Esoteric Dissertations from a One-Track Mind

January 31, 2008

The Presidential Field Narrows

Filed under: politics — Tags: — codesmithy @ 9:43 am

Since last time I talked about the U.S. Presidential race, a number of candidates have dropped out.  On the Republican side, there has been Fred Thompson and Rudy Giuliani.  On the Democratic side, Dennis Kucinich and John Edwards have both ended their bids.  The biggest surprise has been Romney’s largely lackluster performance, I honestly thought he had more of a break out capacity than he has demonstrated.

I must admit, I didn’t think McCain had much of a chance, having written: “Huckabee is strong now, but I expect as other candidates such as McCain, Thompson and Giuliani drop out, Romney will start leading” in the wake of the Iowa Caucus results.  Now it looks like McCain is the most likely candidate to get the nod on the Republican side.  I forgot the Bob Dole in ’96 precedent of the Republicans letting an old Senator that has run numerous times before and has been loyal to the party getting the nod.

Obama still looks like the heir apparent on the Democratic side, at least popularly.  However, Clinton may pull it out in a technicality on account of the super delegates, Keith Olbermann and David Shuster explain.   With Edwards and Kucinich dropping out, these developments seem to help Obama more than Clinton, the real question is whether they will help enough.

January 29, 2008

Bush’s Final State of the Union

Filed under: politics — Tags: , — codesmithy @ 8:31 am

I don’t really know what you can really say about it.  The reality distortion field around the man is epic.  I considered it particularly ballsy to make reference to “A Charge to Keep.”  Harper’s Magazine has an article that deals with Bush’s vision and irony.  Given what a hit this article was online, I was honestly surprised he wanted to mention it.  However, it seems to be the title of a book about him, so maybe he is trying to improve its sales for life after office.

In all honesty, I don’t care if the Democrats do anything this session in Congress.  OK, so they don’t have the votes for impeachment.  However, I would rather see nothing done than watch Democrats cave to this President’s petulant demands.  Practically everything he is advocating is a policy disaster waiting to happen.  The President constantly and consistently proves his uncompromising nature.  I know some Democrats feel the need to be the adults in this situation, the responsible ones.  However, being responsible in this case is to also be complicit in the President’s crimes.

This President can still do plenty of damage his last months in office.  The success of this Congress will not be judged on what gains they managed secure, but rather what further damage they were able to prevent.

January 27, 2008

The Economic Stimulus Package

Filed under: economy, politics — Tags: , — codesmithy @ 1:48 pm

Crooks and Liars has video of Keith Olbermann talking with Rachel Maddow about the economy and the stimulus package.  For a little bit of perspective, Market Watch has an article about the economic stimulus package of 1929.  I don’t consider myself a gloom and doom person about the economy in general.  I’m certainly not cheering for a crash.  However, I do think that the United States has made some policy decisions that are going to come back and bite us.

The first one is not having a balanced budget and a huge, hamstringing debt.  This constrains actions the government can take to get us out of recession and the new malaise of the 21st century.

The second one is “The War on Terror” and more specifically, the war in Iraq.  The reconstruction of Iraq has to be one of the worst debacles in history.  Their economy is wrecked, and it probably won’t get fixed until the United States leaves.  Until the United States pulls out, or changes policy towards the country’s reconstruction (which I find even more unlikely), Iraq will continue to be a waste and a money pit.

The third reason is energy policy.  Even beyond issues like whether or not the rapid burning of fossil fuels will affect the climate of the planet, the United States continues to be a very energy intensive society.  A lot of economic development was put into strip malls, suburbs, etc.  These are poised to be the ghost-towns of the new century.  Energy is going to get a lot more expensive, not cheaper.  This has major repercussions on transport, processing, and manufacture of goods.  What it will feel like is stagflation.  Cost of living goes up, wages won’t keep pace.

Those are some of the underlying fundamentals.  This basic unpreparedness is reflected in the United States’ current account balance of -$747 billion.  Personally, I have nothing against a negative current account balance, merely the magnitude and how the money is getting used.  There are times when a negative current account balance makes sense.  It is indicative of a country that is building versus a country that is saving.  However, that is not what we are seeing.  The United States is not a country that is borrowing money to make infrastructure improvements.  We are a country that is borrowing money to buy that gas-guzzling truck, that extra pair of fancy shoes, or that big screen T.V.  In short, luxury items that depreciate in value and have no expected return on investment.  We’ve been borrowing money to finance a lifestyle.  A lifestyle that it is becoming increasingly clear, we cannot maintain.

