Wednesday, September 29, 2004

What health insurance really is

Another great piece by Arnold Kling. When you define your terms correctly, it's clear that what leftists want is not to make sure everybody has health insurance, but to make sure everybody has health subsidies (and that some people resultingly pay more taxes).

Criticizing Bush from the right

This criticism of Bush on North Korea is absolutely right. Why Bush publicly foreswore the military option I will never understand.


Wait, did I just read a libertarian article in the NYT Magazine? I think I did.


Last weekend I went to Devil's Lake to attend the semiannual UW Logic Picnic. To my surprise, there are actually non-trivial hills in this state. I had a wonderful time hiking up this scree to get this view.

A concession

With Kerry's two big speeches last week, I must admit that he finally hit upon some criticisms of I'm sympathetic to. Yes, the Bush administration has made many mistakes in the occupation of Iraq. Almost all conservatives admit this. (This is apart from all the conservative realists who (wrongly, I think) oppose trying to democratize Iraq in the first place.) Though I think in general Kerry is being too pessisimistic about Iraq (Exhibit A), and that his campaign's public condemnation of Allawi as a "puppet" was way out of line, I must concede that many, though certainly not all, of Kerry's charges are correct.

After pointing out Bush's mistakes, Kerry's proposals to fix them are either the same as what the Bush administration is already doing or some version of "more and faster." Kerry proposes to train more Iraqi troops and policemen, which is already being done. He proposes to finish securing Russian nuclear stuff faster than Bush. He proposes to try even harder to get more other nations to help us in Iraq. He proposes to double the size of the overseas clandestine service. And so on.

Unfortunately, the reality is that, whoever becomes President in January, the trend will continue to be for other countries to pull troops out of Iraq, not for them to put in more. For example, France and Germany have repeatedly and publicly said they have no plans to sending troops to Iraq, no matter who requests them (Exhibit B). I think that our one underlying problem in Iraq is lack of troops, and that significantly more troops aren't available. Even if we reinstituted the draft today, it's doubtful it'd be soon enough to make much difference for the Iraqi elections in January. Bush's biggest mistake was not trying to recruit a bigger volunteer Army back when it would have made a difference. Now, we just have to muddle through and hope we succeed in producing a decent Iraqi security force.

Kerry has previously talked like he just wanted to pull of out Iraq and is now promising to slightly better implement Bush's Iraq policy. Adding this new fact to my weighing of the two candidates, the scales barely move. My own vote aside, in tommorrow's debate, Bush can call Kerry a flip-flopper (as if Bush needed another excuse) and claim that he's mostly already implementing Kerry's recommendations for Iraq. In this event, Kerry is left to argue that Bush is not competent enough to implement his own ideas. Perhaps Kerry could make that argument convincing to voters, but how can he convince voters that he is more competent?

Monday, September 27, 2004

Inside take on Iraqi nukes

A very interesting article by "the head of Saddam Hussein's nuclear centrifuge program."

Sunday, September 26, 2004

Scenic shot

This is my first attempt at getting a scenic shot of Madison, facing northeast from the math building. (The version with higher resolution is here).

Thursday, September 23, 2004

Better than Fallujah

A major in Baghdad gives his optimistic assessment based on the recent successes (relative to say, Fallujah) in Najaf & Samarra.

Monday, September 20, 2004

Giants among finites

I rarely blog about math because the math I work on is incomprehensible without a lot of background knowledge. However, there's lots of math out there that is nontrivial yet broadly accessible and hence bloggable. A recently ran across this little gem about really really large numbers. You see, the number described by the short string "3--->3--->3" cannot even be written down using standard exponential notation. (Exercise: prove that 3--->3--->3 = 3^^(3^27).)

Donate for victory

I've read a lot about how well-funded are our ideological enemies in the Muslim world. I've read of all this Saudi oil money being used to export Wahhabism to seemingly every Muslim community on the planet, and of Iranian funding of folks like Sadr in Iraq. The list goes on and on. If we're really fighting a war of ideas, then how well-funded is our side? Of course, as this tragic NYT Magazine story demonstrates, it takes more than money to fight violence. Nevertheless, money matters. So, how are our ideas ("our ideas" is an admittedly vague term) doing in terms of funding? There doesn't seem to be much written about that, although I've repeatedly read that only a small fraction of the Iraqi reconstruction money allocated by Congress has actually been spent.

I believe the proper response for those who have ideas they want to support in places like Iraq must be to bypass the ever-inefficient middleman known as the federal government. See here or here for examples of how some folks have taken it upon themselves to help out Iraqis in relatively nonideological ways. Now, if one considers how wealthy the United States is, then it becomes clear that we can easily out-fund our enemies in the war of ideas - without increasing government spending - provided we have the desire to do so.

