Shots Across the Bow

A Reality Based Blog

Tuesday, February 10, 2004

Lottery Dreams and Realities

"Players Have More Fun!"

"Some Lucky Dog's Gotta Win!"

The Lottery trades on dreams, but what are the realities?

I started this article as a comment in response to Rev. Sensing's post saying that accepting a Hope Scholarship is immoral if you believe the lottery is immoral. I have no problem with his logic there, but he went on to claim:
If you, gentle reader, are one who thinks lotteries are either benign or neutral, morally speaking, then you need read no farther, for you are uninformed. I urge you to research the true impact of lotteries on your own. My own position on this issue is what ancient philosophers called invincible: I have examined in detail all arguments to the contrary and found them all inadequate, usually hopelessly so.

Now them's fightin' words to me, since I regard playing a lottery as foolish, but not inherently deceptive or immoral.

So, I went to the link provided by the reverend, and examined his "invincible" argument.

Invincible is not the word that first came to mind: "Deeply flawed" was more like it. (OK, that's two words. Live with it.) The Rev. deeply opposes gambling on both a practical and a moral level, and that's fine, and you can build a good argument for that position. Unfortunately, he lets his beliefs get in the way of the facts, leading to several logical and factual errors.

His first error is to claim that since tuition only covers about a third of the cost for a year in school, and the other two thirds are funded through general tax revenues, in effect the lottery is an involuntary tax increase on all Tennesseans, not just those who play. The fact is that, regardless of how they are funded, all tuition assistance programs are subject to the same economic consequences; it isn't a problem specific to the lottery. Is the Reverend in favor of abolishing all educational assistance programs, or just those forms he finds morally questionable?

Next he claims, accurately, that it will require about $900 million in lottery sales to produce the estimated $300 million in Hope Scholarship funds. Then he goes on to characterize that $900 million as lost sales to retailers, resulting in lost tax revenues of $75 million. The flaws in that are many. First, economics is not a zero sum game. In fact, over half of the stores who add lottery tickets see their merchandise sales go up. Additionally, stores receive a 6.5% commission on all tickets sold, introducing a new revenue stream that more than offsets costs to the owner. That, combined with increased traffic and sales, indicates that the lottery does not have anywhere near the negative impact Rev. Sensing accords it, and in about half the cases results in increased sales.

The Reverend compounds his error by suggesting that the loss of $900 million in sales costs the state $75 million in lost sales tax revenue. Since we've already seen that the $900 million figure is bogus, it is obvious that the $75 million figure derived from it is also bogus. But even if the state loses $75 million in one revenue stream, it's picked up $300 million in another for a net gain of $225 million.

Even if the state lost $75 million in sales tax revenue, which as shown above, it doesn't, it gains $300 million in lottery revenue, a net gain of $225 million. Since the state will actually lose far less, the resulting gain is also greater.

His third error is to describe incorrectly how the odds are calculated. He claims that in most Pick 6 type games, you must guess the correct numbers and in the correct order. This is flat out wrong. In some of the pick 3 and 4 games, order does matter, but in every state I've seen a lottery, the pick 6 is number only; position is irrelevant. (Multi-state games are another matter) Strangely, the odds he quotes(about 14,000,000 to 1 against) are calculated correctly; if he were correct in his description, the actual odds would be 10,068,347,520 to 1 against.

These are his principle points, and in each of them, he's in error. But I agree with him that playing the Lottery is essentially a foolish waste of money, even if it is only a dollar or two.

To describe why, I'm going to have to throw a little math at you. Don't worry, there's no test afterwards, and I'll try not to go too fast.

First, you have to understand how the odds are calculated. We'll take a standard 6 number game, with a total of 49 possible numbers. There are 49 balls in the hopper, once chosen, that number is removed from play leaving 48. Extending the series, we end up with


This is the total number of arrangements of six numbers out of 49. But in most games, arrangement doesn't matter, so what we need to know is how many possible combinations of 6 numbers are there? Well, it's not too difficult to get there from here. We just have to divide the total by the number of possible arrangements of any 6 numbers. We can follow a simple process like we just carried out, only this time, there are only 6 balls in the hopper. There are 6 possible balls for the first number, 5 for the second and so on, giving us

6*5*4*3*2*1 or 720 possible combinations of 6 numbers, all of which are winners by the rules of the lottery. So, out of 10068347520 possible arrangements of the numbers, 720 will win, giving odds of

10,068,347,520/720, or 1 in 13,983,816.

