2007-07-26

Kidnapping and extortion à la Muammar al-Gaddafi

How to extort money and favors out of a neighboring state:
  1. Arrest some volunteers who have come to help people in your country.
  2. Accuse them of griveous crimes they didn't commit.
  3. Stage a trial in which they are found guilty and sentenced to death.
  4. Prolong their ordeal and make more noises and sentences until their home country is willing to trade something big for them.
  5. Ship them back home in exchange for a bounty of a deal.
You have to hand it to him. It's so preposterous, no one else could have pulled this off but Muammar al-Gaddafi.

How much did the EU pay to get these medics back? About half a billion dollars just to compensate the families of the children - whose deaths were almost certainly due to poor hygiene in Libya's hospitals, and not due to malice on behalf of the volunteers.

Nuclear power is much greener than any alternative

Jesse Ausubel explains how wind power, hydroelectric and solar may be renewable, but are not green. Nuclear power is the only way to satisfy the world's appetite for energy, which will not and should not decrease, in an environmentally friendly manner.

Nuclear has lots more potential than we're using. The only major problem it has is public prejudice. Absent that, the sustainability, safety and security problems can all be solved.

Via Rondam Ramblings.

2007-07-24

Neenakost spolov

Most of my posts are in English. This one is in Slovenian because it is a response I originally posted on Libertarec, a Slovenian blog.

Neenakost med spoloma je. Vsaj del te neenakosti je biološkega izvora in se je ne da preseči z naivnimi pobudami, pa naj bodo družbene ali individualne.

Vsaj del neenakosti izhaja iz tega, da imamo moški samo eno kopijo X kromosoma (XY), ženske pa imajo dve (XX). Zaradi tega so ženske genetsko stabilnejše in ima ženska populacija manj variacij pri razvoju, moška pa več. To pomeni, da je med moškimi proporcionalno več nadpovprečnih in podpovprečnih posameznikov, kot med ženskami. Populacija žensk ima zato trdnejše povprečje, populacija moških pa ima več izjemnežev, tako v pozitivnem kot v negativnem smislu.

Ampak ker ima populacija moških več izjemnežev, tudi v pozitivnem smislu, to pomeni, da bodo med najsposobnejšimi posamezniki v vsej populaciji prevladovali moški. To ne pomeni, da med najsposobnejšimi ne bo žensk, ampak pomeni, da jih bo proporcionalno manj. To pomeni, da tudi v povsem pošteni kulturi, ki do nikogar nima predsodkov, razmerje med moškimi in ženskami v vodstvu ne bo 50/50, temveč bo mogoče 60/40 ali 70/30.

Nekateri drugi razlogi za neenakost so kulturno pogojeni in so v osnovi predsodki, ki jih je treba odpraviti.

Spet tretji razlogi imajo vir v izobraževanju, kjer se ne upošteva, da se moški in ženski možgani razvijajo drugače in potrebujejo poudarke na različnih stvareh ob različnih časih. Dekleta npr. niso receptivna za matematiko ob istem času, kakor fantje, in fantje niso receptivni za humanistične predmete ob istem času, kakor dekleta.

Prav tako dekletom manjka prostorske predstave; to je njihova glavna ovira pri inženirskih študijih. Ugotovili so, da se da bistveno povečati delež deklet, ki ostanejo na študiju inženirskih predmetov, če gredo skozi tečaj, ki izboljša njihove prostorske predstave.

Sicer je res, da del neenakosti med moškimi in ženskami izvira iz predsodkov. Moja kolegica se je npr. odločila postati anestezistka namesto urologinja, ker so ji stari urologi dali jasno vedeti, da po njihovem ženska ne more biti urolog, brez sodelovanja starih zagovednežev pa nima šans. In kolikor lahko zmanjšamo predsodke, je to v redu.

Ampak ni pa vsa razlika med moškimi in ženskami razložljiva s šovinističnimi predsodki. Deloma so zadaj biološki fenomeni, ki jih lahko razrešimo (učenje pravih predmetov ob pravem času), deloma pa takšni, ki jih ne moremo (statistična razporeditev izjemnosti).

Razlike torej tudi v pošteni družbi vedno bodo. Pomembno pa je, da ne diskriminiramo proti nekomu samo zaradi tega, ker je ženska. Vsakemu po njegovih zaslugah, ne po narodnosti, spolu ali barvi kože.

Ampak to ne pomeni, da bo rezultat razporeditev 50/50.

