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    Now what?

    Posted by ken on 10th November 2006 (All posts by )

    1. When the party that seeks to nationalize health care and put the pharmaceutical companies in their place can convincingly bring out Michael J. Fox and sell themselves as our best hope for medical technology advancement, that’s a good sign that the other party has screwed up bigtime.

    Embryos are not people. They have no brains, which are the essential source of our personhood. Without a brain, an embryo has no more rights than a houseplant. And the moral issue becomes simple: it is profoundly immoral to obstruct experimentation on things that are not people if such experimentation might save lots of actual people. Too many Republican candidates had that moral issue exactly backwards, and they suffered for it.

    Does that mean there’s definitely a miracle cure tucked away in embryonic stem cells? Of course not. Not to mention that there’s still the small matter that you won’t get any 100% compatible spare parts from an embryo that isn’t cloned from you, another step that’s yet to be taken with unknown difficulty and cost. But unless you’re going for the abolishment of all Federal research grants, singling out embryonic stem cell research for grant restrictions makes no moral or practical sense.

    The Democrats are full of ideas to take our problematic health care system and make it worse. This issue should have been a slam-dunk for the Republicans.

    2. I’m not sure what could have been done to convince people who believe, for instance, that having a lot of troops in Iraq puts us in a worse position to deal with Iran than having a lesser number of troops in Kuwait with Saddam still ruling Iraq would have. Could the point have been more forcefully made that the dead Iraqi civilians have mainly been killed by the bad guys, who are willing to kill the people they supposedly fight for rather than let them enjoy some of the rights we take for granted? Or that resistance to an occupation is sometimes evil, particularly when it takes the form of deliberate attacks on civilians? Maybe if we had mentioned that the bad guys are doing pretty much the same thing that the KKK and other ex-Confederates and Confederate symphatizers were doing during and after Reconstruction, only with better weapons?

    3. If Republican lawmakers are going to try and defile the sacred temple of Social Security, or Medicare, or public education, they might as well bring a blowtorch and see if they can burn it to the ground. It would make absolutely no difference in the opposition they get from the left (massive and unrelenting), but it would make a big difference in whether their supporters consider it worth their while to go vote for them. If they’re going to pretend to tinker around the edges and back down when the minority party squawks, then what’s the point of keeping them around?

    They had their big chance to clear out a lot of the crap we’ve been putting up with for 70+ years, and they squandered it. And no, “replacing” social security with a forced savings program where the Feds get to pick which investments are acceptable is not going to cut it.

    4. This isn’t the end of the world. Hezbollah still isn’t going to blow up shopping malls, schools, and offices in the Great Satan until Iran gets nuclear weapons and (thinks it) is immune to invasion. I’d say we’ve got a couple of years before that happens. And an actual nuke going off in the Great Satan shouldn’t happen for at least 10 years… there’ll need to be enough nuclear powers in the world that one of them thinks they can get away with it, and then it has to find a group that it can trust to hit the Great Satan and not some hated faction in the Middle East or even the home country. Plenty of time to get a cabin and stock the hell out of it.

    Bush still has two years left. And the horse still might learn to sing.
    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Politics | 15 Comments »

    The early stages of regulatory capture

    Posted by ken on 1st June 2006 (All posts by )

    It’s just a request for now…

    Leading Internet companies “requested” to keep histories of the activities of Web users for up to two years.

    The interesting thing is that none of this is being dressed up as a way to protect consumers from rapacious vendors. It’s explicitly meant as a way to thwart the possible nefarious designs of the consumers themselves. But it’ll all add up to the raising of barriers to entry, oligopolistic behavior, higher prices, worse service, and all the rest that we’ve come to expect from, well, just about every industry outside of IT where regulatory capture is firmly entrenched.

    Oh yeah, and remember how the Internet was supposed to make the “old media” obsolete and allow ordinary people to route around the old behemoths and get content that they weren’t willing to provide? Get a few laws in concerning who is and isn’t allowed to set up ISP’s and a laundry list of expensive requirements that all ISP’s must follow, and kiss that Internet revolution goodbye. The Old Guard will use those regulations to extend the same stranglehold on Internet media that it has today on other media.

    But it’s supposed to be a great way to combat the gravest threat facing America today. And also to stop radical Muslims from blowing things up.

    Posted in Predictions | 1 Comment »

    If you outlaw uranium

    Posted by ken on 1st June 2006 (All posts by )

    If you outlaw uranium, then only outlaws will have uranium. And they’ll use it to make bombs. That’s just a matter of time no matter what we do, unless we achieve complete long-term technological stagnation.

    If you let ordinary law-abiding folk have it, they’ll find much better uses for it. Especially after a few of them have experimented with it for a while. Some of those uses will end up making it much easier to survive the inevitable advent of nutcases with nuclear weapons. (Not to mention plagues, natural disasters, and global climate change). And, of course, all of them will add up to lots more liberty and wealth for everyone, which is always worth a certain amount of risk.

    Posted in Libertarianism | 2 Comments »

    What is a reward?

    Posted by ken on 24th May 2006 (All posts by )

    A reward is a consequence of an activity that encourages more of that activity.

    A punishment, of course, is a consequence of an activity that encourages less of that activity.

    Now a reward can be in the form of a monetary profit. The reason that a monetary profit works as a reward is because people like to make money, and the reason for that is that people who liked to make money consistently outbred and outlived people who didn’t. You can work out further links in the chain of causation yourself.

    At any rate, most of what we think of as rewards are rewards because most individual humans will change their behavior to get more of them.

    A reward can also work by causing more humans to exist who tend to behave in the rewarded way. This would obviously be a longer-term reward. But it does the same thing… encourages more of the rewarded activity to occur.