Now, on smaller games, like pick 3 or 4, position is important, so you don't get to allow for different combinations, so you only go through the first step. Also, numbers are not taken out of the hat each draw, so numbers can repeat. This makes calculation much simpler.

For example, a 3 digit number from 0 to 9. The number of arrangements is 1000 (10*10*10) so your odds of winning are 1 in 1000.

Multi state games are a little different, as they include one ball where the position in important, which changes the calculation significantly. Take the Mega Millions game as an example. The 6 numbers drawn come from two separate pools of 52 numbers. Taking the five regular numbers first, those that can be in any order gives us


Now, the next ball comes out of a new hat, so there are 52 different chances, only one of which is a winner, so we now have

2,598,960*52=135,145,920 or 1 in 135 million against.

So, now we know how to calculate the odds. Is it worth playing?

Consider the payouts: a typical Pick 3, where the odds against you are 1000 to 1, pays $500. That means for every $1000 you spend on Pick3, you can expect to lose $500. To put this into perspective, most slot machines pay out at around 95%, or for every $1000 you play, you only lose $50. A good blackjack player can expect to lose $20-$30 dollars for every $1000 he wagers. To put it in another perspective, if a stock loses 50% of its value, investors bail and you can count on lawsuits.

It's a sucker bet, folks. You're better off investing in Enron and Imclone than buying a lottery ticket.

But it isn't a tax; it's not unethical, illegal, or (in my opinion) immoral. Nor is it the job of the state to protect us from our own stupidity. The people of Tennessee wanted a lottery; they got it.

UPDATE: In the interests of complete disclosure, I freely admit that I have been known to place a sucker bet or two.

Hey, somebody's gotta win, right?

Posted by Rich
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Friday, February 06, 2004

The Libertarian and Abortion

After reading the piece below, you may wonder how a man with libertarian tendencies such as myself can reconcile that stand with an essentially libertarian outlook. The answer is easy.

With tremendous difficulty.

If I believed that the fetus was not a person until birth, then it would be easy. In that case, the state would have no right to interfere in any way with the pregnancy and/or its termination.

But that's not what I believe, so the answer is not so easy.

Personhood begins at conception. It's the only logical place to pin it down, and as such, that person has a right to protection from harm, and the state not only has a right, it has a duty to offer that protection, with the vital caveat that it provides such protection with minimal impact on the mother's freedoms, in keeping with my central philosophy. Now then, let's take the above statement piece by piece and see where it leads us.

First off, I'm going to skip the mystical mumbo-jumbo about souls and such, and just stick with biology to determine when to assign personhood. When an egg is fertilized by a sperm cell, a new organism is created. It is no longer genetically identical to the mother, so cannot be considered as part of the mother. The zygote has it's own genetic code, unique from the mother, so biologically, it is a separate organism. It is however, a human as far as biology is concerned. Undeveloped to be sure, but still human.

But is it a person?

Here's where it gets tricky because personhood is not a scientific concept, but a legal one. When does the state recognize the individuality of this new human? Based on current law, which allows D&E (partial birth abortion), a baby is not a person until it is fully removed from the mother's body. This defining point has developed almost at random, based on convenience, not any underlying science. As such, it remains amenable to further changes and extensions, and there is some pressure to extend it further in the case of babies born with severe birth defects. However, let's use this boundary for a little speculation, to see if it truly fits our beliefs.

A while back, there was a case that made the news about a family who had a baby just on the hopes that the baby would be a tissue match for one of their other children who needed a transplant. Ethicists and moralists had a field day, condemning the parents for making a baby for spare parts, as it were. With that in mind, let's suppose they went about it a little bit differently. Instead of allowing the baby to be born, suppose they underwent a D&E, but instead of crushing the skull, the infant brain was chemically pithed, leaving the autonomic nervous system intact. The baby would be brain dead, but could be kept on life support while it grows the spare organs.

Given our current definition of personhood, this would be perfectly legal and at least as ethical as the standard D&E. In fact, I could argue that this is more ethical, since the baby being destroyed is at least serving a useful purpose.

Yet most folks would find such a practice an abomination, and would call for legislation to outlaw it as a moral outrage. These same people, however, would be deeply uncomfortable expressing why they feel that way. When I've raised this scenario in the past, people have said that it violates the sanctity of life, or words to that effect, but when pressed for details, specifically concerning the rights of the fetus, they grow defensive or evasive. They do not wish to acknowledge that their reaction to this scenario reveals that they do, in fact, accord some form of personhood to an unborn baby.

