Monday, December 26, 2011

How Do We Pay For It?

Whenever the question arises as to how a public works project will be paid for, the 'normal' answer is "Well, that's what taxes are for!"  Libertarians (and, yes, I am one of them) take issue with this answer.  It's a tough 'sell', but I believe that every thinking person, if they spend time actually thinking about the issue, eventually comes around to the libertarian view that almost everything in the 'public works' arena probably ought to be funded with voluntary contributions or subscriptions.  Let's take a look.

Let's start with an easy assumption:  Whatever the project, there will inevitably be those who think it's unnecessary or counter-productive or a poor use of scarce public funds.  They will be opposed to spending money on the project.  So the root assumption is 'you can't please everybody'.  Nevertheless, those opposed to the project will be taxed their proportionate share.

There is a corollary to this:  While nobody doesn't like Sara Lee, everybody doesn't like something.  Everyone will be able to point to some project they wish hadn't gotten enough votes.

If the number of 'antis' is small it's easy to dismiss them as mere malcontents, but what about when the vote goes down 50.2% in-favor to 49.8% opposed?  You have nearly half the populace being forced to fund a project they oppose.  "Well, that's how the system works!" some will say (if they're part of the 50.2%).  The rest will carry a grudge over their ultra-skinny loss.  This is a bad way to run a community.  Nothing good can come of it.  That, however, is hardly the point.

We tax the community wall-to-wall for tasks that we feel will benefit the community wall-to-wall, but the undeniable fact is that our opinions as to who benefits are not universally agreed-to.  We're guessing, and those guesses, good or bad, are backed by the political power to make them a reality via taxes, part of which comes from people who made different guesses.  Is this really what we intend?  Is this really a good idea in itself?  Because what we're seeing here, stripped of all the trappings, is that we're forcing someone to fund our pet project du jour against their better judgement, and it doesn't matter whether that project is a war in the Middle East or cancer research.  It is a given that someone will think it's a great idea and someone else will think it's a mistake.

The one great source of conflict here, the 'bone of contention', is what is called the 'free rider problem', and that has a corollary, a flip-side, too.  What of those people who will be taxed for this new 'benefit' but who will never use it?  You tax to fund a new art museum, but what of our blind citizens who cannot see the visually beautiful art that now populates the museum?  What of the hearing-impaired who cannot use the audio guides?  So we tax some more to provide Braille commentary and sign-language interpreters and on and on.  If we do the project on voluntary contributions, what of those who didn't contribute yet who will enjoy the new museum?  Having no universally fair method of funding the project, we fall back on what we assume is the least-worst solution: tax everybody.  When I point out that this solution is favored simply because it involves the least effort on the part of those who propose, that it's the lazy way out, I'm accused of being politically incorrect.

"Political correctness" has been called 'the absurd notion that a turd can be picked up by the clean end.'  There simply is no fair way to raise revenue, isn't that how it seems?  When the 'anti's suggest that the proponents 'put their money where their mouth is', that's when the cries of "unfair!" ring out the loudest, but there's something to be said in favor of that position.  If a project does, indeed, have broad popular support, it should be fairly easy to fund it from contributions.  After all, we're dealing here with a project whose benefits will far outweigh the puny costs, no?  Isn't that how such projects are sold?

If support for a project is so narrow that it cannot be funded from contributions, what does that say about how the people view the supposed benefit of the project?  And, really, shouldn't the opinions of those taxpayers have some weight in the deliberations?  If all they're willing to do is vote to have other people fund the project for their benefit, what does that say about the supposed 'benefit'?  "Yes, this will benefit me, but not so much that I'm willing to invest my own money..."

That, in fact, is the rationale for having private investors handle much of what we think of as 'public works'.  If a project is truly a beneficial improvement, the measure of that benefit is that people will be willing to pay for it after-the-fact on a case-by-case basis and for fees that far exceed what they might have been charged up-front in taxes.  That is how 'profit' is defined, and wise investors will be willing to 'put their money where their mouths are' for the prospect of future profit.

When wise investors are not willing to front money for such projects, it's a warning that we ought to be adding some salt — much more that just a grain or two — to those promises of pie-in-the-sky we get from proponents of the latest boondoggle.

Taxes for public works?  It would probably be more efficient to find an alternative way.

And before anyone holds up the Interstate Highway System as an example of 'a public works project that really worked out well', let me call all those people who complain that we don't have rail service like Europeans do and have them come over to talk to you.  Do you know why we don't have rail service like the Europeans do?  I'll give you a hint.  It has something to do with the Interstate Highway System.

When you take the path on the right, of necessity you cannot take the path on the left.  When you take the path of 'taxes', you give up the path of 'freedom to choose'.  Is that the kind of 'bargain' you go looking for?

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Enter The Dragon — Remembering Ray Faulk

I've been seeing ads recently for Dragon Software which purports to allow a computer user to speak words and have the software load those words into a document or something else.  It made me recall my old IBM buddy, Ramon D(avid) Faulk, 'Ray' to his friends and associates.

Ray graduated from UTexas (Austin) back in IBM's heyday and got hired by IBM as a mathematician to work on a hot new project out of the Thomas J. Watson Scientific Center in Yorktown Heights, New York.  IBM in those days thought it might be possible to build a 'universal translator' given enough computing muscle, and it set a team to work making it a reality.  Ray was on that team.  After several years of disappointing (or 'no') progress, IBM's management reluctantly concluded that a Universal Translator was not as feasible as they had originally thought.  They cancelled the project and reshuffled all the participants into other parts of the company.  Remember, this was back when IBM didn't fire people or lay them off just because there wasn't any work for them to do.  It was always possible to find a spot for someone in a company as big as IBM.

