Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Bad Ideas Made Good

During his campaign for the presidency, in an interaction with the now famous Joe the Plummer, Obama suggested that spreading wealth around was a good idea. I disagreed with him then.

Recently he spoke of a time when someone has made enough money and that after that, it might be fair for government to confiscate any surplus. I disagreed with that too. I thought them both bad ideas.

After a little thinking outside the box, I thought of a way we can turn two bad ideas into a good one. Sort of the way we look at an old saw: Two wrongs don't make a right, but three lefts do.

According to some pundits, federal government employees make twice as much as their private sector counterparts. If we assume this is true, then couldn't we say that government employees have made more than enough? Couldn't we spread that wealth around?

How much would we save if we cut government salaries to their private sector equivalents? How much debt could we pay off? Or how much could we reduce taxes? I say we redistribute the excess salaries to the taxpayers who would then spend those savings creating demand for products and creating jobs for those who make them. And how do we respond with the federal workers who create an uproar over the cuts? Heh. To quote a smart New Jersey governor: "You don't have to work for us." :) There are millions of people looking for work that would love those jobs ...

The Army of Davids Publishing Company

“Army of Davids” is the title of a book by Glenn Reynolds about the increased power of the individual due to technological advances in the ability to communicate. An individual can now raise an army with the many social networking tools available. Back in 1987 I wrote a network application running under Novell’s Netware in which one normal business PC would act as a server and hand out assignments to a host of other normal business computers which would solve a Mandelbrot calculation that would take a single computer weeks or months to solve in a matter of hours. The idea isn’t new, but the ability to implement the propagation of ideas socially is fairly recent.

I believe this can be the solution to a problem I’ve pondered for many years: how can we shift the balance from media that not only leans left, but pushes hard in that direction. I thought of ideas relating to taking over large journalistic corporations and revising their editorial processes to reflect more objectivity and balance in the areas of opinion. Taking over existing media is an expensive proposition and is likely impractical due to huge costs in infrastructure and distribution. What to do?

Restructuring the way news is delivered may be the answer, especially using the Army of Davids approach. The idea is to take a big task and break it up into millions of pieces and let a large number of people help in the effort. My idea is to create a product, lets call it “The Lost News”, which is an aggregator and commentary of news. The unusual feature is that the aggregator would be an 8.5 x 11 single sheet of paper, single side (not everyone can print double sided) distributed weekly by each participant to 4-10 neighbors. The paper would include the URL to The Lost News website, which would be updated continuously as new events transpire. The hard copy is a pointer to that site so that publishing all the information on hard copy is unnecessary. Most people can afford to print four sheets of paper per week. If talk show hosts and other conservative media could get just five percent of their listeners to participate, this product would exceed the largest print media instantly. Once people are aware of the site they can get updates at the speed of the hyperfast internet news cycle. The weekly paper is just a physical reminder for people who aren’t watching night and day.

The content of the site would be to keep up to date on stories that are under covered by existing media. It would be fun to have a tracker that provides statistics on which major media companies cover stories in a timely manner and which do not. This would provide the public with information on who is likely to provide them with important stories in the most timely manner so they can switch to new and better sources for their information. It would also be nice if the site would have a section devoted to how free markets work, how capital is formed, used and what the effect is on jobs, and how the principles that underpin our free way of life actually work. A tutorial as it were.

The aggregator portion of the idea is to point at existing news sources who do cover important stories in a timely manner to give them the traffic they deserve and to give incentive to those who don’t to get with the program. If major media outlets censor their stories and only print their side of opinion, that is their prerogative and they get the consequences they create: a declining readership or declining number of viewers.

If this is to work, though, the product would need to be as hard on right leaning media as it is on left leaning media. There is corruption on all sides of the philosophy spectrum. People want honesty, and if people implementing this idea aren’t honest, it won’t work.

The basic idea, though, is that people can donate the paper and toner, and the website can pay for itself with web advertising. With millions of hits per day, it might be feasible. I think it could work.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Charles Johnson Believes In Intelligent Design

Yup, I believe Charles Johnson of Little Green Footballs fame believes in intelligent design. Ok, Ok. Calm down. And smile :) Yes, I know he regularly worries that intelligent design will be introduced as pseudo science in the public schools. That's why its so fun to have a post titled as this one is. He views it as a more sophisticated way to get young earth creationism into the schools as science. To a point I agree with him, but more on that later.

