Saturday, December 08, 2007

Fetuses Learn to Play Sports, Bulk Up

I was browsing science news yesterday, when I stumbled upon this gem. It seems that there is company called AmnioTrainer producing “in vivo” sports training products for FETUSES! They don’t have U.S. approval yet and there is a debate about the potential hazards of the products. The company’s current products include AmnioBall Futbol and AmnioShock Strength Trainer.

AmnioBall Futbol measures 1.2 centimeters in diameter when inflated, but is inserted surgically while uninflated. Once in the womb, it is filled with the mother’s amniotic fluid so that the ball does not float or sink. A harmless strain of the E Coli bacteria genetically engineered for bioluminescence gives the ball a faint glow, encouraging the fetus to interact by grasping, punching, and kicking. 3D and 4D ultrasound images and movies posted on the company’s website seem to verify these claims. According to AB, the Futbol product will be available for implantation throughout the U.S. and Europe in mid-2008.

AmnioShock Strength Trainer uses low-current high-voltage technology similar to that used for weight loss and strength training in adults to stimulate fast-twitch muscle fibers, allowing fetuses to develop superior strength and speed without the use of pharmacological agents. The Strength Trainer product will be not be immediately available in the U.S., but is available at several clinics in China and Central America. The delay in primary markets is over concerns that trial data showed a slight increase in pre-term deliveries in the study but not the control group. The “significant but not pronounced” decrease in gestation time should not be a concern, according to the company spokesperson. However, AmnioShock Strength Trainer has provoked strong criticism from a number of groups including Fetal Rights Watch and the Preschool division of the Pan Americas Youth Soccer League.

While AmnioTrainer’s methods are debatable, there seems to be no doubting the results. According to the trial results, which began in Brazil on January 8th, 2005 with 127 second trimester fetuses, the performance of two-year-old children trained with AmnioBall Futbol was on average 12 percentile points higher in kickball and 17 points higher in soccer. Results from AmnioShock were varied but showed an overall average of 34% strength gain across all major muscle groups.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

My home is protected by neither Lasers nor Alligators

I was surprised at the magnitude of the resistance to the idea of building a fence on the U.S. border with Mexico. It might be that I skew liberal in my writing and therefore the readers and comments skew left as well. Offhand I’d say that about two thirds of commentators viscerally hate the fence, and a third think it should have automated machine guns and an alligator infested moat.

The predominant anti-fence sentiments are that it would be disrespectful to Mexicans, and that it is unfair to put a fence across the south border and not the north.

After much thought, I have come to the conclusion these comments are just plain stupid. I believe that they are classic examples of knee-jerk herd-minded liberalism that is poisonous to honest intellectual discussion. I imagine a similar flavor to the student communist movements of the mid 20th century in the developed nations.

We need a fence in the south because there is already a fence in the north. It is called Canada. It is a sparsely populated winter wasteland, inhabited by people that are culturally identical and nearly as wealthy as Americans. There is no superior barrier to illegal immigration than lawfulness and economic equality.

But the massive gradient in wealth, education, and healthcare across the Mexican border absolutely ensures that, absent a hard barrier, large scale and uncontrollable illegal migration will occur continuously. Hundreds of millions of people from Central and South America would prefer to be in the U.S., and it is not in the best interests of Americans to accept this flow of new residents at its naturally occurring rate. The only way to slow it is to create a physical barrier, and to help improve the economies of our neighbors to the south. Improvement to a level sufficient to stem the tides will take many decades. We are left with the current need for a fence.

A nation has the right to determine the sources and pace of immigration. There is absolutely nothing xenophobic about this – it is simply anarchistic to suggest a country should not have the right to make and enforce these decisions.

Likewise, it is intellectually dishonest to compare the southern border to the northern. There is a reason that banks install better security than I have in my house. They have more at risk and a higher probability of incursion.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Dennis Miller said, "What is this 'tat', and how can I get some of it to trade?" In that vein, doesn't the phrase "giving someone lip" sound like it should mean something much more fun than it actually does?

Completely unrelated(ly), my wife thought of the best name ever for a warmongering cat: Hungry Hissinger. Nukes: cats ask for them by name!

Enough comedy for now. I was accepted to write for Damn Interesting a couple of weeks ago. Damn cool site - check it out. Anyway, it takes a lot more time to write for them than it does to blog. I'll try to post here and there, but with 2 kids on the way it is going to be slow going. I have to get off my but and stack up some firewood for the winter too. Or I guess I could always just do what I did last winter: cut/split a few wet pieces at a time and use explosives to get them lit every day. BTW, if you are my insurance agent, I'm just kidding. If you anyone else...seriously. Explosives. Also vegetable oil (in a pinch).

Well, it is 5:30AM and I haven't slept yet. Sorry this post is so short and ditzy. I hope it made you laugh a little.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

As Stephen Colbert might say if I was one of his staff writers, “I feel dirty from mucking about in the cottony waters of immigration truthiness.” Before you read this post you might want to go back and read the last two. Or not. Anyway, how do we make it both harder to enter the U.S. illegally and less profitable after illegal entry? Four words: Fence, Enforcement, Fine and Amnesty. Don’t count the ‘and’.

Fence. We make it so that the chance of passing that fence without interception is 9% instead of 90%. If we can do this, it will not make much financial sense to attempt illegal entry. Two chain links separated by sensors and a lot of space. Rapid response teams every few miles. It is totally doable and completely necessary. Arguments that this will increase xenophobia, undermine human rights, or dehumanize latinos or immigrants are specious. Knowing that everyone here came legally will put us all on even footing.

Enforcement. Finding a way to punish employers that hire illegal immigrants is at least as important as making it harder for illegal immigrants to enter the country. Fixing one of these problems without fixing the other will not solve the problem. The fundamental problem in achieving this relates to our previous discussion regarding statutory prohibitions on information sharing between the I.R.S and D.H.S. Also social security numbers are a century old technology that is insanely ineffective. It is time for biometrics, period. This will fix everything. There are obviously privacy issues, but they are solvable by hashing (a non-reversible hash obviously) the biometric data and then encrypting it. The encrypted hash would be passed for verification or embedded on ID cards. If the code was compromised (identity theft), then the citizen could apply for a new hash. Once we have biometric IDs, law enforcement of right to work becomes trivial. If it takes 9 tries to enter the U.S. once successfully, and the average illegal immigrant is caught and deported after a year, it simply will not pay to try to cross the border.

Fine and Amnesty. We’ve talked stick – here is the carrot. The U.S. economy obviously depends on its current illegal workers. Deporting them all, even over a long period of time, would not be in our best interest. This is an understatement…it would cause horrific inflation and would make it difficult for most businesses to operate profitably. Think colossal blunder. So if we can’t remove the current illegal workers, but they got here, well…illegally, then what should we do? Here is my answer.

After Fence and Enforcement are up and running, we publish the following plan and then implement it, making it clear that all steps will be followed:

Step 1: All illegal immigrants must register with the D.H.S. within 12 months. Failure to do so will result in missing the opportunity to apply for a Conversion Visa. There will be no exceptions – if you are an illegal immigrant in the U.S., and you do not register in 12 months you will permanently lose the opportunity to obtain this visa. This will mean certain deportation.

Step 2: Those illegal immigrants registering and passing a criminal background check are issued a Conversion Visa. The terms of the Conversion Visa are as follows:

a. Within 2 years of obtaining a Conversion Visa, the visa holder must return to his or her country for at least a week. The purpose of this element is trust building. If the visa holder does not return within this period, the visa will expire and the holder will be permanently unwelcome.

b. After travel back to the home country and then return to the U.S., the trip will be verified by inspection of the Customs stamp in his/her passport. Upon return to the U.S., the Conversion Visa will become a “Yellow Card”. A Yellow Card confers permanent right to work and residence in much the same way as a “Green Card”, with the following exceptions:

1. Yellow Card holders may apply for U.S. citizenship after a period of 10 years. This long period is in deference to the millions of foreigners that are legally waiting to immigrate to the U.S..

2. Yellow Card holders (even after they obtain U.S. citizenship) permanently forfeit their right to collect Social Security retirement benefits, but they must continue to pay Social Security Tax. However they are eligible for Medicare/Medicaid. The lifetime forfeiture of Social Security benefits is a substantial fine – paid to the U.S. government for having broken the law.

That’s it. Fair compromise, full citizenship eventually. S’up?