So now, given that a new organism is formed at conception, and that personhood is recognized legally at an entirely arbitrary boundary, and that the vast majority of people believe that boundary is way too late, the only non-arbitrary place to assign personhood would be at conception.

Now, the next step is determining how the state may best act to protect the rights of the fetus while minimizing its invasion of the rights of the mother. This is the essential dilemma of libertarianism; how to balance competing rights to achieve the optimum result with the minimum interference.

The extremes are easy; neither the mother nor the baby has the right to kill the other, therefore abortion should be allowed in cases where the life of the mother is in jeopardy. Abortion as retroactive contraception should be ruled out completely. Since this accounts for about 93% of all abortions, that takes care of the majority of cases. The remaining cases are less clear.

What to do in cases of rape or incest? It boils down to this: Which is worse, to impose the ultimate penalty for another's crime on an innocent baby, or to force the victim of the crime to carry the baby? The solution to this case, though tragic, is simple. The state has no remedy here; the rights of the mother and the baby are in such perfect balance that there is no course of action that can be said to give an optimum outcome. Since the state can do no good, it must back out and do no harm. This decision must be left up to the mother and her family.

The last case is the trickiest; abortions where the health of the baby is in question. Who decides what is in the best interests of the child? The parents or the State? Obviously, that responsibility resides with the parents, not just for obvious reasons, but because no government should ever be empowered to decide which ailments, diseases, abnormalities or defects renders a baby subject to abortion and which ones don't. Eugenics is an ugly word, and that's what this type of regulation would lead to.

At the same time, should a mother be able to abort a baby because he has a harelip or a cleft pallet?

I should certainly hope not, but I see no way for the state to intervene without causing more problems than it solves. That being the case, the state should not get involved, and trust instead in the responsibility of the parents in these situations.

In summary, abortion would be legal
  • in cases where the mother's life is at risk
  • in cases of rape or incest
  • in cases where the baby's quality of life is impacted by birth defects or other abnormalities.

That's it.

Posted by Rich
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The Ultimate Political Answer

Wes Clark is being attacked for flip flopping his position on abortion.
Democratic presidential contender Wesley Clark on Thursday sought to clarify his comments from a day earlier in which he told a Tennessee voter, "I don't believe in abortion."

"I would hope that it would be done only on rare occasions, but it's a woman's right to choose. It's a private matter and I support the Supreme Court. I support Roe v. Wade. And I support a woman's right to choose," Clark told reporters as he campaigned in the state.

The retired Army general created a stir in New Hampshire with a series of comments on abortion, telling a newspaper's editorial board that he was pro-choice and "life begins with a mother's decision."

So, on the one hand, he is personally against abortion, but he supports the Roe V Wade decision. Sound familiar? It's a very common American attitude. I can't count the number of times I've heard a woman say something similar.

"I'd never get an abortion myself because it's wrong, but it's not my place to make that decision for some other woman."


And to prove it, simply ask any woman who says the above why it would be the wrong decision for her. I've done this several times, and invariably, the answer boils down to something along the lines of,

"I couldn't kill my baby."

So why on earth would you allow other women to kill their babies? That is the simple hypocrisy inherent in the pro-cjoice movement. Individually, women accept that the fetus is a baby; it is only collectively that they can deny that baby it's essential humanity.

We've taken our natural tendency to respect other's privacy and warped it into tacitly acepting behavior we know is wrong.

Now, let me back up and clarify for a moment. If you truly believe that a fetus is not a person, until it's brain passes intact out of the mother's body, and you support abortion rights, then you are not a hypocrit. I disagree with your belief vehemently, but respect your consistency. If, on the other hand, you believe in your heart that a fetus is a baby, a human person, and find that abortion would be wrong for you, yet still support the right to choose, then you are either a coward or a hypocrit, who refuses to accept the conclusions of your beliefs, because they are unpopular. You are condoning what in your heart you consider the murder of infant humans because it is unpopular to oppose it, and that, folks, is reprehensible.

You can't have it both ways on this one. Either a fetus is a person, and therefor protected, or it's a lump of tissue, and there should be no more guilt or remorce at excising it than removing a wart.

Which brings us back to Clark.

