Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Why Newt Is Wrong

It is my understanding that Newt Gingrich had a vision for Government:  that, because we now have computers, Government can be even more efficient than before, and so Bigger Government would lead to better society.

I always had the sense that he was wrong, and because of this Vision, the idea of Newt as President gives me the willies.  As I have read this testimony before Congress, given by a Silicon Valley CEO against Government intervention, I realize why Newt is wrong.

The problem, in part, is this:  Government, even with computers, is no match for the daily, even hourly, decisions made by hundreds of millions of individuals, who, taken together, have better knowledge about the worlds around them than any collection of bureaucrats will ever have--even with computers.

But this isn't the only reason why Newt is wrong--and this is the insight:  Government bureaucrats won't be the only ones who get computers.  If a computer can extend the ability of a bureaucrat in making better decisions, then, surely, a similar computer can extend the ability of an individual to make better decisions as well.  Thus, the ability of bureaucracies to gather information and make decisions will always be dwarfed by individuals making decisions about the world around them.

I would take it one step further:  even if, by some magic decree, we could make the computers of individuals disappear, and ensure that only bureaucrats will have computers, the decisions of those hundreds of millions of individuals will always be better than the decisions made by those tens of thousands of bureaucrats.

Spirited Individualism always trumps Big Government.

NOTE:   I discovered this essay through Paul Graham's Five Founders essay.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Oh, Flourescent Light, How I Hate You So

As we moved into our new place, we discovered three of those twirly-bulbs:  one in our bedroom, one in the hallway, and one in the kitchen.  We hated the blue light these cast on these rooms, so we replaced them at our first opportunity.

We have a long bulb in the kitchen, a secondary light, that produces a more yellowish light; we like this light, except that after it's been on for a few minutes, it buzzes, and it gets louder as time progresses.  And now my desklight is beginning to do the same.

Why can't flourescent lights just burn out like good incandescents do?  Or just last forever, like those modern LED lights are expected to do?  Instead, they flicker, or they buzz, or both[1]...and I'm certain that some fluorescent light designer, somewhere, is probably working on even more ways for fluorescent lights to be able to torture people.

Of course, all this would only be a minor annoyance, if it weren't for the fact that Government has banned incandescents, starting in 2012.  Thus, I will now be left with the choice of evil fluorescents, or expensive and untested LED lights.

Why, oh why, can't Government just leave us alone?!?

[1] Not to mention that both "features" can cause migraines, or at least, make the life of someone who already has a migraine considerably more miserable!

Friday, September 24, 2010

Brains! I need braaaiiiiins!

This last week has been brutal.  I decided to wake up two hours early every day so that I could make up work; the result has made me a bit of a zombie.  Hence, I'm hungry:  "Brains!  I need braaaiiiiins!"

Actually, today I'm doing better than I did the past couple of days.  On Monday, I tried to get up early out of principle, but realized that, since my wife had a doctor's appointment, and my daughters were still asleep in the bedroom (we have yet to set up their beds...but then, for the last month or so, they've been sleeping in the living room), I might as well just go back to sleep myself.  I became fully zombified on Tuesday and Wednesday, though; due to a headache, I tried waking up only an hour early yesterday.  Today, I slept until I normally wake up, because yesterday I had a migraine.

In addition to trying to catch up on hours at work, I wanted to get into the habit of waking up early so that I could work on personal projects.  As a result of this "test run", I will only get up early on Monday and Thursday; if doing so is still problematic, I may have to convince my employer to let me work 6-hour days.

It's a curse that I haven't yet come to terms with:  I tend to sleep deeply, and if my sleep is too disrupted, I get migraines.  Since I would like to pursue my own work, though, I need to come to terms with this, somehow.

I have a t-shirt with Albert Einstein on it, and printed on it "Be Creative".  One morning, asked myself "What would Einstein do?"  I quickly realized that Einstein won't be of much help:  he slept in until noon!  :-)

On Dependency Theory and Freedom

For some time, I've been wondering:  would it be possible to create some sort of "Dependency Control System"?  This topic has been on my mind recently because I'd like to create a CLtOS ("Common Lisp the Operating System"), and it would be nice to use something like Debian Linux's "aptitude" to install things, and to make sure that the dependencies work out nicely.