PS...A lefty would (did) say (yeah that’s right I’m talking to you Greg Becerra) that making Mexico’s economy stronger will help solve the problem. No. Even if that were to happen the problem would cascade and there would be just as many illegal immigrants coming through Mexico from Guatemala, Honduras, etc. Any weak economy in the world is going to create this problem. To boot, even though Mexico’s economy has gotten much stronger over the past decade the disparity is still huge. According to the CIA world factbook, in 2006 Mexico’s per-capita income is a fourth that of the U.S. 20 years ago in 1987, it was a sixth. The actual numbers for 1987 are $26,668 vs. $4,656 in real 2000 U.S. dollars (reference here). Illegal Immigration from Mexico is at least as large of a problem today as it was 20 years ago. It will continue to be a problem for at least several decades. And that is just Mexico.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

The Smartest Compromise Possible in the Ongoing U.S. Illegal Immigration Debate: Part II

This is part two of my last post. There will be at least one more part as well. Here is a quick recap of the liberal and conservative main points in case you didn’t read Part I:

On the right:

  1. People should not be rewarded for breaking U.S. law.
  2. People who followed the law and are going through the immigration process legally should not be penalized.
  3. It is meaningless to discuss amnesty if new workers without visas will flood in after reform.
  4. Illegal immigrants do not pay taxes but consume/use costly services and infrastructure.
  5. Not having English as a national language spoken by all destabilizes society and divides us.
  6. Illegal immigrants repress wages for Americans.
  7. Unsecured borders are a real threat to the policing of terrorist threats.

On the left:

  1. Not providing a path to citizenship for people who have lived and worked here for a significant time might create a permanent underclass that does not feel ownership in their country. This could undermine our culture and divide us.
  2. Expelling a large number of workers in a short period of time could seriously damage the U.S. economy.
  3. The current situation is not unprecedented. Historically, the U.S. has had a higher % of immigrants before.
  4. Many families may be split up by an aggressive policy of expulsion.
  5. Demonizing “illegal” workers may cause racism to worsen.
  6. Illegal immigrants largely do the work that U.S. workers are unwilling to do.
  7. Children of illegal workers, many born in the U.S., will be greatly harmed by the expulsion of their parents.

I want to start off with Right 4. It turns out that this is factually incorrect. About 75% of illegal immigrants do pay taxes (Income, Social Security, and Medicare). Stephen C. Goss of the Social Security Administration (SSA) has been quoted as saying the SSA puts the number at 75%. Of course this isn’t true of the guy hanging out at Home Depot, but it turns out that most illegal immigrants are actually employees, and when they are hired they present fake or stolen social security cards. As a result they pay in not only Income Tax, but also Social Security and Medicare taxes for benefits that they will probably never collect. If you want to do your own research, check it out. You can actually get direct sources from the SSA on this, but here is a good article here. So anyway, ixnay to Right 4.

Let’s move on to Left 1, Left 5, and Right 5. Point taken. I accept that it is fundamentally un-American to reinvent indentured servitude. The U.S. has the right to decide that illegal immigrants may stay or go, but there must be a path to citizenship for those who stay. However, this leads to Right 1 and Right 2.

It is very hard to disagree with Right 1 and Right 2. Hundreds of millions of people worldwide want to immigrate to America. Even the best of them should wait to enter legally. The U.S. cannot send a signal that coming illegally is superior. There are also millions of already in queue to enter legally, primarily on family visas. I suggest that as a solution, we agree that any path to legal residence and eventually citizenship for those who came illegally must be sufficiently long to ensure that there was no benefit to them for having jumped in line. Based on an examination of the longest average waiting times for family resident visa applications, I would suggest a minimum waiting period of 11 years before a person who is a current illegal immigrant in the U.S. could become a permanent legal resident. In the mean time if they are allowed to stay or to leave and re-enter, it will have to be on a work visa.

A lefty might suggest that this violates Left 1 and Left 5 – but it does not. The average American lives to 77, and 11 years is only 14% of a lifetime. Paying a substantial price for having committed an illegal act will lead current citizens and legal residents to be less angry. In the end, this will lessen xenophobia, not increase it.

I’m going to assume that so far you reasonable lefties and righties are on board so far. In the interest of agreement, let’s throw each other a bone. Left 3 is more or less true. In 1910 14% of the population was immigrant (legal and illegal). In 2005 it was 11%. This fact shouldn’t change policy, but it is good to keep in mind that we aren’t in unprecedented territory here. There was also extraordinary economic growth in the U.S. in the 1910s. We all like that.

On Left 4 and Left 7 however, not so much. Although many illegal immigrants do have children who are U.S. citizens…it is certainly the right of the deported parents to take their children back home with them. Mexico is not Sudan folks. If parents make the decision to leave their children with other caregivers in the U.S., that is their right as well. As responsible parents they will make the decision that is in the best interest of their family. But it is not the responsibility of the U.S. to be force-fed new citizens based on the qualification that they are able to sneak across the border. This demeans the process, the concept of citizenship, and most importantly is horribly unfair to the millions of relatives, students, professionals, and diversity lottery recipients waiting patiently to enter legally. I am sure that on this we can agree. Uh-huh.

But enough agreement – let’s move onto something more polarizing. Good ‘ol Right 3. I cannot see an argument against this one. In fact, recent U.S. history has proven that if we don’t put some real teeth into a reform bill, a wave of new illegal immigrants will rush in to fill the void created by legalizing the current ones. This exact thing happened after 1986, when President Regan signed a sweeping immigration amnesty bill into law. There was no effective enforcement method available of preventing new illegal immigrants rushing in to fill the economic ecological niche vacated by the new amenstees. So rush in they did, and the law was a disaster. Even Fox News says so here.

So fool us once – shame on us. Fool us twice… We can’t make the same mistake again. Not only is there no point talking about comprehensive Immigration reform without enforcement, but it would effectively increase illegal immigration to attempt it. So if we want reform (and we all do), we are going to have to address enforcement in a post-reform world. Okay? Okay.

I want to take Left 6 and Right 6 together because they are both obviously true. However, let’s add some nuance. American workers aren’t unwilling to do these jobs – they are either unwilling to do them at crappy wages, or unwilling to buy expensive machines that do them when illegal labor will do them cheaply. On the other hand, the huge number of migrants that come in legally on farm work visas seems to invalidate the Right 6 argument. No one really whines about farm work visas. Not so much.

Now here is an important point. According to the SSA about 75% of illegal immigrants pay taxes. That means they had to show a Social Security Card to become an employee. Which means they used a fake card with a real number (meaning they stole the number), or just used a fake number. So we can fix this right? No, not really. The IRS is not allowed to share information with the DHS/SSA in a way that is sufficient to determine who is using a fake number. I delved deeply into this issue. The bureaucrats have tried many times to setup an information sharing system that allows employers to check if their new hires are legal or not. Not only have all attempts at creating this system failed horribly, but it is the opinion of most of the people involved that statutory prohibitions on information sharing due to privacy issues make it effectively impossible to fix the problem.

In other words, a social security number is the only way to see if someone is legal, but the government organizations that have the best answers to the “Is he/she legal to work?” question are not allowed to answer the question. And because the quality of the answers from the organizations that *are* permitted to respond is so poor, there is no way to require employers to use the reply at all. The cackef**kedly botched prosecution of Tyson Foods for hiring many illegal immigrants showed this unambiguously. If you read my source here, note the only important sentence: “On March 26, 2003, Tyson Foods was acquitted of all charges in the case brought against them by the U.S. Government.”

So let’s review. As per 1986 – if we have a general amnesty, then we will have an immediate new wave of illegal entrants rushing in. This is because we have no border control.

Our employers don’t know who is legal anyway, because the majority of illegal immigrants use fake or stolen social security numbers and U.S. privacy laws prohibit the IRS and DHS from talking to each other. We could fix this problem with biometric-based ID for all U.S. citizens and residents, but privacy laws prevent that also.

We are f****d guys.

We are not willing to include biometrics in all ID, which is nice because that is an actual solution that would magically disappear the entire problem. So given that we will not do this – all we can do is cut a deal with those who are currently here illegally while at the same time making it harder to get here for new would-be illegal immigrants. And that brings us to Right 7: border security.

Fencing is one of the touchiest subjects in this discussion, and I have no idea why. I have heard equally intelligent, equally well-informed people say, “There has to be a fence” and “A fence is the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard. To solve this one we need to think outside the box a bit. Better yet, we need to build a massive, multilayered, high-tech, roboticized, sensor-laden fence around the box. By the way, Microsoft Word thinks that ‘roboticized’ is a misspelling of “Robotic Zed”. F**k it – let’s hire Robotic Zed to patrol that f***er too.

The fundamental problem is one of economic disparity. A skilled laborer from Mexico can make 3 or 4 times more doing the same work by moving north. That is a heck of an incentive. We here in the North do not want that skilled laborer to come here illegally, but it is clearly in his best interest to do so. There are not many ways to make it less likely that he will come. We can either make it less easy for him to get here, or less profitable for him to be here.

