26 September, 2005

Taxes == Bad?

I've studied enough economics to believe that tax-and-spend policies are inefficient and make the market lose money.

Still, that's not always a good enough reason to cut taxes. If we want the federal government to live up to its current obligations (not that I'm opposed to reducing its scope, but we've got the programs we've got until we cut some), we have to be willing to fund them. That's why this article makes me so angry. No, it's not entirely fair to ask the richest in the country to sacrifice for our troops, who, generally, aren't rich . . . but it's not always about fair. I know if I made more than $1M annually, I'd be happy to give back $4k for the troops. My philosophy on this issue resembles what I've come to describe as the "Jewish take on giving." That is, God helps those who help themselves, so make sure you and your loved ones are taken care of; after that, offer what you can. There's no sense in giving of yourself what you cannot. Simple pragmatism does volumes on the issue of wealth disparity in America.

20 September, 2005

Can Government Build Cities?

Clifford Thies, Professor of Economics and Finance at Shenandoah University, wrote this article criticising the idea that the federal government should be responsible for rebuilding the Gulf Coast region.

I have not been won over that we should rebuild New Orleans at all, and I am generally in favor of letting private enterprise prevail when it can. (If it cannot in this case, then perhaps the federal government should get involved.) Nonetheless, I had some qualms with his argument.

I wrote this letter:

First, I would like to thank you for a well-researched, thought-provoking article. I have neither the time nor the resources to fact-check your statistics, but will trust you; they do not seem to lie outside of my vision of the reality of American cities.

I do, however, have a few issues I would like to raise regarding the article.

First, your statistics do indicate some sort of correlation between "liberal" policies and things we agree are negative (high crime, overly high unemployment). After empirically showing the correlation, however, you only suggest one theoretical conclusion: that the former caused the latter. Is it not equally possible that a history of bad results has resulted in a population becoming frustrated and turning to liberalism to solve its problems? We would have a clearer picture of this if we looked at these correlative graphs over time.

Second, you say, "It seems that liberals who focus their attention on redistributing wealth lose sight of the first responsibility of government, which is to protect its citizens." Certainly I agree that protection of property and violent crime fall under this responsibility of government. What about protection from the effects of the evils of previous generations, including misogyny and slavery? I see room for the argument that government ought to only protect us against current, active evils, but I would have to see that argument more fully developed to accept that liberalism (in the modern sense) supports goals outside government's due goal of protection.

Lastly, there is a degree to which Americans believe in personal freedom, and a degree to which we believe in fairness. The two are constantly at odds; for much of our early history, strong states' rights indicated we favored personal freedom; lately, attaching more and more rights to the 14th amendment has implied that we favor fairness in general. I would like to see data that correlate examples of positive fairness behavior (donating to charity, for example) with less liberal voting behavior. This correlation would give me more peace of mind that we could relax the government's control and still hope to have a good balance of freedom and fairness.

Again, thank you for writing this article. I look forward to discussing these ideas further.

Sincerely, [me]

On Being Happy to Live in the US

I read a well-put-together article today. I am not generally pro- or anti-Libertarian. Their arguments have some merit and some shortcomings. On whole, I was very glad to have read the essay.

I wrote a response to him: Thank you for your thought provoking article. I do not agree with your analysis, but I want to express my gratitude for making me question my acceptance of this government. Personally, I actively accept the authority of the United States. I have read the Constitution a dozen times, and am very happy to live in a country where that document is the supreme law of the land.

I would like to comment on a couple of specifics of your article. In the middle, you make 10 numbered assertions (which I will not reproduce here for brevity's sake).