As I read this blog about Redundancy vs. Dependencies, I thought it would be nice to have a Dependency Control System for individual projects.  Does something like that exist?

In my efforts to find out, I stumbled on Dependency Theory.  In a nutshell, this states that, in a global economy, the Rich Countries naturally exploit the Poor Countries, keeping them poor, because poor countries are a good source of cheap labor and goods, and a nice dumping ground for obsolete technologies.

Unfortunately, I know of one good counter-example to this theory:  The United States.  Our country wasn't always a Rich, Dominating Superpower.  Indeed, at the time of our Founding, superpowers had funny names like "England", "France", and "Spain".  What made us different?  Individualism.  A determination to be Free.  A desire to try anything at least once, and a distrust of government.  While, to a certain degree, we are a Nation of Laws, we have also been a Nation to Ignore Unjust Laws or Even Laws We Just Don't Like.

What about Third World Countries?  Social Order--an attempt to make things ideal by making a multitude of laws, enforced by hordes of bureaucrats.  Hernando de Soto, in his book "The Mystery of Capital", has a very vivid explanation on how it's nearly impossible for a business in these parts of the world to legally operate, or for individuals to move into cities and build homes.  Thus, a single "factory" has to operate in small rooms, scattered about the city; families who wish to live in a home will build a small shack, and then gradually acquire the materials to expand this shack to a nicer home; and if a bureaucrat or police officer discovers any of this, bribes need to be paid--often periodically.

In other words, these countries don't respect freedom to conduct business without State interference.  And that, more than anything else, is what keeps these countries from prospering?

What lessons can we take from this?

First, Hernando de Soto tries to make businesses in Third World Countries legal, and tries to lessen the bureaucratic burden (which, apparently, is dangerous work:  lawyers and bureaucrats who like the system will go so far as to threaten de Soto's life!).

Second, for decades, we've been adding to our own regulatory boondoggle.  The latest examples are Obamacare and Financial Reform (about 3000 and 2000 pages, respectively, or something like that), but we also have things like OSHA, the EPA, the ADA, and even the Civil Rights Act, that put regulatory and civil liability burdens on our businesses.  Additionally, we have lots of State and local laws that add even more to the burden[1].  What can we expect to happen to our society, to our prosperity, if we continue down this course?

[1] My father-in-law, for example, recently had to file a building permit for a house he built twenty-five years ago.  What is the point of building permits, except to limit our freedom?  And what point is there in filing a building permit twenty-five years late?

We're moved out...and now we're settling in

Last Friday, I took some time off to mow the lawn of our old place, do a little bit of cleaning, and turn in the keys.  We're officially moved out!  And I'm a little sad, because we liked the place a lot, we grew somewhat close to the local congregation of our church (despite being there only two months), and it was a convenient distance from where I work.

Oh, and I forgot to snag a couple of apples from the apple tree in the back yard before we moved.  (I could always sneak back, but at this point, it would feel a little like tresspassing.)

This last week we've been settling in:  since our new place is smaller than our previous place, we can't continue to hang our clothes out to dry, and with winter approaching, we won't be able to put things outside either; thus, we had to find a stackable washer and dryer (so we'd have room for our washing machine).  This week, we had to figure out how to install the darn things.  (For a little while, we had to wonder how to convert our new washing machine from 220v to 110v--until my wife discovered we could plug it into the dryer.)

In the meantime, my wife has been unpacking and/or shifting boxes and furniture.  We're gradually claiming more space...and freeing up some breathing room!

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Trying to get the Rhythm right

When I first started my blog, I intended to add two or three entries a day.  That's proven to be a lot of work, and--unless I want to echo items from my favorite three or so blogs I check daily--I'm not as connected to the Real World as I'd like to think!

It doesn't help that during the last two weeks, I've been in Move Mode, and that this last week, my family has also had to deal with a bit of sickness (and the upset of having to adjust to a new place isn't exactly calming to my children, to say the least!).

Another factor that I'm trying to come to terms with:  I tend to write long things, and I need to get used to writing brief entries, unless a topic calls for a lot of discussion.