American TV

I wasn't much of a TV enthusiast back in Slovenia. There was a period of a few years when I didn't even have a TV, and I didn't miss one. When I needed that kind of entertainment, I went to the movies. Some time later, and largely due to influence from my girlfriend - now my wife - we did get a TV, but I avoided watching it. The reason I avoided it is because, for the most part, the TV programming in Slovenia is worthless. It's not like there aren't enough channels - most cable packages carry 40 or 50 or so. But the problem in Europe is that there are so many language barriers. Most of the channels are in other languages you don't speak, where movies and shows are all synchronized (sometimes badly) into the foreign language. If you are Slovenian and you speak one foreign language well, say English, the channels you can watch are limited to the ones in English and the ones in Slovenian. Apart from National Geographic and Discovery channels, the channels in English are mostly news networks like CNN, which are unwatchable populist crap, and MTV and VH1, which to me are like radio, except more annoying.

The Slovenian channels are full of low quality local programming, which for me is mostly unwatchable. Rarely, in the evenings, there's some first rate Hollywood stuff; frequently, during the evenings and afternoons, there is second rate Hollywood stuff; and most of the time, during the day, there is third-rate soap operas from Argentina and Mexico.

The safest bet is National Geographic or Discovery Channel, but National Geographic shows boring wildlife documentaries most of the time, and Discovery Channel has either the Scrapheap Challenge or American Chopper - the two boring-est shows ever.

So, that's what the TV is like in Slovenia. You probably understand how I was able to go a few years without TV and didn't even miss it.

But boy, is American TV different.

Most importantly, there is no language barrier. This means that if your cable package has 60 channels, that means 60 channels you can actually watch. And boy, do you have a selection. There's a channel dedicated to just showing what's currently playing on all the other channels; it's the TV Guide Network. Practically no matter when you turn on the TV - and probably no matter what your taste is - if you just switch to the TV Guide Network and look at all the shows and movies currently playing, you're going to find something you don't want to miss; and you're going to want to watch it. And it's not just Seinfeld reruns and five year old second-rate Hollywood stuff; you get to see big movies that were just recently playing in Slovenian theatres. Some channels that come in better cable packages show recent popular movies without any commercials. Are you into the Simpsons kind of humor? No problem, there's Simpsons, Futurama, Family Guy and South Park, several episodes each, several of them in one night. You like Star Trek, or Stargate Atlantis? No problem, the Sci Fi channel has whole day marathons of that.

Needless to say, since I've been here, the time I've been spending in front of the TV has skyrocketed. In Slovenia, turning off the TV was really easy. Most of the time, there was nothing very interesting on anyway. But here, oh boy. If you're a fan of Stargate, how do you stop watching when you find yourself in the middle of an all day marathon of episodes you haven't yet seen? Then the next day you're eating breakfast, and there's Bicentennial Man, based on the excellent novel by Isaac Asimov; I had never even heard of the movie, so I have to watch that. And just when you're done shedding tears for Andrew Martin at the end of that film, they hit you with "2010".

At some point, you have to gather the will power to stop watching in the middle of something you really like, just because you can't spend your entire day watching TV.

That's the difference between television in the United States and television in Slovenia. In Slovenia, you want to turn off the TV; in the U.S., you don't want to.

2007-07-20

Why are so many Americans in prison?

Excerpt from Loury's article (this part I agree with):
This new system of punitive ideas is aided by a new relationship between the media, the politicians, and the public. A handful of cases—in which a predator does an awful thing to an innocent—get excessive media attention and engender public outrage. This attention typically bears no relation to the frequency of the particular type of crime, and yet laws—such as three-strikes laws that give mandatory life sentences to nonviolent drug offenders—and political careers are made on the basis of the public’s reaction to the media coverage of such crimes.
I disagree with the latter parts of the article where the author shows naive humanitarianist tendencies. This part is particularly silly:
If we take these questions as seriously as we should, then we would, I expect, reject a pure ethic of personal responsibility as the basis for distributing punishment.
The ethic of personal responsibility is the only basis on which to distribute anything. Any corrosion of this principle, such as by the introduction of a welfare state, or such as by being lenient to a certain "disadvantaged" class of criminals, perverts society and rots it from the inside out.

I do believe that the American system of criminal "justice" is severely counter-productive, but it must be fixed in a way that is fair and race-neutral, not in a way that favors a certain class of criminals because they are supposedly "disadvantaged" and thus not entirely responsible for their own actions, such as murder, robbery and rape.

Like Supreme Court Justice Roberts wrote, the way to stop discrimination is not to discriminate.