If you exchange the phrase "intelligent design" and use "genetic engineering", I'm sure he'll concede. Genetically engineered plants, animals or bacteria were designed for a purpose they did not evolve to originally handle. Usually, people who do that sort of thing are considered intelligent. The organisms are intelligently designed. If intelligent people like us can do it, there is no reason God can't do the same on a larger scale. After all He's had a teensy-weensy bit longer than we to figure out the universe. The religious definition of intelligent design is narrow and does not encompass all that the phrase "intelligent design" can mean. People can explore the idea non-religiously. Normally, however, people associate intelligent design with groups trying to prove their religious beliefs. I see nothing wrong with that. If what they believe is true, there may be ways to show the truth of it scientifically. If they want to do this, they might first try taking a look at plants or animals that have already been genetically altered and see if they can prove those organisms were, in fact, engineered and didn't evolve that way. Not being a genetic engineer, I have no clue how to even approach that problem, but it could be a starting point.

The biggest problem I see with intelligent design is that even if you can prove an intelligence created or modified existing life, the proof will not come with the information as to who the engineer was or what they hoped to accomplish by creating it. It could just as easily be a mad scientist or mild mannered scholarly type, or God. If the discipline of forensic determination of biological intelligent design is rigorously scientific, there should be no problem with it being in the public schools. But, and this is huge but, that is not what is happening. Proponents of intelligent design want an alternative to the theory of evolution because of religious beliefs, and they want it taught as science. In a highly secular society such as America is, the constitution protects everyone from state infringement on their religion. To place intelligent design or creationism in science curricula would favor only one out of many versions. If it were, I'm almost certain that mine would be infringed. Whose version of creation do you put alongside evolution? It is much simpler to just let parents and churches teach religion and let the public schools teach what most people agree on.

Let me ask a rhetorical question, which, even if you refuse to let me, I will ask anyway: why all the fuss? Parents can teach their kids what they want them to know. Why don't they? Why is it government's problem to solve? There are churches everywhere who provide support for the beliefs certain groups are trying to push into the public schools. And they won't argue about scientific proof. Government under our constitution can't take sides with any faction or religion and restricts its support to science.

Science is one method of gaining knowledge. First, observations are made. Next, a hypothesis is made based on the observations to try and explain them. A test is formulated to see if this hypothesis is true. The test is carried out and has results which may or may not confirm the hypothesis. This process may be repeated any number of times as a hypothesis is refined. Once the process is over, and the conclusions are made, the steps of the process can be tried by independent observers to see if they, too, come to the same conclusion with the same procedures and data.

Religious people can use most of this process in their spiritual development. They can observe the world, and they have experiences that validate their beliefs, and may feel that they have obtained truth from elsewhere than the physical world we're familiar with. This is real for them. It really may be real. But spiritual experiences and data points can't be handed off to others to replicate in a sterile environment. People do publish their personal results, and yet other people test the ideas out. Some people come out of the experience believing the conclusions or variations thereof, but others do not. And this is why religion is not science. Not because it isn't true, but because the experiments and results are not universally verifiable.

Here is a warning to religious folks who try to push religious concepts into the public schools: when children are forced to compare what they believe to what is provable, beliefs that are true may be discarded simply because the truth is in a place science can't go. If religious material is in the curricula, it provides science teachers a handy tool to show what science isn't, and the comparison is unlikely to be in religion's favor. Why force them to? I don't see any reason to start or continue a fight between science and religion. They address different kinds of truth. They both have value.

Where my species originated may be fun to know, but really has no impact on my happiness. The bible doesn't tell us much about the creation of the world or how it was made, but I would note that the sparing detail in the biblical account advances that story in roughly the same order scientists believe life evolved: bare rock, water, sunshine, plants, animals, man.

As far as the creation debate goes, it is unimportant to me. I'm here. I want to be happy. I want to know the rules that give me the best shot at being happy. I myself am a believer in God, but I have no proof outside my own experience. In life you go with what works for you. I did.

Abilities and Karl Marx

In the last post I discussed why Marxist socialist thought could never be the basis for a working society in that if needs are infinite because of infinite wants, government can never provide for everyone's needs. It is easy to dare someone to try it and find that out, but, darn it, numerous countries have tried it and it hasn't worked out too well. No need to try again.

