Sunday, January 30, 2005

Most promising

The Iraqi elections had violence, but certainly not as much as expected. The difference between casulties and voters is five orders of magnitude. The initial guess for overall turnout was 72%. I haven't seen numbers for Sunni turnout, but NYT is reporting a "party atmosphere" in Baghdad.

I really should wait to see some good numbers on Sunni turnout, but I can't help rejoicing in the success thus far. I know it won't be long before it feels like business as usual again, reading of a car bomb here and there and the usual suspects urging Americans to extricate themselves from their latest quagmire, but today's election is the biggest and most tangible reason since the initial liberation for us to perservere. God willing, our sacrifices will not be in vain.

Update: The NYT changed its "party atmosphere" headline, but the text is the same.

Friday, January 28, 2005

Bowling Alone

Yesterday I finished reading Robert Putnam's book Bowling Alone. I could hardly put the book down. I'm a data junkie, and it's hard to find a page in this book that isn't packed with data. Moreover, Putnam smoothly presents the data; it goes down like a milkshake.

I learned some surprising things from Putnam's examination of the decline of American social capital since the its peak in the first half of the 1960s. (To be clear, social capital includes both close links between family and friends as well as those links that stretch out further, such as between neighbors, coworkers, coreligionists, fellow citizens, etc.)

First, timing to a large degree exculpates the divorce explosion from being a cause of the decline in social capital; it was about ten years too late. Moreover, the more stable families took part in the decline. Also, as someone who has lived in nine states in twenty-two years, I couldn't help but suspect mobility had something to do it. But Americans were slightly more mobile in the 1950s than they are now.

Second, "the pressures of time and money," including the massive increase of female participation in the workforce cannot account for more than a fraction of the decline of social capital; Putnam estimates roughly ten percent, though I'd emphasize the roughness of the estimate more. Putnam also estimates suburban sprawl accounts for about ten percent.

Third and unsurprisingly, the two biggest factors were television and generational differences. Unfortunately, the latter factor is a bit question-begging, but we can at least say that post-WWII generations didn't go through the unique bonding experience of the common sacrifice and triumph that was America's participation in that great clash.

Putnam is excellent in dealing with the what and how. He seems to have found statistics on just about everything, and he handles them carefully: he never confuses correlation and causality, and when he doesn't have the stats to answers a question, he's honest about his ignorance. On normative questions, his writing is more speculative and sometimes superficial, especially when it comes to the question of what we should do in the here and now. I don't blame Putnam for this; the question of how social capital should be increased, or even if it should be increased, is just too broad. One should break the problem up into managable pieces, looking for low-hanging fruit: instances where social capital can be increased at low costs, where costs are measured in terms of economics as well as things like liberty.

I'm also more wary than Putnam of using the government to help matters. For example, TV and suburban sprawl wouldn't have caused much decline in social capital if so many people didn't like them. I don't think a civic quest to increase social capital, however nobly intended, justifies things like "smart growth," which Putnam apparently approves of. Far more often than not, the prudent and decent course to better ourselves and our neighbors by moral suasion, not by legislation.

That said, there are surely non-coercive ways to reform government so as to facilitate community-building. One idea mentioned by Putnam that I heartily endorse is decentralizing government so as to make our democracy more participatory. Here's the idea presented in rather radical form:
The ideal of participatory democracy has deep roots in American political philosophy. With our experiment in democracy still in its infancy, Thomas Jefferson proposed amending the Constitution to facilitate grassroots democracy. In an 1816 letter he suggested that "counties be divided into wards of such size that every citizen can attend, when called on, and act in person." The ward governments would have been charged with everything from running schools to caring for the poor to operating police and military forces to maintaining public roads. Jefferson believed that "making every citizen an acting member of the government, and in the offices nearest and most interesting to him, will attach him by his strongest feelings to the independence of his country, and its republican constitution."
I definitely wouldn't go that far, but it's certainly an idea one for which one would like some experimental data. Perhaps some county might give it a try?

Thursday, January 27, 2005


Of late, I've been busy with more math than usual, partially explaining the sparse blogging has been sparse. The other reason is I haven't been particularly excited about things I've read over the last week. For example, Bush's inaugural speech was beautiful, but there was nothing new there. I'm waiting for the exciting stuff: the Iraqi election this weekend and Bush's State of the Union address next week.

