Sunday, April 28, 2013

The Ladder of Saint Augustine

By Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Saint Augustine! well hast thou said,
That of our vices we can frame
A ladder, if we will but tread
Beneath our feet each deed of shame!

All common things, each day's events,
That with the hour begin and end,
Our pleasures and our discontents,
Are rounds by which we may ascend.

The low desire, the base design,
That makes another's virtues less;
The revel of the ruddy wine,
And all occasions of excess;

The longing for ignoble things;
The strife for triumph more than truth;
The hardening of the heart, that brings
Irreverence for the dreams of youth;

All thoughts of ill; all evil deeds,
That have their root in thoughts of ill;
Whatever hinders or impedes
The action of the nobler will;--

All these must first be trampled down
Beneath our feet, if we would gain
In the bright fields of fair renown
The right of eminent domain.

We have not wings, we cannot soar;
But we have feet to scale and climb
By slow degrees, by more and more,
The cloudy summits of our time.

The mighty pyramids of stone
That wedge-like cleave the desert airs,
When nearer seen, and better known,
Are but gigantic flights of stairs.

The distant mountains, that uprear
Their solid bastions to the skies,
Are crossed by pathways, that appear
As we to higher levels rise.

The heights by great men reached and kept
Were not attained by sudden flight,
But they, while their companions slept,
Were toiling upward in the night.

Standing on what too long we bore
With shoulders bent and downcast eyes,
We may discern--unseen before--
A path to higher destinies.

Nor deem the irrevocable Past,
As wholly wasted, wholly vain,
If, rising on its wrecks, at last
To something nobler we attain.

Friday, April 26, 2013

What could possibly be worse than having Kim Jong-un as your next-door neighbour?

Conceivably, not having him.

Think about it. At the moment, North Korea is constantly making belligerent threats and acting like it's going to go crazy and attack South Korea, Japan and/or the US at any minute.

The smart money says this is just bluster. Their main business is shaking down rich countries for money by threatening them with "annihilation". Of course, Brecher pointed out how absurd this prospect is:
It’s grotesque that the US is afraid of North Korea’s handful of tiny nuclear weapons. To see how weird that is, go back to the Nukemap site and see the effect of North Korea’s tested nuclear weapons on Beijing (so you can compare this radius with the huge American and Soviet weapons). Set the app for North Korea’s 10kt nuke, tested this year. You’ll see that the kill radius is limited to the core of downtown Beijing. Then, when you have some sense of how small the death-circle for the NK bombs really is, try them on an American city.
I used L.A., because it’s the nearest big city, and was amazed what a tiny hole the North Korean bomb would make in the giant ant’s nest of greater Los Angeles. It basically carves out a rough square where I-5, 10, 1o1, and 110 slice through downtown.
The same is not necessarily true for South Korea. The North Korean artillery, not to mention its numerous hidden tunnels, could likely impose serious damage on Seoul should the North be feeling so inclined. 

America's response has been, effectively:
Though we know we should defeat you, we have not the time to meet you.
We will therefore pay you cash to go away.
In other words, they don't really believe it's in North Korea's actual interests to start a war. They just need to bluster to keep the coin coming in. South Korea puts up with the ritual humiliations, because it's easier than calling their bluff and risking a war that nobody wants.

So from this perspective, what's going on is just another round of the charade. It's annoying and embarrassing to the South, and every now and again they lose some soldiers or sailors to a random attack, but it's probably not going to get to the level of real threats.

On the other hand, what exactly would happen if the west got its way, and Kim Jong-un announced that he was going to implement a peaceful transition to democracy and unification with the South?

Well, the good news is that it would take a lot of the military tension from that part of the world, which would be a huge relief to South Korea. But then what?

Then, they'd have to attempt the gargantuan task of trying to integrate 24 million starving peasants into their society.

For comparison, think about the effort it took to integrate East Germany into West Germany. And East Germany was perhaps the most industrially developed of the Soviet bloc countries. Still, East Germany has been a veritable sinkhole of money and effort for the West. Even now it's still not as developed.

According to the most recent CIA numbers (the only ones that list an estimate for North Korea), the North Korean GDP per capita is around $1800 in PPP terms, with a population of 24.4 million. South Korea, by contrast, has a GDP per capita of $31,200 in the same dataset, and a population of around 49.7 million.