However, occasionally it is fun to beat on a dead horse, if for no other reason than they don't fight back. The other half of the equation is that awful "each according to his ability" phrase. It assumes that people have abilities and each contributes to society what they have. Its magic how people got those abilities, and future generations will magically have even more abilities. The problem is this: if the people don't have an incentive to get those abilities, they lose interest in obtaining them in the first place. If you go to the trouble of training to be a, say, a heart transplant specialist, and get paid what hamburger flippers get, it doesn't look like a very good allocation of resources. In time, the people who have abilities in specialized fields will disappear as the current ones retire. In a free market where property rights are protected, people work to obtain abilities that provide value to others to the extent others would be tickled pink to trade with you. When self interest is at stake, people don't have to be pushed to things that make their lives better. In a free market people are free to train for the professions that will allow them to have the best shot at getting what they want. And they don't have to ask the government for it.

The thing I've never understood about Marxism is why people are so interested in trying to make human beings be what they are not. Everyone is poorer, less fulfilled, and continually frustrated by a government that will not let them be what they could be. Marxism on both the abilities and needs ends proves unsustainable if not dead on arrival.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Needs, Wants And Karl Marx

In this post I’m addressing the nature of ‘needs’ and ‘wants’ and the relationship between the two. In future posts I will be referring back to these ideas. So lets have some fun and see where we wind up.

Karl Marx said “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs!” Sheesh! I could write a whole book on what’s wrong with this statement. But I’m only going to pick on the ‘needs’ bit in this little essay.

First, needs are the requirements to complete a want. Wants and needs are two sides of the same coin. I don’t think you can have one without the other. If you want something, you have to meet requirements to have it. We usually call those requirements needs. If you need something, it is because you want something that requires it. People need air, water, and food because they want to stay alive. If a person needs a car, it may be because they want to travel distances for which they may consider walking is impractical, simply obnoxious or beneath their station. What ever the reason, or no reason all, a desire can be articulated and the requirement for satisfying it can be enumerated as a finite list.

Wants on the other hand are essentially infinite. I know mine are. No matter what I do, I always have something I want to follow up with. This follows from the fact that we have essentially an infinite number of choices we can make, and at any given moment (of which there are also an infinite number) we make the choice we want most. Needs on the other hand are finite. If we want to stay alive, we need air, food and water. This want has a very short needs list. Meeting these needs may involve other processes and requirements as well, but the process is still finite.

If wants are infinite, the means or things needed to meet those wants are also infinite. So the statement “each according to his needs” is something impossible for any government or social system to provide as those systems have finite resources. A government that attempts to provide for people’s needs has to limit what it can give to what it can deliver. So Marx’s thought above breaks down immediately on this point.

My basic point is this: if people want something, they should do what it takes to get it. If they are unwilling to do what it takes to get the benefit of something they want, there is no reason why others should spend time and effort to get it for them and get nothing in return.

It is much simpler if the government stays out of providing for wants. The U.S. government can’t provide for all the specific needs of its people because it can’t accommodate all the needs required to satisfy those wants. If it tries to accommodate the needs, it will restrict what people can want. That is a humongous loss of freedom. My fear is that if I say they’ll take my freedom over my dead body, they’ll respond with “We’ll be happy to accept your proposal”.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

The New Republic and Scott Beauchamp

This is a moral tale about persisting in a behavior when the perpetrator has no clue about what it is doing. The perp in this case is The New Republic (TNR). In objective journalism, the object is to present accurate news to people so they can have an informed opinion on issues of the day. There are usually procedures in place to make sure that articles are accurate and that editors aren't just point blank believing anything that is passed to them to publish. If they do not critically assess the material they publish, there will come a time when somebody puts out a demonstrably false story, and it will hurt the reputation of the publication. Even so, a publication can investigate how such a story came to be, retract those parts or entirety of an article which are false, and notify their readers of the errors. This indicates to readers that the publication is sincere about its intent to provide accurate information. So how does the Scott Thomas Beauchamp story play out in this regard?

The story starts on July 23, 2007 when a then anonymous soldier writing under the psuedonym of Scott Thomas writes a story entitle "Shock Troops" about his experiences in Iraq for The New Republic (TNR), apparently with the intention of showing what warfare and combat does to participants.

He reports three anecdotes about behavior he and others may have committed. These behaviors include:

1) Mocking a severely disfigured woman within earshot of said woman.
2) Wearing a human skull for a night and a day.
3) Running dogs over and killing them in a Bradley fighting vehicle for sport.

The reaction in the blogosphere to these stories appears to range from trivial practical jokes/silliness to extremely shocked.

Subsequently critics argue that either Scott Thomas does not exist or that in any case, the stories are not true.