    So having kids and raising them to adulthood is itself a long-term reward for whatever behaviors are handed down to them through example or heredity. Having kids and letting someone else raise them to adulthood is a long-term reward for whatever behaviors are handed down through heredity, and raising someone else’s kids is a reward for whatever behaviors are handed down through example.

    Which means the “free-rider” problem that appears to obtain from parents not getting monetary rewards for raising kids is not as bad as it might seem. The reward is a slower one, acting over several generations instead of a few years. But it is there. And so is the punishment… if you don’t have kids, whatever behavior caused you not to have kids will not be handed down and will occur less in the future.

    The real problem comes from just what behaviors are being rewarded and punished in this way…

    Posted in Uncategorized | 7 Comments »

    Depression

    Posted by ken on 22nd May 2006 (All posts by )

    It’s sometimes said that our affluent society causes or encourages or fails to discourage depression, and that in previous eras when people actually had to earn their keep and/or fight to stay alive, they didn’t get depressed because they had more important things to worry about.

    Is this true? Do people actually succumb to depression more often in our affluent society? Or are there simply more surviving depression sufferers around?

    When it takes a lot of effort to stay alive, depression can drastically shorten your life expectancy, often in ways that don’t make its presence obvious. It’s really easy to miss in a culture with a higher overall death rate and less meticulous record-keeping than ours.

    This is doubly true in wartime. A war offers endless opportunity for a man growing weary of his mortal coil to be relieved of it without anyone (including himself) realizing the nature of his condition.

    Posted in Uncategorized | 16 Comments »

    Problem solving

    Posted by ken on 22nd May 2006 (All posts by )

    Let’s say you’ve been keeping cats for a while, and you’ve been feeding them outside in the yard. Every time the bowl gets low, someone pours in more cat food.

    One day you notice that you’ve been going through multiple bags of cat food per day. Then you look outside and notice that there are entirely too many stray cats in the yard. You’ve successfully deduced that the stray cats coming in your yard from all over the neighborhood are eating all of the extra cat food you’ve been buying. Now how do you solve this problem? Do you:

    a) Keep putting cat food in the yard. Round up as many stray cats as you can find and drop them off next door. Repeat as necessary.

    b) Keep putting cat food in the yard. Build a large wall around your property to keep the stray cats out.

    c) Keep putting cat food in the yard. Patrol the perimeter of your property with a gun to keep the stray cats out.

    d) Keep putting cat food in the yard. Adopt the stray cats that are currently in your yard, but this is it! After this you aren’t taking in any more, and that’s final. Repeat as necessary.

    e) Stop putting cat food in the yard. Feed your cats and only your cats in a place where the strays can’t get access to the food.

    Let’s say you go with (e).

    Result? There’s fewer cats in the yard, and the ones that do show up aren’t eating any of your cat food. You’re buying significantly less cat food than before. There’s also a distinct shortage of mice on the premises. Life is good.

    Of course if this decision is made by committee, especially if that committee features heavy representation from the ones that originally advocated adopting several cats and feeding them outside, this solution might meet with some resistance…

    Posted in Immigration | 12 Comments »

    A glorious burst of sanity

    Posted by ken on 3rd May 2006 (All posts by )

    The DC Circuit Court of Appeals ruled yesterday that dying patients have a due process right to access drugs once they have been through FDA approved safety trials.

    Yes, 70 years after the FDA was first imposed on us, and 40 years after its demands were intensified, a court has spelled out that people whose lives are in danger have a right to buy drugs that might save them, and others (including pharmaceutical companies) have a right to come to the aid of someone whose life is in danger without interference.

    Will this bit of clear thinking and respect for people’s rights make it into Supreme Court precedent? Stay tuned…

    Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment »

    Space Jockey

    Posted by ken on 1st May 2006 (All posts by )

    In Space Jockey, Robert Heinlein showed us a (roughly present-day) world in which commercial rockets routinely brought paying passengers and cargo to the moon, but the machines that plotted the trajectories were much too large to bring on board.

    In the real present day, of course, you can plot a trajectory to anyplace you like with a machine that fits in your pocket. What you can’t do is actually go anywhere.

    Where did the portable trajectory-plotting machine come from, and what happened to the rocket that was supposed to go with it?

    I am firmly convinced that the answer can be found by comparing and contrasting the laws and regulations governing rockets (and high-density energy sources, on which rockets inevitably depend in the absence of wormholes big enough to send real power through) and those governing computers.

    Posted in Uncategorized | 13 Comments »

    Blowback?

    Posted by ken on 14th April 2006 (All posts by )

    According to some of our friends on the left, starting a war against Iran will cause them to do the following:

    Then we’ll get flowers and candy–not to mention a massive Shia uprising in Iran and Iraq, and terrorist reprisals at home. Nothing like another 9/11 to set the mood for the midterm elections.

    What, other than the prospect of an American military response, is stopping them from doing this right now? Is there anything on Earth that would stop the Iranians from giving us “a massive Shia uprising in Iran and Iraq” (as opposed to the helpful cooperation they’re giving us now in Iraq?) and terrorist “reprisals” at home the minute they get working nuclear weapons to ward off any possible non-nuclear attack on them?

    I guess you can assume that the Iranians wouldn’t do such a thing unprovoked, even if they thought they could get away with it, and that George W Bush would go to war even though he knew they couldn’t possibly be a threat now or in the foreseeable future… if you were willing to assume that the Iranian mullahs were more sane, reasonable, responsible, and respectful of other people’s lives, properties, and liberties, than George W. Bush.

    That’s not an assumption that some of us see any reason to make.