So far I’ve tried to address everyone’s concerns. BJeezus I’m tired. If you feel strongly about something I didn't mention in the Left/Right list, please post a comment. I'll try to address it. Tomorrow I will actually propose a practical solution.

Friday, August 24, 2007

“Pay It Forward” and “Born in East L.A.” both seemed like good titles, but I couldn't choose. So instead, I’m going to call it “The Smartest Compromise Possible in the Ongoing U.S. Illegal Immigration Debate: Part I”

My last article was an appetizer, but this one is the meat course. It is an entire churrascaria in one dish. It is the essay equivalent of a sautéed scallop wrapped in fried bacon, popped into a roasted chicken, stuffed in a deep fried duck, inserted lovingly into a broiled turkey and then finally placed into a spit-roasted butter-basted capybara (the pork of the rodent order). Anyway, now that I have tortured my meaty analogy and it has died on the grill, down to business. This article is about immigration policy.

By the way, it is near impossible to be serious with a 15 pound cat sleeping on your head and occasionally licking your eye. But I vow to do my best. Immigration Policy.

There are about 10 million illegal immigrants in the U.S. right now. Their lives, and the lives of American citizens and legal residents will be hugely impacted by how America chooses to handle the immigration status of those who are not currently in the country legally.

If you think this is an exaggeration, let me throw a fact at you. Experts estimate that between $6 and $8 billion dollars are paid into Medicare and Social Security every year by illegal immigrants using fake or stolen social security numbers. The Social Security Administration is aware of this, and not only includes this income in its budget, but makes the assumption that it will never have to repay these funds to their (illegal) contributors. From what I have read, I estimate that by the time Social Security goes bankrupt, it will have collected $130 billion USD of funds from illegal immigrants.

Whether you are liberal or conservative on this issue, it makes no sense to advocate a policy that will fail just because it seems correct. So I generally fall into this camp: if you are here illegally, you cut in line. You don’t get rewarded for that. Without a doubt there are a billion people in the world that would like to legally immigrate to the U.S. The majority of them are deterred by the hellish bureaucracy, cost, and tiny probability of acceptance. Did you know that the average waiting time for a foreign sibling of a U.S. citizen to receive an immigrant visa is 11 years? Check it out here.

Before I tip my hand and you figure out where I stand on this horribly divisive issue, let’s enjoy the fleeting possibility that you and I might agree. And since we might agree, let’s take a minute to civilly discuss the major Immigration-related issues on both the right and the left.

On the right:

  1. People should not be rewarded for breaking U.S. law.
  2. People who followed the law and are going through the immigration process legally should not be penalized.
  3. It is meaningless to discuss amnesty if new workers without visas will flood in after reform.
  4. Illegal immigrants do not pay taxes but consume/use costly services and infrastructure.
  5. Not having English as a national language spoken by all destabilizes society and divides us.
  6. Illegal immigrants repress wages for Americans.
  7. Unsecured borders are a real threat to the policing of terrorist threats.

On the left:

  1. Not providing a path to citizenship for people who have lived and worked here for a significant time might create a permanent underclass that does not feel ownership in their country. This could undermine our culture and divide us.
  2. Expelling a large number of workers in a short period of time could seriously damage the U.S. economy.
  3. The current situation is not unprecedented. Historically, the U.S. has had a higher % of immigrants before.
  4. Many families may be split up by an aggressive policy of expulsion.
  5. Demonizing “illegal” workers may cause racism to worsen.
  6. Illegal immigrants largely do the work that U.S. workers are unwilling to do.
  7. Children of illegal workers, many born in the U.S., will be greatly harmed by the expulsion of their parents.

I’m not taking sides yet. Let’s just agree for now that this is a fair representation of the points made by each extreme. If it is, then a good compromise should address all 14. Surprisingly, it isn’t really hard to do.

But it takes a long, loooooong time. This article is 12 pages long now, and even though it is finished I’m going to split it up into parts. Consider this the end of Part I. Night!

Ps…anyone know a detergent that will get cat drool out?

Sunday, August 19, 2007

This Article Is an Appetizer and a High Colonic

Yeah. How many other bloggers feed you and clean you out (uh...intellectually speaking) before dinner, eh? One, that's how many.

Several years ago, I met a young man in Shanghai who was living a very dangerous life. I’ll call him ‘Deuce’. He was American, and two years before he had been a student at an Ivy League school. Deuce went to Beijing during his junior year abroad. He never went back home. He dropped out of school and worked as a laborer in a noodle making factory in northern China for several months before eventually becoming a drug addict, a gigolo, and a pimp. If you think that perhaps he was just a liar - I can vouch firsthand for two of the three items on his C.V. after spending only 3 hours with him and his friends. I met him 6 years ago. By now he has become less of a memory and more of a story for me. But I remember one thing he said: “I won’t take an AIDS test. I don’t want to know.” He spent most of the night talking about how much better it was being a pimp than a gigolo.

Deuce came to mind because I was thinking about Soccer Moms and the recent recall by Mattel of 9.5 million toys. Same damned thing. We humans would rather focus on trivial or insignificant problems that face the panic that rises in us when we attempt to address real ones that affect us at the core. When we are angry we would rather kick our toys than face the schoolyard bully. But we have anger and fear for a reason. They can provide us with the energy to change our environment in both large and small ways. Kicking the toys is like whitewash, masturbation, and painkillers. It doesn’t change the rotten fence, or the fact that you are alone, or your sadistic boss. It just lets you survive another day without addressing your problems.

If you want something, if you are afraid of something, or if something makes you mad, declare your own personal “No B.S. Day” and on that day try directing your fear and frustration at the problem. See what happens. If you don’t like it you can always go back to being dysfunctional. My personal "No B.S. Day" is the coming Tuesday, August 21st and I'm going to use it to talk about Immigration Reform. I have this idea that lefties think is horrifying and righties thing is too harsh - but everyone in the middle seems to like it. Weird eh? Tuesday.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Tug of War

What a funny name. It could be a hand-job that you get when you are on R&R, or that feeling that young people get when they think about joining the Army. Of course the other tug-of-war is where two teams hold on to a rope and pull as hard as they can in opposite directions. Ideally there is a mud pit in the middle. With or without mud pit, this is the one I’m thinking of today.

Now if you were expecting a segue from the mud pit tug-of-war to whatever is coming next, give it up. I promise I’ll connect back to it later. For now, get ready for a jolt. *Jolt* Ever since 9/11 I’ve been thinking a lot about the Big Ideas that divide my culture. Scientific Thought vs. Religious Dogma. Consumption vs. Conservation. Pacifism vs. Aggression. Globalization vs. Protectionism. Multiculturalism vs. Xenophobia. Security vs. Civil Rights. There are plenty more but those are some of the big ones.

Something I have noticed is that at any given point in time, each individual seems to come down squarely on one side or another of each of these spectra. Now because it is late, and I’m full of caffeine, and I am feeling particularly imbalanced from the fact that there is deodorant only under my left arm, I’m going to take a detour here. It has no deodorant because my cat licked it off while I was trying to write. For some reason my oldest cat considers licking the deodorant out of my right armpit one of the greatest pleasures in life. Eating deodorant can’t be good for him, but damned if it isn’t hard to write and fight him off at the same time. I guess that means that I’m going to use the TV as a babysitter later in life. I wonder if you can use the V-chip to block everything that isn’t R- or NC-17 rated. I clockwork-O my kids to make up for how my little sister raises hers. We could average out to normal. Or not. Maybe I could just stick with the armpit theme, smear honey under both arms and let the kids go to town while I enjoy the quiet and concentrate on my writing. I’m an optimist, obviously.

Okay, break’s over. So why do we not just take – but also actively encourage such polarized views? We even have sayings that glorify this. One of the most oft-repeated is “You either stand for something, or you stand for nothing.” Something or nothing? With me or against me? Check out this one from ol’ Teddy Roosevelt: “The pacifist is as surely a traitor to his country and to humanity as is the most brutal wrongdoer.”

Yargh. We are not only extremely polarized, but we kind of hate people that aren’t. Why would this be? And that is when I started to think of tug of war. And I remembered something my brother-in-law said about group estimates being particularly accurate. Here is what I think. Our crazy penchant for extreme views is by design. It is an evolved and probably very efficient way of reaching stable equilibria given the restrictions in the way we think and act. But forget that for a bit.

