in the male bucket comes with a higher risk, male players being more likely to take choices that have a higher reward coupled with a higher chance of a 'game over'.  A risk-averse player (and most players are) might consider the risk of a premature game over on your only game not worth the time.

All in all, depending on how you keep score, Scalzi's simple analogy isn't so simple, and without addressing those massive caveats the whole thing falls apart under the weight of the real world.  (I won't even get into the bizarre connotations of multiclassing in our analogy, how taking one level in fighter makes for a much more powerful wizard...)  It's a shame, as Scalzi has a genuine point to be made, and the underpowered nature of the fighter and thief classes needs to be addressed for a balanced game.  But a poorly thought out solution is likely to make the situation even worse for everyone.  (Did I just accidentally turn a political missive into a rant on D&D 4th edition?)

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Tuesday, May 22 2012

Missing in Action

Where have I been for the past three-ish years?

First, I got a new job, rather unexpectedly.  It's a much better job... shorter commute, higher pay.  It also is, normally, a lot less stressful of a job (part of that may be in the commute). There are, however, a few quirks.  At my old job, I traveled fairly often.  A busy day might take me to three different counties.  With the new job, I don't travel nearly as often, but when I do... I think, depending on how you count it, I have a reasonable claim to three continents in a single day.

On the other hand, while work is less stressful, my pre-emptive karma has magnified my out-of-work stress considerably.  There's nothing really to be stressed about, really, but for some reason I'd been increasingly stressed by things outside of work.

Anyways, things are calming down and I'm feeling much better.  Hopefully, I'll have time to make real updates.

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Tuesday, May 05 2009

Geek Pride and Same Sex Marriage

Caution:  What lies ahead is a rant on a touchy subject that may be controversial and not completely thought out, and what makes it worse is that it's a rant that doesn't end up saying much of anything.  Enter at your own risk!

I'll start with one simple thing:  My name is Chris, and I am a Geek.  [Chorus of voices from the Internet, AA meeting style: "Hi, Chris!"]  Moreover, I'm proud of being a geek.  I spend a good portion of my free time watching Japanese Cartoons.  For a while, I even blogged extensively about them (something I'd like to get back to).

I also spend a good portion of my time building and painting miniature tanks and pushing them across a table at other miniature tanks, all while trying to resist the urge to make "rumblerumblerumble.... Bang!.... Boom!" sounds.

These are strange and abnormal hobbies, and I enjoy them a lot.  I have fun.  I don't have fun doing a lot of things normal people do to have fun.  I can't sit down and watch normal TV shows.  I can't sit down and watch sports.  They bore me.  I could be doing something else, something involving either scantily clad Japanese-speaking catgirls or a Kompanie of Sd Kfz 142/1 Sturmgeschutz III G assault guns.

The problem is, is that while I'm proud of this while pseudonymous on the internet, or around friends, I can't act proud of this around normal people.  I automatically act to conceal it, even when such concealment is futile.  It's protective camouflage.  I think it originates in elementary school, when the abnormal children tend to get teased, because children are children, and they're like that.  I was relentlessly bullied as I was an easy target, until fortunately I made some friends who were very hard targets and could be counted on to stand up for the weaker geeks like me.

On Monday, on Page 3 of  the Washington Post Metro section, Cheryl Kravitz came out as a nerd to the world, or at least the part of the world that reads the Washington Post.  In an essay titled, I Might Be a Dork, but I'll Always Sing and Dance, she explains that she realizes she's still a Nerd after all these years.  Good for you, Cheryl!   (The essay is online behind a registration sign-in here.)

I have a hard time discussing my hobbies and interests with co-workers, even when asked directly.  I usually hem and haw, and eventually find an answer that will be technically honest and still evasive enough that my answers will pass.  With movies, I can usually find a blockbuster action movie that everyone saw or at least recognizes is normal for a 30-something male to have watched.  The last TV show I watched was Chuck, my interest in which was killed by the writers strike;  I've seen partial episodes of the Big Bang Theory, enough to know the writers aren't real geeks.  With music, I can name some edgy but relatively normal American bands.  I have added a MegaTokyo poster (signed) and a couple of small anime figurines to my corner of the office, and rest of the IT department knows I have odd tastes.  I can occasionally state that I'm a geek, but the listeners always blow it off with a "You're not a geek", which is my intent.  I don't think being a geek is a bad thing, but I know its not easy to be different.

Some of the more astute readers will remember that I promised a political rant, and this certainly has not been the case so far.  Turn back now, you have been warned.

What does this have to do with same-sex marriage?  (You do remember the properly-spelled post title, right?)

