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Tuesday, January 12, 2016

White House Petition to End Criminal Occupation in Malheur Wildlife Refuge

White House LogoIf you're anything like me, you're probably tired of seeing a bunched of armed insurrectionists occupying the Malheur Wildlife Refuge up in Oregon. It's criminal, anti-American treason, bordering on terrorism. These thugs have taken over public land that belongs to all of us, recently vandalized portions of it, and there are even reports that they've been following local citizens to their homes and sitting outside their houses in cars to watch them. And they have the gall to call themselves Patriots. Granted, they're out in the middle of nowhere, and haven't yet done anything to endanger to the public, so escalating this into an armed conflict is probably taking it too far. But currently, these criminals can come and go with impunity, and the authorities haven't even cut their electricity, yet (source - NPR). If you'd like to send a message to the feds that it's time to do something about this, click on the link below to view and sign the petition:

Arrest Ammon Bundy and the armed occupiers of the Malheur Wildlife Refuge.

For reference, here's the text of the petition:

President Obama,

We respectfully request that you end the armed occupation of the Malheur Wildlife Refuge immediately. At the very least, you owe the American people an explanation as to why the area has not been isolated. Members of their organization can come and go as they please, members of the community can visit the occupied facility, and other right-wing extremist groups such as the Idaho III% can show their support.

Law enforcement inaction up to this point is an egregious violation of public safety and emboldens their erroneous assertions that the US Government has no Constitutional Authority.

Please end the siege of the refuge and arraign Ammon Bundy as soon as possible.

Friday, January 8, 2016

Answering Quora - If you were to build an advanced civilization optimized for economic and technological progress and growth, how would you go about it?

A cropped portion of Robert McCall's mural,The Prologue and the PromiseWell, I spent some time on Quora again this week, taking away my normal blog writing time, so I'm going to recycle a Quora answer here. The question someone asked this time is the title of this entry, If you were to build an advanced civilization optimized for economic and technological progress and growth, how would you go about it? They went on to add just a tiny bit of clarification, "How would you structure its government, economy, culture, etc.?" I put a little bit of thought into an answer, which I've copied below.

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First off, I wouldn't want to optimize civilization for 'economic and technological progress and growth'. I'd want to optimize it for the maximum welfare of the people. And while economic and technological progress and growth are certainly part of that, they're a means to an end, not the goal itself, and shouldn't take precedence over the ultimate goal of maximum well-being.

And to be honest, while I have plenty of gripes over specific issues with government, I'd still follow the general pattern of the U.S. and the world's other prosperous democracies. First off, it would be a democracy (or more accurately, a representative democracy or republic) to ensure that laws were based on the will of the people. And even though individuals don't always know best, the Wisdom of the crowd phenomenon shows that group decisions are often very good. But, to protect against the tyranny of the majority, I'd have something like the Bill of Rights to ensure that basic rights for everybody are encoded right into the structure of government. I'd also want separate branches of government, all with equal power, to provide oversight to keep any one branch from becoming too strong.

As far as the economy, it should be a mix of a well-regulated free market and public institutions. Free markets are great at optimizing a good many things, but unregulated free markets lead to situations like a Charles Dickens novel or the robber barons of the 19th century U.S. Even well regulated free markets don't always produce the results we want for society at large, so robust public funding for basic research is also essential for long term progress. Just consider the current failure of the free market economy to produce new antibiotics. We, as a society, would really like those medicines to combat disease, but they're just not profitable enough for drug companies, so there's very little private research into new antibiotics. This is where public funding through the government should come into play, either funding research directly, or providing strong incentives for the private sector. As another example of the interaction between the public and private sector, consider GPS. The required satellite system was a huge investment, and probably wouldn't have been undertaken by any private company. But now that the satellites are in place, private industry and the free market have found many, many innovative ways to use that system.

To promote technological progress in the private sector, a patent system is essential. It's the best way to reward innovation, giving the incentive for people to come up with new ideas, knowing how much they could profit from it, and that the idea can't just by copied by anybody.

Education is critical, both for citizens to make well informed decisions when voting, and also if you want a work force of intellectuals who can drive your economic and technological progress and growth. I would structure education slightly differently that it's currently done in the U.S., mainly on funding (but not so different from other nations). I'd fund schools on the national level, not the local level as is currently done, since the current system puts the most money into rich areas where many students are already advantaged, and the least money into poor areas where many students are already disadvantaged. At the least, spending per pupil should be equal for all students, but it should probably even be skewed to put more funding into poor areas to help overcome disadvantages and get them on a more equal footing with rich areas. How much untapped potential is there in the current system?

For higher ed, I'd make it at least cheap enough to where a person could work to pay their way through school, without incurring a huge debt in the process. Even better would be free university education. It's an investment in the future intellectual workforce of the country.

So, I guess the short answer is that I'd go with pretty much what already exists in the prosperous democracies.

