ToDo: War on Terror Accounting

With all the talk of whether or not to increase troops in Afghanistan, and the ethics of killing from your armchair, I think a group needs to sit down and study the full costs and benefits of these wars. As provoking as tragedies like 9/11 are, if we assign value to “innocent” human lives equally and start adding up the numbers and the opportunity cost of our war on terror spending, I think we would be sickened at what we find.

The War on Malaria seems more worthy of resources, or we could just keep the money for silly things like food and health coverage for the unemployed.

Call it “SecondOpinion”

The creators of StackOverflow should team up with the Dept. of Health & Human Services and launch a medical Q&A site based on the SO model.

StackOverflow was designed by a few programmers to scratch an itch within the community, and the model they came up with made it the most effective question/answer site I’ve ever used. Got a really, really tough programming question? You can probably get a half dozen answers in 5 or 10 minutes, and if you wait a day, you can see them ranked by quality by several programmers within your field.

As medical professionals contributed answers, comments, and votes in their spare time, a medical version of SO would quickly turn into an amazing resource for public health.

It might require some tweaking. SO users are generally in the same community, though sometimes different specialties. This makes it easier to design behavior-reinforcing tricks to keep user contributing. Every time I get a question answered I almost always end up taking a few minutes to provided input to other questions, and I earn points and “badges” for contributing (what other users deem as) good info.

On a medical Q&A site the advice takers and givers are mostly exclusive communities, but I think professionals would still contribute, and we could create ways to encourage them. Medical schools could require students to earn points on the site; we could reward consistently good contributors financially or with real awards.

Top 5 Random Depressing Problems in Criminal Justice

(Written in August)

  1. Forensic science is already shaky and, if DNA can be fabricated, it’s about to get even shakier.
  2. The public defender system is poorly funded and in shambles.
  3. Poor, mentally ill youths generally end up dumped in jail
  4. Florida sends a lot of teens to prison for life
  5. Our prisons are no longer rehabilitative, often torturous, and we send tons of people to them.

Reasonable People May Not Show

(Obviously started in August)

In the age of Glenn Beck, the town hall meeting paradigm is just the anonymous web forum with no moderator. The people interested in genuine discussion won’t go near it, and “socialist!” is the new “yr gay”. To this extent the tea party folks have certainly been successful at churning out viral YouTube clips, but for better or for worse, no one should get the impression that public meeting attendees are necessarily representative of a constituency.

I see a lot of conservative bloggers and commenters making the mistake of watching these clips and pronouncing that it’s evidence of a silent majority that will surely stand up and “throw the bums out” in 2010. HotAirPundit highlighted a Houston area meeting featuring an obnoxious birther and an angry crowd awaiting outside and concludes, “Something tells me he will get voted out.” Gene Green, the Democrat representative, took office with almost 75% of the vote, but I guess he could always wind up in some scandal and be replaced (probably with another Democrat).

This isn’t to say I’m necessarily behind the proposed reforms; reading McArdle hasn’t given me a lot of confidence in us being able to cut costs using similar actions at the state level, but I feel some brand of insurance reform is inevitable at this point and hope there are people behind this acting in good faith. Democrats are basically putting themselves on the chopping block with this so they may have more persuasive information than I have access to.

We need a distributed social networking protocol…Could Opera Unite be a key?

(Written July 2007)

The digital dark ages is already a reality for a lot of people who grew up with hosted e-mail services like Compuserve and AOL. A lot of those users had no choice but to accept the loss of all their received and sent e-mail when they unsubscribed, the service went under, or their account was deleted from inactivity. Mark Pilgrim wrote about the challenge of long-term data preservation without open formats and source code:

Data readable by only one application is a big risk factor, because the application won’t be around forever. If that application only runs on one operating system, that’s even worse, because the operating system won’t be around forever either. If that operating system only runs on one hardware platform, that’s even worse still. No hardware lasts forever, and you may eventually need to resort to emulating the hardware in software. Emulation is the ultimate fallback. But if any or all of those layers are closed, emulation may be costly or even impossible. And if any of the layers are DRM-encumbered, emulating them may be illegal.

Most social network users don’t keep a copy of their data in any format, so how can we expect to preserve it? Will MySpace be around for 5 years? 20 years? People have already declared Friendster dead; all your testimonials and contacts of old friends could be gone any month now.

The next killer social networking application shouldn’t be another Friendster or MySpace, but rather an open standard allowing us to create and manage our own social data. And it is “our” data. Points of contact with old friends we’ve managed to track down, new friends made from shared interests, anecdotes and testimonials we’ve written for friends and loved ones, snapshots of our interests and personalities. Only by keeping this information in an open format, available for us to backup, can we expect for it to survive.

Let’s say that MySpace suddenly had an export feature. How much would it need to include to be meaningful in 50 years? Obviously you’d want your profile, pics, videos, and blog posts; your inbox and sent mail; probably comments you’ve made on friends’ profiles and blog posts. How much of your friends’ data would you want?

October 2009: We’re still not there. Google Wave will vastly improve the situation (at least having a permanent record for IM), but the real goal here is something trivially easy to install, letting users host their own personal and networking data. Big web providers could still carve out a business by caching copies of user data (to save bandwidth, or for backup) and concentrating on indexing, searching, and providing apps like those for Facebook.

When Opera released Unite (basically a webserver in the browser), I wasn’t sure what they’d get out of it, or what the use case was, but actually this the perfect platform on which to build a distributed social network app. The default storage location of all your data would be on your computer, easily backed up at any time.

Next best thing: SocialSafe, a Facebook backup tool. For three bucks you could be able to show your kids how their parents met, and what they were like then.

