Thursday, April 29, 2004

This is cool.

Friday, April 23, 2004

Gasoline tax?

In a recent widely read blog posting, Andrew Sullivan proposed a substantial increase in the gasoline tax in order to pay for the war and ease our oil dependence on the Middle East. This is a position which is anathema to almost all native-born Americans. One such, James Lileks, countered Andrew Sullivan's argument with some proposals of his own. Just to throw some more spice into the pot, Roger Simon partially agrees with Sullivan, but suggests that for the Federal government to require more fuel efficiency would solve the problem in a more humane manner.

Here are the facts as I see them.

1. We are overly dependent on foreign oil. That dependence is a strategic risk to the country because the supply could be cut at any time and complete disrupt our economy.
2. That dependence is growing with time. Much of the oil that was once plentiful in Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas has been drained. Further domestic sources of oil will be found only in increasingly environmentally sensitive areas such as the Alaska wilderness or off the coast of California.
3. The money spent on oil from the Middle East is often funnelled into terrorist activities or into Madrassas which preach hatred against the West. We are directly paying for the hatred.
4. Most of the dependence is due to the automobile.
5. In most of the country the automobile is an absolute necessity because our cities have been built and populated under the assumption that the automobile is available. For example, my house is three miles from the nearest grocery store. That's not walking distance with four bags of groceries in your arms. My town has zoned all commerical activities away from my house.
6. Gasoline is cheap. Even at current prices, $40/week to have virtually unlimited mobility is a very small price to pay, even for someone earning minimum wage.
7. Other alternatives to oil from Saudia Arabia and Venezuela could be found but the process of finding them through technology is expensive. Until the price of oil rises above a certain level such activities are uneconomic.
8. OPEC is fully aware of 7. and will endeavor to keep the price of oil below that pain point.
9. Americans pay substantially less in gasoline tax than other wealthy nations.
10. The flow of Middle Eastern oil can only be maintained in the long run by substantial commitments of American troops in places such as Iraq and Kuwait to prevent malefactors like Saddam Hussein from grabbing the oil and holding us hostage.

Most everyone wants to reduce the dependence on foreign oil. But any such reduction will necessarily cause some pain. Studies show that 96% of all Americans want other people to ride public transportation. If it's available. And if they don't have to pay for it themselves. But it isn't and they will have to. None of the alternatives is palatable. No one wants drilling in environmentally sensitive areas and a substantial fraction of the population is fanatically opposed to it. No one wants to be funding the hate-schools. No one wants to pay more for gasoline.

The bottom line is that with an array of bad choices we are choosing to make no choice. But that's a choice. It's an elephant-in-the-living-room sort of problem. We all know the current choice is a bad choice but no one wants to discuss it.

I have two thoughts here.

First, it seems to me quite clear that we are spending money to defend and protect the supply of petroleum into the civilized world. We fought a war to remove Saddam Hussein from Kuwait and we stationed troops in Saudi Arabia--much to bin Laden's horror--because we were afraid of the consequences on the world oil supply if Saddam Hussein were to take control of it. Now, this protection takes money and that money has to come from somewhere. Why should the general taxpayer (or even worse, future taxpayer) of the United States have to pay for something from which only a portion of the country is benefitting? I believe it's an issue of fairness. If gasoline is an issue (and I believe it is), then the people who burn it should pay the costs.

What I do favor strongly is for the system to be made as transparent as possible. Thus, people should pay for those costs to society that they incur. Actions have consequences and the people who cause those consequences should bear the costs. Further, people respond to incentives, not to invective. If people pay at the pump for the costs they incur, they will incur them less.

Second, there's the issue of efficiency. This was well stated by Ralph Phelan in this thread on Roger Simon's blog. "If you're in favor of government action to encourage higher gas mileage, a gas tax is the most direct and therefore efficent way to do it." Indeed. There may very well be people who need to burn a lot of gasoline and get low gas mileage for whatever reason. Let them pay for it and then there will be an equitable distribution of resources. As Mr. Phelan added: "Using government to say *what* society wants can be appropriate, but it's almost always best to leave the *how* to the free market."

Thursday, April 22, 2004

Fundamental limits.

This interesting article makes the argument that there are fundamental physical limits to our ability to store data magnetically. More precisely, that there's a limit to how fast we can store data magnetically without introducing too much noise, so as to make the data unreadable. The limit found is only about 1000 times our current best speed, so not that far away in some sense. Of course, although I have no reason to doubt the veracity of the article, it doesn't necessarily mean that some scheme cannot be found logically (i.e., in software) to circumvent the limit, nor that we can't find some other means of storing data (optically or with proteins, for example) which might end up being faster. Still, it's worth giving some consideration to the fact that the electronic and scientific marvels on which we rely will not necessarily improve endlessly without bound.

