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    What is the purpose of society

    Posted by ken on 31st August 2005 (All posts by )

    The premise of this, aside from the deliberate use of inflammatory language, is simple.

    The purpose of society is the care and feeding of the downtrodden. Period. Everything else is either a wasteful distraction or an unconscionable diversion of resources from this overriding purpose.

    Note that the thread is not (for the most part) claiming that Bush had anything to do with the hurricane, or that anyone actually intended for the city’s poor minorities to remain in harm’s way. Instead, the claim is that the Administration and the country as a whole did not devote enough resources to the evacuation and protection of the city’s poor (and planning for same), that this was motivated by indifference to the poor, and that indifference is practically as evil as malice.

    Is this true?

    I’ll pick out one comment to illustrate the moral premise at issue:

    “If it were 100K white middle class folk wading through water to their necks or trapped in their attics, the whole country would stop and hold it’s breath …. baseball games would be suspended, church services would be initiated, etc. The powerful and wealthy are safe and sound….. they’ve left the meek and the powerless to fend for themselves.”

    The first part has never been empirically demonstrated, and the last part is demonstrably false, but never mind that. Supposing that the last part is true, the powerful and wealthy are safe and sound because they fended for themselves successfully. It wasn’t just the meek and powerless left to fend for themselves – in the alternate world where no one was rescued by helicopter or given shelter in the Superdome, everyone was left to fend for themselves! This is unconscionable bigotry?

    Now there are human beings that civilized people have a positive duty to protect, to feed and shelter and plan for and rescue from or use force to prevent their own foolish behavior as needed. They’re called children. So is it really unconscionable bigotry to treat the downtrodden as if they weren’t children? And it’s not bigotry to treat them as if they were children, who could not, for instance, be counted upon to consider the possible implications of living in a disaster area waiting to happen without a car?

    Posted in Uncategorized | 4 Comments »

    Should the state stop you from looting essential items?

    Posted by ken on 30th August 2005 (All posts by )

    On the one hand, hell yes. It’s stealing. And why should people have to choose between risking their lives in a storm and losing all their property to looters in the aftermath?

    On the other hand, this is the same state that forbids private entities from being paid for the cost of transporting essential items into a disaster area (or preserving them during a disaster, or stocking them up against the possibility of a disaster) when selling them to disaster victims. According to the state, this is “gouging”, and it means you’re SOL until charity or taxpayer funded disaster relief reaches you. So where does that state get off stopping you from taking the things you must have to survive that it has left you unable to buy, especially when the owners may or may not ever be coming back?

    On the gripping hand, are you really justified in stealing when it was your own outrageously poor decision that caused you to be there in the first place? If others have to pay the price for your idiocy, you don’t have much of a case when you ask them to let you make your own decisions on, well, anything. That way the lifelong nursery lies, and we’re a good part of the way there already. (Granted, this reasoning doesn’t apply to all large-scale disasters, but it sure as hell applies to this one.)

    Posted in Uncategorized | 11 Comments »

    Did the Iraq war prevent us from dealing with Iran?

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

    A recurring theme in the comments about Iran is that we could have dealt with Iran if only Bush hadn’t foolishly squandered our resources and our people’s trust with his horrible misadventure in Iraq.

    What are we supposed to make of this?

    Well, first of all, I’d say that an insurgency and a thousand deaths per year is a small price to pay to keep Muslim fanatics from getting nuclear weapons. If we can bungle Iran four times as badly as Iraq, but ensure there’ll never be any nuclear weapons to find there, we’ll be way ahead of the game. The Iranian government cannot be trusted with nuclear weapons – their officials have made too many flippant comments about the advantages of a nuclear exchange with Israel (a.k.a. the Little Satan; remember who the Great Satan is?), for one thing, and for another thing Iran is known to sponsor terrorist groups that it will have no incentive whatsoever to restrain once it has its own nuclear weapons. Even if they never use nukes on us, how’d you like Iranian sponsored terrorists frequently setting off regular bombs in the US?

    So the prospect of “another Iraq disaster” sounds pretty damn good to me compared to the alternatives.

    Now, assuming that we decide to use force to deal with Iran, would we be in a better or worse position if we hadn’t dealt with Iraq? Without a large body of troops already in Iraq, how exactly would we invade Iran? Over the mountains of Afghanistan? From Kuwait? Let’s not be silly. Not only that, if you don’t think we can invade Iran with an active insurgency in Iraq, how’d you like to try an invasion and occupation of Iran with Saddam Hussein in power next door? Maybe invade both at once? (Actually, that wouldn’t have been a bad idea two years ago… better to be hung for a sheep, as they say. What’re people going to do, accuse us of imperialism?).

    Finally, let’s take a look at this “betrayal” that supposedly has all right thinking people aghast at the very idea of doing any other military operation anywhere in the world…
    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Uncategorized | 14 Comments »

    On Historical Revisionism

    Posted by ken on 3rd August 2005 (All posts by )

    Heinlein’s heroine Maureen Johnson had this to say in To Sail Beyond the Sunset:

    But why are the people of the United States and their government always the villains in the eyes of the revisionists? Why can’t our enemies – such as the king of Spain, and the kaiser, and Hitler, and Geronimo, and Villa, and Sandino, and Mao Tse-tung, and Jefferson Davis – why can’t these each take a turn in the pillory? Why is it always our turn?

    This was written in 1982, so of course Saddam Hussein is not mentioned. But he’d fit right in, and the question still stands more than 20 years later.

    Now of course serious historical research does turn up some less than savory aspects of the character of our nation’s heroes. And it can be depressing to note, for instance, that the man who wrote that it was “self-evident” that all men were created equal failed to apply that self-evident notion to his own slaves.

    But we must keep our perspective. It’s the words, more than the men themselves, that influence us across the generations and make our country what it is today. And Jefferson’s words, long after his death, motivated men who took those words more seriously than he did to take up arms and drive slavery off of our continent.

    But in any case, it doesn’t make sense to compare flesh-and-blood rulers against ideal rulers unless you know of some way to produce those ideal rulers. So far, no such rulers have shown up; until they do, I’ll take most any American President and Congress, past or present, over the available alternatives. Or, as Ashish Hanwadikar notes, after linking to one of the less savory alleged actions of the Lincoln administration:

    It is a fact that our leaders are made up of myths! Beyond their great legacies lies some horrible crimes that we choose to ignore because it doesn’t fit the great leader story! If this is case in a free society, I shudder to think how much horrible “leaders” like Mao, Lenin, Stalin, Hitler, Mugabe, KIM Jong Il and others!

    So true! Our guys aren’t the only ones that hide skeletons in their closets. Which means, given what we already know about some of the non-Americans, past and present, that (mis)ruled various parts of the Earth, their skeletons must be frightening indeed.

    Posted in Uncategorized | 6 Comments »

    Missing the point again – I hope

    Posted by ken on 21st July 2005 (All posts by )

    From the port side of the Web comes yet another post telling us why one of the most heavily regulated industries in the world is still not regulated enough.

    Why the rapid increase[in the number of people who could benefit from cholesterol-lowering drugs]? Are cholesterol levels in the United States actually getting worse and worse? Are more and more people at risk of a heart attack? Hard to say.

    Given our aging demographic, it’s pretty easy to say that the number of people at risk of a heart attack is rising. And, one would also expect that over 13 years, cholesterol-lowering drugs have gotten more effective and with fewer side effects, increasing the number of people for whom the costs are worth the benefits.

