Wednesday, November 30, 2005

T is for Tookie, and good enough for me.

So, after 24 years on death row, the execution date for Stanley "Tookie" Williams is drawing nigh. For those of you who have not followed this story, let me lay it all out for you.

Stanley Williams is one of the co-founders of the Crips. In 1979 he was arrested and sentenced to death for the murder of four individuals during two seperate robberies. After being placed in solitary confinement for six and a half years for assaulting guards and inmates he allegedly reformed and has been studiously working to improve himself. With his execution date on the 13th of December, he has been attempting to get clemency from Gov. Schwarzeneggar. This has stirred up considerable debate amongst people on both sides of the capital punishment divide. Here's the best summary of both sides in the most unbiased way that I can present. (Fear not, there will be plenty of time for bias afterwards.)

Those in favor of granting clemency bring up the following points:
1: Mr. Williams has done a considerable amount of work to try to improve himself while in prison.
2: Mr. Williams has done a considerable amount of work trying to lessen gang violence including writing a series of children's books speaking against gang membership and brokering a peace agreement between the Crips and the Bloods.
3: For his efforts Mr. Williams has been nominated for the Noble Peace Prize five times.
4: Mr. Williams has always claimed innocence in the murders and there is a certain amount of doubt as to the fairness of his trial.

Those against argue thus:
1: Mr. Williams has not only left the Crips, but is actually still running the gang from prison.
2: Mr. Williams has not reformed as shown by his unwillingness to divulge information on other gang members or give information on tactics used by gangs.

Frankly wikipedia sums it up better then I did here: but I just wrote that whole damn thing and am not cavalier enough to just delete it out of hand.

As far as I am concerned, this is a stellar example of the flaws of capital punishment. Regardless of what he has done in the past, it appears that Mr. Williams has done more to improve the state of the world then I ever have. If this sort of change is possible, wouldn't it be better to do away with capital punishment? Even discounting the possibility that he is innocent, it seems that we have a responsibility to attempt to make this sort of reformation more common. Those of you out there more eloquent than I ought to take this and repackage it in a sexier, more convincing package! Or you can argue against me, throwing your offalish arguments primate-like against the pristine tower of perfection that is my position. The choice is yours!

P.S. How about that for a clever title? That's +2 in the argument resolution phase!

Diebold in the N.C.

I found this link: on slashdot. Basically from what I understand Diebold (who makes the electronic voting machines in North Carolina) is under fire from the N.C. government because they won't fully disclose the code used for the software as required by law in N.C., and was recently denied protection from these charges.

Diebold's argument for not disclosing everything is because part of their software uses Microsoft's (or M$ for you l337 ones) Windows, and they're worried about the $100,000 fine that comes from revealing a 3rd party code, and furthermore it's impossible to provide a list of EVERY person who's coded Windows.

Now I can see the logic behind these arguments, but The State Board of Elections said that all companies must supply the code used, or an explanation why some code is not submitted. So obviously there are allowances in place incase of circumstances such as these.

What this makes me think is that Diebold may have something to hide. The claim that they can't release their code due to 3rd party code seems pretty weak in this light. So my question to you is:

1: Do they actually have a substantial claim here?
2: Hypothetically let's say the reason they're hiding their code is because the fears that they helped Bush win by cheating are true. What will happen then? Will Bush be kicked out of office? Will he be innocent due to "ignorance" (which I would find ironic), or will no one care?

On a personal note, I hope this goes through and Diebold is forced to release thier code (I'm not too concerned with the Microsoft part). Not because I belive they have something to hide, but because I want to see that when push comes to shove this law will actually be enforced and not just a paper tiger. Rawr.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Open this box.

Pandora is making me wonder why I would ever need to listen to commercial radio (or leave my computer) again. It's amazingly intuitive, you just put in a few artists, and you start hearing music you like, some old and some new. It's adware, but I haven't found the ads to be intrusive, so basically 100% free music tailored to your preferences.

-Obligatory Intellectualism-

A lot of scifi deals with AI adopting human characteristics. All the stories envision near total human replacements, and focus on how we treat the machines. Far more sinister is the reality: specialized computers replacing a few key activities we assume are distinctly human. The problem becomes how we treat each other.