It's not news that there are fundamental physical constraints to what we earth-bound humans want to do in this world. After all, I can't fly, at least not without an enormous apparatus involving millions of dollars, thousands of people, and hunreds of government regulations. I can't jump to the moon. We're used to limits; limits are what define us in some sense.

But we're also used to the endless cornucopia of new goodies coming directly from the frontiers of science. We have come to expect them. Some of us have even come to live for them. Lately we have seen the first commercial implementation, for example, of "quantum cryptography", a completely unbreakable--not just in practice but in theory!--cryptographic system which relies on some of the extreme weirdnesses of quantum mechanics. This is cool!

It will be a sad day for mankind when the cornucopia dries up. At least we owe it to ourselves and future generations to push our technology right up to the edge of any fundamental limit we may find.

And then to find a way to go around it.

Wednesday, April 21, 2004

Everyman is Hitler.

First Bush was Hitler. Now the controversial Danish scientist Bjorn Lomborg is Hitler. No doubt we will soon find that Paul Wolfowitz and other "neocons" (i.e., Jews) are Hitler. Yes, even Jews are Hitler--Hitler is everywhere! He's gonna getcha! He's hiding behind every corner, waiting to tempt you.

What's going on here?

"Hitler" is obviously just the word we now use for what earlier generations called "Satan" or "the Devil". This is simple, primitive demonization, which all religions, or at least some members of all religions, seem to require. What's the religion? We're seeing the birth of an entirely new religion here, one which needs to recreate its own pantheon of devils and saints. Read all about it here.

I propose the name "Neopuritans" for this new religion, for two reasons. First, by and large its believers are the direct intellectual descendents of the original Puritans, living in essentially the same places, such as Massachusetts. Second, it is an essential component of the new religion that the world be "purified". The central religious motive for both religions is the need to cleanse the world of its filth. Both Puritans and Neopuritans feel deeply the need to be God's Tool in the Great Cleansing to come. Indeed, in its Environmentalist garb, the new religion seeks to purify the world by entirely removing the virus we know as the human race.

Another point of view on this issue can be found here.
One Big Fat Target.

Why do we still have the cream of our military sitting in one single building? Is this yet another version of ostrichism--instead of denying we're at war, as the Democrats are inclined to do, is our military establishment denying that the war will ever touch them? Even when it already has?

I call for the immediate separation of the Pentagon into at least five separate installations scattered among five inaccessible locations, preferably hidden and underground. What are we waiting for?

Tuesday, April 20, 2004

Past and Present.

We can only know the present through the prism of the past, and the past through
the prism of the present.

In gaining an honest understanding of the world around us, there is nothing in
human history which has ever surpassed the basic Scientific Method as a tool.
And the Scientific Method isn't really all that complicated stuff about
hypotheses and notebooks they told you in school. At its heart the
Scientific Method can be boiled down to a couple of simple ideas.
One: go out and take a look at nature, don't just theorize about what you might see. And two, be honest. That's pretty much it. Add to this mixture the ability to tweak things a little bit (i.e., experiment) here and there to see what happens, and you've pretty much got the whole shebang as practiced by the most advanced scientific establishments.

This simple melange of commonsensical ideas has enabled the vast expansion of
human life, health, and aspiration which those of us privileged enough to live
in industrial society enjoy today.

Unfortunately there are certain vital areas of understanding which are not
susceptible to treatment via the Scientific Method. These include the religious,
the political, the cultural, and the sociological among others. In these complicated
areas it is very difficult to just look, harder to be honest about what we
see, and impossible to tweak nature by doing experiments. It is difficult
to just look because the objects of interest in these areas are not
simple things we can see and touch. They are abstractions of what we see
and touch of higher and higher complexity. What is "good art", what is
"fascism" or "liberalism", what is "the divine"? These questions are very
difficult to answer because they are not directly available to the senses
in ways we can all agree on. Most people claim to know
"good art" when they see it but people do not by any means all agree. To some
extent "reality" in these areas is necessarily socially constructed, which
leads to the ever-present danger that the current emperor wears no clothes.
Some people--maybe even vast numbers of people--will all agree that they
know what a certain word like "fascism" means, will probably believe that
they know what it means, and yet it may not mean a thing. Or more likely, it
simply means that they are people who wish to belong to the herd of people
who claim to know what "fascism" means.

To take one example, a friend asserts that the Soviet Union was not
a threat and we overreacted, to which I respond that the Soviet Union was
a huge threat which became less of a threat precisely because we reacted.
But how can we know either way? No experiment can be run to verify or falsify
either hypothesis.