  1. The American Civil War was certainly the will of many Northerners. It would be difficult to get definitive numbers for who consented to the war, but the issue is more grey than your statement makes it appear.
  2. Certainly true (see # 6, below).
  3. Also true. The only remedy to this that I can see is to have each person opt in or out of being a citizen of the country at some point, without requiring him or her to leave on the latter choice. This makes guaranteeing property rights very difficult; also, would not a person who settles in the middle of Iowa, but opts not to pay taxes nor receive public goods still receiving the public good of border defense? It would be very difficult for the US Armed Forces to know that a missile is bound for non-US property within US border, and not defend against such an attack. If you have a solution to this problem, I would strongly support a person's right to opt out of government programs, taxes and regulations wholesale. See also # 6, below.
  4. True (see # 6, below).
  5. Yes, but we've generally changed that, and view the changes as "progress."
  6. This is an excellent argument. ## 2-5 are all true, but seem to only serve to counter your opposition without furthering your argument. (That is, there could be a third option.)
  7. In what way was the Constitution never a "valid agreement or contract"? Perhaps your argument is that there is no body with the authority to settle disputes and enforce such a contract - that there is no court of law outside of the US to which the entities in the Constitution are beholden. This is true, but we must, at some level, bootstrap; eventually the universe runs out of elephants upon which to stand. Can you think of a better option than a court that is a member of its own entity, but is beholden to its constituents just as they are to it?
  8. This argument, as well as several of the others, fails for immigrants (at least rational, literate immigrants with access to a copy of the US Constitution in their native tongue before arriving). I agree there is a sense of compulsion for those of us born here, but we truly are free to leave. I sympathize with your argument that we do not wish to uproot our lives, but if the stresses of abiding by US law were truly too great, one would leave.
  9. This is precisely Publius' argument in the 10th Federalist Paper. His solution, and the one we have adopted, is that Republican (representative, not Right-wing) governments decrease the chance of only the majority's will being expressed; there are no such checks in Democratic (direct, not Left-wing) governments.
  10. You say "This however cannot legally bind those others who do not so vote." This MAY not so legally bind those others, but it certainly could. I am not a legal expert, so I am not sure of what language would be necessary (and whether or not it is already present), but I have no doubt that one could create an amendment or pass legislation that creates exactly this contract. It is my interpretation of the Constitution that the ratification process (article VII) does this; it was then up to the states to determine how such ratification would happen internally. Assuming each Citizen of a state agreed by the laws of that state, he (specifically "he," here) agreed to such a ratification. My arugment here, unfortunately, only pushes "tacit consent" down to the state level.

In closing, I would just like to ask you this: do you have the resources to defend your house against nuclear states? I know I do not, and I thank my lucky stars for being able to be part of the United States for this, and many other reasons.

Again, I greatly appreciated your article, and look forward to hearing from you on these issues. Thank you for your time.

Sincerely, [me]

06 September, 2005

Responsibilities of Government

The recent Gulf Coast disaster has prompted me to summarize some of my thoughts on the responsibility of government. "Government" has many definitions, but I tend to think of it as being responsible for things that everybody wants but nobody wants to be responsible for.

Services and How They're Paid For

How services are divided up should not be determined by who funded them. Services are for providing a public (shared) good. For those who want services to be tied to how much you contribute, the reliance should go the other way: you have to pay in based on what you are expected to reap. Pay-as-you-go doesn't work with public goods; if it did, we would simply make them private goods and everybody would take care of him- or herself.

That said, there are probably things that are currently under the government's purview that needn't be public goods. We should not hesitate to remove things from this domain. For example, I am not going to argue in this post for or against Social Security, but the fact that it's so difficult to reform seems like a problem to me. We should never think of services as givens; they should be justified and regularly rejustified.

The following lists apply to the "Government" in general. In the US (the scope of my discussions), this consists of many levels of government. The distribution of powers and responsibilities throughout these levels is the task of a different essay.

    Things the Government Should Provide - these are the things without which society itself cannot hold
  • Defense from incursion from foreign nations
  • Defense against attacks from nature: hurricanes, floods, wild boars and the flu
  • Protection of life, liberty and property: criminal court, police,
  • Dispute resolution: among people, businesses and lower governments - civil court, support of contracts
  • Facilitate contribution: universally accessible polling places, frequent open meetings for discussion issues, unwavering support of the rights of its citizens to praise, criticize and participate in their government.

Note that defense against terrorism doesn't have its own item. I would argue that it falls under "Protection of life, liberty and property" rather than under "Defense from incursion from foreign nations," but the current president seems to think it is more of a war.

