28 February 2011

weekly ncaa update

1) Ohio St.
2) Kansas
2) Duke
I'm getting the impression nobody really wants to be up top, but these three are still a pretty fair margin ahead of the rest. I am not seeing Ohio St as a potential champ, though if their offense picks up the pace a bit, maybe (it is very efficient, but they're not scoring at a high enough clip to make me confident they could still win against another efficient team, see the only team more efficient: Wisconsin).

Right now it's still Kansas and Duke, and then the rest. Just like last year.

4) BYU. Probably earned a #1 seed.
5) Texas. Probably lost a #1 seed. (update, definitely lost a #1 seed, Purdue moves pretty solidly past them after getting blown out at home by K State).
6) Purdue
7) Pitt. I'm convinced now that the Big East will not and should not get a #1 seed.

8) Wisconsin
9) San Diego St
10) Kentucky

11) North Carolina
12) Syracuse. Seems to have righted the ship.
13) Washington. I don't quite get these guys, but they're still a dangerous sleeper in my book.
14) Louisville.

15) Georgetown. Dropping. Injuries at a bad time.
16) Notre Dame
17) West Virginia
18) Villanova. Dropping REALLY Fast (update: Loss from Notre Dame drops them almost out of the top 25)
19) Belmont. Good luck to these guys in their conference tournament this week. If they don't win, they're not getting in the dance. ETSU is not bad either in their conference, but Belmont could actually drop somebody in the real show, maybe even win a couple games. ETSU won't get a good enough seed to do much of anything.
20) Utah St

21) Arizona
22) Illinois
23) Vanderbilt
24) Connecticut
25) Missouri

Maryland is still at #27 on my list. I'm very doubtful they will get in as of right now. But other than a home loss to Duke and a road loss to Virginia Tech, they've lost all their games by less than 10. And other than being swept by Boston College, all of those are quality losses, usually top 30 teams (Duke, Pitt, Illinois, Temple, Villanova). The real problem is that they've got nothing on the win ledger other than Florida St and Clemson at home, a thumping of Penn St on the road, and squeaking by Charleston. And none of those stands out as a wow win. The difference between them and Marquette is pretty minimal (lots of close losses to good teams, none as bad as Boston College, Duke, Wisconsin, Vanderbilt and Gonzaga out of conference), except that Marquette has wins over Syracuse, West Virginia, Notre Dame (by 22), and a road win over Connecticut, plus another win over a probable NCAA team (Bucknell) for good measure. That's enough to put you in this year.

I am very annoyed at the "Big East is getting 11 teams!, this is terrible" talk. I've had these same 11 teams high on the list since mid-January. St Johns has moved up nicely (I have them #31, they were in the mid 40s), and Marquette and Cincinnati looked a little shaky where they were in the mid 20s/low 30s, to be fair to this argument. But really, there aren't that many teams to take their places if they weren't included. The actual bubble includes one team I think is actually decent (Maryland), and MANY, many teams who are putting up legitimately weak tournament resumes. Fine, in an average year, Marquette would be looking at a 11 seed at best on my list and would be on the bubble. They're like an 7-8 this year. The reason is that the bubble teams I have like Alabama, Clemson, Michigan (rising fast), Richmond, Minnesota (fading fast), Georgia, etc have done nothing to distinguish themselves. They all have maybe one or two wins to their credit, Michigan at least played a brutal schedule (but didn't get many wins on it, the way a Tennessee, the team closest to them on my list, did). Other bubble teams like virtually anybody from Conference USA, also mediocre. Memphis looks like a 15 seed even in this field, and wouldn't be even in the conversation in an ordinary year. Yet they're listed as "safely" in on ESPN's bracketology because they've got a few top 100 wins (I have them at 9-5).

So please, do not complain about the Big East. Complain instead, as usual, that there's a lot of undeserving teams who will not get into the tournament, each of which will look roughly indistinguishable from a couple teams who will get in. This will lead to predictable complaints that the field should be expanded. The truth is that about 30 teams get in every year who probably aren't very good. Many of these are auto-bids from mediocre conferences or surprise auto-bid upsets from better conferences, and a few are power conference or mid-major representatives who got in at-large but still aren't very good. This year will have about a dozen of such teams.

Here's a snapshot:
Florida St will get in basically because they beat Duke. Clemson won't because they didn't. They're otherwise tied. They even split the season series.
Texas AM will get in because they beat Washington (by 1 at home) and Temple. This is despite losing to Baylor twice, being blown out by Texas twice, and barely beating teams like Arkansas (OT at home). Washington St probably won't get in despite sweeping Washington and blowing out Gonzaga, mostly because they lost to Oregon and Arizona St on the road and Stanford at home. But again, not much difference here.

24 February 2011

What's in a name

I've been trying to figure out a conundrum for a few weeks now.

There seem to be two public perceptions of atheists.

The first is that we actually do worship something, and thus have a religion. This belief is popular among Christian fundamentalists in particular, and seems to be busying itself with the assumptions that a) non-belief in something means you believe in it anyway, or something like it, or b) that all atheists share common attributes. I'm fairly sure both of these conclusions are wrong. But perhaps there's some other logical basis that I've missed.

The second is that atheists do not care very much about "big questions", metaphysical nature of the universe, and so on. This one is common among people who've actually studied theology or philosophy and are aware of many atheists indifference to metaphysics as a justifiable study beyond some basic assumption that there is a reality which we experience and interpret and that experiencing any other (usually imagined) forms of reality is beyond our experience or ability to interpret. I'm pretty sure this one is a little more accurate, as there are indeed many atheists who are indifferent to questions about deities or afterlives or some other metaphysical construct popular to religious dogmas. But it confuses indifference to these ultimately subjective questions with an indifference to reality or things like ethics, which seem to have more biological hard wiring behind them and certainly have more utility to their existence.

The problem is primarily I only encounter the former argument. It is rare that a common person is familiar enough with concepts of metaphysics or ethics or even theological analysis of religious beliefs to move past the first perception and actually perceive something of what an atheist is, as a person rather than as what they lack in common with you. And so it gets tedious to explain that a) atheists tend to be a diverse community, some are hardcore secularists, some maybe leaning agnostic, and some just don't believe in god and go about their daily lives without, so defining atheists as holding a core and unified set of beliefs seems a little strange b) that defining people by non-belief is a very, very silly way to look at them. We do not tend to define people by their non-belief in dragons, or goblins, or even zombies or vampires. These are just as imaginary as many atheists see religious deities and the associated mythology contained in canonical text. Why is this one distinction of non-belief so important? Is it so hard to make the leap from a firmly held belief to see that someone else sees your shadows as shadows and not as reality?

I suppose the inverse is equally true for many atheists. We do not tend to do the thought-experiments of what belief is used for by religious persons, to pretend for a little while that the shadows of our minds are real. Perhaps this is because, for the most part, we do not see any real benefits provided by religious belief that do not come with significant costs (benefits seem to be, fosters a sense of community, relative happiness is to be had in extreme belief, and people don't bother you about your lack of faith, costs seem to be, the sense of community is connected to an us-them sensibility which leads to extensive discrimination and out-group hatred, and you're kind of at a loss when someone asks a reasonable question presenting an iota of doubt). Considering atheists do not make up a considerable majority, it is rare that someone encounters one publicly and has to question their own belief or compel them to question their non-belief. So I doubt this is a very troubling problem for the atheist, given that they are, when openly so, confounded by dozens of requests for social conformity. It becomes easier for some to simply lie than to go through the tedious motions of beating back religious piety and its blithe assumptions with reasoned analysis of the theological questions and the psychological explanations for a theistic, anthropomorphizing mind.

But I have to wonder, why is this one question so persistent. The argument that the atheist makes a positive belief to not believe is absurd on its face. Partly because most atheists simply did not care, and did not ask such questions, but mostly because it asks atheists to do something ridiculous and unreasonable; namely to believe in something without any evidence being presented in favor of that belief and without any way to prove that belief. The principle difference between these people is that the religious person looks around and sees an answer for "why" as something external rather than something they have provided themselves, and more importantly, often confuses the answer for "how" as also one for "why".

I am contented with the notion that your beliefs make you feel safer, perhaps feel happier, and provide lines of networking with your fellow man and a reason to get dressed up once in a while. I am not contented that these beliefs are so inflated as to find it absurd when someone else does not share them, such that you must contort their lack of belief into a set of belief of its own, and attempt to blur the lines between how and why among our fundamental questions of the human experience.