So in the short run, if the South wanted to make each North Korean as luxuriously rich as the average Cuban ($9900 per year), it would cost the average South Korean $3977 per year.

Given that the current South Korean government spending is 30% of GDP, or $9360, this would mean that South Korean government spending would have to go up by over 42%. Per year. Possibly forever.

By contrast, South Korea's defense budget is only 2.7% of GDP, or $824 per person. Even if you could eliminate your army altogether as a result of reunification, it wouldn't even come close to paying for itself.

If the South were to fully equalise the wealth per person, the GDP per capita ($21,519) of the combined country would be between that of Aruba and that of Estonia.

To make matters worse, North Korean civilians have been brainwashed from a very young age to think that South Korea and America are the devil. I'm guessing this is going to cause some teething problems. Living under such a psychotic state must be incredibly scarring. I wonder whether you don't just 'end up like a dog that's been beat too much', as Mr Springsteen eloquently put it. If you think that this isn't going to create all kinds of untold social problems, then you're much more optimistic about human nature than I am.

As a starting point, given these people would have the right to vote, it would be a scary and wacky experiment to see what happens when you add an extra 50% to the electorate made up of people who have been starving to death for the past few decades and may or may not believe that the United States is the reason for this.

It can't be fun living next door to a country with a leadership as psychopathic as the Kims. But it's not clear that the likely changes will be much better in the near future either.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Wild Guesses About the Boston Bombings

I was going to write a post discussing my hunches about who it was that pulled off the Boston bombing. I was, but then Gary Brecher beat me to it, with a much better piece. NSFW Corp is now behind a paywall (which you should subscribe to, if only for the War Nerd), but if you click this link in the next 48 hours, you'll get to see the column. If you just skip over there and only read his column, I wouldn't blame you.

Update: Link fixed

He focuses on a few points, one or two of which I'd thought of myself.

Brecher discusses the two more likely possible culprits, namely that it was some Arab/Subcontinent/Muslim terrorist group, or that it was some domestic Timothy McVeigh type.

He comes down on the side of the former, as do I. If there's one guy who's early stage prediction I'd want to have on my side on this one, it's the War Nerd. He's got a pretty good track record on these predictions. We'll see what turns out.

Firstly, I'd also thought that the two bomb setup, with one after the other, suggests these guys knew what they were doing. It seemed like the classic case of attracting people in with the first blast, to help with survivors, then targeting them with the second blast.

This suggests the work of a pro, which doesn't tell you much, but also implies something else that Brecher doesn't discuss - that the terrorists likely viewed the first responders to blast #1 as not only legitimate but also desirable targets for death.

That takes a certain cold-heartedness. Right-winger types may have enormous and/or irrational hatred of certain groups, like government employees. But they don't traditionally hate volunteer rescuers in tragedy situations. Anyone who wants to target those folks has a true disgust at the entire society. There may be Timothy McVeigh types who do fit into that category, but for some reason it just doesn't gel with my picture of their psychology. For instance, even McVeigh himself expressed a certain amount of "regret" (though that word may be too strong given his descriptions) about the fact that the building he bombed had a daycare centre in it, and thus a number of children were killed:
McVeigh noted that he had no knowledge that the federal offices also ran a day care center on the second floor of the building, and noted that he might have chosen a different target if he had known about the day care center. According to Michel and Herbeck, McVeigh claimed not to have known there was a day care center in the Murrah Building and said that if he had known it, in his own words:
"It might have given me pause to switch targets. That's a large amount of collateral damage."
True, children in daycare aren't exactly the same as volunteer rescuers, and true, calling them 'collateral damage' is extraordinarily cold and callous, so the level of sympathy is not exactly overwhelming. Still, even to McVeigh, this was a target to be avoided. It seems less likely, but not impossible, that Al Qaeda or an equivalent group would say the same thing.

The other part in Brecher's argument where I think I have something to add, even if the conclusion remains the same, regards the role of the significance of the date and event.

A number of commentators pointed out that the fact that the bombing occurred on April 15th, which is both Tax Day and Patriots Day, might suggest that this some right wing domestic terrorist.

