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Thursday, April 29, 2010

Making Waves

The long standing theory among military brass that submarines are vehicles whose operation undersea is best left to men comes to an end, apparently. One can only guess at the unintended consequences of this bold, fresh move. (Seriously, though, 90 days in a cramped metal tube, undersea, with a bunch of smelly dudes?)

We're Texas

Texas is in the national news! Look, ma! Look!:

Texan decapitates wife with chainsaw (AP)
Texas Governor Rick Perry shoots coyote with laser sighted pistol while jogging (WaPo)

Oh, well.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Piper Says "Pay"

Conservative pundits weigh in on the Value Added Tax (VAT): WaPo rock stars George Will and Krauthammer, the WSJ, the CATO Institute for starters. All of this in spite of Press Secretary Gibbs' denial Monday.

What's the issue? Oh, the VAT is just that consumer tax that social democracies like those in Western Europe have adopted to finance entitlements (aka their "welfare states"). In theory, VATs are fairer than income taxes, because income taxes shift the burden to specific income classes: in America the top 1% of earners provide 40% of the income tax receipts, the top 5% provide 61%, while the bottom 50% provide a mere 3%. This distribution stretches the limits of the reasonableness of the "if you have more, you should pay more" idea, and as Will points out, it creates a perverse incentive for a very large number of people to remain phlegmatic about the expansion of government: "...the tax makes a substantial majority complacent about government's growth.".

But the problem with the VAT, in practice, is that it's not intended to replace or reduce income tax burdens, or to reduce income tax disparity between lower, middle and upper incomes. Basically, the VAT would be JAT ("Just Another Tax") for everyone--not just the rich folks--raising the cost of goods for consumers rich and poor (exemptions like food etc.). It's just more taxes for everyone, on top of the income taxes already owed.

Unfortunately, JAT may make sense today. The Europeans aren't stupid; eventually, taxing just the rich isn't adequate to pay for the benefits and entitlements given to all. Things just get more expensive, a kind of economic axiom that governments make their peace with (and try to disguise in election years) in order to provide entitlements and programs for everyone. Obama, and the rest of us, must soon make our peace with the cost of our own government.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Not the Joads

Turns out, the tea party folks are wealthy egg heads. Huh? I was thinking poor, uneducated rowdy Southern types with provincial politics: the Tom Joad response to Obama's fancy talk from the big city. But, alas, they're not so easy to dismiss, it seems ("Hey Ma! Can't we still play the racist card, can't we play the race card!" True, they can still be racist. They can still be evil. says a voice, from nowhere in particular. "No one thought that Hitler was missing teeth, but he's still universally despised", offers Whitfield, a twinkle in his eye. Ma smiles knowingly, nodding, her stout body stirring the great cauldron of stew.).

I have a hunch--just a hunch--that intellectual right-of-center types like David Brooks, who've been dismissive of the Tea Party movement heretofore, will take them a bit more seriously after these polls recast the movement in a more-acceptable light, more acceptable to those (like me) who knee-jerked the connection between an anti-big government message and white red necks with farmer's tans and bad attitudes about them folks talkin' change in the big city. Just a hunch.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Obama Jumps Shark on Mars

President Obama re-iterated his commitment to the space program today, announcing that he expects Earthlings to reach Mars within his lifetime. Speaking at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, Obama sought to dispel any skepticism of his support for NASA, and added that not just astronauts but ordinary Americans, "like tea partiers", could soon be shipped to Mars as part of his new space exploration program.

Gotcha. Really, though. I'm ambivalent about getting crabby about this latest salvo from Big Idea Obama (because in general I like the space program, and I like Big Ideas), but nonetheless it seems that we would all do well to observe some hard to define yet common sense interval between Big Ideas, wouldn't we? From historical revamping of health care, to reduce the nukes (an issue we've become accustomed to ignoring, true), to humans on mars, what's next? They're all darn worthy proposals for discussion, debate, analysis, action. But it'd feel more grounded, more deliberative and thought through and, well, presidential, if we had some time to close out discussion on one Big Idea--it's benefits, consequences, downsides--before launching into the next. But, alas, fat chance for quiet time with Big Ideas, it seems. The presidency these days is all 'bout hittin' the turbo thrusters (think: the Iraq War and former President Bush).

Well, anyway. If my political compass is in working order, at least we won't hear much more than a whimper about "cap and trade" or "global warming" from the White House. The dire warnings of impending disaster emanating from Gore and other catastrophe types have quite clearly fallen out of favor these days (ever notice how, once the hysteria goes away, you can't get people to defend the original thesis anymore? They defend milk toast versions of it, the kind of discussion that you wanted to have back when everyone was screeching, but they thought too moderate. Ask a Global Warming proponent to talk about Global Warming now, and you'll get discussions about pollution, and reasonable-sounding stuff about how we should get rid of carbon fuels anyway, et cetera. What happened to Catastrophe!? It all just kind of gets forgotten, as if there really wasn't a hysteria in the first place, and we all just move on in a state of collective amnesia about our cries of imminent doom just two or three years prior. Ugh.).