    But does that account for a three-fold increase in the number of people that the National Institutes of Health guidelines indicate should be taking these drugs? Beats me. Mr. Plumer doesn’t trust those guidelines because most of the experts writing them were paid by the makers of those drugs and thus are biased observers.

    Guess what? I don’t trust those guidelines either, and for the same reason. Regulatory capture is a fact of life, and it’s been demonstrated over and over and over and over again, clear back to the days when the government started “regulating” the early railroad industry. Regulation is a way to protect politically connected vendors from competition. It’s happened so many times, over so long a period, that it doesn’t even count as an “unintended consequence” anymore – if you’re paying the least bit of attention, you’re forced to conclude that empowering legislators and regulators to protect their friends from competition is the main purpose of regulation, and the fact that lots of voters think that regulation is good for protecting the so-called “common man” is a fortuitous circumstance enabling them to keep creating and using this power.

    The unintended consequence, if there is one, is that the skies are still empty of traffic, the extraterrestrial Solar System is still utterly uninhabited and your life expectancy is still less than a century. In short, protecting current vendors from competition impedes technological advancement. It certainly doesn’t do anything to improve the lives of those who aren’t close personal friends of regulators or legislators – it simply prevents weirdos you never heard of (and now never will) from coming up with an ingenious way to give you what you need better than the lazy slugs that make their living through regulatory capture.

    In short – if you’re concerned that the government is too friendly with (currently existing) corporations, and giving them “corporate welfare” including, but not limited to, protection from competition, we’re on your side, and our proposed reforms (deregulation, deregulation, and more deregulation) are the only workable solution. The alternative solutions, which involve giving legislators and regulators even more power to protect their friends from competition and give them other things at taxpayer expense, are about as likely to work as fighting a fire by pouring gasoline on it.

    And really, if you can’t trust the National Institutes of Health when they give advice that is at least subject to the marketplace of ideas, why in the world would you ever even consider letting a government agency retain the power to make similar judgements about drugs and forbid ordinary people from ignoring their (regulatorily captured, no doubt) pronouncements about which drugs they shouldn’t buy?

    But back to that unintended consequence I picked out… is it really unintended? Are there really people that would be against technological advancement? People that don’t openly subscribe to “humans are a plague on beautiful, pristine, sacred nature” nonsense?

    The evidence is not encouraging. Back to the post:

    Also, since my brain’s still untarnished by the latest glossy Newsweek article pushing the latest disease dreamed up in GlaxoSmithKline headquarters, I would guess that some of those billions spent on, say, Lipitor might be better spent on public health programs instead. Then again, any scientific study I could dig up on public health is very likely to be funded by the diet and fitness industries—they’ve already got Paul Krugman in their thrall, why not me? And so it goes, with new diseases concocted and commodified every which way we turn.

    Perhaps the health wonks among us can mull this problem over, while I ponder what it means when two of our nation’s largest industries (health and defense) can essentially manufacture demand out of thin air. Free market, they call it. Baffling, I say.

    This is nothing more than a (pejorative) description of technological advancement! Humanity is faced with an endless array of problems; most of them are necessarily ignored most of the time because no solution exists for them. That doesn’t mean the problem doesn’t exist, though. It’s still a problem, it’s just a problem that’s isn’t going away for the foreseeable future.

    When someone actually comes up with a solution for it, though, we stop ignoring it because we can solve it. No one created the problem – we just started noticing it. It’s then up to us common people to decide whether the cost of solving it is less than the cost of continuing to live with it. Sometimes the answer is yes, and we pay a price we never paid before, and we get a benefit we never thought possible. How in the Hell does anyone conclude that this in itself constitutes a problem or a flaw in our system? On what planet does curing a disease count as “concocting” it? How could anyone sane conclude that those who give us relief from afflictions that we thought were eternal, unfixable, and inevitable are the bad guys?

    If Burt Rutan or Virgin Galactic or one of those guys gets passenger service going to orbit or to the moon, is this character going to claim that those guys “manufactured demand” for spaceship rides and ponder what it means that they can manufacture all this demand and make money off of it and get away with it? Will the people who cure cancer be manufacturing demand for their cure, and will he ponder what it means that they can get away with it? And that Jonas Salk guy, where did he get off manufacturing demand for polio vaccine? And heart attacks just weren’t a problem for anyone until those statin pushers “concocted” them, right?

    So we have a choice. We can conclude that Mr. Plumer and guys like him really don’t understand how technological advancement works. Or we can conclude that he and guys like him oppose technological advancement and want us to keep living with our present “incurable” afflictions for all time, only with more government supervision. (And one wonders why today’s afflictions are so special, and whether he thinks living with the 15th Century’s “incurable” afflictions wouldn’t be better still…)

    Posted in Tech | 1 Comment »

    More laws tending to encourage class stratification & stagnation

    Posted by ken on 6th July 2005 (All posts by )

    Here’s something I had not been previously aware of.

    Kim du Toit informs me that, unless you have a net worth of one million dollars or more, or you run a bank, or you personally know the individuals running the start-ups you intend to fund, you are forbidden by law to be a venture captialist on any scale.

    Yep. That’s right. The oligarchy is here. One law for the fat cats, another law for you. If you’re not a “qualified investor” (i.e., a wealthy one), your ability to invest in start-ups is severely limited.

    Read it for yourself.

    Supporters of the law, including many on the left that keep railing about the oligarchy that laissez-faire advocates are supposedly trying to establish, will insist that the law is necessary to prevent fat cats from ripping off poor, naive, misguided investors, and that funneling all investment from “ordinary people” through investment banks and other mechanisms that allow fat cats to take their cut is either an unrelated phenomenon resulting from not having enough economic regulation in place or perhaps an unfortunate side effect. But, yet again, laws that are sold as a means to protect ordinary consumers have the “unexpected side effect” of protecting incumbent vendors of all sorts (by making it harder to get a new start-up off the ground) and enriching other well-connected people (in this case, investment bankers). I’m sensing a pattern here.

    Not a conspiracy theory, mind you. Different groups of wealthy and powerful people just find the same tool (dress up a law keeping ordinary people in their place as a way to “protect” them) useful for their purposes, and keep using it over and over, and will keep using it until a majority of the electorate finally decides that protecting fools from their own folly isn’t worth narrowing their opportunities or restricting their options for achieving their own ends. Or until enough wealthy and powerful people figure out that their private jets are as horsedrawn carts next to the wonders that “new blood” can come out of left field with if we stop trying to control them, and that letting someone come out of nowhere and become richer than you is worth it if you get richer than you are now in the process.

    Maybe our friends on the left will one day figure out where oligarchies and class stratification actually comes from and sign on to economic as well as “personal” liberty, and point out the (all-too-frequent) times when their opponents on the right are pushing neither, and win elections on that basis. I’d join that party in a heartbeat, assuming that it didn’t oppose fighting as appropriate and defeating dangerous enemies of the United States and liberal society in general with a powerful all-volunteer military.

    Posted in Uncategorized | 9 Comments »

    Non-activist judges strike again

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

    In Gonzales v. Raich, a bit of judicial activism would have been constitutionally correct and would have also increased our liberties, but the judges took a pass and went with the will of the majority.

    For precedent, they relied on Wicard v. Filburn, or the “Every move you make affects interstate commerce” decision from the New Deal era.