Ray got transferred to IBM's Field Engineering HQ in White Plains, NY as a programmer.  FEHQ's Information Systems department (FEIS) back then did lots of heavy lifting, mostly concentrated on machine service schedules, replacement parts, and publications (manuals).  All of this had to be managed in an inventory sense, shipped expeditiously where and when needed, and accounted-for and reported.  There was lots to do for a talented application programmer, and Ray was that.

Unfortunately, Ray also had an obsessive personality.  He had been hired to create a universal translator and he felt mortified that he had failed so miserably as to get the project cancelled.  Yes, there were lots of others who had failed equally miserably or moreso, but Ray's failure was his and his alone.  He could not let the mere cancellation of a project stop him from completing his task.

So he did his FEIS application programming tasks from nine-to-five and did other things at other times.  Occasionally he would do those other things from nine-to-five as well because they were important.  On the occasions that those important tasks pushed aside the tasks Ray was getting paid to do, he would come (as Maxwell Smart might say) this close to getting fired.  But he worked for IBM;  IBM didn't fire people for silly reasons like that.

Eventually, Ray managed to develop the theory (and the method) that allowed him to take the first giant step toward the now-forgotten Universal Translator.  Here's the essential problem:

When we write, we put spaces between words and add punctuation marks to indicate to the reader where certain idea-clusters start or end.  When we speak, we don't, unless we're Victor Borge demonstrating Phonetic Punctuation.  (whenwespeakwedontunlesswerevictorborgedemonstratingphoneticpunctuation).  How does the brain split this sound from that sound?  They all run together in a continuous stream, yet virtually everyone who is fluent in the language spoken knows where those implicit blanks belong.  The answer is that the human brain has the ability to guess (accurately, most times) that this sound represents a word.  It guesses based on hearing that same sound thousands or millions of times in the past.  When it encounters a new sound, it guesses that it's a word because all the sounds around it have been accounted-for.  How in Hell do you get a machine to do that?  This way:

Ray's method involved taking a stream of data and parsing it as if it were continuous data like speech.  He had Barbara Argy, one of our co-workers, transcribe a chapter of a foreign-language book onto punched cards (that's how far back this was) eliminating all the blanks, commas, periods, etc.  Ray's method didn't care what language the original text was in, nor was that information part of the program's input.  Barbara used, I think, a Russian novel, using '@', '#', '%', and others for the Cyrillic characters our alphabet lacks.  Ray's program read the string and did a statistical analysis of the frequencies of all the one-character strings, then it did the same for all two-character strings, then three, then four, then...  At some point, he would start over at the head of the string and begin looking at the first character compared to the first two characters compared to the first three, four, five, six, etc., each time looking at the relative frequency of the strings.  Every now and then during this process, the relative frequency of a string would drop to zero or near it.  If he were looking at the prior sentence, for instance, he would notice a sudden drop when the string was 'everyn' as compared to 'every'.  From this, the program would conclude that 'every' was a word and insert a blank following it.

Ray once compared this process to what happens in the game of "Ghost".  In Ghost, players sit in a circle and one player starts by saying a letter.  The next player adds a letter to it.  Letters are added in turn until some player adds a letter that makes a word.  The object of the game is to add a letter, one that could be part of a not-yet-fully-developed word, but not one that actually completes a word — to make the word longer and longer until finally some player is forced by "the collapse of variety" to add the one-and-only letter that can fit at the end of the existing string.

Using this schema, Ray's program split that chapter of Russian text into its constituent words making only six errors along the way.  The errors were of the sort where a prefix might be snipped off a word or a portmanteau word would be split into pieces.  The program did not know that the original text was in Russian.  It did not use a dictionary.  It built its own vocabulary dynamically as it went along.

Well, if you can do that to Russian, you should be able to do it to Welsh or Hungarian with equal ease.  You should be able to apply the same technique to spoken language, breaking the stream of sounds to packets of sound and then assigning meaning to those sounds.  This is the method infants use when they are pre-verbal.  This is the method we will use when we meet our first extra-terrestrial.

When that day comes, and perhaps before that, I expect linguists will be splitting streams of continuous data and developing vocabularies from them, all the while wondering why they call the process "faulking".

Ray's method was the subject of a paper he published with his collaborator, Fran Goertzel Gustavson, and can be found in The IBM Systems Journal (1990), vol 29, number 2.  It was titled "Segmenting discrete data representing continuous speech input".  You can see the abstract here

Ray passed away a few years back.  I'm sure he would have gotten a kick out of Dragon had he lived to see it.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Sean Hannity is an idiot.  I get it.

Sean Hannity recently made this remark:  "Ron Paul is an isolationist.  I get it."

Except that he doesn't get it.  Or maybe he really does get it but would rather slander one of the few honest Congressmen around.  I'm attributing his remark to stupidity;  maybe it really is malice.  Nor am I writing this just to defend Ron Paul.  When Hannity made that (inexcusably stupid) remark, he wasn't just defaming Ron Paul;  he was defaming me and everyone who thinks like me and Ron.

"Isolationist", as defined by Hannity and the other neocons, means anyone who doesn't think the United States should have a military presence in 145 countries, anyone who thinks the United States shouldn't invade any foreign country without a formal declaration of war issued by Congress and naming the country to be invaded/conquered, or anyone who thinks the foreign policy of the United States ought to be focused sharply on 'minding our own business'.

The opposite of "isolationist" for people like Hannity is "patriot", defined as someone who thinks it's perfectly OK for the President, without so much as notifying Congress, to ship the First Marine Division into the hell-hole du jour in order to show those gooks just who's the sheriff 'round these here parts.  If a couple thousand or a couple million civilians get in the way, that's their tough luck.  They should have been smart enough to have been born Americans, shor 'nuff.