Anyhow, I did come across a few good links yesterday:

Two takes on outgoing FCC Chairman Michael Powell at Reason.

Yet another social security reform proposal: I like it because participation is voluntary and it isn't financed by borrowing or increased taxes.

From the no-surprises dept.: Zarqawi hates democracy:
"We have declared a fierce war on this evil principle of democracy and those who follow this wrong ideology," Zarqawi declared in a statement. "Democracy is also based on the right to choose your religion," he said, and that is "against the rule of God."
At least he's honest about it.

Thursday, January 20, 2005

Dave's filter

Tuesday, January 18, 2005

Dave's filter

Roger L. Simon on the credibility of Seymour Hersh's piece on covert U.S. military action in Iran.
Don't hold your breath waiting for the FMA.
Eyes on the future
The 'Media Party' is over.
Paul O'Niell's social security reform plan. (Complete switch to personal accounts for young folk; no benefit cuts for others; a $1 trillion loan for the federal budget.) I'd prefer the indexing change to the borrowing.
Palestinian demographics


There's a stirring piece in Commentary on the American creed, or Americanism, as the author David Gelernter calls it. Here's a key part, but one should really read the whole thing.
The idea of an “American creed” has been around for a long time. Huntington lists its elements as “liberty, equality, democracy, individualism, human rights, the rule of law, and private property.” I prefer a different formulation: a conceptual triangle in which one fundamental fact creates two premises that create three conclusions.

The fundamental fact: the Bible is God’s word. Two premises: first, every member of the American community has his own individual dignity, insofar as he deals individually with God; second, the community has a divine mission to all mankind. Three conclusions: every human being everywhere is entitled to freedom, equality, and democracy.
I've been mulling over this for a while now. Am I an Americanist? I certainly believe that "freedom is God's gift to mankind," but, repeating myself somewhat, Christianity does not mandate a particular political system ("render unto Caesar..." and all that). My support for democracy is not based on a special revelation like the Bible, but on the general revelation of history and human nature.

Moreover, I don't think Gelenter's above formulation of Americanism is historically or contemporaneously typical of Americans. Things like the American Revolution and Manifest Destiny were not simply premised on Biblical exegesis. They were at least as much (I'd dare say primarily) interpretations of events in terms of divine providence. I can't count how many times I've heard Christians say how they interpreted events in their life as an message from God and how they then acted upon that message. (Of course, the Bible informed their interpretation.) I certainly see God's providence in my life and in the life of this nation.

Of course, events can be easily misinterpreted, so one should be careful. (See John 9:1-3.) In the absence of special revelation, I try to keep my own interpretations of events tentative, and pay attention to new events, recognizing that at a fundamental level I'm ignorant of God's plans. (For example, what role, say, 9/11 plays in God's grand scheme remains a very speculative question for me; I once rebuked someone who seemed all too sure that 9/11 was God punishing us.) Finally, keeping the above cautions in mind, we must also be wary of ignoring what God is telling us through events, especially when it's something we don't want to hear.

Doubles update

During my visit to MIT I finally managed to get together four people to play partners Doubles. It was just like a two-player game in terms of strategy. I also participated in a game of Doubles with four unpartnered players. Among all my data points thus far of Doubles games with three, four, five, or six players without partners, I have found no real difference in strategy. I also experimented with just dealing out five cards per player. It made games quicker and made chance a little more important relative to strategy. Finally, I found dealing an extra card face up to each player to be a very convenient tool for randomly deciding who should roll first.

Alma Mater

I spent my birthday studying for an exam, but as a belated gift to myself, I paid a weekend visit to MIT in order to once more see friends from my old dormitory hall and friends from my old church. I had a grand time; particular among celebrated pastimes were deep-fried food (from twinkies to cheesburgers) and bad action movies, though the main attraction was, of course, the people. Visiting put once again front and center in my mind what a remarkable group of people I was priviledged to share four years with.