23 February 2011

This trade makes more sense

Deron Williams for Derrek Favors and Devon Harris.

Deron is +4.1 / 11.1

Harris + 1.0 / 7.0
Favors is a rookie but is a solid one on a bad team -1.8 / 2.7

Utah probably got back enough talent wise and skill wise (assuming Favors develops, and assuming they draft well with the two picks they received), and New Jersey got rid of a bad point guard to get an excellent one. There's some question regarding Utah's crowded power forward-center setup, but it seems Okur's injuries have added up, Kirilenko's out of favor (but still productive), and they haven't figured out how to mix Millsap and Jefferson together very well, but really their biggest problem was the persistence of playing Raja Bell instead of CJ Miles. Just swapping those two out takes the team's projected win % from a 40 win team to a 60 win team. Dropping Williams probably makes them a non-playoff team this year, especially with Memphis, Houston, Phoenix, or even the Clippers playing pretty well. They were already 11th in SRS in the Western Conference as it was, so staying in the 8th spot was rather unlikely.

But they should be reasonably good after that, and they weren't likely to be able to retain him in 2012 when his contract ran out. So, like the Melo deal, they got a reasonable price for a superstar.

I'm assuming this will revive Brook Lopez a bit (not much), and the New Jersey offense should flow a lot better than under Harris, who was basically a combo guard and/or playmaker rather than a distributor/playmaker. Williams is also not bad in the clutch, or at least he's far more efficient than Harris has been.

The next "big" trade was Mo Williams and Jamario Moon for Baron Davis and a draft pick. In this, I'd say the Clippers got fleeced, mostly because they also threw in a pick. But also because Mo and Baron were about equally average players and Moon is just about useless. Maybe the age and injury factors for Baron made it important to get something else, and certainly his contract didn't help, but unless they're cutting him at the end of the year for free agent purposes (because Baron's a notorious front-runner and won't play well on this terrible team), this one is just strange.

I actually really like the Hinrich trade for Atlanta. Giving up Crawford (Jordan, not Jamal) is probably worth it, since he wasn't playing anyway for them for quite a while. What they lacked was a decent point guard who could actually guard someone and Hinrich versus Bibby is about a wash on shooting threes.

I also like the Perkins-Green trade, probably for both teams in the long run. I'm a little less sure of it as far as this season, but Perkins hasn't played much and the Celtics still had the best record in the East without him. He would be useful against the Lakers and Magic, but not so much against the Heat, Spurs, or Bulls, where having an extra wing player who can spell Pierce/Garnett/Allen and giving them some lineup options (by moving Pierce over and playing big, or moving Garnett over and playing small) might be a better idea.

22 February 2011

More on the union war

1) I don't think it was necessary or appropriate for Obama to inject into this one. Butt out. Let the local Democrats, or maybe the Democratic party, or its various advocates and surrogates fight it out. Your job is to be President, not to be a political Party's ace in the hole (other than at election time where your party may ride your coattails). Some of what pissed me off about Bush was the Rovian strategy that somehow being in high office was about establishing Republican hegemony over the federal government. I don't need/want a Democratic establishment copying the same strategy.

2) I don't want to hear comparisons to tyranny, comparisons to Egypt, complaints about corporations, or complaints that this isn't about money. A democratically elected government that favors policies that you don't like because a majority of people do is not tyranny. It's just something you have to provide better arguments against and hope to do better at the next election (or to stop the votes before it becomes law). It's not about Egypt where there was real tyranny, nor about opposing corporate power because we're talking about public workers here and not GM auto workers. And it's ALL about money. Shut the fuck up you are wrong because I'm not hearing other arguments which are not (like say, arguments about innovation). This includes Republicans arguing against the public sector unions just as much as it includes the teachers whining about "rights". Those rights are all about how to divide up costs and expenses (primarily because we have labour laws that accord to proper safe working conditions). "Benefits" are not, sadly, free or cheap. Ordinarily, these are the people who demonize private property rights, or the ability to bargain for them. I'm a little annoyed as a result to hear them now suddenly discover a need for private property rights when it benefits only their specific favored minority (unions).

3) I also don't want to hear that somehow this is going to fix the state's budgets (any of them, there are several fighting on this front). It might help somewhat. But there are usually bigger fish to fry than trying to torch the unions on bargaining rights. The biggest one of which is state health care expenses. Others might be tax revenues, economic growth being slow, currently high unemployment or social welfare costs, etc.

4) Another problem with the state's is their insistence on passing tax cuts in the midst of these recessions. State taxes have a lot less of Arthur Laffer to work with because they're almost always fairly low relative to the amount of money states spend on public services (because the federal government augments these services by providing funds for some of them, infrastructure, health care and education in particular). And targeting tax breaks don't seem like sensible policies to begin with. It is however arguable that these tax cuts, at least in Wisconsin, are better targeted at underprivileged groups, like the unemployed and sickly, by making exceptions for new hires by businesses, new businesses, and for health savings accounts. I have far more sympathy for the poor and downtrodden than for the middle class (ie, unionized public sector workers) when it comes to distributive social justice. In other words, this bad policy seems less bad than the alternative being proposed instead (give more influence and money to middle class people).

5) I still think the biggest concerns vis-a-vis the teachers in particular, along with the other major public sector unions, are abuse of the inflexibility of a system making it difficult to innovate new methods and also difficult to cull dead wood (such as, in Wisconsin, the cases of teachers lying about sick days). A more flexible system would allow bad teachers to be dismissed and fired, competitive schools to seek out better teachers from others. Such a system ultimately has very little to do with how teachers are paid, receive benefits, or how they bargain for their pay and benefits.

Lest we not forget

I never thought this was really a powerful motivating feature for why we invaded Iraq. Perhaps it was, and perhaps it remains clouded from me because I felt it was probably a lie at the time, and really a useless diversion away from a more pragmatic and honest explanation; something on the lines of "we, the American government, feel Saddam Hussein is deserving only of dethronement and death, and submit this course of action to you, the American people".

This explanation alone probably could have sold many people in the wake of 9-11's overly simplistic neo-conservative explanations for the machinations of terrorist plots. I feel it probably did, simply because many people have abandoned the weapons of mass destruction prospects years ago, but some have clung to associating Saddam with 9-11. A proposition which made even less sense to me than the WMD claims, which he did at least use the chemical weapons we gave him against Iran. Nevertheless, we arrive now at the point where people are willing to admit that the overriding factor, the real desire, was the desire to depose (and probably kill) a reigning tyrant. I feel no sympathy for the Saddam regime, and no great sorrow that he is gone.

But the Iraqi people suffer regardless because we went into this war with the false show that somehow this liberation would matter to them, that they would know how to build stable unified institutions that are the hallmarks of a liberal democracy and oh by the way, there were these mythical bombs and anthrax factories out in the desert. Somehow in the haste to kill one man, and maybe a few others, we sort of forget to mention that there was a country we were bombing, invading, occupying, rebuilding, and rearming. That this has always been a project undertaken both in stable quasi-western republics (Germany, Korea, Japan), and still lasting years, seemed to have escaped notice.

And in retrospect, this is probably because many people convinced themselves, at least temporarily, that we were invading because if we did not some mushroom clouds, or maybe just some poisonous mushrooms, would show up in an American city near you. Fear kind of blocks out the ability to look at things critically.

I don't begrudge "Curveball" for taking the opportunity to take advantage of American fear and a mutual hatred of the Iraqi regime to potentially benefit himself, and perhaps misguidedly thinking his people would also benefit (after all, it's not his fault the Americans subsequently carried out the invasion-occupation elements incompetently but the toppling Saddam part went swimmingly).

The fact that there were not leaders, elected or appointed by Americans, to make even partly clear-headed thoughts regarding foreign policy strikes me as a little bit of a problem. The departure of Obama from Bush is pretty slim in terms of actual policies being pursued (particularly the Bush that deviated from the Cheney-Rumsfeld playbook after 2006), but the one thing I do get from them is that these policies are being pursued with a much greater icy calm. I don't think that makes them any better, but it at least gives me some optimism that someone somewhere could explain that they are wrong and receive an honest hearing instead of being told to manufacture evidence supporting a pre-conceived notion. Or to fuck off.

Zombies take over

International relations...

