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March 31, 2004

The Transparent Envelope Company

Don Lloyd has (finally! <g>) posted part 1 of a puzzle about stock ownership and the implications for stock option expensing. I've written about stock option expensing at some length, but Don's approach sweeps away the abstractness and makes the issue tangible. (For those down with the lingo, it will help you concretize the matter.)

Watch this space, because I'll link to his subsequent parts also.

PS., Don, why did you rename the company from Opaque to Transparent? Did it go public, or something? :)

UPDATE 2004-04-01 06:48:10 UTC: part 2

Rising Wages in India

Ahem:

Information technology workers in India reported double-digit salary growth in 2003, according to recent research, while pay for similar work within U.S. borders has been relatively stagnant if not declining. Although India's salaries generally remain significantly lower than U.S. averages, the narrowing wage gap and other unforeseen factors are leading at least some American companies to reassess the cost savings to be had by sending work offshore.

India's wage inflation, which approached an estimated 14 percent last year, is a natural byproduct of a classic supply-and-demand scenario. …

What can I say besides I told you so? I do hope Paul Craig Roberts takes note of this, and adjusts his message:

The huge labor surplus in countries such as China and India means that wages are not likely to rise very rapidly in those countries. U.S. firms that substitute Chinese and Indian labor for U.S. employees are building in lower labor costs for years to come.

Real wages are determined primarily by the productivity of labor [Reisman, Capitalism p. 618]. United States wages will fall somewhat, in response to the deflation of the dot.com bubble, but the overwhelming trend will be for foreign wages to rise toward U.S. levels, not for U.S. wages to fall toward foreign levels.

Tasks that cannot be performed competitively in the United States will be performed elsewhere, while the infinite desires of people will — must — create new domestic jobs along lines of comparative advantage. The adjustment is necessary and healthy. The economy will only be damaged by political attempts to prevent or slow the process.

Hat tip: Catallarchy

March 30, 2004

Inheriting Religion

Many years ago, so long ago that I've forgotten the source, I encountered the idea that it's remarkable that the vast majority of people are the same religion as their parents. This struck me as obviously true — both that people do tend to be the same religion as their parents, and that it's a remarkable observation.

The obvious explanation for this phenomena is that most people are taught their beliefs by their parents, so it's natural that they believe the same things as their parents. The reason they stay with the religion they're raised in is because most people do not perform a serious comparative study of religions in order to select the best one. They just stay with what they've already learned and are already comfortable with.

About a week ago, I spent the entire evening after work (until 10:30!), at work, having a wide-ranging discussion with several of my co-workers. We talked about this issue briefly, and I had my very first encounter with someone who denies the position that most people do not seriously study their own beliefs. This was surprising to me, because in college I hung out with several different groups with widely divergent fundamental beliefs, both religious and secular, and I had never discovered this attitude among those people. Yeah, I have a nearly infinite endurance for this stuff. (However, the people in these groups genuinely had made an intellectual study of their beliefs. They had no trouble agreeing that most people aren't so studious.)

With that long-winded introduction out of the way, here are some interesting facts. According to the CIA World Factbook, India is 81.3% Hindu, 12% Muslim, and 2.3% Christian. The United States is 84% Christian. How do these percentages persist for generations, unless by the hypothesis that most people simply inherit their religion instead of studying to find the "right" one? Why doesn't the Indian population have an incidence of Christianity closer to the United States, and the United States an incidence of Hinduism closer to India?

Which is more likely — that Indians and Americans generally do not study each others' religions, or that they study them intensely but ultimately are convinced by what they already believe? Are religious truths contingent on one's geography? Clearly no, both because that would be absurd, and because isn't it obvious that Christianity (say) runs in families even in geographies where it's the minority, such as India? Do 81.3% of the children of Christians in India become Hindu? I don't think so…

I don't think most people make a serious comparative study of beliefs. That's the simple and persuasive answer to the observed facts. I haven't ever heard a credible alternative explanation. (And my discussion opponent didn't offer one, they just said I "can't say that.")

This isn't meant as a criticism of "most people" — it's completely natural for children to accept what their elders tell them as truth. It is important to learn from others instead of rediscovering everything on our own. (There simply isn't enough time.) Without a predisposition toward philosophy, or a person or event to catalyze the study of such issues, believing what your parents taught you is the default condition. However, it would improve the public discourse if people who haven't seriously studied the diversity of beliefs would be a little more humble in the face of the fact that no matter what religion you believe (if any at all), two thirds of the population of the planet disagrees with you. And they feel exactly the same level of stammering emotional indignation that you do.

March 29, 2004

No News is Good News?

I haven't been inspired to write for the past few days. I won't use the excuse that I've been too busy, because I really haven't. But I haven't felt like writing at home… probably because I've been writing at work. Is it better to write very short and pithy things, or to wait until I'm motivated to make a more substantial statement?

In site news, I've been doing a little scripting and I should have an RSS feed up shortly, so you'll be able to read me in an aggregator if you like — whee!

March 26, 2004

UNSC: Gillerman on the Assassination of Yassin

I continue to be awed by the frankness and the moral clarity coming from Israel's ambassadors. At the UNSC on March 23rd, Ambassador Gillerman made an impactful statement about the assassination of Hamas founder Sheikh Amhed Yassin. I'll quote a few short pieces; you should read the whole thing.