In other words, we have the Boston Marathon on April 15th. Does this make it more likely the attack was motivated by the former (probably more likely under foreign terrorism) or the latter (probably more likely under domestic terrorism).

Let's suppose that each group might have thought of their part first. What would have been the consequences?

If you were a foreign terrorist group targeting the marathon just as a high profile event with lots of spectators, it wouldn't matter at all that it was on tax day. Brecher is right that this probably wouldn't even occur to you. You just bomb the marathon on April 15th because that's when the marathon is.

On the other hand, suppose you were a domestic terrorist wanting to target something for tax day. The question is, would you know or think to check whether the Boston marathon was on that day?

My guess is that the leap in imagination in the second case seems unlikely. If you started wanting to protest taxes, isn't it more likely that you'd think to bomb the IRS? Or at least some government facility?

I'd guess that most guys who were incensed enough about Tax Day to bomb something would be rather unlikely to know that the Boston Marathon was that day. Unless you happened to know about it specifically, or were googling odd phrases like 'What big events happen on April 15th?', I doubt the marathon would occur to you as a target.

So in other words, targeting the marathon in the first place you get you April 15th. Targeting April 15th would probably not get you the marathon.

This is all weak evidence, but it's not nothing.

The other point that Brecher makes, which I hadn't thought of at all, but is very interesting, was this:
The other reason I doubt the McVeigh theory is a vague one, not something I can prove, just something that, to me at least, tilts the probabilities away from a domestic group: geography. Weird as it may seem, right-wing American irregulars tend to attack on ground they consider theirs, aiming to kill alien influences. The territory they consider worth saving is usually South, the inland West, and the Sun Belt — but definitely not Boston. Massachussets is long since lost, as far as they’re concerned. Look at the biggest right-wing terror attacks: Oklahoma City, 1995; Atlanta, 1996; Knoxville (Unitarian Church) 2008; Wichita, KS (George Tiller shooting), 2009. Oklahoma, Georgia, Tennessee — those are all hardcore red states, and the right-wingers who attacked in those places aimed at alien, blue-state institutions: Federal employees, abortionists, and Unitarians, those Satanically broadminded bastards.
When the McVeigh types do strike at a target in the blue states, it’s usually one obviously linked to their pet hates, like when that 88-year old Nazi shot a security guard at the Holocaust Museum in DC in 2009.

In the end, Brecher thinks that it's likely to be linked to Pakistani terrorism. We shall see. He also includes this interesting aside about why Pakistani terrorist groups are really pissed off about drone strikes:
The drone attacks are very effective but very insulting, strange as that sounds. It’s much more infuriating to be killed by an unmanned machine orbiting over your village than to be shot in combat. It’s the way you’d kill a bug, and it’s created a deep hatred in the FATA.
Huh again. Read the whole thing.

If you think that it is ill-advised to speculate on who committed this repugnant act so early on due to the high risk of being shown to be a fool, I can definitely see your point. If I'm wrong, I'm wrong. Still, I don't feel it's rude or disrespectful in itself to speculate about who might have done this. Quite the contrary - I'd hope very much that a bunch of law enforcement and counterterrorism officers are busy going through exactly the same kinds of reasoning, along with all the more concrete evidence, to find the bastards that did this.

And the White House burned, burned, burned!

Anything on the heels of the last post is bound to be flippant. So it goes.

So why not go the full flippant? I finally came across a youtube clip of the Canadian song about 1812 that Gary Brecher referenced in his series of posts on the War of 1812.

To fully appreciate it, you need to know the original 'Battle of New Orleans', by Jimmy Driftwood (although I grew up with the Johnnie Horton version), celebrating the American victory at the Battle of New Orleans.

Anyway, let's just say that the Canadians focus on some of the more neglected bits of the war. Without further ado, 'The War of 1812, by 'Three Dead Trolls in a Baggie' (safe for work, despite the strange band name):

Comedy gold!

The real humor is not actually any disagreement on the events of the war, but on how you choose to label the belligerents. From the American perspective, they were fighting the British, and it's respectable to take a bit of a beating from them, even getting your capital burned down, because the Brits were, after all, the major superpower at the time.

But from the Canadian perspective, the Americans invaded Canada, and were repelled by Canadians. As such, it was Canada beating America, which suddenly sounds a lot funnier. America lost to Canada? Really? You can seen why the Americans aren't keen to remember that part of the tale.

