Saturday, August 10, 2002

Political Speech --- UPSIDE YOUR HEAD!

Looking around for something blindingly stupid to read this weekend? Well, you came to the right place!

Err... that didn't sound quite right. Nonetheless, Happy Fun Pundit's got the goods, courtesy of Professor Roger Congleton of the James M. Buchanan Center for Political Economy at George Mason University. The Rog-man wants us to know that we're all making much too big a deal out of this terrorism stuff; folks, September 11 was just a "criminal mode of political speech", a "possible method of political dialogue".

Criminy! Why didn't someone say so before? I was so puckered I pulled the buttons off the couch! Why, those lousy alarmists got us all worked up over political speech!

But it gets better. See, y'got what, 3000 dead? Well, you Nervous Nellies, something like 42,000 people died in highway traffic accidents in 1999! You're, like, fourteen times more likely to be killed in a car accident than by a terrorist! Doesn't that mean that the budget for highway accident prevention should be fourteen times that for preventing terrorism? You bet it does --- thanks for setting us straight, Professor Congaline!

I know, I know, it's been done to death, but please allow me just one Pearl Harbor analogy:

"Not as bad as DC traffic!" quips Roosevelt

Apart from the simplemindedness of measuring the impact of 9-11 only in terms of lives lost, there's a lot of other things wrong with this paper. Donkey Congleton seems to have a lot of trouble dealing with his data. According to Table 1 in his paper, there were 1006 people killed or injured in North American in 1993 due to international terrorist attacks; presumably, this figure is due in large part to the first WTC attack. For some reason, though, these casualties don't count:

If we do not count casualties from the attack on the World Trade Center in 1993, North American casualties were essentially zero during the period 1991-2000.

The "international" qualification, mentioned in the table heading but not in the text, also manages to make the casualties from the Oklahoma City bombing go bye-bye. I assume also that the structure of the table is based on the whereabouts of the terrorist attack, rather than citizenship of the victims, so North Americans killed abroad don't count. Oh, and you have to leave off the year 2001, 'cause then all the sudden the North American death toll for that year alone exceeds the deaths in the rest of the world for the whole decade.

Essentially zero, like the man says.

Not that it really matters; the point of the table appears to be that compared to the rest of the world, North America just doesn't have a terrorist problem. What we need is more traffic cops and not-catching-rabies guys.

Even the terrible death toll of September 2001 implies a risk of death from terrorist attack that is well below that of death from ordinary murder or traffic accident in the United States. Indeed, even in that year, the probability of being killed by terrorism in the United States was less than that of being run over by a car while walking.

To summarize: the only costs of September 11 we are concerned about are lives lost. When it comes to assessing the cost of anti-terrorist measures, though, the rules are different:

If the new airport security measures cause each passenger to spend only an additional half hour in the airport, approximately 300 million person-hours will be contributed, off budget, by passengers to increase airport security. If the opportunity cost of time spent in line is $50.00 per hour, the off-budget cost of the new airport security measures in the United States amounts to approximately $15 billion per year.

Oh, now he wants to get all utilitarian and costy-benefity on us. No fair, Professor Cornflake --- if you don't count the non-fatality costs of 9-11 on one side of the ledger, then you sure the hell can't pull a fifty-dollar-a-person-hour cost out of your ass now.

Look, dude: I had to spend four days in a cheesy motel in Minneapolis as a direct result of 9-11. I want my two hundred dollars in food and accomodation counted, and I definitely want my lost working days counted, and let's throw in a few pain-and-suffering dollars for those seemingly endless hours I spent listening to CNN's Aaron Brown.

Finally, let me throw in just one out-of-context quote, just so I can feel like a real journalist:

The losses from terrorist acts clearly can be reduced by "encouraging" less-destructive terrorist methods --- say, blowing up a symbolic structure, such as the Washington
Monument, rather than destroying a building occupied by thousands of people, such as the World Trade Center.