    Finding a right to abortion tucked away in a penumbra might be a stretch. Finding, nearly 150 years after the fact, that a single line in a list of enumerated powers grants Congress unlimited authority over the people and renders the entire rest of the list completely redundant and insignificant is… well, whatever it is, the abortion penumbra pales to insignificance, nay complete invisibility next to it.

    Seriously, under any theory of Constitutional interpretation that doesn’t assume that the Founders were all higher than a treeful of monkeys on nitrous oxide, can anyone possibly conclude that any rational interpretation of a list of enumerated powers could find this meaning:

    Congress shall have power

    – to do A
    – to do B
    – to do C

    – to do R
    – to pass any other laws concerning any activity whatsoever including growing vegetables in your backyard, given that anything you do might affect someone’s decision to buy or sell something across state lines.

    All you folks screaming about Bush’s supposed efforts to destroy civil liberties should note that the Democrats are the ones employing every tool they can get their hands on to preserve this sort of jurisprudence, and Bush is the one trying to inject a few judges that see the New Deal reasoning as the thinly-veiled power grab it is. (Of course, in your world, it seems that “civil liberties” don’t apply to Americans buying stuff and selling stuff, but only to Muslims allegedly trying to blow up stuff. Which do you think is a greater threat to society?)

    Posted in Uncategorized | 7 Comments »

    Parental Guidance

    Posted by ken on 25th May 2005 (All posts by )

    Why should the government stop people from hurting themselves?

    The usual answers fall into three categories. There is the “no man is an island” rationale, the “we don’t want to have to look at you” rationale, and the “they’ll go on a rampage and destroy civilization” rationale.
    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments »

    NY Times points out the need for laissez-faire capitalism as antitode to class inequality

    Posted by ken on 16th May 2005 (All posts by )

    Well, not so much “points out” as “presents strong evidence in favor of it, but doesn’t exactly spell it out for some reason”.

    In the first of a series on class in America, we see the ways in which “class is still a powerful force in American life”.

    But they also point out the ways it is not:

    “For one thing, it is harder to read position in possessions. Factories in China and elsewhere churn out picture-taking cellphones and other luxuries that are now affordable to almost everyone. Federal deregulation has done the same for plane tickets and long-distance phone calls. Banks, more confident about measuring risk, now extend credit to low-income families, so that owning a home or driving a new car is no longer evidence that someone is middle class.

    The economic changes making material goods cheaper have forced businesses to seek out new opportunities so that they now market to groups they once ignored. Cruise ships, years ago a symbol of the high life, have become the ocean-going equivalent of the Jersey Shore. BMW produces a cheaper model with the same insignia. Martha Stewart sells chenille jacquard drapery and scallop-embossed ceramic dinnerware at Kmart. ”

    At the same time:

    ” At a time when education matters more than ever, success in school remains linked tightly to class. At a time when the country is increasingly integrated racially, the rich are isolating themselves more and more. At a time of extraordinary advances in medicine, class differences in health and lifespan are wide and appear to be widening. ”
    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Uncategorized | 13 Comments »

    What if Iran gets nukes?

    Posted by ken on 9th May 2005 (All posts by )

    What then?

    To get a good picture, let’s indulge in a bit of alternate history. Suppose the Taliban government of Afghanistan had nukes in 2001. Let’s further suppose that they weren’t crazy enough to let any of them be used in terrorist attacks, but they had them and everyone knew it.

    Fast forward to September 12. The Taliban government is knowingly sheltering the terrorist group responsible for knocking down two of our largest office buildings with thousands of people inside, and is not going to give them up. What do we do about it? How do we kill or capture the member of that group? More to the point, how do we stop them from striking us again and again? And then again? Still no nukes, but repeated conventional attacks on American civilians on American soil. How in the world would we stop them?

    I don’t see how.

    The Iranians are working on nuclear weapons, and they are run by a regime that has sponsored terrorist attacks against the West in the past. They see us as “the Great Satan”. If they get nuclear weapons, what possible reason would they have for not sponsoring repeated, conventional attacks against the Great Satan itself? What could we do about it? Would we accept a nuclear exchange to retaliate for another 9/11-style attack? Would we wait until we’ve suffered five of them?

    I don’t want to find out.

    We should have been recruiting like crazy since 2001 to provide ourselves a reserve in case drastic preventative measures proved necessary. I think the necessity is now undeniable, that Iran must be prevented from getting nuclear weapons by any means necessary, and that time is not on our side.

    Posted in Uncategorized | 4 Comments »

    How to halt technological progress

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

    What drives technological progress?

    Customers do. They pay the bills in exchange for the gizmos. Government science doesn’t produce technology (except in very limited cases where the technology is a weapon or a showpiece) – it produces basic science, which is of use mainly to other scientists until some private operation sees a way to use it to make new gizmos that people will pay good money for.

    So what determines which gizmos get developed and which gizmos get improved, and what improvements are made to them? The potential market for the gizmos and improvements to existing gizmos.

    If you want the best chance for some physically possible gizmo, or improvement to an existing gizmo, to come into existence, it should have a large potential market. This enables it to be made at a lower unit cost than if it had a small potential market, and increases the odds that, at a given overall level of technology, it can be made cheaply enough to be sold at a profit.

    If you want the best chance for the gizmo to end up being relatively easy to use, then the potential market should include plenty of people that are not highly trained in its use and not willing to invest lots of time and money to get that way. This means that ease-of-use translates directly into size-of-market which brings profit.

    The general public has both of these nice properties, so any gizmo that’s useful to the general public will, in the fullness of time and technological development, become relatively cheap and easy to use. As long, of course, as the general public is permitted to use it.

    If, for example, a high training requirement is imposed on anyone who would use the product, both of these nice properties go away. The potential market drastically shrinks. Unit costs go way up and stay there. And, any effort to make the gizmo easier for an untrained user to use is money flushed down the toilet, since that untrained user is forbidden to use it and is therefore not even a potential customer, which means that the difficulty of safe use which was used to justify the regulation never goes away. Especially since the high unit cost means that demand for the unit’s complement, training, stays low.

    This Catch-22 produces an impressive stall in the gizmo’s improvement and proliferation for generations. If you want to see an example of this mechanism in action, just go in your yard and look up at the sky at all the traffic that isn’t passing overhead. You might see a single private plane, along with a couple of flying cattle-cars. Then go for a drive, and look at all the groundcars bottlenecked on thin strips of concrete.

    Or you can go to the hospital. You’ll see a large array of gizmos, drugs, and other useful things that are unbelievably difficult to use safely and outrageously expensive, even if they’ve been in use for decades. The potential market for the whole mess is practically microscopic, and the training requirement is among the highest in the known world. And if your life depends on hiring someone to use this stuff on you, well, you’ll see the true cost of this for yourself. You might even be driven to suicidal despair by the prospect of such expensive, primitive, and uncomfortable means employed to keep you alive, and hire a lawyer to help you write a “living will”.

    And you’ll see the true cost of four little words: “for your own good”. These products could have been made easier to use, so that many more people could use them, yielding a much larger potential market, leading to much cheaper products, leading to more demand for both the training that’s actually needed and a demand for a version that requires less training even if it’s more expensive, leading to more development, leading to more ease of use and more advanced functionality, etc., etc. But that would have meant accepting a small amount of natural selection at the outset of this process. Society’s consensus is that this is unconscionable. So several kinds of gizmos are locked in stasis, including one class that could be saving far more lives than could ever have been lost through natural selection if they and people capable of using them and the capital for further developing them were as abundant as they could have been.