    Posted in Uncategorized | 28 Comments »

    Babies and market signals

    Posted by ken on 13th March 2006 (All posts by )

    Why do human beings respond to market signals and have a profit motive?

    Because, for many generations, people who did were able to feed more babies with less effort than people who didn’t, and thus left behind more people who behaved as they did.

    Now I’m not asserting that there’s a gene for profit motive. There are genes that influence problem solving ability, genes that influence drive and ambition, genes that influence the criteria by which women evaluate potential mates, and so on. All those genes lead to a creature capable of interpreting market signals and posessing some inclination and ability to respond to them when they present themselves.

    But a changing environment leads to a change in the characteristics that lead to more surviving descendants. There have long been market signals that tell us we can profit by dividing our resources with fewer (or no) children; however, until recently, collecting that profit has been exceedingly difficult for most people. Today, of course, that is not so; keeping all of our resources for our own enjoyment by preventing childbirth is fairly easy for those that posess the same problem solving abilities and the profit motive that enabled our ancestors to earn more resources for the children they couldn’t easily avoid having.

    Add to that the fact that death during childhood is now almost unheard of, and the formula for leaving behind lots of surviving kids and grandkids in our society is drastically different. The strategies might include:
    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Uncategorized | 7 Comments »

    It all boils down to this

    Posted by ken on 2nd February 2006 (All posts by )

    If Iran had nuclear weapons and couldn’t be invaded, can y’all think of any reason why terrorists wouldn’t get support from the regime for staging conventional attacks on the Great Satan?

    The world already saw our lack of nuclear retaliation for 9/11, and our reluctance to go looking for Osama bin Laden in nuclear-armed Pakistan. A nuclear-armed Iranian regime wouldn’t have to be all that crazy to think they could get away with sponsoring more conventional attacks once they’ve got their nuclear umbrella.

    Posted in Uncategorized | 8 Comments »

    Liberty and privacy (cont’d)

    Posted by ken on 12th January 2006 (All posts by )

    Instead of using privacy to help us evade the government’s attempts to enforce superfluous laws that people keep voting for, it may make more sense to investigate why people keep voting for them and address their concerns some other way.

    (This doesn’t always work. But it’s usually worth trying.)

    People generally vote for laws in the belief that it will make them safer. Sometimes it will even seem to work, but not for the reasons advertised.

    If there is some behavior that, for whatever reason, statistically marks someone as more likely to commit a real crime, it can be useful for a jurisdiction to outlaw that behavior. It may not prevent anyone from committing the associated real crime, but it can sometimes convince those people to move to some other jurisdiction and commit their crimes elsewhere. As long as no one actually comes out and says that, you can generally get such a law through without too many people complaining.

    (The amusing part is when the Feds completely misunderstand the situation and enact the same law on the Federal level…)

    People find themselves forced to resort to such expedients when the government is unable to enforce laws against real crimes by direct means. And in many cases, an expansive right to privacy will interfere with the direct approach. If the only alternative is having the authorities physically detain and interrogate you and seize your property without probable cause, we’re better off with expansive privacy rights. If there is an alternative of having the authorities gather information without molesting you in any way, and having a public trial where that information can be reasonably relied upon as genuine and unmodified, we may get more liberty overall by having the authorities freely gather such information (without releasing it except at trial!), more reliably punish real crime, and reduce the need to rely on mere statistical correlations to suppress or get rid of criminal activity.

    Of course, if this worked, we’d instead wind up with laws against the use of technology to thwart surveillance. And we’d be powerless to stage a revolution if our fearless leaders got completely out of hand. On the gripping hand, our fearless leaders have spent the past century going far beyond what drove our Founders to revolution and gotten away with it, so revolution as ultimate guardian of our rights is not that reliable anyway.

    Maybe a reliable lie-detector test will answer all of our concerns in the near future…

    Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment »

    What’s privacy for?

    Posted by ken on 27th December 2005 (All posts by )

    Since society isn’t intelligently designed any more than the human individual is, it’s not really the case that privacy, or the familiar injunction against “unreasonable” search and seizure, is “for” any one specific purpose.

    Of course humans since the earliest days kept secrets, both to influence opinion and to show that they could (a taboo that is routinely violated can persist because it helps people demonstrate their ability to keep secrets and thus convince others to trust them with their secrets).

    Later, people who had won some measure of influence over their governments became extremely interested in using that influence to limit “unreasonable searches and seizures”. This was to preserve their own secrets in noncriminal matters, and also because searches and seizures were extremely intrusive and inconvenient affairs – the authorities barged in, rifled through your posessions and papers, and took away anything that looked interesting, all while waving swords or guns at you. People began to object particularly when these things were done without any reason to expect the investigation to actually uncover criminal activity – that’s a pretty rotten thing to do to someone that’s almost certainly innocent of any wrongdoing. And, wherever people were able to influence their governments, they were quick to place limits on the use of searches and seizures, to require some sort of probable cause, and so on.

    This had the pleasant side effect of making it difficult to enforce laws on matters that didn’t come to the attention of the authorities – matters where no one turned up missing or dead and no one complained to the authorities. Personal matters, that is, and private activities between “consenting adults”.

    This last benefit seems to have become predominant – even though technology allows the authorities to collect many sorts of information without the target even knowing about it (thus rendering moot earlier objections to the intrusiveness and inconvenience of arbitrary searches), the fact that limits on the gathering of information still selectively weakens the government’s power to enforce laws on personal matters means that those limits are still a useful and important feature of a free society, or at least one that aspires to stay that way.

    Unfortunately, some private activities now have the potential to severely weaken public order by getting a lot of people killed at once. Thus, those selective limits now aren’t so selective; instead of only suppressing the enforcement of laws that have at most a tenuous relationship to the maintenance of public order, our traditional limits on intelligence gathering suppresses the enforcement of certain laws that are absolutely indispensible to the protection of life and property.