Of course, the distinction is entirely a modern one. What was invaded was British North America, which later became Canada, but at the time was part of the British Empire.

As long as you understand both views, I find it funnier to describe them as fighting the Canadians, because the failed invasion of Canada is one the more farcical bits of North American history. Although nothing beats the Fenian Raids. Now that was ridiculous!

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

On the Ex-Ante and the Ex-Post

Some thoughts on the occasion of receiving an email from a friend. He went down to the Boston marathon to watch his friend finish, and was planning to view things at the finish line. He found it too crowded, and walked up the street. This caused him to miss the first explosion, which was right near where he was originally standing. It also put him right next to where the second explosion was. By sheer coincidence, in the shock from the first blast, he started to walk towards the finish line, the site of the initial explosion. This caused him to be just far enough away from the second bomb when it exploded, right near where he'd been. He managed to escape unhurt.

I don't know about you, but studying enough statistics has had a subtle but deep effect on how I view the world. We who aspire to rationality make all our decisions in the realm of ex-ante calculations. When you understand probability, you realize that it doesn't make any sense to regret betting on heads when tails comes up as the winner, just as it doesn't make any sense to thrill at having chosen tails. You can only organise your life around things you know now, and decisions are only truly good or bad when evaluated according to what you knew at the time.

And yet...

When all that's said and done, you don't eat the expectation, you eat the coin flip. Every day, it tumbles through the sky, and all you can do is gird your loins and brace for whatever happens at the end. You plan and plan, and still, one day when you're not thinking, everything comes down to whether or not you took three steps in the right direction or not.

Different people give lots of different names to that - chance, luck, fate, God, Kamma. Ultimately, they're describing the same thing - whether you live to write the email or you don't.

In the end, it just wasn't your day to die. I'm extraordinarily glad of that. You get to see the sunrise and keep your health, and we get to keep our friend. Somewhere else, other people are receiving much sadder emails.

Such is life.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

How did I not know about this?

The great Desmond Dekker:

Music this good was being played in 1968? Unheard of!

(via Steve Sailer)

Monday, April 8, 2013


Apparently they're making a movie called '42'.

Knowing only this much about the movie, it's a useful way to segment people into a couple of groups based on the first association that comes to your mind from that number, either

a) Ah, that's Jackie Robinson's old number.

b) That movie must be about the answer to life, the universe and everything.

If I ranked people according to the chances that I'd find them interesting based on whether they thought of various combinations of a) and b), it would probably go:

1. b) only

2. Both a) and b)

3. Neither a) nor b)

4. a) only.

Your mileage may vary, but if you're reading this blog, I'm wager that it probably won't vary much.

Why school group work sucks

If you, like me, were a nerdy type-A personality at school, you probably loathed getting put into groups for assignments. Inevitably, you'd be stuck with some bunch of lazy idiots who could credibly commit to either:
a) not caring if they got a terrible grade, and hence being uninterested in working, or
b) not being capable of getting a good grade even if they did work.

Both of these would get you to the most common outcome - the smart kid does all the work, usually ostentatiously announcing beforehand that the dumb kid is going to screw it up and thus insisting that he leave it alone, all the while still resenting the dumb kid for his idleness. The dumb kid laughs at the smart conscientious kid slaving away like a sucker.

Teachers would always spin you a bunch of junk about this being useful preparation for the real world, and how it was important for you to learn to work with people you didn't necessarily pick.

Looking back now, I realise that this was all a crock of crap - school group assignments prepare you for nothing useful, and all the irritation you felt was in fact completely justified.

The standard complaint is that you're being allocated into groups you didn't pick, and with hugely varying levels of skill. Neither of these really describes the real world. You get to pick the company you work for, even if you don't get to choose who is on every project with you. That said, it's highly unlikely that any semi-competent manager would lump together one guy who knows what he's doing and a bunch of morons who don't. Hopefully, there's a minimum level of competence required to maintain gainful employment, and you're unlikely to be stuck with someone truly awful.

That said though, it's become increasingly obvious that this isn't the real problem that makes school projects uniquely worse than real-life group projects.

No, the real problem with school projects is the following:

Everyone has accountability, but nobody has authority.