Bush’s economic stimulus package is nothing more than an overt act of class warfare.  Another crisis to try to cram through another round of tax cuts, the majority of benefits going to the wealthy.

I’m with Rachel Maddow on this, the best way to help out the economy is to spend money on infrastructure.  Although, the most useful would be those that help us transition to a greener economy.  However, doing so must work within our long-term goals and objectives.  As long as we have a massive deficit and ballooning debt, fueled by disastrous wars and borrowed money to support a lifestyle we cannot afford and has no future, we are merely deluding ourselves thinking that any economic stimulus package will help in averting disaster.  Doing something, even the right thing, may hurt more than it helps if we don’t fix the big picture also.

January 26, 2008

Dan Savage in South Carolina

Filed under: culture, politics, religion — Tags: , , — codesmithy @ 2:11 pm

On Real Time with Bill Maher, they had a segment where Dan Savage, an advice columnist, talks with some Mike Huckabee supporters in South Carolina.  Dan Savage is gay.  He seems to have pleasant, if not awkward conversations with the supporters.

What I like about what Dan Savage’s approach is that he isn’t confrontational.  He is just putting a human face to “lifestyle” people find so detrimental, sinful, and harmful.  He also manages to get them to think about their position a little bit.  It is easy to hate a person or group of people that you know next to nothing about.  It is quite another to have a pleasant conversation with a person and then realize the effects of what you are advocating will have on their life.  One can only hope the next time they lament the evils of the gay lifestyle, they will remember that conversation they had with Dan Savage.

January 25, 2008

Traveler’s Dilemma

Filed under: programming, science — Tags: — codesmithy @ 9:46 am

Scientific American has an article on the surprising result from a game known as the “Traveler’s Dilemma.”

A brief summary of game goes like this. There are two travelers Alice and Bob, and they each bought identical souvenirs. Unfortunately, both of them has been lost. The Airline is more than happy to compensate them for the loss, but the Airline manager doesn’t know how much the souvenirs cost. He doesn’t want to ask the travelers directly for fear they will inflate the price.

He comes up with a complicated scheme. He will ask Alice and Bob to write down the price of the souvenir without allowing them to communicate. If the amount they write down matches, then he will compensate Alice and Bob the amount they wrote down. If one of them writes a smaller amount than the other, the Airline figures the lower price is the honest price. The airline also imposes a $2 penalty on the person who had the higher, dishonest price, and rewards the person who gave the lower bid $2 for their honesty. The Airline cannot reimburse for goods over $100, or for goods under $2. Here are a couple scenarios:

Alice Bet Bob Bet Alice Outcome Bob Outcome
100 100 100 100
40 30 28 32
99 100 101 97

Now, what is interesting about this game is what happens when two rational, self-interested entities play it. Much like Prisoner’s dilemma, the particulars about how much the souvenir is worth (or one’s guilt or innocence) doesn’t really enter into the thinking about what to do in this scenario. Just like in the Prisoner’s dilemma, one knows nothing about the character of the other person, except that they are presumably rational, self-interested and capable of going through the same thought process you are. So what would such a rational thought process look like in code.

Well, first we define some of the rules of the game.

const int PENALTY = -2;
const int REWARD  = 2;
const int MIN_BET = 2;
const int MAX_BET = 100;

Next we write a function that given the two players bets, what their rewards would be.

void RewardPlayers(int aBet,int bBet,int* pAReward,int* pBReward)
    if(aBet == bBet)
        (*pAReward) = aBet;
        (*pBReward) = bBet;
    else if(aBet < bBet)
        (*pAReward) = aBet + REWARD;
        (*pBReward) = bBet + PENALTY;
        (*pAReward) = bBet + PENALTY;
        (*pBReward) = bBet + REWARD;

Next we write a function that given the opponent's bet, finds what the optimal bet I should make is.  For example, if the opponent bets $100, then I should bet $99 because then I'll receive $101.