On the one hand, I'm a naturally stubborn person, and don't change easily.  I was raised Catholic, so to me a marriage, or at least a proper marriage will always be one man marrying one woman not closely related to him.  But I recognize that others will disagree.  I've also watched enough anime that different, that is to say not normal relationships don't bother me.  It even predates my interests in anime;  I read a lot of sci-fi while growing up.  While Heinlein wrote some very good books, a lot of what he wrote is interesting, especially as it relates to sex, and if you follow Lazarus Long along as a easily influenced teenage sci-fi buff, eventually nothing fazes you.  Personally, I don't care what consenting adults do in privacy.  I'm defnitely in favor of extending many of the legal benefits of marriage to same sex partners, and I voted against Virginia's defense of marriage amendment on those grounds.  I've personally come to favor the Italian solution... marriage is purely a religious sacrement, open to any faith's definitions, while government oversees civil partner benefits to any couple.   However, if the American public votes for changing the definition of marriage, it doesn't bother me.

But for many of the participants on both sides, the debate has taken on another level, one that definitely bears on my observations on my own Geek pride.  I choose to define myself as a Geek.  I am a lot of other things besides, some of them potentially contradictory; I am an American, a Catholic, a Conservative, Libertarian and Classical Liberal, a Virginian, an Engineer, a Computer Expert, and many things besides.  What I choose to identify myself as is my choice, and my choices come with consequences.

To some, the debate over same sex marriage is a debate (or the major battleground in the debate) over the social status of homosexuals (gays, lesbians, etc.).  On one side, we have the arch-traditionalists that see any attempt at acknowledging homosexuals as the next step towards cultural depravity and anarchy, and on the other side, we have a portion of the homosexual community demanding both that they be afforded special protections and that they be respected as perfectly equal to anyone else, and that this is a right.

My rational side automatically despises the Fred Phelps of the world.  As I've said, what consenting adults do in private is not my concern, and anyone that has made hating an entire class of people their way of life is abhorrent to me.  I don't have a problem with despising the Westboro Baptist Church.  It's easy to despise the Westboro Baptist Church.  It's my other, more emotional reaction that is harder for me to rationalize, and trying to spell it out is why I'm writing this post.

My emotial reaction to the arguments for the homosexual community is both rejection and offense.  For better or for worse, their self identity is tied to a behavior, specifically a sexual behavior, that is not instinctively normal for the vast majority of the population, and they are offended that people think differently of them because of this.  I don't think anyone should be fired from their job merely for being homosexual (although I do believe institutions like the military that enforce a code of behavior that limits sexual activity beyond what is enforcable by law should be able to include homosexual sex in that code).  But I don't think anyone should be fired from their job for being a geek, and it is legal to fire someone for being a geek.  Being a geek isn't protected by law.  I can't find a rational line between what is protected behavior and what isn't, and I'm offended that my self-identity group is on the wrong side of that line.  I don't get any respect; why should I give in to your demands to respect you?

I don't care if you're a homosexual.  Do you care if I'm a geek?  Would you have a negative reaction to me if my interests came up in conversation?  Am I discriminated against in society?  If you said no, take this hypothetical situation:  a manager is trying to determine which of two equally qualified candidates to promote, one of whom shares his non-work interests (perhaps he's a fellow fan of the local football team);  is the fan more likely to get promoted, perhaps because he interacts with the manager more socially?  As a geek, am I more or less likely to have an interest in common with the manager?  I can't socialize with peers at work, because I have no common interests.  I don't watch the latest Reality TV shows and don't follow pro or college sports.  How do I network with people?

As I've said, it's an emotional reaction to an emotional issue with no right answer, and ultimately, it's a useless rant.  I want to see the political issue resolved, and hopefully in a matter that leaves everyone somewhat satisfied in the short run, while the real issue, that of mutual respect for everyone, is solved in the background in the long run.  But respect cannot be demanded, only earned...

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Monday, March 23 2009

The Rules of Discourse

I have the annoying tendency to try to break down things into hard-and-fast rules.  Once I know the rules, I can theoretically find the loopholes, gaps, and tricks that allow me to gain an advantage.  Alas, this doesn't always work in the real world.

Two exceptional blogs, which shall remain nameless, have reduced themselves into a mindless feud over a series of ultimately minor debates which all come down to the question of which rules actually apply.

On the one hand, allowing observers to define what you say to suit themselves is a recipe to have the perpetually offended shut down conversation.  If you can define what I said, then there's no way I can debate you, because you can always define away my statements into meaninglessness or into something that can be used against me.

On the other hand, allowing people to exclusively define what they say means that there is no way to hold people to a position.  If I can redefine my position after I've stated it by claiming that your interpretation of my words is wrong and I really said something completely different.  As long as I can juggle words, I can be all things to all people.

Strictly applying either rule breaks the ability to have debate.  The world is full of undefinable gray areas.

More importantly, the more effort we devote to battling our allies, the harder it gets to fight our enemies.