He makes very clear in his comments that he believes abortion is the wrong choice, yet he supports abortion rights. Most telling is the final quote of the story.

" begins with a mother's decision."

Oh really? So now, according to this would-be President, a baby is not a baby until its mother decides it is.

How ignorant! How arrogant!

How typical. Once again, Clark is spouting political puffery, fed to him by his campaign, while he obviously hs only limited understanding of the issues involved.

"Umm, Mr. Clark, does the father have any say in this process? After all, this decision has a profound effect on his future as well. How about, you know, doctors? Do they get any input? Or is it just at the mother's sole discretion? Just asking, you know, since you're running for President, and might actually be in a position to appoint justices and stuff."

Fortunately, we really don't have to worry in hs case, since his campaign is over. He's still in the race, but he has as much chance of winning the nomination as Dave Marcis has of winning Daytona 500 this year.

And he's retired.

Posted by Rich
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Wednesday, January 14, 2004


In Monday's post on why I'm getting a gun, I talked a little bit about assessing risks, and I wanted to take a few minutes to expand on it because it's an area that most people know nothing about. In most cases, they tend to proceed by gut reaction, rather than using a dispassionate, analytic view, and that leads them into making flawed decisions, often times with catastrophic results.

Take DDT for example. DDT is a very effective insecticide, once widely used to control mosquitos in an attempt to prevent the spread of malaria. And it was very successful. At the heighth of its use, malaria was all but eliminated. But because widespread overuse of DDT lead to thinning of raptor (eagles, falcons, hawks) eggs, and a resultant decrease in their population, it's use was banned. Currently, mosquitos infect approximately 500 million people with malaria annually, of whom about 3 million die. So our decision was to sacrifice 3 million lives per year, most of them in third world nations, to protect eggshells.

That kind of thinking is hard to fathom, mainly because it isn't thinking at all, but an emotional reaction disguised as thought. And because it's an emotional process, it doesn't yield to logical debate. Even though it is ludicrous to allow 3 million people to die every year, and millions more to suffer with recurring bouts of malaria, we can't even discuss alternatives to the ban, like judicious use of DDT, without being attacked as environmental rapists. So one out of every twenty kids in sub Saharan Africa will continue to die from a disease that we could easily control.

Risk assessment is a three step process. In the first, you analyze the probablity of the risk and the severity of its consequences. Next, you determine preventive actions to minimize each risk. Then you evaluate the remaining risk level and determine if the potential payoff outweighs the consequences of failure. By following this process, you come out with a reasonable course of action. Let's step through the process once to see how it works in a real life situation.

A few months ago, I was turning a bowl on my lathe, and I was finish sanding the interior. It was a deep, closed bowl, more like a vase actually, and I couldn't reach in deep enough to sand the bottom 2 inches. The opening was just wide enough that I could slip my hand inside the bowl to reach the bottom, but I would have to stop the lathe to do it because of the tight fit. Once my hand was inside, I could restart the lathe, sand the inside, stop the lathe, then pull my hand out.

Don't laugh; I've heard much worse.

OK, Phase 1, what are the risks involved? Basically, there are two. Either my hand would wedge in the vase, breaking it off the lathe and sending wood shards everywhere, or my hand would wedge in the vase, causing a spiral fracture of my radius and ulna sending bone shards everywhere.

That would be a bad thing.

Next, we need to catagorize the risks by probability and severity. You don't need actual numbers for this, although they do help; a general idea of each will do. Draw a table with two rows and two columns. Label the rows high prob and low prob, and the columns high severity and low severity. Next, place the risks in the appropriate box. In this case, because I'm a klutz, both risks would have to get high probability. Breaking the vase isn't that big of a deal, so it could get a low severity, but breaking my arm definitely goes into the high severity box.

Now we have three catagories of risk. Catagory A is the high probability/high severity risk; Catagory C, the low probability/low severity risks. And the rest are in Catagory B. Now we're ready for phase 2.

In phase 2, we assign our available resource to minimize the risks we identified in Phase 1. Obviously, we concentrate on Catagory A first, then B then C, and allocate resources until all the risks have been minimized or we run out of resources.

In this case, our Catagory A risk is me getting my arm twisted off. I could minimize the risk by:
  1. Reshaping the mouth of the bowl to make it wider.
  2. Lubricating the bowl and my wrist to prevent it from catching.
  3. Fastening the bowl loosely in the chuck so it will come loose before my arm breaks.
  4. Wearing a brace on my wrist to support it if it does catch.