Best parts of this one

Realism means things are pretty much what they are. Even when the undead start to feast on human flesh, nothing much would change. While it's definitely an absurdist take on realism, it's actually not that far off. This was essentially my reaction to 9-11 for instance. Things would change, but they would more or less just shift around some national goals, put things like "invade Iraq" into the hopper for example. Things did not change in the sense of what posed real and existential threats to American hegemony. People didn't like hearing this, some people still don't. But it's not less true 10 years ago simply because more people are now aware it's true NOW. (what put a real threat to American hegemony was our expending trillions of dollars on fruitless wars to install pro-Western leaderships in unstable countries).

Fear is overrated. Give me a potential nuclear war, yes, that's a real threat deserving of national attention. Give me a terrorist network living in caves. Meh. Not worth ignoring, maybe a lead news story for a while, but it's not worth creating new and invasive powers, invading countries that had nothing to do with it, bombing others, and so on.

Speaking of "invade Iraq", there's also this segment which describes the neo-conservative worldview as including this darker "kill all Muslims" aspect to it. Because obviously this book was written with zombies as the stand-in for Muslims. Also there's the "everything is an existential threat" paradigm and problem for neo-cons. There's a reason realists don't get along with them, and that's largely it. (there's also the problem that neo-cons never bothered to explain how they would "inject freedom" and make this proposed antidote work. It was just assumed that democracy=freedom, when actually the reverse tends to be more true, that free institutions support a democratic regime and that corrupt institutions like those of Iraq and to a lesser extent Afghanistan, which just lacked institutions period, will mean electing a corrupt autocracy instead of a free liberal democratic one).

And finally there's the philosopher's joke.

58% of philosophers believe zombies are possible.
15% of them believe in god.

I would think a zombie in the sense philosopher's define it is actually plausible, as all it is is essentially an animated corpse lacking consciousness. They don't define them as wishing to feast on human flesh, or being a contagion etc. Those are far more specific qualifications to the zombie hordes than mere lack of consciousness. It's likely these would be more equal numbers under more rigorous definitions than the mere concept of a zombie versus the concept of a deity. But it's still amusing.

The most depressing book I've ever read

Bloodlands has something like 10-20 thousand people dying on every page. When it opens up with the Ukrainian famines and the deaths of over three and a half million people, complete with cannibalism, deportations, shootings, and a bizarro world response by the Soviet government (that it was their fault, a form of terrorism against world socialism), one should know the ride will not be pretty.

There's several passages which I noted in particular however as the impassive horrors committed by the Nazi and Stalin regimes are documented.

Germans had policies of extermination toward Jews, this we know. We liberated some of the concentration camps of the West, and the Russians got a few in the East. But the Russians liberated some actual death camps. A slight distinction between Treblinka and Auschwitz was that, while Auschwitz's Zyklon B killed many more people than the carbon monoxide gassings at other locations, very, very few people survived Treblinka. Less than 50 out of over a quarter million, all of which escaped. Chelmno was even worse, less than a handful out of almost two hundred thousand people.

This we also know about, but it boggles the mind to see that much of the real evidence against the Nazi regime was not the walking skeletons who remained living at Bergen-Belsen to be filmed by victorious Western allies. It was the ashes of millions of Polish Jews, many of them women and children, who were already dead by 1943. (Incidentally, Auschwitz wasn't for Polish Jews, it largely was for Hungarian or Czech Jews).

What we also don't hear much about was the way Germans dealt with Jews in occupied Belarus, Lithuania, Ukraine, and other Soviet republics. They shot them. Almost all of them. They had a term for it. "Resettlement". Which was described thus. "Resettlement site: on the resettlement site eight trenches are situated. One squad of ten officers and men are to work at each trench and are to be relieved every two hours". The perversion of language took on a considerable level of tortured meanings throughout the war.

There's also the warped way in which all this killing was celebrated or became normalized.

"At one killing facility, the personnel celebrated the ten-thousand cremation by bedecking a corpse with flowers" (this was at a euthanasia site in Germany itself largely used for handicapped children, deployed in 1939 through 1941, over 70000 German people, mostly not Jews, were gassed in this one).

Or in this, a letter by a German policeman to his wife.
"During the first try, my hand trembled a bit as I shot, but one gets used to it. By the tenth try I aimed calmly and shot surely at the many women, children, and infants. I kept in mind that I have two infants at home, whom these hordes would treat just the same, if not ten times worse. The death that we gave them was a beautiful quick death, compared to the hellish torments of thousands and thousands in the jails of the GPU. Infants flew in great arcs through the air, and we shot them to be pieces in flight, before their bodies fell into the pit and into the water."

True, Soviets had killed millions of their own citizens in Ukraine and Belarus, and deported millions more to become slave laborers. By the end of the war, Belarus had lost something on the order of half its pre-war population to indiscriminate policies of mass slaughter, and almost all of its Jewish population.

But this .... justification of "they would do it to us", has always scared me. It was deployed by Americans even to "justify" programmes of torture for terrorist suspects. Those horrors are small in comparison to the mass slaughter and reprisals of the Eastern front in WW2 (and even prior to it). But they are not made less horrific by this knowledge.

They seem even more terrifying when we consider what else lies on that slope into darkness.

Things that make me go, huh?

I don't get this Carmelo trade.

Denver will need to trade Felton, because they already have their "under-sized North Carolina point guard" in Ty Lawson. But they actually did better than the usual 50 cents on the dollar for a superstar demanding a trade routine. They probably could have used a big guy (Kenyon's getting older after all), but maybe they can spin Felton off for a big guy and a backup point guard who's bigger. Gallinari and Chandler are both pretty solid players.

But as far as New York, I think this trade actually makes them worse this season. Billups doesn't impress me as someone who can run the uptempo style, certainly not as well as Felton did, and certainly not at his age. Amare's better with someone who can run pick and rolls with him (he's basically Karl Malone 2.0). Nobody on this team can guard a chair. What will probably happen is New York is assuming they'll get one of the Chris Paul-Deron Williams sweepstakes next year and then that point, with Boston getting older, they start looking a little more like a title contender, or at least pushes Miami for the Eastern Conference. Right now they still look like a 45 win team.

Oh and Minnesota didn't come out too badly here. Randolph's interesting. Curry's cap space. Brewer's never sorted himself out anyway.

Here's the numbers on 82 games and e82
New York gets
Anthony +7.9 / 8.8
Billups +0.8 / 5.6
Williams -6.0 / 1.8
Carter -11.6 in limited minutes 0.1
Balkman -19.4 in limited minutes 0.1
Brewer +2.0 / 2.3

Denver gets
Chandler +5.3 / 5.6
Felton -1.0 / 8.0
Gallanari -1.2 / 4.5
Mozgov -13.5 in limited minutes. 0.8

Sum that up, 18.7 wins versus 18.9 wins. Not much help there. As I said, Denver got pretty equal value here.

I don't see what the fuss is about, and between Chandler being a good defender who could guard multiple positions and Felton being a better fit for the offense they were running than Billups, I see this is a major downgrade for this season. The Felton-Fields-Chandler-Gallanari-Stoudemire lineup that New York mostly used was by far their best. Simply sub-ing in Turiaf for Chandler drops them from a 50-55 win team to a 25 win team, to give some idea of Chandler's value (it's not that extreme, but he's definitely a good player). 3 of those players are now gone, and they're sub-ing in an older point guard who can't run for 39 minutes a game (Felton's per game average) and who doesn't know the system on one practice. To anyone who thinks this team is thus scary in a post-season series, I say that you are a crazy person. They did get a fair amount of playoff experience. But they have to get a decent seed to make use of it, simply making the playoffs only to play against Boston or Miami or even a healthy Chicago team (with Noah) is not a recipe to stay in it long enough to matter.

The other downside is that they got older. Basically New York traded players and got players back who were contributing at about the same level but who are 3 or 4 years older on average. This does not compute in any universe.

One further caveat, this trade did put at risk one of my fantasy basketball team's victories, by moving Felton out of the D'Antoni adjusted universe of statistics (the Coors Field of basketball stats) and reducing his minutes unless Denver moves him again for somebody else or picks. So I am understandably annoyed.

21 February 2011

NCAA ratings New #1

Obviously all those upsets this weekend took some tolls. Did not make a muddy situation look clearer.

1) Duke
2) Ohio St
2) Kansas

Still pretty close together up here, but no real surprise that Duke passed the field to move up to #1. I don't see them as a potential title contender however. Defense isn't as good as it was last year.

4) Texas (these guys I can't figure out, defense is smoking, but you lose to Nebraska?).
5) BYU
6) Purdue
6) Pitt

Purdue moved up a notch.