Although the Security Council has never met to discuss the attacks for which Sheikh Yassin is responsible, the list is gruesome and shocking. To characterize him as a "spiritual leader" is to attempt to characterize Osama bin Laden as a Mother Therese. Underneath his supposed clerical garb, Sheikh Yassin is a true pioneer in the ruthless murder of innocents. Under his direct leadership, inspiration, and instruction, Hamas — an organization recognized around the world for its brutal terrorism — has perpetrated over 425 attacks that have killed 377 Israelis and wounded 2076 in less than three and a half years of violence. He has stood at the head of a command and control structure dedicated to the destruction of Israel. If Sheikh Yassin was not an arch-terrorist, there is no such thing.

By any reasonable standard of international law, Israel has a legitimate right, in fact a duty, to defend itself against those illegal combatants and their commanders who are committed to murder as many of its civilians as possible. The Palestinian leadership has proved beyond any doubt that it has no intention of taking a single measure to fight terrorism, as it is legally and morally obliged to do. This mass murderer, Sheikh Yassin, lived and operated for years not just in freedom, but under the protective authority and safe haven of the Palestinian Authority in violation of the most basic international norms. What would you have us do? Stand idly by as Yassin and the Palestinian leadership co-sign the death warrants of more innocent civilians?

It is the basic obligation of the Government of Israel — like any other government — to protect the lives of its citizens from the threat of terrorism. Unlike the terrorists we confront, we make every effort under excruciatingly difficult conditions to minimize harm to civilians. We recognize that we have responsibilities. But we will not negotiate by day and bury our dead by night. By removing Sheikh Yassin from the international stage, we send a very strong message to the terrorists: when you kill our civilians, you are not immune.

March 25, 2004

Palestinian Death-Worship

Shocking! Outrageous!

Via the Volokh Conspiracy I learned about the the Palestinian Media Watch and a documentary they're created about the "education" of Palestinian children.

Palestinian children are taught to worship death by both religious leaders and by the Palestinian Authority. Take a few minutes, follow that link, and watch a few of the videos there. They have English subtitles, and some also have English narration.

The same fanatical hatred preached by the Palestinians also fuels al Qaeda. Israel and the United States share a common enemy in this evil ideology and culture. The difference between us is that the Israelis understand their enemy, while half of America is still struggling to ignore the truth.


Israeli Ambassador Daniel Ayalon was a guest on the Dennis Miller show tonight. He said this:

If they had the opportunity, they would take us down anytime, regardless of any action we do. They are after us not because of what we do but because of who we are. These people who do not believe in coexistence, these people who believe only in death, they have to be dealt with in a most uncompromising way. I think this is the right message to the Palestinians and to the international community.

Thank you for saying what my politicians will not.

March 24, 2004

Social Security is Nonsensical

You've heard the stories: Social Security is underfunded and doomed to go bankrupt. The coming demographic shift in the United States will bring the system to its knees. There won't be enough workers per retiree to maintain current spending levels. These are all true charges — Social Security is a slow-motion catastrophe. The nature of our political system confounds all honest attempts to fix the program. It is an inherent structural aspect of democracy that the young and the unborn cannot vote to prevent the burden their parents are laying on them. But all the ink spilled over the subject has been beside the point.

The real problem with Social Security is that it's utter nonsense. How can I say that? Because the fundamental assumptions underlying the system are false.

Dr. Aubrey de Grey, biogerontologist at the University of Cambridge, believes that the first person to live to the age of 1,000 is already alive todayand is already 45 years old! Dr. de Grey argues that aging is a curable affliction and that extended lifespans would be filled with healthy, productive years — not centuries of frailty. Please visit his SENS website for more information.

Social Security's fundamental assumptions are that people will retire, and that retirement will be short and ended by death. An individual will contribute into the system for approximately 45 years, and collect benefits for about 15 years. (background on these figures)

It is obviously ridiculous for a person who lives to be 1,000 to spend less than 5% of those years contributing to Social Security, then retire and spend more than 95% of their lives collecting benefits. It could not work. It would be a society of parasites with too few victims to sustain itself. The same observation applies to any other system where benefits begin at a certain age and terminate at death: The time spent collecting benefits will balloon beyond all prior expectations. No, your 401(k) doesn't make much sense, either — forcing withdrawals when you're less than 100 is plainly silly when you'll live ten times that long!

The concept of retirement itself is nothing but a passing fad. The purpose of saving for retirement is to be able to live comfortably during the final years of your life when you're unable to work. If you no longer age and have an indefinite productive lifespan, there is no reason to retire in the traditional sense. Your life would end due to accident or disease, neither of which can be predicted. You'll need emergency savings, yes, but not funds for retirement.

Instead of retirement, it is likely that people would save for extended (multi-year or multi-decade) vacations that would include leisure and education. People would work in a field for (say) 50 years, then tire of it and take time off to relax and learn something new. They would re-enter the workforce in a different field. This is my own plan, at least — others may have different ideas, which I'd like to hear.

Families would change significantly, too. This sort of extended vacation would be the logical time to have children, because you would have time to spend with them instead of working. Imagine starting a new family every 75 years, but with the prior families still around!

This is a glimpse into the future, a future that will be upon us sooner than most expect. The political systems created for retirement, such as Social Security and IRAs, do not make sense in the new age of the end of aging.

Private retirement arrangements will need to adjust also, but they are free from the ossifying "third rail" political bickering. I do not worry about the coming adjustments in private systems. Public systems are in trouble, because dedicated special interest groups will cling to their handouts and ferociously denounce those who advocate change.

What politician understands this and is willing to assume the fight to set young people free from these ridiculous mandatory retirement programs?


If you're interested in aging research, I recommend FuturePundit as regular reading. That's where I learned of Dr. de Grey's shocking prediction.