Options 3, and 4 won't work because a loose bowl on a lathe represents it's own risks, and my hand is already too large to go into the bowl; a brace would make matters worse. Option 1 would work, but the bowl needed a narrow mouth, so in this case, it's unacceptible.

Which leaves us with Option 2, grease up that sucker and ram 'er in.

Our catagory B risk, the vase flying off, can be taken care of by tightening the chuck for an extra secure grip.

So, now it's time for Phase 3, risk vs. reward. I've done what I can to minimize the risk involved with sticking my hand into a bowl spinning at 300 rpm. Now I have to ask myself, "Is getting a perfectly smooth interior finish worth having to learn to dress myself with one hand?"


I found an alternate method to sand the inside (applied ashesive backed sandpaper to a short length of garden hose) and sanded the bowl that way.

Now obviously, in this case I didn't go through a step by step process like that because it was so simple, but it serves to show the principles involved, and how a systemized approach to risk assessment can guide you from an irrational response, like never sanding another bowl, to a rational one, like finding a safer way to sand it.

Returning to the DDT case, by evaluating the risk/reward structure you can balance harm to the raptor population against the benefit to the human population, and come to a reasonable position that maximizes the benefits while minimizing the risks.

Posted by Rich
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Monday, January 12, 2004

Arma virumque cano

Dang, that's pretentious!

I sing of arms and the man, the opening line of Virgil's Aenied. I had to translate the blasted thing my junior year in high school.

Yeah, I took three years of Latin. But I recovered.

Today, we'll be discussing why I've decided to arm myself after 40 years of going unarmed.

When I announced my decision, and asked for help, I got lots of good comments and advice, and also some interesting questions.
  • Why do you suddenly feel the need to have a gun?
  • Have you ever needed one before?
  • When was the last time you needed a gun?
  • Are you playing follow the leader?
  • Is it for fun or self defense?

Well, first of all, I'm not following anyone's lead on this. I couldn't care less whether Glenn has a gun or not. If I were going to imitate something about him, I'd get a smart, beautiful wife, and buy a Mazda RX-8, not a gun. And maybe blend a few puppies.

But I digress.

Second, while I do expect to enjoy shooting (I enjoyed my rather limited experience with guns in summer camp, and I also enjoy using my bow) this is more a practical decision than recreational.

Third, I have indeed been in a situation where I wished I was armed and wasn't. I was a night clerk at a mini-mart and got robbed at gunpoint. The robber didn't wear a mask, and paused on his way out after taking the money. He was drunk, high, or both, and as he paused and stared at me, I was watching his gun hand. The gun was down at his side, but he started to bring it up, and I got ready to hit the floor behind the counter. You have no idea how helpless that feels, knowing somebody could end your life and you couldn't do a thing to stop him.

Obviously, I lived. He dropped his hand and went out the door, and I stood there for 5 minutes, just like he said, then called the police.

Two months earlier, I had been working at another store in the same chain, and the manager came in one night to talk to me. Her husband was on the police force, and he had just caught two guys who had beaten a 70 year old man to death while robbing him. One turned state's evidence o the other, and informed the police that the night of their capture, their plans were to rob and kill me, and the rob and kill the manager of the grocery store across the street.

These two events not only ended my retail sales career (no real loss) they started me on the path to gun ownership.

Here's the thing. Twice now, I've been in situations where I was completely unable to defend myself. In the first, I was at the mercy of a robber. In the second, it was only dumb luck that the police caught these guys when they did. In both cases, my survival was out of my control. I placed the primary responsibility for my safety into somebody else's (the police) hands.

That wasn't a good feeling then, and is even worse now. By their nature, in a crisis, police are reactive, not proactive. If I get shot, knowing that they will spring into action to try and trackdown the guy who killed me is a very cold comfort. As a matter of personal philosophy, as well as practicality, I've long considered buying a gun and learning to use it in self defense.

But I haven't acted on it until now. Why?

Because until now, I've had very young children in the house, and the risk/reward calculation said it was better to rely on the law of averages than on a gun. Crime is fairly low and I live in a safe area. The chances of something happening where I might need a gun were very low, so the value of having guns around the house was also very low. At the same time, because I had small children in the house, there was also an appreciable risk of a real tragedy. In my opinion, the reward (increased ability to defend myself and my family), was outweighed by the potential danger (a child getting ahold of a gun). Add to that reasoning the steps needed to make a gun at home safe from a child (unloaded, trigger-locked, and locked away) and the gun would be virtually useless in an emergency situation.