[Rant Mode Off]

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Tuesday, March 03 2009

Bomb Bomb Bomb Bomb Iran....

No, not seriously.  Well, perhaps a little.

Right now, Iran is seriously close to building a nuclear arsenal.  This is a Bad Thing.  Iran may or may not use a nuclear weapon against Israel.  On the one hand, the President of Iran has repeatedly said that he's going to do so.  On the other hand, given that the Mullahs really run the country, he might not have the power to do so.  This is a moot point.  (It's not a moot point to the Israelis, of course.  Iran using nuclear weapons against Israel would be a Really Bad Thing regardless of what happens afterwards.)

I'm not actually referring to that, at least in the specifics.  In the general case, it's more complicated than that.  We troglodyte neo-conservatives have been assured by the people that know better that deterrence will prevent Iran from using their nuclear weapons, and that deterrence is a good thing.  But is it?  We are stating that if Iran uses nuclear weapons, we are willing to annihilate the country of Iran.  Wipe it off the map.  Fuse it into glass, then polish it off with Windex.  We are willing to kill 65 - 70 million people, many of them women and children, many who might not approve of their government's actions, because that's what nuclear deterrence is.  And that's not talking about the fallout, or the environmental destruction.

Personally, if I was president, I don't know if I could give that order.  I'd, with one action, be responsible for the deaths approximating the total casualty figures for the second world war.  And what's worse is that, intellectually, I know that not being willing to push that button means that, likely, more people will die in the end.  And that wavering on my ability to push the button means it's more likely that I'd have to make that terrible decision.

Recently, at mass, during the intercessions, the priest prayed for nuclear disarmament.  I couldn't join in.  Imagine if that prayer for nuclear disarmament was magically granted, and, poof, all nuclear weapons vanished.  The first country to rebuild their arsenal wins, because they get to use them.  Alright, the magic wish removes all nuclear weapons and the capacity to rebuild them, ever.  Well, then, what other deterrant weapons are available?  Chemical weapons are the old standby, and quite nasty, but you can't go wrong with biological weapons.  The purpose is the same: guarantee that in the event of a war, your opponent can't win.  A terrorist group with access to smallpox could conceivably easily beat my hypothetical 65-70 million death toll.  Well, then, the magic wish removes all weapons of mass destruction, both current and all hypothetical future ones.  What does war look like?  What did war look like before nuclear weapons?  Hark back to 1944, and tell me you'd rather be a soldier or civilian in a war zone then.  War was won by the states able to mobilize the biggest population, the biggest industry, and the most morale.  Nuclear weapons mean that any state, no matter how big, can still lose.  It also means that loser states like Iran can opt to take their enemy with them.  During that mass, I prayed instead for a world that would be safe enough for nuclear disarmament.

Iran, specifically, is a bad egg.  They've turned to proxy warfare to be able to hurt a country that could wipe the floor with them in a conventional conflict.  Iran with a nuclear arsenal would be able to expand their support for proxy warfare by massively increasing the threshold at which we would be willing to respond with conventional force.  In the aftermath of 9/11, Afghanistan refused to hand over bin Laden, and the US invaded.  Would we have invaded if Afghanistan had a small nuclear arsenal?  Even if they couldn't hit the US directly, they would be able to threaten US forces in the theater, US allies and other regional targets.  An Afghani government that faced defeat by the US would have no reason not to use a nuclear arsenal that it was going to lose anyways.  Any president that had that happen on their watch is not going to get re-elected.  And so it goes with Iran: a nuclear armed Iran would be untouchable for anything less than the use of nuclear weapons, and even a domestic democratic revolution would be a major threat to regional peace.

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Monday, February 09 2009

To Fail or Not to Fail?

...That is the question we are posed with.  Is it patriotic to wish the president to fail?

Ultimately, most people on both sides want the United States to succeed.  Wanting the United States to fail is, by definition unpatriotic.  But if you believe that having the president succeed at his political agenda ultimately means the country as a whole will fail, then hoping the president fails at his agenda is ultimately patriotic.  It all reduces down to a policy debate on the relative  merits of the president's political agenda.

 Note that I leave the position in the above formulation, rather than a name.  The formulation should apply no matter which president is in office.  Those who complain about failures now are those that were complaining about endless negativity then.  Stick to debating policy, and let rhetoric be rhetoric.  If it was fair last time, it's still fair this time.

Now, as many would suppose, I have my own views on the soundness of the policies being debated, and the fairness of the debates, but that's a matter for another time.

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Sunday, February 01 2009

Superbowl Weekend Thoughts

I think too many conservative pundits are attributing the decline in the fortunes of much of modern mass media to viewer frustration with media bias, or even just the poor quality of reporting overall.  I think this misses a major cause of media decline, one that affects the small online media as well as the larger print and broadcast media. Appropriately enough for this weekend, the relevant factor is the increasing ineffectiveness of advertising.