Let’s look at some other facts. Young humans are great at absorbing large amounts of data. That is kind of stage 1. We always learn from our direct experiences, but when we are very young we also pay a lot of attention to what our caregivers believe. In the absence of strong personal experiences young people typically draw their learning from primary caregivers. As we get a bit older - probably starting at 7 and ending around 11 or 12 we do a 180 degree turn and we focus our learning on our peers and social network. Almost obsessively. This starts to ebb for most people by age 17 or so. We then begin to formulate a largely persistent worldview. It can take up to 10 years or so but rarely takes longer. The timeline varies for each individual, but the order is the same for most. First we learn from our family, then we learn from our friends. All the while we learn directly from our environment. At the end of the primary learning we decide what makes sense give the set of direct and indirect learning, and there we tend to stay. An elephant never forgets.

From the point of view of social equilibrium, we learn to pick some tug-of-war games to focus on, and then we pick a side. Once we pick a side we rarely switch, and we tend to resent those that do. Look up the word traitor. But it is okay, because the game is constantly held in balance by new deciders choosing a team.

Now here is where my analogy gets muddy. The mud pit kind of represents the optimal societal equilibrium, because if the game is balanced to benefit us, the center of the rope is over the mud pit. But over time, the center has to move. For example, at one point in time peace is good (say in 1918), and at another war is good (1941). At other times, it is not clear at all (1971). So in 53 years the location of the mud pit shifts around, and the rope has to be pulled harder by one side or the other to keep the center of the rope above it.

It is 5:10AM, and even in my sleep deprived, catlicked, coffee-addled state of mind I can attack what I have written from several angles. But I’m going to finish anyway. I am now at my main point, which is an examination of this question: Why do we “decide” to structure the game of maintaining our society on tug-of-war games? The answer is that strong opposed forces not only balance each other, but they render relatively weak the influences of radicals.

If most people weren’t really interested in playing the Pacifism vs. Aggression game, for example, then one maniacal individual would have a much greater influence when he rushed up, grabbed the rope, and with a PCP-inspired intensity pulled until he dislocated both shoulders. But when there are 100 million people on each side it only takes a miniscule effort on the other side to counterbalance even a group of maniacs.

While individuals are trivial, individual leaders can be very important, because leaders convince other people to act in unison. In this model, some obvious exceptions to the trivial importance of non-leader individuals are creators of ideas, and assassins. Depending on the place and time, we can idealize or hate both idea-creators and assassins. An idea-creator can quickly or slowly change the balance of a game, or even break up a game – in effect he or she changes the model. An assassin interrupts the program that is running on the “computer” that is society by removing a leader. A leader is an important mechanism of computation in determining equilibrium.

It is late. I’ve barely supported a thing I’ve said, but light = late = done. I hope it made you think at least.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

A Beautiful Fall

But it is Spring, you say. Yes, but I'm not talking about that kind of Fall. I am talking about the other kind - where a head hits a desk. They say that it is wrong to speak ill of the dead, and I generally agree. But in this case they are wrong, and today I speak ill.

When I hear the word 'bastard', I think of Jerry Falwell. He was the kind of knee-jerk, opportunistic, anti-intellectual egomaniac that embodies the worst in humanity. If you don't understand the depth of his poisonous effect on American culture (and you enjoyed your lunch but don't relish tasting it again) then don't bother trying to learn about this man.

He was a deceptive, racist sycophant and people like him catalyze the most vicious atrocities that humans are capable of visiting upon one another. He perverted the best tenements of his religion and contorted the words of its text into inhumane positions, taking great pleasure in using these perversions to advocate positions that would - how should I say this - make baby Jesus cry.

He tortured a beautiful philosophy until it cried "Do it to Julia". He was a pimp and a pusher. He was the Stalin to the Lenin. He spun lies from half-truths, knit them into a monstrous evil, and then sold it to the masses. He did as much to harm Christianity as any single man has ever done. He is the reason that atheists and agnostics cringe and scoff when they think of religion. He was the Christian equivalent of a lazy Bin Laden in a fat suit, only more charismatic, dumber, and with a less consistent morality.

If Jerry had been right that there was a hell, he would be in it now. Unfortunately he was probably not, and I will have to accept the fact that rather than suffering for all eternity, he is just gone. Sadly he leaves a legacy of judgementalism and ignorance, and has done a harm to the world that it will take generations of great leaders to undo. Jerry, if you are out there somewhere, burn baby.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Specieal Insanity

Most new parents hope that their children are beautiful geniuses who grow up to be tall and healthy. These are things that society values. But without adversity humans often/usually grow up to be character-free drones, lacking in inspiration and motivation - c.f. ‘Beautiful People Syndrome’.

Some people us BPS in a different way than I do. I am talking about being spoiled by an easy “high percentile” life where everything you want falls in your lap and people queue to cater to your needs. There is nothing more poisonous to the development of a soul than this. Some quick evidence – the most badass intellectuals and revolutionaries in history come up in the toughest places. Russia – need I say more?

So back to the point – if you want your kids to grow up to be happy, healthy, and INTERESTING, where is the balance? How do you check the parental instinct to provide and protect against the reality that adversity creates really cool people? Why don’t we ask questions like this? I believe that our society is becoming poisoned by risk aversion. We live in a country where people consider you irresponsible for not taking your pet for annual preventative doctor visits.

As more and more countries enter the club of developed nations, we as humans grow less and less connected with the context in which we evolved – a daily struggle for survival. We retain our instincts to survive, but in the absence of real danger we map them to the compulsions for improved fireproof pajamas, sanitized spinach, and cars that make it impossible to accidentally hurt yourself. It doesn’t really matter to us what we pay for these tiny marginal improvements, in either monetary or spiritual terms. Our instinct to focus on dying slower is what drives us, and the safer our lives become the more ridiculous the expression of that instinct becomes. We are losing our sense of adventure and our tolerance of failure. We accept no responsibility.

When I look forward and follow this trend to its logical extension, it could be described as insanity. With primary instincts that have become obsolete in the context of our “civilized” environment, we have no purpose. I think that to fill this void mankind needs a mission statement. Something that we can learn to focus on – a great collective dream. Interstellar travel would do nicely. So would World War III I suppose. If you have a preference remember to vote.

Monday, May 07, 2007

Awesome Quote - "Small feet can lead to unsoundness."

Someone else wrote this, but I don't think they ever considered its meaning out of context. What do you think? I love's like a Zen pun.

I found it a couple of years ago when I was researching God knows what for God knows why. Here is the original context:
Man in a Box

I was standing in the center of a large, dark box. I thought the sides were close, but I couldn't see them. It was just a feeling. I knew I was standing in the center and wanted to find the sides. I started to explore, but for every step I took the walls moved away from me as quickly as I walked. This scared me, but when I moved back towards where I started, the walls didn't shrink again. Just by exploring I had made my box larger. I had a tough decision to make. I was either going to be bored and stuck in a small box, or I could try to explore and make the box grow.

I made this up as an analogy to how we collectively approach science. The problem is that there are many of us, and those of us that go exploring grow the box for everybody. If you are afraid of infinity the last thing you want is the people around you constantly reducing your importance.

We (the people I like and am like) are used to thinking of knowledge as a shared resource that benefits everyone. From another perspective (albeit one that makes me want to get into a barfight) ignorance is also a shared resource, and one that cannot be regained once lost.
Poeticization of Me? Only this once and it's all her fault.

I wrote this poem for my wife on Valentine's Day. If you don't like it, keep in mind that I'm not much of a poet and my wife is so amazing that she inspired a non-poet to poeticize. If you do like it, she gets all the credit.

before i met you

footprints behind me, on the beach
were all the places that i'd been
in every place i thought the same
on different sands I was alone

one day i found another's tracks
i thought, but i had not found that
instead i'd walked the world around
and found my own footprints again

i thought i'd walk until i died
an empty man with empty tracks
staring ahead with stubborn hope
and measuring my life in laps

and then one day there you were
walking towards me on my beach
you'd been walking on it too
making circles on the earth

you took my hand and smiled at me
alive and warm i felt your glow
and for the first time in my life
i knew some things i could not prove

that you love me and i love you
that fate has blessed us both with this
that we will never be alone
and that this place was worth the walk.

Sunday, April 29, 2007

Things That Stand Out

At age 4,
In the basement as a child I thought a robot would assemble itself from parts, and it wouldn’t be friendly.

At age 6,
Four boys in my class beat the tar out of a new kid in the bathroom. He vomited pink. For the rest of elementary school those 4 boys were the popular ones. I realized that mobs have power, and that they are bad. I also realized that I don’t like most people very much.

At age 11,
I had a crush on a little girl and rode 5 miles twice a week to watch her practice little league. I would follow her home on my bike afterwards. One day she hid under a car, and I knew she was there but I didn’t look because I knew it would be awkward. I rode home and never followed her again. They didn’t have the world stalking yet.

At age 12,
I made an obscene phone call to the operator and she called me back to tell me boys can go to jail for that. I waited for the police to come.