But now the children are older; all but one have been through a hunter safety class in school, and have handled and fired a shotgun. They know what to do around guns, and are old enough and disciplined enough to follow the rules. The chances of a tragedy are now low enough that, again in my opinion, the benefit now outweighs the risk.

But this is only part of the answer, because this has been true for a while now. Both of my oldest sons have shotguns, given to them by my father. They are kept safely in the house, and nobody messes with them. So why am I acting now?

Last week, I started a discussion on my personal philosophy. In the process, I started thinking about the implications of some of my basic assumptions, particularly the first one, about maximizing freedom. Freedom carries a price along with it; responsibility. If I want a small, unobtrusive government, then I have to shoulder much of the burden of my own existence. I'm responsible for earning a living, paying my taxes, paying for my medical care, and so on.

I also must shoulder at least some of the responsibility for my own protection.

Citizen safety can run the entire spectrum from full police state to complete self reliance, AKA anarchy. As the slider moves away from police state to total self reliance, the citizen takes on more responsibility for his own safety. Now that doesn't mean the citizen forms vigilante groups and lynch mobs, but that we should take the steps necessary to protect our selves, our families, and our property. It's very similar to taking a first aid course. You're not trying to replace the EMT or the doctor, but to augment them. Since I find the idea of a police state totally abhorrent, I believe that I must accept more of the responsibility for defending myself and my family.

There's another reason that contributes to my decision to arm myself, one inherent in the second amendment. Some see the first clause of the second amendment as a restriction on the right to bear arms. They claim that by mentioning the militia, the signatories to the Constitution only wanted a National Guard type organization to be armed. But I have a somewhat different take, one that accounts for both clauses of the amendment, unifying them into a coherent whole. Rather than the first restricting the second, it actually intensifies it.

It says, "A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a
free State..."

Necessary to the security of a free State.


The Second Amendment tells me that those who wrote and ratified the Constitution believed that a Militia, drawn from a population of citizen gun owners was necessary for the security of a free state. Not only is it my right to own a gun, but, according to this interpretation, I have a responsibility to do so, not only for the safety of my family, but for the safety and security of my nation.

Granted, this is not a typical interpretation of the Militia clause, but it makes sense, particularly so in today's world. Not only do we have a criminal threat to contend with, we now have to consider a terrorist threat as well. Homeland Security suffers from the same problems the police do, albeit to a lesser extent; they are reactive, rather than proactive. While this greatly hampers their effectiveness, the only other option is the one we've discussed before, of giving them enough power that we live in a police state.

We've gone too far down that road already.

So, since I am unwilling to give anybody the power they would need to provide for my personal security, I must shoulder that responsibility myself.

Posted by Rich
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Friday, January 02, 2004

The Best of All Possible Worlds

Repuke. Repugnican. Conservitard. Pessimist. Closeminded. Programmed. Brainwashed. Mindless.

Just a small sample of the names I've been called for voicing my opinions. I guess the assumption is that because I disagree with the basic premises underlying liberalism, I must be a dyed in the wool conservative, and therefore deserving of scorn and abuse, until the hopefully soon day when I "see the light", and change my wicked ways.

Well, I've got some bad news for y'all.

There's not a chance in hell of me ever embracing the liberal point of view, for reasons I've explained before. I'm a small government kind of guy, a strict constructionist when it comes to the Constitution, a fiscal conservative, and a social liberal.

The republicans do not automatically get my vote, particularly now, as they seem to have forgotten their roots. (Patriot Act I and II, Medicare expansion, massive deficits, unchecked governmental growth, etc.) The best thing I can say for the Republicans is that they are marginally better than the Democrats. Both parties are entirely too interested in telling me what I can and can't do on matters that they have no business messing with. Both parties believe in spending as a cure to nearly everything. And the candidates of both parties are willing to say anything, promise anything to get my vote, without the slightest intention of delivering.

But I don't blame the parties or the candidates. They are just a reflection of the electorate. They'll give the people what they want, regardless of whether it's a good idea or not. A democracy is only as good as the people who vote, and Americans have, in large part, lost the qualities that make for a high quality electorate.

The electorate must be informed on the issues. Most can't name all of the 9 democratic candidates for president. Most are not willing to do the work it takes to actually learn about the issues and the candidates, and base their decisions either on party loyalty, or 15 second soundbites they hear on the news while waiting for Leno to come on.