&#91;sourcecode language='cpp'&#93;
int RationalBet(int oppBet)
    int oppOutcome = -1;
    int outcome = -1;
    int bestBet = -1;
    int bestOutcome = -1;
    for(int i = MIN_BET; i <= MAX_BET;++i)
        if(outcome > bestOutcome)
           bestBet = i;
           bestOutcome = outcome;
    return bestBet;

Finally, we determine the rational outcome. We assume that both Alice and Bob start their bets at the MAX_BET, or $100. We start with Alice, assuming Bob bets $100, does she rationally want to keep her bet at $100, or does she want to do something different. If she keeps the same bet, then we are done. If she changes her bet, then we record what her new rational bet is and switch to Bob’s perspective. Bob assumes Alice will do the rational thing, so looking at how the bets currently stand, does Bob want to change his bet given what he knows Alice will rationally do. Again, if Bob doesn’t change his bet, we are done. However, if he does, we record the new bet, switch to Alice’s perspective and repeat, until the bet doesn’t change.

void RationalOutcome(void)
    int bets[2];

    bets[0] = MAX_BET;
    bets[1] = MAX_BET;

    int side = 0;
    int newBet;
    int oldBet;
        oldBet = bets[side];
        newBet = RationalBet(bets[side == 0 ? 1 : 0]);
        if(oldBet != newBet)
           bets[side] = newBet;
           side = side == 0 ? 1 : 0;
    } while(newBet != oldBet);

    printf("A bets: %d\n",bets[0]);
    printf("B bets: %d\n",bets[1]);

As it turns out, the rational result is for both people to bet $2. There are reasons why this result occurs, but I first want to explore a reason why this result does not occur. This result does not occur because it assumes malevolence on the part of either of the players. The players are whole-heartedly disinterested, they are only looking out for themselves (self-interested) or the making the equivalent assumption about the other player (the other player is rational, self-interested and unconcerned about your welfare). To prove this is the case, you can set the penalty to 0 and rerun the simulation. You’ll arrive at the same result.So, why are we arriving at such a non-intuitive result? What is pushing the result down is the fact that the lesser bet wins, and, in fact, beats agreeing with the other person. It causes a race to the bottom. If Alice bets 98, then Bob’s best strategy is to bet 97. If Bob’s best strategy is to bet 97, then Alice’s best strategy is to bet 96, all the way down until they hit rock bottom. The article finds that people don’t act this way, even people well-versed in game theory, knowing they are going to compete with other people well-versed in game theory.

I imagine the reasons are similar to those found in the prisoner’s dilemma exercise. Successful players will cooperate, because cooperation helps their survival and the survival of those they cooperate with. When an optimal player comes across an uncooperative player, it will remember and punish the uncooperative player until it does cooperate. In short, the best strategy might be a tic-for-tat strategy or a specially optimized version of it.

The other reasons people don’t are similarly simple and attack some of the base assumptions we made. We don’t assume the other player will be perfectly rational. Even if we do assume they are somewhat rational, we don’t assume they’ll take the rational thinking to its logical conclusion. This might be because of so-called meta-thinking, the 97-96, 96-95, … sequence might be considered to similar too a Rock-Papers-Scissors loop which has no stable outcome R-P,S-P,S-R,P-R,P-S,R-S,R-P. People might go 3 or 4 iterations and just stop, seeing it as pointless to go further. Similarly, people rationally see the detriment to their own outcomes. When a player bets 98, they are no better off holistically if both players would have stayed at 100. One player assumes the other player recognizes this fact also, and takes it upon itself to be altruistic as opposed to self-interested.

Personally, I think the author gets too hung-up calling non-Nash equilibrium states emotional. I honestly don’t think it is an either/or. People come in with a wholly different set of assumptions than the mathematical analysis. The mathematical analysis is extraordinarily useful, and part of the reason why computers are good at beating people at games like chess and checkers, however calling people irrational because they deviate from the model is confusing what should be conforming to what. Should the model be conforming to reality? Or reality be conforming to the model?

It is no surprise that the model and its assumptions should conform to reality. My organic chemistry professor warned us not to confuse the two. I think the Scientific American article presents as good a warning as any as to why it is dangerous. Although, I will say that economics seems to be most guilty of committing error in judgment.

As the article explores, there are repercussions to this. It highlights the failures of pure rational self-interest, which is embodied in a few movements and policies notably Free Market Fundamentalism and Mutually Assured Destruction. It gives an example of people cooperating, even though reductionists says they should not, and opens an avenue of inquiry and possibly some evidence in favor of evolutionary psychology, to better explain why people think the way they do.

January 24, 2008

Norway Tries to Smash the Glass Ceiling

Filed under: economy, politics — Tags: , , — codesmithy @ 11:54 am

The BBC has an article about a policy Norway adopted to mandate 40% of their executive boards be female for publicly traded companies. The deadline came on the first of the year, although the original legislation was put into effect 5 years ago. This caused the hiring of almost 1,000 women in intervening 4 years. The Liberty Papers tries to explain why this is a bad thing.