In other words, everyone is responsible for the performance of the group, but nobody has the authority to actually order anyone to do anything. If someone does a bad job, or hands things in late, or generally is so clueless that you'd rather do it yourself, there's not much you can do. If it gets really bad, you can complain to the teacher. But they generally don't want to deal with your whinging.

The assumption is that general social sanction for shirking, combined with the fact that everyone needs to work together to get the marks, should be enough to make it work. But isn't it obvious that setting up a mini-communist state for mark allocation is always going to produce a free-rider problem? And that the equilibrium is going to be that the guy who cares about it more does all the work?

This is like some Frankenstein version of real world group tasks. In most corporate settings, you're going to have a boss or team leader who is directly responsible for the team's performance, and can order people to do certain things on pain of getting fired. Hand the report in on Friday at 12pm or you get canned. Simple enough. Your boss may be an idiot, in which case it's a huge pain (of a very different sort). But at least there is a single person with the incentives to see the group succeed, and the authority to make it happen and solve the co-ordination problem.

If people get to pick their own groups and there's multiple assignments, the repeated game aspect can deter shirking somewhat.

But in general, teachers create a horrible system for assignments that simply teaches smart kids that the world is full of moochers, and that you'll end up doing a disproportionate share of the work only to see some slacker enjoy the fruits of your labour.

You might argue that this lesson is crucial for teaching them about the operation of the tax system and pork-barrel public-sector employment, and I wouldn't necessarily disagree.

I'd like to think that this was the well-thought-out plan all along, but somehow I doubt it. The only way to fund these taxes is to have businesses whose internal team dynamics are so different that productivity results and there's a surplus to be stolen in the first place.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Lazy Song Lyric Tropes - 'Critics'

F*** critics, you can kiss my whole @**hole
 -Jay-Z, '99 Problems'
One of the most patently absurd lyrical devices that musicians seem addicted to is their constant war against unspecified 'critics'.

If you listen to song lyrics, the 'critics' hate everybody. They spend all day just slagging off musicians in print, and apparently there is sufficient demand for this service to provide them with a lucrative living. At least I assume there must be, given how many times these musical curmudgeons feature in song-writing.

Reader, have you or anyone else you know of ever read anything by pop music critics? Why would you? These days, if I want to find out whether a musician is any good or not, it takes me 5 seconds on youtube to pull up their most popular song and decide if it sucks. If I want suggestions of music that I haven't heard of, I open up Pandora  and plug in a musician, and out comes similarly themed music that matches my tastes surprisingly well.

The only critic I've ever read is Jay Nordlinger, and that's for his non-music writing. More to the point, Nordlinger is drawn (typically, in my limited exposure) from the one category of music that does still have significant numbers of critics, namely classical music. If I go through the list here, maybe a third of them seem to relate primarily to classical music. Yet you don't hear Gustavo Dudamel ranting mid-concert because the New York Times panned his latest performance.

Musicians are famous for being lazy and uncreative on average in their choice of subject matter. My guess as to why 'critics' feature so prominently, especially in rap songs, is that
a) these clowns have nothing really to say, and this fills at least 10 seconds of ranting,
b) the main point of most rap music apparently is to bignote oneself, and setting up a strawman army of imaginary 'haters' is a great way to make it seem like you're generating a buzz and some controversy.

And they are imaginary. The surest sign this is all a fantasy by the song-writer is that the critics are never actually named. This is like the musical equivalent of the 13 year old boy bragging to his friends about that totally hot French chick that he hooked up with while on holiday with his parents. Serious You Guys, she totally dug me! What's that? No, I forgot to get a photo. Why do you ask? Whaddaya mean, nobody's ever personally witnessed me get any attention from a real-life female ever?

If you call out a critic by name, I'll make an exception. So when KRS-One decides to rant about C. Dolores Tucker, at least you know there's an actual person there. (Whether it's interesting or not is another question). Otherwise, assume it's all nonsense.


To slightly modify Juju from Jurassic 5:
Homo I'ma hurt ya feelings
Name brand talkers...pretty ass earrings
Where are all your critics about which you obsess?
The only one I know of shares your IP address.
F*** critics? No, f*** you Jay-Z, think up something remotely original to talk about.