    (Well, not absolutely indispensible. There are alternatives, but those involve drastic changes such as the universal adoption of personal aircraft, the obsolescence of cities, and a more uniform population density throughout the civilized world. Personal nuclear reactors to lessen the dependence of large groups of people on fragile centralized infrastructure of several sorts would also be helpful. But our culture places a high priority on preventing natural selection in the human species, so there’s a lot of resistance to those alternatives).

    Which means the old workarounds aren’t going to work so well anymore. New workarounds are needed. One way out of this dilemma is to allow the government to collect any information it wants, but only for stopping terrorists in their tracks; anything they happen to find out about a non-terrorist’s activities is quietly forgotten and does not become available to prosecutors, and the very existence of this setup is kept as quiet as possible. That seems to be the current workaround, but it’s vulnerable to “mission creep” – stuff like drug trafficking, money laundering, and child porn have a way of getting tacked on to the list of things that the unlimited intelligence gatherers are tasked with thwarting (just start calling them “global threats”, and voila – they’re fair game), and there’s no telling what’ll end up on that list down the road, especially after people have gotten used to the whole setup.

    Another way around the problem might be to universally allow unlimited non-intrustive intelligence gathering, and devote lots of resources to make sure that every infraction of the law is prosecuted to the fullest extent. Do it up front and all at once with as much fanfare as possible and let the people decide if those laws that are suddenly all too enforceable are really worth keeping. Couple this change with a large scale sunsetting of existing law, so elected officials will have to campaign and vote for a law rather than simply neglect to vote for or sponsor a bill for repealing it. Throw in a regular sunset of new law, so that they’ll have to vote for it again after seeing the practical effects of those laws when they’re actually enforced.

    We’d end up with either a stable, well-defended, free society or a harsh tyranny. But if the people are disposed to support tyranny in that setup, those same people will support it by degrees in the course we are currently on, and nothing short of a takeover by a liberal (in the non-leftist sense of the word) long-lived king will ultimately stop them. (Good luck finding one!)

    Posted in Uncategorized | 4 Comments »

    Walmart to save France

    Posted by ken on 7th December 2005 (All posts by )

    Good article:

    The French have effectively banned McJobs by requiring employers to be more generous. The unfortunate result is not middle class comfort for all. Often, it’s no jobs.

    Companies That Can’t Fire Don’t Hire

    The reason has to do with an economic concept called “marginal product of labor”, which is a fancy way of saying that firms will not voluntarily pay you more than you’re worth. If Wal-Mart believes that you add $5.15 an hour to the bottom line by stocking shelves, and you demand $8, the manager will politely point to the exit. If you don’t have any skills that are worth more than $5.15 an hour to some other employer, you won’t use that exit. You’ll take what Wal-Mart is offering. McJobs tend to pay workers what they’re worth, which, sad though it may be, is not always a living wage.

    The French alternative — admittedly oversimplified — is to require that firms pay low-skilled workers more, whether their productivity justifies it or not. If an employee adds $5.15 an hour worth of value to a firm, the government might require the firm to pay him $10. As you can imagine, firms are not keen on paying someone $10 an hour for $5.15 worth of work, not even in France. The best business decision in that case is to hire no one at all.

    Posted in Economics & Finance | 5 Comments »

    Be careful what you wish for

    Posted by ken on 27th October 2005 (All posts by )

    Over at Bitch, PhD, here’s one of several posts expressing outrage that pharmacists are allowed to refuse to sell you birth control pills or emergency contraception.

    As one who enthusiastically approves of any fight against religious wackos trying to use the power of the state to take away your rights to reject their religion and ignore its teachings, particularly religious wackos who have a nasty habit of blowing things up or cutting off people’s heads to get their way, I can’t help but be sympathetic.

    But I have a couple of questions for our friends on the left.

    Where did these pharmacists get their power? They’re not generally willing to blow things up to keep you from getting your birth control, so someone else must be using a threat of force to stop you from simply giving him the finger and going down the street to get your pills.

    That someone else, of course, would be the government, which will send armed police to throw you in jail if you give your pharmacist the finger and buy your pills from someone who isn’t in the small licensed priesthood of pharmacists, or buy them at all without posessing a permission slip signed by a member of the small licensed priesthood of M.D.’s. This means that if the pharmacist exercises his judgement and decides not to hand over the pills, and you live in a town too small to support multiple members of this priesthood, you’re either driving to another town or you’re just SOL.

    Now who’s brilliant idea was it to empower and direct the Federal Government to do this? Who came up with the plan to take away your right to choose and buy your own medicine and deliver into the hands of these priesthoods the power to allow or forbid your purchase of same? Who delivered into the hands of the government, and by extension the voters, the power to forbid medicines entirely, and to place other medicines off-limits to anyone who hasn’t made the proper supplications to an M.D. and a pharmacist?

    Oh, that’s right, it was your side’s brilliant idea, signed into law by your hero Franklin Roosevelt.

    Now, after you’ve delivered this power into the hands of the voters, you’re dismayed to find that there are voters that don’t think you should be allowed to have birth control pills or emergency contraception. They think the power of the state should be used to stop you from getting these things. There are pharmacists that think the same way, and voters who think they should be allowed to exercise this discretion while being protected from dissenting competitors.

    I’m not too happy about that either. But what are you going to do about those voters? Kill them? Outvote them? (That’ll work great until they’ve outbred you for a few generations) Try to work up an even more convoluted principle that lets doctors and pharmacists treat us like the overgrown children you insist that most of us are but doesn’t let them refuse us birth control prescriptions?