I've seen stories about advertisers scaling down for the Super Bowl this year, and it's too easy to blame that on the economic conditions (although that is certainly a factor).  I think advertising is becoming less effective because it has become over saturated, as I've said before.  With advertisers scaling back their advertising, media budgets for all media are dropping.

The big hit movie the past couple weekends has been Paul Blart: Mall Cop, which certainly wasn't expected to be a hit and certainly lacked advertising support.

Part of the factor with regards to Superbowl advertising, specifically, is that those people looking to watch for the good ads now have a better option, YouTube, and can focus on the best advertisers.  Excellent advertisements are now an art form in their own right, but do they sell anything?  And advertisements that aren't excellent are lost in the massive amount of advertising we've learned to turn out.

Update 2/5:  From what I'm told, the most successful ad of the Superbowl was a Doritos contest winner inviting fans to submit their own ads.  Total budget for production?  $2000.

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Sunday, September 21 2008

Indigestion 2008 I: the Signs of Politics

Now that Virginia is regarded as in play for this election, it's interesting to watch the progress towards the election as it shows up in the landscape of Northern Virginia (and it's roadways).

I saw my first Obama/Biden election sign off one of the exits on 66 last Tuesday.  Aside from the four small signs in the area of the overpass, I haven't seen any other Obama/Biden signage or decor.  This makes sense, to some degree, because Biden may as well be Generic Democrat as far as the election is concerned.  Obama himself is all that is needed to sell the ticket.  When I was in Baltimore for Otakon, the shopping area in the inner harbor had a Urban Outfitters store with a prominent wall devoted to Obama merchandise.  He has become something of a iconic figure in his own right.  Biden isn't needed to sell the ticket.

I saw my first McCain/Palin bumper-sticker last Friday morning, and have been seeing McCain / Palin signs and bumper stickers popping up all over the place since.  Actually, I saw a "Women for Palin" sticker on the back of a minivan last Wednesday; it seems so odd to have a VP candidate capable of standing separately from the Presidential candidate to sell the party ticket.

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Thursday, September 11 2008

Seven Years Ago

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Saturday, August 30 2008

Election 2008 I

When playing a game, you start by devising a strategy.  To devise a good strategy, you take a look at the rules, the initial conditions, your own and your opponents strengths and weaknesses.  From that, you can identify what you should start out doing to carry out that strategy.

The problem is that your opponent has a strategy, and makes plans based around what he thinks your strategy will be.  If he's good, he will have anticipated your plans and come up with a way to use them against you.  Luck also plays a factor; sometimes things won't go your way.  In some cases, carrying on with your strategy is still the best bet.  In most cases it is necessary to make minor adjustments while keeping the general framework of your initial plan.  Sometimes it becomes necessary to scrap the whole thing and try something else, often something that is quite risky, something that would be quite a poor bet if it had been your initial strategy.

In a game, when your opponent, or one of your opponents, chooses to change to a risky plan in mid game, it can affect everyone else's plans by opening up new options and fundamentally changing the nature of the game.  I've played a number of games where players have the safest path by choosing a logical strategy, with a little luck and skill determining which of the safe players comes out ahead.  If one player chooses a risky strategy, skill becomes irrelevant for any of the other players and may even be counterproductive, making it a viable strategy for a player with little luck.

What we have in the 2008 Presidential elections is a case where both major parties have dropped the usual logical, safe strategies for risky ones.  It's come down to which sound bites are more effective and which candidates will catch on with the population at large, factors largely beyond the control of the party strategists.  A crafty PR person might be able to slightly shift the flow of public opinion at this point, but I feel that it's all in the hands of the public from this point forward.  I'm going to sit back and watch the fun.

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Thursday, August 21 2008

The Robin Hood Fallacy

At the moment I feel like I hate politics, and yet I am obsessed with it.   I can't stop reading political blogs and pouring over the back and forth in the comments.  Treasured are the blogs that generate real, serious discussion on both sides of the political spectrum, but those blogs are surprisingly rare.  Much more common is the blog with a handful of persistent and stupid trolls offering a sound byte driven opposition that accomplishes nothing but making the trolls look like idiots.

One of my favorite fallacious arguments from the progressive left generally takes the form of "Because true Christians are charitable towards the poor, they support massive government wealth redistribution programs", with the conclusion that "the Religious Right are therefore not true Christians".  If the argument is secular, you can substitute "Truly Compassionate Individuals" for "True Christians" and replace the conclusion with "Therefore Republicans are Evil."  It's a seductive argument, because people want to think that charity towards the poor is a good thing.