    Things the Government Might Provide - these are the things we might want to help one another out with, but without which society itself would not crumble to anarchy
  • Protection from non-transmittable disease: health care program beyond the scope of vaccination and disease control.
  • Protection from poverty: poverty is notoriously difficult to overcome, and programs such as welfare, Medicaid and low-income housing have tried to break the cycle. Their efficacy is debatable, though their goal decidedly good.
  • Education (or protection from idiocy): here I will merely comment that paying for education with local property taxes is a bad idea because of the poverty -> poor schools -> poor jobs -> poverty cycle. On the other hand, completely socializing education means people will be paying for schools that they will never use. Education seems to be a semi-public good like many of the others in this category.
  • Infrastructure: things like roads, airports, internet access, telephone lines, the electromagnetic spectrum could be entirely paid for by the government, entirely paid for by usage fees or by some sort of balance between the two. I am currently leaning towards government footing the bill from the start, but people paying back into the system based on use to support future improvements; regardless, we should have a consistent strategy across media.
    Things the Government Should not Provide
  • Subsidies for items that are not public goods (sugar, oil, diapers, art). A free and open market will determine what is of value to produce and sell. (Note that in re: art, I think it may be important for government to instill an appreciation for art, for it is often said that a society's art is the measure of its worth.)

Really Good Chicken Soup

I gave my mother my recipe for Chicken Soup last night. Now I offer it to the world. This is NOT a nice, easy, one-pot recipe; it takes some time to prepare, but cooks in a crock pot, so you have some hands-off time at the end. Makes 6-8 servings.

  • Crock pot
  • Grill
  • Sautee pan / skillet
  • Bowl that can take high heat (ceramic works great)
  • 4 strips bacon, preferably low-sodium
  • 5 carrots, peeled and sliced into rounds (I like 3/4" wide at the narrow end of the carrot, and 1/4" wide at the thick end of the carrot so each round has about the same volume)
  • 4 stalks celery, sliced (1/2")
  • 5 cloves garlic
  • 1 leek or 5 shallots or 1 medium onion or 1 bunch green onions (about 2/3 C chopped, regardless)
  • 1.5 lb boneless, skinless chicken breast
  • Cracked black pepper
  • Fine sea salt
  • Olive oil
  • Rosemary
  • 1 can (12 oz) Chicken stock
  • Cold water
  1. Render the bacon fat. Put a frying pan or skillet over high heat. Add the bacon and cook until lightly crisped. Occassionally drain the fat off into a bowl. Place the bacon aside. Allow to cool, then dice.
  2. Sautee the carrots and celery. Heat 1-2tsp bacon fat in a sautee pan (I like to use a clean pan, since there is probably some burned fat in the pan you used for the bacon, and we know burned fat is very bad for you). Sautee the celery and carrots for a few minutes. Don't cook them too much; they're going into the soup for more cooking, after all.
  3. Sautee the onions and garlic. Heat 1tsp bacon fat in a sautee pan. Sautee the garlic and onions until the garlic turns a light brown. The onions will not caramelize as fast, so if you want them nice and brown, start them about 3 minutes before adding the garlic.
  4. Grill the chicken. Lightly coat the chicken in olive oil, salt, pepper and rosemary. Grill over fairly high heat until cooked through, but still juicy. Allow to cool, then cut into bite-sized pieces.
  5. Combine. Put the chicken stock in a crock pot, adding twice as much water (24oz.). Add the carrots, celery, onions, garlic, bacon and chicken. Cook on high for 45 minutes.

31 August, 2005

Let's Hold Each Other to a Higher Standard

Rant Alert!

Last year, I signed up for a year-long membership at St. Louis Workout on Union St. in St. Louis, MO. I paid my $200 and signed a contract. At the end of the year, I didn't go back; I didn't really dislike the gym, but I found another that I liked better. A couple of weeks after the end of the year contract, however, I thought I'd better make sure everything was cleaned up, so I called the gym. "No problem," the lady said, "just come in by the 15th and we'll clear everything up for you." I came in on the 13th and signed some paperwork declaring my intent to leave the gym; part of the paperwork was an "amount due" field, about which the gentleman at the gym said, "just put '$0' since you prepaid your year membership."

Two weeks after that, I got a bill from the company stating that I owed "$23.66 per month" [for two months after the year membership] and late fees totaling $50. I called them to sort it out. My argument was as follows:

  1. They were perfectly within their right to collect on this amount due, since I had signed a contract stating that I would give them advance notice of my termination
  2. I had made my intentions clear by a) pre-purchasing the year membership rather than enrolling in a repeated-billing process and b) not visiting the gym after the membership had ended
  3. Two representatives of the gym had both told me that there would be no problems in closing my account
  4. Therefore, they should work out some deal with me so they come out as the good guys, willing to help out their customers in the case of an unintentional error

The "gentleman" on the phone disagreed, stating that he "had nothing further to say to me." So I wished him a good day and hung up. I will send the check. They will cash it.

