Sunday, December 31, 2006

A new year, a new direction

For the two people who read my blog, I've decided to take a new direction with the Academy.

Having noticed that people all over the net like to blog, and that so few of them adhere to clear logic when doing so, I will attempt to become a Logic Service Provider, to my knowledge a unique endeavor. I'll probably not use any automation, just my own inefficient labor.

In the tradition of News Busters, I'll take posts from all over the net and attempt to parse their logical structure. I'm not sure how formal I'll try to be, but at this point I'd like to maximize accessibility over rigor where the two are exclusive. I also don't know if I'll be able to devote the kind of effort to the task that it deserves, but it's something I enjoy.

Oh, and best wishes to you and yours in 2007.

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Friday, December 29, 2006

What think ye of booze?

Hmmm, what we have here is a failure to communicate.

Over at Classical Values, a blog I troll, Eric is on vacation in Spain. He has a guest blogger, Simon of Power and Control, who used the occasion of President Ford's passing as an opportunity to talk about Richard Nixon and the hypocrisy of the War on Drugs. Specifically, according to Simon it's all a big stick with which to cynically batter the Democrats and their dope-smoking base.

You know," Nixon said, " those who use drugs are the protesters. You know, the ones who get caught up in dissent and violence. They're the same group of people."

Nixon said something similar to Haldeman on the Nixon tapes with the additional proviso that he thought pot was no worse than the martini he was drinking.

For Nixon, the drug war was never about drugs. It was a scheme to attack his political opponents based on some cultural characteristic.

Now, reading conspiracy into a Nixon quote is easy, but I think in this case it's incorrect. It occurred to me that this is the usual failure of communication: conservatives and liberals see the world through different eyes, and use words at each other that don't mean the same thing when heard as when spoken.

Conservatives, a label adhering to Nixon despite wage and price controls and foreign policy realism, are distinguished from liberals in several ways, but one of the keys is that conservatives tend to side with the traditional model of things, while liberals tend to want to experiment. Conservatives place a high value on preserving the social order, sticking to standards, and not fixing what ain't broken. Want a conservative on your side? Invoke tradition, and you're well on your way. Liberals see an injust social order, suboptimal standards, and a world crying out for something new and better. Want a liberal ally? Invoke the plight of a disadvantaged group (real or hypothetical, which is why I find it difficult to buy into it all).

Another difference (in the US anyway) is that conservatives tend to model politics on the individual, while liberals model it on groups.

All of this results in liberal seeing "justice" as a part of social change, while conservatives see "justice" as proper enforcement of rules. It also results in conservatives tending to favor alcohol as the drug of choice, while liberals ... are more likely to experiment. Yes, I know there are liberal winos and conservative coke addicts, but this is my blog, and I will paint with broad strokes when I wish.

I'm no fan of the War on Drugs. I think it's largely a waste of time and money, promulgated by both well-meaning and cynical politicians alike. It has given us the abominable property seizure laws, overflowing prisons, an urban culture of lawlessness, and worst of all, hip hop.

That being said, alcohol is woven into the fabric of civilization, and cannot be easily removed. (Islam supplants alcohol by replacing the civilization.) It forms the basis for mating rituals, social interaction, humor, and religious practice.

Consumed in moderation, alcohol has many health benefits, and few side effects.

However, the misuse and abuse of alcohol result in all kinds of problems, both to the individual and those around him. My brother, for instance, is an addict, and anecdotally an abuse metaphor: unable to keep from drinking, he is jobless, can't drive, may soon be homeless, is in poor health, uninsured, divorced, estranged from his daughter, and unable to avail himself of a family education trust. And that's just if you go off the deep end, and don't stop at just wrecking your vehicle or embarrassing yourself at the Christmas party.

Alcohol is not the same as heroin, cocaine, marijuana, ecstasy, or inhalants. Banning it involves throwing the baby out with the bathwater; banning the others less so. Whether they should be banned at all is a different matter entirely, but alcohol and other drugs can't be treated equally.

Back on topic: Nixon was aligning himself with tradition, something a conservative does instinctively. So yes, it was about which drug was good and which bad, but it was also about opposing those who would monkey with tradition. To Nixon, that may have been the same thing.

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The Looming Twin Disaster

It has come to my attention that we, that is, the human race, face two serious problems. These problems are unavoidable, and will not be solved by universal ratification of a Kyoto Treaty, discovering the peaceful side of Islam, or any other fool's errand on which we would pin our collective hopes. These are the big ones, and you've probably never even heard of them.

The first problem is that we are not producing oil fast enough. I do not wish to imply that we are not seeking out, drilling, pumping, transporting, or refining crude oil into gasoline and other products as we ought to be. That may be, but it's another discussion, for another day.

The problem is that we aren't planting enough oil. Whether in a few thousand or a few million years (scientists are somewhat taciturn about the exact time frame required, but it's years and years, and what with getting burned on the whole global warming fiasco, who can blame them for playing it close to the vest? Ooops, went down a bunny trail there), the raw materials in plants and tiny animals planted now will be turned into oil, which future civilizations will need if they are going to have anything over which to go to war in Iraq. As you can see, the stakes are high (though you may at this point be thinking that it is a certain Socratic friend who is high, but there we go down a bunny trail again).