2007-07-17

You get what you pay for?

or

Thoughts in favor of much better compensation for elected officials

The position of President of the United States should be paid at least $1 billion per year. $10 billion would be even better.

Currently, the President is paid in the mid six figure range per annum. This means that, over the course of four years, your average President will earn a paltry few million. And that's before tax.

Now, compare the President's salary to the tens and hundreds of millions that a presidential candidate will throw away just trying to get elected. Even if most of the campaign financing isn't their money - figure the number of years of work it takes to even build a foundation from which you can run as a plausible candidate. Now figure in the four years of presidency that - for a good President - should consist of four years of non-stop grueling work.

All of that, for what? The chance of earning a paultry figure of a few million? It's many times simpler to do that in just about any other line of business.

Think now about the responsibility of the U.S. President. In terms of general impact, this is certainly, and by far, the most powerful position in the United States. The President oversees an annual budget that now exceeds $2,500 billion. The President oversees how that money is used, and by doing so, exerts influence over about 40% of all work that's performed in the country.

Think about it this way: what Bill Gates earned in a lifetime, the President taxes and spends in a week.

Yet, the net compensation for this position of incredible influence is... a few hundred thousand a year. Or, about as much as the federal government spends every minute.

It's an extremely demanding job. It takes an extraordinary amount of effort to get it. Yet, when you have it, your total compensation amounts to about one ten-millionth of the funds under your command. It doesn't even amount to one percent of the effort that you had to spend to even get the position.

Clearly, if you had this position, you would consider your official compensation inadequate.

So, how are you going to get yours? Obviously, you can't pay it to yourself as a salary. So how do you do it?

Well... you manipulate the budget so as to get some of it into your pocket - that's how. You do it by being sleazy.

Essentially, the only way to benefit substantially from a job like this is by being sleazy. So... the people who are drawn to this kind of career are the ones who are... sleazy!

And this is, essentially, why an honest politician is such a difficult find. The problem is, the worth of political jobs to honest people is low; it's very much not worth the effort. For an honest person, any other line of work will be much more rewarding; it will require much less effort for the same reward, or the reward will be much better for the same effort.

If you are an honest person, you really have to be a zealot to be attracted to this kind of job. You have to value some ideal higher than yourself, or you have to be an egomaniac that's in it for the power and fame. Either way, you can't be a very balanced person, because if you are honest, you can expect no other reward from this job.

But from the point of view of a sleazy person, the payoff is totally different: if you're sleazy, then the office of President of the United States is an extremely good job. Even more so, perhaps, is the office of a Congressman, or a Senator. And that's certainly not because these jobs are paid well; it is because you get to influence the spending of these huge amounts of money. Being that you're sleazy, manipulating a portion of that money into the pockets of yourself and your friends seems like the simplest thing in the world. After all, you aren't here to make the world better, are you? You're here to benefit yourself!

Better rewarding such difficult and high responsibility jobs would not ensure that sleazy people would not get elected. They would. But it would ensure that sleazy people aren't the only people attracted to these jobs. Reward the position of U.S. President with several billion, and it will attract brilliant and ethical people who now see no value in running for it, given how difficult it is, and what the compensations are. Do the same for all positions of high power - you cannot pay each Congressman and Senator $1 billion, but you can easily allocate $25 billion for all of them - and then, perhaps, the Congress and Senate would be run by a greater proportion of brilliant and ethical people, and by a lower proportion of sleazebags and zealots, as now.

Pay people upfront what they'll take out the back door anyway. This way, at least you make the playing field level for people with some degree of personal integrity.

By motivating the brilliant and honest people to participate, there would be more hope for politics worldwide.

And the cost? Perhaps 1% of the overall budget.

Your investment fund manager is paid more than that.

2007-07-12

Correspondent Inference Theory

Bruce Schneier comes up with excellent insight into why the terrorists' attack on 9/11 was ill-conceived in the sense of achieving what they want, and why the response from the U.S. public was so utterly, over-the-top misguided and disproportionate. A boring old topic, but Schneier nails it - the article summarizes the gist excellently.

2007-07-04

Happy Independence Day!

Today is a good day to remember the founding of the United States.

Suppose that it's 200 years ago and you live in a world full of tyrannies trying to restrict your freedom. The tyrants try to control what you can and cannot do. For doing some actions that are inherently harmless, they will persecute you and burn you at the stake.

The tyrants tax you heavily. They demand that, for every hour you work for yourself, you work another hour for them. If they find you didn't work enough for them, they'll find you and burn you at the stake.