    Or are you going to join with some of those you affectionately call “wingnuts” and stand for the principle that, no, the government should not have the power to take away our medicine or use force to stop us from buying it or insist that a special class of people has the power to make all those decisions for us? Form a coalition of voters who hate the restrictions on birth control and voters who hate the restrictions on pain medicine and voters who hate the restrictions on experimental cancer therapies and voters who hate the restrictions on allergy medicine and voters who hate the extra cost the whole system imposes on everyone who needs medicine or medical treatment of any kind?

    Hell, you might convince some religious wackos to give up their opposition to other people buying birth control in peace in exchange for cheaper medicines, quicker introduction of new medicines, and the right to treat their own conditions without other groups of voters having a say.

    I think it’s worth a shot. Y’all with me?

    Posted in Uncategorized | 16 Comments »

    Why we’re stranded here

    Posted by ken on 19th October 2005 (All posts by )

    Via James Nicoll, the number that causes the cost of orbital flight to, well, skyrocket.

    For a SSTO boosteer using LH2 fuel and LO2 oxidizer, 92% of the take-off weight will be fuel. That leaves 8% for the rocket and everything else in it.

    That’s a steep climb. Every single pound of anything brought on board means the ship needs to also accomodate almost 12 more pounds of fuel. And of course it does that by having a bigger, and therefore heavier, fuel tank, and thus needing to accomodate even more fuel.

    You can save some fuel (and thus needed fuel capacity) by ditching parts of your ship as soon as they’re no longer needed to get you the rest of the way to orbit rather than bring them the whole way up, but those bits need to be replaced if you want to make another trip.

    Add to that the fact that the structural strength needed to stand up to several g’s at takeoff and thousands of degrees of frictional heat at reentry, and complete self-contained ecosystems and/or consumable oxygen, water and food all tend to be kind of heavy, and what you’ve got is an assurance that anything you ride to orbit is going to be massive and expensive.

    And it’s never going to get much better. We’re never going to get a better fuel for leaving Earth, not in our present society.

    Don’t we already have something better than chemical fuel?

    Of course not, and we never will. Our fearless leaders, and their licensed friends in the nuclear industry, have much better fuel to work with, but you can be sure that we will never get our hands on it without major political changes. The problem is that anything that’s good for making a rocket go is also good for blasting stuff on Earth. Getting propellant to shoot out of the back of the rocket involves lots of heat applied to that propellant, causing pressure to get really high and forcing lots of propellant out of the rocket nozzle at high speed. Getting buildings to fall down involves lots of heat applied to a bomb casing, causing pressure to get really high and forcing lots of hot air and hot bomb casing parts and hot bomb explosive parts to go flying at high speeds to knock down, melt, shred, and otherwise ruin whatever they encounter before their energy dissipates.

    Lots of heat is also a good way to ruin water treatment plants, bridges, railroads, and other things that people for miles around depend on to keep them supplied with the necessities of life.

    This leads democratic governments and tyrants alike to enact laws requiring the unwashed masses to keep their mitts off of anything that can release significantly more energy per pound or more energy per liter than gasoline. So we’re stuck with the chemical fuels, and it’s only the government and their heavily restricted set of license holders that get to play with the good stuff. And we all know how efficiently they bring down costs over time.

    So what can be done?
    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Uncategorized | 14 Comments »

    Sampling Error

    Posted by ken on 14th October 2005 (All posts by )

    If you can take it or leave it, and they outlaw it, you’re mostly going to leave it. Unless it’s clear you’re going to get away with it, and no one will find out you did it, and even then you’ll think twice about it.

    If you’re hooked, however, you’ll keep taking the risk until you get caught. And you’ll take other risks to keep from getting caught, since getting caught not only involves punishment (bad) but the authorities forcibly preventing you from doing whatever you’re hooked on (slightly worse than a large asteroid strike). You’ll take other risks to replace the supply lines the authorities keep cutting off. Generally, you’ll do a lot of things that seem really stupid and crazy to people who aren’t hooked and rank life, health, liberty, duty, and self-respect higher than your vice. Odds are you were always willing to do crazy and stupid things to feel good in the short term; it just never proved necessary to put quite so much of your stupidity and craziness on display before the authorities went and outlawed your favorite short-term joy.

    And the authorities will catch people who persist in whatever it is they’ve outlawed, and they’ll notice that the people they catch keep showing up with records of doing crazy and stupid things. They’ll reach the conclusion that it’s a damn good thing our legislators outlawed it, because just look at what it does to people. And they’ll notice that the murder rate has gone up lately, and a lot of the perpetrators and victims are involved in this forbidden activity (because there’s money in it and because, of course, they tend to be crazy and stupid enough to continue an unhealthy habit that’s been outlawed), and of course the only thing that we can do to Protect Our Families and maintain Law and Order is to increase the penalties and step up enforcement.

    This will convince the more reasonable and intelligent of the addicts to do what it takes to quit, or at least to come up with better ways to not get caught, and they don’t come to the attention of the authorities anymore. The authorities then declare the problem is Getting Worse because the addicts they catch have gotten crazier and stupider. And the murder rate is still outrageously high. And the crazier and stupider addicts have gotten hold of something even worse than the evil stuff that originally motivated the whole effort. (Because, if you’re taking more risk and paying more to get it, you want something with more of a kick to it to compensate, and the risk you’re willing to tolerate in the process goes up with the risk you’re already taking in the first place).