It will be interesting to see what I can do in the future :-).

Monday, September 13, 2010

Little time for me to remember

On Saturday, I would have liked to put up a nice video, and perhaps share an anecdote or two, about the day we shouldn't forget...but I haven't had the time, and I didn't have access to a computer at the time, either.  Instead, we rented a truck, filled it with almost all our furniture, and a lot of boxes, and moved them to our new place.  In the next couple of days, we'll be boxing up loose ends, and cleaning up our old place.

I will say this, though.  I remember tutoring someone who had a hard time concentrating, after 9-11.  She explained that her sister was on the flight to Boston--one of the planes that hit the towers.

So, to those 9-11 "Truthers" who claim that the Government flew military planes without windows into the towers:  what did the Government do to those who were "supposed" to be on those flights?  Did the Government silently execute them?

I shouldn't egg anyone on.  Although I dislike what our Government has become over the last few decades, I sincerely doubt anyone in that Government would have developed such a plot, just to grab more power.  (And that's yet another subject that has such potential...)

Friday, September 10, 2010

Questions of Identity

We've seen a great increase in identity crime lately, and, as a result, we have heard people cry out for a Universal National ID.  There is hope that, once we can definitively identify an individual, we can then ensure that only the individual will be able to act on his own behalf (excepting power of attorney, among other things).

In thinking about this, however, I wonder:  is it really a lack of ID that's causing these problems?  Or is it the increase of anonymity?  And does government-issued ID re-inforce this increase of anonymity?

Consider a major source of identity theft:  the obtaining of credit cards in someone else's name.  This is largely made possible by the fact that credit card companies will send out pre-approved offers, and then finish the approval of those cards, without so much as a check of the person's credit score.  (Who in their right mind ever thought it would be responsible to offer credit to the family pet (in some cases, literally)?  Perhaps the best way to address this problem would be to convince everyone that offers of credit should only be made in person.)

Or another:  the use of a Social Security Number, obtained who-knows-where, to pay taxes, or open bank accounts, or who knows what else.  This is made possible by relying on an arbitrary series of digits as the identity of a given person.  While efforts can be made to match the number with a name, certain factors--such as other forged identification--can be used to interfere even with this.

Now, consider this:  Why does a bank, or a landlord, or a family, or a judge, or a restaurant, need to know who I am?  Let's ignore the restaurant:  the only concern is age, and even that's not a concern when alcohol isn't involved!  But for the remainder, identities only matter because the individuals involved want to make sure that certain things--an account, a (possibly trashed) apartment, an inheritance, or a punishment--are applied to the right person.

If we limit our identities to "the person who opened this account", for example, then a bank really only needs to know a handful of things:  a name (it doesn't even have to be a real one), a signature, a picture, perhaps a thumb-print, and an address of some sort to send bank statements and warnings.  If "the person who opened this account" needs to pull money out of his account, then the bank can issue some sort of ID (a bank-card, possibly with a picture and a thumb-print) to make sure that the person is authorized to take money from the account.

Now, judging is a trickier matter:  but again, the goal is to identify that a given person committed a crime.  It doesn't matter who that person claims to be, so long as that person is clearly identified with that given crime.

What about Social Security Numbers?  Obstencibly, the original purpose for this "ID" is to collect taxes, and to dole out welfare.  Theoretically, I should be able to work under a number of names, though, and pay taxes under each name...and receive payments according to what I paid in.  So long as I don't perpetrate fraud (claim I'm disabled, for example, when I'm not, or claim that I'm 65 when I'm really 40), this also shouldn't be a problem!  (It furthermore wouldn't be a problem if government would just stay out of the retirement and disability insurance field altogether...but that's probably for another post.)

This is where we get to the heart of the matter, though:  while obstencibly, our SSNs were intended to be only a Tax ID number, our government encouraged it to be much more than that:  our government has encouraged us to use it as an ID number for all other words, it was meant to be a precursor to a National ID.  It is only recently, it seems--due to the explosion of Identity Theft--that our government has encouraged us to be more conservative with using our SSN as an ID.