Anywho. Mars! Cool. Next?

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Systems Accidents

Laurence Gonzales, in his best-selling Deep Survival, discusses a class of accidents that happen in complex, real-world systems, called systems accidents. The term was first introduced by John Perrow in his now famous work on accidents, Normal Accidents, published in 1984. Perrow argued that in certain kinds of systems, catastrophic accidents, while rare, are inevitable. What's worse, and what made Perrow's work so controversial, attempts to avoid such accidents only make them more inevitable, because the safety measures put in place to expunge them also make the systems where they occur more complex. It is precisely the complexity of such systems which make them prone, one way or the other, to rare but catastrophic failure.

Gonzalez (citing Perrow) points to two features of complex systems that make them prone to systems accidents. One, the systems must support "unintended complex interactions among components and forces". Two, they must be "tightly coupled", or constructed in such a way that forces, even if initially small, can magnify as they propagate from component to component. In systems with such features, the result of forces acting on or in the system cannot be exactly known: seemingly insignificant events can chain together in unexpected ways, leading to unintended results (feature one), and some of these interactions can have global effects: the system itself can be "blown apart" by ostensibly innocuous forces that, by cause and effect, release the energy in the whole system destructively (feature two). Given these features, systems accidents will occur; they are a natural result of the complexity of such systems.

Gonzalez mentions a few examples of Perrow's complex systems, like the modern airline, a "large mass containing explosive fuel, flying at high speeds, and operating along a fine boundary between stability and instability". Something seemingly insignificant happens (say, the onboard toilet malfunctions), and it leads to a catastrophic failure, one that is nearly impossible to predict in advance and, as Perrow argued, cannot be eliminated in kind, because the safety components one might introduce to solve some problems will themselves create complexities that lead to other problems that won't be understood until an accident occurs, too. (The toilet leading to a catastrophic crash is a real example.)

Gonzalez connects Perrow's work on systems accidents with branches of mathematics and science concerned with so-called nonlinear systems, like chaos theory. Chaos theory has entered into the popular or "pop" science vocabulary (it was mentioned in the movie Jurassic Park, for instance) as a catch-all phrase for systems with states that are difficult or impossible to predict because they have a "sensitive dependence on initial conditions", as science writer James Gleick put it in his 1987 book Chaos. Turbulence is a classic example of a chaotic system: applying physics equations to predict where a cubic inch of water in a turbulent stream will be in, say, 10 seconds is effectively impossible, because the initial conditions of the cube of water--including all of the factors that can act on it--have to be specified so exactly, and again and again as the cube propagates in the turbulent stream, that no amount of computation can possibly determine its later position. True, the prediction is possible in principle, since the laws governing dynamic systems like flowing water are known, but not in practice, because the calculations we need for prediction require such an exactitude and are so complex that not even fantastically powerful computers (say, composed of all of the matter in the universe) could compute predictions of the position of the cube after some (relatively small) window of time. It's effectively impossible to predict the downstream position of the cube of water, in other words. This realization, that chaotic systems give rise to unpredictable behavior, led to notions about unpredictability like the "butterfly effect", where it's quipped that the air displaced by a butterfly's wings in Tokyo might, a month later, create a hurricane in the Gulf of Mexico.

Chaos theory applies to Perrow's complex systems because, just like with the butterfly effect, such systems have a sensitive dependence on the initial conditions that might lead, ultimately, to systems accidents. No one thought about the toilet malfunction beginning a chain that led to the crash; similarly, the sensitivity of O-rings (remember them?) to cold weather was known before the Challenger explosion, but no one put together that the particular O-rings installed, along with the exact temperature in Cape Canaveral the morning of the fateful 1986 launch, would by cause and effect result in the explosion. But it happened, and if Perrow is right, such systems accidents will always happen, one way or the other. Some types of systems accidents will be analyzed and fixed, but others will emerge, and while they will remain rare, they will remain inevitable, too.

What's interesting about Gonzalez's treatment of systems accidents via Perrow is his application of them to human hobbies and activities. He tells stories of experienced mountain climbers who are killed precisely because they applied their experience to situations, and put in place safety measures based on what worked in past attempts. By and large, the safety measures climbers employ do work: teams of climbers roped together help reduce the likelihood that a particular climber will fall, because when someone slips, the other climbers can "self-arrest", which means they plant their ice axes in the snow and help break the fall of the climber who slipped. But sometimes, they don't.