Yes, indeedy. All we need is a big sign atop the Capitol Building:


Or maybe a big ad campaign in the terrorist breeding grounds:

RADICALIZED GUY: I'm angry about American foreign policy. I feel I should act on my anger by destroying an occupied building.

ROBERT YOUNG: Whoah, little too much caffeine in the coffee there, big fella. Here, try some of this Sanka.

RADICALIZED GUY: (taking cup) Thanks, but it's not just the caffeine, it's the arrogance of secular liberal democracies and their uncovered whorish women.

ROBERT YOUNG: Sure, but did you know that the anger of the American people towards those who destroy unoccupied and symbolic structures is much less than they what feel towards those who take lives with their political speech?

RADICALIZED GUY: Thanks, Robert Young! When I hold my political dialogue with the Great Satan, I'll be sure to minimize the death toll!

In summary: shut the hell up, Congleton. You're a frickin' idiot.

Congleton's paper, in all its tiresome idiocy, is here. A brief summary of major points and some responses appear in this UPI report.
Fun With Captions

Did you ever see a photo that was just so ridiculous that you couldn't stop thinking of funny things to say about it? Well, the picture below fits that category. So, through the miracle of Javascript, I have created the Happy Fun Pundit Silly Caption Machine(tm). Just click on the picture, and another caption will appear, as if by magic.

'No, Aziz. This is the mother of all armies. The mother of all Three Stooges Revivals is next door.'

Friday, August 09, 2002

The Beauty of Wal-Mart

Today in National Review Online, Jonah Goldberg says some negative things about the 'ugliness' that capitalism can create. Strip malls, Wal-Mart, and Russel Kirk's "world smudged by industrialization and standardization by the masses."

I don't agree. I come from a school of thought that says beauty is the expression of good design. Form follows function. Much of the beauty in nature is the result of efficient design - the result of millions of years of evolution.

Beauty is created when designers build something that works harmoniously within its environment. Good airplanes are beautiful because their shape is defined by the laws of fluid mechanics. To move through the air with minimal effort requires clean, sleek designs. Long, thin wings provide efficient lift.

But put tailfins on a Buick, and you have an abomination. They don't belong there. They serve no function.

Back to Wal-Mart. It's a big box of a store, with narrow aisles, little decoration, and usually swarms of people. But its form follows its function. What is the purpose of Wal-Mart? To provide grandeur? To create a relaxing environment? No. Wal-Mart has one purpose only: To distribute goods to the public at the lowest possible cost. Its customers are generally low income people, and price is everything.

Sam Walton decided what Wal-Mart's function was to be, and the environment it was to be created in. Then he and his managers designed a gigantic corporation with one end goal - to serve that function in the most efficient way possible. Like a U-2 spyplane slicing through the upper atmosphere, Wal-Mart does what it set out to do spectacularly well, because every aspect of its design is optimized. That is beauty.

Sure, a Wal-Mart could put some big Corinthian columns in front, and install a giant peaked facade. It could have wide aisles, a beautiful fountain, and underground parking. But these are in opposition to its basic function of providing goods efficiently, for they would drive up costs and force Wal-Mart to raise prices. Low income people would rather have the low prices. Like tailfins on a Buick, fountains don't belong in a Wal-Mart.

And sure, Wal-Mart could specialize more, and stop carrying everything from groceries to eyeglasses. But its patrons are often hauling kids with them, and riding mass transit. One-stop shopping is efficient for them, and economies of scale make it efficient for Wal-Mart. Form follows function.

We have lost some of our sense of wonder when it comes to the creations of capitalism. A Wal-Mart is 'ugly' only because we either ignore or devalue what it does best.

I remember reading a book called "MiG Pilot", by Russian defector Viktor Belenko. In the book he describes his first experience walking into an American supermarket. He saw beauty. Beauty in the shelves lined with varieties of fresh goods. Beauty in the quiet hum of the freezers that stored perishable goods. Beauty in the implied trust of having those goods sitting out in the open, with nary an armed guard in sight to prevent people from taking them.