At age 12,
I started a chemical fire when I was alone at home. It flamed 3' high in a glass cup while I ran to take it outside. It burned my hand and sooted the ceiling. I thought the house would burn.

At age 13,
One of the only kids that was friendly to me found a nice crystal in the playground. I was jealous and I stole it. I never gave it back but I felt great guilt and I knew it was a mistake.

At age 14,
A redneck gang leader beat my friend while I watched. It happened fast and I was afraid to help. I swore I would always protect my friends after that even if it meant taking a beating.

At age 14,
In 9th grade I stole potassium ferrocyanide from the chemistry lab. I thought it was toxic and I accidentally spilled it outside. Panic.

At age 15,
I took a shower with one of the dumbest girls I have ever met. I was afraid I got her pregnant even though the sperm would have needed space suits.

At age 16,
I accidentally boiled mercury. Don’t ask. I wondered if and when it would catch up to me.

At age 17,
My girlfriend got Chlamydia and before I learned it was curable or what it was she told me I might have it too. When the doctor was testing for it he inserted the biggest q-tip I have ever seen into my penis. Do not enter. I didn’t have it, but they gave me the treatment anyway in case of false negatives. I still wonder why the fuck they q-tiped me if I was going to get the antibiotics anyway. Satan doctor.

At age 17,
I accidentally electrocuted myself alone at home, and my heart stopped for 15 seconds

At age 19,
I found out that my girlfriend had just been raped by her boss. I felt the deepest rage and humiliation.

At age 20,
I barely had the will to prevent myself from killing a man. I was consumed by a hatred so strong that I forgot who I was.

At age 21,
I saw my father in a hospital bed, weakened and suffering and on morphine.

At age 22,
I wrecked a scooter in the middle of nowhere in Taiwan and my shoulder was torn apart. The police thought it was funny. They didn’t help. I had to hitchhike to a hospital but my friend and a local couple helped me.

At age 22,
I hid in the bathtub when the lover of my date came to visit. He was armed police and she said he was her brother. I stood in the tub while he urinated, watching him through the curtain and thinking what a good story this was.

At age 22,
I was trapped in the streets of Taipei during a Typhoon. There were live power lines in the street, and big pieces of signs flying through the air at 60 miles an hour. Clay tiles were falling off of roofs everywhere, and all I could do was run to find shelter. That was the most alive I have ever felt.

At age 27,
My cat Buttkiss ripped my eyelid in half, bit into my scalp, and pierced my cheek. When blood gets in your eye it isn’t red – it is like Vaseline. I drove myself to the hospital. A little girl in the emergency room cried when she looked at me. The police came to interview me at the hospital and told me they knew I was protecting my friend. They wanted me to tell who really did that to me. "If someone beat me up," I said, "don't you think I could come up with a less embarassing cover story than that my housecat did this to me?" Buttkiss was declawed several days later. I wonder how many people have had the experience of cleaning their own blood off of the ceiling.

At age 27,
Venture capitalists funded my startup. I was proud and excited.

At age 29,
I had sex with a woman I didn’t know and she stayed the night at my hotel. In the morning she told me she was HIV positive. Then she asked me if I wanted to go to breakfast. I had worn a condom but it shook me and made me think about my life. I stopped having sex for 6 months until I passed my test. I was strong and I am proud of that.

At age 29,
After 13 years of searching I still hadn't found the woman I would marry. I was doubting.

At age 30,
I am older than I could ever imagine myself being when I was a child. I wasn't sure I would make it this far. I didn't know what I would become as I aged but now that I am here I understand. It takes a lot of experience to look forward but looking backwards is always easy.

At age 31,
Two guys were beating an unconscious man on Mao Ming Lu in Shanghai. I rushed in screaming and I was ready to fight. My friend and I chased them away. You shouldn’t stomp on unconscious people’s heads.

At age 34,
I am married to a wonderful woman. We love each other, and I am happy. This surprises me every day.

A few people close to me have passed away – I didn’t mention these because they seem both too personal and universal. My parents were the biggest positive force in my life and they gave unselfishly to their children. I didn’t talk about this because it is too big and too blankety.

Saturday, April 28, 2007

The Art of Life

You are painting. Your images are everywhere in the room - on the walls, floor, and canvas. You are working slowly now, but you remember making some of them in a feverish burst. The room has your smell. You feel like there is someone watching you work. You don't know how you got here or why but you feel the need to create. You want to make something beautiful right now, and sometimes you want to make other things. You remember watching others paint, in a room with familiar smells. They are gone now and you don't know where they were or where they are. Maybe you painted over their work. You can remember looking at it and making a stroke. You remember a sense of loss and of excitement. That feeling comes out in the expression on the face of the child as your fingers dance on the canvas. As you draw her eyes you feel that she is watching you. You remember opening your eyes and looking up. There was color everywhere. You are in the moment of your work.

For all of the rules that we make and for all of our ego and self-importance, we will never know anything. When we are bored, this makes us feel particularly lonely and we make up stories to keep ourselves company. Time changes the meaning of stories, and like children we are easily distracted.

The very simple truth is that we are inspired by the things we see around us, and we in turn re-form what is around us by our reactions to this inspiration. Our reformations in turn inspire those that come next. In a cosmic sense life is art. In our human gallery there are dark periods and light ones, and some bright threads that connect them all. From the the first spark of life until the end of the universe, it is one great mosaic of continuous performances. Perhaps it is not meaningful, but it is our exhibition and you are part of it. Part of why we long for God is the great desire for someone to appreciate this, our collective masterpiece.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Ars Gratia Partis?

Someone asked me today if I was aware that China was trying to open up an international market for tiger parts. Not being a crunchy lunatic, my answer was no. Being a top 100 man myself, I asked him why he was so obsessed with the 12,834th scariest thing that China is doing. As long as people are being abused and there are flagrant human rights problems, I have a hard time breaking out the "stop farming tigers now" placard.

Know why you've heard of tree-huggers but not tiger-huggers? Trees don't eat or kill people. Now if you are a hippie-type I know what you are going to say - tigers to don't kill or eat people. That is what Roy (of Siegfried and Roy) says too.

Caring about things like this must happen in the same part of the brain that handles art appreciation. Speaking of art - have you been to a big metropolitan museum recently? They are wasting a LOT of prime office space on displaying art and stuff. SAVE THE TIGERS!

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

What Is the Market Value of a Sympathy F***?

I need to know for tax purposes. Just kidding of course - I do love my hooks. I do want to talk about charitable giving though. See look where your mind is now. Gives new meaning to "I gave at the office", doesn't it?

Anyway, my family is thinking about setting up a charitable trust. Until now we have all given independently, and we are trying to reach agreement on a theme. . We have spent a great deal of time thinking about what we want to accomplish and how to most optimally reach our goals.
There were many different opinions, but the overall consensus mission statement is "Do the most good for the most people".

Most of us believe that healthcare is not the best way to accomplish this. Helping sick people survive or preventing illness only increases the number of poor sick people. It feels and sounds good, but the long term effects are probably negative in many cases. I think people often give to charity because it makes them feel good.

For me, charity is not about feeling good, but about making the world a better place. Every dollar that I donate or help raise goes to helping to educate bright poor students who have no access to financial aid. My wife and I focus on China because we have family there so it is easy to find candidates. There are parents working 80 hours a week at dangerous and terrible jobs to pay for their kids to go to public elemenary school! Tuition is not free at any level in China.

We search for and sponsor children directly. We make sure they know that the help is not free. We expect them to use their education to help improve living conditions in their hometowns. Some want to be doctors, businesspeople, engineers - all want to give back. What do you think?
Waste of Space?

Someone asked me if I thought Simonyi was extravagantly wasteful or a visionary pioneer for spending $25M to visit space. This gave me the chance to do one of my favorite things: reject the premise of the question.

It is a little understood fact that while you can waste money from your own point of view (meaning you could have used it in a way that made you happier), you can't actually waste money. It is not a resource - it is a store of value. You can waste energy by using it unproductively, and you can destroy order unproductively. But when you spend money you are simply transferring it to someone else. Then it is theirs to spend as they see fit.

I think you can only look at it as wasteful if you transfer it to someone that will use it to destry more resources unproductively with it than you would have. NASA does not fit into this category. At any rate, by my quick estimate at most 10% of the fee went to fuel and single use hardware. Not much waste there.

Of course you also cannot call someone a pioneer for buying a ticket. No matter how long the ride or how expensive the seat, many people went before him and the technology is robust at this point. It was probably less dangerous than visiting Baghdad and certainly less dangerous than living there.

In conclusion, I think the categories into which the fellow could be fairly placed include space-geek and rich tourist, but not wasteful or pioneer. Rock(et) on!

