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.