Given the lack of Scientific Method or anything remotely approaching it in
such matters, one is led to ask by what means people can possibly come to
any conclusions in these matters? And yet come to conclusions they do.
I think the answer is that these are
precisely the areas in which gut instinct, emotions, and experience play
the most important roles. Contrary to the model propagated by Mr. Spock
in the TV series Star Trek, it has always struck me that the more
intellectually complicated the situation the more it requires emotional
involvement. It is precisely this sort of ambiguous, highly abstract
situation--far too complicated to understand analytically--which requires the use of emotions in order to make a decision.

The question remains: how do we develop our emotions to respond appropriately
or intelligently, if one may use such a term in this context, to evaluating
various situations? The answer comes from the old saying:
"Good decisions come from experience and experience comes from bad decisions".
In other words, our only guide to understanding and dealing with
extreme complexity comes from the past. But the particular experiences
we may have had in our own personal lives may not be--nay, frequently is
not--sufficient to give us any good guidance in the novel difficulties
with which we are faced almost daily. No American army has ever
invaded Iraq before. What should we think about it?

The discipline of History provides, at least in theory, a vast reservoir
of experience from the past upon which we can collectively draw. One
can even argue, with George Santayna, that it is precisely this which
differentiates civilized from primitive man. He wrote:

"Progress, far from consisting in change, depends on retentiveness. When change is absolute there remains no being to improve and no direction is set for possible improvement: and when experience is not retained, as among savages, infancy is perpetual. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. In the first
stage of life the mind is frivolous and easily distracted, it misses
progress by failing in consecutiveness and persistence. This is the
condition of children and barbarians, in which instinct has learned
nothing from experience."

In short, we can only view the circumstances of the present intelligently,
maturely, through the lens of the past.

But what is the past? Here we are faced with a new set of conundrums.
What happened a year ago or yesterday even?
Already my memory is fading. When it comes to last week or a year ago, I've learned through bitter experience that my memory cannot be wholly relied upon. The act of writing things down is a great help of course but leads to its own problems. We can't
possibly write down enough to cover the whole bundle of inchoate thoughts
that might have accompanied a certain action or a certain circumstance.
Instead, of necessity, we pick and choose, and thereby we omit, exaggerate,
and overgeneralize. Naturally, further constraints are added when the writings are available to others, when they are made public, because then we are tempted to lie, or at least to exaggerate a little to make ourselves look better. When U.S. Grant
wrote that he considered the order to attack at the Battle of Cold Harbor
to be the worst command he ever issued, that may be true--or it may not.
Maybe he thought so at the time, maybe he thought so later, or maybe
he was just saying he thought so later. There's no real way to know.

How much worse, then does the situation become when we are writing about other
people, people whom we may never have met or never could meet, or even
people who lived hundreds of years in the past, in an era so different
from ours that even those possessing the highest gifts of imagination among us
can scarcely grasp the meaning of life in those times?

People lie, they exaggerate--we all do it--and even when we're doing our
dead-level best to be honest we may not really know what we're talking
about. How then can anything in history be relied upon? Henry Ford was
right when he wrote that "History is bunk". It's all a pack of lies on
some level, even the things I tell myself about what I did yesterday.
Even on that simplistic level there are exaggerations, mistruths, half-truths,
mistakes, etc. etc.

How then can we evaluate History at all? The only possible answer is that
we must rely on our basic understanding of human nature, an understanding
gained from our actualy experience in our actual lives. If someone tells
us for example that the Germanic tribes converted to Christianity because
of their need for salt, we can test this statement against our actual
experience. Do people undergo religious conversion because of their need
for salt? Have I ever known anyone who underwent religious conversion?
Have I ever known anyone who desperately needed salt (or another mineral)?
If this assertion doesn't match our understanding of human nature
then we can reject the proposal out of hand, not because we have scientifically disproved it, but because it doesn't meet the most basic requirements of common sense.

In short, we can only know the past through the prism of the present.

Monday, April 19, 2004

The fight for freedom never ends.

In my youth in the 60's my generation was regaled with stories of World War II, with the evils of Hitler and the Nazis (and the Germans), with war movies, with TV shows about war. In reading the histories I was always puzzled by the Hitler phenomemon. After all, he had spelled out exactly what he wanted to do in "Mein Kampf". There it was, for all to read. Why didn't anyone take him seriously?

It would seem that each generation has its mettle tested on the same crucibles. Today we know what Osama bin Laden wants to do. Many other muslims seem to openly agree with him. Here's today's contribution, containing a roadmap for torching London. Will this generation be able to act, as the "Greatest Generation" did? Why doesn't anyone take them seriously?