The color of the paint on the facade or the lack of greenery around the building did not matter to him, because his mind and his values were in another place. A place all of us should visit once in a while, just to remind us of the glory of what we have created.

So next time you are walking past a strip-mall, or driving past a factory, think about the organization that went into it. Think of the optimizations, the brilliance, the sweat and tears of thousands of people who organized together to create something that serves a need. Judge it on its own terms, and you can find the beauty within.

No, it's not a park. It's a grand construction of man.

Thursday, August 08, 2002

Aww, The Kids Aren't Voting

Apparently, there is a new crisis in America. One that requires a restructuring of families, schools, the workplace, and a re-shaping of attitudes of a generation.

It seems the kids aren't voting. This bothers some people, like E.J. Dionne. The solution? It's called "First Vote", and it's supposed to be a new rite of passage into adulthood, like a Bar Mitzvah, or puking into the flowerbed after trying to smoke one of Dad's cigars. From the article:

But we do virtually nothing to celebrate the entry of young Americans into political maturity. Is it any wonder that so few young people vote?

Let's see... Young people are apathetic, not interested in politics, and not interested in voting. So let's throw them a big party! That'll get those old civic responsibility juices flowing. And God knows, we certainly need more apathetic, ignorant people flocking to the voting booths.

Let's look at some of the proposals for a "First Vote" celebration:

The purpose of this column is to enlist you in a crusade started by Jane Eisner, a columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Eisner's cause is what she calls First Vote. Her idea is simple: "Between now and the next Election Day," she writes, "I urge parents, teachers, coaches and other caring adults to create their own First Vote ritual for newly minted voters to publicly acknowledge this civic coming of age.

"Gather 'round, squad! It's second and goal, there's thirty seconds left on the clock, and we need to win this to get to the state championship. Oh, and we're going to let little Timmy carry the ball, 'cause it's his First Vote celebration! Yay!"

"High schools should laud students who vote. Employers should offer them time to participate. Neighbors should shake their hands. Those blustery radio stations my kids listen to incessantly should read off the names of first-time voters. Applause, attention -- all that is due them."

Congratulations, kid! You've managed to stay alive for eighteen years! We are so proud of you! What a colossal achievement!

Listen up: You only get one age-related public acknowledgement. Make it to 100, and they'll read your name on the Today Show. And the governor will send you a nice card. Until then, shut up and achieve something if you want praise.

And nothing helps the ratings of a radio station more than constant readings from lists of people who happened to turn eighteen. That'll draw the kids in.

Hey kids, you're listening to K-ZZY, the radical home of the eXtreme young voter! We'd like to take this opportunity to give a big K-ZZY shout-out to the following new voters! James Smith of Podunk, Susie Jones of Podunk, Walter O'Reilly of Ottumwa....[hours later]... and finally, Little Timmy Johnson, also of Podunk. Congratulations, First Voters! Here's a song just for you: 'Crack Whore', by Grandmaster Flash. Kick it!

But wait, it gets better!

Virtually all teens and young adults love the sound of the words "Let's have a party!" It's not impossible to imagine that the First Vote concept would lead to widespread public celebrations around the country.

Frankly, what I'm imagining is widespread public laughter. And the correct term is "Let's Party!". "Let's have a party!" is what Milhouse would say to try and make friends with Nelson. Just before being beaten, that is.

And yes, it is impossible to imagine. Anyone who thinks a public "First Vote" campaign is going to lead to millions of kids partying in an orgy of participatory democratic zeal is, frankly, nuts.

What about election night dances or concerts? If you voted, you get in. Do you have a problem with the idea of bread-and-circuses associated with voting?

Let's see... We've published the nerd's names in the newspapers, and now we've collected them all in one place on election night. We're two thirds of the way to the bully trifecta.

And yeah, I have a problem with buying votes. Is this any different than cruising neighborhoods for homeless people and offering them a hot meal if they'll come with you and vote?