But I have learned my lesson: I no longer have any faith in corporations to "provide a service to their customers." From now on I will treat them as an enemy whose only purpose is to take my money. I will not sign devious contracts.

And I will hold myself to a higher standard: read all fine print.

29 August, 2005

Things that Should Exist

  1. Dream Recorder

    So according to physics, anything that's an engine is also a generator. (Just run it in reverse, dummy.)

    Well, I know almost nothing about the human brain, but it would be pretty cool if we could apply the generator/engine model to the visual center of the brain in order to record dreams. This, of course, relies on figuring out where dream visions differ from real visions; that is, clearly you don't just dream about the backs of your eyelids (at this point, half my audience closes their eyes to see what the backs of their eyelids look like - admit it), so somewhere between cone/rod and the innermost processing a misfire has to take place. If it originates really close to the outside world in the optic nerve, then we've got some potential!

    Now we just need to do some research and then find test subjects who will let us put wireless transmitters on their optic nerves.

  2. MP3 Tagger

    I'd like to be able to put little digital sticky notes on my mp3s. A note could attach to a whole song or just a few seconds. Then, you could send all the notes to a friend as a file, and the friend's reader would pop the notes up when the song is played. Like the little notes in MS Word, but for music. It's important that they be able to be restricted to a small portion of a song, since, for example, I may not like the whole song, but want to point out a "really cool drum solo" or something. This software would have nothing to do with music piracy, since it's dependent upon you both having copies of the same song. Unfortunately, if you want the stickies to be applied automatically, you'd need to use a music format that has track information (ID3, for example); if not, you'd have to apply the stickies manually.

  3. Filesystem URL Symlinks

    Unix, Linux, Mac, etc. all have a great feature called symlinks - basically virtual copies of a file. They come in two versions: "hard" symlinks act as full copies of the file, but don't have the original content, while "soft" symlinks act like really thin wrappers so you can basically call a file by two different names (great for directory shortcuts and the like).

    Now that OSs like OSX are starting to come with webservers preinstalled, I'd like to see a third category: URL symlinks: things that act like files but are really handled by the web server. The following example should illuminate: I've got iTunes, which uses an XML file for its library data. But let's say I'd like to have it use a database instead (maybe to do reporting, or in the hopes that it does lookups faster), or have it use a web url (so all my computers use the same library file, say). I could have my local web server take over the responsibility for the "file" /Library/iTunes/library.xml or whatever. It would accept reads and writes just like any other file (so long as I enabled those permissions), but would actually forward the requests to a servlet. I see this as the next evolution in web servers. We're almost there with wikis, but not quite.

25 August, 2005


Today I will venture into a few areas that I see as related:

  1. Appreciation for and learning of good writing has declined over the past 100 years in America
  2. Time marches ever forward (ignoring, for the moment, those realities in which it does not)
  3. The Liberal Arts education


I repeatedly hear those in my grandparents' generation complaining that, "kids these days can't read or write." There are certainly many possible reasons for this being true, including

  • a) Linguistics - grammars and vocabularies are ever-shifting, so generation Y will sound nothing like the Depression-era folks' speech, and thus each will think the other doesn't speak the language correctly.
  • b) The Failure of No Child Left Behind (and the American education system in general) - in my opinion, the situation of reading and writing in America was going downhill well before President Bush took office, but this policy, while well-intentioned, was poorly implemented. It certainly isn't helping. Fully Federalizing education has failed spectacularly for the last 40 years, so I'm all fore giving the states and local communities more power, but they need more money, too.
  • c) There's more stuff to learn - seriously. Kids 100 years ago didn't have to master the internet and learn the history of the Iraq war. Admittedly, there is material that they learned that has gone by the wayside, but for the most part, we just keep increasing the amount of stuff kids have to learn by the time they're 18. This is a direct by-product of #2, above.

This essay is not the place to debate the first or second reason for the change (I say decline, but 1a above argues against that) in the reading and writing of American students. I am interested in the effects of 1c.


That means stuff accumulates over time. There's never less of it than there was.


The theory of a Liberal Arts education is that it produces a well-rounded academic. This is a wonderful goal. I make my living writing computer code, but I wouldn't want my life or learning limited to that; I would go insane. Well-roundedness has another benefit: more connections. Invention, creativity, problem solving - all the stuff where the gears in your head are really chugging - are basically the synthesizing of ideas. The more fields with which you have experience, the more connections and styles of thought you have. Some argue, "why should I have to take 4 semesters of psychology if I know I want to go into Gothic Architecture?" This is a good point; taken to the extreme, the idea of "more classes is better" would mean never graduating. So we need to find a balance.