March 22, 2004

Force and the Four Roles

When people are involved in the use of physical force, their involvement fits among these four fundamental roles:

  1. Offender
  2. Victim
  3. Witness
  4. Constable

Oliver robs Valarie, is seen by William, and apprehended by Carl. The latter two roles are optional: Without Carl, Oliver would get away with his crime. Without William's information, Carl's job is harder.

A single person may play several roles. William might decide to intervene to stop the robbery instead of being merely an observer, assuming the constable role. If Valarie is armed or otherwise powerful, she might assume the constable role and thwart Oliver's robbery by herself. And the victim is always a witness in the sense of possessing some relevant information, unless the victim is killed.

In the case of clear-cut self-defense, both Oliver and Valarie use force. Oliver is the initiator and Valarie is the responder. It is not the use of force per se that is morally objectionable — what matters is whether one is initiating the use of force or responding to it.

Oliver may prevail against Valarie. It is not always possible for a victim to ward off the offender, though it happens often. Let us change the example and assume Oliver's plan is to kidnap Valarie and collect a ransom. He abducts her at gunpoint and physically confines her while arranging for payment.

We do not "blame the victim", saying it was Valarie's responsibility to be prepared at all times to fend off any attacker, no matter how powerful. And we also do not fault her for being unable to escape confinement by herself. If she is able to do it, we praise her, but we recognize that there are situations where it is impossible to win. In a larger and historical context, we do not blame Tiananmen Square on the students, or the Holocaust on the Jews, or the Soviet gulags on the imprisoned laborers. There are situations where the victim is unable to protect themselves and can do little but hope an outsider will help them.

If an outsider decides to intervene — if a Witness assumes the role of a Constable — their use of force against the Offender has the same moral status as the Victim's. They are responding against the offender's initiation of force. They are, in effect, exercising the victim's right of self-defense by proxy. Force may be used against those who initiate force, but it doesn't have to be wielded by the direct victims of the original force. It is not merely common for the Victim and Constable roles to be filled by different people, it is actually desirable, because this encourages fair, uniform, and objective controls instead of vigilantism. Police officers wield force on the behalf of victims as a profession. Citizen's arrests are rare.

I will not here take a position on when a Witness ought to become a Constable. The purpose of this article is to show that it is morally permissible, not either forbidden or mandatory. The invasion of Iraq by the United States a year ago is this sort of case. Just as a criminal has no right to violate the rights of his victim, a dictator has no right to violate the rights of his citizens. Hussein's long record of grotesque acts left no doubt: Iraq was an outlaw state with no moral claim to sovereignty.


(None of the foregoing is meant to imply any form of strong equivalence between law enforcement and war. The contexts are different in important ways, and procedures that are appropriate in one may be inappropriate in the other. The moral foundations of the use of force, however, are the same.)

March 19, 2004

Lampooning Bernanke

Earlier this month I threatened to lampoon Federal Reserve Governor Ben Bernanke's speech about the gold standard and the Great Depression.

I've decided not to lampoon it — not because it doesn't deserve it, but because someone else has already done the job. And quite well, too, despite an uncomfortable lack of pirate humor.

Spake thusly the Mogambo Guru (he gets to the Bernanke speech about halfway through the rant):

Now we start getting into the really weird stuff. He admits "The gold standard appeared to be highly successful from about 1870 to the beginning of World War I in 1914. During the so-called 'classical' gold standard period, international trade and capital flows expanded markedly, and central banks experienced relatively few problems ensuring that their currencies retained their legal value." So it worked well! So something happened, he says, between 1914 and the Depression.

He does not admit, however, that the newly formed Federal Reserve system, in operation for fifteen short years, had anything to do with subsequent calamitous economic events. The simultaneous appearance of these two things were, I suppose, merely a, you know, huge coincidence or something.

It's very long, but very amusing, at least by the standards of economic humor. Which are a dismal as everything else in the science. Which is why I love it.

Now if you'll excuse me, I need to "Arrr&hellip" softly as I run my fingers through a pile of gold coins for a wee bit, and then I need to hunt for more leprechauns. The trick is to realize that pirate swords make fine dowsing rods — and that the little guys are right curious to see a demonstration. Arrr, it's too easy!

March 16, 2004

Al Qaeda Topples Spanish Government

According to this CNN article, which discusses the al Qaeda connection in the Madrid train bombings, the attack was deliberately intended to topple the Spanish government:

A December posting on a Internet message board used by al Qaeda and its sympathizers and obtained by CNN, spells out a plan to topple the pro-U.S. government.

"We think the Spanish government will not stand more than two blows, or three at the most, before it will be forced to withdraw because of the public pressure on it," the al Qaeda document says.

"If its forces remain after these blows, the victory of the Socialist Party will be almost guaranteed — and the withdrawal of Spanish forces will be on its campaign manifesto."

That prediction came to fruition in elections Sunday, with the Socialists unseating the Popular Party three days after near-simultaneous bombings of four trains killed 200 and shocked the nation.

Al Qaeda's success in this instance strongly suggests that they will use terrorist attacks to influence elections in the future. I fear for Great Britain and Poland. But would al Qaeda attempt to influence the U.S. election this fall by attacking here?

When the United States was attacked on Sept. 11th, we got pissed off and invaded a country halfway around the world, and then undertook a restructuring of the entire region. When Spain was attacked on March 11th, they… well they voted for socialists.

Clearly there are differences in response for al Qaeda to consider.

I believe — perhaps I only hope — that another terrorist attack in the United States would reignite our Jacksonian fire and achieve the opposite of the terrorists' intent. I want them filled with Yamamoto's fear, and a re-election of President Bush will do that.