Sunday, April 22, 2007

God Said, "Let There Be WHAT?"

I have often wondered why someone from China would choose to be Christian, or why a Californian would become a Buddhist. I have strong and well established views on religion, so I'll sidestep that part of this discussion. I want to discuss how we choose religions, and how we choose to practice the ones that we choose.

I have spent several years living in Asia, in Taiwan and China. I have known people of many faiths there, and in other countries as well including the U.S., Mexico, and Brazil. Something that strikes me over and over is that practicing the same religion in a different place inevitably changes the culture of the religion itself. Or perhaps more accurately, the way a religion is followed will be different when it is followed in different cultures, even though the source texts may be near identical.

For example, Chinese Buddhists often feel that the religion is part of their history, their family, their traditions. But an American who is intellectually drawn to Buddhism (or drawn for other reasons) is intentionally seeking a religion that is foreign to her own culture. Inevitably, part of the appeal is the exotic nature. Futhermore, in the vast majority of cases, the collective character of people who choose to follow a religion is different from those who are taught as children to follow it.

Most practitioners of religion would object to what I am about to say, but in almost every way organized religion operates as a business. It requires money to create its infrastructure - a place to worship, operation capabilities, etc. Member donors by definition have great power of the way in which the religion is taught and practiced locally.

Practicing a religion (as opposed to a philosophy) essentially involves a leap of faith. Faith is the act of accepting a body of formal teachings that cannot be proven. But to practice a religion publicly, you will learn/practice in the context of the way that the religion manifests in your local culture. The practice of Daoism in a group in Manhattan may be similar to a group in San Diego, but they will likely have substantial differences.

Seventy years ago it was common for white southern preachers of Christianity to publicly claim that people with dark skin were not the equals of their white counterparts. This seems ridiculous in hindsight and would be scandalous today - but it illustrates the point. Because religious texts offer contradictory teachings that are open to arbitrary interpretation, the way in which any religion is practiced takes on the character of the practitioners.

I strongly believe that even without making any assumption as to the existence of a higher power, it can be clearly argued that the way we choose to map the teachings in historical religious texts to our society is largely a reflection of that society at a given place and time. The way in which we practice is fluid and is simply an instrument of our subconscious. "We" use it to promote whatever behavior we believe will best suit us, and "we" is a wealth/power weighted average of the self-identifying group in question. I

f you don't believe me ask someone in the American Anglican church about homosexuality. Or the Mormons that practice polygamy about the ones that don't. Or a baptist in Dallas about a gay baptist in San Francisco. Just as a species diverges when it is divided into geographically separted groups, so does a religion diverge when a cultural barrier separates its practitioners.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Shouldn't ', liberty, and the pursuit of happiness' include the right to keep my deodorant?

So when you check-in at an airport now, you have to put your "liquids and gels" in a baggy. The bag isn't to contain your deodorant specifically, but to define the maximum volume of allowable liquid/gel carryons. But the whole process is grotesquely stupid. I can think of a dozen ways to get around it, and so can anyone that isn't stupid. For God's sake, you can buy a bottle of 100 proof vodka...alcohol is kind of flammable. But constantly creating and revising arbitrary rules serves several purposes: it keeps people afriad, it helps people feel that someone is doing something (even if it won't help at all), and it provides jobs for government employees.

The way the DHS has handled travel rules is a good example of something that is deeply wrong with our country. We are willing to spend billions of dollars and cause significant inconvenience to millions of people for the illusion of protection. A bad person hellbent on doing a bad thing will always find a way to do it. No silly bureacratic rules will stop it - they will only pile up until they make a mess of everyone's lives.

Can we stop living in fear and just deal with the fact that every time we travel there is one chance in 500,000 that something bad will happen? Wait a week and watch what the repercussions from the Virginia Tech shootings. There will be ten thousand school administrators and psychologists creating new screening protocols, and it will not help anything. The same thing happened after Columbine and that didn't prevent this. Bad people that want to do bad things will succeed. The good news is that it is not likely that will affect you. STOP BEING AFRAID.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

A guy walks into a bar...

and he says, "There is much talk about reinventing the education model to cater more for creativity in the arts, etc. But can this really ever work in modern society?" I reply "Heck no. Art is what people do when they are too dumb to understand math and science. Focusing on art to improve education is like raising the limbo stick to 6' high because some people can't limbo. Now focusing on creativity in general makes a great deal of sense. You can be creative with regard to ideas and reasoning I hope you know I am half kidding. Or maybe 33%."

He replies, "I like your sense of humour. So how do we teach creativity within the current education model?"

I take a quick look around to make sure I didn't accidentally sit down at a gay bar. Looks okay so I guess he isn't hitting on me. So this is how I respond:

I think that Socrates had the optimal approach to teaching creativity - teach by asking students problems that they have almost enough knowledge to answer, thus encouraging thought and discussion. The focus of education should be on learning to solve problems and learning not to fear research and collaboration.

The problem is that this approach requires more intelligent and highly skilled teachers, and the current educational system in the U.S. is almost completely incapable of attracting these people. I did the coursework for a M.A. in Teaching and by my last semester and practicuum it has become obvious to me that I could not survive and flourish in the repressive intellectual and political environment that is the U.S. public school system. I was in a top 10 graduate education program and literally every intelligent student had dropped out by the 5th year - leaving the dregs.

I have discussed this problem at length with many teachers and academics, and there is a consensus that if salaries for teachers and administrators were doubled and then kept current with professional salaries (engineering, nursing, accounting, etc) that the educational system would attract better people and would over time become quite professional. It would take 20 years though.

No one seems to have the stomach to do this. Until the 60s, teaching was the only real job a smart woman could have, and this "captive audience" meant that the profession could pay poorly and still attract good people. Now that women have the same options as men, no one smart and creative stays in teaching. Paying teachers poorly was sexist to begin with, and now it is a relic.
Funny Headlines

Macabre, goofy, ironic, or preposterous - I kept a list of funny headlines, mostly from CNN. Check these out - they are all real. I think my favorite is the "League of Human Dignity" one, but there are some other diamonds too.