    But no one could make a convincing case for untrained users being able to hurt themselves with computer, nor for the possibility of evil corporations to hurt innocent little 40 year old children by selling them crappy computers that they don’t know better than to buy. So that gizmo developed in cheapness, ease-of-use, and functionality with lightning speed, and remains one of the brightest spots in our generally depressing technological landscape.

    Posted in Uncategorized | 9 Comments »

    The problems of the culture

    Posted by ken on 29th April 2005 (All posts by )

    Social conservatives have a good point. They note that the laws and social conventions of a society have far-reaching effects across the society, and ultimately determine whether that society thrives, stagnates, or crumbles.

    Unfortunately, they usually spend nearly all of their time talking about sexual rules and customs. While sex is endlessly fascinating, there are other rules of our culture that are at least as important and more urgently in need of repair.

    One of the most unfortunate cultural rules we’re burdened with is this one: it is absolutely unconscionable in our compassionate society to allow someone to hurt himself. This rule has enormous costs – the continued existence of Social Security to the present day can be traced to it (you can’t let people neglect to save and then be unable to retire or pay their bills after they can’t work), as well as our problems with the cost and quality of medical care (since people mustn’t be allowed to hurt themselves with medical treatment or devices, a large and expensive infrastructure has been built for the express purpose of preventing people from being treated without permission and close supervision), as well as the continued use of the groundcar, the War on Drugs, grade inflation (if we can’t stop people from earning failing grades, we’ll just have to stop flunking them instead), the shakedown of the cigarette makers and the associated advertising ban, a large and growing body of product liability judgements, and much, much more.

    If you rule out the possibility of letting people hurt themselves, your only alternatives are to use force to stop them (and use force against other people who help them or even fail to stop them) or to bail them out (with money provided at taxpayer expense, or unearned credentials at the expense of those who can actually earn them but can no longer prove it). The former causes restrictions to multiply out of control, while the latter guarantees the continuation of self-destructive behavior and causes costs to multiply out of control. While restrictions may prevent one form of avoidable suffering, they also restrict the ability of people to solve their own problems and avoid other forms of avoidable suffering; for instance, when doctors are given 25 year sentences for insufficiently restricting the use of pain medication, people with severe pain are deprived of the best available tool for solving it, and must either live with the pain or commit suicide or become criminals to get rid of it. But according to our rules, these people’s suffering is an acceptable price to pay to prevent other people from enduring entirely self-inflicted suffering.

    As long as this rule is ingrained in our culture, effective solutions to our worst problems will be politically infeasible, and politically feasible solutions will be ineffective or destructive. The free market is a wonderful tool for solving problems, but it only works well when people are left to use their own judgement and their own resources to acquire the best available solutions to their own problems, and reap the benefits and bear the costs.

    Posted in Uncategorized | 6 Comments »

    Or we can embrace provincialism again…

    Posted by ken on 26th April 2005 (All posts by )

    My preferred solution to Peak Oil is to embrace other known, proven high-energy technologies and keep our sputtering drive to the stars from stalling out completely.

    Others advocate a different approach.

    Apparently for some, an energy shortage is the perfect opportunity to force us to embrace the lifestyle they’ve been preaching all along, which can be summed up as “get those damned serfs back on the manor where they belong!”

    You think I exaggerate? Let’s go down his list:
    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Uncategorized | 27 Comments »

    Nuclear power

    Posted by ken on 26th April 2005 (All posts by )

    What difference does it make if Yucca Mountain leaks waste in 1000 years, or even 100 years?

    Seriously. Not that it’s at all likely to, but so what if it does?

    There are two possible scenarios. Either we’ll continue advancing, and this planet’s entire population (much less the Yucca Mountain area) will be a minority of the human race in 3005, or we’ll stagnate, and then revert to savagery when our fuel runs out, in which case there won’t be very many people living in the desert and the human population as a whole will have much, much bigger problems than a bit of radioactive waste in an environment that most of them won’t be able to go anywhere near without dying of thirst.

    Anything that maximizes the odds of the first scenario coming to pass, and minimizes the odds of the second, is worth doing at just about any cost. Including radioactive waste in Yucca Mountain, and even including leaking radioactive waste in Yucca Mountain.

    After Peak Oil, nuclear power is our only hope of not reverting to the worst aspects of the 19th Century (you know, the horse-and-buggy level of energy and industry and technology that caused all the misery that the spectacularly successful laissez-faire economic policy keeps getting the blame for). With a sensible (i.e., much lower and stable, particularly with respect to plants already under construction!) level of regulation on the nuclear power industry, the risk associated with possible meltdown is still impressively low; our plants would have to be many, many orders of magnitude more shoddily built to duplicate the Chernobyl plant, and even with that sort of disaster happening occasionally, which it wouldn’t with any nuclear plants we’re ever going to build, we’re still bearing far less overall risk than we would be running out of oil with no large-scale replacement available.

    Of course, any high-density terrestrial energy source is only a stopgap to get us to space so we can use the abundant energy found there. If we screw around until every form of stored energy here is used up, then we’ll be stuck forevermore using energy at a lower rate than it arrives from the sun, which as far as I can tell would leave us stranded on this damned rock until the Sun swallows it whole, or until someone manages to produce antimatter or a fusion generator using only the infrastructure that can be built and operated in such a low energy environment, which may amount to the same thing.

    There is no such thing as perfectly safe. Every course we take has risks, and the one with the lowest overall risk involves nuclear power, and lots of it.

    What about automotive fuel and fertilizer? How are we going to replace that with nuclear power?

    Chemical synthesis, powered by nuclear reactors. There are several schemes for getting fuel from corn, organic waste, and so forth, that show little energy profit. Hook up a nuke plant, and even fuel processes that show a loss would, in effect, ship nuclear power to cars and cargo vehicles. Nuclear plants dedicated to this process can run at constant load as cheaply as physically possible, without dealing with continuously variable load. Given cheap enough energy and high enough demand, nuclear powered synthesis of everything we’re getting from oil should do the trick.

    Posted in Uncategorized | 16 Comments »

    Reproductive Freedom

    Posted by ken on 21st April 2005 (All posts by )

    Remember when “abortion rights” advocates used the slogan “Keep your laws off my body”?

    Makes a lot of sense to me, although I’ve sometimes wondered why these advocates of “reproductive freedom”, while warning us incessantly about the shackles their opponents were waiting to place on us the minute Roe v. Wade got reversed, had absolutely zero interest in the drug laws, the FDA, or indeed any restrictions whatsoever on the use of our own bodies other than removing babies from them.

    Well, now, anytime anyone mentions “reproductive rights” or raves about the right’s conspiracy to enslave half the human race, I’ll recall this little gem and laugh, and note that the pro-abortion crowd is perfectly willing and even eager to outlaw any use of our own body that might convince us not to get an abortion.

    (You know, when I first heard the charge that the “pro-abortion” lobby wasn’t interested in choice, but rather maximizing the total number of abortions, I thought that was a little overwrought. Who could possibly work toward getting other people to have as many abortions as possible, and what could such a person possibly gain by that? Well, now it’s time to reconsider that, and look for a real answer to that surprisingly non-rhetorical question)

    Yes, these guys have pushed the Illinois House of Representatives to pass a bill restricting the use of ultrasound, and requiring doctor’s permission for any and all ultrasound, ostensibly because ultrasound may have unknown effects on the developing fetus.

    “Mulligan said that the Federal Drug Administration had warned that muscle and nerve development could be affected by long exposure.”