And who the hell wants the vote of someone who has to be bribed into it? I can't think of a sillier idea. I like Heinlein's Swiftian suggestions better - before you get to vote, you have to solve a quadratic equation, or name five countries located on a map. Or the more radical suggestion: You go into the voting booth first, then you have to answer the question. Get it right, and you get to vote. Get it wrong, and the booth opens up again... empty. It has a nice Darwinian feel to it.

One of the reasons turnout has declined over the years is that few people associate the words "politics" and "fun." It needn't be thus.

I hope not. Or this web site is going nowhere, man.

I'm all for putting the fun back into politics. Which is why I've been trying to get Al Gore to grow that mullet and muttonchops. He'd be like, the dude. A couple of piercings couldn't hurt either, Al. And the kids respect the really painful ones. You want to get rid of that robotic walk you've got? Two words: scrotum piercing. You'll never walk the same again. Need to get that dull, droning cadence out of your voice? Tongue piercing. You'd still be saying boring things, but that little steel ball would be flickering while you talk, putting your audience into a nice, hypnotic, receptive state. Then you've got 'em. Just don't bring out that 'lockbox' nonsense again. There's a limit to what even hypnotism can achieve.

But I digress. Back to the article:

Certain states -- my native Massachusetts is one, Louisiana is certainly another -- have long drawn people into politics not only as a civic enterprise but also as sport, amusement, diversion and distraction. Amusement should not be seen as the enemy of the civic.

Politics as amusement, sport, and diversion? In Massachusetts? Someone's been reading the Kennedy memoirs again. But I do like the idea of politics as a sport. I'd love to see Ralph Nader in the ring with, say, Jesse Ventura. Do that, and put voting booths in the arena. That'll pack the kids in! To make it fair, we'll let Ralph bring a lawyer.

But, yes, voting is also a serious matter. So, as Eisner suggests, by all means get the schools in on this. Civics classes do not need to be as dry as toast and as tedious as filling out a tax return. Imagine if the schools organized First Vote civics classes in the run-up to Election Day. Instead of being about abstract concepts, civics could be about the opportunity of each and every student to make a choice that matters.

Teacher: BILLY! Make a choice that matters! Right now!
Billy: Uh, but I don't know anything. You skipped the civics stuff because it was boring.
Teacher: No, no! You don't need knowledge. You just have to participate. That's the highest goal of democracy. Not to have the best government, but to make sure everyone votes! So make a choice that matters!
Billy: Okay, uh... I think everyone should have a car.
Teacher: Okay! See? You're all ready to be a voter!
Billy: You mean I can vote for a car? Cool!
Teacher: Well, no. But you can choose between these three middle-aged men.
Billy: Which one will give me a car?
Teacher: None of them.
Billy: So... my choice doesn't matter?
Teacher: STOP THAT!

Finally, there's a lesson for civic types who love to trash political parties. A survey released this year by the Center for Information and Research on Civil Learning and Engagement -- the nice acronym of this organization based at the University of Maryland is CIRCLE -- found that "young adults who associate themselves with a partisan or ideological label on either the left or the right are more likely than others to be registered voters."

Well, there's a news flash. People that are interested in politics vote more often than those who don't give a rat's ass. Who knew?

So let's give political parties some respect, and let's party when young people cast their first vote. Just because democracy is important doesn't mean it can't be cool.

Well no, but just throwing a party for something doesn't make it cool, either. You can't invent cool. Ask Vanilla Ice.

This whole article frosts my nut. First, it treats young people as if they can be manipulated and molded to fit some social planner's idea of what they should be like. From that standpoint, it's disrespectful. But this is typical of the attitudes of people who can't resist trying to 'plan' society.

People tend to allocate their time and resources rationally. They become interested in politics not because it's cool, but because they feel a need to become involved in civic life. Voter turnouts decline when voters are satisfied with the status quo. They also decline when voters feel disenfranchised. When the choice of candidates is three late middle aged white guys who talk the same way and always promise things they can't or won't deliver, young people tune out. 'First Vote' parties won't change that.