This argument has many flaws, but the biggest of these is what I call the Robin Hood fallacy, which is that "robbing from the rich and giving to the poor", which is what the progressives are arguing for, is not the same as just "giving to the poor".  Since it's the government involved, "robbing" is not an appropriate verb, but the same holds true if you replace "robbing" with "taking".  To put it more philosophically, there's no virtue in compulsory "charity".

Although I lean libertarian in terms of political philosophy, at least when it comes to domestic politics, I recognize that some form of government directed safety net is a fact for the foreseeable future, and probably not bad in and of itself.  That being said, arguing for increasing the size of said net does not make one 'good'.  If I take someone else's money and give it to charity, I have not sacrificed anything of my own, and am therefore saying that those ends are not worth anything of mine.  Likewise, the person from who the money is taken didn't choose to support whatever cause towards which the money was spent.

Robin Hood, the mythological figure, is specifically a bad example because, at least according to the stories, those he was stealing from were generally associated with the traditional form of the worst political philosophy in history, known as the Divine Right of Kings, the idea that a monarch or ruler was an absolute ruler behest to no terrestrial authority.  Despite the name, the basic idea of the absolute despot or despotic class has unfortunately been common in almost all cultures, and has been associated with secular and atheist rulers as well as ones that have cited religion as their excuse for their despotic reigns.

To sum up, charitable giving towards the poor is generally a good thing.  Taking from someone else to do so, however, is not.  Though I'm willing to give some credit to dead mythological swashbuckling British bandits...

Posted by: Civilis at 07: 55 PM | No Comments | Add Comment
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Tuesday, August 12 2008

From Russia, With Love

I was uncharacteristically kept from my usual news junkie habits over the last weekend;  I again attended the Otakon anime convention in Baltimore from Thursday through Saturday, and spent Sunday recovering.  (Pictures and my impressions will hopefully follow this Thursday.)  I returned and found that I had missed the start of a war.  I'll leave the pundits to explain the big picture, but I'll throw out some of my thoughts.

1. It's amazing how many times I found myself thinking of the war as "the Soviets invade Georgia".  I don't know if that's my taking in too much World War II history or just a general commentary on the state of affairs in Russia these days.  If we had been given that headline (or even a more proper "Russians invade Georgia") forty, thirty, or even twenty years ago, how many people would have thought "Atlanta" and not "Tiblisi"?

2. I think the whole affair will turn out to be a net negative for everyone except perhaps the Russians.  Given how much work China has put into the Olympics, how must they feel that someone is stealing their headlines?  The US has a close ally attacked and realistically couldn't do anything to stop the Russians besides diplomatic pressure; had the Russians not stopped but pressed on, there would have been no stopping them.  For the US, the best bet is a return to prewar conditions, but writing off the two breakaway sections of the country.

3. For the Russians, the results depend on why they stopped, and who figures out why they stopped.  If they stopped because the Georgians gave up enough concessions, they've probably scored a major victory.  There are rumors, however, the Russians stopped in part because the Georgians had dug in real well and the Russians couldn't advance on them without inordinate casualties.  If this is true, and it gets out, the Russian victory is lessened.  It would be nice to know how much longer the Russians could sustain their operational tempo; if they were pushing the limits of their air force, particularly, this could prove a major embarrassment.  If they stopped because they feared that US military advisers in country could draw the US and NATO into the conflict, this war is a net loss compared to what they could get had they waited until the next administration, and I can see the Ukraine and Georgia asking for more US military advice in the future.

4. For the Georgians, and to a lesser extent the Ukrainians, the results depend on what happens now.  US mutual assistance guarantees aren't going to be viable without NATO cooperation (which isn't going to happen), but we can still work to beef up training their military and helping them improve their equipment.  A little modern air defense could make the Russians think twice, if it turns out their air power was the decisive factor.  If I were Georgia, I'd also try to strike a deal with China, perhaps trading oil for Chinese military equipment (such as air defense systems). 

Posted by: Civilis at 08: 46 PM | Comments (2) | Add Comment
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Friday, June 06 2008

The Great Crusade

Today is the 64th anniversary of D-Day. On this day in 1944, nine divisions of allied troops landed on the beaches and in the fields of Normandy, France. I can think of no more fitting tribute than to include Gen. Eisenhower's address to the troops on June 6th:

Soldiers, Sailors and Airmen of the Allied Expeditionary Force!

You are about to embark upon the Great Crusade, toward which we have striven these many months. The eyes of the world are upon you. The hopes and prayers of liberty-loving people everywhere march with you. In company with our brave Allies and brothers-in-arms on other Fronts, you will bring about the destruction of the German war machine, the elimination of Nazi tyranny over the oppressed peoples of Europe, and security for ourselves in a free world.

Your task will not be an easy one. Your enemy is well trained, wellequipped and battle hardened. He will fight savagely.