8) San Diego St
9) Wisconsin
10) Kentucky
11) Washington

12) Georgetown
13) North Carolina
14) Arizona
15) Villanova

16) Syracuse

17) West Virginia
18) Louisville
18) Notre Dame
20) Vanderbilt
21) Illinois
22) Utah St

23) George Mason
24) Missouri
25) Connecticut
25) Belmont

Bubbly high ranked (that are low ranked bubble teams in the RPI world).
Cincinnati, Maryland, Marquette, Duquesne, Alabama, Clemson.

Nebraska probably got the marquee win of the weekend. Moved into one of the play-in games. The Missouri Valley got smoked in the Bracketbuster weekend; Missouri St's completely off the sheet now. So is Colorado and Memphis. Conference USA is still way overrated by RPI.
Last four out looks like this now: Michigan, New Mexico, Washington St, Richmond. Northwestern moved up a bit. Colorado St moved back.

Breaking unions

I have mixed reactions here on these various state bills floating around (including of course, the one in Ohio).

Basically I have no problem with teachers (or most workers, including public workers) having unions for collective bargaining purposes. My preference would be that teachers are not employed or contracted with by the state anyway, which would mean they would be a private-sector union rather than a public sector union and neatly avoiding this whole bugaboo. Though that doesn't seem to be happening, and isn't remotely curious (many people do not seem to like school choice, including these supposed advocates, Republicans). I'm somewhat curious why in Wisconsin the police and firefighters are excluded, though it's not actually politically surprising that this happens (after all, cynically speaking, those are the groups which backed the Republican governor).

My real curiosity is what those unions are doing defending incompetent employees and negotiating, strangely, for better benefits (pensions especially) instead of more direct pay. Other than more or more flexible vacation time, there are not "benefits" that are of any actual value that exceeds that you can get out of having someone pay you more money and spending that money on these purported benefits yourself. Many teacher retirement funds I've seen are rip-offs for example, complete with excessive fees and relatively low pay offs. So more or less what my curiosity is is not why are there teacher unions, it's more like, what are these teachers doing defending the ones they have and instead demanding better unions that actually give them useful things.

Benefits are generally non-taxable forms of income, true, but the larger portion of these taxable benefits accrue not to employees, but their employers (health care in particular). Pensions are usually deferred tax, rather than actual non-tax, which is again a bad deal (depending on who issues the pensions, some of them are federally excluded, most are just state-tax excluded). Tax rates are low. They seem to be going up, at some point. And I'd rather pay low taxes than high ones.

I see a lot of resistance to introducing competition into teaching, or to schools generally. Especially from teacher's unions themselves. I think this is foolish. Teachers should want to extract the best benefits they can for themselves, but they should not want to carry deadweight, or to captured into doing things only the way they are permitted to do them by state or local school boards say they can do them. One of the largest impediments to better quality teaching is the lack of better quality people going into the profession. Money is one incentive, but it's not actually the primary one (it is a problem in the sense that pay is set out based on seniority which does provide some perverse incentives of its own, but it's not a problem in the sense that the sort of people who would make good teachers would necessarily want to be well paid if they are a better teacher). The primary problem is the lack of control and professional respect. Creative people may not want monetary incentives, but does not mean they do not have incentives. In other countries, with better education systems than here, such as Finland or Singapore, there is not only a greater degree of cooperation between teachers, as well as innovative freedom to design a lot more of your own course material.

As for police in particular, police unions really should not be in the business of defending bad cops, and in forcing out good ones who call others out for their bullshit. And this seems like a way too popular event, in some jurisdictions becoming increasingly opaque rather than a transparent process with citizen input and participation. Being a cop, much like being a teacher, should not mean that you can get away with ridiculous, even illegal, actions and still get to keep doing your job. It all too often does mean exactly this. It is this, by far, which annoys and agitates the general public against the actions of unions (see "Rubber Room" in NYC, the new DC school contract which allows dismissals only after 100 days of arbitration to fire someone, which was actually progress from the previous arrangement, or virtually any criminal act which a cop is accused of). Being unable to dismiss incompetent personnel is one thing, certainly a problem, but given our ability to form a market economy for schools and make sounder determinations of competency or incompetency regarding public sector employees like teachers or cops, it's kind of a side issue. Being unable to properly and swiftly dismiss reckless, dangerous, or destructive personnel is another thing entirely.

Side note: I don't think test scores are a very good measure for teacher evaluations. It's possible that looking at progress from year to year on test score measures may be a useful tool to have in a toolkit for administrators to evaluate good teachers from bad, but if it makes up more than about a quarter of an evaluation I think we're getting away from what makes up good teaching and spending too much time teaching to a test. I'd stress things like parent-student evaluations, peer evaluations, administrator evaluations, and doing things like placing a lot more free time for teachers during the school day to be spent in other teacher's classrooms, or to just flat out start hiring a lot more teachers (many to replace the chaff being culled or be fired themselves) in order to have a wider pool of talent available. I think merit pay is probably fine, but really what is needed to fix the system is to introduce much more educator freedom over curriculum and that's mostly what a school choice system is needed for, to allow for this sort of market experimentation and innovation. Focusing on the money, the direct pay people get, is getting us nowhere.

Second side note: there are two places where these public workers are definitely sucking up unreasonably the public's money, benefits, in particular public sector pension funds, and regular pay for low-skilled workers (as well as employing too many of them, though this is often contracted out to private firms now, fortunately). There's a third in the pay of incompetent or under-competent skilled workers. I would definitely think we should be going after all three of these. If breaking public sector unions is somehow necessary to achieve this, I guess that's the cost. I don't think it should be the primary goal. I see unions as basically a neutral force for good or evil, often exploited to commit real economic atrocities against the public interest and to a lesser extent against the real interests of their members, but sometimes exploited to commit real goods for their members as well.

What really needs to be taking place is that there need to be more smaller unions which can more competitively remonstrate for their membership's demands, and the economic and distorting power of large urban school districts does seem to be at issue here.

16 February 2011

Remind me again

What country do we live in?

That would be the one that has a plurality now willing to fund farm subsidies and a massive majority favoring doing absolutely nothing to federal health care spending and social security. Despite the fact that these two programmes are precisely the cause of a long-term deficit crisis and account for an already massive amount of the current budget.

Perhaps a more interesting question would be to list these items on how much Americans think ought to be spent. We've already seen that this means a far larger amount on foreign aid. It would probably produce a very large cut in social security and medicare, along with several other major bloating programmes (defence spending for instance).

NCAA ratings

1) OSU
2) Duke
2) Kansas

4) Texas
5) Pitt
6) BYU

A bit of separation at the top finally, but not much.

7) Purdue
8) San Diego St
8) Wisconsin

10) Kentucky
11) Washington
12) Georgetown
13) North Carolina
14) Villanova

15) Arizona
16) Syracuse
17) Notre Dame
18) Illinois

19) Louisville
20) Connecticut
21) Vanderbilt
22) St Marys
22) West Virginia
22) George Mason
25) Missouri

26) Belmont (still being very sneaky)
27) Maryland, also being very sneaky. By losing many games.

Overall, it looks like the SEC is very overrated by the RPI (other than Kentucky, which is underrated), along with Conference USA. The ACC (with the exception of Boston College), and to some extent the Big Ten is underrated. Pac 10 is always underrated by this stupid ratings system.

Teams that are overrated by the ESPN-RPI crowd: Boston College, Georgia, Memphis, Baylor, Tennessee, Texas AM, Princeton, Colorado St

Teams that are on the bracket now: Michigan St, Xavier, Gonzaga.
Teams that dropped out of contention: Northwestern, Boston College.

Bubble looks something like this:
Xavier, Michigan St, UCLA, Gonzaga, New Mexico, Washington St, Butler/Cleveland St IN. ODU, Alabama, Richmond, Michigan, Baylor, Nebraska, Colorado, Georgia, UAB/UTEP OUT. Northwestern, Boston College, Colorado St, Missouri St, Southern Miss, Memphis way out. The bubble as a whole looks pretty soft. I really wish they hadn't expanded the field. At least 10 teams at this rate are going to get at-large bids that are middling at best.

A lot of conference USA types are decent teams, should get a decent seeding if they get in by winning the conference, but are mediocre enough that they should escape notice if they don't get a bid. The only mid-majors or minor conferences teams that should get in regardless are St Marys, George Mason, Utah St, Wichita St and Belmont, with Temple and Xavier from the A10. Duquesne is a lock on my list, but not on anyone else's (usually Richmond instead). Wichita St hasn't actually beaten anyone however, same with Belmont (two close losses to Tennessee on the road) so they're both at risk. The Mountain West is much better than the SEC and pretty close to the Pac 10 on my list and it is not a "mid major" conference if there are 5 teams in the discussion, and 3 of them as locks, and two of those up for favorable home court first round games. That looks a lot more like say the Big 12 than the Missouri Valley or even the Atlantic 10.