Teens are also part of a shrinking demographic group, and as such logically feel that they are somewhat disenfranchised. The boomers will get what they want, because they make up the largest voting bloc. Look at the big political debates going on other than the war: Prescription drug benefits? Social Security? Most young people don't think that programs like those will survive to their retirement age anyway. So to the degree that teenagers as a voting bloc have lost clout, teenagers tend to stop voting. This is a rational response, not a problem that needs fixing.

You want to engage young people? Fine. Find an issue they care about. For instance, Internet legislation. The RIAA and its shenanigans. Censorship. Pot legalization. Lowering the drinking age to 18. Unfortunately, they are also issues that enjoy wide, bipartisan support - in opposition to what young people want. There are no anti-RIAA candidates. There are no drug legalization candidates.

Until the concerns of young people are addressed, young people aren't going to vote for YOUR concerns just because you threw them a party.

Tuesday, August 06, 2002

Tales of Mathematical Inadequacy

A couple of days ago, I stopped at a local 'Taco Time' restaraunt to pick up a family load of one of my favorite foods: Tacos slathered in hot sauce. A lot of hot sauce. Enough hot sauce to drown a cat. A cat that would be, afterwards, very tasty.

Anyway, my session began pleasantly enough. A nice young girl punched in my order ("You want HOW MANY containers of hot sauce??!!"). The total was $14.72. I handed the young woman a $20, and waited for my change.

Then disaster struck. As the woman pressed the 'total' button, a look of fear and confusion swept across her face. A look not unlike the one the cat used to get when I came home with a bag of hot sauce. This girl was clearly troubled. Nay, frightened.

"What's the problem?" I asked.

"The cash register! It's.. It's not giving me the amount of money you need. It must be broken." she replied changelessly.

A quick subtraction in my my head. "You owe me $5.28".

The girl looked up, startled. A number? The man just said a number? How could he know? After all, the machine won't give the number! "Uh, I better find a calculator."

And before I could stop her, she was off into the back of the store, digging around for a calculator. She couldn't find one. Finally, she called for her manager. "Susan, the till won't tell me how much change to give this customer. The total was $14.72, and he gave me a $20"

The manager, being a take-charge kind of woman, took charge. "Okay, so that's...uh... Did you look for the calculator?"

I decided to step back into the fray. "Ladies, the amount you owe me is $5.28."

"It is? Okay, let's see, 20 minus 14.72, and... no, you can't be right."

At this point in the story, I think it's important to stop and remind you that I am not making this up. This is exactly what happened.

I decided to give it one more try. "Okay, look. If it had been $14.00, you'd owe me $6.00, right?" Hesitant nods from the ladies. "Okay, so subtract 72 cents from $6.00. That will give you the total."

I think they were with me on the 20 minus 14 thing. I really do. But when I added the incredibly confusing second step of taking the result of that and subtracting another 72 cents, I lost them. I could see their eyes glazing over, like Zacarias Moussaui trying to understand a judge. I could tell that they just weren't getting it. Not even a little bit.

This must be what my high-school advisor felt like when he tried to convince me of the need to have a spotless attendance record. Minus his blind rage, that is.

In the end, they took my word for it, and when I left I think they were engaged in a debate over whether or not I was some form of possessed demon for being able to pull the numbers out of the air.

And now, just to make everyone's day, I'd like to point out that Canada scores near the top of international standardized tests in high school mathematics. So however bad it is here, it can only be worse elsewhere. Society is doomed.
The Risk of Invading Iraq

If you've been wondering what might be causing some of the top brass in the military to have second thoughts about invading Iraq, consider this piece from February in the National Review. From the linked article:

[Saddam] has formed a special urban warfare unit, al Nida (the Call), 50,000 men strong, probably modeled on, if not trained by, Chechen tank hunter teams. Saddam has devised a plan for a Baghdad Bastion, perhaps expecting a second Stalingrad. The Iraqi capital has been divided into defensive sub-sectors, with stockpiles of food, ammunition, self-contained communications facilities and linked by a system of tunnels.

