Wednesday, March 30, 2005

New management

There's an interesting piece in National Journal about how the Bush administration has tried to change the way the executive branch is managed so that it may be more effectively controlled by the White House. Generally, I think this a good change. The less cushy these government jobs are, the better. Also, it may make the President more powerful relative to Congress, but not through decreasing Congress' power, for Congress still has all the oversight and legislative authority it had before. No, the President's increased power is at the expense of the power of the bureaucracy.

Problem with this argument: isn't concentration of power generally bad? Even if the Bush White House uses its tighter grip on the bureaucracy responsibly, should we trust future presidents to do likewise? Response: then make the government smaller! Counter-response: and when will that happen? Counter-counter-response: point taken. It's a tradeoff between republicanism - we elect the President, not the bureaucrats - and dispersion of government power; I think this shift in the republican direction is still a net good; Congress could pass new civil service laws if they think the President is too powerful.

Some changes I like:
The White House has said it is drafting legislative proposals to create a "sunset" process requiring federal programs to rejustify their existence every 10 years and to set up "reform" commissions giving the president authority to initiate major restructuring of programs.
In another move, which could affect thousands of civil servants, Bush has made "competitive sourcing" one of his primary management goals for federal agencies, requiring government workers to compete for their jobs against private contractors.
While OIRA serves as the central regulatory-review office for the White House, OMB has also positioned itself as the central performance-accountability office, with the establishment of the "President's Management Agenda" and the Program Assessment Rating Tool, or PART, under which the White House grades every agency and program on the basis of its management activities and real-world results. After several years of conducting the assessments without imposing any real consequences for failure, the administration, in the first budget proposal of Bush's second term, used the results assessments to justify eliminating or significantly reducing funding for about 150 federal programs.
A change I dislike:
New restrictions on the public release of government information, including a huge jump in the number of documents labeled "classified"

Saturday, March 26, 2005

Dave's filter

Kyrgyzstan has caught the fourth wave. Will Belarus miss it?

An $11 trillion deficit!? Excerpt:
Well, for the last few years, as per a legal requirement pushed through Congress by fiscal reformers, the Treasury has published within its financial report, for informational purposes, an annual Asset and Liability Statement for the government that does follow GAAP rules, using accrual accounting. And this statement shows the government's net liability increasing in 2004 by $11.087 trillion -- a good 27 times more than the official budget deficit.
Ronald Bailey on brain development and legal responsibility.

The U.S. spends much more on health care than the rest of the West. Are we just wasteful? Arnold Kling bets the rest actually spend too little.

On China and Taiwan: just kick the can down the road a few decades? Excerpt:
A second and politically more feasible approach would be to lock in the status quo by having Beijing and Taipei negotiate a 20-to-30-year "agreed framework" for stability across the Taiwan Strait. Such an agreement would eliminate the things that each side fears the most: for Taiwan, the threat that Beijing will attack; and for Beijing, the threat that Taiwan will cross the independence red line.
It couldn't hurt for U.S. diplomats to float the idea, but I don't think either side will bite. By far the most likely scenario is the status quo of a powder keg that has an even chance of going off in a mutually ruinous war, kind of like World War I.

Wednesday, March 23, 2005

The ends don't justify the means

Whether Terri Schiavo should be fed or starved, Lithwick is right about federalism and seperation of powers. This is not Congress' call to make. Their hearts may be in the right place (though surely some are just grandstanding), but a few days ago I was ranting (offline) about the importance of the rule of law and judicial usurpation thereof, and I'm not about to cut Congress any slack here. I've not enough medical expertise to determine whether Schiavo is in a persistant vegetative state; I'm not familiar at all with evidence regarding what Schiavo's wishes are/were. Therefore, I've no business second-guessing the Florida courts on this matter. Moreover, since I'm not a fair-weather federalist and I believe in separation of powers, I don't think Congress has any business second-guessing the Florida courts on this matter.

Eugene Volokh has posted a more detailed argument by Rick Hills (as well as links to two other views). Hill's claim is that "The Schiavo bill is obviously DOA on any theory of originalism. But even by any remotely plausible NON-originalist view of the 14th Amendment, it is hard to see how the 14th Amendment's due process clause could bar a state judge acting as guardian from deferring to a comatose woman's spouse in deciding whether to terminate life support." Follow the link to see him back it up. (Yes, I consider myself an originalist.)

Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Dry ice

I just got back from visiting friends at MIT. As is our tradition, we deep fried sundry items, including ice cream. To keep the ice cream from melting while frying, we used dry ice to make it very cold. (Fortunately for us, there's a guy that sells dry ice out of a shed a few blocks from Harvard square.) Of course, we bought more than we needed, because playing with dry ice is so much fun:

Thursday, March 17, 2005

Dave's filter

The development of the right to privacy: from penumbras to defining one's concept of existence

On the new investor class

Eugene Volokh notes Schlafly's prescience about the ERA

Domestic violence and the Quran

Interesting SS reform prediction of Bruce Bartlett posted on Econopundit:
My prediction is that at the end of the day, Republicans and Democrats will agree to a consensus SS bill that will raise the retirement age, raise the payroll cap a little, tinker with the benefit formula and a few other things that together will keep the system going for at least the next 75 years--but no private accounts. But this will not be any Democratic victory, because personal saving accounts will then become the centerpiece of tax reform. The result will be to shield even more capital income from taxation and move more toward a consumption-based tax system--which I favor. Democrats will be unable to oppose this move because of the way they are playing their SS cards.

Mystery Pollster on this Gallup poll:
No, the collective reach of blogs is nowhere near that of television or print media, but focusing on the relatively small percentages misses the rapidly growing influence of the blog readership in absolute terms. The 12% that say they read political blogs at least a few times a month amount to roughly 26 million Americans. That may not make blogs a "dominant" news source, but one American in ten ads up to a lot of influence.

Wednesday, March 16, 2005

The Paulding Light

I heard about this phenomenon from an acquaintence. My first reaction was "tourist trap," but a little googling (and no, there's no entry in, confirmed that this is an actual, somewhat mysterious phenomenon. (My best guess is it's car lights.) When I think of mysteries, I usually think of things far away and abstract, like the Continuum hypothesis, or dark energy (not the same as dark matter). I suppose it's another instance of the long tail: there are a few big mysteries, but there also many, many small mysteries.

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

We're not so stingy

I take issue this Jonathan Chait piece in TNR. He argues that Bush's proposed partial privatization of Social Security is okay by itself, but that Democrats must oppose it because it would lead us down a slippery slope that ends with the elderly poor and disabled left to fend for themselves.
At a town-hall meeting last month in Philadelphia, Rick Santorum, the stalwart conservative senator from Pennsylvania, was pitching President Bush's plan to privatize Social Security, speaking the reassuringly nonideological language of insolvency dates and rates of return. It fell to a sympathetic college student in the audience, blessedly unversed in the arts of message discipline, to state what conservatives truly think--and have always thought--about Social Security. "I want to know what problem everybody has with taking care of themselves," she said. At a similar event, College Republicans chanted, "Hey hey, ho ho, Social Security has got to go."

Out of the mouths of babes came a pair of remarkably succinct statements about what is at stake as the Bush administration sets about privatizing Social Security: Should Social Security remain in something like its present form, as a social guarantee to retirees, widows, and disabled workers? Or should it be dismantled and replaced with a system in which everybody takes care of themselves?
Bush's allies would no doubt reply that they only intend to privatize the system in part. They would leave a minimum guaranteed benefit in place, along with survivors' benefits. What they rarely acknowledge is that partial privatization is designed to lead to full privatization.
Apparently, Chait is living in some imaginary universe where, if the Democrats don't hold the line, a few years down the road not only will the national Republicans commit a long planned-for electoral suicide by ending the welfare component of Social Security, but neither state or local governments or private charities will step in where the Feds have stepped out. I long for the day when the federal government once again obeys the Constitution and eliminates things like Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and the Departments of Education, Energy, HUD, and HHS. But what are the odds of that happening? Even if it did happen, many conservatives, including myself, would continue to support welfare programs at the state and local level.

If there's a liberal case against private Social Security accounts, then Chait hasn't made it.

Thursday, March 10, 2005

Amazons update

Two friends and I tested out my three-player version of Amazons today. Initially, we played on an 8x8 chess board with two pieces per player. Then, we constructed a ghetto 10x10 board and played with three pieces per player. This made for a much deeper game more than worth the few minutes of labor and the cardboard used to construct the board.