UPDATE 2004-03-17 04:02:45 UTC: The election results were 42% Socialist and 38% Popular Party. Polls in late February predicted the Popular Party to end up with about 171 seats and the Socialists with about 142. I haven't found news articles that are directly comparable (both percentages or both numbers of seats) but the basic premise that the terrorist attacks swung the election is sound.

UPDATE 2004-03-18 06:10:17 UTC: A poll taken three days before the attack showed a 4.5% lead for the Popular Party over the Socialist. So, the electorate swung by 8.5%.

March 14, 2004

Return of the Draft?

Dave sends a frightening news story:

The government is taking the first steps toward a targeted military draft of Americans with special skills in computers and foreign languages.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld is adamant that he will not ask Congress to authorize a draft, and officials at the Selective Service System, the independent federal agency that would organize any conscription, stress that the possibility of a so-called "special skills draft" is remote.

The story goes out of its way to assuage the public that there won't be a draft, but at the end admits:

On Capitol Hill, Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., has introduced a bill that would reinstate the draft. The legislation has minimal support with only 13 House lawmakers signing on as co-sponsors. A corresponding bill in the Senate introduced by Sen. Fritz Hollings, the outgoing South Carolina Democrat, has no co-sponsors.

Arthur is characteristically worried (follow his links), but I'm not. I don't want to be misunderstood about this — the draft is a thoroughly evil program — but there is a very simple reason why this kind of draft is utterly impractical. It's such an obvious problem that I doubt even the U.S. Congress could fail to realize it.

Atlas will shrug.

Intellectual work cannot be compelled. The unwilling will not do it. The government's ranks of draftee computer programmers would be unproductive and error-prone and could (and would) easily sabotage whatever they were working on without detection. Bugs are subtle and difficult to find even when nobody's trying to conceal them. But the real threat would be in the architecture of the system. A deliberately poor design decision would be virtually undetectable — it may not prevent the system from ever working, but it could hugely delay it. Delay is the deadliest form of denial of service.

Intellectual work can only be done on a voluntary basis. Mutual trust and shared goals are absolutely essential. A draft would undermine both.


This issue reminds me of a scene in Atlas Shrugged where a sort of one-man intellectual draft actually happens. Government thugs have captured John Galt and order him to fix the economy they have ruined:

"I can't forget a fact of reality, Mr. Thompson. That would be impractical."

"All right, then: I hold a gun. What are you going to do about it?"

"I'll act accordingly. I'll obey you."

"What?"

"I'll do whatever you tell me to."

"Do you mean it?"

"I mean it. Literally." He saw the eagerness of Mr. Thompson's face ebb slowly under a look of bewilderment. "I will perform any motion you order me to perform. If you order me to move into the office of an Economic Dictator, I'll move into it. If you order me to sit at a desk, I will sit at it. If you order me to issue a directive, I will issue the directive you order me to issue."

"Oh, but I don't know what directives to issue!"

"I don't, either."

There was a long pause.

"Well?" said Galt. "What are your orders?"

"I want you to save the economy of the country!"

"I don't know how to save it."

"I want you to find a way!"

"I don't know how to find it."

"I want you to think!"

"How will your gun make me do that, Mr. Thompson?"

Mr. Thompson looked at him silently — and Galt saw, in the tightened lips, in the jutting chin, in the narrowed eyes, the look of an adolescent bully about to utter that philosophical argument which is expressed by the sentence: I'll bash your teeth in. Galt smiled, looking straight at him, as if hearing the unspoken sentence and underscoring it. Mr. Thompson looked away.

"No," said Galt, "You don't want me to think. When you force a man to act against his own choice and judgment, it's his thinking that you want him to suspend. You want him to become a robot. I shall comply."

March 12, 2004

Al Qaeda Attacks Spain

Terrorist attacks killed over 190 people in Spain on March 11th, the two-and-a-half year anniversary of the Sept. 11th attacks. Initial reports blamed it on the ETA separatist movement, but it wasn't their style and there has been a somewhat credible claim of responsibility by Al Qaeda. It is in their style — multiple simultaneous attacks, the symbolic significance (of the date in this case), and the size of the death toll.

Al Qaeda does not just hate the United States and Israel. By their own declaration, this is an ideological war. The kind of culture they want to create — remember Afghanistan? — is incompatible with Western civilization. We are all heathens and must convert or die. They are unwilling to coexist. Peaceful coexistence is a Western value that they do not share; it is repugnant to them.

The whole of Western civilization is their enemy, and they will attack wherever they are able. New York City, Bali, and Madrid are all targets. They call the United States the Great Satan, but do not confuse being the most prominent target with being the only target.

This war has never been about "what we did to them" to "deserve" their hatred. It has always been about their failed, death-worshiping ideology. If you're still searching for a reason they would attack Spain, check your premises.


UPDATE 2004-03-13 05:02:09 UTC: Maybe Al Qaeda hasn't claimed responsibility after all — textual analysis of the claim suggests that it's not authentic. (Via EconoPundit.)

P.S., the attack occured 912 days after 9/11, not 911 days. Yes it's close enough to be sorta spooky, but let's not all turn into numerologists, okay?

March 10, 2004

Unfortunate Terms

Oh no. Oh no, no no nono no. Hold on a second there, Professor, I can see where this is going:

I should also note that I prefer the term "mullarchy" for the Iranian political scene, since it's shorter, and has the advantage of rhyming, more or less, with "malarkey."

