Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Wikipedia Game

1. Pick a random nonfiction book off your shelf (fiction could an easier version of the game; I'm not sure).

2. Flip to a random page.

3. Choose a word/term from the page that is (a) a proper noun (b) a period-specific term or (c) a disicipline-specific term.

4. Look up said word/phrase/term on Wikipedia.

Five points if you get a stub.
Ten points if the article doesn't exist.
Fifteen points if the article doesn't exist and you create it.

You get ten things to look up.

I have no idea how hard this game is but some test entries suggest it'll be pretty difficult.

Monday, August 29, 2005

General Theory of Discovery

There are lots of things people acknowledge government shouldn't fund. Successful companies. Hitler monuments. Gigli II. Uh....

Ok so that's about where it stops.

But of all things one group or another demands we drop, pure research is something that's hard to defend cutting because it's benefits are so uncertain. Thus the NPR report I heard today that criticized Mr. Bush's recent budget cuts on NASA and the National Science Foundation.

The report opened with how pure theory of Einstein's general theory of relativity is used to make GPS work. The theory tells us that as stuff goes faster, time for that thing goes slower. Since GPS satellites orbit so quickly, they are equipped with special clocks that literaly use a different unit of time to keep in accordance with its terrestial customers. We never know how science will help us, the report concluded (and that is true), thus government has to fund science (here I have a problem).

Let us set aside the fact that Einstein didn't develop his theory at NASA or the NSF. Hell, he didn't even create it in America. The lecture was given in 1915, after he worked at the University of Zurich and the University of Prague. He didn't move to the US until the 1930s. (Even if we assume these are goverment-funded institutions (Zurich is; I'm not sure about Prague), many other universities of equal or greater prestige are not. Indeed, since private schools offer greater freedom, most universities prefer to go private, assuming they could get the funds.)

Government funded science simply isn't neccessary for a well functioning economy. Private firm innovation, X-Prize style contests and academic research easily fill the gap. And even if some great idea for some ungodly reason isn't realized because of a lack of government funding, that doesn't mean we won't benefit from it eventually.

Suppose Einstein really needed public money to develop the theory (maybe money becomes enchanted with some brain-enhancing invisible wave if it's taken as tax dollars). Decades later, the first GPS satellites go in orbit and the firms realize something is very strange. The times between here and space aren't in sink. After intense research and theorizing, they come upon Einstein's conclusion anyway. No public money spent. Necessity is the mother of invention.

Would it have taken longer? Sure would, but we wouldn't have had to fund all those projects that concluded really intersting stuff though wouldn't have a practical value for decades to come. And we could have used that money to make our world better today.

It's like when people say the $118 billion (2000 dollars) that NASA spent on the Apollo program was worth it until I point out that money probably could have been used to make huge leaps in fighting cancer.

Saturday, August 27, 2005

Meals Without Design?

I just saw a very disturbing commercial.

It opens with a voice over telling a story about Ronald Regan and his take on evolution. It said that when he was president, he wanted to invite the leader of a communist government to the mansion for a great state dinner. At the end of the meal, after the sovereign praised the quality of the food, Regan would ask if the leader believed if there was a chef. The commercial shamelessly ends with "Evolution is a lie. Read the Bible."

Assuming the story is true, Regan would committing the fallacy of False Analogy. Ingredients are not autonomous agents seeking to make the perfect meal. They are merely matter (usually dead), uninterested in (and often incapable of) sacrificing themselves to feed others.

Prospering, however, is something all organisms are interested in doing. This common goal extends from the most basic of bacteria to human societies. Thus if Regan thought something as simple as a cook making a layer cake demonstrated nature cannot exist without God, then by logical extension the world economy needs a central planner to function properly. But Regan recognized that people pursuing their own self-interest can create a complex system without design. If only he recognized that ecology and eggs benedict were not the same thing.

Friday, August 26, 2005

Oil Five-O

On September 1, 2005 Hawaii will be the first state to impose gasoline price ceilings in an attempt to lower the state's higher than average gas prices.

When I first heard this story on NPR today, the economic commentator correctly pointed out that this will lead to shortages as people will want to buy more and sell less. But there are two interesting facets of the law that the commentator left out.

The first is that it's wholesale--not market--price that's capped. Thus it will be the gas stations that will bear the shortage and since they are free to set their prices, they will increase them to compensate for the lower supply. The law bent on making gas at the pump cheaper will make it more expensive.

The second little bit of info is that the government will adjust the cap weekly. Since they are trying to make it closer to the continental US, as the local market price goes up, the goverment will lower the wholesale cap, encouraging the market price to go yet higher.

I'm very interested in how this will play out over the next couple of months.

Monday, August 22, 2005


Greetings from our nation's capital (or rather just outside it). I realized in my moving it's been a week since I last posted and I thought I'd take a few moments to use my cousin's housemate's computer to pass on something interesting I've noticed.

Every DC license plate has the words, "Taxation Without Representation." Note it doesn't say No Taxation Without Representation, as per the 200 year old slogan, but "Taxation Without Representation," as in homage to the old words and indicating such abuse is going on now.

Now I've known for a while that DC gets no Senators and no Representatives but I never knew that this was so much of an issue they would put it on their plates. But it is a big deal, and for good reason. The lack of representation for the very city that hosts the very congressmen from all over the country stinks of tyranny. DC wasn't even able to vote for president until 1963. The city's plates are one of the few things they can change without Congressional approval. (Again, the same Congress DC doesn't get any representation in.)