But this is the year 1944! Much has happened since the Nazi triumphs of 1940-41. The United Nations have inflicted upon the Germans great defeats,in open battle, man-to-man. Our air offensive has seriously reduced their strength in the air and their capacity to wage war on the ground. Our Home Fronts have given us an overwhelming superiority in weapons and munitions of war, and placed at our disposal great reserves of trained fighting men.The tide has turned! The free men of the world are marching together to Victory!

I have full confidence in your courage and devotion to duty and skill in battle. We will accept nothing less than full Victory!

Good luck! And let us beseech the blessing of Almighty God upon this great and noble undertaking.

Dwight D. Eisenhower more...

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Thursday, May 01 2008

Lies, Damn Lies, and More Damn Lies

As Wonderduck has pointed out, Aria episode 10 has been released and downloaded, and I almost can't wait to start watching.  But first, some serious business.

My mother and I do not see eye to eye on just about anything political.  She's staunchly anti-war, and unabashedly so, and we occasionally end up verbally sparring over the news.  There's no bitterness about it when it happens, except perhaps from my father, who holds his political opinions generally very close to his chest.

Today, she had some questions for me as a representative of the other side of the debate.  At the weekly historical society meeting, a member had been passing around copies of an e-mail purporting to list military deaths by year since 1980, including a helpful total of 14,000 for the Clinton administration, and my mother thought that that number looked fishy.   She's a history major, and tends to approach her chosen interest with the same degree of obsession I show towards my interests, and is good at spotting unusual bits that don't fit together.

The number looked fishy to me, as well, as I remember some pro-military bloggers citing a number somewhere in the 7,000 range for the same statistic.  I suggested that she check the information on line, as there was a handy web page listed.  She was worried that if the web page was a far-right site that she couldn't trust the information from.  So I went and looked for her.

The domain for the address given in the e-mail,, looked familiar, and when I went there I remembered why.  It's the page for the Federation of American Scientists, and I'd used it to do research on Warsaw Pact military equipment for a wargame.  They seemed largely non-partisan and trustworthy, and were a good reference source for research on international politics and military affairs.  I then checked out the specific document listed in the e-mail, the CRS (Congressional Research Service) report on American War and Military Operations Casualties: Lists and Statistics, published in mid 2007.

And, presto, my mother's question was answered on the first page, with a warning about an e-mail containing bogus statistics purported to be from the report.  The real statistics themselves follow, with 7500 US military fatalities between 1993 and 2000, which is roughly Clinton's time in office, so the ballpark figure I remember of somewhere in the 7000s fits.  I showed my mother the actual statistics and explained why I trusted FAS based on my experience with them.

My mother's now going to take the e-mail back to the group at the historical society next meeting and (knowing her) loudly announce the false information in the handout, and while I disagree with the opinions she holds, she will be in the right, because the statistics given were wrong.  Whether the statistics are true or false doesn't change the situation on the ground, but it does affect the credibility of the people providing the statistics.

If you see a statistic and it's too good to be true, check it out.  Check the primary source, if listed, and check statistics you know are trustworthy to compare.  If it checks out, you've got more ammunition in your arsenal of facts.  If it doesn't check out, you've just avoided shooting yourself in the foot.  Know that facts and statistics presented my be inaccurate or distorted.

If you're the sort of idiot on any side that makes up statistics to bolster your side, stop.  You're not helping anyone, you're only making everyone distrust anyone that believes differently and any facts that do happen to be true.  If you're doing it for that reason, you deserve to have a saguaro cactus shoved... [my ideal fate of those that deliberately screw with statistics is best not fully described]

Now, back to watching animated gondolas...

Posted by: Civilis at 08: 07 PM | Comments (2) | Add Comment
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Tuesday, January 08 2008

Mission: Impractical

From Instapundit (bold highlight mine):

HERE IN NEVADA, I've heard some Ron Paul ads. They make him sound like a regular Republican -- strong on defense (against base closings, in favor of "stealth warriors" to "hunt down terrorists" around the world) and against illegal immigration. The war isn't mentioned, nor is the "L' word -- libertarian. If you hadn't been paying attention, you could think they were Duncan Hunter commercials . . . .

I've seen the James Bond national security strategy advocated by lots of people from varying political philosophies, and it's something that I was originally tempted to advocate for myself.  It's one of those things that sounds like a great idea until you think about it and realize that it works perfectly only in fiction.

Advocacy of using covert operations is rather surprising coming from self-described libertarians, unless they are libertarian purely on budgetary grounds, and even then only on the total amount of money spent rather than the issue of oversight.  Covert operations by their very nature lack accountability.  It's important to know what your government is doing on your behalf.  It's different if the covert operations are one component of a larger military effort, where the overall effort is public knowledge and open for political debate.  One can reasonably expect not to have as public knowledge where all the US forces currently deployed in active operations are and precisely what they are doing, but we should be able to find out or reasonably guess what countries they are operating in and against.