Somehow, and I'm not sure how, just yet (this is, after all, a new line of thought for me), by relying on our SSN, and our governments in general, to establish our identifications, it has simultaniously destroyed, yet enhanced, our anonymity.  It is destroyed, because it's difficult to walk into a bank, call myself "George Smith", and open a new account, one that could be used in emergencies (both moral and immoral--anonymity is a double-edged sword) where anonymity is required.  Yet it is enhanced, because all we need to do to establish ourselves as someone else is to obtain a valid Social Security Number, and maybe furbish a forged ID card or two...or, in the case of our pets, perhaps to send for a free ice cream coupon in our dog's name.

This line of thinking definitely deserves more exploration....

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Confirmed: We'll need to move. :-(

It's confirmed:  we need to move.  Our landlord is going to have to make major structural changes to the addition of the place we're currently renting.  He gave us the option to be let out of our contract without penalty, and since we're not sure that the fixes he has planned will completely eliminate the smell (and the asthma attacks), we decided to accept the offer.

We've been able to find another place.  It's smaller and a little farther away from work, but we made darn certain this time that it wouldn't have any potential mold problems!  It's a little less in rent, as well, so we'll be better financially, too.

I'll go into more detail of the situation a little later.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Freedom to Be Small Act

Severa months ago I read an interesting book:  Everything I Want to Do is Illegal, by Joel Salatin, a libertarian, Christian, semi-organic farmer who just wants to be left alone.  A great read.  I highly recommend it!

One of the things that really stuck in my mind, though, was a comment that individuals need to have the freedom to explore new possibilities, but are prevented by numerous regulations.  If I wanted to try to make and sell cheese, for example, I can't just make a small batch in my kitchen, and then take it to the local farmer's the (largely mythical) interest of Public Safety, I need to buy hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of stainless steel vats, precise thermometers, and whatnot, and be prepared for the various fines I might face when a random bureaucrat tries to enforce some obscure law.

As a result of thinking about this, I decided it would be fun to write up a "Freedom to Be Small Act", that would go something like this:

WHEREAS individuals need to have the freedom to experiment with new ways to do things, in order to explore possible career paths, and
WHEREAS every small business has the potential of growing into a large one, and many of our largest businesses started out in someone's garage or kitchen, and
WHEREAS bureaucrats, regulations, and zoning laws interfere with this process,
BE IT ENACTED that any small business (defined as a business that has the equivalent of six full-time employees for every 1/6 acre on which that business resides, up to thirty-six employees):
  1.  Shall not be subject to local or State zoning laws, except those that limit noise, fumes, or other noxious behaviors that will interfere with neighbors' enjoyment of property, and shall not be required to obtain a license to pursue business, and
  2.  Shall be free from local and State regulations, and be required to state clearly to their customers, either by sign or by label on their products, that they are not subject to said regulations, and
  3.  Shall not be required to insure themselves against sickness or injury that may result from their product, but may still be held liable for such sickness or injury.
FURTHERMORE, BE IT RESOLVED that any such small business, so long as its products are kept within State boundaries, are not subject to the various regulations passed by the United States Congress, nor its many regulatory agencies.
I feel as though I've left something out, but I can't put my finger on it at the moment--the napkin I originally wrote this on is still packed away, somewhere...but even if I had the napkin, I still would liked to have taken steps to "bullet-proof" the law.  For example, I didn't want "retaining a lawyer" or "contracting an accountant" or even "hiring a plumber" to count as "employing" someone, for purposes of this law, except where it's a clear part of the business model.  In any case, this is the gist of it!

Now, if only I could find a sympathetic representative...

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Why am I hostile to public education?

In discussing home schooling with my wife, she asked me:  why do I oppose public schooling so much?  I've had to think about this a bit, but I think I have the answer.

Apart from the bullying, which I mostly ignored, I enjoyed my time in public education.  Yet, even during this time, I started to develop a desire to home-school my children.  I think part of the reason was that I liked the idea of being semi-nomadic, moving once every two or three years...and home-schooling is a way to stabilize education over vast shifts of geography.