Image Source: A cropped portion of Robert McCall's mural,The Prologue and the Promise, downloaded from ImagineeringDisney.com

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Merry Secular Christmas - Buy White Wine in the Sun, Support Autism Society, 2015

As has become my tradition to celebrate Christmas on this blog, and as I've said nearly verbatim for a few years now, every year around this time I post Tim Minchin's song, White Wine in the Sun. As described on Minchin's site, "This is a captivating song and a beautiful and intelligent exploration of why Christmas can still be meaningful even without religious beliefs. There's just the right amount of sentiment and some very gentle humour illustrating Tim's feelings about Christmas and the importance of family and home. It is a heart-warming song and may make you a little bright eyed."

Tim Minchin has his own tradition - donating all the proceeds from the sale of the song from around Christmas time to the National Autistic Society, a tradition that he's keeping again this year, including all sales from November, December, and January. So if you don't already own your own copy of the song, go buy it and help support a good cause.

As something new this year, here's a link to the lyrics, even though they're mostly easy enough to understand just listening to the song.

And now finally, here it is (but don't let the fact that you can listen to it from YouTube stop you from buying your own copy).

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Most Worthless Mnemonic Ever

The most recent XKCD makes fun of a mnemonic aid that I've never found useful:

30 Days Hath September

Here's what happens when I try to recite this one:

Thirty days hath September
April, [March, May or June], and [November or December]...

The mnemonic doesn't work at all when it's so easy to insert the wrong month and still have the poem sound right. I much prefer the knuckle method.

That is all.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Happy Exploration Day 2015

This is a verbatim reprint of the same entry I've used the past 2 year in a row, but it's still all relevant. I guess I'll add here that if you don't like the idea of Exploration Day or Bartolomé Day, you can always call today Indigenous People's Day. Just whatever you do, don't celebrate that horrible excuse for a human being, Christopher Columbus.

Moon PrintToday is traditionally celebrated as Columbus Day, but Columbus really was a horrible excuse for a human being. It's not just the myth about him proving the world was round, or lucking into finding a continent that nobody knew existed, but his horrible, horrible treatment of the natives and even the Spaniards in the first Spanish colony in the Americas.

The Oatmeal has a new webcomic explaining just how bad of a person Columbus was, in more detail than I've done and in a more entertaining way than I could do. I highly recommend going to read it:

The Oatmeal - Christopher Columbus was awful (but this other guy was not) Modified Portion of The Oatmeal's Christopher Columbus Comic

While the Oatmeal proposes changing the holiday to Bartolome Day, I prefer a proposal I read before, changing it to Exploration Day. I could simply link to that old entry, but if you're here already reading this, I'll save you the click. Below is an excerpt of the main portion of that old entry, Happy Exploration Day:

I've written briefly about Columbus a couple times before, Debunking a Columbus Myth and Columbus Day. There are a lot of misconceptions about Columbus and his role in history - misconceptions that are still being taught to my middle school daughter, by the way. In reality, he was a bit of a crank. The concept of the Earth being a globe had been known for thousands of years prior to Columbus. In fact, Eratosthenes had calculated the size of the earth to a very accurate degree back around 240 BC (or BCE). Why Columbus had such a hard time securing funding for his trip was that he was so far off in his estimate of the size of the Earth - 15,700 miles in circumference vs the true 25,000 miles. Educated people knew that in theory, you'd eventually end up in Asia by sailing west, but they didn't think any of the ships of the time would allow someone to carry enough supplies to complete the journey. And they were right. Had there not been two unknown continents, Columbus and his men would have starved to death. And Columbus never did figure out that he'd discovered a new continent. He went to his dying day thinking he'd found islands off the coast of Asia.

And if his technical incompetence weren't enough, Columbus was a pretty ruthless governor. To quote an article from The Guardian:

As governor and viceroy of the Indies, Columbus imposed iron discipline on the first Spanish colony in the Americas, in what is now the Caribbean country of Dominican Republic. Punishments included cutting off people's ears and noses, parading women naked through the streets and selling them into slavery.

His actions were so bad that he was arrested and taken back to Spain in shackles. He later received a pardon from the crown, but only after a new governor was put in charge of the colony.

Granted, Columbus was important historically. His unintended discovery of the New World set off a wave of European exploration that changed the course of history. But why do we have a holiday celebrating this tyrant who only lucked his way into the history books instead of starving at sea?

If what we truly want to celebrate on this day is the spirit of exploration, then why not just come out and make that the focus of the holiday? Make a day that honors those like Magellan, Lewis and Clark, Lindbergh, Armstrong and Aldrin, the Wrights, Amundsen, Hillary, Cousteau, the engineers behind the Mars rover. Make a day that honors all those that push the frontiers of our knowledge.

More Info:

I'll note that after I shared some of that information with my wife and daughter, we began using 'Christopher Columbus' as a profanity in place of a certain orifice that everybody has. e.g. Bill O'Reilly can be a bit of a Christopher Columbus when he starts yelling at his guests. I think that's the most appropriate way to remember his legacy.

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