15 February 2011

So much for that "we're not social conservatives"

from these tea partiers who are supposedly concerned about fiscal matters.

Bullshit. Says I.

South Dakota

And Ohio say otherwise.

The South Dakota "defence" offered in Washington Post is particularly curious.

""Say an ex-boyfriend who happens to be father of a baby doesn't want to pay child support for the next 18 years, and he beats on his ex-girfriend's abdomen in trying to abort her baby. If she did kill him, it would be justified. She is resisting an effort to murder her unborn child." --- only there are already laws against such things. Such as assault. And South Dakota and some other states allow additional murder or manslaughter charges in cases where a pregnant woman is killed or assaulted. What isn't clear here is how someone who isn't involved in the actual decision to conduct and have an abortion, say, this mythical boyfriend, who decides they need to kill someone like the doctor conducting the abortion in order to prevent it, is now somehow magically not encouraged to do so by a law which specifically states "unborn" as a protected class.

Budget cuts

Cabinet departments.
End agricultural subsidies (this is about 30 billion)
End trade barriers on agriculture (sugar and milk are the most well-known of these).
Basically just abolish the department of agriculture and leave the USDA's food safety system in place (and consolidate the USDA and FDA mandates and departments into one branch rather than spread all over like some grotesque word salad of rules)
Abolish the vice presidency and any duplicate functions of the executive branch associated with the bureaucracy for this position. I've already outlined my presumed method of replacement should the president be assassinated, killed, or die in office. Some method of chain of command would already be in place should the President be seriously ill for a period of time (say a stroke, cancer, etc).
Abolish department of Homeland Security. These functions were all properly maintained in pre-existing federal bureaucracies (FBI, CIA, NSA, etc). Privatize airport security as well.
Abolish DEA and DARE program and related drug enforcement positions.
Abolish or privatize the postal service.
Abolish department of Commerce, or at least its non-statistical/patent law functions (essentially all commercial subsidies). I guess we can keep the census, NOAA, BEA, NIST and patent office. ITA needs to go.
Abolish the department of Energy. Most of this money is subsidies on coal, oil, and maintenance of DoD nuclear activities (which can be done by the DoD). (about 40 billion total).
Abolish the department of Transportation. Retain or phase out gasoline taxes, but ideally implement more local/state toll taxes on congestion pricing for controlled access roads (ie, highways) instead. Privatizing air traffic control should have been done decades ago. (about 80 billion)
Curtail the department of labour's activities to those related to fair labour practices and the collection of labour statistics (such as employment). Why we need a faith-based and community initiative board funded at the federal level is beyond me already, but why it's seated in the DoL is even stranger.
Abolish HUD. Maintain some basic banking regulations on loans and mortgages and for home construction instead. Local-state governments should abolish rent controls while we're at it. If nothing else, kick out Fannie and Freddie immediately.
Abolish department of Education. Reform payment of schools to create a system of tax credits issued for education spending, payable to any institution of the taxpayers' choice. A similar concept for health insurance and retirement spending may be reasonable, though in all three cases, the government should not control where the money must go (other than that it should be spent on some enterprise related to the tax credit, education spending for the education tax credits, health spending for the health credit), and we should have something like actual health insurance as an option (that is: catastrophic health care coverage with a high deductible, possibly with guaranteed issue, but risk-adjusted premiums, just like any other form of insurance). May end up costing about the same in actual subsidies, but often at the state-local level instead of federal.

Presumably smaller cuts are there to be made to state and treasury, or at least reforms, though neither takes up a substantial part of the budget on its own.

Defence spending
Reduce our nuclear arsenal
Major cuts to defence spending and reform procurement and payment for military. I would suggest about half of the defence budget over a 10 year period be trimmed off. This would still put us at about 3 times the next highest country and the level of the entire EU. Much of current military bloating spending is related to the idea that more ground troops would be needed to fight wars and create occupations like those Iraq or Afghanistan. Such wars are a considerable waste of time and money and do not serve to increase national security. Therefore, the type of thinking necessary to fight such wars is flawed. At best we should retain a high-quality special operations force for such incursions, and move on to other national defence priorities than fighting peasants over rocks. Large portions of spending are also allocated to construction projects in these war-zones. While I do not object to foreign aid as such, I don't see its utility in an active war zone of an occupied country.
Devolve the VA into DoD funding. We don't need an additional special interest group with a seat at the table for veterans over and above active soldiers.

Block grants for medicaid instead of matching grants.
Voucherized/means test Social security/medicare. Phased in so near-retirees don't freak out.
Alternatively, use a negative income tax and abolish (nearly) all forms of welfare and itemized deductions. This would end things like the home mortgage interest deduction, food stamps, unemployment insurance, social security, medicare, and so on. A downside risk is a few extra lazy people who don't produce anything for the economy. But personally, I'd rather such people not be working. They're not likely to be very productive employees anyway.

14 February 2011

Another confusion

I keep seeing right-leaning talking points on Egypt presuming that somehow this is comparable to Iran in either 1979, or 2009, and that somehow, someway, in both cases Democrats fucked it up (and it continues the right's healthy and persistent narrative that Carter/Obama are replaceable nouns). Not only does this tacitly ignore that somehow, someway, a Republican administration fucked up Iraq, in some measures far worse and far to the detriment of Iraqis, but it also implicitly suggests a course of action that Obama in particular should have taken vis a vis the Green revolution in 2009 and that there were somehow benefits that would have resulted in the Iranian regime.

So far as I can tell, the Iranian revolt was never very positively oriented around the removal of the Iranian regime of a theocratic constitution in the way that Egypt's protests have become about the Mubarak regime and its "emergency" powers (and not just about Mubarak at the head of it). Instead it was positively oriented around what was perceived as a fraudulent election. Despite this agenda, I don't see how this is the same as perceiving widespread changes to the overall structure of Iran's foreign policy, agenda on nuclear power/enrichment, or any other immediate gains that could be declared as obvious and sweeping resulting from a successful Green revolt taking power. Maybe a few social internal policies would moderate (though this also is doubtful given that the Iranian mullahs sign off on the choice of high officials open to elected offices), but you weren't getting a lot of change in the perceived hostile space between US and Iranian interests. But even if it were so that supporting such a change would have resulted in something, how would we have gone about this? Rhetorical support (beyond simply protesting the use of violence and suppression of free expression)? Funding for anti-regime forces? Military attack or sabotage on regime centers of support? In autocratic regimes, it is typical to blame outside influences and forces for the failures of internal policies. It's an old legend, and it's one that regimes can use to rally bases of support against perceived traitors in their own midst in a population accustomed to somewhat reporting on itself to authoritarian security forces. Iran was no different. And so we would propose to associate ourselves, clearly, philosophically, and financially with the people who were being called out as American agents already? As satisfying as it can be to root for freedom of millions of oppressed peoples, what we may yet learn out of Egypt is that these things can form organically, and do not necessarily require our influence and guidance to sustain themselves. And that baldly associating ourselves with one side or the other risks much, providing fuel for the oppressive leader should he remain in power (as well as alienating them if they were modestly pro-Western, as Mubarak has been), and often weakening the position of the eventual pro-democratic revolutionaries to a position perceived as illegitimate to former regime bases of support or other nationalist interests. It is enough to simply declare the "American" set of democratic values and demand that the people's grievances receive their airing and appropriate responses (and not tear gas and brutal arrest crackdowns). And then move on. Which is basically what Obama did in Iran, and Egypt. It is not often that I can look at our policies somewhere and say at least "well we didn't fuck ourselves too badly.", and I am inclined to give some modest kudos for doing so.

In the airing of this set of criticisms, there is left unexpressed what course of action would have been preferred to this. The people are invited to suggest their own internal preferences, perhaps a more pro-democratic promotion stance, or perhaps more militant responses, without clearly stating which stance is preferred by the critic, if the critic holds any such policy preferences at all (other than cynical political resistance to an opposition party). Maybe sometimes it is enough to see weakness in the position taken by one's leaders, but I prefer seeing someone have the guts to say what they might do differently in this situation before acceding that maybe they know of what they speak. I'm not sure what exactly it is that many critics think we had the power to do (both in 2009 and now), and whether or not they are aware of the consequences of their proposed actions or whether or not they are aware that we often did not even possess the powers they imply we should use instead. And this makes such criticism seem a little more ridiculous than it really is.