The tyrants go to wars against other tyrants for superficial reasons. In the process, they needlessly kill their own people and the people of the other country. In the name of tyrants, lives are lost; more lives are ruined; people's fortunes are destroyed.

Suppose now that you have a unique opportunity to found a new, independent state in a new territory, to break apart from the oppressors of the past, to create a free country. What do you do? How do you do it?

For one thing, you know that monarchy as a system of government doesn't work. You know that it leads to government excesses and tyranny. So you outlaw monarchy. You make nobility unconstitutional.

But if not monarchy, then what system to use? Remember, it's 200 years ago; democracy is fairly new and has just recently been tried in another country. Ancient democracies existed, but didn't work quite perfectly. A cursory look at history shows that there has been a dearth of experimentation with systems of government. You know that there must be some good system of government, but you don't know what it is. So what do you do?

You do the reasonable thing: create competiton. Instead of creating one country and enshrining a certain system into law, you create dozens of separate states; you say little about the organization of their internal governments; but you pit them to compete against each other to attract citizens.

You enshrine people's rights into a constitution, so that people are free to move from state to state, and so that some most fundamental rights are respected. Now, if a tyranny develops in any of the states, the people will always be free to move to another.

However, you also need to prevent the states from fighting against each other, to prevent individual governments from destroying their citizens' properties and ruining their lives. The most obvious way to do this is to institute a central arbiter with sufficient power to stop the states from fighting; yet, not so much power that the central arbiter could become a tyrant in and of itself. So you create a federal government, and you restrict it with regard to how it can intrude into the lives of citizens. To maintain a competition of governmental systems between states, it is of utmost importance that the government of the federation be kept small, so that it itself doesn't become a system from which people can't escape.

This is how the United States were founded.

You might say this was as good and as enlightened a system as it gets. Even if we could start a brand new system of government today, I don't know how we could improve on these fundamental principles.

However, over the past 200 years, this system has unequivocally and completely failed. The United States today are nothing like the founders 200 years ago envisioned. The United States today are a bastardized perversion of the principles enshrined into the Constitution at their founding.

The United States are now a tyranny. They are the most economically efficient tyranny in the world. They are also the tyranny that has the best PR. Yet, they are nevertheless a tyranny.

The source of this tyranny is the ever increasing power of the U.S. federal government. It has usurped powers it was never supposed to have.

Taxation

The United States began with no taxation. It used to be that the federal government was minimal and was financed by customs and tariffs. No more - the federal tax system of the United States is now one of the most onerous existing. It is magnitudes worse than the taxes imposed on the British colonies when they rebelled to found the United States.

Going completely against the principles the United States were founded against, the federal government now even tries to punish you for trying to escape their greedy grasp. Even if you now leave the United States, renounce your citizenship and return your passport: if the federal government deems that your departure was for tax reasons, which is generally automatically the case, they will require you to continue paying tax to the United States, wherever in the world you live, for 10 more years after you stop being a U.S. citizen. Not only that, but they also reserve the right to draft you into the army.

That's a charateristic of tyrannies: they try to prevent their people from escaping; or at least, from taking their wealth with them.

Arbitrary punishment

One characteristic of a tyranny is that it exercises arbitrary punishment. It doesn't so much matter what you did: it matters more who are your enemies.

This succinctly describes the United States. People's fortunes are destroyed for falling out of favor with powerful people. The courts are abused to do the bidding of the federal government, and the federal government does the bidding of those with the right political connections.

In the 1980s, Michael Milken facilitated the financing of a wave of corporate takeovers that targeted inefficient corporations. These corporations were run by cozily situated bureaucrats who paid themselves large salaries, flew around in corporate jets, built opulent offices and generally made little value for shareholders. Before Michael Milken and his kind, there was hardly any way for shareholders to do anything about this. The corporate executives were the most powerful people in the country, and nobody had the money to come and buy a corporation, take control and fire those executives. As a result, the stock market was in a sorry state indeed. Because it sucked so much to be a shareholder - having no control and receiving hardly any dividends - the price of all of a corporation's shares was commonly lower than its net assets.

Then, along came Michael Milken and the likes of him. Their main contribution was to structure ways that independent people could raise money to take over corporations. Once this was possible, inefficient executives became fair game: people could come in, buy up a corporation, fire the existing management and rationalize the company's operations. If this meant splitting up the company and selling it off piece by piece, so be it: the stock market grew and everyone made money.