Moreover, there are some weapons in this war of ideas that our government will never fund because of the religious nature of this conflict. Is the U.S. govt. going to officially sanction and fund some versions of Islam deemed compatibile with liberal democracy? If so, which versions? What about government funding of Christian missionaries? Religious conversion is often an impractical short-term goal, at least for those who reject gun-point "conversions"; yet for Christians, it is always a long-term goal. Finally, what about government funding of atheism abroad? After all, some of the more extreme atheists believe the world won't be safe unless religion is eliminated. Somehow, I don't see Western governments funding any of these. Again, it comes down to private funding. (For example, I've donated to these folks.)

How to get school choice

Adam Schaeffer at TCS persuasively argues that tax credits for tuition costs and donations to scholarships are most likely route to actually ending the near-monopoly of public K-12 schools.

More Bhagwati

Update to this post: Daniel Drezner has more quotes of Jagdish Bhagwati on Bush vs. Kerry on free trade.

Tuesday, September 14, 2004

Gradualist vs. confrontationalist

David Brooks is examining the debate between what he calls the gradualists and confrontationalists over U.S. tactics in Iraq.
The gradualists argue that it would be crazy to rush into terrorist-controlled cities and try to clean them out with massive force because the initial attack would be so bloody there'd be a debilitating political backlash.
The confrontationalists can't believe the Bush folks, of all people, are waging a sensitive war on terror. By moving so slowly, the U.S. is allowing terror armies to thrive and grow. With U.S. acquiescence, fascists are allowed to preen, terrorize and entrench themselves.
Indeed, I believe Kerry could do the most damage to Bush on Iraq by attacking from the right, given the fact that "The gradualists clearly have the upper hand within the Bush administration," as Brooks says.

Given our position in Iraq as unpopular foreign soldiers, we should prefer the gradualist approach to the confrontationalist approach, but often there is no gradualist approach available. Look at our withdrawal from Fallujah last spring. The Fallujah Brigade, though only officially disbanded in August, was a farce from day one. It was the dishrag of a scantily clad retreat. (Obviously the relevant decision makers did not realize this at the time.) Our withdrawal was gradualist, in the sense of being a gradual movement towards defeat. After we rightly vowed to punish those who killed those contractors in April, our enemies put up more of a fight than we expected, and then we got scared. We starting grasping for gradualist straws, and we latched onto thorns. Gradualism finessed us out of a very sticky situation in Najaf, but when not applied carefully, the gradualist mindset has gotten us played for fools.

Monday, September 13, 2004

The end of the slippery slope

Take a look into the abyss: "In the Netherlands, 31 percent of pediatricians have killed infants. A fifth of these killings were done without the 'consent' of parents." These children were killed because doctors determined they had "intolerable suffering" or "incurable illness." Where does this end? Say a person wouldn't be missed if gone. Is his life still worth defending?

On free trade, Bush > Kerry

Juan Non-Volokh graciously expounds (you may have to scroll down) on Jagdish Bhagwati's piece in today's WSJ for those of us incapable or too lazy get our hands on a copy of the WSJ (print edition). Bhagwati argues that Bush will be better for free trade than Kerry because essentially (1) Kerry would have to back up his protectionist rhetoric (Exhibit A: decrying outsourcing; Exhibit B: promising to "review" all existing U.S. trade treaties) at least to the extent necessary to molify his protectionist supporters (including many unions), and (2) Bush's protectionist measures were enacted to mollify his protectionist supporters, but in a second term Bush would be free to stick to principle.

I agree with (1), but not (2). Look at Bush's Convention speech. What were his exact words? " and fair trade." Bush is still pandering to protectionists, just less so than Kerry. I expect a second Bush administration would continue to do good things like work hard on to make the Doha round succeed, make FTAA a reality, and maybe even significantly reduce some our import barriers in the process. I also expect things like anti-dumping laws would be invoked just as much as they have been by the current administration. After all, Bush is a politician, and he has enacted many of his reforms by generously using taxpayer dollars to buy a winning coalition in Congress.

Overall, I think Bush will be somewhat better than Kerry on trade, but it's a matter of degree, not of kind. Besides, the president is just one player in the game of trade policy, which involves Congress and other national governments.

Sunday, September 12, 2004

Do I dare believe it?

Wow. I can't remember reading a more optimistic article about reforming Islam.

The era of small government is not over

I understand why the folks at CATO can't stomach voting for Bush; I certainly don't want to be a progressive conservative. (It hurts to even look at those two words juxtaposed.) But while I mostly agree with CATO on Bush's domestic policy, foreign policy trumps this and keeps me supporting Bush, as I've mentioned before.