Soon, no one will know your taste like a database and a computer. So will there be any reason to discuss music with a stranger at shows in two decades? What about with our friends?

Monday, November 28, 2005

This is the way the oil ends...

I've been slyly pushing this for a while, hoping someone else would lay out all my arguments more diligently. Fortunately, Spencer Reiss finally has.

[R]ising oil prices are... an invitation to corn and coal and hydrogen. For anyone with a fresh idea, expensive oil is as good as a subsidy.

Sunday, November 27, 2005

Microsoft = Crack dealer?

So, apparently Microsoft is selling its new XBox 360 for less than it costs?! While this is not a new business practice, usually being the first product out (Playstation 3 and Nintendo Revolution aren't due out until 2006) equates to higher costs for those first adopters who are not normally considered bargain shoppers. For those of you wondering, they make up the profit on game pricing and licensure agreements with game developers. What does this tell us then about Microsoft, and probably Sony and Nintendo?

Clearly they are crack dealers, providing unwitting customers with a dangerously addictive product at cut-rate prices in an attempt to hook lifetime customers. Due to the fact that none of this product (XBox 360) is gaining dust on shelves, wouldn't it have been a better business decision to price it closer to cost? Its clear that people would pay for it. Thoughts?

Illegal immigration

I was watching Kansas City Week in Review this morning on PBS, and they had a fiery roundtable on illegal immigration. Most of the talk was pretty emotionally charged, but an interesting comment came out of one Kris Kobach, the most recent loser in our 3rd District race to Congressman Dennis Moore.

He mentioned that the arguments currently being made by business (take away our cheap hispanic labor and the economy will collapse) is the same argument that was made in the mid 19th century by plantation owners (take away our cheap labor/slaves and the economy will collapse). So the question is: How necessary is this labor (cheap or underpaid labor) to the backbone of our economy, since we have proven over time that slavery was not necessary to the 19th/20th century economy?

Sunday, November 20, 2005

Naming babies

I have finally found enough time to write about our discussion from Tuesday (Patrick's party). We spoke on baby names if you remember and I clearly was unprepared (even though I was the only one of us "with child". If you will remember I cited Freakonomics in my statement that high-income parents start trends in naming which are then adopted by low/lower income parents. Here are some snippets:

"... it isn't famous people who drive the name game. It is the family just a few blocks over, the one with the bigger house and newer car ... But as a high-end name is adopted en masse, high-end parents begin to abandon it. Eventually, it is considered so common that even lower-end parents may not want it, whereby it falls out of the rotation entirely ... Where, then, will the new high-end names come from? It wouldn't be surprising to find them among the "smartest" girls' and boys' names in California, that are still fairly obscure."

All of Levitt and Dubner's information is drawn from California census bureau information and they use data from the 1960s to the present (they might have used more, but this is what they mention in the book). The end result of this study is the authors' assertion that the child's name above all things reflects the parent's expectations for the child. So, I guess the my nickname for my child would not be a good idea for a formal name... Dingus. Comments? (Not about the name Dingus, that was a joke)

Saturday, November 12, 2005

A Perennial Issue

The Minimum wage currently stands at $5.15, for a full time employee this works out to $10,712 per year, well below the poverty line.

Wikipedia, as usual, provides us with a sparkling overview of the topic:

This paper by the UAW attempts to rebutt several critiques leveled by economists. Excerpt below.

• Most minimum wage workers are adults; 87% are over age 20.

• People don't quickly move out of minimum wage jobs. Workers age 25 to 54 have a 38% chance of getting stuck in a low-wage job even after 3 years ("No Way Out"”, Center for Economic and Policy Research).

• In 2002, on average, minimum wage workers earned 68% of their total family income ("“No Way Out", Center for Economic and Policy Research).

• From 1950 to 1982 the minimum wage was usually 45% of the average hourly wage in the U.S. In 2004, the average hourly wage was $15.67; by the 45% standard, the minimum wage should have been $7.05. That wage would lift a single parent with one child out of poverty but still leave a parent with two kids below the poverty line.

Many suggest that raising the minimum wage would be largely negated by the resultant rise in retail prices.

I suggest that while prices would undoubtedly rise to some degree, it would be mitigated by robust price competition. The incentive to keep prices competitive would force companies to cut costs in other areas, something they're doing anyway, minimum wage laws simply decide where those efficiencies will be spent.