Part of my confusion on this advocacy is that the same people that are proposing this strategy are the same people that are complaining about the backlash from previous covert efforts to promote American national security in the middle east and elsewhere.  The CIA wasn't perfectly successful in Iran, Cuba, Nicaragua, or any place else where it acted behind the scenes.  Now we are supposed to rely on the same sort of covert realpolitik to secure our nation?

Another part of my confusion is that the same people that are advocating this sort of strategy are often advocating for a major pullback of US forces deployed in friendly and peaceful places around the world (the pullback of US forces in unfriendly and not peaceful places being immaterial to this discussion).  Are these covert activities in places around the globe supposed to be carried out completely from the US?  No support from bases in Europe, the Middle East, or Asia?

My major complaint about this style of warfare is that it legitimatizes similar strategies from other countries where what limited accountability and oversight we can expect from the US government is completely nonexistent.  From the perspective of international law, I can't see the difference between deniable covert operations and outright state-sponsored terrorism.  In each case, a force operating outside the public control of its government is able to commit what would otherwise be acts of war with impunity.

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Monday, December 17 2007

All Politics is Personal

There's an interesting discussion on John Scalzi's blog on the foundation of the Organization for Transformative Works, which "is a nonprofit organization established by fans to serve the interests of fans by providing access to and preserving the history of fanworks and fan culture in its myriad f

The most heated discussion on Scalzi's blog, prompted by the emphasis of the original post, is about the legality of fanworks such as fan fiction.  I have a confession to make:  I read fan fiction.  In college, I even wrote fan fiction.  More embarrassingly, I wrote a substantial piece of unauthorized fan fiction derived from another piece of fan fiction.  Fortunately, the document only ever existed in one of my older computers and in a single print out, which was read by one friend.  As far as I know, neither copy exists.

Most fan fiction, and a lot of other fan produced works, lies in a massive legal gray area.  One of the declared goals of the OTW is to start a legal framework to defend the existence of fan works.  While I believe this is a noble goal, I also believe from a practical standpoint that the idea of forming an official group to work towards legal protection is counterproductive.  The discussion has given me some insight into American politics and culture as well as further given me evidence to theories I've held about American culture today.

The first observation is that, to an outsider, fandom always seems irrational.  The same goes for any deeply held interest, from sports to religion to politics. If you are not interested in something, people who are deeply interested  always appear odd.  I don't understand what makes people enjoy watching sports.  One commenter in the OTW discussion who took an interest in the political discussion stated upfront that he didn't understand fans and why fans insist on centering their creativity on works based around a commercial property like a series of books.

To generalize this, it's because hobbies and interests are not universally rational.  If you don't find football fun to watch, then it makes no logical sense on a personal level why people would devote time and money to watching football.  If you enjoy watching football, it's a perfectly logical use of your time and money to watch football.  Why some people find football enjoyable and others do not is a completely different discussion.

Compounding the situation is that for most people, hobbies and interests are more fun if you can get together and combine your interest with other people
who share the same interest.  While it's fun for me to ponder which anime characters would take which other characters in a fight, it's more fun to throw my ideas against others in a debate in someone's comment section.  Likewise, it's more fun to sit around a TV with friends rather than watch TV alone, whether it's anime on TV or a football game.  This isn't universally true for any combination of people, but it holds out fairly well.

With the specific interest of fan fiction, it's that you have an audience of fans that shares a common interest that binds the people together to make the work of writing a short fan story enjoyable.  You have an audience of people that share your interest ready to read what you have wrote.  Part of the idea of fan created works is that they don't just consume but they produce back for the community of fans.

The second observation is that it is increasingly hard to maintain control of a creative work in the hands of fans, as technology makes it easier to take creative works and use them in unexpected ways.  The wargame I play, Flames of War, officially has rules for the major countries in European theater of operations for 1942 - 1945.  This hasn't stopped players, fans, for releasing rules for minor countries, for 1939-1941, for the Pacific theater, for World War 1 and for modern warfare. Why?  Because they enjoy what they do and want to expand on it and contribute back to their hobby.  In some cases, the minor country rules have even been officially recognized.  Anime fans produce fan videos, fan art, and fan fiction.  Even sports fans turn statistics into fantasy leagues.  As long as you have fans, they will take what they can get and produce more things to share with other fans.