(After offering some faint praise for Obama here, I'm about to offer some significant "fuck off" for his pandering on the budget he just released. Give me back the Obama who speaks to us like adults and at least mentions entitlements, tax complexity, and defence spending in a budget. I'll probably outline my own idealistic cuts at the same time, so that may be a couple days... but just.. yeah. He really should have proposed something, even if Republicans in the House would have just reflexively opposed it and nothing would happen)

File under hypocrisy

"I witnessed someone calling Ron Paul people a “cult” while eating a cake shaped like Reagan’s face."


The Ron Paul contingent to the GOP/Tea Party does sometimes look this way to me as well.

But really, you're the people who belong to private religious associations which constrict idol worship then worship America and Ronald Reagan as idols, and you're calling the quasi-libertarian wing of the party a "cult"?

I'm having a hard time following the logic here as though this being a "cult" is supposed to be a bad thing. Or is it only okay when it's the cults you approve of?

Various points

If someone came forward with a political platform to attack at least 3 of these, without also proposing to strengthen the other 3, I'd vote for them.

1. The huge rise in occupational licensing.

2. The huge rise in people incarcerated in the war on drugs, and also the scandalous reluctance of doctors to prescribe adequate pain medication (also due to the war on drugs.)

3. The need for more legal immigration.

4. The need to replace taxes on capital with progressive consumption taxes.

5. Local zoning rules that prevent dense development.

6. Tax exemptions for mortgage interest and health insurance.

Also important: many of these are local or state issues. Occupational licensing laws differ by state, so do many drug laws (possession laws especially), taxation differs slightly by state (though very few states impose something like a VAT as opposed to capital taxation), and in fact zoning laws are almost entirely a state-local issue. This would mean that these issues could and should be attacked in a decentralised way. Yet because there's relative agreement between Democrats and Republicans over levers of control in these areas, we don't get many local politicians promising to overturn local zoning laws or license requirements for barbers, teachers, or dental assistants and so on.

I'd also second the categories. I very much consider myself a pragmatic libertarian, concerned with outcomes and harms imposed by bad political policies. Another phrase for it might be an economically educated liberal/progressive. That is: that I know "liberal" free market policies will tend to produce better outcomes than centralised controls or state laws will, but also that silly outdated traditional adherence on various cultural matters imposes substantial costs to society that could be properly outsourced by removing those state-controls (things like state-imposed discrimination against homosexuals in the same vein as Jim Crow laws, narcotics consumption, vice crimes, etc). I'd say there's a wide amount of academic perspectives that seems to share these sorts of views, and fair amount of idealised conservativism and progressivism as well, and obviously neither of these groups compose a large portion of the middle ground actually found in politics. What concerns libertarians (and those few idealistic polar opposites) is the prevalence of corrupted versions making up the middle who actually get to govern the country at any level. So we get "free market" Republicans who vote for tax subsidies for corn and oil and imposing restrictions on immigration and vice transactions, and putatively utilitarian Democrats voting to preserve teachers unions concerns and those of other much larger interest groups (as opposed to the general interests of the public), and so on.

This also captures that split on libertarian grounds between Hayekians and Rothbardians. I very recently had to explain the "taxation is theft" vision of libertarianism. I think there's a modest moral concern there regarding taxation, but it can be outweighed by a small, efficient state providing public goods and capturing externality costs. If instead we get a large, inefficient state providing large economic rents to favoured interests instead of public goods, then yes, by all means, object to the state's taxation on moral grounds.

Just make sure you also object to its spending (as many Tea Partiers do on principle, but not in actual practice).

11 February 2011


Or otherwise, throwing some cold water.

I'm reasonably pleased to be wrong that Mubarak fell as quickly as he did. That said.

1) We don't yet know the shape of the next regime. It could be anything from a democratic reformation in the modern Turkish model (with some Islamic/Islamist influence), the Pakistani model under Musharaf with a strong military dominance on politics, the Palestinian model under Hamas, or an unstable series of counter-revolutions. The main reason for this appears to be that while there's a unified force behind removing Mubarak and his obvious cronies (Sulieman for instance), there wasn't a clear voice declaring what exactly came if he actually went.

2) Now that he is gone, it will probably be some months before a clear government emerges. Elections take a while to organise, oppositional political parties that haven't existed will be formed, constitutional reforms will probably be necessary, and so on. This means we won't have much of any idea what's going on for a while. For Egyptians, some celebration is warranted, it's not every day you kick out a 30 year dictator, even if the regime itself remains mostly intact. For Americans and other interested Westerners, this is sort of like celebrating on Opening Day as though you've just won the pennant.

3) I don't see how this influences positively (or negatively) the peace process in Palestine. Again, we do not yet know the scope and form of the change. I think what appears to be the democratic opinion of Egyptians is that peace with Israel is favorable and should remain, but that peace with Israel including cooperation to be suppressing Palestinians is not (ie, the blockade). To my mind, Israel probably lost what precious little moral credibility in the region it had to continue that blockade last year with its raid on the Turkish flotilla. It's unclear what effect that will actually have on the ability of the various parties to influence policy. But one possibility is the model of the more temperate Muslim Brotherhood on Hamas. Another would be that Egypt would become a hotbed of weapons smuggling into the Palestinian territories.

In reality, what appears to be THE stumbling block is Israel and Israeli intransigence. Based on the leaked Wiki cables relating to the subject, the Palestinian negotiators were basically caving left and right and Israel still basically told them to fuck off. If that's the case, then it will take a lot more than a few Egyptian smugglers running weapons (along with legal trade in food, medicine, and other trade goods) into Gaza to get them to change their tune. In other words, I don't see what difference this really makes. Maybe it will. But it's doubtful.

4) What does appear to be good news for Americans is that there's a less obvious extremist narrative about American hypocrisy propping up dictatorial and corrupt regimes in the region. There's still the Saudis, Yemen, to a lesser extent Jordan, and of course, there's Iraq.

But Egypt was the biggest card in the deck. If it can maneuver its way into becoming even a semi-democratic state, I suspect we're better off from a security standpoint.

Just in case

Someone wants or needs a refresher on what the provisions up for renewal are, and just how useless or invasive they really are....

10 February 2011

Genius may have its limitations, but stupidity is not thus handicapped

The trouble comes when one side is right and the other side is wrong and doesn’t know it. The Shakespeare authorship page and the Shroud of Turin page are scenes of constant conflict and are packed with unreliable information. Creationists crowd cyberspace every bit as effectively as evolutionists, and extend their minds just as fully. Our trouble is not the over-all absence of smartness but the intractable power of pure stupidity, and no machine, or mind, seems extended enough to cure that.

Random amusement

I think it would be awfully interesting if, after this Egypt rebellion is settled, and it appears now with the military involved to be settling into an effective rebellion, we'll have to see how it goes in terms of any reforms,

one starts in...

Iraq. Which now has larger domestic protests concerning economic hardships. And an autocratic unresponsive and corrupt regime.

09 February 2011

NCAA early version

1) OSU
2) Kansas
3) Duke
4) Texas
5) Pitt
Pretty crowded up top. If I had to choose, I'd take Kansas, but OSU and Duke also look promising.

6) BYU
7) Wisconsin
8) Kentucky
9) Purdue
10) SDSU
11) Villanova

12) Washington
12) Syracuse
12) North Carolina

15) Georgetown
16) Illinois
17) Connecticut
18) Arizona
19) West Virginia
20) Louisville

21) Notre Dame
22) Missouri
23) Vanderbilt
24) Marquette
25) Utah St

Random team for upset watch in first round: Belmont (28). George Mason is at 29 also, and neither is likely to get a respectable seeding but should be high enough to knock off somebody else who's right around them in actual ability.

Texas AM appears to be the most overrated team in the country. They're ranked right now, but I have them as barely in the field (44).

I don't have Gonzaga in for the first time in years, but they're in a crowded bunch of middling teams (Michigan St, Butler, St Johns, Baylor, Northwestern, UCLA, Xavier and so on). So they can play their way in.


I was heartened to see a few Tea Party types (though other than Ron Paul, and presumably Rand Paul in the Senate, none of the major well-known names from this movement's base of support) actually lived up to their billing and helped to vote down a quick-step renewal.