Thoughts on minimum wage increases?

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Paris riots and the manufacture of consent

I am currently reading the "Chomsky Reader" by the famed dissident Noam Chomsky, and I came across a section in his chapter The Manufacture of Consent that reminded me of the Paris riots:

"Democratic systems are quite different. It is necessary to control not only what people do, but also what they think. Since the state lacks the capacity to ensure obedience by force, thought can lead to action and therefore the threat to order must be excised at the source. It is necessary to establish a framework for possible thought that is constrained with the principles of the state religion. These need not be asserted; it is better that hey be presupposed, as the unstated framework for thinkable thought. The critics reinforce this system by tacitly accepting these doctrines, and confining their critique to tactical questions that arise within them."

Isn't it possible, that France (democracy) and their secularization (state religion/ideal) has cut the Muslims from the discussion of their (French Muslim's) own country's social dialogue?

Science Classes In Kansas Will Now Question Evolution Theory

Here we go again!

Kansas has moved into the Intelligent Design crowd. So when are school board elections? The Pennsylvania school board members which approved ID were all thrown out in the elections last night. At the same point Kansas is encouraging it. I thought they learned from the last time they did this and were all voted out?

I think the ID issues highlights a very interesting debate about science in our society. How can we educate the masses about the basic principles of the scientific method? I also am irritated that evolution is the only theory under attack. We have about an equal amounts of evidence for plate tectonics as we do for evolution. It seems contradictory to try and throw out one theory when most of our theories have equal evidence.

Monday, November 07, 2005

44,234 Casaulties Since the Beginning of the War in Iraq...

...and that's just from alcohol related fatalities on our nation's highways. Alcohol's contribution to traffic fatalities has shown some improvement since the early 1980s, now we're down to a trifling 40% chance your killer was a wee tipsy.

Sorry for the ambush, but if 2,000 American deaths in two+ years are provocative, why is it business as usual when alcohol bangs out that many in under two months? Without alcohol's sizable contribution, traffic fatalities wouldn't be the leading cause of death for those under 35.

(Haven't found statistics yet on the typical severity of non-fatal accidents, but I'm not expecting it to be cheery).

As consolation to those injured, the drunk drivers responsible for serious injuries on our nation's highways usually drive without insurance, preventing recovery for the injured or killed. As if this wasn't bad enough, the insurance companies constantly fight for "tort reform" to dodge the costs of this enormous societal problem.


Prohibition is a non-starter: it's unworkable, and tends to punish all those who enjoy alcohol responsibly to stop the paltry millions who cannot. And drunk drivers aren't the most law-abiding citizens anyway, so this might not solve anything. So what else can be done?

Even if we can't easily reduce the fatalities and injuries, is there a way to compensate more justly? To "internalize the costs" of drinking and driving?

Our solution for workers' compensation is illuminating. The sums are far smaller than at court, but the chance of recovery is significantly higher. This means the system pays about the same as a tort system, it's just less of a lottery. We don't have the man who loses his livelihood and gets nothing, nor the man who gets a couple of scratches and becomes a millionaire for pain and sufferring (to whatever extent that actually happened).

So why don't we just have a serious tax on alcohol and allow complete but fair recovery out of this general fund for anyone injured or killed by our favorite deadly national pastime?

School segregation

While eating lunch last month in a teacher's lounge I was shocked to come across a discussion of school segregation. At this school, teachers were talking about some German exchange students who were bewildered at the lack of motivation in their American counterparts.

It was not just an IQ gap (foreign exchange students from any country will likely be smarter and more motivated than their host country's average student) that bewildered them. Apparently in Germany the high school you attend is based off of standardized test scores. Across the board, only highly intelligent and motivated students get into the best high schools, others go to trade schools, or less impressive college prep schools. Thus students in Germany are not all given the same curriculum. Some will have advanced courses of study and some will have very technically specialized courses.

Clearly this is not possible in the United States, for their still exists a black-white education gap (see Freakonimics, Levitt & Dubner, thanks Thomas) and any move to re-segregate would be seen as racially motivated (not to mention the Brown vs. Board of Education hurdle). If it were possible, though, would it even be a good idea? While I support the idea of full inclusion for special education students, there are some students that clearly do not want to be in school, and I would be lying to you if I told you I did not want to take them by the seat of their pants and boot them right out the door.