Anyone notice the similarity between "malarkey" and my last name, "Markley"? I know what you're thinking — sure, they're similar, but no one would screw that up and refer to me as Kyle Malarkey before an audience of 350 people. Especially not my 4th level manager who was actively concentrating on getting everyone's name right.

Nope. Couldn't. Ever. Happen.

People Choose Offshoring

If you were given the choice of having a service job done in the United States, or having it done offshore, what would you choose?

It's not a hypothetical question. The online lender E-Loan has done exactly that — given its home equity loan customers the choice of having their application processed domestically or allowing it to be done in India. An overwhelming 86% of their customers choose offshoring if it means faster processing:

The pilot program, which launched in early February, currently has the capacity to process 25 percent of E-LOAN's home equity applications. Testing shows that 86 percent of the customers designated for the program are choosing to take advantage of the faster processing time associated with it — the ability to close their home equity loan in ten days versus twelve days. [source]

This is a powerful illustration of the antidiscriminatory nature of capitalism. A speed improvement of less than 10% overrides the xenophobic tendencies of almost everyone.

This is also, unfortunately, a reminder of the huge gulf between preferences revealed in voting versus preferences revealed in buying. Offshoring as a political principle does not enjoy anywhere near 86% support, clear from the simple fact that Lou Dobbs is still on television. Oh, and several states have passed measures to prohibit government work from being offshored. In the same way that most people think taxes are too high but wouldn't cut any of the largest government programs, people think offshoring is bad except when they notice it will save them time or money. Then they pile on.

March 09, 2004

Libertarian Purity Test

Shocking! Outrageous!

I only get a 90 (out of 160) on the Libertarian Purity Test. You lose a lot of points if you're not an anarchist.

"What's shocking and outrageous about that?", you wonder. Within the test are images of Milton Friedman, Ayn Rand, and Murray Rothbard — all well-known libertarian thinkers. But can you imagine how much they would fight with each other if you put them in the same room together? The blood spray would be phenomenal! (Okay, no it wouldn't, non-initiation-of-force principle and all that… but it sounds cool.)

Libertarianism is a pretty big tent, and not everybody gets along.

Iraq Interim Constitution Signed

The Iraq Interim Constitution was signed Monday.

It's good. It's not fantastic, but it is good — in fact it's better than I had hoped for. Emphasis added:

The people of Iraq, striving to reclaim their freedom, which was usurped by the previous tyrannical regime, rejecting violence and coercion in all their forms, and particularly when used as instruments of governance, have determined that they shall hereafter remain a free people governed under the rule of law.

Islam is the official religion of the State and is to be considered a source of legislation. No law that contradicts the universally agreed tenets of Islam, the principles of democracy, or the rights cited in Chapter Two of this Law may be enacted during the transitional period. This Law respects the Islamic identity of the majority of the Iraqi people and guarantees the full religious rights of all individuals to freedom of religious belief and practice.

All Iraqis are equal in their rights without regard to gender, sect, opinion, belief, nationality, religion, or origin, and they are equal before the law. Discrimination against an Iraqi citizen on the basis of his gender, nationality, religion, or origin is prohibited. Everyone has the right to life, liberty, and the security of his person. No one may be deprived of his life or liberty, except in accordance with legal procedures. All are equal before the courts.

Each Iraqi has the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religious belief and practice. Coercion in such matters shall be prohibited.

The most wrenching paragraph is Article 15(J), made necessary by a wound which will take a long time to heal:

Torture in all its forms, physical or mental, shall be prohibited under all circumstances, as shall be cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment. No confession made under compulsion, torture, or threat thereof shall be relied upon or admitted into evidence for any reason in any proceeding, whether criminal or otherwise.

Watch the Iraqi blogs over the next week or so, for their commentary about the interim constitution — it's much more important than anything I could say about it. Zeyad maintains a list of Iraqi blogs on his blogroll. (Warning: Hammorabi has some extremely graphic photographs from last week's terrorist attack in Karbala. Don't scroll down too far unless you're prepared for it.)


UPDATE 2004-03-11 07:02:25 UTC: Steven Den Beste has posted his thoughts and they are, as usual, a must-read.

March 08, 2004

Echostar vs. Viacom

I'm a Dish Network subscriber and as I was watching television Sunday evening I saw an unusual notice start scrolling across the bottom of the screen… and then it was replaced by a horizontal black bar for several seconds, until (apparently) the message finished and the bar was removed. I saw this occur on both Spike TV and on Comedy Central, so I knew something significant was happening.

Intrigued, I went to the internet and quickly learned what it's all about:

WASHINGTON (Dow Jones)--Echostar Communications Corp. (DISH) will drop the top-rated CBS network from its satellite television lineup rather than accede to demands of the network's owner, Viacom Inc. (VIA, VIAB), says Charles Ergen, Echostar chairman and chief executive.

"This is extortion at the highest level," Ergen told reporters Thursday following a speech sponsored by the free-market think-tank, the Progress and Freedom Foundation. "Viacom has crossed the line."

The fight has gotten so nasty that Viacom channels are inserting the scrolling message directly into their video feed, and Echostar is responding by blocking the message! Cap'n Arbyte gives his hearty approval to these tactics — they give an otherwise dry legal/financial story a swashbuckling flavor.

It doesn't look like this has hit many blogs yet (though there is this) but you can be sure it will be Big News if Echostar does pull the Viacom channels on Monday night. I can't tell from the news story if the Viacom channels would be gone nationwide or only in the 15 markets where there isn't an independent CBS affiliate.