They key to understanding Gonzalez's examples is to get his distinction between general trends and specific situations. Safety systems address general risk: mountain climbing is in general more safe today than, say, a hundred years ago. Like a seatbelt worn in a car, the safety procedures climbers employ on mountains function to lessen the number of accidents and the damaging consequences of them when they do occur. But, as Gonzalez points out, sometimes the safety system itself causes or exacerbates an accident in a specific (unpredictable) situation, just as Perrow argued it will. The safety system introduces massive amounts of energy into systems of climbers, making them tightly coupled, and it introduces the possibility that some situations will lead, by cause and effect, to the "blowing apart" of the constructed system, as all of that energy put into the system (for safety), suddenly becomes the energy that magnifies the accident. As Gonzalez describes so well in Deep Survival, this is exactly what happened to a group of experienced climbers who self-arrested on Mount Hood to save a member of their team from falling. Several people died in the accident; had the safety measures not been used, one person would have fallen, and though this is of course tragic, it's not worse than what did happen, which became one of the worst mountain climbing disasters ever.

The point of Deep Survival is not that we should throw out safety measures, or give up on making them better. The point is that systems create complexities--whether in nature, or by our own design--that limit prediction and make deterministic solutions impossible. Chaos and complexity gaurantee that life will remain messy, incomplete, and in large part unpredictable. They gaurantee that, try as we might, we'll never, as Dostoevsky once remarked, erect a "crystal palace of reason", where everything is in place, and understood, and predictable. Systems accidents are here to stay, and though our best efforts help reduce the inherent risk of living and acting in the world, they can't eliminate it, and in many cases they succeed in making the risk that remains even graver, and the accidents we occasionally do have even more catastrophic.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Comcast Wins (for now)

Comcast, the largest provider of broadband, won an important court case today against the FCC. At issue was Comcast's practice of limiting its users' access to file sharing sites like BitTorrent, in an effort to prevent broadband service slowdown for its other users when large amounts of data are downloaded from such sites. The ruling challenges the FCC's policy of net neutrality, preventing companies from limiting use of the Internet based on types of data downloaded (videos, pictures, et cetera). Proponents of net neutrality argue that allowing content providers like Comcast discretion in limiting access to sites threatens innovation and customer choice on the Internet. Comcast and other opponents of net neutrality argue that the FCC policy prevents them from addressing service issues like network slowdown for their users, and unfairly restricts options for offering premium services for segments of its users with larger bandwidth requirements. (Not surprisingly, Web content providers like Google and Microsoft have been vocal in their support for net neutrality.)

The ruling is ostensibly a blow to net neutrality, but some feel that the Comcast ruling will ultimately hasten the establishment of net neutrality by the FCC, however. Comcast argued that the FCC does not have authority to impose policy-level decisions such as net neutrality on it as a broadband provider. Given that broadband is currently classified by the FCC as a "lightly regulated" information service, it does not have "common carrier" obligations as traditional telecommunications services do under law. Thus, the court found that the FCC could not simply impose its favored "policy" of net neutrality on Comcast and other lightly regulated information services. But a plausible outcome of the ruling, however, is that the FCC simply reclassifies broadband as "a more heavily regulated telecommunications service", according to Ben Scott, director of public interest group Free Press, one of the organizations that initially tipped off the FCC to Comcast's practice with regard to BitTorrent. In this case, Comcast would presumably fall under the purview of common carrier obligations, and the policy of net neutrality would become law. Nice going, Comcast. To paraphrase the inimitable Johnny Cougar, you "fight authority, authority always wins."

Friday, April 2, 2010

Obama! Obama?

Even government-mandated health care enthusiasts probably can agree that, whatever the arguments in favor of universal coverage, it's a stretch to sell ObamaCare as a program that helps restore fiscal responsibility, and it's downright loony to claim that ObamaCare will stave off U.S. bankruptcy. (What's next, it'll help capture Osama Bin Laden, too?). I voted for Obama, but his shameless campaign-mode rhetoric has started to wear thin. Another reason he's starting to wear thin: in 2008 when he needed to attract voters like me, he took positions that placed himself in the reasonable-sounding center on issues, like opposing government mandated health insurance. I'm sure his about face on this issue makes the left happy, but making the left happy is like making the right happy, we get the same old stale politics, with the same old problems. This is why, in 2008, it sounded like change we could believe in for Obama to support health care reform while resisting shoving it down our throats.

Fast forward to 2010, and now it's Big Government Obama (which is change that's hard for over half of the country to believe in, if we believe the polls). But Big Government Obama makes Obama a Big Idea guy (even if ObamaCare is a bad idea, it's a Big Idea). Smart, effective government puts him in the nitty-gritty weeds month and month, year after year. Big Government Obama grabs the headlines, and creates a legacy that gets the historians' ink flowing. Oh well.