But even if we find a good balance today, won't it have to shift with time? There will be more classes necessary to learn all about Gothic Architecture since eventually there will be the Neo-Gothicists and the Post-Neo-Gothicists, and ... There will also be new fields not yet imagined - fields about which "any intelligent person" ought to know at least a little. So if all fields tend to expand in volume at about the same rate, the ratios won't shift, but we'll all end up spending longer in school.

Let's hope those working to lengthening life expectancy maintain their focus.

22 August, 2005


The Problem

I've been working on refactoring a project from tables to a table-less design with CSS. The stated benefit (with which I agree wholeheartedly) is that using tables for layout of non-tabular data (that is, using tables to position blocks of text) is improper because it is using the wrong tool for the job. Any artisan (woodworker, metalsmith, sculptor) would tell you this is a huge no-no, but in web design, it's gone unchallenged for virtual centuries (i.e. a few years). But the "it's-just-bad-art-and-bad-zen" argument isn't the whole story: alternative browsers (cell phones, audiobrowsers for the deaf, etc) have no idea what these tables mean, and will therefore confuse their users. The problem is that though CSS is standardized, some broswers (most notoriously, IE) don't conform to the standard.

The Established Solution

So far, people have been adding hacks to their CSS to get around browser differences. Things like the star html hack and the mac backslash hack are ingenious, but they impede development. They're hard for future programmers to understand (even with liberal comments), and they're logically messy. (No self-respecting C++ programmer would write

  width = 100;
  callBackSetWidth(120);  //Linux platforms before
                          //1997 don't support this,
                          //so they get the value 100
It's just ugly.)

My Solution

I came upon my solution by accident. I have been using the .jsp extension for my CSS files for a while now for the sole purpose of being able to use the <c:url> tag. If I use an image for a background, I don't want the link to have to reference my project name - epecially since the context may change to root at deployment.

Because the CSS files were already dynamically generated, I thought of doing browser dependency with tags. I've got
<c:set var="user_agent" value="${headerValues['user-agent'][0]}" />

  <c:when  test="${fn:startsWith(user_agent, 'Mozilla/5.0')}">
    <%-- Firefox 1.0, Gecko, etc --%>
    <c:set var="firefox" value="${true}" />
    <c:set var="ie" value="${false}" />
    <c:set var="app_width" value="760" />
    <%-- IE 6 --%>
    <c:set var="firefox" value="${false}" />
    <c:set var="ie" value="${true}" />
    <c:set var="app_width" value="762" />
at the top of the file. You could easily have more cases if you need to support more browsers. Notice first the "ie" and "firefox" variables. These can be used by tags later for browser-specific settings. Also notice the global variable app_width; this is a nice way of promoting reuse (constants are our friends - it'd sure be nice to be able to make 'em final in the page scope, though) while allowing differences between browsers.

The Dangers of Globalization

The Premise

The Diane Rehm Show hosted Barry Lynn today to discuss his book, End of the Line: The Rise and Coming Fall of the Global Corporation. Lynn was a globalization consultant for many business, and, over the years, came to believe that as our economy has become more global for the sake of efficiency (which all economists will agree is a benefit), this efficiency has come with increased risk. He gives examples such as computer manufacturers relying on chips from Taiwan, and we are thus importing their political instability in the form of component-reliance. Lynn's solution is to use the US Government to force diversification and backup, such as a law stating "no one foreign country can supply more than 25% of a given product."

My criticism

Such a law would probably have the intended benefit - political disturbances in Taiwan would have less of an effect on our economy because businesses would be forced to also use Brazil.

(Opponents who still accept that this is a problem would argue that the US Government should be giving tax credits to companies doing manufacturing and sourcing within our borders so as to decrease dependence on foreign goods and services overall. This has some merit, but strikes me as a little heavy-handed. It's basically substituting tax money for efficiency, which smacks of socialism. This doesn't work.)

I, however, like to think of Government as the solution only when we can't come up with a free-market solution. Therefore, I began to brainstorm some ideas that will help alleviate future problems due to dependence on unstable resources. (By the way, people who study computer science will be smacking their foreheds and saying, "duh," throughout this whole article, because we're constantly trying to limit dependence upon unstable resources.)