I haven't taken a side in this fight yet. I'd like to be on Echostar's side because in (apparently, somehow) related action they're trying to get a regulatory burden in the Satellite Home Viewer Improvement Act lowered, over Viacom's objections. On the other hand the only reason they're still carrying Viacom channels today is because they filed an antitrust suit against Viacom. I like the gutsy declaration by the Echostar CEO that he'd rather drop the channels than give in, but at the moment it doesn't look like either side is clean enough to deserve support.

But I'll be watching. Unless the channels go blank.


UPDATE 2004-03-10 06:15:24 UTC: Echostar is no longer broadcasting the Viacom channels. News here. Importantly, and properly, Dish Network will credit customers' bills $1/mo. during the channel outage. In a particularly cool move, they're advertising alternatives to the lost Viacom channels. :)

March 07, 2004

Computers are Too Complicated

In 2001 I built two nearly identical computers. Over the last year they've both failed in exactly the same way — dim video accompanied by lots of full-screen-width horizontal blurring. The image was legible but no fun to work with. One advantage of having two nearly identical machines is that it makes problem isolation pretty straightforward, and I quickly discovered that the video card was the component at fault.

I don't have any background in analog electronics (I studied computer science) but reliable sources inform me that this might be something easy like a grounding problem. Or it might be something worse. In either case, I didn't care to fix the video cards because (1) they weren't reliable in the first place so they'd likely fail again and (2) new ones are cheap anyway.

When the first video card went bad I just switched most of my work to the other computer — no problem. When the other machine's video card went bad I could still get all my work done remotely on my laptop, through VNC, although it's a bit slower than being on the console.

Laptops are fabulous (I can blog from the comfort of my bed!) but my computer room is ergonomically configured for working on a desktop. The keyboard tray is too small to hold my laptop, and that's the only surface at a comfortable height for typing. I decided to buy some new video cards.

Originally, both of the "broken" machines were running Red Hat Linux 7. When I brought the first machine back to life, I wiped the hard disk and installed OpenBSD 3.4. The installation was very easy and everything Just Worked™. Today I decided it was time to fix the second computer, my main workstation, where I do all my e-mail and blogging. It's still running Linux.

Not so easy.

I bought relatively old video cards (ATI Radeon 7000) on the specific hope that they would be old enough that the operating system would support them. My version of OpenBSD is recent, and it does support the card… but my version of Red Hat Linux is old, and it doesn't. I need to upgrade XFree86 to support the card, but I've been stymied.

I downloaded the latest XFree86 packages but now I'm in "DLL hell":

glibc-devel < 2.2.3 conflicts with glibc-2.3.2-27.9.7
rpmlib(PartialHardlinkSets) ≤ 4.0.4-1 is needed by glibc-common-2.3.2-27.9.7
Glide3 ≥ 20010520 is needed by XFree86-4.3.0-2.90.55
kernel-drm = 4.3.0 is needed by XFree86-4.3.0-2.90.55
libexpat.so.0   is needed by XFree86-4.3.0-2.90.55
libfontconfig.so.1   is needed by XFree86-4.3.0-2.90.55
libfreetype.so.6   is needed by XFree86-4.3.0-2.90.55
libpng12.so.0   is needed by XFree86-4.3.0-2.90.55
fontconfig-devel ≥ 2.1 is needed by XFree86-devel-4.3.0-2.90.55
pkgconfig is needed by XFree86-devel-4.3.0-2.90.55
libfreetype.so.6   is needed by XFree86-font-utils-4.3.0-2.90.55
freetype ≥ 2.1.3-4 is needed by XFree86-libs-4.3.0-2.90.55
libexpat.so.0   is needed by XFree86-libs-4.3.0-2.90.55
libfontconfig.so.1   is needed by XFree86-libs-4.3.0-2.90.55
libfreetype.so.6   is needed by XFree86-libs-4.3.0-2.90.55
libexpat.so.0   is needed by XFree86-tools-4.3.0-2.90.55
libfontconfig.so.1   is needed by XFree86-tools-4.3.0-2.90.55
libfreetype.so.6   is needed by XFree86-tools-4.3.0-2.90.55
xinitrc ≥ 3.13 is needed by XFree86-xdm-4.3.0-2.90.55
libfreetype.so.6   is needed by XFree86-Xnest-4.3.0-2.90.55
libfreetype.so.6   is needed by XFree86-Xvfb-4.3.0-2.90.55

It's not obvious to me where I'm supposed to get those packages, and I haven't found any kind of friendly script that'll just Do The Right Thing™ automatically. So tonight I'm still blogging through VNC — but from my other desktop at my ergonomically-friendly desk, not from my laptop.

Can anyone tell me how to upgrade XF86 so it'll recognize my new video card without upgrading the entire operating system? I want this to be as little work and as little disruption as possible.

Men Are All Alike

The males have a bright orange circle on each cheek and polka dots beneath their feathers. The females are gray and dull, but that's because — as with humans — they don't need to do any persuading to get their male partners to screw them. You know men. All it takes is a couple beers and a midriff top. [source]

Indeed.

But seriously, I'm linking this because it quotes my sister and links to one of her websites:

Was I using the right food? Was the size of the birdbath appropriate? I sent a fretful email to Myra, the owner and operator of the FinchNiche.com, and my communique was apparently so singular in its detail, Myra answered, "Your finches are very lucky to have someone as dedicated to their care as you are. :)" She might as well have written, "Dude, you're freaking out. Chill."

Yes, she's as weird as I am (we blame our parents) but no, she doesn't have a blog. Awww… Arrr…

March 05, 2004

Gay Marriage

Multnomah County, just a few miles away from me, is issuing marriage licenses for same-sex couples. Everyone has an opinion and the resulting friction is generating more heat than light.