More on teratomas and the like

I continue to be fascinated by the potential of things like teratomas as a technological evasion of the fierce moral and political battle over the moral status of embryonic humans. Will Saletan has written a second piece on the topic:
Is it allright to create and destroy something almost human? That's the big topic at Friday's meeting of the President's Council on Bioethics. Council member Bill Hurlbut, a Stanford biologist, wants to end-run the moral debate over stem cells. He proposes to follow the recipe for human cloning—put the nucleus of a body cell into a gutted egg cell—but turn off a crucial gene so that the resulting "biological artifact" produces stem cells without organizing itself into an embryo.
Sounds good to me, but Saletan spends the whole column fretting about the "ick" factor, mostly vicariously through various members of the bioethics council. He concludes,
It's in our nature to see the resemblance between an embryolike being and ourselves. And it's in our dignity to deny that the difference between us and something intrinsically meaningless can be so small, even if it's true.
That last word, "true," is the key element here. In the realm of normal human experience, if reason and intuition lead to contradictory moral claims, then many times one follows one's intuition and reasons backward to conclude that something is wrong with one's moral premises. However, life at the cellular level is well outside the realm of the normal human experience. When trying to extend our moral principles to such strange situations, reason must trump intuition.

There's a similar phenomenon in physics. Relativity (general and special) are very counterintuitive, and quantum physics is even worse, but these theories deal with objects with very large masses, very high relative velocities, and/or very small sizes. In the early 20th century, experimental evidence forced physicists to reject many of their intuitions manifested in classical, billiard ball models. Reason had trumped intuition in a very concrete manner.

In my own line of work, I manipulate mathematical objects that are uncountably infinite. Uncountable infinities were discovered in the 1870s when Cantor laid the foundations of modern set theory. Set theory quickly proceeded to break mathematicians' intuitions about abstract Euclidean space, which were of course based on their perception of physical space. (Among the more famous examples is the Banach-Tarski paradox, that a solid ball may be partitioned into finitely many pieces and then reassembled into two balls each of the same size as the original.) To this very day, a handful of mathematicians philosophically prefer intuition and refuse to use Cantor's set theory, considering it meaningless. In contrast, the vast majority have a philosophy, or at least a methodology, more in agreement with von Neumann's statement that, "In mathematics you don't understand things. You just get used to them." This kind of humility is appropriate for the ethics of embryos.

Wednesday, March 09, 2005

Dr. Pepper

From time to time the Dr. Pepper consumption statistic to the right needs a visual aid. Pictured above are 537 (empty) cans.

Dave's filter

Saturday, March 05, 2005

Dave's filter

Thursday, March 03, 2005


I linked to the rules of this game a while back. Last night I had the chance to play it (for only the second time). I was lacking a ten by ten board, so as I had in a previous game, I used a chess board, with one player starting with his amazons on a3, c1, f1, and h3; the other player's amazons starting on a6, c8, f8, h6. Not actually having eight queens, we "promoted" some pawns, and we used poker chips instead of go stones for the arrows. I think this game would be a lot more popular if it used the more widely available 8x8 board.

So why the 10x10 board? For the same reason go is played on such a large board: I've played on a 10x10 board (with a computer program (download - requires Windows) that slaughtered me), and the bigger game board allows for a lot more strategic depth. I think 8x8 boards are better for introducing the game to players, and they still are strategically nontrivial. Similarly, smaller go boards are good for introducing that game.

As one who regularly games with multiple opponents, I'm always looking for ways to modify games to make them work for more than two players. For Amazons, this is particularly easy, as the rules are particularly simple. All that has to be modified is the number of amazons per player and the initial amazon positions. Since there isn't a fixed equitable initial placement for, say, three players, the solution is to have the players take turns placing one amazon on the board until all amazons have been placed and then have play begin as usual.

Roper v. Simmons

This is what you get when you don't stick to the original understanding of the Constitution. What the Supreme Court affirmed only fifteen years ago is now forbidden, according to their interpretation of the Eight Amendment's "cruel and unusual punishment" clause. You see, according to the Court, the "national consensus" is now against executing seventeen-year-old murderers. Even if court is right about this fact (Orin Kerr argues they're wrong), I still must virulently disagree with this decision, which barely even pretends not to be legislation. And note this: the "national consensus" can't revert to its previous state, short of a constitutional amendment, so the "evolving standard of decency" is only allowed to evolve in one, Court-approved direction (unless future Court decisions assess the national consensus using Gallup polls). I'd go on an extended rant, but Scalia has already written a better one.