I define 'patriot' somewhat differently, in case you haven't guessed, and you probably suspect Hannity and I differ on the definition of 'isolationist', too.  To me, an isolationist is ready to pull up the drawbridge and seal off the kingdom, having first gotten everyone inside to hand over their passports.  Their intent would be to isolate themselves from the cold, cruel world outside.  An isolationist would never dream of popping off to Paris or stealing away to Stockholm.  Noooooooo!!  That would be...  sleeping with the enemy!  Horrors!  Can't have our citizens doing that!

Perhaps Sean Hannity is a stay-at-home.  Not me, and not Ron Paul, either.  Keep your passport.  Go to Barcelona whenever the spirit moves you.  Bring me back a souvenir.  The word Ron and I use for our foreign policy (singular, because we share the same one) is 'non-interventionism'.  We think it's a great idea to travel and trade, to meet new people who may speak a different language and who see the world through different eyes, to talk with them and learn their views on topics for which we have formed our own opinions.  What Ron and I don't advocate is forming those peoples' views for them by force of arms, nor do we advocate taxing American citizens to provide foreign aid to countries which are often ruled by dictators.  Ron and I know (too well) how close to the truth Lord Peter Bauer was when he said

Foreign aid is an excellent method for transferring money from poor people in rich countries to rich people in poor countries.

But as long as we're trading verbal insults, I suppose it's only fair that I get the chance to label Sean Hannity and all those who think like him:  they're 'imperialists'.  They're the nutballs who believe their own fantasies about 'American exceptionalism'.  They think America is exceptional because God wanted it that way.  Oddly, they have no explanation for why God would make us exceptional and then let our economy turn to shit.  In truth, if America is exceptional it is almost entirely because of the inventiveness, the will to win, and the moral strength of all those who came here from other supposedly un-exceptional nations to make a better life for themselves, their families, and their fellows.  And they did this all without any help from the government.  What didn't make America exceptional was the foreign policy that led us to war with Mexico in 1846, to overthrow the Kingdom of Hawaii in 1893*, war with Spain in 1898, war with half of Europe in 1918, or any of the dozens of 'conflicts' since 1945.  It's not our military that makes us great, it's the people and the freedom of people to do great things.

People like Sean Hannity would like to see all that come to an end.  If anyone deserves the term 'isolationist', it's idiots like Sean Hannity.



(*) - I'll bet you didn't know it was the U.S. Marine Corps which overthrew the Hawaiian monarchy — at the request of the Dole Fruit Packing Company whose owners were upset that the Hawaiians would no longer let foreign workers vote in local elections.  Golly, if Sean Hannity gets his way and we stop letting Mexican workers vote in our elections, maybe the Marines will overthrow this government?  No, doesn't work that way, does it?

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

In Praise of Julian Heicklen

What??  You've never heard of Julian Heicklen??  I thought everybody had heard of Julian Heicklen!!

Julian Heicklen is a retired Penn State professor just recently arrested in downtown Manhattan for jury tampering.  Right out there in public.  In front of God and everybody.  Right in front of the federal courthouse.

Julian was arrested for passing out flyers, some of his own making, others provided to him by FIJA, The Fully-Informed Jury Association.

FIJA has as their mission and goal to inform everyone who might ever become a member of a jury of their natural right to judge both the law and the facts concerning the case at hand.  And here you thought the jury only got to decide whether the perp did it or not, didn't you?  Nope.  You also get to decide whether the perp was justified in doing whatever was done.  This tradition has a long and colorful history.  It is mentioned in the Magna Carta (1215 AD) as one of those rights the people can invoke against the King.

The Salem Witch Trials ended when prosecutors suffered 62 consecutive acquittals by juries that were tired of seeing their grandmothers burned at the stake, hung, drawn-and-quartered, and ducked in the local pond until they drowned.

John Peter Zenger, publisher of the New York Weekly Journal, walked out of court a free man when a 1735 jury decided that printing the truth could never be considered 'libel', even if it embarrassed the Colonial Governor.  This case was the precedent for our own First Amendment.

Prosecutors similarly gave up prosecuting fugitive slaves after one Northern jury after another refused to send people to jail just for helping slaves escape.

If you get called for jury duty these days, you will be asked to swear an oath that you will administer the law as the judge explains it.  You swear that you won't give a hoot about whether or not the law is good, bad, or indifferent, and that you will convict the defendant for violating a bad law exactly as you would convict for violating a good law.

Did you miss that?  If Congress passes a law saying all Presbyterians have to move to Kansas and Nebraska — (they wouldn't, but let's just say they did) — you will send that Presbyterian to jail for the crime of 'living in Texas'.

"That's silly," I hear you say,  "Congress would never pass a law like that!"  Oh, yeah?  How about...  The USA PATRIOT Act that wipes out the Fourth Amendment (among other things)?  How about the new National Defense Authorization Act that purports to allow the Army to arrest U.S. citizens on U.S. soil without a warrant and hold them indefinitely without trial merely on someone's accusation that they are a 'terrorist'?  Recall that during the Second World War, President Roosevelt ordered all Japanese-Americans interned (in 'concentration camps').  Given those examples, how far are we away from "packin' all them Jews into boxcars"?

The judge has no authority to require that oath, and you have no obligation to answer it truthfully.

So Julian is defending himself (he is acting as an attorney pro se) because he will likely raise some or all of these points at trial, and a licensed attorney who did so would very likely be disbarred.  Acting pro se also has another advantage:  what's the judge going to do to Heicklen?  Throw him in jail for 'contempt'?  He's already in jail.

The prosecutor, one Rebecca Mermelstein, also has something of a problem.  She's going to have to explain to a jury that Professor Heicklen committed a crime by espousing his opinion in public and that the First Amendment doesn't cover what he did.  She's going to have to explain that if the law ever requires Jews to wear an armband with a yellow Star of David, she, Rebecca Mermelstein, will encourage all her family to comply and will prosecute any of them who don't.  Oh, dear.