For the record, DC proper has a population of 553,523 (Wyoming has only 493,782) and an area of 177 km2 (Vatican City has only .44 km2). So what's with the hypocracy?

Saturday, August 13, 2005

Iowan In DC

Tomorrow begins my long journey to the nation's capital for grad school. I have no idea when I'll be online again, just so you know. Think thoughts of liberty while you wait and enjoy Tim's overdue return.

Thursday, August 11, 2005

Farming Nature

So I’m watching the History Channel’s Modern Marvels, this one about the logging industry. Naturally an important part of the show is the environmental impact of cutting trees down and how those concerns changed the industry. This led into one of the first responses the industry offered way back in the 1940s: tree farms.

Tree farms are still used today; some one-third of our lumber comes from them and that number continues to grow. But some people have a problem with them. The program included footage of a university professor noting that these farms are horrible things because they are comprised of only a few species of trees, thus support only a few species of animal life. In that way, they cannot replace forests, whose diversity in foliage allows greater protection against calamity and supports more wildlife.

No one, by the way, is seriously considering that we tear down all forests and replace them with farms (especially since most tree farms are in the Southwest, a region not known for it’s sprawling vegetation). The idea is we get our lumber from farms, allowing us to leave our forests intact and get the lumber society demands. By cultivating trees, we indirectly cultivate nature. Thus farms compliment the natural world by segregating its uses into preservation and harvesting.

Forests are freed to be used for other profitable, but eco-friendly activity, including hiking, camping, limited fishing and limited hunting. And because a great deal of money can be made in these endeavors, the government is not the only way to protect wildlife (even though that’s what the program claimed).

Environmentalists who demonize these farms because they aren’t “natural enough” miss the forest for the trees in the most literal sense.

Monday, August 08, 2005

Ding, Dong, our Rights are Dead

The Supreme Court recently decided that a town could seize property under the doctrine of eminent domain - so far, nothing unusual, but here's the twist - and give it to another private party. Previously, the power had been limited to seizing private property for important public projects.

But as if the status quo weren't bad enough, the less-sane half of our darling Supreme Court has upheld the power of government to redistribute property as benefits the government. The rationale in the particular case was that tax revenues would be greater with the properties in question under one particular owner rather than another.

Oh... I just can't express how vexed I am. But badly enough to say "vexed", which should be a pretty good indication.

At this point, all pretense of Constitutionality is gone, as I see it. Out government is an outlaw from itself, refusing to recognize its own laws - and I'm not the first to recognize this. Judge Andrew Napolitano, with whom I hardly agree about anything, has written a lovely book, "Constitutional Chaos", in which this nasty proclivity is hashed out in some detail.

What to do? For now, close your eyes, tap your heels three times, and say... well, you know.

Saturday, August 06, 2005

Get Meth. It Pays.

Sometime ago, Iowa passed a law that made it harder for people to acquire pseudoephedrine in an attempt to prevent people from distracting themselves from their boring Iowa lives with meth.

The other day, the QC Times ran this article that proudly declared Iowa meth labs are down by 75%. Let us side aside that this does not mean Iowans are using less meth. Nor does it mean that this is a permanent change. But I’m more interested in how they concluded this astonishing figure.

It’s not like you can find meth labs in the yellow pages. They are illegal and like all illegal activity, significant time and energy is taken to keep the operations hidden. Surprisingly, police merely compared the 286 labs they knew about in May-July of last year and the 70 that they are sure about today. They can only find 70, thus only 70 exist. How dumb is that?

It seems far more likely that the reason there are fewer known labs is because existing labs went deeper underground until they can perfect a way to get around the law. When they do, don’t be surprised if they charge a higher rate for their goods to compensate for lost business; it’s not like they’ll have a lot of competition.

Friday, August 05, 2005

Let's Hear It for Chemicals

Connecticut might get a new law that requires employers to notify if they use trichloroethylene—a chemical for cleaning metal—the logic being that it might cause cancer.

This new rule spawns from a court battle involving Neil Clifford, who claims he got cancer from working a site where someone dumped a lot of TCE. Even though the site’s adjacent to a group of condos, he’s the only case.

In the testimony, Dr. John Meyer said that TCE might cause cancer in humans. The International Agency for Research on Cancer notes the evidence for this is claim is limited. But governments are paranoid and love spending money so the DEP spent $750,000 cleaning up the site anyway.

Laws, by their very nature, are bitches to get rid of once passed. This is doubly true for theoretically preventing things that might threaten human or animal health. TCE might cause deadly cancer, but it might not. Why demonize a useful tool without knowing if it really is harmful or not? Are we going to do the same thing to TCE as we did to DDT? This is how it starts.

This Is Where Your Money Goes

I just read the headline and started laughing. Good to know something's being done about the trash collector shortage.

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

The Wealth of Virtual Nations

My brother sent me this link about the economics in MMORPGs. The article brought up several cool ideas we can use to interpret these online games under an economic or sociological lens, my favorite being exchange rates.

People pay real money for game money all the time and I wondered what the exchange rate was for World of Warcraft. According to Ebay, one dollar gets you about ten gold. That same dollar could be exchanged for 111.28 yen, 0.819 Euros and .564 Pounds. I’m not yet sure what that means because we don’t know what the PPP is for gold; and coming up with a virtual basket of goods would be problematic as WoW characters don’t need to eat, pay for shelter or do other activities real people need to. If only Ironforge had a McDonald’s.

But because you need to pay for so little as a Warcraft character, and because you can get so much money for just a dollar, I’m betting it’s far cheaper to vacation in Azeroth than in Europe.

No wonder it’s so popular.