The second problem is carbon dioxide (CO2). Contrary to the hysterical pronouncements of the consensus bobbleheads, CO2 levels are at uncomfortably low levels, compared to their geological norms. That was not a typo: we don't have enough CO2, perhaps not even a tenth of what we should have.

Low CO2 levels correspond to stunted plant growth, or at least, in less vegetation. Why, it's a wonder we don't have deserts all over the ... oh, wait.

Well, you don't have to shout, I can hear you: we need to ramp up our CO2 production dramatically, so that we can produce enough plant material to regenerate our oil deposits. Future generations are depending on us. Will we be the generation which breaks the cycle, failing to pass on what we were given?

I have to tell you, it won't happen on my watch. I will not become cynical, and expect our descendants to find their own sources of energy; nor will I allow zealots to insist that the cold, defoliated planet on which we live must remain barren and frigid. We need to heat the place up and to get some plants growing. It's time to begin working for change.

h/t Power and Control

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Wednesday, December 27, 2006


(This post is a sidebar for an upcoming entry on morality.)

Some incorrectly see ethics and morality as synonymous. ("Ethics", as it concerns us here, are sets of rules, rather than the study of the entire field which includes moral philosophy.) It is the meaning intended when someone labels conduct "ethical" or "unethical". Ethics are rules we intentionally adopt for ourselves.

Our ethics are typically situational, to abuse some terminology, because they offer a guide for conduct in a particular set of uncommon but foreseeable circumstances. Ethics are often necessary because the law or morality don't work for a given situation, either because the legal or moral precept does not extend to the situation, or because two precepts conflict.

Almost all professions, crafts, and fields of endeavor have their own code or codes of ethics.

  • Doctors have to treat people regardless of whether the harm was self-inflicted, or the result of some unfortunate decision made by the patient. The doctor cannot allow himself to become a judge. Neither morality nor the law can tell them how to behave. A code of ethics is required.
  • Lawyers are bound by ethics. Our legal system is adversarial; the presumption is that two equally armed sides in a legal dispute will arrive at justice through debating the issues involved. That system requires that lawyers set aside their disdain for the guilt of their client and proceed as if he were innocent. Lawyers often muck around with the law itself, as each court case potentially can alter the law. The law cannot be made exact enough to cover these instances, so a code of ethics is required.
  • Journalism, politics, computer system administration, and virtually every other field has its own standards of ethical behavior, covering those areas where morality or the law cannot guide. Should a journalist cover a story with the potential to harm as well as to enlighten? Should a computer system administrator examine the contents of some suspicious private files? These questions are best resolved under ethical standards.
It is because ethical rules resolve moral conflicts and work outside of morality that we can see the difference between the two.

Ethics, morality, and law share guiding human behavior as their common subject matter. It is possible for behavior to be unethical but moral and legal; unethical and immoral, but legal; and so on. But in most cases the intersection of the three is characterized by their violation: the unethical will be immoral or illegal. Some people, even otherwise clear-headed philosophers, seem to become thoroughly befuddled when asked to compare and contrast them. It's all pretty simple:

  • Ethics are the rules we adopt for ourselves
  • Morals are the rules we believe apply to everyone
  • Laws are the rules we demand that everyone obey
By adopting a code of ethics, we know a priori that they are not universal. They often overlap with morals, but the distinction of personal adoption is important. For some, ethics replace morality entirely, as in the (hypothetical) case of those who believe they have a sufficiently developed set of rules to ignore societal norms.

Ethics are real things, and have an objective, factual basis: they either are in place or they are not. We are not free to assign or ascribe ethics to others; they must adopt their own. If someone adopts a set of ethics, for example by joining a group which claims a code of ethics, we can hold the joiner accountable for behaving according to the ethical standards so adopted. Unethical conduct can by definition only be practiced by someone who has adopted a set of ethics.

Morality is the subject for another post.

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Monday, December 25, 2006

Merry Christmas

I've tried off and on all day to write a "Twas the Night Before Christmas" parody involving political figures, but something keeps getting in the way. I don't care enough about it.

Enjoy your holiday, love your loved ones, and give what you have to those who have not. You never know which gift you give will go to the King of the Universe.

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Saturday, December 23, 2006

49! 49!

The once was a fellow jumping up and down on a manhole cover yelling "49! 49! ...".

A jihadist stopped him and asked what he was doing. "Hiding evil. 49! 49! ..." The jihadist demanded to look inside. Opening the manhole, the jihadist leaned over and peered in, only to receive a nice shove into the darkness.

"50! 50! ....'

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Thursday, December 21, 2006

News Travels Faster and Faster

Ever since there have been people, there have been people sitting around talking. The best they could do at first to leave a legacy of ideas, though, was to create stories, legends, and myths, and maybe draw some pictures in a cave.