If the judge, Jack Weinstein, tries to suppress questioning along those lines he may find himself in a similarly uncomfortable position.

Along the way, the jury's historical power to acquit even in the face of evidence of guilt will garner more publicity than FIJA has ever been able to get on its own.  The Law of Unintended Consequences strikes again!

Until the 20th century, it was fairly common for judges to instruct juries that they had virtually unlimited power — to acquit.  If the prosecutor brings a charge of 2nd-degree manslaughter, the jury cannot bump that charge to 1st-degree murder, but a charge of 1st-degree murder can be softened to something lesser.  Similarly, a jury may decide

  • this is a good law and he violated it — guilty, go to jail
  • he violated the law, but I don't think the law was ever intended to apply in a case like this — not guilty
  • I'm not going to let you enforce this obscene law in this jurisdiction — not guilty;  I don't care whether he did it or not.

Even when the jury brings in a 'guilty' verdict, the judge can still issue a JNOV (judgment non obstante veredicto), a judgement notwithstanding the verdict, and acquit, but the judge cannot overrule a 'not guilty' verdict.  Further, if the jury says 'guilty', the accused may appeal.  If the jury says 'not guilty', it's 'game over' — the prosecution cannot appeal unless there has been a demonstrable failure of the system.  The whole process is biased in favor of 'not guilty'.

Professor Heicklen's trial is going to be very interesting.  Keep your eyes peeled.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Appreciating the Heavens

Since acquiring a dog...  about four years ago this week, as a matter of fact...  Norene and I have been paying more attention to what's above us.  That's because Riqui's (officially 'Suncatcher's Periquita') last walk of the day happens between 10:30pm and 11:30pm.  We have started to pay more attention to things like 'summer constellations' and 'winter constellations' and phases of the moon (because we can walk the golf course's cart paths from about half-moon through full-moon and for a few days after).

The moon rises about 50 minutes later every day.  Because the moon's cycle is about 28 days (more or less), it rises 1/28th of a day later each day.  There are 1,440 minutes in a day, and 1/28th of that is 51 minutes and 20-some-odd seconds.  Seven days' worth of that is 358+ minutes — pretty close to 6 hours.  At 'new moon', the moon rises just around dawn.  Half-moon (first quarter) is seven days later and has the moon rising around noon.  At full-moon, the moon rises near sunset — the sun and moon are on opposite sides of the Earth.  That's what makes the moon 'full'.  From full moon on, the moon rises closer to sunrise than to sunset.  Last quarter has the moon rising around midnight.

The stars are a different matter.  The stars make a complete circuit (360 degrees) over the course of a year — 365 days — close enough for government work.  The stars rise 1/360th of a day earlier each day.  That comes out to about four minutes (plus or minus).  Thirty days times four minutes is 120 minutes, two hours, 1/12 of a day, and one sign of the zodiac.

Over the course of a year, someone who looks up at the sky about the same time every night will watch the sky gradually change as the moon and the constellations creep across the firmament.

I recommend it highly.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Letters to the Editor

I'm an inveterate letter-writer.  I rap out snarlygrams to the St.Petersburg Times on a regular basis... or did.  They tend not to print my letters anymore.  I suspect I pissed Martin Dyckman off once too often and have been banned in perpetuity.  On the rare occasion they do print a letter, they invariably send it through the editorial meat-grinder first so that any point I might have been trying to make gets lost on the cutting room floor.

I think I'll just publish them here.



Subject: Price of Freedom?

A letter-writer Thursday cites the Alamo, the battleship Maine, Pearl Harbor, and 9/11 as "the price of freedom".  This writer badly needs a lesson in history.

In 1836, Texians (don't forget the "i") seceded from Mexico, and became an independent nation for 9 years before joining the United States.

The battleship Maine was destroyed by an explosion in a coal bunker, but it was a great excuse for us to grab some territory.  No sabotage was involved.

It is now well-documented that FDR knew of the attack on Pearl Harbor in advance and declined to warn our sailors there because he wanted us in that war;  this is much closer to "treason" or "accessory to murder" than it is to "price of freedom".  Any infamy that day came from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

I suspect that the next 10 or 20 years will also give us a different perspective on 9/11.



Subject: It --does-- matter!

A letter-writer Saturday (Iraq has to be fixed) asserts:  "[everyone] knows[s] the war in Iraq should never have been started.  That doesn't matter anymore."

It certainly does matter, because if we come to believe that it doesn't matter, then it will happen again, although it is difficult to see how that might be worse than the present situation.

Legislation just passed by our Congress cancels habeas corpus and fundamental procedural rights of due process that stretch back to the Magna Carta.  Federal grand-jury indictments for terrorism are no longer necessary.  Under the new law, criminal prosecutions for terrorism can now be handled by the military, which is part of the executive branch of government, rather than by the judicial branch.  There will no longer be any right to a jury trial in which the jury consists of ordinary citizens.  Military personnel will decide the guilt or innocence of the accused and, unlike in federal-court proceedings, will be permitted to rely on hearsay evidence and evidence acquired by torture to convict the defendant.  Right to counsel will be limited.  There will no longer be a right to a speedy and public trial.  Military judges, not independent federal judges, will preside over the proceedings.  The military will be free to inflict cruel and unusual punishments on those judged to be terrorists, and being a citizen will not save you because anyone can be labelled a 'terrorist'.  In fact, this letter might get me thrown in jail, next to the editors of the StPetersburg Times for printing it.

Until we decide that such things do matter and introduce our presidents and generals to a breathtaking new use for hemp, we can no longer call ourselves 'the land of the free'.  This nation of sheep has at last begotten a government of wolves.



Subject: No guns allowed

The shooting at a Salt Lake City mall occurred in a place posted as "No guns allowed".  All the shoppers were unarmed because they were all law-abiding citizens...  all except one.