The first thing that I have to contend with in the Liberty Papers article is the somewhat revisionist proclamation that “America lets the market sort this out, and women hold more top-level positions than other industrialized nations.” If that were the case, why does America have numerous federal laws such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964 which protects an individual from discrimination on the basis of sex and an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission which enforces those laws? Looking at the EEOC’s website, it is clear they do work on thousands of sexual discrimination cases each year. Is the 15% members of the board at Fortune 500 companies a result of purely market forces, or did the EEOC, a strong feminist movement, and a sympathetic judiciary play a role?

Secondly, Norway is now more than double America’s Fortune 500 percentage. This is after 5 years the law went into effect, as opposed to over the last 30 in America. I have no delusions that if a similar law is not enacted in the United States, we would still be woefully behind where Norway is at now, 10 years in the future as well.

Third, a publicly listed company is a legal status, not an inalienable right. Free market fundamentalists tend to forget that in a true free market, there is no need for limited liability corporations. The government issues the corporate charter and can set whatever criteria it chooses. It was exactly this legal standing that Norway threatened to attack, and publicly traded companies quickly fell into line. There are notable exceptions where business owners decided to go private or stay private rather than go to the trouble of finding qualified women to fill their board positions. It could be a harsh reality of resource constraints on the business, or just straight bigotry. I wouldn’t call it an unintended consequence, but rather a predictable one whenever one tries to change society for the better; there will always be those slow to adapt or unwilling to change.

Third, it is hard to find the economic harm, the prediction free market fundamentalists make when governments embark on these missions of interference. We can look at the country briefings for the United States and Norway. Norway matches the United States in Real GDP growth, while maintaining a positive current account balance, meaning it is growing in a sustainable fashion, as opposed to United States growth which was financed via foreign investment. To give a magnitude of the disparity between the economic outlook between the two countries, according to the CIA world factbook, Norway is 8th with a current account balance at $55 billion and the United States is last with at $-747 billion.

How bad is that current account balance for the United States? Let’s just say if you sum up the other 100 countries that have negative account balances, their total negative account balance is less negative than ours (although we might be counting Cyprus twice, it is a problem in the Factbook) by about $50 billion.

Here is what we know. One, women can make great executives and leaders, Queen Elizabeth being one very notable example. Although, there are more mundane examples in contemporary business. Second, given the percentages in the population versus board membership, there is an obvious gap in female participation. The reason for the gap is multi-layered based on historical bias, attitudes and expectations in the society, lack of social networking for women, etc, at which point Norway has a chicken and egg problem with trying to achieve a more equatable society in terms of gender. In the face of this, they set an aggressive executive goal by simply stipulating what a reasonable end state would be and let businesses take initiative on actually solving the problem. This has a few predictable drawbacks, but unless there are actual structural constraints that remain unaddressed, the majority of problems should work themselves out as more qualified female candidates see the opportunities afforded to them.

Norway did this without ruining their economy. It took a mere 5 year and afforded over 1,000 women an opportunity they might otherwise have had. If Ms. Hoel is to believed, some of the benefits of having a larger pool of potential candidates are already improving the quality of the executive boards. While I would agree it is too early to tell the ultimate success of the project, it is showing promise. There are drawbacks, but there are signs that benefits are outweighing the costs. It is just a matter of if and when the female candidate pool expands and whether the stragglers become a permanent fixture of the economy. I highly suspect the stragglers will disappear and the candidate pool will expand relatively quickly (within the next decade or two).

If I were a woman, this method would certainly seem to beat the “market” approach, as it seems dubious to what extent the “market” has ever played in bringing about economic equality.

January 22, 2008

Global Markets Plunge

Filed under: economy, politics — Tags: — codesmithy @ 7:47 am

The markets were closed Monday in the U.S. in observance of Martin Luther King Day. However, global markets reacted Monday by falling sharply. Loses were so bad that trading needed to be halted on the Indian and Korean exchanges.

First of all, a correction was inevitable. The U.S. financial market issued large amounts of bad debt. Everyone knows these debts were bad. The foreign markets are reacting to loses they foresee happening in the U.S. market.

Second, it is a reaction of Bush’s “shot in the arm” economic plan. Basically to give people short-term tax breaks costing the U.S. government $140 to $150 billion. The foreign markets do not believe this will stave off a recession, and I agree with them.