Before Iraq was Iraq, it was the place where people first learned to use writing. We probably needed to learn to write, because for the first time in all of human history, as far as we can tell, we'd found a place where we could grow more food than we needed. I use "we" without any remorse for the presumption, because I have always had a fondness for the Mesopotamians.

Each advance in technology, whether it was the use of new pigments to draw, the invention of writing itself, or the application of a new technique in transmission, has led to an explosion in interpersonal or mass communication. Each of these metaphorical explosions had no less impact on politics than the changes brought on by the musket, carbine rifle, or the explosion of a different kind at Los Alamos. I've thought about this off and on for years, but a recent kerfuffle involving George Will has led me to write about it.

Writing and use of the wheel led to a civilization which could support "knowledge workers" such as priests, poets, writers, and philosophers, There arose an educated class, who could read and write, allowing them to put their ideas in a compact, tangible form. The information could be copied, quoted, and most importantly, transported and spread. Once it could be saved beyond a single individual's ability to recall it, knowledge began to expand exponentially, and hasn't stopped since.

With the advent of parchment and various forms of paper, the educated class had a medium they could quickly obtain, transport, and reuse. People wrote letters to one another, developing the techniques of logic and rhetoric more finely than had been possible without easy access to a semi-permanent medium. Books were written on scrolls, copied by hand, and gathered into libraries. The volume of information had again experienced a rapid increase over the previous era. Their writings are still influential today.

With the arrival of movable type in the 15th century, a new medium brought knowledge to the masses as never before: newspapers and books became accessible to the growing number of the literati. By 1600 in England, for instance, 30% of men and 10% of women could read. At the end of 18th century, pamphleteers were toppling governments.

It should be noted, also, that the pamphleteers had a tradition of quoting each other, copying each other's work, and carrying on public debates on issues great and small. It doesn't take much to liken their activity to the blogs of today. The local newspapers of the day were part of the same culture and information exchange. Again, the information flow exploded.

But in the mid-19th century, a new development would change the way people communicated. The symbiotic development of railroads and the telegraph caused an explosion of news and information like never before.

Railroads were very inefficient and difficult without a means of scheduling the trains. If a train stalled, or derailed, or had any other problem, then sending another train down that track would multiply the problem, and possibly cause a disaster. But with the telegraph, operators could communicate from station to station, and scheduling became manageable.

The railroads also allowed the spread of the telegraph, which had an impact far beyond simply scheduling rail service. Telegraph lines were run on railroad rights of way, because that is how people travelled. When a line needed repair, the train was the way to get to the trouble. Telegraph offices were usually housed inside the train station.

But the telegraph also allowed news to spread faster than it ever had before. Rather than taking several days for news to spread from the East coast of the U.S., the telegraph allowed it to move as fast as it could be signalled. Before the railroad, moving a person several hundred of miles could take a week; by rail, that journey was shortened to a day, or even over night.

News became news all over all at once. Instead of stories sweeping the nation over the course of several days or weeks, the railroad allowed newspapers and magazines to be printed in large cities and delivered rapidly across the country. The telegraph allowed news to flow bidirectionally between the big city news organizations and their stringers in the small towns and other cities. Reporters could travel to cover stories like never before.

The news explosion of 1840-1860 was fueled in no small part by the continuation of the Abolitionist movement. But while the abolition of slavery dominated political discussion, there were plenty of other topics at hand. I submit for consideration the celebrated essay by Ralph Waldo Emerson, Self-Reliance:

Familiar as the voice of the mind is to each, the highest merit we ascribe to Moses, Plato, and Milton is, that they set at naught books and traditions, and spoke not what men but what they thought. A man should learn to detect and watch that gleam of light which flashes across his mind from within, more than the lustre of the firmament of bards and sages. Yet he dismisses without notice his thought, because it is his. In every work of genius we recognize our own rejected thoughts: they come back to us with a certain alienated majesty. Great works of art have no more affecting lesson for us than this. They teach us to abide by our spontaneous impression with good-humored inflexibility then most when the whole cry of voices is on the other side. Else, tomorrow a stranger will say with masterly good sense precisely what we have thought and felt all the time, and we shall be forced to take with shame our own opinion from another.

If the conditions which drive bloggers to blog and surfers to read their musings changed in the intervening century and a half, I find it difficult to see a distinction therein. Emerson was a blogger.

And the undeniable impact that the rapid dissemination of the Lincoln-Douglas debates on the Presidential race of 1860, and of that election on the very structure of the United States, and of the United States on the world, cannot be denied.

The tradition of the small newspaper and the newsletter continued. Local editors continued to swap stories, including sections in their papers containing letters written ostensibly to the editor, but directed at the reader. An individual with no more tools than pen and paper could contest ideas with an entire town, State, or even the nation.

When telephone service became widespread, suddenly news could travel without the hand of a telegraph operator to slow it down. News began to come from everywhere. The muckrakers of the early 20th Century continued the traditions of the pamphleteers and small newspapers, adding and anti-establishment brand of justice-seeking that has carried forth into the present time.
Skipping over the developements in radio, ham radio (which really is more than a lot of talking about ham radio), and television, there arose a series of technological developments that was to radically magnify the volume, pace, and penetration of information flow. People began connecting computers together in networks. In parallel, the Internet's email and Usenet and Bulletin Board Systems linked people together in a way that made rapid communication possible. The number of interconnected system grew exponentially, sometimes doubling in size in just a few months.