The next time someone says "oh, we can't allow guns here...  they're so dangerous!"  point them at the Trolley Square Mall in SLC.  All the disarmed shoppers were lambs before the slaughter until an off-duty police officer from some other city stepped up to the plate.

Except for Trolley Square's "No guns allowed" policy, some of those shoppers might still be alive.



Subject: Kangaroo conviction

Interesting, the case of David Hicks, former kangaroo-skinner, now convicted terrorist:  in order to be convicted, he had to 'prove' his guilt to the military tribunal.  Funny, I always thought that was the prosecution's job!  Lucky for them they managed to get a "voluntary" confession out of him.

Part of his 'plea-deal' is that he also promises never to say that he was mistreated at Camp X-Ray.  I guess we'll never have to face hearing him suggest it was a case of "confess or stay here forever".

For those of you who say it can't happen here, it has now happened here.



Subject: Virginia Tech

Those who say we can't do anything to prevent horrific events such as happened Monday at Virginia Tech are just plain wrong.

Virginia Tech is a "gun-free zone".  A student who brings a firearm onto school grounds risks expulsion or suspension.  Those who wish to actually graduate from college won't risk expulsion, so they go unarmed.  It is they who become victims when a nut-case decides to make headlines.

We will never see the end of mass-slayings until we get past the bizarre notion that rendering law-abiding citizens 'prey' makes them safer.  By all means, keep guns out of the hands of criminals, but let's not delude ourselves into thinking it's possible to disarm everyone and thus prevent the next outrage.  That sort of utopian delusion just sets us up by inviting us to remain unprepared.

It's time for us to grow up and face reality.  Not all guns take lives;  some of them save lives.



Subject: Florida's Early Primary

The Democratic and Republican parties are treating Florida's primary as if they were paying the bill for it.  Here's news for them:  they're not.

If they want control over the conduct and the timing of Florida's primaries, let them get out their checkbooks.  I'm sure the taxpayers of Florida will gladly allow them full control over all aspects of the primary process — for a small fee.



Subject: Private roads are dead end for Florida

The Times' objection to private roads in Florida is that "motorists would get stuck with the bills", but who gets stuck with the bills for state-owned roads?  Answer:  everybody!

Has the Times forgotten so soon the collapse of the I-35 bridge in Minneapolis?  It wasn't even two months ago!  That state-owned bridge on that state-owned highway collapsed because of poor maintenance.  I wonder what kind of maintenance a private owner would have done on that bridge given the choice of "revenue if it stays up" and "lawsuits if it comes down"?  Of course, the state doesn't have to worry about lawsuits because of their sovereign immunity.  That's why they can afford to skimp on maintenance.

So...  which would you prefer:  higher bridge tolls or higher death tolls?



Subject: WI officer shot self 3 times?

The AP report on the berzerk WI deputy who killed six and himself reports that he "shot himself in the head three times with a pistol".

If he was that bad a shot, how did he manage to kill six people?

It seems far more likely that the AR-15 he was carrying  (a true assault rifle, unlike those available to ordinary people)  was set to '3-shot-burst' and that he shot himself, not with his .40 caliber pistol, but with the AR-15 machinegun the police department issued to him.

And you think  we  can't be trusted with those things??



Subject: Guns in homes

I find it disturbing that the Times would publish yet another diatribe from yet another uninformed ideologue.  I refer, of course, to  "Guns in our homes put children at risk"  by Peter Gorski (7/19 Opinion).  Even more disturbing is that you positioned it right next to an article on Hubert Humphrey who, were he alive today, would be writing an angry letter to the Times.

Gorski, a pediatrician, tries to make us believe that accidental shootings of children are "all too common".  With 300 million firearms in the hands of 80 million gun owners, "all too common" would mean a million dead children each year.  Next to that, 5,000 deaths  (if that number is actually true)  is statistically insignificant.  In fact, Gorski here includes "children" up through age 24, many of whom are killed in drug-related turf wars — hardly 'accidents'.

Then Gorski points out that private handguns did not prevent the events of 9/11.  Well, duhhh!  Anyone who brought a gun to carry on those planes was arrested before they got to the gate.  How stupid does Gorski think we are?  (Don't answer that.)

Studies that Gorski doesn't cite suggest that private handguns prevent between 400,000 and 2,500,000 violent crimes each year, and almost none of them involved a loud noise — or a newspaper article, or a police report.  Gorski is trying to convince us to save those 5,000 "children" but let those 2.5 million violent crimes be completed successfully.  Remind me not to take my kids to him for medical care;  this doctor doesn't understand 'triage'.

Gorski calls gun prohibition  "the one fail-safe solution", ignoring its unintended consequences.  What would Hubert Humphrey say?  “Certainly one of the chief guarantees of freedom under any government, no matter how popular and respected, is the right of citizens to keep and bear arms....  The right of citizens to bear arms is just one guarantee against arbitrary government, one more safeguard against the tyranny which now appears remote in America but which historically has proven to be always possible.”  That's what Humprey said.

"Hubert's generation has largely disappeared", David Shribman says in the article next to Gorski's tripe.  Indeed.



Subject: re: Guess which ones carry guns (Opinions, 2/22/09)

Within the week, the (Memphis TN) Commercial Appeal posted a searchable database of all Tennessee concealed handgun licensees on the debatable assumption that the people of Tennessee had a right to know who among them was armed.  The law in that state allows news organizations to acquire the complete list, but the C/A's abuse of that 'loophole' is about to result in TN closing off all access.  The law here is just the opposite and the Times is upset that they cannot bleat far-and-wide the names, addresses, phone numbers, and birthdates of Florida's armed law abiding citizens because timid Floridians are in such great danger from them.