Saturday, April 17, 2004

More privacy being quietly removed.

Yet another company (Amazon this time) is trying to spy on you without letting you know that it is doing so. Big Brothers are cropping up everywhere. Read this article.,17863,611251-1,00.html

<< When people come to, they have the option to install a browser toolbar and register through Amazon's regular registration process. If you're already an Amazon customer, the site automatically recognizes you. If not, you don't have to register, but if you do, you get the personalized features, and if you install the toolbar, you get even better services.

As to what is new, the most obvious feature is your personal search history -- which is integrated into your entire search experience. So your entire search history is available to you, and with the toolbar, that includes all your searches across any search site, as well as all your browsing on the Web. Also, all the interface columns on the site -- personal history, or related books, or the Web search column itself -- are adjustable and the site remembers the settings the next time you come (the default is that Web search only is opened). I'm very proud of our toolbar's diary feature that allows you to annotate each site you visit. And we have integrated Amazon's "search inside the book" feature into the engine, so now all your results include excerpts from related books. >>

Friday, April 16, 2004

Harvesting gold.

Progress marches on.

<< He can't quite make money grow from trees, but a New Zealand scientist has devised a way to harvest gold from plants.

The idea: Use common crops to soak up contaminants in soil from gold-mining sites and return the areas to productive agriculture. The gold harvested from the process pays for the cleanup - with money left over for training in sustainable agriculture. >>
What's Happening in Iraq?

Who knows? Here are three pieces of evidence.

A contractor tells about his experiences:

An Iraqi blogger reads Iraqi blogs:

A former student backs up the contractor:

I am one of your former students (class of 91) and just returned from duty in Iraq on an anti-terror team. I have seen, and agree with, the types of things described in "The Letter from a Contractor in Iraq." The thing that can't really be described about Iraq is the look of new found freedom that you see in the eyes of the men (and the women that dare look at you). It's impossible to describe (a bit like the Supreme Court's definition of porn - I know it when I see it), but forms my most lasting impression of my duty there.

I have attached some of the pictures you don't see on the news: a picture of some Iraqi kids yukking it up with the GI's and me and a Dominican SEAL - who was really proud to serve in Iraq with the Americans.

Here's the letter he's talking about.>>
How politics really works.

I draw your attention to this fascinating post by "Samuel" on Roger Simon's blog.

<< In the 1980’s the first congressman that I ever supported on the “inside” level was running against a Republican right after the Reagan Revolution. I was green in politics and here is what happened. We hired someone to accurately analyze the demographics of the district (I personally paid for this). Pro-Life/Pro-Choice, Taxes/Services, Worker demographics, percentage of Government Employment on and on. Why? There are multiple levels to approach an issue.

1) Winning - This means you seek to “win” the issue, you are confident it is yours so you endeavor to prove “ownership” of the issue. It is your issue not you opponents. Keep it on the table baby! Example: You are running in a District that is 65% pro-Life. You are pro-Life and your opponent is pro-Choice so you talk abortion, partial birth abortion, parental notification, etc. 24/7.

2) Neutralize - This is to take an issue you know is not your strong suit, you can’t make go away either, so you “neutralize” it, making it as much as possible a non-factor. Example you are in the above District and are pro-Choice. Now you are for parental-notification and certainly against partial birth abortion. Oh and you are Catholic and personally would never have an abortion either. You just believe it should left to the women. ( You then endeavor real hard to do the next two )

3) Demonize - This is a loser issue where you really are at a huge disadvantage, you demonize (many leftist posters on this sight do this with Bush, they set up straw men, dark personalizations etc.) thus endeavoring to change your fortunes. Example, one word (actually three) WMD’s. Where are they? He lied! Can’t be trusted! He’s Stupid!

4) Subject Change - This means this issue can not even be won it is a liability to even talk about. Talking about it at any level is like the plague. You deflect all chances to address it. Reagan was the Master at this (There you go again Jimmy). Example, Ronald Reagan was aging and Mondale rightfully thought he could make it an issue. In the debates Mondale brought it up and Reagan replied with all his timing and good instincts, “I refuse to let age become an issue in this campaign.” Emphatically adding, “I will not use my opponent’s youth and inexperience against him!” Everyone one laughed including Mondale. Skill in this is one of the more important abilities as it so often sets the stage. Actually Bush as Clinton do this well.

There are other aspects, (voter intensity, suppressing turnout, downsides of issues you win on, right track/wrong track, this all gets very complex and would entail a large pamphlet or book at a minimum) but four these embody the major categories of issues. I have time for just one aspect or dynamic of the current campaign. Usually the above are walked in step in a losing or winning fashion… >>