    Of course, why anyone with or without a doctor’s permission would submit to “long exposure” to an ultrasound machine without a damned good reason doesn’t seem to be a question that anyone involved asked. But supporters of the bill, in addition to citing hyperparanoid speculation about what “might” happen if someone were to do such a silly thing, said “an ultrasound should not be done for political reasons to make anyone change their minds about any particular purpose.”

    Ah yes, letting people have a look at what they’re considering removing and discarding just isn’t right, and is a misuse of technology designed to, well, let people have a look at that very creature. I know we have a hundred-year tradition of placing most aspects of our own care and treatment off-limits to all but the select few that our masters have decided to allow into the priesthood, but surely looking at your baby with technology that may be harmful if used for several hours a day every day throughout your pregnancy but is definitely far less harmful than all manner of things that pregnant women are still allowed by law to do (not that they shouldn’t be! A ban on such things as eating junk food by pregnant women, especially when the greatest harm from some activities comes before anyone can tell that she’s pregnant, would be problematic to say the least) shouldn’t be one of those privileges.

    So to recap – pro-abortion advocates are interested in no aspect whatsoever of reproductive freedom or any other freedom that doesn’t involve terminating a pregnancy, and are solidly in favor of restrictions designed to prevent anyone from showing you anything that might convince you not to terminate your pregnancy. With the hyper-paranoid crowd in alliance, along with those who think that keeping anything health-related restricted to the MD priesthood is a good way to keep us safe (as if an intentional shortage of people permitted to employ a long and growing list of means to save your life somehow improves your safety), this abomination has very favorable prospects of passing.

    (Links via The Dawn Patrol)

    Posted in Uncategorized | 25 Comments »

    The morals of today’s youth

    Posted by ken on 12th April 2005 (All posts by )

    If you don’t correctly identify the problem, you don’t stand much of a chance of solving it.

    The problem of “sexual immorality” among teenagers is almost universally misdiagnosed, and the vast majority of solutions proposed for problems such as high rates of illegitimacy and STD’s miss the point entirely. While so-called “liberals” (who also tend to misdiagnose the problem and propose band-aids like handing out free condoms) stand accused of plotting to overturn thousands of years of tradition and unleash a Pandora’s box full of unintended consequences, conservatives tend not to recognize that an ideal of universal celibacy throughout the first half-dozen or more of our prime childbearing years is itself a radical innovation.

    To get a better look at the problem, let’s review some numbers (from Table PF 1.5.b)

    Fertility rates ages 15-19, all races, 1960: 89.1
    Fertility rates ages 15-19, all races, 1990: 59.9
    Fertility rates ages 15-19, all races, 1999: 49.6

    Yes, that’s right, over a period of 40 years, we have managed to cut the so-called “teen birth rate” nearly in half.

    Unfortunately, the rate of marriage among these people has fallen even faster, and the out-of-wedlock birth rate has risen substantially. Which suggests that the problem isn’t that our kids are having sex “too early” (at least by any reasonable historical standard), but that they’re getting married too late.

    Which means that the ultimate source of our problem isn’t a corrupt popular culture, oversexualized entertainment, or anything along those lines. Nor is it insufficient sex education or inaccessibility of contraceptives, or anything along those lines. The ultimate source of our problem is that our children are growing up and getting educated too slowly. Three months out of every year of their childhoods is utterly wasted from an academic standpoint (for a grand total of three years – a 15 year old, instead of facing three more years of childhood, could already be in college, if not for that!), and they get a watered-down curriculum when their classes actually do meet – and the high school diploma that takes their entire childhood (and then some, by any reasonable standard) to get qualifies them for nothing that allows them to support middle-class families.

    Now why is it that a nine year curriculum stretched out over 12 years and culminating in a nearly worthless diploma is seen as a fixed law of nature, while the reproductive drive is not? Why is an extra-long childhood non-negotiable, while we must adjust everything else in our society and our kids must put their lives on hold to accomodate it? In short, why should our teenagers be children rather than adults, and why do we think that children can ever safely be left in posession of working reproductive organs?

    Posted in Uncategorized | 18 Comments »

    Culture of death

    Posted by ken on 6th April 2005 (All posts by )

    Those who worried that the Terri Schiavo case presaged a growing euthanasia, and even forced-euthenasia, movement in this country are starting to sound all too reasonable these days.

    While Terri’s guardian argued, persuasively it seems, that Terri herself didn’t want to live in the condition that she was living in, we’re seeing cases where caregivers are pressing to withdraw life support over the objections of patients and their guardians.

    Am I about to blast Bush for signing a law allowing hospitals to deny “futile care” to patients? Not really, although (yet again) I sincerely wish that those who excoriate him for doing so, and call the entire Republican party a bunch of hypocrites over the issue, were right about his actions and their purpose and effect. It makes perfect sense to me for someone to favor a stricter standard for deciding that someone wants to be left to die on the one hand and favor more limited provision of medical care at taxpayer expense on the other hand.

    But the really frightening thing is that, under this law, it appears that the hospitals taking advantage of this law so far aren’t doing so for financial reasons. Now while everyone seems to think that money and health care being in any way related is the work of the Devil, I say that the only reason that a hospital should ever overrule a patient and deny him treatment is because they aren’t being paid for it.
    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments »

    Nature

    Posted by ken on 31st March 2005 (All posts by )

    The so-called “natural world” is characterized, from a civilized person’s point of view, by a distressing lack of metal and energy, and by an abundance of lifeforms that like to gobble up everything we find useful apart from metal and high-octane fuel.

    This means, among other things, that modern civilization, which features lots of metal and really potent fuel and no microbes that like to have either of them for breakfast, looks really weird to creatures evolved in the environment we like to call “nature”. Some such creatures, while giving the appearance of being intelligent, conclude from this that modern civilization is a desecration of nature and that nature is a more desirable environment for human beings.

    But the “natural world” is lacking in metal and high-octane fuel not because that’s the way God or Gaia or Whoever intended, but because these things were buried deep underground and out of reach while the denizens of the natural world were evolving. The real starting point of civilizational advance wasn’t the invention of the wheel, or of fire, or even agriculture. Civilization couldn’t really take off until our ancestors learned how to dig really deep holes and find all that buried treasure.

    If lots of metal and lots of energy had been available at the surface for the last five billion years, not only would people think of them as “natural”, but all life on Earth would be adapted to use them “naturally”. Every animal would have a metal skeleton and a metal shell. Horses would be able to run at a hundred miles per hour or more, and birds would rival our jet planes in performance. Burning wood would yield as much power as burning oil – in fact, plants would synthesize petroleum or coal or something similarly potent rather than starches and sugars, and animals (including ourselves) and microbes would metabolize this high-octane fuel. Leave a lump of coal laying around, and it would rot like a corpse as microbes gobbled it up, and a cup of oil (which would be nice and tasty to us) would spoil like milk.

    Nervous systems would tend to use wires, lending all animals (including ourselves) lightning-fast reflexes. Animals would tend to use some of that abundant energy and metal for offense and defense – projectile weapons and explosives might be seen in place of horns and teeth, and a nature hike might look like what we think of as a war zone.