    It’s about this time that some people look at the situation, notice that the present legislation together with its enhancements has not produced any actual improvements, and suggest dropping the whole thing and letting idiots suffer in peace. This advice was actually followed in 1933, followed by an impressive decline in the overall homicide rate. But sometimes, reason does not prevail, the sampling bias is ignored, and the authorities gasp in horror and exclaim “Are you crazy? Look at what it does to people! And it keeps getting worse! If we didn’t outlaw it, everybody would end up hooked on it! There wouldn’t be enough non-addicts left to keep society going! The barbarian mindless hordes would overrun and destroy society within hours!” All without pausing to wonder whether the people that they’re hauling in now, the people stupid and crazy enough to start and continue a self-destructive habit in the face of draconian penalties and ever more stringent enforcement, are in fact a representative sample of the public at large.

    Theodore Dalrymple, who is remarkably free of illusions about just how stupid and crazy people can be, makes this sort of error in arguing against drug legalization. He uses the following anecdote to try to cast doubt on the notion that most people are not stupid and crazy enough to start destroying their irreplacable brains with drugs if the law permitted them to:
    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Uncategorized | 4 Comments »

    Budget cutting

    Posted by ken on 23rd September 2005 (All posts by )

    If we all agreed what “pork” was, there wouldn’t be any of it in the budget. The “pork-busting” idea needs to be backed up by its backers with specifics on what should be cut and why.

    With the National Budget Simulation, one can specify exactly where cutting should be – and see what the outcome is.

    It’s a static model, but it’s a good starting point.

    As one who thinks that taxes are plenty high enough, on the rich as well as on everyone else, and that budgetary problems should be solved by budget cutting, it’s time to go to work.

    Here’s my first cut, which actually yields a $347.47 billion surplus:
    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Uncategorized | 78 Comments »

    It’s time to prepare

    Posted by ken on 22nd September 2005 (All posts by )

    For what?

    Well, anything.

    How about bird flu? Lots of generally sane people seem to think it’s only a matter of time.

    If you survive the initial impact of whatever-it-is (and you probably will), your biggest problem is going to be simple – broken supply lines.

    Which means that, regardless of the threat, the biggest part of your preparedness plan is going to be stockpiling stuff. Food and water. More water (the stuff takes up quite a bit of space… and when the plumbing stops, don’t forget about the stockpile sitting in your water heater). Medicine (although stockpiling real medicine might involve bending some bloody useless laws, assuming it lasts long enough to be worth the trouble). A generator and fuel, if something you depend on (such as insulin) must be refrigerated. Ammunition (unless you know how to make arrows, and own or can construct a bow). Fuel for heating if you live someplace that gets too cold. Et cetera.

    It’d be great if they’d let you stock a respirator and other nifty devices to help you live through an actual infection with bird flu or some other nasty germ, but only doctors get to have real medical equipment. Of course, during a disaster, there won’t be nearly enough doctors to go around. (Hell, there aren’t enough doctors to go around now… that’s a big part of the “health care crisis” people keep yammering about.) And the vaccine, if the powers-that-be manage to create one, will be given out on their terms, not yours. So your best bet during a pandemic is going to be to stay the hell away from everybody and live off of your stockpiled supplies.

    If you’re ready to live like a hermit for a while, you’ll probably not be unlucky enough to catch the dread disease before it becomes widely known. (Unless we really do have a government crazy enough to keep a pandemic a secret until everyone catches it, like the one in The Stand. But I seriously doubt we’ll see that government anytime soon.)

    If you start now, when nothing special seems about to happen (unless you live around southeast Texas or southwest Louisiana), there’s not much of a limit to the eventual size of your stash, other than the amount of storage you have to work with. You’ll want to-go kits, too, in case your home becomes acutely unhealthy and you’ve managed to lay hands on a means of transport that can actually go places on that dreaded day. Bikes (one per person, of course) might end up being your only viable means of transport, although the cargo capacity is low. Still, if the disaster is localized, it could be a way to get someplace that’s still civilized. And if the disaster is a localized one that you can see coming for a day or two, and you’ve elected to live in an area known to be prone to such a disaster without a car, and you think it’s unhealthy or undignified to wait for your fearless leaders to send you a bus, it’s a way to get out of the disaster’s path. (You won’t be in much danger from speeding cars along the evacuation route!) In any event, it’s still a good way to get someplace farther than the gas in your tank can carry you if it turns out you won’t be able to get more.

    And finally, don’t listen to this bullshit. There’s plenty you can do individually to prepare for the day when you’ll have to stay the hell away from everybody for a while and everyone is trying to stay the hell away from you, and the more people that actually prepare and are able to do it as needed, the more of us will end up living through it. Whatever “it” turns out to be. And your political pressure should really be aimed at relaxing or eliminating any laws that stand in the way of your individual preparations – that’s a lot easier for a variety of people to judge and evaluate and agree on than whether the folks at the CDC are cooking up the right vaccine, and whether they have the facilities in place to make enough of it, and the right infrastructure to distribute it, or whether the President is a moron who’s deliberately crippling the CDC because he doesn’t believe in government and would really rather that the poor die off so they can’t bitch when he gives what’s rightfully theirs to his rich buddies.

    Crappy Administrations will keep happening (regardless of your politics, you’ll agree they’ve happened several times in the past 30 years). But if you can rely on yourself, at least you’ll know you’re relying on the one person that unquestionably has your best interests at heart.

    Posted in Uncategorized | 5 Comments »

    Who can learn lessons?

    Posted by ken on 15th September 2005 (All posts by )

    Even today, after thousands suffered on live TV for want of water and other supplies (along with security), it’s a sign of “confusion” in the Administration that it appointed as head of FEMA the man who mentioned that a stockpile of emergency supplies, including but not limited to duct tape, would be a useful thing to have if disaster struck.