The wars of today are won or lost on the information front as much as any other.

The story of social networking, Youtube, and whatever is after that, you know as well as I do. Whatever it is, if history is any guide, will lead to an explosion of information, and changes in politics, like we've never seen before. Again.

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Defeating Hope

Hope, all in all, is a good thing. But like any good thing, it must be guarded by wisdom and not be allowed to veer off into either Denial or Envy. Hope, without a certain amount of self-awareness, can lead to disaster. But when all possible actions lead to negative results, Hope is crushed.

Not being constrained by much knowledge of psychology, let me propose two classes of Hope. Conscious Hope can be:

  • Optimism When defeat is only a possibility, it is through Optimistic Hope or Optimism that we can ignore it without forgetting it.
  • Courage comes from Encouraging Hope, which allows us to be steadfast in the face of a deadly foe, to take on a difficult task, and to persevere when the going gets rough. It is distinguished from Optimism because it allows us to face a specific problem or enemy.
  • Desperate Hope When defeat is certain, Desperate Hope tells us that it is only almost certain, and we persevere only because Hope keeps us going.
Unconscious Hope is :
  • Feckless Hope The trap of Optimism is in being blissfully unaware of the dangers our Hope masks. As they say, no one plans to fail, but the feckless fail to plan.
  • False Hope leads us away from difficult tasks or deadly foes toward ones which seem easier to face. When self-assurance is weak, False Hope can turn to Envy.
  • Denial The trap of Optimism is in being unaware of the dangers our Hope masks. The problem will go away if we just deny it thoroughly and long enough.
Ernest Shackleton, Antarctic explorer, said "Optimism is true moral courage." He well knew the importance of clinging to Hope under duress. Helen Keller put it differently: "Optimism is the faith that leads to achievement; nothing can be done without hope."

Yet Hope often blinds us to the flaws in our plans:
  • In computer software design and development, it is notoriously difficult for a programmer to test his own program, because Hope refuses to allow a new perspective, keeping the flaws hidden
  • Venture capitalists know that hope is not a strategy, and yet hope is their business model. Start up companies the world over are hoping for a VC with more dollars than sense will find them, and VCs the world over are looking for start up companies whose business plans can be hoped into success.
The result doesn't care what you hoped it would be. When making plans, Hope must often be defeated before success can be found.

But Hope softens the difficulty we face
  • Those stranded by weather or wilderness must maintain hope
  • Captives wither without hope of release
  • A victim of abuse is either encouraged by hope or holds to a veneer of rationality by denial
  • For one afflicted with cancer or other degenerative ailment, to lose Hope is to succumb to defeat
One bit of psychology I do recall is the concept of "learned helplessness". When training a dog, it's dangerous to use punishment. Dogs are especially susceptible to learned helplessness, the state in which they are unwilling to do anything since they have no hope of success.

For people who are lacking in Hope, a ready answer is provided by the purveyors of Pyramid schemes and get rich quick plans. They prey on their clients with False Hope as their chief tool. When people give up Hope in achieving prosperity on their own, they turn to the lottery or other gambling operations. Seeing themselves as struggling against difficult odds, they believe they are just using Optimistic, Encouraging, or perhaps Desperate Hope; really, the odds are always stacked for the house, and the marks are just involved in Fecklessness, False Hope, or even Denial.

Proponents of increases in the minimum wage typically prey on, and contribute to, hopelessness among the disadvantaged. Rather than encouraging people to excel through hard work and careful study, the minimum wage panderers enforce the idea that without government, those earning minimum wage have no hope. After a wage increase, this is a self-fulfilling prophecy, because employers have less ability to give raises based on merit, and wages tend to hug the minimum. Hope is defeated.

Foreign policy idealism is fueled by Hope. Realists reject Hope, clinging only to the calculation of power, self-interest, and persuasion to accomplish their ends. Who can say whether the people of Iraq will form a lasting republic, or will dash our hopes and stampede into Islamic rule, or retreat behind a despot? We hope that they will see the benefits of leaving governance of the physical world to physical beings, and defending the message of faith from being twisted and subverted for the benefit of those who govern. Whether our hopes will prove to be in vain remains to be seen.

It takes a special kind of Hope to ignore the rhetoric of jihad, to believe if we only appease the jihadists that they will be our friends. That is an idealism of a different kind, since it involves ignoring what people say in favor of what we would say if put in their place. The jihadists, ironically, are often people corrupted by the False Hope of everlasting glory.

Hope is vital, but those who don't know the dangers hiding behind their Hope may find it disappointing.

"All you ever want is to have a chance to have a chance," -- Brad Childress, coach of the Minnesota Vikings (via Yahoo!)

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Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Oh, No, Not Again. Yes, Again.