    Savages would have many of the resources we do. They’d have fast horses, metal homes and metal tools; they’d probably have explosives and other nasty weapons, and so on. Unfortunately, they’d also have far more powerful predators than we do, they’d have microbes, worms, and insects eating up whatever fuel they tried to stash along with the walls of their homes, and they’d be constantly at war with other savages using similarly potent weapons. A “classical” civilization might be much like ours, with lots of energy and lots of metal and lots of interesting gizmos that are relatively easy to make (particularly with “manual laborers” doing work and building things at speeds rivaling our factories – of course that includes slaves, which would still be profitable to keep and feed at this point) and not nearly as much war. They wouldn’t bother with steam engines or internal combustion engines – they’d keep using animal power (those hundred-mile-per-hour horses, for instance) until they figured out how to dig up uranium and make nuclear reactors, at which point they’d build a “modern” civilization with homes of depleted uranium, supersonic jet planes in everyone’s garage, tools and fuel that didn’t rot, predators and most other animals no longer even a minor nuisance to most people, animals in general only kept around if they can be eaten or be accepted as companions/surrogate children/etc., and plenty of spacecraft, factories and machines far more productive than anything we have now and easily driving slaveowners into bankruptcy and eliminating that peculiar institution, and some apparently intelligent members of the species would complain about what a “desecration” all this was and how the race was sadly no longer in harmony with Nature.

    What’s the point of all this speculation? First, to poke some holes in the theory that “nature” as we know it is something sacred, rather than a collection of lifeforms that happened to evolve in a low energy and low metal environment. Second, to point out that any kind of modern civilization must use a much better energy source than is available on the surface in order to live significantly better than animals or savages, who would have been using any good local source of energy they didn’t have to dig for since prehistoric times. If Mr. Kunstler is right about the global oil supply, we’ll have to switch to something else that is equally out of harmony with nature, or else return to a more primitive (i.e., nasty, brutish, and short) mode of existence. Adapting to a low-energy existence, like Mr. Kunstler suggests we do, means given up the noble dreams of rising from the jungle to the stars, and makes a mockery of all the sacrifices our ancestors made to further the realization of those dreams and to protect the laws, institutions, and societies that made it possible. Nuclear power may be scary, but so is coal mining, and doubly so is a world where most people rarely venture more than a few dozen miles from home (and have no means of escape from the place they were born), slavery is profitable, and a farmer working a low-productivity, labor intensive farm can only feed a handful of people instead of fifty or more (which means lots more farmers doing lots more manual labor). That’s the kind of world that needs to be desecrated as thoroughly as possible.

    Posted in Uncategorized | 7 Comments »

    The follies of semi-socialized medicine

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

    In the 3/3/2005 edition of USA Today (sorry, no link), we see an interesting statement: “For the past quarter-century, the American Medical Association and other industry groups have predicted a glut of doctors and worked to limit the number of new physicians.” Further down, the story notes “Congress controls the supply of physicians by how much federal funding it provides for medical residencies – the graduate training required of all doctors”.

    The story goes on to deliver the shocking news that the prediction of a doctor glut wasn’t quite accurate, and that thanks to that work to limit the number of new physicians, we’ve got a shortage now.

    Jesus, didn’t these guys learn anything from the failure of the Soviet Union? Those Five Year Plans didn’t work. You can’t predict with any accuracy the total amount of anything that the whole country’s going to need.

    I wish I had a dollar for every time someone said that health care was too important to leave up to the free market. That makes about as much sense as saying that passenger airline flights are too important to leave up to Bernoulli’s Principle. The alleged importance of health care isn’t going to make bureaucratic controls on the supply of doctors work any better than bureaucratic controls on the supply of steel, nor is it going to magically endow Congressmen or bureaucrats with the superhuman intelligence needed to get a better answer than millions of people acting on undistorted price signals would arrive at.

    And remember when you find your medical bills going up, and your wait to see a doctor gets longer, that your government took deliberate action to reduce the number of doctors as part of its ongoing effort to protect you from the cruel free market. Be sure to show your appreciation next election day.

    Posted in Uncategorized | 14 Comments »

    Violence and socialism

    Posted by ken on 16th February 2005 (All posts by )

    I’ve been an amateur student of history over the last few years, and most of my historical reading has been an effort to find the answer to one question:

    How in the Hell did we get into this mess?

    It’s tempting to look for a powerful villain, such as Roosevelt, Wilson, or TR, and lay the blame on him, and indeed these men were the immediate cause of a lot of damage. But that’s not the whole story. They were as much a symptom as a cause – millions of people voted for them, knowing a great deal about what they were up to. Did one person, or a small group of people, manipulate them into doing that, and continuing to do that for a hundred years straight? Doesn’t seem likely to me.

    How about the establishment of the FCC, nationalizing the airwaves and enabling the government to weasel its way out of the First Amendment, pick and choose the stations allowed on the air, and impose content restrictions on them? Much of the damage was already done by this point, although it may have helped perpetuate attitudes hostile to individual liberty to the present day.

    If you argue for individual economic liberty long enough, you’ll find an interesting general pattern. Once you establish that liberty works, and refute all of the opposition’s arguments in favor of socialism, the opposition will fall back on the same argument – violence. They’ll tell you that letting some people get too wealthy will cause “social unrest”; i.e., the “masses” will become enraged and kill people and destroy property. They’ll tell you that you’ll live with socialism or the “masses” will string you and your plutocrat friends up from the nearest lamppost. They’ll even threaten you with the prospect that those “masses” will overthrow the government and completely destroy society rather than let people get too wealthy.

    (And all the while, they’ll insist that these “masses” are the good guys!)

    The sad fact is that, for the last century or so, the opponents of economic liberty have been willing to use or threaten violence to get their way, and we generally haven’t. We’ve been trying to use appeasement instead. When labor unions used threats, assault, and vandalism to scare off competitors and extort money from their customers, government (with our acquiescence) generally responded by giving them most of what they want. To this day, even those who deplore FDR’s economic policies will insist that he needed to give the socialists practically everything they were demanding lest those socialists stage a revolution.

    So far, our only answer to these thugs has been along the lines of “we’re feeding you, you idiots! What the Hell are you doing?”. And, indeed, the opposition does generally limit its appetite for loot and power sufficiently to keep Atlas at his post, at least so far. But there’s an awful lot they can take from us without bringing civilization crashing down on their heads, and pointing out that they’ll starve right along with us if they don’t let us do any work and profit from it isn’t sufficient to neutralize their threats to riot if we don’t play ball. We give into their demands again and again, and they slow down enough to let society keep running and even advancing here and there, but our dreams of colonizing the Solar System and producing, buying, and selling miracle after miracle in every industry the way everyone once thought we’d be doing just fade away, and as long as the refrigerator is full, the TV keeps working, and us plutocrats are put in our place, they don’t care. The best of us go on producing miracles when we can, and we all quietly accept the time we had to waste in their schools, the time we go on wasting complying with their pointless rules and regulations, and the money that they tax away from us for all sorts of useless purposes, and they rest secure in the knowledge that we value our property and our civilization enough that we won’t quit, disappear, or stage our own revolution as long as they stick with the gradual approach. They’re willing to play chicken, because they’ve been winning for more than a century, and our appeasements have only whetted their appetites for more concessions.

    And, spooked by the “social unrest” boogeyman, we keep voting for the sacrifices that they claim will appease the “masses.”