Saddam isn't planning on fighting a conventional war against the United States. He tried that the last time, and the "Mother of all Battles" turned out to be the mother of all embarassing routs. Saddam is nuts, but he's not stupid. He won't make that mistake again.

So what's he going to do? The above quote is telling. My personal belief is that he is going to fight a war of world opinion. He's learned lessons watching Arafat fight a much larger opponent. He'll sacrifice his cannon-fodder troops who are not loyal enough to be allowed to crowd into the cities with him anyway, and when they are gone (surrendering quickly, my guess), he'll pull his remaining army of maybe 100,000 loyalists into his heavily fortified and stockpiled cities, and force the U.S. to dig them out one building at a time. In the meantime, he'll pull an Arafat, appearing on TV regularly surveying destroyed buildings, with plenty of bodies of children scattered around for effect. He'll play the martyr card, big time.

Think about the difficulty Israel is having with world opinion just trying to remove a few terrorists from the West Bank and Gaza. Now imagine if the Palestinians had 100,000 soldiers, the resources to reinforce buildings, set up machine gun nests and tank traps, and build warrens of interlocking tunnels under the city. That's what the U.S. will face in Baghdad, assuming it doesn't collapse from within. Throw biological and chemical weapons into the mix, and you have a potential disaster.

And Saddam is ruthless enough to force the U.S. to do some really difficult things. A rocket will fly out of an open window and hit a tank. The Americans will level the building - which will turn out to have 200 children in it, with the soldiers long gone through a tunnel.

What about isolating the city and letting it run out of resources? Again, Saddam will save the stockpiles for his troops, and let the civilians die. And he'll stack them like cordwood for their photo-ops. CNN will have plenty of material to air.

Saddam can't win this militarily, but he can 'win' if he can turn public opinion at home and abroad against the U.S. I'm not convinced that the United States can engage Saddam in long-term siege warfare while maintaining the political will and world support needed to continue it to its conclusion.

Of course, it could go the other way, too. This is just one scenario of how things might go. Once the U.S. has the cities isolated, they could crumble from within. Perhaps the U.S. has special forces in place now, mapping out emplacements and tunnels, and Saddam will get a rude surprise if he tries this strategy. Or perhaps he will attempt this, but the U.S. will intercept his attempts to regroup.

Nonetheless, it's a difficult problem, with many risks. I'm not suggesting that this means Iraq should be left alone, but we need to be clearheaded about the danger of military action if we wish to make intelligent choices. No one is served by downplaying real risks to gain political support for the war.
Enough With 'Graph' Already!"

Here is my humble plea to other bloggers: Stop using the word 'graph' instead of 'paragraph', okay? While that may be a common term for newsroom journalists, it sucks for the general public. 'Graph' already has multiple meanings - let's not confuse the issue more. If someone says, "Michael Moore had this graph on his blog today", I don't have a clue if I'm going there to read a paragraph of his inane ramblings, or whether I'll get to see a cool graph showing how IQ correlates inversely with the tendency to wear ball caps and baggy pants.

It's all about context. If you work at a news desk, you share a common jargon with people around you. Thus, if someone says, "Hey Rooney! I need two more grafs!", Rooney can expect that he's not being asked to draw pictures. Say the same thing to me, and you're likely to get a damned Gantt chart or something. Say it to the Germans, and you'll get a couple of Zeppelins.

Monday, August 05, 2002

Canadian Teen Arrested For Trying to Light Shoe On Airplane

According to Fox News, a Canadian teenager was arrested for trying to set fire to his shoe while his airplane taxied in to Pittsburgh International Airport. The boy's father was seated next to him.

Authorities said they would not release the boy's name, citing his age and the likelihood that if everyone knew who the little moron was, he'd probably get the beating of his life in school and never get laid.

This case brings up several important questions:
  1. Is some lawyer going to sue Nike because their slogan is, "Just Do It"?
  2. Is the kid's father a total idiot, or what?
  3. How did the kid's father ever manage to reproduce?
  4. How did the kid get a lighter on board the airplane?
  5. Do you think you're funny NOW, smartass?