According theAP, President Bush has decided to give Democrats a $2.10/hr minimum wage increase, tying it to tax breaks for small businesses.

I know increasing the minimum wage is popular. People think it's kind and good to force those mean old employers to pay an ever-increasing amount to bottom-rung hourly workers. Politicians tell everyone that the only way minimum wage workers can make more money is not for the workers to work hard and advance to higher-paying positions, but for the government to mandate it.

But in reality it's the worst thing we can do to the poorest among us.

(I'm not an economist, just a mathematician, and not really much of one of those. What follows is not meant to educate, but could be classed as thinking ablog.)

When an employer has a job that he wants done, he tries to get his existing work force to take it on. When it becomes necessary to add to that work force to accomplish his goals, he does the financial calculation to figure how many people, and of which skill sets, he will need to do the job. He has a certain amount of overhead, which is partially dependent on the number of people he employs. He has costs associated with materials. And he has labor costs, which are often the biggest piece of the pie.

Labor costs include wages, taxes and unemployment insurance, and whatever benefits he includes to attract workers, since it is often the case that an employer can provide his workers with a higher value in benefits than the workers could purchase individually if he simply paid them more. And it's a cultural thing: supplying benefits signifies a caring attitude, even where no such attitude underlies the decision to supply benefits.

But how much to pay?

From an employer's perspective, a worker is an investment, like a really productive desk or chair. Yes, there's more to the relationship, but at bottom it is the potential return on investment that makes employers willing to risk hiring someone. The calculation is the probability of reward function. If he pays wage W, will worker A provide the employer a return that is enough greater than his other costs so that he can pay those costs, A's wage W, and have a profit? If he pays less than wage W, attracting a less skilled or motivated worker, will that decrease his likely gross more than the savings? If he pays more than W, will his gross increase enough to cover the higher cost? That all glosses worker training and retention, saving money on labor but investing in an comfortable and ergonomic workplace, etc., but the gloss doesn't affect the employer's calculus.

Now consider a widget manufacturer with a process that he knows will require several tasks: loading and unloading stock and finished product from the widget machine, packing boxes for shipment, inspecting various stages of production, and so on. It's not as efficient to do all of these things serially, that is, one after another, but it's better to do them with a team working in parallel.

So this employer needs a team of more-or-less interchangeable people to perform his process. The work is complex enough to require some training, but a typical young adult will be able to do it. He calculates his fixed costs F: rent, utilities, security. Conveniently for us, the cost his of raw materials is indexed to inflation.

Materials I + overhead F + profit P + labor (N workers * production time T * hourly wage W) divided by number of widgets X = selling price per widget C

C = (I*X + F + P + (N * T * W)) / X

He would like to charge the typical commodity price for his widgets. He cannot charge much more than that, or no one will buy them; much less than that, and he loses profit. From experience, he knows that there is a range for the size N for his workforce. At the low end, his workers can't make widgets fast enough to cover costs. At the higher end, the extra workers can't produce enough more widgets to justify paying all of them: more workers don't help the process. Somewhere in between is the maximum profit, which is what he is targeting.

So he rearranges his formula and comes up with:
C*X = (I*X + F + P + (N * T * W))
C*X - I*X - F - P = N * T * W
(C*X - I*X - F - P)/(T*W) = N

That tells him that the number of workers he needs to hire is dependent on the selling price, material cost, and fixed costs, all of which are out his control. But the number of workers also depends on how many widgets will be produced and what wage he can pay. If he wants to pay higher wages to the same number of workers, either they need to produce more widgets or he has to take less profit. If they don't produce more, he has the choice of taking less profit or having fewer workers.

Now, along comes a law saying that while he has to pay higher wages, his taxes will be lower. But because liberals really hate businesses that pay minimum wage, the (temporary) tax breaks won't offset the increased costs. Our widget maker realizes that he has new choices:

  1. Take less profit (and get correspondingly less tax benefit)
  2. Raise prices and hope everyone else does, too (which will raise fixed costs)
  3. Get the workers he has to make more widgets
  4. Fire some workers and make the same number of widgets
  5. Outsource his widget operation to China or Mexico
Now since minimum wage earners pay almost no income tax, there will be a net decrease in Federal tax revenue. Guess what the Democrats will do? They will raise taxes on those same small business owners, making the first option, taking less profit, even less attractive.

So the net effect of this increase in the minimum wage and tax "break" for small businesses will to throw minimum wage earners out of work while raising prices on the things the now-unemployed people need.

Thank you, Democrats and Compassionate Conservatives. You're all heart.

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Tuesday, December 19, 2006

The Overstatesmen

I come before you in praise of three national assets, and to laud three men of towering stature and even greater public posture. These stalwarts of civic virtue have been given an ability to give us not only the Truth, but also even more than that. They are not merely statesmen; let us now hail the overstatesmen.