I was not heartened to see that the renewal bill will still pass easily, it will just take a couple more weeks now.

None of the provisions up for a vote are necessary on some cost-benefit analysis in terms of the actual security they may provide and all are prone to substantial levels of abuse by government authorities (regardless of which party administration controls these levers of power).

In the UK provisions like these are indeed likely to be repealed and rolled back as the invasive and unnecessary "security" measures that they are. Here in the US, despite years of bitching by left-leaning Democrats during the Bush years about these tyrannical or fascist looking laws and efforts for government power, we now get much silence and a few consistent figures (one of whom, Feingold, was just voted out in the last election) trying fruitlessly to fight back against a naked authoritarian power grab that resulted in the wake of a deliberate attack on American soil. In our haste for security, we may have immeasurably damaged it in another way by making violable our inherent rights as citizens and decent human beings.

Games, evil and heartless version

ideological communicators?. I'm kind of amused that Assassin's Creed decided that the worst thing in the world was some evil corporation and the Citizen's United decision, but the sort of "evil libertarian" theme from things like Bioshock and some others was also getting a little tedious. So far as I know, we're not all heartless immoral beings and most libertarian philosophy draws from things like Hayek or Adam Smith's theories on the underlying moral order and fabric of a society and that tampering with it too much through government heavy-handedness doesn't quite produce ideal results.

More interesting is this question

I've definitely found that the most interesting games, the ones that I will tend to replay often, will use aspects of presenting you with real game choices with real consequences in the game. Dragon Age and Mass Effect, and to some extent the Fallout series, all allowed you to make decisions between helping or ignoring, or even actively harming, characters in the game. Generally the game gave you greater rewards, along with long-term advantages, if you helped, cooperated, and aided where you could, and often made the game more challenging if you took the "dark side" path of indiscriminate slaughter and mayhem. Few games do this well. The Civilization series tends to do this pretty well, offering different avenues to victory, and complex choices over what sort of government policies to use to pursue that victory. With advantages and disadvantages to each, sometimes merely being that you locked out other choices, as with actual life, there's a scarcity problem (in terms of time) that locks out the use of resources for all possible avenues of advancement and gain.

Maybe this appeals to me because it very much mirrors a sort of utilitarian calculus, with choices having tangible, often measured and weighted benefits and costs, and that sort of economic brain is what I've already been using to examine social policies in the real world, and often seeing substantial costs that are ignored because they exist only in unfavored political minorities (the drug war or campaigns against access to birth control are among these), or are so widely distributed in cost that they become virtually invisible costs offering substantial benefits only to small subgroups (farm subsidies are the most classic of these, but there are many such interest politics chasing economic rents in the same way).

One of the appeals of a game like Fallout was that being "good" often meant being tolerant, and indeed, engaging willingly and freely with ugly and despised in game groups. The game is partly designed to give the player an us-vs-them feel, and to thus easily side against ghouls and mutants and other hideous post-apocalyptic beings. But they're also recognizably human in their wants, and their objectives, and the advantages in game of cooperation with these hideous deformed beings are realized in trade, in experience, and so on. Mass Effect has the same elements with various aliens.

In real life, sympathizing with out-group peoples, and tolerating their experiences and choices, provided they present you and others with no real harm, leads to a more interesting and diverse set of experiences for yourself. The food is better, the music, the art, and the conversations often richer. Indeed, one of the reasons I occasionally engage with social conservatives on their often odious political views is to try to understand the underpinnings and motivations. The people involved made these active choices. I am curious to understand why. It is of course rare that such people can speak to some factual basis for their fears of homosexuals, of Muslims or immigrants generally, and so on, but it is at least diverting to have to engage the arguments that are raised and slap them aside with doses of reality rather than to exist solely in the echo chamber (as they often have). Perhaps the play style of such people in games like these would be very different. Or perhaps they would not find such diversions of complex game mechanics very interesting in the first place. But it's an interesting question why many games are designed with heartless and evil actions bearing no game consequences.

For instance... I find it odd that Left 4 Dead makes it so that killing the weak members of the squad allows them to come back to the game with more health. It's an odd game mechanic that gets exploited all the time on the highest difficulty settings. It probably wouldn't be very much fun to be dragging around a near corpse in game of course either, but it's still an odd counter-morality that gets spawned. Since I usually find it hard to be heartless and cruel for malicious and useless purposes in these games, or to do things which have a distinct evil feel or at least don't present as cost-effective benefits (drug use in Fallout usually comes down this way), I kind of wonder why people are worried so much about morality being warped by children playing GTA or WoW or some other immersive game, or just plain shooting people in Doom. (I really wonder that when looking at charts of violent crime since the 80s, and seeing a huge drop off since GTA came out).

Other random thoughts of the day, or other things that should not be said aloud by other people

Random thoughts
1) Dane Cook and Daniel Tosh, not funny. Don't get it.

2) John Mayer and Coldplay, not good. Don't get it.

3) Thai food, good. Need to get some of it.

Things that should not be said that I see said all the time.

1) Global warming, not happening (what to do about it is a legitimate debate concerning foreign policy and international economics, whether it's going on, not so much)

2) Evolution, not happening

3) Muslims, all of them, evil. (Same applies to atheists, all of them, immoral).

4) History channel, has actual history on it.

5) Cable news stings of child predators prove this is a serious and wide spread problem and that your children may be in danger

6) Vaccines, not good.


In between regaling its readers with the story of dreadful intra-familial cannibalism resulting from Stalin's deliberate policies in the Soviet Ukraine (millions perished from famine), I noticed something about the mindsets involved in the leaders who conquered, carved up, and virtually destroyed Eastern Europe and its peoples.

I see often a question posed by right-leaning, and especially conservative writers and people about the rhetorical hatred directed at Palin. There are several caveats. I do not think she was responsible for Jared Loughner. I do not think she (or most other right-wing nutjobs) has got some master plan for desiring to kill millions of people, because of their religion, nationality, or socio-economic status (though I am somewhat annoyed that she conflates economic necessities that she defends in stark terms as though liberals did have some master plan for desiring to kill millions of people, which I regard as equally ridiculous). While there are many who would compare the neo-conservative values of the Bush-Palin mindset to fascism and the statist police powers to those of Stalin, there's still a pretty big gap in the amount of statist controls they would use, and both the Nazi and certainly the Stalinist are much further to the left economically for state powers than most American liberals, much less American leftist politicians (such as Obama) and certainly most conservative right-wing politicians (even as non-free market as I see them at many occasions, tax breaks for oil companies and food subsidies in Iowa for example...). These comparisons are useless rhetorical demagoguery, of the sort that Palin herself engages in and I do not mean to make them as assertions that she would outlaw her political opponents or their views, or would undertake campaigns to eliminate them. I feel she, or rather the existence of her popularity among a subset of Americans, is quite scary enough without these underpinnings and I think it necessary to understand and attempt to explain why that is.

What I'm actually trying to address is not a comparison and equation between the political views and ideology, such as she has. But it is the mindset that interests me, and tends to annoy and frighten liberals, and that mindset seems remarkably similar.
1) A tendency to see very stark black and white terms on all fronts. Attempting to point out inconsistency of her very general rhetoric and factual errors within the talking points themselves tends to result in paranoid accusations of persecution. This is not on the order of pretending that Ukrainians were starving themselves because they hated world socialism and Stalinism and responding with brutal malicious state policies, but it's the same sort of reasoning. One could be forgiven for worrying what the execution of state powers would look like under a Palin government.
2) A tendency to shift those fronts in malleable contortions of unreason, which are followed faithfully by her supporters, but which are objectionable by anyone else, in part because the word salads that Palin has organised into speeches to defend herself and her positions are pretty badly in need of an editor and baldly in evidence as talking point vomit (must say something about "troops", and "socialism", and so on), but also because they are shifts in positions that do not present some ideological consistency or present some basis for the shift. Some actual reason for shifting other than that she now feels persecuted by this group or this person instead of that. So far as I can tell Palin's entire ideological belief structure seems to be her extreme religious views, an idolatry of "Real America" (a shapeless definition that means whatever she wants it to mean at a given point), and a hatred of media (and we can see this reflected by some of her choice of political allies during the last election, such as Joe Miller's detention and assault of journalists covering his campaign in Alaska). These reflect very few meaningful policy choices as a result and none of them particularly well regarded by liberals (free speech restraints on the press as well as citizenry, restrictions on homosexual rights and abortion, and targeting of immigrants and other "suspicious" bodies of people)
3) A tendency to demagogue her enemies, or the perceived enemies of "Real America". Us vs them thinking is very effective at gathering and maintaining a base of support, and for acting very quickly if that base is sufficient to take and assume power within a country. It is however very dangerous at gathering and maintaining political coalitions because it provides for no middle ground. In a diverse society like America, I think we have some fortune to see that it's likely not to work.