2/7/2002 Unruly Passenger Subdued with Axe
2/12/2002 Woman declared dead Saturday dies Monday
2/14/2002 Alert issued for potential teddy bear bombs
2/15/2002 From a CNN article about the first cloned cat: "The kitten joins a growing list of animals that have been cloned from adult cells, starting with Dolly the sheep and now including pigs, goats, cattle, mice and an oxlike creature called a gaur."
3/15/2002 Dachshund survives after eagle carries it off
3/19/2002 Whew! Stealth asteroid nearly blindsides Earth
3/19/2002 Sony robot sings, dances and isn't cheap
3/21/2002 Scientists test first human cyborg also in this article: "Warwick also hopes to wire himself up to a ultrasonic sensor, used by robots to navigate around objects, to give himself a bat-like sixth sense."
3/25/2002 Hubble spies galactic 'blue light special'
3/28/2002 Country singer Lyle Lovett trampled by bull
3/28/2002 Giant octopus caught off New Zealand
3/29/2002 From article, "Doughnut trail leads cops to thief" "They abandoned the truck when they were spotted by police responding to reports of a dangerous driver who was losing his doughnuts."
4/03/2002 Asteroid on possible collision course with earth
4/11/2002 Ed McMahon sues, says toxic mold killed dog
4/11/2002 Traveler's self-heating shoes cause airport scare
4/16/2002 Weed killer giving frogs multiple sex organs
4/24/2002 From article, "Mr. Elmo goes to Washington" WASHINGTON (CNN) -- In what may be the first appearance of a Muppet before a congressional committee, "Sesame Street" favorite Elmo donned his best suit and tie and took his cause to Capitol Hill.
5/03/2001 Judge orders defendant to pose nude
6/14/2002 Video: CNN's Natalie Pawelski travels to Iceland to view and taste one of nature's cutest birds
6/28/2002 Freezing mountaineer saved by telemarketer
7/10/2003 Pirate assaults sausage with bat
7/12/2002 Sesame Street to introduce HIV-positive Muppet
7/12/2002 Shocked: 99 alien fish snagged in pond
7/16/2002 Quadriplegic sues strip club over wheelchair access for lap dances
7/19/2002 New TV show aimed at cats
7/24/2002 Alien fish no match for poison
7/26/2002 AOL: You've got fear
8/09/2002 Pornographer: I hacked al Qaeda
8/21/2002 Mom charged with letting kids get sunburned
8/23/2002 Report: Third child for Michael Jackson
10/18/2002 Is 'The Ketchup Song' the next 'Macarena'?
10/19/2002 There may another World Series quake, cats permitting10/22/2002 Airline pays woman squashed by obese passenger
10/31/2002 Canada issues U.S. travel warning
10/31/2002 Not enough fish in the sea, study finds
11/20/2002 New campaign: Would Jesus drive an SUV?
11/22/2002 Scientist burns penis with hot laptop
11/23/2002 Bush not 'a moron'
11/23/2002 Rain in Spain causes shuttle liftoff pain
11/25/2002 Hidden island off Sicily may reappear
12/09/2002 Marvel Comics to unveil gay gunslinger
12/11/2002 FAYETTE, Mississippi (AP) -- Two former Jefferson County, Mississippi, jurors have filed a $6 billion lawsuit against CBS' "60 Minutes" and a newspaper owner over comments about the size of jury awards in the county.
12/11/2002 Florida third-graders face pot charges
12/16/2002 Kentucky frees felons to balance budget
12/19/2002 Judge: Sell Bonds' homer ball, split proceeds
12/19/2002 Man sentenced for monkeys in pants
01/09/2003 Rare English moss ends 130 years of celibacy
01/10/2003 Researchers might find stroke treatment in bat saliva
05/08/2003 (MSNBC) Passengers sucked out of plane
06/09/2003 4 get monkeypox from prairie dogs
06/17/2003 Iraqi man hid 22 years in a wall
07/10/2003 Pirate assaults sausage with bat
08/26/2003 'Bug Bowl' addition: Cricket-spitting
09/04/2003 FBI: Pizza man had another weapon
09/05/2003 Turtles lured to disco death in Greece
09/20/2003 Robot ship racing to death crash on Jupiter
10/09/2003 Black leaders outraged over 'Ghettopoly' board game
10/12/2003 Iraqi boy who lost arms in war angry at U.S. pilot
10/28/2003 Millionaire says he doesn't recall cutting up friend
1/16/2004 Disney worker deported to Haiti for role in massacre
2/7/2004 Doctors remove baby's second head
2/9/2004 Inmate escapes using toilet-paper gun
2/10/2004 Opportunity peeks out over rim
2/12/2004 Disney worker killed by parade float
2/19/2004 Teen surfing Web learns he has been abducted
2/19/2004 Conan O'Brien apologizes to Canadians
3/29/2004 Patient wins right to fly with pot
07/21/2004 Reverse air rage: Drunken flight attendants attack flier
07/22/2004 Plant fires 11 workers for chicken abuse
08/03/2004 Fat activists protest diet industry
08/11/2004 from article, "Man trying to lose 800 pounds" A group known as the League of Human Dignity helped arrange for Deuel to be driven to a local livestock scale, where he could be weighed.
8/12/2004 Gene blocking turns monkeys into workaholics
8/17/2004 Bear guzzles 36 beers, passes out at campground
8/29/2004 'Friendly' killer whale damages three boats "Now Canadian officials and an Indian group that believes the animal is the reincarnation of its late chief are working on a plan to protect both Luna and humans. "
9/10/2004 "Man arrested for 1974 Spam-related homicide"
10/24/2004 Britain's Royal Navy to allow devil worship
11/05/2004 Fighter jet strafes New Jersey school
11/14/2004 Vice President Dick Cheney is undergoing tests at George Washington University Hospital after experiencing shortness of breath, the White House said today. It is unknown whether Cheney, who has a history of heart problems, will be admitted.
11/15/2004 Pill may help prevent drug abuse, researchers say
1/21/2005 'Giant' 17-pound baby born in Brazil...A woman in Brazil gave birth Wednesday to a boy that doctors have nicknamed "giant baby."
1/22/2005 Review: 'Are We There Yet?' tiresome
2/14/2005 Court documents: Kazaa workers hate own software

Yahoo Quotes
2/24/2005 Top Stories - AP: Ga. close to naming official state amphibian
2/24/2005 Kenya urged to ban flimsy shopping bags
9/10/2005 He said a suicide note was found in her e-mails. The court heard that two suicide notes were found close to her body. A coroner said Carina appeared to have enjoyed her experience filming "The Colony."
9/14/2005 Inventor fuels car with dead cats
10/31/2005 Pastor electrocuted while performing baptism
1/10/2006 Mummified body found in front of TV
2/7/2006 U.N. staff flee cartoon riots

CNN Headlines
12/10/2006 "Gunman felt cheated over toilet invention"
12/13/2006 World's tallest man saves plastic eating dolphins
12/15/2006 "People are eager to adopt a pit bull who chewed off a baby's toes."
12/18/2006 Runner Fails Gender Test
2/15/2007 Boy, 3, on fire runs into tree crying for mom
It's Hairy Krishna.

Following the ESLly thread from yesterday, Krishna Gopal on LinkedIn asks, "How Inner peace can bring world peace.[?]" An innocent and pure question.

I think you have it backwards though. It is well established that one of the things that the human brain does under stress is to manufacture large amounts of the hormone cortisol. There is a mounting body of evidence to suggest that during cerebral development high levels of cortisol impede development of parts of the human brain that are active when people are feeling empathy. This seems to be an psychobiological basis for the long-observed phenomenon that people that grow up in particularly stressful environments are less caring and tougher.

I think inner peace comes from world peace, and not so much vice-versa. World peace comes from economic interdependence and the rule of law. In the end, it is technology that has provided the infrastructure and knowledge that has increased productivity, which has in turn increased trade and therefore our dependence on each other. This has reduced the amount of conflict in the world and will continue to do so for the forseeable future. It is easier for people that grow up in times of peace to be peaceful internally.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Women in Trousers? Whatever Will the Young Set Do Next!!?

John Kwag askes, in an ESL-ly kind of way, "Why does every generation seek to denigrate with wildly negative characterizations or predict social horror for every generation after them?" Sounds like got its grubby paws on that one. As Borat would say, "Naaaisssss." Here is what I think.

Evolution teaches living things to be scared of anything new by killing the ones that don't run away on a regular basis. Over billions of generations, this has resulted in animals that have an instinctive false positive response to "Is something new dangerous?". Also, neural networks (of which brains are an example) often have problems unlearning once they have modeled an input stream.

So the older we get, the more uncomfortable we are with change for reasons of the network architecture of our brain. Add to this an instinctive fear of new things and *poof*, you observe the not-so-youong panicking at new ways.
Sell the Grand Canyon.

So Mike Murray asked, "Is the US economy in jeopardy?" Standard worries about the debt, deficit, etc. He sees trouble ahead but is baffled that some folks don't, and he wants someone to make a cogent explanation of the other side of the argument. Here goes.

Hi Mike. Ah, one of my favorite topics! Get ready to check the "Best Answer" box! Defecits most certainly DO matter, and anyone that says otherwise is a hack. However the degree to which they matter is affected hugely by other factors. It often helps to create a simplified example.

Let's say that you and your friends represent all the countries in the world. Let's say you have a rich friend Sam, and he represents America.

If someone told you that Sam had 8.9 million dollars of debt and asked you if he was financially solvent and/or headed for bankruptcy, what would you say? You would have to know more information first! If his net worth is 100 million dollars, and he has 8.9 million in debt, and he is going to borrow an additional 1 million next year, then he is in fine shape. You might want to know why he is borrowing money if he is worth so much though.

The answer is that he has cash flow problems. Much of his wealth is tied up in large assets, like land and construction projects. It makes sense for him to borrow to finance these projects because R&D, infrastructure, and a happy family make his home more productive, which has effects on the rate of economic growth that mitigate the interest on the money he borrows.
Many Economists think that rather than measuring national debt as a % of GDP, it should be measured against a composite that includes national wealth (the country-equivalent of net worth). Using this as a benchmark, the Debt/Book ratio of the U.S is about .1, even including all the "off budget" debt to social security.

That is why the sky isn't falling. But note that this is an explanation of why it could make sense to incur a debt, NOT a justification for why it is growing out of control. Just as each individual and each company should carefully examine the option of borrowing money to finance project, so should each country. Deficit spending that does not have a positive expected ROI will result in future inflation and/or currency devaluation, both of which reduce consumer purchasing power.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

The Ultimate Power Ball

I originally made this post on It is a complex concept, so please bear with me.

I heard a news story around 15 years ago (probably on NPR) about two retired NASA scientists who had an idea for electrical power generation. The idea involved creating a huge gyroscope, mounted on the earth so that its plane of rotation bisects the circle formed by the Earth's equator. A huge gear is mounted on the same plane as the equator, inscribing the axis on which the gyroscope rotates. A generator is attached to this gear, and the entire enclosure is put inside a vacuum. The diameter of the gyroscope was described as having to be quite large, > 100 meters. The theory was that as the gyroscope was spun up, the rotation of the earth would force the structure to rotate, spinning the gear and generating electrical power. This would trivially slow the earth, and would convert the earth's kinetic energy to electrical power. I have been unable to find any reference to this, but it seems like it would work as long as friction could be lowered sufficiently. Over a two year period, I received two responses, reposted below.