Except, of course, the powerful, and fired, inefficient executives. They were unhappy about this state of the affairs, and they had connections in high places. A dynamic stock market full of takeover activity was making their cozy positions difficult, so they arranged it so that the era of corporate takeovers would end.

At that time, there was this young, ambitious public prosecutor that wanted to make a name for himself. His name was Rudy Giuliani. It is not inconceivable that he is who the disgruntled executives turned to. Perhaps they made a deal; perhaps, in exchange for bringing down the people they wanted to ruin, they promised him their loyal campaign contributions later.

Whatever the connection is, if any, Rudy Giuliani went after people such as Milken, and he want after them hard. With Michael Milken in particular, his only legal leg to stand on were six paper "violations": essentially, among the thousands of transactions and volumes of filings that Milken was involved with as a part of his work, they found a few with which there were some problems. No fraud or cheating were involved, and there was no financial damage. Milken could have probably plead not guilty; if he did, he might have walked off free with his honor and reputation intact.

But Rudy Giuliani played dirty. In essence, the feds threatened Milken that if he does not plead guilty, they will come not only after him, but after his whole family. They will dig deep, they will find something, and they will give everyone decades of legal troubles at best, and at worst, land everyone in jail. So he better plead guilty if he doesn't want his family to go down with him.

He did. He was sentenced to 4 years. He served 22 months, and to this day his name keeps being mentioned in every magazine article written by some boneheaded reporter implying how the government "cleaned up" in previous decades. The government cleaned up, alright - not just Milken, it put several innocent people in jail (and some guilty ones as well). This sent a strong signal to anyone with enough balls to take over a corporation to improve its shareholder value: "Though shalt not threaten the politically connected."

Individual liberties

The federal government feels the need to intrude upon your life and tell you what you can and cannot do.

You cannot, for example, smoke dope. Never mind that it doesn't hurt anyone - certainly no one other than you. The federal government in Washington D.C. feels the need to tell you not to.

Not only that, the federal government locks up ill grandmas who grow dope for medicinal use. They spend billions of tax payers' money in an ill-conceived "war on drugs" that they've been "fighting" for several decades and have yet to show any sign of "winning". Seven decades ago, it was the same thing with prohibition of alcohol. That didn't work out so well.

You cannot gamble online either. You used to be able to - but then, a Las Vegas representative introduced legislation that cracked down on online gambling. And playing poker, too. Ostensible reason? Poor children who gamble online and get their parents into enormous debt. That's what the TV said. Real reason? Las Vegas casinos feeling competition from the online gambling industry. So they lobby the federal government to prohibit you, and everyone else, from doing what you want with your money. And it considerably hurts freedom on the internet, because now, all of a sudden, it becomes more difficult to make online trasactions - there need to be all these checks to make sure none of it goes into gambling. And all of that, for what? The benefit of Las Vegas casinos?

Wars

Need anything be mentioned? The United States have been messing around the globe militarily, fighting a war here, overthrowing a regime there, for the better part of the 20th century. If the 9/11 radicals didn't voice their argument by causing the deaths of 3,000 civilians, they might have actually had a point: the United States had been messing with the Middle East and by doing so accumulated deep resentment from the Arab population. When the U.S. federal government acts at home, it knows that at least it needs to sugarcoat its actions so that the American voter will accept them. When the U.S. federal government acts abroad, it doesn't even have to do that: its true colors of self-righteousness and self-interest at anyone else's expense shine through.

Conclusions

The United States have, sadly, deserted the sound principles on which they were founded. They were founded on the principle of limited government; but the federal government is now not limited in any way. They were founded on the principle of competition among states; but the federation is now more powerful than any of the states. The competition among states still exists to an extent, but it does not have the intended impact. There is no way for people to escape the tyranny of the Fed.

I have not confirmed if it is true, but I heard it said that one of the founders of the United States opined that the country was going to need another revolution in a hundred years. In hindsight, that prediction came true. A revolution did not occur, and beginning some 100-plus years after their inception, the United States began turning into a tyranny among other tyrant states.

The images of liberty, of the founding fathers and the founding principles are frequently used to this day to prop up the image of the United States as a free country. In my opinion, the uses of such imagery are illegitimate and in poor taste. Would the founding fathers not be turning in their graves right now, if they knew what the United States became?

And so it is that, at least in my view, and that of many others, the fourth of July is now not so much a celebration, as it is a sad commemoration: a reminder of principles forfeited, freedoms lost, of a hope that once existed; and of a perverted, corrupted system that now exists in their place.

Now, let us see if, after having posted this, I'll ever still be able to fly a U.S. airline. :)