  • Charles Rangel (D-NY)
    • The Draft -- Mr. Rangel took the alarming statistics showing that Americans of African ancestry join the military disproportionately more than those of Asian or Hispanic ancestry, and bravely argued that, despite his district being underrepresented in the military, and despite those of European ancestry volunteering in proportion to their slice of the overall population, the government needs to force people to risk their lives in its service:
      There's no question in my mind that this president and this administration would never have invaded Iraq, especially on the flimsy evidence that was presented to the Congress, if indeed we had a draft and members of Congress and the administration thought that their kids from their communities would be placed in harm's way.
      As The Moderate Voice put it:
      Planning a life is unsettling enough for young people these days. Rangel is essentially using the uncertainty of having to factor in a draft, to be imposed in the middle of wartime to accentuate feelings against the war (which many Americans don't like right now anyway) as a POLITICAL BLUDGEON [emphasis theirs].

  • Edward M. ("Ted") Kennedy
    • On Hunger:
      We have 36 million Americans that are going to bed hungry every night. 36 million Americans! And 12 million of those are children!
      While it may not be fair to the others in this list to use a subject of Mr. Kennedy's personal expertise as evidence of his robust ability to say more than the mere truth, this clear statement shines out as an exaggeration of a thermonuclear sort. Mr. Kennedy, with no need to support his statement with a citation or other evidence, is clearly swimming in his element here.

    • Health Insurance is a favorite topic for the Senator, who casts a truly enormous shadow among his peers. Since he counts paying insurance premiums as a basic right of man, despite the fact that no insurance company ever healed a patient, dried out an addict, or even wiped a red nose, he can say this:
      But even those favorable trends still leave us with 39 million uninsured Americans. Few working families are more than one pink slip or one missed pay period away from being uninsured. And now all the positive trends that contributed to modest improvements have turned negative.
      Mr. Kennedy will long be remembered for his ability to recall really big numbers at will, as if patriotically inventing them on the spot.

  • Al Gore
    • The Internet -- Back in the early 1990's, when the Internet was growing at 8% per month, Senator Al Gore was its legislative champion. Few in government outside academic and defense technology circles understood its importance, but Mr. Gore, to his credit, did. But when CNN's Wolf Blitzer asked candidate Al Gore about his qualifications for the Presidency in March, 1999, Vice President Gore responded:

      GORE: Well, I will be offering -- I'll be offering my vision when my campaign begins. And it will be comprehensive and sweeping. And I hope that it will be compelling enough to draw people toward it. I feel that it will be.

      But it will emerge from my dialogue with the American people. I've traveled to every part of this country during the last six years. During my service in the United States Congress, I took the initiative in creating the Internet.

      What is notable is the ease with which he takes credit for the work of countless technologists and visionaries who were busy creating the Internet when Mr. Gore was still smoking dope at Harvard and in Viet Nam. Historians will long wonder how Mr. Gore overcame his youthful wandering to master this herculean task, creating a global network several years after its apparent inception.

    • Global Warming -- where to start?
      • How about here:
        We sometimes emphasize the danger in a crisis without focusing on the opportunities that are there. We should feel a great sense of urgency because it is the most dangerous crisis we have ever faced, by far. But it also provides us with opportunities to do a lot of things we ought to be doing for other reasons anyway. And to solve this crisis we can develop a shared senseof moral purpose.
      • Or here, in a speech about Hurricane Katrina, in which he likened the Global Climate Deniers to Neville Chamberlain:
        We are facing a global climate crisis. It is deepening. We are entering a period of consequences.

The gifts of overreach displayed by Messrs Gore, Kennedy, and Rangel stand above the pitiful talents of mere politicians. These are not the vain poseurs, not mere strategists, nor those mired in tireless campaigns of preening self-aggrandizement. These men of greatness, this historical triumvirate of addition, are the true overstatesmen.

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Saturday, December 16, 2006

La Droite et la Gauche

In the early 1790's, when the culmination of Enlightenment led to the fermentation of Darkness, the Right versus Left metaphor solidified in Western political jargon. As Wikipedia puts it:

The terms Left and Right have been used to refer to political affiliation since the early part of the French Revolutionary era. They originally referred to the seating arrangements in the various legislative bodies of France, specifically in the French Legislative Assembly of 1791, when the moderate royalist Feuillants sat on the right side of the chamber, while the radical Montagnards sat on the left.
It was natural, as Davies notes in his A History of Europe, for those who took the side of authority to sit at the right hand of the King, as at "the right hand of the Father". Historians and political commentators have been labelling the group who generally favor the established order as being on the Right, and those who want to change the existing order as being on the Left.

But no metaphor is perfect, of course, and so people have over the years tried to describe popular political views as a horseshoe, a spectrum, a circle, or a diamond. It's more like an ala carte menu from which we each tend to limit ourselves to either breakfast, lunch, or dinner. We each hold all of these crazy ideas like eating waffles for supper, but we stick with the meal we've chosen, since everyone else is doing it.

I'm not sure if the divide between Right and Left is still deepening, though I think it might be. A lot depends on what the leftists do with their Congressional majorities. Will they continue to exclaim that no other meal but theirs is proper, that the CookLied™, and that the other meals are spiced with e. coli? Or will they recognize that some people just like steak for breakfast?

