Slaughterhouse Five, by Kurt Vonnegut

July 1, 2012

I was disappointed. It was merely clever. The theme was unoriginal.

Life is something you do, something done to you. It’s an old saw. It’s the main theme of Greek myths. Vonnegut didn’t add much.

He re-surfaced it in an amusing way. The aliens, Tralfamadorians, are the Fates. Maybe politicians are the gods.

Both Homer and Vonnegut take war as the stage for their look at fate. Is there a difference? We don’t accept the inevitability of war (do we?). Vonnegut was sarcastic, Homer sincere.

But sarcasm is never deep.


Obamacare & Individual Mandate

March 29, 2012

I’m libertarian about society, communist about the environment, and intellectually intrigued by the large middle ground. Government-mandated health insurance is not in the middle ground; it has nothing to do with the environment. So, as a matter of principle, I oppose it. Of course, by that same principle, I oppose public education. I wonder why all the protestors denouncing the Affordable Care Act as socialism aren’t also screaming at first-graders attending public school.

To continue this theme of consistency in our society: There is nothing unprecedented about the government forcing people to buy something. Every act of income taxation is an example. Unless people are free to choose not to have income, it is nonsense to argue that taxing income and then buying stuff with it is not forcing people to buy stuff.

So, the Supreme Court’s comparison of the individual mandate to forcing people to buy broccoli is dumb. The government does, in fact, force people to buy broccoli: It forces them to pay taxes on the process of earning a living, and then it spends some of that tax revenue on school and military lunches, some of which undoubtedly include broccoli.

The comparison is also dumb because the government forces hospitals to provide emergency room services, regardless of an ability to pay. It doesn’t force grocery stores to hand out free food, regardless of an ability to pay.

There are certainly ways that the individual mandate fails to make sense. Most of its advocates are prone to saying that healthcare is a fundamental human right. Well, a fundamental right is, by definition, something it’s wrong to make you pay for. You don’t have to pay the government for a speedy trial, or to exercise free speech, or to avoid cruel and unusual punishment. So, if healthcare is a right, why are liberals trying to make us pay for it?

The Colonel’s Lady, by Somerset Maugham

January 5, 2011

What’s it about? A husband who doesn’t understand his wife. His wife’s pursuit of alternatives to passionless marriage, which results in an affair and then a book of poetry about it. Did they have marriage counseling back then? (The story was written in 1946.)

The theme reminds me a little of Flannery O’Connor (in a very different setting). The colonel is too narrow for his own good, but well-intentioned. His assumptions about the world seem mainly intended to please the ego. Like all such assumptions, they can only remain intact by a careful tailoring of circumstance, which he perpetrates until his wife’s book forces a confrontation with some unsettling truths. That’s the gist of the story. His denial of reality never disappears, however, as the ending makes clear. Where O’Connor tends to tell stories about the consequences of inflexibility, this story is more of a study of how ingrained in human nature it is.

It’s sort of feminist, which is interesting. Some of the colonel’s character flaws can be attributed to a patriarchal culture. He is patronizing toward his wife. He assumes all the flaws (that he perceives) with the marriage are his wife’s fault (such as a lack of children). Maybe the feminism is dated, however. I wonder how a contemporary re-telling might differ. It might hold the wife more accountable, or at least explore the topic of her accountability. What did she contribute to the marriage? We know she had an affair. She surreptitiously wrote poems about it, and surreptitiously published them. Neither partner is shown contributing to the marriage. The circumstance of the times, and the slant of the narrative, cast blame on the colonel. What light would modern circumstance, and a balanced narrative, cast on similar events?

Another problem with corporate bailouts

December 28, 2010

The Economic Policy Institute, a Washington think tank, says American companies have created 1.4 million jobs overseas this year, compared with less than 1 million in the U.S. ….”There’s a huge difference between what is good for American companies versus what is good for the American economy,”

Sabriel, Lirael, Abhorsen by Garth Nix

December 20, 2010

Lately, I’ve been reading young-adult literature (YAL) of types that didn’t exist when I was a kid. This has mainly meant stories with female action heroes. I really liked the Sterkharm Handshake (the first 50 pages are a tad slow, but it’s great after that). Sabriel and its successors, officially dubbed The Old Kingdom Series, are good too.

I like fantasy that has a cosmology behind it. The Chronicles of Narnia and The Lord of the Rings have an explanation of a moral and cosmic order. They are essentially kinds of myth creation, planned for the purposes of young-adult literature. The Harry Potter books lack a cosmological theme.

Sabriel has that. The magic has roots in the creation of the universe; there’s an explanation of how order came from chaos.

A principal theme of The Old Kingdom series is death. It tends to be a principle theme of much modern myth-inventing, but in a simplistic way. Typically, fantasy is based on a struggle betweeen good and evil; good is represented by life and love, while hate and death stand in for evil. These books by Garth Nix are a little different. The protagonist is a necromancer, a sorcerer of the dead. Necromancers are universally evil in literature; Voldemort is a necromancer, for instance.

In Sabriel, necromancers can be evil, but they are also good. They send zombies into death (where they belong). They maintain the order of life by preserving death as a natural part of it. This is a somewhat unusual, and nice, way to treat death in youth literature. Death is not equated with evil, but considered a natural part of life.

How to grade schools

September 22, 2010

The popular methods seem to involve test scores and graduation rate. Test scores are a valid part, but only a part: education is not test prep. Graduation rate shouldn’t be a factor at all, since it isn’t independent of school policies.

A natural approach would be to identify the measurable effects of education. Then, identify the non-school factors influencing those outcomes. Then, predict outcomes based on those factors. Achievement beyond the prediction is probably due to the schools. For example….

Measurable outcomes of schooling probably include SAT scores, college attendance, college success, employment, and crime rate. These are aspects of a post-schooling life influenced by education.