Some ideas

  1. A company that offers foreign-instability-insurance. If you've got a $10B business that relies on information stored in Bangalore, we'll give you money when Bangalore falls into the ocean or erupts into civil unrest . . . for a price. This has the benefit of being immediately profitable (we're not making payouts until something bad happens, and we're taking in premiums from the get-go), but the actuaries are going to complain a lot because they've never seen a problem like this.
  2. A company that offers goods/services backups. Creating domestic copies of Dell's offshore data is quite easy, but how do you create a backup chip manufacturing or chemical processing plant? A backup textile factory? Perhaps the company could have a branch that specializes in really fast construction and buy up land in cheap areas to be used at a moment's notice. Clearly location isn't important, since the plants are now 8000 miles away.
  3. (as a little bonus, Company #1 could offer discounts to businesses that employ the services of Company #2 - now we've got a risk-reducing empire on our hands!)
  4. A company that stops natural disasters. You'd just call them up and say, "hey, in case there's an earthquake about to hit India, I'd rather it didn't." Technical specs to be hashed out later.

16 August, 2005

The Business Experiment

The Business Experiment is trying to create an open-source-style business. I like the idea (and am a member), but I have some reservations. Some critics worry that people won't be willing to share their ideas for fear of losing out on the rewards. I'm perfectly happy to take that risk, because from all the startups I've tried to start, I know that the odds of actually getting your idea going is close to nil, so it's a worthwhile trade. I love the idea of collective wisdom (which is oddly kind of the opposite of groupthink) - the anecdote that really hits home with me is that of the M&Ms in the jar:

If you put out a jar of M&Ms and ask everybody to guess how many there are in the jar, with the person guessing closest getting a prize, the average guess will be very close to dead-on, even if no single guess is.

So I really like the idea, but I do have some worries. One of them is how to split up revenues among those "running" the business. Also, are the people signed up on the site employees? Or one collective CEO? If the former, we'll need to have some sort of payscale. For either, there will have to be some determination of how much each person contributed (or simply divide by #users, which, to some, would seem very unfair).

13 August, 2005


"Tell me about your mother," Consumating asked. And so I responded, but, as mentioned in the postscript, I told a lie. My mother has, in fact, never climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro.

11 August, 2005

Businesses are Foolish

So many eBusinesses out there subscribe to the same, dumb model. They make you create an account to do the smallest thing, like email them a question. Buy.com just lost a sale because I could not email them a question. (Granted, the question was whether they would match, or even come close to a competitor's price.)

I imagine companies require all sorts of registration so they can collect information on their customers in order to better market. If I want specials emailed to me, though, I would just want to submit my email address to a "specials newsletter" form. I still wouldn't want to go through the whole signup process. If I don't end up purchasing from them, my account is just wasting space on their server; if I do end up purchasing, they've got all that information from the order form.

There is another possible reason for all these registrations: the programmers aren't smart enough to figure out a way to do what the business analysts want without logins. Just a tiny bit of thinking outside the box (and not all that outside the box) yields elegant solutions for many of these issues. Let's say you want to make sure that the email address submitted to the "specials newsletter" wasn't somebody else's; you simply send them a confirmation email first. Now, what about when the person wants to unsubscribe? Simply having an email daemon (they're FREE from Apache's Jakarta project, for goodness' sake) that listens for "unsubscribe" emails accomplishes this.

Now, don't get me wrong: sometimes, an account on a site - even an eMarketplace - can be a Good Thing(TM). (Side note: I'm really not sure why we say "Good Thing(TM)," but I'm pretty sure that's how it's done now.) If I want to view order history, view order tracking, not have to reenter my billing address, ... I'm all for it. But what if I don't want any of that?

So in the end: making people sign up for accounts that don't really do anything just pushes customers away.

03 August, 2005

Being understood

I just reread my Plea 1, and was reminded of what happened this weekend. I had asked my friend Chelsey to come over and help me clean. She agreed, but by "help" she meant "heckle." This actually was fine, since just having someone around to keep me on task works wonders. Bonus point one for CMR.