The problem is that increasingly the people who make decisions regarding creative property are not fans and, hence, do not understand what it is that the fans are doing.  Their reaction, while sometimes legally and morally justifiable, will often to seem clueless and arbitrary to fans that see and understand much of the breadth of what their fellow fans do.  Partially it's a business decision to maximize short-term quantifiable revenue.  You can assign a dollar value to the right to use a creative work commercially; you can't assign a dollar value to long-term fan loyalty.  One of the commentators in the OTW discussion commented that fan fiction was morally unjustifiable because it corrupts the creators visions of their works.  It's ironic that my previous trip to Scalzi's discussion forum was prompted by a discussion of the legacy of Robert Heinlein, including the abomination that was the Starship Troopers movie, which was a licensed and therefore morally justifiable corruption of Heinlein's legacy.

Despite my opinion that owners of creative rights need to give fans leeway to be fans and that this relationship is in the long run beneficial for both fans and owners, I believe the OTW initiative is the wrong idea.  Attempting to craft explicit legal protection for fan works will prove detrimental to fans.  Right now there exists a legal gray area between things that are explicitly legal and things that owners will enforce.  By starting a grab for the gray area in order to increase what is explicitly legal, it creates a strong incentive for owners to grab as much of the gray area and explicitly establishing their rights both by increasing enforcement of existing laws and by pushing for expansion of copyright protections which can only serve to further limit fair use.  The concentrated legal and lobbying power available to owners will always be greater than the OTW and similar organizations.  Owners can and should defend their rights when fans cross the line, but overzealous enforcement only serves to destroy the fan base in the long run.

Both sides need to use common sense.  Part of that common sense is understanding that the other side doesn't see things as you do, and that they might have a different opinion on certain actions.  It's not possible to draw a sharp legal line between what is morally right and wrong, and any sharp line is prone to abuse.  The best bet for all concerned is to take cases in the gray area on a case by case basis.

Boring egocentric stuff continues below.

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Tuesday, September 25 2007

"The War" and The War

I'm trying to catch what I can of Ken Burns' "The War" on PBS.  The series has been in the news a fair amount recently, and it's interesting enough just for that, but it's got something to recommend it beyond that.

The big controversy in the mainstream media is the protests by Hispanic groups angry that there was no special attention paid to Hispanic veterans.  Burns has added some additional footage to address this, but it seems to be regarded as too little, too late.  This is a entertaining side-effect of the way the second world war is studied in American schools, which pretty much defines how most Americans look at the history of the war.  Approximately 95% of the study of the history of the second world war through high school is devoted to five topics:
1.  Hitler's rise to power, attributed to the harsh Treaty of Versailles.
2.  The Holocaust.
3.  The internment of Japanese-American citizens.
4.  The home front and the changing cultural demographics of America, with emphasis on the role of women and the continuing discrimination against minorities.
5.  The morality of the decision to use the atomic bomb.
As "The War" is dedicated to the American experience, numbers one and two are justifiably given brief mention.  The series hasn't progressed enough to get to number five, which, given the secrecy involved, might not be covered much at all.  The remaining two then become a never-ending grudge match to make sure each ethnic group gets its fair share of coverage.  The coverage of the internment of Japanese-Americans has drawn some fire from conservative commentators, and it does have a large role in the story, but I think it can be justified on the grounds that it is a unique blemish on American history, and one that justifies a specific debate.  But American history as taught in school has become by and large a story of ethnic groups and their contributions have been measured as group members.  As such, the debate by particular groups trying to grab their share of the story is only natural.

Given that, the fact that "The War" does manage to cover the war itself is something of a miracle.  It gives short shrift to many of the individual battles, preferring to cover the war from a soldier's perspective of constant war.  As such, the narration is rather general and non-technical, and tends to drift towards personal experiences, augmented by interviews with veterans.  The footage, on the other hand, is spectacular, especially to someone used to history channel documentaries.  The series includes lots of combat footage, including the sometimes bloody aftermath.  It also includes lots of footage from Axis records.  To someone who already knows the military history, the series doesn't say anything new, but what it shows is stuff I've never seen, especially the footage of the ground combat.  As I write this, the series is covering Anzio, and there's good footage of 105mm howitzers, M10 tank destroyers, and a wrecked Panzer IV, probably a IV H (it's got the long 75mm gun).

The news coverage of the series premiere on Sunday in the Washington Post was heavy with political overtones, which led to one fascinating example of cognitive dissonance.  In an article on the series in the Sunday Style & Arts section of the post, Rick Atkinson writes "Perhaps it's too tempting to contrast the meritorious struggle of the 1940s with the dubious conflict today."  There is a valid debate of the effectiveness of the current war in Iraq and the merits of the strategy and tactics and or the war itself.  But describing the motives behind the current war as dubious sounds a bit hollow when just a few sentences before is this:  "Yet a strong case can be made against necessity.  Had the future allied powers intervened to thwart Hitler earlier in his maniacal trajectory, perhaps the calamity could have been avoided."

Posted by: Civilis at 08: 49 PM | No Comments | Add Comment
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