    So what do we do now? I think we should call their bluff. If those murderous “masses” ever existed, I’m willing to bet that they’re long gone. Our friends on the left have started noticing this – they’re claiming that we’re tricking the masses into abandoning the righteous retribution that they ought to be plotting against us by feeding them false hopes that they, too, can one day become plutocrats. (And never mind that we’ve been delivering on those “false hopes” for centuries – they’re more than willing to steal the credit for that.) They’re screaming as loud as they can about the most trivial cuts and modifications to their beloved laws and programs in the hopes that Bush and the rest of us will be scared away and they won’t have to reveal their paltry hand. I only wish that our Republican leadership was 1/10 as “arch-conservative” as they’ve been hysterically screeching about, because I think now’s the best opportunity we’ve had in ages to repeal their laws and dare them to put up or shut up.

    Posted in Uncategorized | 11 Comments »

    The right way to fix Social Security

    Posted by ken on 9th February 2005 (All posts by )

    First, we must identify the problem with Social Security.

    The problem is that we are currently promising future retirees whose numbers will grow by rather a lot over the next several decades that their real benefits will keep on increasing forever, and delivering on these promises will impose an ever-increasing burden on younger generations.

    That’s it. We’ve made foolish promises, and it wouldn’t be right to overburden those future younger workers by keeping them. The question is, how do we unmake those foolish promises?

    One idea that I like (but haven’t heard suggested by anyone else) is to hold constant the percentage of the population collecting benefits – then let the “retirement age” fall where it may. Another one that I like is to switch to price indexing rather than wage indexing – the current standard of living of retirees is such that I wouldn’t have a moral problem with the amount we provide them remaining (in real terms) the same regardless of what gains those who continue to work earn for themselves. I think we’re meeting all conceivable moral obligations to the elderly, and I don’t see any reason to suppose those obligations increase without limit just because we earn more money.

    One idea that I most emphatically do not like is the idea of adding in a “personal” account. First, it’s not really yours if it can be used only at the sufferance of the Social Security administration. Second, having the government direct the flow of that large quantity of investment capital, however indirectly, is just asking for trouble. The reason that our investment system works is that people attract investment by convincing people not only that their investment will make money, but that their investment is the best possible use of the investor’s money, better not only than “approved investments”, better not only than any other investment, but better than any other possible present use of that money including consumption. Let bureaucrats who won’t even be gaining or losing their own money have a say, and (much more) money will start flowing to enterprises based on pull rather than merit and profitability, and a lot of the money that would otherwise have gone to fund growth and technological advancement will instead go to waste.

    And third, any way you slice it, it will represent an increased burden on those younger workers. They’ll have to keep sending checks to current retirees, and they’ll have to forego even more money to invest whether they have a better use for that money or not. That’s a burden, almost as if they were being taxed, and never mind that they’ll get it back in 40 years if they live that long. If they thought investing in a company on the approved list was the best use of their money, they’d do it without prodding. If not, that means they had something better in mind, perhaps having an additional child, perhaps investing in medical research that could help remove the necessity for retirement in the first place, perhaps an activity that they won’t be able to enjoy at all when they’re retired and their health is failing. Believe it or not, there are more important things than retirement, and continuing to work is not the worst thing in the world. (In fact, there are indications that retiring can itself be detrimental to your health)

    Right now the burden of Social Security and Medicare is somewhat less that 15% of one’s income, the balance going into the general fund to pay for other government expenditures. If things don’t change, that burden will in the foreseeable future exceed 15% of your income, by rather a lot when all is said and done. That’s significantly more than 15% of your income being used for no other purpose than to send checks to retired people – that’s before anyone’s paid to defend you, before any roads are built, before any public research is done, before any MRE’s or bombs or bullets are even bought, much less shipped to the field, before any thwarting of the evil plans of the rapacious capitalists can be done, before anyone can be punished for putting dangerous things in their mouths…

    Okay, so it’s not all downside :) But isn’t that too much? If not, how much would be too much? And why do retirees have a right to eternally increasing support anyway, and why do workers have an ever-increasing obligation to them? And shouldn’t we cut back on those extravagant promises now, before the people given those promises have come to depend on them and have no good way to adjust?

    Posted in Uncategorized | 10 Comments »

    Proper Incentives

    Posted by ken on 9th February 2005 (All posts by )

    Capitalism is really and truly a wonderful thing. What it all boils down to is that people are rewarded for providing something of value for their fellow human beings, by the recipient himself according to the judgement of the recipient – not busybodies who purport to speak on behalf of the recipient – as to how valuable that something is. Produce something that actually improves the lives of others from their own point of view, and they’ll reward you; produce nothing but excuses, and they’ll reward someone else who can deliver.

    Of course, in order for this system to work as advertised, participants must not be able to substitute force for production. They have to be restricted to getting people to pay them voluntarily; otherwise, stealing wealth is easier and more profitable than earning it or asking nicely for it.

    Anarcho-capitalists have suggested that police and military protection can be offered on the competitive market, with continuing customer service, process efficiency, and cost improvements typical of relatively unregulated private industries. The problem there, of course, is that these agencies must use force, and lots of it, in order to do their jobs – but that same force can be used more profitably for plunder rather than protection.

    At least for a while. A good long term strategy would be to deliver real protection and generate lots of repeat business from increasingly wealthy customers.

    Machiavelli pointed out, long before Adam Smith was even born, that a prince who encourages people to peacefully trade and work and keep their profits from doing so will find his state growing in wealth and strength. For best results, a prince who wanted long term wealth and strength would keep economic and other laws liberal while ruthlessly cracking down on violence and theft, attract productive people from other realms and encourage those at home to exercise their abilities to the utmost, maintain a force sufficient to prevent armed interference from rulers and insurgents more interested in plunder or the cheap thrill of pushing people around, and take just enough from his subjects to keep the operation going, while allowing his geese to lay their golden eggs in peace and leaving most of those golden eggs to hatch into new geese, who lay more golden eggs, and so on. Keep it up long enough, and that prince can end up ruling the Galaxy.

    Except, thanks to long-familiar and still unsolved medical afflictions (i.e., the aging process), that prince would have ended up dead long before then. A prince doomed to a short lifespan, as all princes throughout human history were, would find it more profitable over his pitiful lifetime to grab all those golden eggs, throw lavish parties to attract lots of beautiful princesses, maids, etc., sink huge amounts of wealth into half-baked enterprises to grab attention and get more statues of himself built (a poor substitute for actual immortality, but the best available under the circumstances), and if people complain, keep executing them until they shut up.

    So we wound up with the republic as a kludgy workaround. If the prince can’t collect the long-term profit that could be had in running the state well, then voters can act as a check on the new republican government to stop it from stealing all their golden eggs. Unfortunately, that tends to degenerate into a situation where the voters scheme to steal the golden eggs from each other, and elected officials still sink large amounts of money in half-baked schemes to attract attention and get their names in the history books (the modern-day equivalent of those old statues).

    Which means that, far from ruining society, a cure for aging would lead to lots of noticeable improvements in its governance. Even voters might hesitate to vote for more “benefits” for themselves if the alternative is a huge difference in the overall wealth available in their society, and the ease in earning it for oneself, in two hundred years’ time. And libertarian kings and dictators, unfortunately an extremely endangered species up to now, might find themselves in the drivers’ seat and exploit the opportunity to become absolute rulers of humanity’s next superpowers.

    Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments »

    Are flying cars too dangerous to be permitted?

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

    A lot of people seem to think so. A good part of this perception, as far as I can tell, comes from a misunderstanding of the way society would look after the skycar came into general use.