The canard that everyone else is much less safe because of armed law-abiding citizens (ALCs) is a patent falsehood which would have become as apparent to you as it is to everyone else had you done any research at all on the topic.  You would easily have discovered, for instance, that where such records are kept they indicate that ALCs are among the safest of weapons carriers.  You could have published that fact rather than the hoplophobic editorial you did publish.

You would have discovered that ALCs are 5.7 times less likely to be arrested for violent acts than is the general public, and that they are 13.5 times less likely to be arrested for anything than is the general public.  Note, by the way, that these are arrests, not convictions.  Tell me again how dangerous ALCs are?

As for the nonsense that ALCs are less-well-trained than the police, you would have discovered that 11% of police shootings involve the death of an "innocent bystander" but only 2% of ALC shootings.  The typical police officer goes to the range when it's time to 'qualify' and shoots (maybe) 100 rounds.  Your typical ALC uses thousands (plural) of rounds each year, and I know some who use tens of thousands.  Tell me again how much danger Floridians are in?

The people of Florida are at no time safer than when they are sitting next to an ALC, and the more ALCs there are, the less anxious criminals are to ply their trade.  Far from whining that you can't tell who's carrying and who isn't, you should be lobbying the legislature to make range time mandatory for all Floridians.

Of course, then crime would plummet and what would you have to write about?  I see your dilemma.



Subject: "Vouchers only for the faithful" (11/14)

Robyn Blumner makes a fairly obvious error when she criticizes  "Vouchers only for the faithful" (11/14).  She assumes that tax money is the rightful property of the state.  Perhaps in some other system of government it is.  Our system is founded on the notion that only people have rights.  Governments have powers which are granted to them by the people via documents known as 'constitutions'.

In the case at issue, the people of the state of Arizona acting through their legislature made it possible for citizens to specify how much of their taxes will be routed to certain schools not part of the 'public school system'.  Given the uniformly ghastly performance of those public schools, it's not difficult to see why Arizonans might be amenable to alternatives.

We have a federal system.  Certain tasks are delegated to the federal government.  Others are delegated to state governments.  For that latter group, we are supposed to have up to 50 potentially unique solutions to common problems, a schema known as 'massively-parallel trial-and-error'.  When there are 50 different ways to fund schools (for instance), we would shortly discover that one state was doing it very well, others good but not great, and still others poorly.  Over time the poorer models would be discarded for better ones.  This is called 'improvement'.

Opinions such as are found in  "Vouchers only for the faithful"  operate to ensure a static, one-size-fits-all model with no chance for experimentation and no chance for improvement.  It begs us to cling to the status quo as if it were the only worthwhile option.  It is a call for nationwide stagnation and a school system that will never get any better.



Subject: Safer streets

Sunday's lead editorial,  "Clear path to creating safer streets",  contains so many errors of fact it is difficult to know where to begin addressing them.  Perhaps the easiest error to dispel is that presented last:  "Nine of ten firearms confiscated [in Mexico] came from the United States".

In fact, only a very small portion of the firearms confiscated in Mexico are traced at all.  The vast majority of them are modern machine guns and are not available for sale here.  A goodly portion of those are M-16s and M-4s which do, in fact, come from the United States, but they originate with Pentagon purchase orders, not a clandestine sale at a gun show.  They wind up in the hands of the cartels because Mexican soldiers go AWOL with their government-issued machine gun.  Mexico wouldn't bother tracing those;  they know where they came from.

So, if twenty percent of seized guns are traced and ninety percent of those originated here, what is the net percentage?  Then ask how many of those guns were seized simply because Jose Seis-pack may not have guns at all in Mexico.  There, every gun is a crime gun, including those in the hands of the policia.

I highly recommend you do some research.  Start at .  It will help you adhere to your mission statement.


Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Memories of days in black and white


Out there on YouTube I found days... no, WEEKS of episodes from "Have Gun, Will Travel" (1957 ff), all well beyond their copyright date.

Just thought you'd like to know...

Monday, August 22, 2011

Le Petit Chateau

We just got back from a three-week, 3,600 mile road trip: Niagara Falls, Monteal, and Quebec (city).  I have to say: if I knew Quebec was going to be that much fun, I would have gone there directly and spent my whole vacation just wandering through its Old World-style streets.  Alas, we only had three days.

On the first night, we had cheese fondue at Le Petit Chateau, 5 Rue St-Louis, right next to the Chateau Frontenac.  It was so good we went back there the second night just to make sure it wasn't a fluke.  Nope, the second was as good as the first, and we had chocolate fondue for dessert.  The third night in Quebec, we weren't in a fondue mood, so we had crepes en casserole there instead.  Unbelievably good.

Given the normally high prices found in Canada and the painful 13% tax on nearly everything, it was a relief to find a restaurant so good that we could ignore the cost.  I recommend it unreservedly.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Governments can't manage economies

I had an interesting conversation a few nights ago with a Canadian waiter who is an economist on the side.  He tried to tell me what's wrong with the economy.  I felt sure he was missing something important: he thinks governments can manage their economies.  There is no evidence to support this position.

The greatest selling point for free-market economics is that government does such a poor job at managing the economy.  It does such a poor job that it's fair to say that they simply don't manage it, and since the economy is so important (everyone tells us) the fact they don't manage it must mean that they can't.  The free market is left as the only plausible alternative.

The current economic mess is nothing more than an excellent example of what happens when you let demagogues hold the reins of power: they run the system into the ground.  The United States is simply one facet on a multifaceted jewel.  In Europe, the PIIGS (Portugal, Italy, Ireland, Greece, and Spain) are on the verge of toppling because their economies are so flimsy.  France's economy is so-so.  Germany is the 'last man standing' and is unwilling to auto-da-fe in order to keep the others afloat.

How did we get here?  Especially, if you think governments actually can manage economies, you have a lot of explaining to do.

Now, there is the possibility that the free market might do a poorer job than government, although how it might be worse than this, economies world-wide on the verge of cataclysmic depression, is hard to imagine.