The electorate must be pro-active. The only way to know where a candidate stands is to challenge him. When the chance comes around, go meet the candidates and hear them in person. When Clark came to Knoxville, very few people took the chance to go hear hinm speak. I'm guessing maybe 150 people turned up at the rally, and this is a guy who has a very good shot at winning the nomination or being the VP choice for whoever does get it.

And most importantly, the electorate must be willing to put aside their own needs and wants and vote for what is in the best interest of the country. And that's where we really fail. We've become a nation of voters for sale, giving our vote to the guy who promises the most. "Ask not what your country can do for you..." is a dead issue. Elections are all about which candidate promises to give us more stuff. We ask our leaders to take care of us, and they will; all it costs us is a little freedom, a little autonomy.

Listen to the campaign speeches of our candidates. They all concentrate on what they are going to give us. Health care, lower taxes, more medicare, pork barrel projects for the home folks, it's all about what they can give us. The problem is that the government can't give us anything, unless it takes it away first!

So where does that leave me? Do I join the rest of the lemmings and vote for the guy who promises me the most stuff? At least that way I can enjoy the slide into decadence comfortably. Or do I do what I can to try and at least delay the inevitable decay that has doomed every democracy the world has ever seen? And if I do fight (y'all know me; I wouldn't be here if I wasn't going to fight) who do I fight with? Who are my allies? I'm not a Republican, not a Democrat, and certainly not a Green. The only party that comes close to what I believe is the Libertarian Party, so I may end up running with them.

But while I'm sorting that out, I want to take a few weeks, and talk about what I believe to be true. One thing I've learned while writing this blog is that the act of writing things down helps bring them into focus. Organizing your thoughts into sentences and paragraphs helps to reveal hidden incomsistencies, and evaluate ramifications you'd never considered before. Doing it in a public forum like this one increases that effect, as I'm sure y'all will be quick to let me know when I make a mistake, or when you disagree with an assumption or evaluation. And that's good, because as I've written before, you can't learn anything from people who agree with you.

In the process, I hope to put together a picture of my Utopia, my perfect society. While I still believe that America is the greatest country on the planet, unlike Dr. Pangloss, I believe there's always room for improvement.

So, I guess the best place to start is with government. What's its job? What do we want it to do, and more importantly, what do we want to forbid it to do? Do we want the government to take care of us, or allow us to care for ourselves? Do we want the government to protect us from each other, or protect us from ourselves? Is the government responsible for providing a safety net, or should that be left to private sector organizations? We haven't even considered the rest of the world yet. Are we isolationist or globalist? Free trade or protectionist?

All of these decisions must flow from the basic principles embraced by the society, so I guess I really need to hammer those out first before I can go after the shape of my government.

So, off the cuff, here are a few core principles to kick around for awhile.

  • Individual privacy is a primary right. The government has no right to infringe on that privacy.
  • Every person has the right to the maximum freedom possible. Government has no right to arbitrarily restrict that freedom. The government must prove that any such restrictions are required to ensure maximum freedom for all. Any restrictions are subject to regular review.
  • The vote is a privilege that must be earned, not a right. Criteria for earning the vote should be transparent to age, sex, race, etc.
  • The sole national purpose of government is to act to maximize the personal freedom of each individual citizen.
  • The sole international function of government is to defend the nation against all threats to its security.
  • Not only should there be a wall of separation between church and state, there should be a wall of separation between the economy and the state.
  • Personal responsibility is the cost of freedom. People will be held accountible for their actions.

OK, that's enough for now. Let's hew on these for awhile, and see where they take us.

Posted by Rich
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Friday, November 21, 2003

Tales of Creation

Every culture has them, stories about how the world came to be. The Greeks had Nyx, Uranus, and Gaia; the Norse had the Frost Giants and Asgardians; the Chinese had Pan Gu breaking from the egg, the Christians have Genesis and Adam and Eve, and so on.

While these stories vary wildly depending on the originating culture, they all share one feature: They all gloss over how something comes from nothing. One solution is to just start with something existing that acts to create everything else. On the other hand, the other solution is to dodge this problem by seeing everything as a cycle with no beginning or end, as in the Hindu tradition. Neither solution is very satisfying.

But we don't have to rely on myth anymore to discern the ultimate origins of our universe. We have science to find the answers for us, right?