Thursday, January 13, 2005


From the New Yorker:
Majors Nate Allen and Tony Burgess became friends at West Point in the nineteen-eighties, and at the end of the nineties they found themselves commanding companies in separate battalions in the same Hawaii-based brigade. Commanding a company is often described as the best job in the Army; a company is big enough to be powerful and small enough to be intimate. But the daily puzzles a company commander faces, even in peacetime, are dizzying, and both Allen and Burgess felt isolated. “If I had a good idea about how to do something, there was no natural way to share it,” Allen said. “I’d have to pass it up, and it would have to be blessed two levels above me, and then passed down to Tony.” Luckily, they lived next door to each other and spent many evenings sitting on Allen’s front porch comparing notes. “How are things going with your first sergeant?” one would ask. Or “How are you dealing with the wives?” “At some point, we realized this conversation was having a positive impact on our units, and we wanted to pass it along,” Allen told me. They wrote a book about commanding a company, “Taking the Guidon,” which they posted on a Web site. Because of the Internet, what had started as a one-way transfer of information—a book—quickly became a conversation.
In March of 2000, with the help of a Web-savvy West Point classmate and their own savings, they put up a site on the civilian Internet called It didn’t occur to them to ask the Army for permission or support. Companycommand was an affront to protocol. The Army way was to monitor and vet every posting to prevent secrets from being revealed, but Allen and Burgess figured that captains were smart enough to police themselves and not compromise security. Soon after the site went up, a lieutenant colonel phoned one of the Web site’s operators and advised them to get a lawyer, because he didn’t want to see “good officers crash and burn.” A year later, Allen and Burgess started a second Web site, for lieutenants,

The sites, which are accessible to captains and lieutenants with a password, are windows onto the job of commanding soldiers and onto the unfathomable complexities of fighting urban guerrillas. Companycommand is divided into twelve areas, including Training, Warfighting, and Soldiers and Families, each of which is broken into discussion threads on everything from mortar attacks to grief counselling and dishonest sergeants. Some discussions are quite raw. Captains post comments on coping with fear, on motivating soldiers to break the taboo against killing, and on counselling suicidal soldiers. They advise each other on how to kick in doors and how to handle pregnant subordinates. Most captains now have access to the Internet at even the most remote bases in Iraq, and many say they’ll find at least ten or fifteen minutes every day to check the site. They post tricks they’ve learned or ask questions like this, which set off months of responses: “What has anyone tried to do to alleviate the mortar attacks on their forward operating bases?”
This kind of decentralized information sharing should be emulated by other bureaucracies. I especially hope someone at the FBI reads this New Yorker piece.

Talk about quixotic

From the Washington Times interview:
Asked whether he will move forward this year with his immigration-reform plan which critics say amounts to amnesty for an estimated 8 million illegal aliens in the United States Mr. Bush said: "Yes. Yes, I will."
Even if I agreed with Bush's reform, I'd strongly advise him to put his priorities elsewhere. The revolt is already in the open:
Colorado Rep. Tom Tancredo, who heads the House Immigration Reform Caucus, said he was determined to block the legislation. The caucus, which had 71 members in the last Congress, argues for stronger action to stop illegal immigration and a reduction of legal migration.
"I'm willing to lead a fight against this and I would say there are at least 180 members of our Republican caucus who are willing at least to stop amnesty for illegal immigrants," he told Reuters in a telephone interview.

Wednesday, January 12, 2005

Gregoire sworn in

Washington State has a new govenor, modulo court challenges. I hate to say it, but the WSJ editorial is right; it isn't wise to fight for a revote. This isn't the Ukraine. It's easy to prove this election was a mess; proving it a sham is another matter entirely. (Of course, if the election weren't so close, probably no one would have noticed the mess.) How to deal with the doubt caused by having the second, manual recount overturn the results of the initial count and first recount? Prevent it from happening again: perhaps the election law should be changed - after all, machines are more accurate counters than people.

Dave's filter

Monday, January 10, 2005

Dave's filter

Friday, January 07, 2005

Dave's filter

Two dimensions of Social Security reform

I think Bruce Bartlett is on to something here.
Estimates show that just keeping real benefits unchanged — they would still be indexed for inflation — would allow Social Security benefits to be paid forever with no increase in tax rates. Future retirees will get exactly what current retirees get in inflation-adjusted terms. They just won’t get more, as they will under current law.