As I said, no metaphor is perfect.

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Friday, December 15, 2006

Bend. Your. Knees.

Every once in a while, I drift away. My faith doesn't weaken, but my focus does, as life's distractions get the best of me. I get carried away with philosophy, logic, rhetoric, and politics, and thinking I need to make a difference. People respond, and contrary to all good sense I think I'm somebody. When I lose my way, the balance shifts away from using the scientist's tools to light the Way to making sure and certain that everyone knows I'm somebody.

My knees need to bend.

I look forward to Christmas time every year, because without being conscious of it, I know what will happen. It's not the shopping, or the spirit of giving, or that it coincides with semester break, when the pace of academic life slows to a crawl and I get to do the things I've been pushing back during the semester. It's the songs. The fun, smarmy, magnificent, transcendental, gloriously uplifting and humbling songs.

And so it was recently, when words beautifully written long ago brought me back:

Christ by highest heav'n adored
Christ the everlasting Lord!
Late in time behold Him come
Offspring of a Virgin's womb

Veiled in flesh the Godhead see
Hail the incarnate Deity
Pleased as man with man to dwell
Jesus, our Emmanuel

Hark! The herald angels sing
"Glory to the newborn King!"

I love a good turn of phrase, and the second verse, quoted above, is a wonder of poetic construction and theological depth. Tears well, and I am driven down, down to the floor, down until I am in a reasonable spiritual posture to meet Him once again.

Even as a babe, He was my King. And it is only because I am His that I'm somebody.

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Thursday, December 14, 2006

Age of Empire

In the beginning, there was the Family. Families formed Tribes, and Tribes formed Clans, and men settled into towns and City-states formed. The City-states retained from their prehistory, or soon developed, loyalties based on ethnic and cultural commonalities. For example Athenians and the Spartans were prone to think of themselves as Greeks. City-states gave way to nations, and nations to Empires.

Without a way to meld the Empires into cohesive cultural, economic, and political units, those conquering their neighboring lands, and eventually lands reached only by long sea voyage, were unable to perpetuate their dominance. Local hostility to foreign rule eventually overcame even close cultural and economic ties, and the empire was unable to respond quickly enough to preserve its power.

The empires broke down for many reasons: cultural stagnation in the center, loss of national will to expand, dwindling natural resources, and changing competitive conditions with the other empires.

The United States, which began its nationhood as a collection of States, has increasingly become a land ruled from its capitol. Europe has finally formed the Union which neither Charlemagne, the Habsburgs, nor Napoleon could achieve. We see concerted attempts to form a new Caliphate in the Middle East and to treat trading partners as vassals in South America. New Empires are coalescing as technology shrinks the planet.

And in contemporary American politics a large part of the pro-immigration coalition is a belief in the New World Order. Call it internationalism, planetarianism, transnationalism, or what you will, it's the belief that nations, as a unit of political governance, are an anachronism.

I do not reject planetarianism out of fear of change, or nostalgia; I reject it out of fear of its consequences. When there is no nation, but only a world full of States with all law and rule common among them, to where does a refugee flee? It is utter naivete to assume that, contrary to all of human history, a despot would not arise to rule. Competing nations are needed to keep one another in check.

International trade both spotlights, and forms the impetus for, the shift away from nationalism. As a proponent of free trade, I am irked whentransnationalists conflate my principled nationalism with protectionism. I am generally for free trade, but that doesn't mean that the trading partners need to yield their sovereignty.

Some transnationalists want a world government as a check against the influence of multinational corporations. Perhaps a world government would be an effective remedy to cure the malignant profitosis of the multinationals, but we do not know that. In any case, even if a world government were the only way to cure the multinational disease, the side effects of the cure are sure to be worse than the effects of the malady for which it is prescribed.

Similarly, that there are despots ruling in the far corners of the world is no reason to empower some ruling body with political hegemony of the entire planet. To the extent that such a body does anything, it would be as likely to do harm as good. Far better to limit evil to its hiding places. Even as regional power blocs become more important in geopolitics, the amorphous benefits of a world government grow hazier still.

We stand at the crossroads. Will we watch in apathetic wistfulness as the historical trend consolidates power over the most by the few, or will we insist that sovereign nations retain their place, and their corresponding ability to shield mankind from itself?

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Monday, December 11, 2006

This Is How a Leader Speaks

Middle Eastern cultures, it is said, expect the leadership of the strong. Iraq in particular has been waiting for someone behind whom it could rally, a man to replace Saddam and supplant the clerics.

Our own media have come to admire the mealy-mouthed, the politically correct, the inoffensive. They honor consensus, and shower rose petals at the feet of those who boldly stake out the middle ground and bravely adhere to the most common view.

Politicians, pundits, and candidates, please take note of the words of someone who appears your better:

Therefore, we believe that the Iraqi issue should be solved by the Iraqis with the help of friends everywhere. But we reject any attempts to have a regional or international role in solving the Iraqi issue. We cannot bypass the political process. Iraq should be in a position to solve Iraqi problems. We welcome any effort that could enhance the democratic reality in Iraq and protect the constitutional role of that state.

Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim
(h/t AE, emphasis mine)

A leader demands of his followers that they shoulder the burden for their own freedom.

A leader shows tact and bearing, being neither a sycophant nor demagogue.

A leader rejects aid from those who would force him to his knees.

A leader shows resolute determination in following his ideals.

A leader will not quit, but endures.

A leader accepts defeat only when defeated.

A leader chooses to do the hard work.

A leader exhorts without browbeating; encourages without manipulating.

There is more to being a leader than the above, and al-Hakim may or may not fit the bill. I suspect, however, that we are in the presence of the statesman for whom Iraq has been crying out.

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Thursday, December 07, 2006

The Plan

After several months of intense study and several seconds of careful thought, the Iraq Stutter Group has come up with about five hundred recommendations, which can be boiled down to just these:

  1. Do what we've been doing, while doing something else instead
  2. Get out of Iraq by 2008, but that's not a deadline or timetable, and the use of a date in a proposal should not be confused with the use of a date in a proposal
  3. Since we are having such trouble keeping the hen house secure, enlist the aid of the foxes
Try as I might, I have not been able plumb the depth of my disdain for the foreign policy surrealism that led to this non-plan.

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Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Criminal profiling

Criminal Profiling has gotten a bad name lately, perhaps due to fears of misuse by more aggressive law enforcement agencies, especially concerning "racial profiling". I am not a criminal investigator, just a blogger with interests in civil liberties and in safe streets. I believe criminal profiling has the potential to enhance both civil liberty and public safety if used correctly, and to damage both if misused. The discussion applies to both regular law enforcement and the war on terror.

Criminal profiling was originally the practice of determining, through statistical, psychological, and forensic means, the likely description of an unknown suspect. If certain criminal behavior is typically exhibited by persons of a certain age, sex, psychological imbalance, physical ability or characteristic, then a profile can be of use. The evidence at a crime scene, or especially at several similar crime scenes, may for instance lead to a person of a certain height (by footprint size and spacing), gender (by the type of crime committed), hair color (by those found), right- or left-handedness, or physical strength. The incident may fit a pattern from DSM IV, organized crime, or terrorism. All of these factors go into the profile. Anyone related to the crime can be examined against the profile to see how close the match is.

The trouble comes in several areas.

  1. A profile gets too broad, fitting such a large segment of society as to be ineffective
  2. A profile is too narrow, clearing a guilty party
  3. A profile is used to match people who have no connection to a crime other than fitting the profile, rather than against only those who are already selected by other factors
  4. A profile is used to look for people of a particular type, because they might commit an unknown crime
  5. The profile is treated as evidence, rather than as an investigative aid
Depending on the situation, using ethnicity in a profile may fit into one or all of those categories.
If a profile is merely "Black male driving SUV" or "Arab male wearing size 9 shoe", then the profile doesn't exclude enough. A certain piece of evidence at the scene may not actually apply to the crime, and if included in the profile could incorrectly exclude a guilty party. Obviously, race could be used to select people who have no other similarity to the guilty party, but so could any other factor, and people could be sought based on their race or on some other factor.

Still, some equate profiling with the problem areas, and declare it immoral to profile by race. It isn't including race in the profile that is the problem; rather, it's the way the profile is formed and used. Any use of a profile in one of those categories is invalid investigative technique, regardless of what the profile contains.

As DNA technology improves, it should be possible to extract important genetic traits from any genetic material associated with a crime. A few milligrams of skin or blood could reveal the sex, hair color, eye color, and yes, the ethnicity of either a victim or a perpetrator. It seems ridiculous to suppress information about an at-large suspect or missing person merely because that information could be misused in some other circumstance. It would be far better to insist that information is always used properly.

No matter how advanced we become in dealing with DNA, image processing, or other technical evidence, the problem remains keeping supposition from being treated as fact, and keeping prejudice from informing supposition.

But as Robert Levy concludes in a 2002 NRO article,
It may be entirely logical to condemn criminal profiling of African Americans while advocating terrorist profiling of Middle Easterners. In the terrorist context, the damage that could be prevented is measured in thousands of lives, the profiles are probably more effective for fingering guilty parties, and it is much less likely that abusive practices will be driven by institutionalized racism.

Levy appears to have equated profiling with its improper uses. Whether abusive practices are driven by racism or not, they should not be accepted, if only because they do not further public safety. Taking the wrong suspect before a jury or tribunal is a waste of time and resources at best, and worse, may even result in punishing the innocent. Likewise, harassing people simply because they look like others who have committed crimes in the past is probably a waste of an officer's time and engenders disrespect for the system.

If law enforcement officials are investigating a specific crime that has been (or is about to be) committed, then using religion or ethnicity as part of a profile is only prudent. It should not be the only thing in the profile, and the technique must not be allowed to expand to the dragging of a net in hopes of finding something amiss. The proper use of a profile can protect the public while narrowing the search to only those likely to be involved; the improper use of a profile is as ineffective as it is invasive.

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