    Apparently, the idea of having individuals prepare themselves to be cut off from civilization for a few days, and even to be able to reduce their exposure to airborne nastiness, is too ridiculous to even consider. Combine that with the criticism the Federal Government received for its “slow” response to a problem that wouldn’t have existed if the non-evacuating population had recourse to such a stockpile along with competent security forces, and you see the underlying premise:

    People cannot be expected to take care of themsleves in any significant way. People who are allowed to vote cannot be expected to stockpile food and water in any amount; if they go without in a disaster, it’s some government’s fault. (And if they go without because a state government turned the stuff away, it’s the Federal government’s fault for not bringing replacement supplies faster).

    Of course this continues an old pattern. A new medicine has unexpected side effects? We can’t rely on the idiots out there to catch on to the idea that new medicines might have unforeseen side effects – we’ve got to keep it out of their hands for several years, and then let them have it only with a permission slip from their doctor. All under the direction of Federal regulators, the only people in the country capable of learning from other people’s experience.

    Posted in Uncategorized | 13 Comments »

    Plenty of blame to go around

    Posted by ken on 15th September 2005 (All posts by )

    If by “around” you mean from Gretna all the way to Baton Rouge.

    We were told that this disaster shows the utter folly of small government philosophy; analogies between Grover Norquist’s “bathtub” and the city of New Orleans are everywhere. All this from a delay in delivering supplies that came about when a private organization (the Red Cross) ready to deliver those supplies early on was prevented from doing so by the State of Louisiana. And evacuation on foot was blocked by the Gretna police (although it seems that Airline Highway to the west was open to foot traffic all the way to Baton Rouge; too bad no one on the scene seems to have pointed this out to many desperate would-be evacuees.). This isn’t quite the slam-dunk refutation of libertarianism that we were promised ever since the levees broke.

    We are told that the resulting suffering is somehow the fault of the Bush Administration. While it would make sense to fault the Administration for delays caused by failure to anticipate some aspect of the disaster or the aftermath, I find it difficult to blame the Administration for failing to anticipate that the State of Louisiana would cut off the victims’ supply lines. Perhaps the Admininstration should have assumed that the State Government of Louisiana is a potentially hostile power that may blockade an American city, but no one in any party at any level of government or anywhere else came close to predicting that beforehand.

    But the Administration obviously doesn’t take its disaster relief responsibilities seriously; the head of FEMA during the disaster was a political hack with no relevant experience (well, except for being head of FEMA during four hurricanes in Florida – when the response went so well that the Administration stands accused of currying favor with Florida voters through its extra-well-done response).

    And Administration officials showed their complete ineptitude by saying that the breach of the levees wasn’t anticipated (except that it wasn’t – what was anticipated was the storm surge going over the levees during the storm and leaving a much smaller number of people needing relief and evacuation, not a breach of the levee leading to gradual flooding and lots of stranded survivors). The idiots at FEMA didn’t even know that there were thousands of people at the Convention Center (of course, according to the plan, there weren’t supposed to be thousands of people at the Convention Center, and the rest of the country didn’t know it either until a few hours earlier, not a whole day. What idiots those FEMA guys are for not spending their whole day watching TV!)

    Well, now the Administration is set to show its real ineptitude – its problems with public relations. The President seems to be planning to “take responsibility” for the problems that came about in the aftermath – problems caused at the state and local level. Problems that only went away when the Feds showed up in force on the scale and timeline promised. Some will say that it’s only right, that the buck should stop with him. This would even make sense – if he were Blanco’s boss. He isn’t. All he’s going to do is leave people with the impression that the Feds are supposed to be responsible for anything and everything that happens the first few days, and that they failed in this responsibility.

    So what can we take away from this? First, the withdrawl of occupation forces from Louisiana in 1877 seems to have been a bit hasty. Second, always keep 3-4 days worth of food and water and other supplies on hand. And third, when our friends on the left and in the media assert (as they do every time anything of significance happens) that the incompetence of the Administration is on display before any real information comes to light, it’s best to ignore them (a lesson that yours truly will take to heart).

    Update: Bush noted that the overall response was unacceptable (without any detail on who was responding when), and promised a comprehensive review of emergency procedures along with a greater Federal role in future. Of course since the next disaster will probably happen in some state other than Louisiana, where competent officials exist, this will most likely do more harm than good overall. He’s also promised to shower lots of money on the evacuees and on Louisiana state and local governments to help rebuild the city and the levees (has he learned nothing from dealing with those people? Any Federal money put in the hands of Louisiana officials would do slightly more good if it were set on fire instead. And working with Louisiana officials is not a good way to get a stronger levee!), to build the city bigger and better and stronger, to encourage evacuees to rebuild their lives better than ever back in New Orleans (he apparently hasn’t learned anything from dealing with those people. The best way for most of the evacuees to build better and more prosperous lives is for them to stay the hell away from Louisiana), and of course to conduct those reviews and gear up for a quicker and more massive Federal response to disasters. Not too surprising overall, sad to say.

    Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment »

    Terrorism vs Nature

    Posted by ken on 11th September 2005 (All posts by )

    Is the Homeland Security Administration up to dealing with terrorism? Does the Katrina response shed any light on that question?

    First, let us see if a natural disaster is really related to terrorism. There are similarities – demolished buildings, casualties, ruined property. But there are important differences.

    A terrorist is intelligent. He picks targets according to a goal. He learns from his mistakes and builds on his successes.

    A terrorist has morale, which improves when his target rolls over and takes it, and improves greatly when his target offers concessions in hopes of making the terrorist stop, and goes right in the toilet when his target forces him to flee for his life, hide in caves, and keep moving.

    A terrorist can be killed. Some potential terrorists can even be deterred. A terrorist who is not killed can strike again if he is left unmolested.