Smallest valid HTML documents


<!DOCTYPE html PUBLIC "-//W3C//DTD HTML 4.01//EN">


<!DOCTYPE html>

Smallest “useful” HTML5 document

<!DOCTYPE html>
<link rel=stylesheet href=site.css>
<script src=site.js></script>
<title>Page Title</title>

Check em if you want. To avoid problems in IE you might want an opening body tag, but you don’t need a closing one!

Thoughts on The Wire Season One

(From January 7)

Over the break Kathleen and I watched a bunch of movies, but season 1 of The Wire delivered beyond the hype it got from friends. It gives a crash course on the frustration and futility of local cops fighting drug gangs on the street level in West Baltimore. The police jump through major hoops to get an idea of the shape of the organization, and use civilians who risk their lives informing on the gangs, but there’s zero day to day effort made to actually keep drugs out of the hands of people.

The police would do more good just walking up and slapping drugs out of the hands of dealers directly all day. What you have instead is the slow methodical building of cases designed to put away upper level gang members. This takes a lot of time, and in the meantime people suffer from addiction and the added pressure applied to the gangs results in increased violence. In the end a few people designated to take the fall (or with the least information to barter with) get sent away, and the addicts remain potential customers, ensuring the business continues to attract new members. Continue reading  

Questions for Economists

(First of the series “Getting rid of all these draft posts”)

Should we really go back to the Gold Standard?

I gather only Austrian school (Mises, Hayek, et al.) economists really think a return to “sound” money would be possible or beneficial to the economy, and most prominent economists think it would be disastrous. Has anyone even written a practical implementation plan of how this could occur, (and what might go wrong)?

The Mises followers also seem to be infatuated with the harms of inflation inherent with fiat currency. Sean Malone produced a graphic of the rise and fall of the value of the U.S. dollar, which included this nice piece of trickery:

Now try to imagine what your life might be like if every dollar had bought you 20 times as much stuff… This is the cost of inflation.

This does not demonstrate the “cost of inflation”. To imagine a dollar buying 20 times as much stuff, you also have to imagine wages being 1/20th of what they are now. My guess is this was an honest mistake on Sean’s part, but the Mises folks seem to find it immoral to not tie consumer prices to some arbitrary dollar amount over time.

Who does slow, gradual inflation harm in the modern world? I’d guess the primary victims would be people who save large amounts of cash over many years earning no interest. Does anyone do this? So, yes, if you earned all your income before 1915 and stashed it all under your bed, then, yes, inflation has cost  you 95% of your wealth, but if you did nearly anything else with it, much of that value would remain and might have even multiplied. Actually the rarity of your currency might even make up for the loss.

The arguments for slow, steady inflation I find pretty compelling, particularly the stickiness of wages. Since employers and employees generally despise even tiny wage reductions, creeping inflation allows us to lower real wages when they really need to be; if the real value of a worker’s output goes down, not offering a raise is much more palatable for everyone than cutting his wage (even slightly) or, at some point having to fire him. Regular cost-of-living “raises” become required to keep real wages flat, but I don’t see big harm in that; it might even boost morale and real productivity.

Is a systemic collapse due to Fractional Reserve Banking possible?

Rothbard rightly points out that a massive run on the banks could lead to disastrous hyperinflation, but is this occurrence likely? My guess is that, in any scenario including a nationwide bank run, value of the dollar is likely to be the least of our worries.

Wouldn’t economic growth be stifled under full reserve banking?

Maybe I’ll find some of these answers in The Making of Modern Economics, which appears to cover all the major players including Hayek and Mises.

Skateboarding and the (Fake) Broken Windows Theory

Nike’s latest glossy skate video “Debacle” is stitched around several highly-realistic, faked acts of vandalism and assault, but none shocking if you’ve watched a lot of skate videos; I just assumed they were real until the disclaimer appeared at the end. I’ve seen pros show off how they cut chains to break into schools; accidentally break real windows and flee; verbally assault owners and security guards; scream obscenities and throw things in fits of rage; accidentally hit bystanders (hard) with 8 lb. boards or their bodies; and generally behave like drunken delinquents.

Along with fearlessness (healthy to a point), disregard for authority and the care for other peoples’ property is baked into the pop culture, and, although probably a very small percentage of skaters make any trouble, those that do make a real problem for cops trying to keep areas free of gangs of boys who want to emulate the pros in acts and attitude. Any criminologist will tell you the perfect recipe for crime is an unsupervised group of young males predisposed to rule-breaking.

So, unfortunately, incidents like this are common. On camera a cop threatens to brake the arm of a generally compliant but obviously tired kid. This is, of course, after the kid calmly calls the LEO a “fuckin’ dick” (twice) and several minutes after the group filming had apparently damaged city property (“It’s against the law to pry those up — you’re not a city worker”) and ticked off folks enough to call the police.

I love skateboarding and it’s a real shame it’s now apparently criminal in San Francisco (a classic collection of skate spots), but I understand why cops and property owners support these bans. It’s hard to vilify officers who’re asked to bust up active skate spots. The business owner that allows her property to become a regular spot is just waiting for damage, graffiti, reduced foot traffic from weary pedestrians, and potential litigation from parents/bystanders.

MTV star Rob Dyrdek has worked quite a bit to design and promote public skate parks, which are great for the vast majority of respectful skaters, but previews of his upcoming movie Street Dreams look like it will try to convince the public that skaters who insult business owners to their faces, make trouble in motels, and sand skate stoppers off school handrails are unfairly oppressed and just need their own parks. It will only “tell the story” of a minority of skaters and it won’t do the rest any favors.