In the United States, the Federal Reserve was originally touted as the cure for the instability of the business cycle.  Fourteen years after its creation, we had the Crash of '29 followed briskly by a depression that reached around the world.  By that time, the 'free market' was a fading memory.

No, there is no credible evidence that governments can manage economies.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Osama bin Laden is dead. Big deal.

It's all over FaceBook: Osama bin Laden was killed in a raid by U.S. troops on his hideout in Abbottabad, Pakistan.  Whoop-de-doo!  Somebody pass me another beer.

Let's have a quick reality check, shall we?  ObL has been a non-issue for nine years, and a non-person for longer than that.  The thing we should be happy about is that we now have proof-positive of how it should have been done in October 2001:  a small team of highly-trained operatives inserted for a tightly-defined mission.  There are mercenaries around the world, Soldiers Of Fortune they call themselves, who do this sort of thing for a living.  Had we put a million dollar bounty on Osama's head in September 2001, we would have had that head on display for Christmas.  Let that temper your revelry:  we've been playing solitaire for ten years because it wouldn't look good in the press if anyone but the Seals/Rangers/Delta Force got credit for the op.

And what's with the 'burial at sea'?  Helloooooo!!  After all the hullabaloo over Obama's birth certificate, one might think somebody at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue would be the least bit concerned about inciting another conspiracy theory.

Unless that was the idea in the first place...  The Obama administration is facing a crisis of credibility over something called "Project Gunwalker" (this is Mike Vanderboegh's name for the ATF's catastrophically-failed "Project Gunrunner") because our own government appears to have allowed several thousand firearms to cross the border southbound without bothering to tell the Mexican government;  for more detail, hop on over to '' and check it out.

Maybe the White House thinks a brand-new crackpot conspiracy theory is just the thing to get attention diverted from their own failures in the areas of 'defending the Constitution', 'strengthening relations with long-time international partners', and 'promoting transparency and openness in politics'?

As Mickey Rooney said to Judy Garland on numerous occasions:  "That idea is so crazy, it just might work!"

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Living in post-Constitutional America

In light of yesterday's blog on Connick v Thompson, I thought I would link a few previously-made points together in a single post to illustrate how far from 'a free society' we have wandered since the Constitution's keel was laid.

We have these facts in evidence:

  1. The avowed purpose of the writers of the Constitution (hereafter 'C~') was (paraphrased) 'to bind the government in chains'.  They wanted a government which could do the tasks it was assigned and unable to do anything else.
  2. As an addendum to this, the (so-called) Bill of Rights adds a wholebuncha 'thou shalt not's starting off with the First Amendment's 'Congress shall make no law...'.
  3. All this happened because the axiom of the American system, the Declaration of Independence, informs us that 'to protect these rights, governments are instituted among men' and furthermore 'all men are created equal'.

Comes now the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) which seems to understand none of this.  At least, there is no substantial evidence that they do.

In case after case, they agree, sometimes in overwhelming majority, that, yes, the government may feel you up at the airport without articulable probable cause merely because by your presence there you have waived your right to be free of unreasonable search and seizure; that, yes, the government may listen to your cell phone's emanations because you really can't have any expectation of privacy when speaking aloud in a public place, even from someone who can throw your ass in jail based on what they deliberately overhear; that, yes, the government may infringe your right to keep and bear arms when the government thinks it's a reallyreallyreally good idea to do so; that, yes, the government may take your house and give it to someone else who will pay higher taxes than you; and several dozen other, more egregious things.

Why might SCOTUS have such bizarre opinions, opinions which wind up being the law of the land, every bit as effective as the C~ they purport to implement?  They might have these opinions because government always wants to get bigger and more powerful.  There never has been one that didn't, so it's fair to suggest ours is not unique.  They might have these opinions because SCOTUS is an arm of the government and it could be said 'works for the government'.  They might have these opinions because each and every one of them came up through the ranks of government attorneys, having been DAs or AGs or assistants to them.  They are the government.

Because of this architectural need of governments to grow larger, there is an adversary relationship between the people and the government.  The C~ was supposed to block the government's ability to do bad things by, for instance, limiting Congress' powers to seventeen specific areas.  As a further block, the Bill of Rights specifically mentions several areas which the government is forbidden to enter.  Yet we have this odd situation: SCOTUS decrees that 'no right is absolute', that government may restrict rights when there is a 'compelling public need'.  Suddenly, government has become the arbiter of which rights we have and how far we may exercise them.  Those rights we received from God or nature because we are sentient beings have now been redefined as originating from government and thus modifiable by government.

Of those seventeen specific areas in which Congress may operate, one, the 'regulation of interstate commerce', has morphed into something bizarre.  Under its current interpretation, Congress appears able to do anything because everything affects I/C in one way or another.  We thus have a list of tasks for Congress to handle consisting of sixteen specific areas plus one other which is 'and anything else'.

The thirteenth amendment outlawed slavery — kinda.  "Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States..." except that in time of war the government may force you to give up several years of your life, and possibly the entirety of that life, by drafting you into the military and sending you into combat.  The thirteenth amendment is the first amendment which applies not to the government, but to you, the citizen.  You may not have a slave, but your government may.

People ask why I believe we are living in 'post-Constitutional America'.  The answer is that the C~ we have now does nothing it is supposed to do and everything it isn't supposed to do.  We have become a police state and almost everyone thinks that's the way it is supposed to be: the land of the fee and the home of the slave.

We are where we are because of a concerted bi-partisan effort on the part of Republicans and Democrats to put us there.  If you think we shouldn't be here, if you think we should be somewhere else, there is but one solution:

Stop voting for Republicans and Democrats.  Get all your friends, relatives, and acquaintances to understand what Barry Goldwater used to say: "A government big enough to give you everything you want must also be big enough to take away everything you've got."