What is marriage? Biologically it originates from the fact that humans, like many other sexually reproductive species, form pair bonds. It's a fundamental aspect of humanity. The desire to pair bond is innate and present even in people who are infertile or homosexual. (I regard homosexuality as natural, because research has clearly established its existence in many nonhuman animals.)

Of course, it isn't just about biology. Most religious traditions state that marriage is between a man and a woman, which is why homosexual marriage is controversial. Religious controversies over marriage go beyond homosexuality — consider polygamy in the Mormon faith. Consider also differing religious attitudes toward divorce. Or, at risk of sliding off-topic, interracial or interfaith marriage.

What should a government committed to protecting ideological (including religious) freedom do?

I think it should get out of the marriage business entirely. "Privatize" marriage. The current legal benefits of marriage, such as inheritance and medical decision making, should be made available to people on a general and flexible basis without regard to ideology. The government may administer such "civil unions" but marriage would be a totally private matter. Each religion would imbue marriage with its own significance and ritual, and would not have to recognize marriages of other religions. The title of marriage would have no legal importance — people who marry would need to also form a "civil union" to obtain the legal benefits.

You see, I don't think marriage is something that all people are going to agree on. They don't all hold the same beliefs — and they're not going to. Unanimity isn't an option, and unlike most people, I don't think that's a problem.

It is wrong for people, even for a majority of people, to forcibly impose their beliefs upon others. People may believe that homosexual marriage is wrong — and I would be first in line to defend their freedom to hold and advocate that belief — but the cold truth is that homosexual marriage neither picks their pocket nor breaks their leg. Their own family remains intact despite the "scandalous" behavior of their neighbors. Government should not be used as a tool to impose one ideology. On the contrary, it should be organized to maximize its simultaneous compatibility with different ideologies. Disagreement is both good and healthy.


President Bush made a statement that he would support a Constitutional amendment prohibiting same-sex marriage. I obviously oppose such an amendment but think it's important to note a procedural issue. Bush's method is correct. The amendment process is intentionally difficult and invites vigorous public debate, which I strongly prefer to having national issues decided by state judges who aren't even indirectly my representatives. Judicial activism frightens me.

Because my preferred solution to the gay marriage issue isn't even remotely politically possible, it's worth endorsing an alternative — federalism. I haven't thought through the full implications of this, but what about letting each state decide individually whether or not it will recognize same-sex marriages? This would need a Constitutional amendment to implement, but the amendment would simply exclude marriage from the Full Faith and Credit clause. This would allow the more "liberal" states to legalize gay marriage while allowing the more "conservative" states to continue prohibiting it.

This isn't a fully satisfying compromise (no compromise is fully satisfying) but it might win political support from both sides of the debate and therefore be politically achievable. It has the additional advantage of enabling a sort of "political competition" among the states which I believe in the long run will have the effect of increasing freedom.


UPDATE 2004-03-07 06:26:50 UTC: What about immigration? Could foreigners gain citizenship by forming a "civil union" with a citizen?

I don't have a good solution for immigration policy. If I Were King™, the borders would be almost completely open. I would welcome all immigrants who understand and ideologically support the principles of government laid out in the Declaration of Independence and in the Constitution. Forming a civil union with a citizen simply would not be a relevant factor.

I do not support open borders today, however, because of the enormous size of the welfare state. It creates an incentive for people to come to America not because they share the American Dream, but simply to get "free" stuff at my expense. Even though most immigrants (particularly illegal immigrants) are hard workers and a net gain instead of a net drain, I don't want to change immigration policy in a way that will strengthen a perverse incentive already present in our system.

March 04, 2004

Sorry for the Light Posting...

I haven't been writing very frequently, lately. I've been unusually busy for the past week or so, but don't worry — lots of things are sitting atop my "to blog" pile.

Like what?

On the economics front, there are two things I plan to comment on. The first is a very good article about price discrimination which long-time readers will know I'm a vocal fan of. The linked article discusses the matter in language that actually sounds like economics — i.e. not enough pirate humor — but I'll fix that deficiency when I comment on it. (No griping about my poor use of prepositions here, I won't put up with it. I'll run ya through, arrr…)

The other is a speech given recently by Federal Reserve Governor Ben "printing press" Bernanke about the gold standard and the Great Depression. It's a pretty standard account of that period, meaning it makes gold the scapegoat for the government's errors. I haven't decided yet if I should answer it in a serious tone or whether it calls for lampooning. Does anyone else get the creepy feeling that Bernanke is being groomed as Greenspan's successor?

I've also been involved in a great e-mail discussion of rights that I plan to turn into a few blog articles at some point. The economics stuff will likely come first, though.

In non-blog-related activities, I've set up an OpenBSD computer that I might someday make into a web server so I can host my blog myself. In the meantime I'm just playing with it, which has been consuming plenty of time recently.

March 01, 2004

Pay With Cash

Shocking! Outrageous!

Via this week's Carnival of the Capitalists comes a tale of businesses wanting too much information.

Aubrey wanted to buy an earring with a credit card. The checkout clerk asked for a fingerprint. The earring was less than $100.

Call me old-fashioned, but I heavily favor cash over credit cards. I only use credit cards for purchases that are (1) online or (2) very large. I do get funny glances sometimes when I pull $50 bills out of my wallet — in fact, it happened just this afternoon — but at least nobody's asked me for a fingerprint!

(No, I don't use ATMs either, which tend to dispense only $20s — I physically go to the bank, chat with the cashier, and leave with a month's wad of cash.)