Recap: school segregation based off of ability, good or bad?

Sunday, November 06, 2005

Al Gore and the Media and Democracy and Voting and the Kitchen Sink

A little over a month ago, Al Gore gave a speech about the threat of the media to our democracy.

I never saw this appear on any major news outlets and still cannot find copies of transcripts besides in liberal media websites. He does outline a serious issue however. Is democracy possible without an open discussion of ideas? I personally have to agree with him, that the large corporations that run the media have a specific interest in NOT reporting "bad" news.

Of interest to me lately has been electronic voting. I still believe there are serious issues with our electronic voting devices. Private corporations controlling the machines and not making their software open source scares me greatly. However, I hear very little of this in the mainstream news. Is this a problem that no one cares or is it that we want to believe we live in a perfect democracy where vote rigging could not occur? Does our American culture prompt us to avoid discussing serious issues at the core of our country?

This post comes immediately after seeing "Good Night and Good Luck" (an excellent film), which shows Edward Murrow arguing that television as a medium should be used for education and not simply entertainment. Is it possible to educate people through televisions, especially now where it is almost entirely viewed as an entertainment source? Will this occur with all of our mass communication mediums? Is television a good tool for discussion since it is one-way?

I think Jon Stewart of Daily Show fame has begun making it his personal mission to point out the flaws in "news" coverage by television. Shows such as Crossfire are used as entertainment and drama instead of forums for public discussion. Has journalism lost its power to address societal concerns involving politicians and corporations since both seem to have such sway over them? Can it be regained? The Watergate scandal broke in the newspapers after 6 months of research by the authors. Are news companies willing to invest that much time in a story that may never come to fruition? If so are horrible scandals occurring constantly that are never discovered?

Well I have rambled quite a bit, but these are all issues on my mind of late. I know the answers to some of my questions, but the most troubling our how do I help fix the problems I see?

Oxymoron of American Culture?

I haven't done much research on this, but one of the common accusations leveled at Americans is that "Americans don't have any culture." Being an American I find myself called upon to argue, although usually I just smile and let the conversation go on to other subjects. But what does having culture mean, anyway?

Does it mean having art, great works of literature and a thriving theatre scene? If so, America has those things: distinctive art styles, authors such as Hemingway and Vonnegut, and the repertory theatre movement has maintained theatre as a thriving means of expression throughout the country.

Does it mean having specific traditions, events, dances and music? American holidays are rather uniquely celebrated, they're full of commercialism, yes, but the food and activities are traditional. We've been exporting new music and dance styles since at least the early twentieth century (swing, ragtime, jazz, blues and later rock and roll, rap, R&B) each with specific dances.

What about the other less artistic forms of culture? What about American movies, television and magazines? These aren't too far from artistic pursuits. What about lifestyle? You can't convince me McDonalds and suburbia isn't some form of culture, if not necessarily admirable. What about the internet and mobile phones?

Sometimes the response implies that there is no unique American culture. This has two aspects:

Does the world adopting certain aspects of American culture reduce it's cultural significance? I think so, or at least the apparent magnitude, but for the sake of argument, let's look at other questions too.

Does the diversity of cultures inside America counteract each other so that there is no one 'American' culture but instead African American culture, American South culture, New York City culture, etc?

So if none of these definitions fit, what is it that we don't have that so many people in the rest of the world considers the US to have no culture?

The conclusion I am coming upon is that what they really mean is that we have no history, but I hope to hear some other ruminations on this subject.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

The Evolution of Content Distribution (Not actually about evolution).

We can now transfer data with astounding speed and ease. The full effects of our ability to shuffle content effortlessly around the globe will probably not be appreciable for decades. But the first glances at the future are slipping out as television gets hip: MSNBC, Apple, Cartoon Network's Adult Swim and the BBC all seem to be responding to the new ground rules with verve.

Does this mean we're entering an era where we actually get direct distribution for television, and shows that are cheap or free? Creator-to-Consumer distribution seems like a good thing for most of us, but could it lead to the death of local broadcasting?