But to the point: at one point I had mentioned that I tend to listen to music without listening to the lyrics (much to the annoyance of an ex girlfriend). Later, I tried to explain Schenkerian theory of pivot chords and pivot notes (hence the relevence to Plea 1) and my music thesis. After twenty minutes of doing complete injustice to the theory, Chelsey says, simply, "now I see why you don't pay attention to lyrics." It was the highlight of my summer; I haven't felt understood in a long time. So bonus point two to CMR.

Java notes

The best way to iterate (pre java 1.5)

for (final Iterator iter = myCollection.iterator(); iter.hasNext(); ) {


  • forces iter to have the right scope
  • puts looping logic on one line (unlike while, or wose yet, do...while)

A gripe

javadoc should be able to translate < and > into &lt; and &gt; automatically. For actual html tags, you can just write <li> or whatever, but you can't put List<Dog> in a javadoc comment. Javadoc should be able to tell the difference between html tags and parameterized types (not to mention mathematical logic, like myNum < .5). I just think "@param dogs a List&lt;Dog&gt; that are available for sale" looks ugly.

Use Business-Level Helpers

In Better Faster Lighter Java, Tate and Gehtland discuss breaking dependencies (pp 54 ff). They describe the "train wreck" that can happen when you have things like "store.getAddress().getCountry().getState().getCity() or ... address.country.state.city ... [especially when the code] reaches into many different packages." They suggest adding helper methods that do the reaching for you from the top layer so that clients of Store don't need to know about the intermediary classes.

I suggest an alternate solution: the use of very specialized helper classes. Such a class might have only one method: City getCity(Store store). They are even more useful when doing calculations rather than simple accesses. A class like this allows you to change the internal structure of Store without affecting its clients. If you later want to use database lookups or web-service lookups, or send an SMS to a guy that sits in your office to do lookups, you can simply replace the code for the helper. (Note that these helpers should NOT be Singletons, or you're going to create quite the bottleneck!)

06 June, 2005

Plea 1

An excerpt from an email I sent my father this morning: "Could you tell me a little bit about Histrionic Personality Disorder? A friend had mentioned she thought she suffered from it and asked me to do some reading. I would tend to agree, except that I find it's easy to fit anyone to any disorder; I hear people of my generation overdiagnose themselves and each other quite often."

If anyone has any comments on HPD or overdiagnises, I'd be happy to hear about them, but that isn't what I want to discuss in this essay. What I want to discuss is subtlety of language. Reread that last phrase - the one after the semicolon. It took me a second as well. My original meaning was "I hear my friends doing this," not, "I hear that my friends do this." After writing and rereading the sentence, I thought about changing it to add clarity, but I realized that I in fact wanted to imply both meanings.

Having noticed this, I have several questions:

  • Is this an example of very good or very bad writing? I love the fact that I can say two things with one sentence, but there are those who argue in favor of clarity, which this decidedly is not. (See also two of my favorite parts of music theory: “pivot chord” and “pivot note.”)
  • Would anyone else have noticed this sentence if I had put it in some widely-read journal? Is it appropriate or boastful to publicly dissect my own sentence in this way?
  • Do other people choose their words this carefully? (Note that I did not initially choose my words here, but rather noticed them afterwards.) Do I overanalyze what others say? On the other hand, maybe I miss subtlety.

Admission 1

On the train back from Chicago, I read a passage from a David Sedaris book that got me thinking. I had just had a conversation with Luciana wherein she revealed that my correcting her grammar bothered her. I pointed out that I truly did not do it in order to make myself appear or feel superior, but, rather, because I thought she would want to learn (or already knew, but had simply slipped up). Sedaris was comparing his repeated and unsuccessful cleanings of his sister’s apartment to a missionary proffering Jesus to worshipers of Tiki Gods. This makes me think I am perhaps proselytizing a more formal manner of speaking English. (Wait a second: is the object of proselytize the subject matter or the person whom you are trying to convince? That is, am I "proselytizing a ... manner of speaking" or am I "proselytizing Luciana in favor of a ... manner of speaking"?)

Perhaps now is the time to start making an effort to no longer correct people’s grammar. (Note that I’ve always thought the no-splitting-your-infinitives rule is bogus since it stems from English teachers analyzing Latin, in which such a rule is moot.) As if the fact that it bugs people weren't a good enough reason.

20 April, 2005

Inductum Administratione: de Aggerando Auxilii Barbaribus

Here I make a very quick analysis of some points made by our current federal administration (that of George Walker Bush). All quotes and numbers come from http://cfrterrorism.org/policy/foreignaid.html

First, I combine two statements

"Do Americans understand how much of the U.S. budget goes to foreign aid?"