    A hurricane, on the other hand, is a big, dumb, mass of rotating air that goes where the wind pushes it. It doesn’t target anything. It can’t be diverted, deterred, or destroyed. It does its damage and eventually dissipates, never to be seen again. Other hurricanes form according to the blind laws of nature, completely outside of our control, and follow their unalterable course to a random spot of our coastline.

    Let us suppose for a minute that the damage done by Katrina was instead the work of a terrorist group. This terrorist group would have to somehow not only breach the levees, but flatten structures and close bridges in surrounding parishes and down the coastline all the way to Mobile, demolish everything within a few miles of the Mississippi coastline, cut off power to 90% of Mississippi, and leave tens of thousands of survivors in New Orleans cut off from their supply lines.

    In that case, rescue and recovery would still be of secondary importance. Secondary to the task of preventing the terrorists from doing it again. Which they will do, purposely targeting population centers or vital infrastructure and improving upon their methods, if we don’t act, and which we are capable of preventing them from doing. Such prevention involves the sort of activity that the Feds have been up to for four years now – killing terrorists where they live, and keeping surviving terrorists as busy as possible reacting to us rather than plotting attacks against us. But none of that is of much use in a natural disaster response.

    The next hurricane will follow the path that the forces of nature ordain for it regardless of what we do or don’t do. We can’t diminsh its power by attacking it or encourage it by misguided attempts at appeasement, and it can’t learn from experience or target anything. Since our activities have no impact on future storms, the sole remaining priority is rescue and recovery. Which was supplied by the Feds with the speed and effectiveness promised.

    So while there’s undoubtedly lessons to learn in the Katrina response, it does not tend to indicate that our counterterrorism activity or preparation is failing in any way. The fact that all the world’s terrorists missed four years of opportunity to breach those levees, which were not exactly a state secret, tends to indicate that our counterterrorism activity is working.

    Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments »

    Constructive criticism

    Posted by ken on 4th September 2005 (All posts by )

    What’s criticism for?

    One of two things. Either it points out bits of empirical reality that was not taken into account before the present situation that will be useful the next time around, or it builds a case that someone or some organization is unfit for the job and needs to have it taken away. (What entity gets that job, and whether or not that job should even continue to exist, are of course other useful questions to be addressed…)

    No matter what you think of Bush, he’s not going away. Neither is Blanco. (I don’t know about Nagin – what happens to a mayor when his city is deserted?) So most of the really useful criticism is that aimed at the first goal.

    To that end, here’s a few questions:
    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Uncategorized | 8 Comments »

    What was the plan?

    Posted by ken on 2nd September 2005 (All posts by )

    What on Earth went wrong with the Federal response to this disaster?

    I don’t know. But it looks to me like the planners made the mistake of planning for the worst-case scenario.

    The worst case, of course, was that the hurricane didn’t deviate from its expected path or intensity, that it sent Lake Ponchatrain over the levees and destroyed the levees themselves, that it sent a rushing wall of water throughout the city destroying everything in its path, and that it left very few survivors outside the Superdome and a few high-rises built to stand up to it.

    Level of immediate Federal response, particularly supplies and military police, that would have done any good whatsoever: a small fraction of what’s actually needed now.

    The other expected possible case would be that the levees held and the area would be slowly rebuilt. No one seems to have anticipated the possibility that a hurricane would hit with just enough force to cause the levees to break a full day later and leave hundreds of thousands of survivors trapped by water that has nowhere to go.

    No one at any level of government, in the media, or anywhere else showed any sign after the storm passed of expecting anything to happen other than ordinary disaster relief. No one that I’ve seen, for instance, suggested that evacuation should resume immediately after the storm passed.

    Does this fully excuse the Administration? Not really. It is well-known that there are a lot of people around the world that would love nothing better than to set off a nuclear weapon on US soil. The military has done an admirable job of preventing that thus far, but there’s still a non-zero chance at any given time that someone, somewhere could pull it off.

    When that happens, the aftermath will involve hundreds of thousands (at least) of survivors cut off, in dangerous conditions, running out of food and water and needing immediate help. It’ll be worse than New Orleans because (a) there will be no warning and no evacuation beforehand, (b) a lot more of the survivors will need immediate, specialized medical care, and (c) the terrorists will almost certainly pick a more heavily populated place than New Orleans. And the response by the Homeland Security Administration and FEMA, if no changes are made, will be disastrously slow.

    Posted in Uncategorized | 17 Comments »

    On second thought…

    Posted by ken on 1st September 2005 (All posts by )

    What started as a motley collection of geniuses stealing televisions and other utterly unusable electronics has turned into something unbelievably nasty.

    Shooting at rescue workers, hospitals, helicopters, and anything else that enables those left in the area to survive and evacuate.

    So much for the grey area. This isn’t people putting their own survival ahead of abstract property rights, or even putting their own survival ahead of the survival of others. This is people dooming others to a nasty, lingering death as their apparent main purpose; their own survival is often irrelevant.

    This is very much like the “insurgency” that has plagued Iraq for the last couple of years, although radical Islam or misguided nationalism probably doesn’t have much to do with it in this case. So what does?

    Perhaps these are the same predators that spent decades degrading the city to the state it was in before the hurricane.

    Whatever their motivation, the authorities now face two additional challenges. Getting their victims out of the area under fire, and making sure that the predators are not rescued and released. Freeing the predators from the city would allow them to infest and terrorize other communities, and even frighten away those in other states who might otherwise take in honest refugees.

    It’s looking like a flat-out military operation is called for, and on a much shorter timescale than the one underway in Iraq.

    Posted in Uncategorized | 8 Comments »