Even during this time, though, I think the seeds were planted to distrust public education for a second reason:  Public Schools are inflexible.  They are designed to push people down into lesser education.

Allow me to give three examples of this:

Exhibit A.  I was in "7X" English--the level between "Gifted and Talented" and just plain old 7th Grade English.  Although I got straight A's in this class, my teacher took one look at a test score, and signed me up for regular 8th Grade English...and the first day, I was bored, and felt out of place.  Thus, with my mom's encouragement, I went to the office and asked to be placed in the "8X" English class; the next year, I was invited into the "Gifted and Talented".

I came to realize that my teacher arbitrarily tried to stick me in a lower education track, based on a single test score.

Exhibit B.  I had a friend who didn't do well in a certain math class (I can't remember if it were geometry or algebra).  Although he spent some effort to make up for it during the summer, this effectively derailed him from the "Calculus" track in mathematics.  Between this, and the realization that high school only requires two years of this precious skill (as opposed to four for English), I had the sense that something was wrong.  Now that I'm older, I can explain it:  rather than have a flexible system where you can pick and choose math classes, you're stuck on a track.  If you get derailed, it's very difficult to get back to a higher track.

Exhibit C.  Grade advancement, to the extent that it prevents students from progressing, holds back the student as a whole.  If a student is bad at math, but good at reading--or vice verca--he is expected to be held back a grade.  Or, alternatively, a student is often pushed forward, despite being bad at both, to avoid the stigmatism of being "held back".

In either case, this is the direct result of a rigid system, arbitrarily dividing the students up by age, rather than by ability, and arbitrarily tying math and reading together.

Now, I have never been one to believe in "elite classes".  The one thing I despise about a lot of our mythmaking is the idea that there is a certain, small, group of people, who are born into greatness, and everyone else is doomed for the mass of sameness.  You can see it in the likes of Star Wars and the Force; Harry Potter and magic-users (the masses, there, are called "muggles"); and even "X-Men" and other Superheros.  I've always had the sense that anyone has the ability of greatness, if their potential is unlocked.

One work that decidedly is decidedly not in this camp is Tolkein's The Lord of the Rings.  The main characters--arguably the most important characters--are common, everyday farmers, who pop out from nowhere and change the world for the better.  Tolkein makes it clear that, while Bilbo, Frodo, Sam, Merry and Pippen are up to the task, almost any hobbit could have done what they did!  And this, because hobbits like to do the right thing.

It is my feeling that anyone could learn calculus, and learn linear algebra, in high school.  I'm an ordinary person, and I at least learned calculus in high school!  All I did was dutifully do my homework; and when I decided to become a mathematician, I dutifully did my homework until I earned a doctorate.  Of course, because I liked mathematics, I read up on mathematics whenever I could, above and beyond what I learned in school.  But then, that's a side effect of passion...and it's also key to getting students to work.

But in our rigid school systems, teachers have limits of time, space, and bureaucracy, that keep them from teaching children to their greatest potential.  To achieve that, students need one-on-one attention...and they aren't likely to get that, even in a class of fifteen, or twelve, students.  And they certainly won't do that in a system designed to push students down, and even provides schools with monetary incentives to place as many students as possible in "Special" Education!

As I've read John Taylor Gatto's The Underground History of American Education, I've received confirmation on my suspicions, and I've learned a lot more besides.  I have concluded that I am likely wrong about having my children learn Calculus and Linear Algebra, and being able to read The Lord of the Rings, by the age of eighteen:  I ought to expect my children to be able to do these things by the age of twelve.

And my children will likely be able to do these things, not because they are gifted, but because they are human.

My Daughter's First Day

It's my oldest daughter's first day in kintergarden...and I'm not pleased.

It's mostly my fault that she's attending school today, because my wife didn't understand how serious I was, and I didn't take the time and effort to express how serious I was until she handed me some paperwork to review, about two weeks before my daughter was supposed to start school.

The misunderstanding is mutual, though:  I didn't understand how invested my wife was in the tradition--one only about a hundred years old--of sending children to school, and having the days to herself.

As a compromise, we've decided to send my daughter to kintergarden this year, and during this year, figure out what we would need to do to homeschool our children.