Non-school influences on those outcomes probably include the average (and median) income and educational level of neighborhood families.

So, a given level of income and education in a school’s families should predict a certain level of outcomes (SAT scores, crime rate, etc.) in the school’s students after they finish school. If the school does better than what is predicted, it is a successful school.

Generally, statsitics are relevant to groups. This method wouldn’t work at all in assessing individual teachers. It might be better at assessing districts than schools. All such methods are aproximate. Something is always lost in a statistical snapshot.

Impressions of Beijing

March 6, 2009
  • Grey. Air-pollution, anti-trendy (“proletariat”) clothing, monolithic cement buildings.
  • Beautiful. The ancient temples and dynastic grounds are magnificent.
  • Indifferent. It reminds me more of New York than Seoul.
  • Uncommercial (relative to Korea and the West). But, does it count when it’s a product of tyranny?
  • Stories. Lots and lots of stories in the faces of the old.
  • Libertarian. The free-market distribution of smoking and non-smoking bars is accepted as a just distribution. They’re not Communist like America.
  • OK, not really. Amusing (sadly so) factoid: The Lonely Planet guides for China are banned because China and Taiwan are different colors on the map.



Forbidden Palace



Women dancing outside the Temple of Heaven



Temple of Heaven

My last hike in Korea…

February 22, 2009

…as lovely as the first.


Economists Agree

February 16, 2009

It’s interesting to note how professional academics fail to align with popular opinion. Professionals shouldn’t be assumed to be always right–that’s a species of authority worship–but they do deserve to be taken seriously. They are the experts in their fields. As various conservatives constantly reminds us, academics tend to be liberal. The neo-cons think that’s evidence of a liberal bias in higher education. Maybe it’s evidence that liberal positions are better supported by fact and reason.

Economics is a little different. Here’s a list, from Harvard economist Greg Mankiw, of matters about which economists tend to agree. It is generally not supportive of leftist positions. Most economists agree minimum wage increases unemployment and rent ceilings reduce the quality of housing. The experts generally support free-markets and free-trade.

  1. A ceiling on rents reduces the quantity and quality of housing available. (93%)
  2. Tariffs and import quotas usually reduce general economic welfare. (93%)
  3. Flexible and floating exchange rates offer an effective international monetary arrangement. (90%)
  4. Fiscal policy (e.g., tax cut and/or government expenditure increase) has a significant stimulative impact on a less than fully employed economy. (90%)
  5. The United States should not restrict employers from outsourcing work to foreign countries. (90%)
  6. The United States should eliminate agricultural subsidies. (85%)
  7. Local and state governments should eliminate subsidies to professional sports franchises. (85%)
  8. If the federal budget is to be balanced, it should be done over the business cycle rather than yearly. (85%)
  9. The gap between Social Security funds and expenditures will become unsustainably large within the next fifty years if current policies remain unchanged. (85%)
  10. Cash payments increase the welfare of recipients to a greater degree than do transfers-in-kind of equal cash value. (84%)
  11. A large federal budget deficit has an adverse effect on the economy. (83%)
  12. A minimum wage increases unemployment among young and unskilled workers. (79%)
  13. The government should restructure the welfare system along the lines of a “negative income tax.” (79%)
  14. Effluent taxes and marketable pollution permits represent a better approach to pollution control than imposition of pollution ceilings. (78%)

There are a few things I question. Items #10 and #13 suggest we should replace food stamps and other non-cash assistance with cash. How would we prevent the cash from being spent on, say, booze and lottery tickets? Or fertility treatment by a woman who already has six kids and no job? Some of the items are vaguely moralistic, employing the word “should” rather specifying a likely result we can evaluate for ourselves.

Also notable is what’s missing. Apparently, there’s no consensus regarding health care. Overall, it’s an interesting list.

World’s Best Cities–the US Misses the Cut

February 3, 2009

I like lists. Here’s Mercer’s top 5 cities, ranked by stuff like personal safety and quality of life:

World, overall:
Zurich, Switzerland (1st)
Vienna, Austria (tied for 2nd)
Geneva, Switzerland (tied for 2nd )
Vancouver, Canada (4th)
Auckland, New Zealand (5th)

World, personal safety:
Luxembourg (1st)
Bern, Switzerland (tied for 2nd)
Geneva, Switzerland (tied for 2nd)
Helsinki, Finland (tied for 2nd)
Zurich, Switzerland (tied for 2nd)

Americas, overall:
Vancouver, Canada (4th)
Toronto, Canada (15th)
Ottawa, Canada (19th)
Montreal, Canada (22nd)
Calgary, Canada (25th)

Americas for personal safety:
Calary, Canada (tied for 22nd)
Montreal, Canada (tied for 22nd)
Ottawa, Canada (tied for 22nd)
Toronto, Canada (tied for 22nd)
Vancouver, Canada (tied for 22nd)

The best American city hardly even counts–Honolulu.

What’s interesting about this is that the best cities are in countries with strong welfare systems, yet welfare isn’t a factor in the ratings. These ratings are intended for expatriates and the multi-national corporations that employ them; Mercer, the source, is an expat-management service.

If welfare is an economic drag on a society, one would expect strong welfare states to score poorly in a rating system that ignores life for people on welfare. In contrast, a country–especially a rich one like the U.S.–that spends less on social services should look better in such a system.   Instead we see the opposite. The largest developed nation in the world doesn’t have a best or safest city at any level. A  plausible explanation is that a dollar spent on welfare does more to reduce crime than a dollar spent on law enforcement.

It’s also worth noting that Switzerland is the only country  in the world that makes heroin available by prescription. It provides the drug to addicts. Yet, that tiny country has 3 of the 5 safest cities in the world.