"No. A 2001 poll sponsored by the University of Maryland showed that most Americans think the United States spends about 24 percent of its annual budget on foreign aid—more than 24 times the actual figure."

"Do Americans support increasing foreign aid?"

"Yes. A University of Maryland poll, which was conducted in July 2002, indicated that 81 percent of Americans support increasing foreign-aid spending to fight terrorism. According to the poll’s findings, the typical American would like to spend $1 on foreign aid for every $3 spent on defense; the real ratio in the proposed budget for fiscal year 2003 is $1 on aid for every $19 spent on defense."

If Americans think we’re spending 24% and even that isn’t enough, certainly 1% can’t be anywhere near enough, right? I understand that the US is a republic, not a democracy. With that understanding comes an understanding that most Americans do not have an appreciation for the nuances of foreign politics, including foreign aid. Though leaders shouldn’t bow to every whim of the public (if they did, they wouldn’t be leaders, would they? See also Alexandre Ledru-Rollin: "There go my people. I must find out where they are going so I can lead them."), they should certainly listen to their constitutents (or else they can't be representative).

Then, a comparison to other nations

"How do U.S. aid levels compare with those of other contries?"

"The U.S. foreign-aid budget as a percentage of gross national product (GNP) ranks last among the world’s wealthiest countries (at about 0.1 percent). In raw dollars, however, the United States is now the world’s top donor of economic aid, although for more than a decade it was second to Japan, which is far smaller and has been beset by economic woes. In 2001, the United States gave $10.9 billion, Japan $9.7 billion, Germany $4.9 billion, the United Kingdom $4.7 billion, and France $4.3 billion. As a percentage of GNP, however, the top donors were Denmark, Norway, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, and Sweden. The tiny Netherlands (pop. 16.3 million) gave $3.2 billion in 2001—almost a third of what America contributed."

I don’t want Japan or Denmark to drive our foreign (or domestic) policy, but it’s always a good idea to see what your friends are doing.

Neither statement is conclusive, but they both suggest that the US should increase its current foreign aid spend.

Inductum Administratione: de Causibus Auxilii Barbaribus

At some point, I should like to write an essay on why no action is truly altruistic (short version: you wouldn't do it if you didn't feel good about doing it - there's your reward), but today I am going to discuss a specific action that has even more self-interest at heart: foreign aid. In this essay, I show that self preservation is one of the foremost reasons for offering such aid. I shall loosely follow the scientific method, brainstorming some possible reasons, then evaluating the probability of each being the primary reason for offering foreign aid. (inline note 1: see excerpts from "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance" regarding the scientific method, or better yet, read the book) (inline note 2: it is not my purpose to say that offering foreign aid out of a sense of self preservation is morally superior or inferior to offering it out of a sense of equality. Or pity, for that matter. My object here is to address the likelihood of each underlying cause, not the value of the underlying cause.) (inline note 3: I specifically address the case of the United States of America offering foreign aid.)


  1. state the requirements for a motive to be considered
  2. brainstorm a list of possible motives
  3. evaluate each possible motive
  4. order the possible motives in terms of likelihood of importance

Step 1: state the requirements for a motive to be considered.

The motive must have a reasonable possibility in resulting in causing the US to provide foreign aid. By "The US," I mean the federal government of the United States of America. My reasons are as follows:
  • Individual states are prohibited from forming treaties with foreign governments. See The United States Constitution (USCON) I.10. This doesn't prohibit them from offering foreign aid, but it makes the necessary negotiations more difficult.
  • Individual states have less money than the US as a whole, and can thus make less of an impact on a foreign nation.
  • Even more so for individual people or corporations
  • Whereas the federal foreign aid budget for 2004 was $11.4B plus $4.3B in peacekeeping operations to improve foreign armed forces (see here). The foreign aid budget of Missouri during the same period was, as far as I can tell, $0.

Step 2: brainstorm a list of possible motives.

  • Pity
  • Desire for economic equality
  • Self preservation
  • Image improvement
  • Promote trade for our goods
  • Adherence to Judaic value of helping another when you are in good fortune
  • Adherence to Christian value of sacrificing for the sake of others
  • Promote good karma

Step 3: evaluate each possible motive.

At this point, I got bored. Maybe someone else can contribute to this essay. Mostly I just wanted to brainstorm...