If I were a Democrat, I would support this reform and thus get the whole issue of Social Security’s solvency off the table. This would force Republicans to justify private accounts on their own terms, rather than as a cure for Social Security’s long-term deficit. If Republicans don’t go along, it would prove that they aren’t interested in saving Social Security, but instead have another agenda.
Are private accounts justified on its own terms? I think they are. Americans would be richer in the long term if they saved more; replacing our pay-as-you-go social security system one where people save more for their retirement is a good thing. See Martin Feldstein's more detailed argument.

Will Democrats take Bartlett's advice? I think not. Too many of them think of Social Security as an entitlement. (My opinion is that people, unless they have the means and desire to retire earlier, should work as long as medically feasible, not until they reach age N.)

Tuesday, January 04, 2005

Dave's filter

Math jokes

John Derbyshire posted some math jokes from the January Notices of the AMS a few days ago. Given my specialty, it's not surprising this is my favorite:
Set-theoretic campfire song:
Aleph-null bottles of beer on the wall
Aleph-null bottles of beer,
You take one down and pass it around,
Aleph-null bottles of beer on the wall...

CIA woes

Among many other problems, "there are far far fewer clandestine service officers serving abroad than there are faculty members at the University of Virginia." Also see here.

Good news

From the Washington Post:
The Bush administration has signaled that it will propose changing the formula that sets initial Social Security benefit levels.... Under the proposal, the first-year benefits for retirees would be calculated using inflation rates rather than the rise in wages over a worker's lifetime.

From the no-surprises dept.

The Diplomad has a bunch of recent posts about the role of the U.N. in aiding the tsunami victims. For example:
I can tell you, dear readers, that I am temporarily working in one of the countries that got slammed hard by the tsunami and while the UN effort might be in high gear, it must have its parking brake on. No sign of that effort here! Lots of bureaucrats flying in and out, but that's about it.

Sunday, January 02, 2005

Dave's filter

The sunny side

Saturday, January 01, 2005

WA governor race update

Short version: Gregoire has been certified the winner; Rossi is calling for a revote; Gregoire isn't interested. Meanwhile, Republicans are scouring the results in preparation for a likely court challenge of the certification. Long version: go to this blog if you want to see some scouring up close. The focus is of course on King County (really just Seattle), but even beloved Lewis County (from where I'm typing this) has a pair of suspicious votes.


After something as terrible as the recent tsunami, the question is inevitably asked, for instance here and here. Why would a just God let this happen? The Problem of Evil is thrown in our faces once again.

If the question is forever repeated, then so are attempts to answer it. Wading into the philosophical waters with a mix of zeal and trepidation, I here make such an attempt. Though my prose is original, the ideas therein are certainly not, given how old the question is. The ideas merit repetition.

The short answer is that we deserve as bad as we get. Without elaboration, this answer isn't satisfactory, because it does not explain the distribution of evil, let alone justify it. I do not accept the premise of the question "Why do bad things happen to good people?" because no one is innocent. Yet, some people are more evil than others, and (as far as I know) this tsunami didn't respect that distinction. It does not suffice to say that all will be made right in the afterlife or upon some apocalyptic judgement day, for if God is perfectly just, then he is just always and everywhere; whence, there must be a just reason for the present distribution of evil.

At this point, I find myself making an argument similar to the Anthropic Principle. I generally like to avoid this type of argument, but I find it better than no argument. If the Problem of Evil is a mystery, then my forthcoming argument is a reduction of one mystery to another: why was the universe, including us, created? (On a smaller scale, why am I here?) That's something I am much more comfortable leaving a mystery for a while.

Man, being evil, is justly not living in paradise. We live in a place where, among many other evils, there are tsunamis that kill indiscriminately. It's a matter of physics. Is it also unjust group punishment? If God's imposition of physics on us is unjust, then our very creation is unjust, for who and what we are is intrinsically tied to our physical existence. That's the reduction. What did God have in mind creating us rather than nothing or some blameless alternative creatures fit for paradise? I don't know; this mystery is irreducible to me, and I appeal to faith.

For those unwilling to appeal to faith when facing a question as hard as why the universe exists, all that remains is a declaration of ignorance (and, for some, indifference). The choice is yours to make, but don't get smug if someone fails to solve the Problem of Evil to your satisfaction; you don't have all the answers either.