    When people recoil in horror at the thought of cheap flying cars, they seem to envision a city much like the ones we live in with those idiots they share the road with trying to navigate our accustomed traffic density in three dimensions. They imagine millions of the things flying over a few dozen square miles of city, with cars falling out of the sky through accident or mechanical failure and inevitably crashing into a building or residence far too often for anyone’s comfort.

    All of which fails to address one fundamental question: why do cities exist in the first place?

    They exist because they drastically lower the cost, in time and money, for people to trade and socialize, and thereby drastically increase the number of people they can feasibly choose from to trade and socialize with. This leads to more competition as well as larger markets for enterprises of every kind; the latter allows products, services, jobs, and enterprises to exist that couldn’t show a profit if they were limited to serving smaller markets.

    For all of these purposes, the flying car serves not as a means of traveling within a city, but as a substitute for the city itself! Instead of shortening the distance between people and enterprises by crowding them into a city, the skycar shortens the travel time while allowing the people themselves to live hundreds of miles away from their jobs, their friends, and their favorite shops. A few dozen houses may be clumped together in a single clearing, or a single house may stand on its own, but in either case small neighborhoods and single office buildings/strip malls/large stores will be surrounded by miles of wilderness, and people will spend most of their time endangering nothing but trees or grass if they happen to suffer mechanical failure, and enjoying plenty of space between themselves and the nearest fellow traveler.

    How do we get there from here? Simple – allow ordinary people to operate skycars/aircraft/etc. anywhere except over cities. Even better, let anyone operate an aircraft anywhere if they get sufficient liability insurance – and the insurance companies will profit by setting appropriate rates and conditions. Either way, people flying their own vehicles will tend to avoid population centers, enterprises wishing to sell to or employ such people will start locating away from population centers, and as sales volume and penetration increases and prices go down, the countryside will become more desirable and large population centers less desirable as places to live, work, or operate a business.

    And the end result will be better and safer than what we have now. Against a dispersed population, most terrorist attacks, even with nuclear weapons, would yield disappointing results (a notable exception being contagious diseases). While natural disasters are not as much of a threat for us as they once were, there are potential disasters that could still exact large loss of life in today’s concentrated population centers – a direct hit on New Orleans by a hurricane being one example – that would be drastically mitigated by lower population concentrations and faster evacuation capability. Profit opportunities will open up in the development of vehicles that are easy to control safely, opportunities that don’t exist today because no one who isn’t trained to use today’s not-so-user-friendly controls is permitted to fly a craft with any controls.

    And when you get right down to it, it’s a travesty that, more than a hundred years after the Wright Brothers’ pioneering flight, practically all of us are still driving glorified Model T’s and seem to accept without a second thought that our children and even our grandchildren will do so as well. What happened to us?

    Posted in Tech | 34 Comments »

    Score another for Niven & Pournelle

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

    As you may know, these are the guys who wrote a novel about a comet-strike disaster – before anyone had a notion that such a strike might have killed off the dinosaurs, and more than 20 years before observations of comet strikes on Jupiter pretty much confirmed their predictions of its effects. (Update: I’m speaking of Lucifer’s Hammer)

    Now a new study suggests that another of their works (with Michael Flynn), Fallen Angels, is much closer to the truth than one might have assumed when it first came out. In the novel, the ecofanatics prevail, the use of technology and particularly energy is severely restricted, and the emission of greenhouse gases by human activity is successfully curtailed – and as a result, a new ice age grips the Earth, with parts of the US and most of Canada covered by thick sheets of ice.

    According to the article, “there is evidence that changes in solar radiation and greenhouse gas concentrations should have driven the Earth towards glacial conditions over the last few thousand years. “, but such a disaster was prevented by the release of those dreaded greenhouse gases by humans over the last 8000 years.

    Now those favoring severe restrictions on the use of energy have spent the last couple of years insisting that the evidence for global climate change is pretty rock-solid and leaping from there to the notion that their favored restrictions need to be enacted without delay to head off disaster, without ever pausing to consider the question of whether human-caused climate change represents a degradation or an improvement of the environment. If it’s caused by humans, and especially if it’s caused by humans acting to solve their own problems and make their own lives better instead of wagging their tails and waiting for their betters to give them what they need, then it must be bad. Now this assumption that H. Sapiens and all his works are a blight upon the Earth is receiving closer scrutiny, and so far it’s not looking good for the prosecution.

    I highly recommend you read both novels if you haven’t already. It’s nice to read stories and writings by people who believe that human beings using their minds and building progressively more powerful tools for solving their problems is fundamentally a good and noble activity rather than a desecration of some mythical benevolent “nature”.

    Posted in Environment | 44 Comments »

    Things that make you go “huh?”

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

    Are the people at the Washington Post bragging that they’re jumping to bogus conclusions to push a political agenda? Or do they think we’re so dim that we won’t notice even when they wave a big sign in front of our faces?

    And didn’t there used to be people whose job it was to throw articles like this in the trash before they appeared in print where everybody could see them and laugh at them?

    The article seems to make a good start – after the obligatory reference to alarmed experts – by presenting us with an actual data point. This is an interesting data point – the use of contraception among women over 21 seems to have declined lately.

    Why? You’ll search in vain for a statement of the reason. In fact, you get a direct admission about halfway down that the writer of the article and the people interviewed don’t really have the first clue as to why this is – “theories” include “gaps in sex education” (you’re kidding, right?), the “cost of birth control” (did it go up? If it’s constant, how would it explain a decline in its use?), “declining insurance coverage”, “fears of possible side effects of contraceptives” and “personal attitudes about childbearing” (!)

    That’s right, folks, they can’t even tell us whether the number of people who are trying to conceive has changed! This right there is crucial information in determining whether a decline in birth control use is “alarming” or “completely expected”. And you’ll search in vain for any mention of whether all or part of the population interviewed is married, or whether the proportion of married women in the sample and in the population at large increased.

    Here again – “The December report did not tabulate unintended pregnancies, though preliminary information from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found a slight increase in the birth rate in 2003, most notably in women older than 30.” Are these people trying to confuse us by talking about unintended pregancies (by admitting they don’t have a fricking clue about them), then switching to the overall birth rate to point out an increase there? The quality of the propaganda is disappointing – is this the best they can do?

    And yet, given such staggering ignorance, half the article consists of crap about uninsured Americans, abstinence education, ignorance about birth control, and other things that haven’t even been established as having anything at all to do with the purported subject of the article. Paul Blumenthal of Johns Hopkins even pushes the theory that “more women have found the cost of birth control burdensome.”

    As compared to what? Having a baby? Are you kidding me? And look at this gem: “It is absolutely unconscionable that women have a co-pay of $20 or $25 [a month] for contraceptives and men are getting off scot-free”. Yes, it’s “unconscionable’ that people are buying birth control with their own frigging money! And the only way that men are getting off “scot-free” is if they’re not married to the woman (otherwise, they’re damn well chipping in for the cost), and in that case, she’s taking an awfully big risk of disease if her pills are the only protection used.

    And finally, we see a quote suggesting a “considerable drop” in comprehensive sex education from 1988 to 2000″, followed immediately by “Blumenthal has encountered women who mistakenly believe they are infertile because of age or confusion about a missed period” – as if women who think they’re infertile because of age could have possibly been affected by the considerable drop in comprehensive sex education since 1988! Such women are at most 35 years old!

    You know, when I heard about the big bad leftist news media that was going to swing elections 15 points and all that, I expected better propaganda than this. With that kind of pathetic effort, it’s no wonder they went down in flames.

    Posted in Uncategorized | 12 Comments »