There are solutions to the problem, curtail the black hole that is defense spending and the Iraq War and use that money to directly invest in American infrastructure while paying down the national deficit and a small portion of the debt. However, there is no way President Bush will ever endorse such a package. He still believes that giving money to rich people is a way to stimulate an economy, despite the fact they spend far lower percentage of their income. So in all, I would plan for a really bad year.

January 21, 2008

Israel Shuts Off Power to Gaza City

Filed under: politics — Tags: , — codesmithy @ 11:20 am

Al Jazeera has a story about the Israeli government shutting off power to about 1.5 million Palestinians in Gaza. Israel’s ability to pull off such a feat is the result of decades of policy. Palestinians have been forced into regions analogous to bantustans. The bantustans serve the same purpose they did in South Africa, where the name was taken, to give the state the ability to easily quell a potentially rebellious demographic in society and keep them subservient.

The issue is not defense. Everyone accepts the fact that Israel has the right to defend itself. The issue is what type of retaliation is justified. It is clear “collective punishment” is not an instrument of justice.

January 20, 2008

Bill Moyers on LBJ and MLK

Filed under: history — Tags: , , — codesmithy @ 1:28 pm

Bill Moyers did a piece on the role LBJ had in enacting the Civil Rights Act of 1964. President Johnson’s legacy will always be tarnished because of the escalation of the Vietnam War and the haunting chants of “Hey, Hey LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?” Johnson’s policies of war, and support for the Civil Rights movement were central to the Democratic party’s schism in the 1968 election. One could argue that Johnson gave in too much.  By fighting for King, Johnson alienated Southern segregationists while not being progressive enough to preserve votes from Robert Kennedy. This combined with the split over war policy assured that a President with a solidly progressive record would only serve one full term in office.

Johnson’s legacy will always be complex. However, if Moyers story tells us anything, it is the importance of having a President that can empathize, can listen, and will try to do the right thing. For all of Johnson’s flaws, I think we can at least credit him with those traits.

January 19, 2008

The Things They Carried: Tim O’Brien

Filed under: books, culture, politics — Tags: , , — codesmithy @ 12:01 pm

I’m approximately a third of the way through “The Things They Carried” by Tim O’Brien. It is on track to be one of the finest works of literature I’ve ever read. I find myself tearing up almost every night I read it. I don’t believe there is any objective measure of one’s favorite novel. Books carry different meanings depending on the perspectives and experiences of the reader. For any one reader, these perspectives change over time, and even with circumstances. For example, reading “Catch-22” was a very powerful moment in my life. It exposed the inanity of authority and the world in general in a way that wouldn’t have affected me as much as it did if it had come before or after High School.

“The Things They Carried” comes at a similar moment. I have, by in large, lucked out. The country went to war again, but it didn’t draft. In all likelihood, if the country did start up the draft, I would now be considered too old. However, if I was of a similar age during the Vietnam era, I might have found myself in similar circumstances to Tim O’Brien, participating in a war I didn’t agree with, against an enemy that I didn’t truly understand, in a country I had no interest in ever visiting. O’Brien talks about the dark humor, animal cruelty, and basic inhumanity of the war. I can’t help but draw parallels to U.S. soldiers blowing up a cat in Iraq and the other stories I’ve previously explored. There is a moral imperative to end the occupation of Iraq similar to the way we did in Vietnam. I am not ignorant of the repercussions of such an action. However, as one of the fortunate ones, there is a duty I have to those of the past, who found themselves in similar circumstances, but unlike Tim O’Brien, didn’t make it back. I also have a duty to the present, to the soldiers that go, not because they agree, but rather because they are told.

A true war story is never moral. It does not instruct, nor encourage virtue, nor suggest models of proper human behavior, nor restrain men from doing the things men have always done. If a story seems moral, do not believe it. If a the end of a war story you feel uplifted, or if you feel that some small bit of rectitude has been salvaged from the larger waste, then you have been made the victim of a very old and terrible lie. There is no rectitude whatsoever. There is no virtue. As a first rule of thumb, therefore, you can tell a true war story by its absolute and uncompromising allegiance to obscenity and evil.

– “The Things They Carried” by Tim O’Brien (pgs 68-69)

The protected must be at least as strong as the protectors we send into the heart of darkness. Irrational fear must not guide our actions, otherwise we are no better barbarians, practicing human sacrifice to appease our imagined and violent God.

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