Answer 1: "I am an aerospace engineer with a Ph.D. in astronomy. I can't tell you what ever happened to this interesting idea, because I have never heard about it in the course of a 16 year career in astronomy and aerospace; but I can at least attest that it is theoretically sound, even if not technologically practical. Moreover, it appears to be an inexhaustible clean energy source! A quick back of the envelope calculation (hope I didn't make a mistake) suggests that the stored rotational energy of the earth is of the order of 10 to the 10th power Gigawatt-millenia. (I chose these units, because they are easily compared to historical time and human power use rates)."
-Answer provided by Walter F. Kailey, Ph.D.

Answer 2: "I agree. The forces driving the generator are not applied against the direction of rotation of the gyroscope so it would not slow down even while the generator siphoned off energy from the rotation of the earth. Only bearing friction would slow it down. The more important question is: would it be practical? To a ground-based observer the gyroscope would appear to rotate one revolution per 24 hours, so if the generator had to rotate at, say about 100 revolutions per minute (a low but not unreasonable speed), the gear-up ratio would need to be 1 : (100 x 60 x 24) or 1 : 144,000. High gear-up ratios tend to be inefficient (high friction losses) so finding a generator that produces enough power at a slow speed i.e. lower gear-up ratio would be important. For Example: If a single-step reduction were used and the driven gear were 30 cm diameter, at 1 : 144,000 the driving gear would need to be 4.32 km diameter - rather large!"
-Answer provided by Keith Labrecque

Of course many people find the idea of slowing down the Earth to provide power somewhat horrifying. I think it is appropriate. Like Sting said, "When the world is running downYou make the best of what's still around".
Peak Oil Can Oil My Peak.

My opinion is that although the concept of Peak Oil rings true in the most literally way (the cost of extracting petroleum will increase over time as the cheapest and easiest to extract reserves are depleted), the often touted economic and social repercussions are fear mongering and a result of very shallow analysis.

There are massive reserves trapped in harder to extract contexts, such as oil sands, and there are massive unexplored areas where there are thought to be large amounts of oil. Add to this the fact that there are hundreds of years worth of coal and nuclear energy. If oil gets too expensive, we use more coal and nuclear in the mid term while alternative energies catch up.

Keep in mind that the Earth is exposed to enough radiant energy from the sun provides energy to 75 billion tons of biomass, and only about 1/3rd of 1% is humans. Living organisms are very good at turning energy from the sun into oils. There are plants that are more than 20% oil by weight. From a physics point of view there is no energy problem.

If oil was going to run out suddenly in 5 years and there were no such thing as coal, natural gas, or nuclear power then yes, there might be a pretty big social disaster. But there is coal, natural gas, and nuclear, and there is at least 50 years of oil too. As is almosts always the case, the alarmists are either idiots or opportunists.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Nature and Nurture

I had a thought some time ago that I just remembered about the whole Nature vs. Nurture argument. What if our genetics more or less fix our propensity towards basic animal instincts (fight/flight, feeding, mating, play, etc.) but our experience maps those instincts to real world behaviors?

For example, a child with a propensity to fight in almost every possible scenario could eventually learn to fight his own urge to fight, turning the instinct inwards. As a peaceful adult, he has not changed his instincts at all but has instead mapped the instinct to a suppressive behavior.

This way of thinking about the nature/nurture balance works well for me. I would be very interested in getting feedback from anyone in the Psychobiology / Biopsychology fields.

It took me a long time to get off my butt and actually start consistently blogging. Now that I have it has been a great disappointment that people rarely reply. What good are thoughts in a vacuum?

Sunday, April 08, 2007

How can something so broken work so well?

Again, sorry for the teaser. No one is going to read this stuff without an intriguing title. In my defense, the U.S. primary and secondary education does smell pretty bad.

So Vaso Bovan on Linkedin asked the question, "Despite Inferior Elementary/Secondary Public Education, USA Dominates. Why?" Why indeed. To consider this question properly, I think you have to relax some of your assumptions and reexamine a definition or two.

First, what is education? U.S. schools definitely lag behind internationally in teaching math, science, languages, and probably literature and history as well. But they are excellent at encouraging students to develop good social skills, and to learn to question authority and ask questions. This may be a very large offsetting factor in how American students perform after high school graduation. A big part of actual achievement in life is related to abilities that cannot be memorized.

Another major factor is the lack of early tracking in the U.S. In most countries against which America is compared, there are entrance exams to enter middle school and/or high school and to stay on an academic track. Many more students begin preparation for a trade between ages 13-15 and these students (in most European countries and in China for example) are no longer counted as being in "high school" when it comes time to take tests for puposes of preparation.

Another significant item is that the U.S. Economy is less socialist that most (if not all) major European countries. The efficiencies from lower tax rates and the business friendly legal environment make it easier to establish businesses. Because of this there is a critical mass of entrepreneurs, and many people see entrepreneurship as a path to success very early on.

No one doubts the signifcance of brain drain. The U.S. gets the best and brightest from many places, and they stay and raise their children. That is a powerful force. Think about how adventurous an immigrant has to be to leave everything behind and come to a new country to build a life for their children. U.S. Immigration policy, for all of its faults, is exceptional at getting high quality hard working people, and for the most part they end up feeling tremendous loyalty to their new country.

The U.S. is also more religious than China and Europe. For all the sects, something approaching 90pct of Americans self-identify as Christian. Largely homogenous religious values, particularly in a religion that aggressively teaches charity and giving might help.

And the final major factor is access to capital. I don't think there is anywhere else in the world where it is as easy for someone with a good idea to find money to "make it so".

So the long and the short of it is that although learning more facts in school is probably a good thing, it isn't the only thing. And the benefits from a more business friendly environment, a more efficient economy, high quality immigration, better access to capital more than make up for the defecits. Strong national pride and strong and largely homogenous religious values along with an education system that fosters cooperation and the development of good social skills all seem to more than counteract the lag in learning facts and academic skills at an early age.

Friday, March 30, 2007

Can we rebuild it? Can we make it stronger?

Someone asked me for ideas on how to use technology to make the world better. Whoa. Changing the world is a lot easier than making it a better place. It takes historians decades to begin to decipher the lasting effects of historical forces. Lenin cared greatly about his fellow man, and the fruits of his intellect were poison. A vicious brute can cause a long term swing in the opposite direction when the world is disgusted by his ego and cruelty.

Trying to guess what will "make the world a better place" is probably a lot like flipping a coin. However my best suggestion would be helping to educate intelligent poor children anywhere in the world. Technology can help with this. A cheap used computer with a monitor and an Internet connection costs about $250 plus $100 a year. It is an encyclopedia of great power and allows a bright young person to learn anything. Check out the link below - it is MIT's OLPC (one laptop per child) media lab initiative. I believe it is the most important thing we can do to improve the world.

If you were hoping to create an idea yourself, I would ask you this: why? Smarter and more caring people than us have started thouands of great projects. It is a truer and better thing to help them than to waste time reinventing a poorer wheel. Helping severly impoverished people live longer without helping them educate their children is meaningless. Teach a person to read...

Sunday, March 25, 2007

There has been a lot of talk about this next recession.

Maybe too much talk. Predicting a recession is very difficult in any environment, let alone one with two huge and rising stars (India and China). Over time, people that base their investment strategy on the constant belief that a recession is imminent will not perform as those that bet on growth. Doomsday preaching is more a personality characteristic than a sincere prediction. We get upset when someone that says things are about to melt down turns out to be right, the market drops 14% and then is stagnant for a year...but the truth is that same guy missed out on 10 years of groth at 9% a year to be right that once.

Predicting inflation is easier. I believe that since the early 80s inflation in the west has been low because we have imported more and more core products from low cost overseas producers every year while raw materials prices were also stable. In the last couple of years, there has been a huge and rapid rise in raw materials costs, and we already import almost all manufactured goods (there is no more cost savings to be had from increasing imports). Also, labor and production costs are starting to rise in China and India. Energy, which is a cost input to almost every product, is going to get more costly.

I am fairly certain that the Chinese economy is bubbling in a few areas, notably including real estate and public equity markets (the PEs are ridiculous and expect unsustainable growth, and in real estate the rental to price ratios are about half of what they are in the U.S.). I don't think their recession will spill over much to the U.S. when they correct, but it could cause them to draw down foreign reserves, which will flood the bond markets a bit - driving down bond prices, and driving up interest rates.

So long and short, no significant global recession is always the smarter bet, but you can expect higher inflation over the next 5-10 years. I am not comfortable predicting how much higher.