These are pretty much the mindsets that liberals, and not a few moderates, rightly are afraid of when they appear. I put this out there mostly to help conservatives who see her as persecuted victim understand why she's reviled by her political opponents. In large measure, because I don't see her backers and her populist rhetoric going anywhere and disappearing, I'd want them to understand that a) her two major speeches (resignation from governor of Alaska, and the defence she gave post-Tuscon) pretty much killed her political chances anyway with the mainstream of the country and even among many conservatives so you may as well have it catalogued and b) that the core of people who like her BECAUSE she annoys liberals and is so hated by them may understand what it is about her that they do not in fact like. There are specific political positions she has that are disgusting and insulting to liberals, and that's certainly at issue too. And to a libertarian, not only her positions on social matters, but her woeful understanding of basic economics (for instance her tweets about QEII and inflation) are very much insulting and hard to listen to (especially that she has been described as one of us for instance).

But it ultimately comes down to her mindset and activity since becoming a national political figure with a loyal and dogmatic following. There are political figures and pundits who I disagree with on some matters whom I can respect in their attempts to explain their views (Gingrich used to be one of these, not so much any more because he's gotten to having views which are blatantly bigoted or insipidly stupid and for which he should know better). And then there's the Palin-ites, practicing something else entirely as politics (Bachmann's another one, Angle, Miller, and a few others) and who seem utterly ready to divide the country into an us-them entanglement with right and wrong defined not as empirical or objective considerations, but as who's on my side and who is not. That bothers me a lot more than her actual political views.

I mention it because seeing the behaviors of Stalin and Hitler leading up to some of the worst atrocities in human history, the mental contortions that they and their cronies undertook, and the mindsets combined with a will to destroy their enemies, real or imagined, utterly and completely, immediately drew me to think of her methods as a politician and celebrity, or those of Beck and others like him. Perhaps it's because they themselves so commonly and recklessly draw on the imagery of Nazis and Stalinists (or Maoists for that matter) and the comparisons come easily to mind because they make them so readily already in talking about their own enemies. But it's also the same methodology, the same mindset, applied to much smaller goals than mass exterminations of people.

I note this also because I've seen that many of the people who agree, or who actively subscribe to her political views, do seem to have taken on eliminationist rhetoric, describing all Muslims as secret spies and terrorists and calling for the abandonment of rights and constitutional protections for Islamic peoples of any derivation, regardless of real or imagined threats they may pose individually in our communities, and seeing other active plots and conspiracies everywhere aiming to bring down America (Soros, Tides, etc), and describing liberals and indeed sometimes libertarians as enemies of the good, as unpatriotic and hateful of America and its values. This too should worry reasonable people. So far as I can tell, Palin's viability as a candidate for high office does indeed seem to be rejected as unreasonable. Perhaps on this basis, or perhaps on others. But if people really need to know why she's presented so poorly, and resented so widely, this is perhaps a hint of why. If in reading about some of the highest and widest crimes against humanity I should recognize even a glimmer of her behavior, her mindset, and her rhetorical tricks, I think that's a problem worthy of bringing up. She has none of the state infrastructure, the charismatic following of awe, or the ideological makeup to start and lead a grand crusade with designs of abolishing entire peoples, certainly, but she has the same sort of mental design and behavior as the people who did.

She sees and portrays herself as the persecuted victim rather than the aggressor representing some threat. The amount of contortions that many Americans go through to see themselves as imposed upon to tolerate gays being married, or narcotics (some of them) legalised seems overdone. And she's the singular figure into which these fears and underpinnings are represented through. The reason she gets picked on is that she's popular within that community in a way that other political figures are not and thus she represents an actual threat of unreasonable fears made manifest and into official state policy by a not-insignificant minority of the population. The real issue to me is that significant minority of the population, not her.

That there should be a body politic willing to support her strikes me as scarier. That I have occasion to defend her silliness out of necessity of free speech and other items of moral and legal consequence which she (and other political figures akin to her) seems strikingly ignorant of, also annoys me. I grow tired of it.

03 February 2011

So about that anchor

Hope this helps

make your case that somehow immigrants pose a vast threat to society... let me know how that one goes over. And in the meantime, please leave the 14th Amendment alone.

In fact, I'd prefer it if you enforced it more often and left large numbers of activities partaken in consensually and privately by American citizens, much less these hapless and unpopular immigrants, alone too.

Further comments

1) If Obama comes out soon with a more clear support of the demonstrators, Mubarak will probably fall. If not, I'm fairly sure he can wait it out, though it will be a weakened regime with democratic reforms taking place.

This is not an endorsement of dictatorial rule by a one-party client state.

2) Upon further reflection and study of its role in Egypt, it is really foolish to see the Muslim Brotherhood as a threat. So far as I can tell, they function sort of like the religious right (or maybe more like the Catholics or Mormons), operating charities, hospitals, and other social services in a nation-state that doesn't offer these with sufficient access to its public. They do not engage in or support terrorism, and they are basically a social-political movement with a religious overtone. As annoying as such people are in their worldviews at times, they do tend to try to do good things in a society (though they will be a little more prone to go astray on the whole "other" aspects of a society). It's possible they will take a harder pro-Palestinian stance and do things like send aid through to Gaza officially rather than simply wink at the blockade. But I very much doubt this silly notion that if they were to be the sole power broker in a post-Mubarak age that they would risk billions of dollars of American foreign aid by adopting explicitly anti-American stances, offering state support for terrorism, or even seriously be interested in attacking Israel directly (or even indirectly, such as by ignoring the peace treaty between Egypt and Israel). That question doesn't seem to be as pressing as strengthening the nation-state of Egypt and the plight of its people economically and socially.

What actually seems to distress some Americans is that they are not Christians and thus (somehow) constitute some sort of threat. If this is your problem with the situation in Egypt, I'm not sure how this threat exists in reality, even to the Egyptian Coptic church, much less to Americans. I don't see the Muslim Brotherhood as adopting some sort of hard line fanatical stance that precludes the existence of other faiths or even other interpretations of Islam, and certainly not as the second coming of an Islamic caliphate. I see them more as those annoying people who knock on doors to get people to come to their church, or who run soup kitchens.

They look a lot more like the AKP in Turkey, or even the GOP here, than al Qaeda or the Iranian mullahs in Khameini's pocket or Hamas or Hezbollah.

02 February 2011


By now pretty much everyone with a microphone in front of them has weighed in on the ongoing situation in Egypt. I have some reactions of my own.

1) This is not Iran either from 2009, or 1979.
2) This is probably not Tunisia either. Egypt has a much stronger nation-state, partially because we've propped it up with very large sums of military aid.
3) Some concessions will be made by the Mubarak government, temporarily at least.
4) Large numbers of media people (particularly of the Faux persuasion) are really, really, really afraid that this is Iran circa 1979. I've seen little evidence that the protests are a) specifically anti-American/anti-Western, as the Iranian protests often were, or b) are more about politics than economics. Pretty much what brought down Tunisia and is agitating Egyptians is a corrupt government presiding over a very rough economy.
5) These same people speculating about the possibility of large populist uprisings in the US are idiots. Much as people are pissed about things, and there is corruption or abuse of power by government, we actually have it pretty good relative to about 85-90% of the planet (basically parts of Western Europe, Scandinavia, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada are about the only real contenders). Most people do not protest en masse when things are "good". That includes Americans. We also have a much stronger and resilient state with a process of regular democratic uprisings built into our system already (free and fair elections). Egypt does not. Tunisia did not.

Basically the net result is uncertain, and not being a certified expert on Egypt, I prefer to wait and see what kind of government emerges, or if the same one stays in power, before I start condemning popular uprisings to the possibility that they are, lets say, fundamentalist in nature. Or somehow at all threatening to the US and its immediate interests.

It's very possible that this makes the Israeli situation vis a vis Gaza/Palestine less secure, but Egypt's already relaxed the blockade on the land side from Israel's raid last year. And I don't see how that's our problem. Israel can handle itself on these matters, or should be able to conduct its own affairs for its own security without us orchestrating the governments of nation-states surrounding it into a certain more pliable sensibility on this one issue.