Looking beyond this fall's elections, are folks like David Brooks right? Can I expect any other conservatism besides the "compassionate" kind from Republicans? I don't believe Brooks' vision is the future. The Republicans can't keep their majorities with a small government platform alone, but nor can they keep their majorities without it. The War won't be equally important every election year, and when domestic policy matters more, the Republicans will need the votes of small-government supporters just as much as the votes of folks like Brooks.

An end to judicial filibusters?

As an update to this post, I'd like to point out that a Senate rule change to prevent filibustering of judicial nominations is a very real possibility, making one's opinions about how our judges should interpret our Constitution quite relevant to how one votes in the upcoming Presidential election.

Jihad in Nigeria

I suppose I shouldn't be surprised by this sort of thing. I guess the only question is how long before Nigeria goes into open civil war. Palestine and Isreal; Chechnya and Russia, Sudan; Pakistan and India; Nigeria; Indonesia; Phillipines. It's getting very hard to find a peaceful border between Muslims and non-Muslims.

Rich risk-takers

Health care crisis, what health care crisis? Forgive the hyperbole, but take note: "households earning $50,000 a year or more account for about 90 percent of the increase in the number of uninsured over the past 10 years. And almost two-thirds of that has occurred among households earning more than $75,000 per year."

Crime and poverty

Even if the "poor" aren't that poor, this remains a way in which I think local governments should help the urban poor more.

Insecure vote tabulators

Whoa. I'd heard all about security problems with touch-screen voting machine to used this fall, but not problems with the central tabulating machines:
The GEMS program runs on a Microsoft Access database. It typically recieves incoming votes by modem, though some counties follow better security by disconnecting modems and bringing votes in physically.

GEMS stores the votes in a vote ledger, built in Microsoft Access. Any properly designed accounting program will allow only one set of books. You can't enter your expense report in three different places. All data must be drawn from the same place, and multiple versions are never acceptable. But in the files we examined, we found that the GEMS system contained three sets of "books."

The elections official never sees the different sets of books. All she sees is the reports she can run: Election summary (totals, county wide) or a "Statement of Votes Cast" (totals for each precinct). She has no way of knowing that her GEMS system uses a different set of data for the detail report (used to spot check) than it does for the election totals. The Access database, which contains the hidden set of votes, can't be seen unless you know how to get in the back door -- which takes only seconds.

Ask an accountant: It is never appropriate to have two sets of books inside accounting software. It is possible to do computer programming to create two sets of books, but dual sets of books are prohibited in accounting, for this simple reason: Two sets of books can easily allow fraud to go undetected. Especially if the two sets are hidden from the user.
Black Box Voting has traced the implementation of the double set of books to Oct. 13, 2000, shortly after embezzler Jeffrey Dean became the senior programmer. Dean was hired as Vice President of Research and Development in September 2000, and his access to the programs is well documented through internal memos from Diebold. The double set of books appeared in GEMS version 1.17.7.
So now we have someone who's admitted that he's been blackmailed over killing someone, who pleaded guilty to 23 counts of embezzlement, who is given the position of senior programmer over the GEMS central tabulator system that counts approximately 50 percent of the votes in the election, in 30 states, both paper ballot and touch screen. [emphasis mine]

And just after he is hired, multiple sets of books appear in GEMS, which can be decoupled, so that they don't need to match, by typing in a secret 2-digit code in a specific location.
This is really a case where you want to read the whole thing.

Settling in

Pushing three weeks there without blogging, but I'm back. My first post will be about what I've been doing during this blogging break: settling in at my new place in Madison. Urban navigation is much easier for me to master here than in Cambridge, and I like the scenery better. The process of getting to know people takes longer than that of getting to know streets, but I've already met more interesting people than I can keep track of, so I'm quite optimistic on that front.

Compared to my undergrad time at MIT, some things are very different, like having office in a tall building and commuting two miles to it. Also new is the consequent regular exercise I'm riding my a bicycle. By far the biggest difference is living in an apartment rather than a dorm: though I have an agreeable roommate, I've yet to have any regular interaction with my neighbors (though an apartment-wide party yesterday prefigures at least some future improvement). One last difference worthy of mention is my migration of my desktop from Win2K to Debian, which has made most of computing tasks more enjoyable, now that I'm over the hump of making the important things work. (May I not have to recompile the kernel for a long time.)

On the other hand, some things will never change, to quote a very dissapointing film. Briefly, I still go to church, I'm still doing math, and I still love Dr. Pepper.