Jury Duty - Take 2

(A continuation of previous articles)

Friday morning I was back at the courthouse for my rescheduled jury duty. I arrived at the same time as on Wednesday (perhaps a couple minutes earlier) but the difference in the crowd was substantial. There were only about 30 people already in line, compared to roughly 70 on Wednesday. Further evidence that Wednesday was unusual was the fact that by the time I reached the courthouse doors, there were fewer than 10 people behind me in line, compared to about 30 on Wednesday. I now believe that the jury coordinator was telling the truth when she claimed on Wednesday that they hadn't ever had such trouble getting jurors through security before.

During the jury orientation I learned that the court tries to schedule shorter cases on Fridays, the kind that will usually finish in a single day. The jury orientation and trial occur on the same day. This makes Friday the least intrusive day to serve on a jury, if you get the choice.

It wasn't until 9:30 that jurors were collected to go to the courtroom. There was an approximately 20 minute break between the end of the informational video and the collection of jurors — some indication that delaying the start of jury orientation on Wednesday wouldn't have caused much schedule impact. Sigh.

Happily, I was chosen to be in the jury pool for a trial and taken along with a large group to a courtroom. Well, actually, they stuck us in the jury room to wait for a while, and it wasn't until 10 that we were given seating assignments, and finally at 10:15 we entered the courtroom proper. I was mindful to check the time frequently, and every step in the process appeared to be on a schedule.

I was seated in the jury box immediately, so I would be on the trial unless dismissed.

It was a criminal trial, the charge was two counts of 1st degree theft involving laptops (allegedly) stolen from a business by an employee in 2002. I understand that the court system is slow, deliberately in some cases, but why does it take over a year to bring a seemingly simple case to trial?

I took a notebook with me into the courtroom, the only person who did so. I didn't ask anyone's permission, but nobody complained. (And I tried not to draw attention to it…) I wanted to record the questions asked by the attorneys.

The defense attorney started by asking which of us had served on a jury before, how long ago, whether it was a civil or criminal case, etc. Most of the early questions weren't very interesting to me. I didn't realize that nearly all the questions would be addressed to the entire group in general, with people raising hands to volunteer answers. I assumed the questioning would be more directed, so the attorneys could be sure to get responses from everybody. It seemed like it would be very easy to never respond to any questions. I was trying to maximize the experience, so I spoke up frequently.

When the defense attorney was asking jurors about three different evidentiary standards (preponderance of evidence, clear and convincing evidence, beyond a reasonable doubt) I interrupted and asked her to define "clear and convincing evidence." She answered that question by saying she was "not qualified to answer" (!) which I took as a coded form of "the judge would be upset with me if I answered that question." That didn't bother me too much because the standard for this trial would be "beyond a reasonable doubt" anyway. She later asked if the high standard of "beyond a reasonable doubt" was reasonable for this kind of case, and I answered that it's proper to have a high standard when a person's liberty or property are at stake. I wasn't the first juror to answer that question but I'm the only one who answered it while sounding sure of himself.

The prosecuting attorney's first interesting question was to ask us to explain the difference between circumstantial and direct evidence. Nobody seemed brave enough to answer that one (even the people who had served on juries before!) so after a few awkward moments of silence I chimed in. I forget my exact words — I couldn't well write and speak at the same time, sorry :) — but I said something along the lines of circumstantial evidence possibly being coincidental but direct evidence showing a causal connection. The attorney didn't know quite what to make of it and said it sounded "scientific" and then tried to erase the confusion I must have created by giving some examples from a legal context.

Incidentally, it bothers me when people try to define things only by giving examples — as if they expect me to make the correct generalization from a very small sample. I don't think the complex realm of legal evidence is amenable to ostensive definitions. I strongly prefer to have first a verbal definition and second a few examples. But I do want that verbal definition!

Only four jurors were dismissed "with cause" during the questioning process. One claimed to be hard of hearing, and the court didn't have any hearing devices handy. The other said that he would be biased because he had often been the victim of theft many times and that thieves really bothered him, and that he put the last guy who stole from him in the hospital. My impression was that both of them were just saying things they thought would get them dismissed. The other two were dismissed because they weren't going to be available on Tuesday. (This case was unusual for a Friday because the court thought it probable that it would be a little longer than one day and they'd have to finish next Tuesday. They don't do jury trials on Mondays.)

The attorneys then submitted their requests to excuse jurors. The process was slow. Each attorney wrote down a name and the court clerk showed it to the other attorney, then took the papers to the judge who (randomly?) picked one of those names to be dismissed.

I was excused, but not quickly. I think I was roughly the 10th juror to go. But unlike most of them, I know exactly who excused me and why. The prosecutor's last question, which he asked almost as if it were an afterthought, was whether any of the jurors had any kind of "anti-state feelings". Anti-state feelings? Moi? And how! At first I didn't know what he meant by that, but he started giving examples. His first few examples were about law enforcement so I thought I'd be able to keep quiet. (Remember, I actually wanted to be a juror.) But he kept talking, and included the generalities of government being "too large" or "too intrusive" — at which point I expected at least half the room to raise their hands. But only two of us did. One person almost immediately, and then me, reluctantly, after he made the "too intrusive" comment. I'm sorry, but I was under oath. :)

He briefly thanked us for our honesty before sitting down and kicking people like me off the jury. He must have thought that my "anti-state feelings" would prejudice me against the government. His loss! I think he was trying to find anarchists or people who dislike the government in general, but I wouldn't have been conflicted at all by being a juror on a theft case.

Tiny Island