Well, sort of.

The current theory for the origin of the universe involves some rather abstract concepts of complexity, chaos, and quantum mechanics. Basically, it goes like this:

First, there was nothing. Absolutely nothing. But nothing is kind of fuzzy, particularly when you get down to the quantum level. There's this thing called the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, that tells us we can't know for sure the exact state of anything, not because we can't measure it, but because it is actually indeterminate. As you get to a smaller and smaller frame of reference, that indeterminancy grows, and when you get to nothing, the indeterminancy is large enough that nothing now varies from something to less-than-nothing. Now, this isn't a measurement error, but an actual variance in the real status. Zero, at the quantum level anyway, is an average of all the quantum variations from less than zero to greater than zero. These variations are sometimes referred to as the quantum foam. In theory, our universe is just a BIG variation in zero.

Complicating the situation, these variations do not take place over time, since without space, you cannot have time. So how can you have a variation without a time frame through which to vary? Simple, the variations occur in (I'm not making this up) imaginary time. (No, I can't do that math either. Here is a simpler explanation.) Adding in a little chaos theory, those fluctuations become bigger, and if you use just the right equations, you can get those fluctuations to explode from a quantum scale into the macro, or real world scale.

And now you have a lot of something from nothing. Pretty cool!

Of course, a bunch of something doesn't do much good if it's just laying about randomly like clothes in my kid's bedroom floor. It has to be organized, and organization requires an organizer, right?

Not in complexity theory, it doesn't. Self organizing complex systems are just the ticket to clean up a messy room! Put simply, when you throw lots of small parts together, and hit them with a stream of energy, they may begin to function as a whole. A mathematics to describe the process has been developed, but whether it has applicability to the real world or not has yet to be determined.

But it's kind of neat to mess around with.

So now we have science's answer to creation stories. First, there was nothing. Then, quantum level fluctuations around nothing, taking place in imaginary time, sort of "blew up" onto a macro scale, creating the entire universe, which then proceeded to organize itself in accordance with yet to be discovered mathematical principles.

Yeah, I'm convinced...

Posted by Rich
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Wednesday, February 05, 2003

reason and copyright laws

It's a bad month for reason magazine. Not only did I disagree with Michael Fumento's attack on the Atkins diet, but I also strongly disagree with a new study arguing that intellectual property laws are inherently bad.


I just read the piece in Reason on Intellectual property rights and I must say it was weak. Michele Boldrin and David Levine have written a paper saying that intellectual property rights (copyrights and patents) stifle innovation, producing higher prices and lower productivity. The key to their argument, quoted again from reason magazine, issue 3.03 is this:

“Innovation, they argue, has occurred in the past without substantial protection of intellectual property. ‘Historically, people have been inventing and writing books and music when copyright did not exist,’ notes Boldrin. ‘Mozart wrote a lot of very beautiful things without any copyright protection.’”

Yep, he also died penniless and was buried in paupers grave. Not to mention the fact that he produced his music under a royal subsidy, or else he would have starved to death even sooner. Strange that she chose that example, since it actually provides a stronger argument for copyrights.

Boldrin and Levine go on to argue that artists and inventors don’t need copyright protection, as long as they have the ‘right of first sale’, which means they can price their work to account the market value of all copies produced in the future. That’s all well and good, but what happens when the first buyer makes a limited number of copies available for a price substantial enough to recoup his investment? Why some enterprising young thief rips a copy of the song onto the internet, and other thieves take it for free. What does this do to the “net discounted value of the future stream of consumptive services?”

It is reduced to zero. The first purchaser is left holding the bag.

Maybe the problem is that the distributor charges too much, that his overhead raises the cost of the product above what the market will bear. OK, let’s cut out the middleman. No publishers or distributors. Britney publishes her music on the net for a very small download fee. Will she make the same amount of money, or will pirates still rip her off? Stephen King has tried this, started an online serial, downloadable for a small fee. The return he got was so small, he quit halfway through. The money he got simply wasn’t worth the effort.

This exposes the fatal flaw in Boldrin and Levine’s analysis. They argue that technically, copies aren’t free, because it takes time and materials to produce the copy. While true, this is irrelevant because the creator of the property does not receive any profit from the time or materials used to copy the work. This applies as well to the first buyer of the work, who would have no way to recover their investment once free copies flood the market. This simple fact scuttles the idea of doing away with copyright protection.

Posted by Rich
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