If you vote for Republicans or Democrats you are voting for ever-bigger government and you are part of the problem.  Be part of the solution.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Tipping Point

Allow me to make a quick plug for my newly-published novel, Tipping Point.  This is a tale of the next U.S. Civil War and so far all of the reviews have been of the "couldn't put it down" sort.  I'm really pleased with that.  Every new author goes through a period of self-doubt: did I just write a pile of crap?  Is anybody going to want to read this?

I'm feeling much better, now, thank you.  I'm gradually warming to the idea that I might actually have some talent for spinning a compelling yarn.

If you're inclined, please click that link above and get a short synopsis of the plot along with a sample of the story.  Then, if you like what you see, there's a further link there that will take you over to the Author House website where you can buy your very own copy.  That would make me feel even better than I do already.

Clarence Thomas Stumbles is complaining about a recent decision by SCOTUS written by Clarence Thomas and labeling it "one of the meanest Supreme Court decisions ever".  Well, yes, it probably is, but that's not Clarence Thomas' fault.  For one thing, the Chief Justice assigns the writing of opinions based on whim, more than anything else.  For another, all SCOTUS judges are bound by a concept called stare decisis, and can breach it only under the oddest of circumstances.

SLATE has found one set of such circumstances.

The key to the problem is another concept, prosecutorial immunity.  By this is meant that a DA cannot be held responsible when an injustice happens, e.g.: the wrong guy gets convicted.  There are obvious exceptions, such as when a prosecutor deliberately sandbags an innocent victim.  Being an incompetent prosecutor, however, is not a crime, so prosecutors can always put on their 'stupid' face and walk away from their misdeeds.  This is what happened in Connick v Thompson and SCOTUS largely has their hands tied.

That's the problem.  Prosecutors are not idiots, but they play one when they're in front of a disciplinary board of the Bar Association, and they almost always walk away unscathed.  The DUKE LaCrosse team case is an obvious exception.  There, the players were able to prove that the prosecutor targeted them for political purposes.  That prosecutor now sells burgers for the McDonald's Corporation.

Would you like to prevent future decisions like Connick v Thompson?   Silly question.  Yes, we'd all like to avoid the indignity of having our noses rubbed in our dysfunctional (soi-disant) 'justice' system.  The solution suggests itself.  'Prosecutorial immunity' is a flawed concept whose time has come and gone, and it's time for 'prosecutorial immunity' to go away as well.  When a DA or an AG withholds exculpatory evidence, even if there is no suspicion of wrong-doing, that prosecutor needs to have their license lifted, to be disbarred.  Forever.  In fifty states.

Too severe, you say?   How about 'executing the wrong guy'?   How about 'eighteen years in federal slam for somebody else's crime'?   No, it's not too severe.  In fact, it's the only way to make sure that prosecutors make 'justice' their first priority.  Absent this incentive, a prosecutor's first priority will be 'get the conviction'.  It's their ticket out of the DA's office.  God alone knows how many innocent people went to prison so that Rudy Giuliani could become America's Mayor.

Clarence Thomas clearly stumbled nonetheless.  After correctly interpreting the 14th amendment in the famous McDonald v Chicago, he can't claim ignorance.  Here was the perfect opportunity to point out that the 14th amendment guarantees 'equal protection under the law'.  Giving prosecutors a pass because they're prosecutors grants special privileges to one class at the expense of another.  Thomas should have struck down all laws offering prosecutorial immunity as repugnant to the 14th amendment's guarantee of equal protection (or at least offered that as his excuse for upholding the lower court's decision).

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Security Theater

I've given up flying.

It's nothing to do with false modesty.   It's simply that I refuse to put up with security measures that do nothing to improve my odds of getting to my destination and which simultaneously violate both the Constitution and rules of common decency while putting me at an unacceptable health risk.   Don't even get me started on 'the presumption of guilty until proven innocent'.

I mean, really, if I were a suicide bomber intent on causing chaos, do you think I'd try to blow up a plane?   Puh-leeze!   After 9-11, there cannot be found anywhere under any circumstances an airplane full of people who will meekly stand by while someone tries to light their shoe or who will do anything but laugh at a hijacker with a Swiss Army knife.   Think about it.   Somebody announces they're taking over the airplane.   Even if they have a pistol, how much ammunition can they have ready-at-hand?   30-some-odd shots?   and while they're shooting at First Class, somebody in Coach is going to sucker-punch them into next Tuesday because everybody on board understands that they're all dead anyway if the terrorist gets hir way.

The terrorists understand that, too.   They know they might kill a dozen or so before they're brought down, and their chances of seeing an airport during their remaining lifetime is approximately zero, or close enough for government work.

No.   A terrorist intent on causing chaos buys a ticket on any flight and heads for the TSA checkpoint.   There the terrorist blows hirself up, killing 80, 100, maybe 200 waiting would-be-passengers, all the TSA agents, all the screening equipment, and turning the entire departure area into a crime scene.   Got it?   That terminal will not be used for arrivals or departures until the police forensics boys and girls are done collecting evidence, and there will be a lot of evidence to collect.

And all of this happened before the first TSA agent said "Please step forward into the scanner area."

Net result:   one dead terrorist, same as in the hijack-this-plane scenario above; dozens or hundreds of victims including a whole bunch of TSA grunts, lots more victims than the hijack-this-plane scenario above; no planes destroyed, but an entire terminal (in some cases, that will be the whole airport) shut down for the indefinite future.

You'll stop worrying about getting on an airplane.   You'll worry about going to the airport.

Hijack an airplane?   What?   Do you think those terrorists are stupid?   They may be crazy, but they are not stupid.   They may be religious nutballs, but they are not stupid.   They may be amoral killers, but they are not stupid.

TSA?   They're stupid.