On July 26, 2007, TNR states in its blogger colum "The Plank":

"Although the article was rigorously edited and fact-checked before it was published, we have decided to go back and, to the extent possible, re-report every detail."

So three days after the article was published, TNR is claiming they did rigorous editing and fact checking. A second, parallel, thread of reporting has now started in which the accuracy and credibility of TNR's defense becomes a story in itself in addition to that of the original story which begat it.

August 2, 2007 TNR admits that one of the anecdotes occurs in Kuwait, not Iraq. The obvious problem here is that if the "Shock Troops" article was supposed to document what war does to folks, this is an odd story to include in such an article. Some writers have dubbed this humorously as "pre traumatic stress syndrome" wherein people go crazy BEFORE they wind up in theatre. It also begs the question of how rigorous the fact checking really was if TNR missed this point. Their original fact checking would have been done via the unit at FOB Falcon, not in Kuwait. The discrepancy would have been obvious if fact checking had actually been done. My conclusion is that they had not fact checked the story in any real sense. This conclusion is bolstered by later events.

August 7, 2007 The Weekly Standard's Michael Goldfarb claims that a source in the military that the private had volunteered a sworn statement that all three of the stories were false. Given my biases, this is what I want to hear. However, as of the time of this posting, The Weekly Standard has also not provided its source and I have no way to verify their report. Reluctantly, I have to put believing this report on hold pending more information coming to light. At the moment, I cannot consider it proof of anything until it is substantiated. Major Steven F. Lamb, the deputy Public Affairs Officer for Multi National Division-Baghdad reported to Michael Goldfarb:

"An investigation has been completed and the allegations made by PVT Beauchamp were found to be false. His platoon and company were interviewed and no one could substantiate the claims."

TNR also fails to note the fact that the military had announced the result of their investigation and found Beauchamp's stories false.

On August 9, Bob Jones of Confederate Yankee reports that he found one of the sources of "fact checking" for the Bradley Fighting Vehicle, and that source Doug Coffey is the Head of Communications, Land & Armaments, for BAE Systems, the Bradley Fighting Vehicle's manufacturer, described why it would be seriously unlikely that Beauchamp's story about running over dogs would be true.

On August 10, TNR in The Plank claims that they cannot communicate with the private. The military released this statement from Col. Steve Boylan reported by Bill Roggio on August 11, 2007:
"We are not stonewalling anyone. There are official statements that are out there are on the record from several of us and nothing has changed.

We are not preventing him from speaking to TNR or anyone. He has full access to the Morale Welfare and Recreation phones that all the other members of the unit are free to use. It is my understanding that he has been informed of the requests to speak to various members of the media, both traditional and non-traditional and has declined. That is his right.
We will not nor can we force a Soldier to talk to the media or his family or anyone really for that matter in these types of issues."

TNR is 0 for 4 now: they didn't fact check, nor was the military stonewalling them, they did not report the army's investigation results when they first learned of them, and their fact checking on the Bradley Fighting Vehicle was seriously deficient.

Anonymous sources are at best debatable since aside from the publishers no one can check out the story. But TNR does one thing particularly badly: non-attribution of folks who will have no negative fallout from the reporting like Doug Coffey of BAE Systems. There is no need to protect him. Likewise all the other sources that were not directly involved in the activities described by Beauchamp. They didn't do those things, there is nothing to protect them from. Yet TNR does not identify them. This looks like a deliberate attempt to keep people from being able to verify facts related to the story.

This leads me to the conclusion that TNR is willfully trying to defend a story it now knows to be false while attempting a whitewash. In the case of fabricator Stephen Glass, they investigated, found the extent of the fabrications and fired the guy. Why they are holding out for Beauchamp is a mystery to me. A publication shouldn't be in the business of tying its ideological biases to ships named Titanic. What I do understand, is that they cannot be trusted and that articles or stories they print may be factually incorrect, and that they'd be willing to defend that incorrectness. If they want to have people paying attention to their biases, they need to dump obvious frauds.

Unlike a number of other commentators, I don't have a problem with Beauchamp being related to a TNR staffer. Either his stories are true, or they aren't. Relationship to a staffer doesn't change that. That a false story made it through gatekeeping on account of a preexisting relationship with a staffer seems more stupidity than malevolence. Sticking to a story once it is clear there are problems with it is a different story, but not one necessarily related to someone having a relationship, but not precluding that point either.

So what really is going on? There are allegations that the defense is ideologically driven. Since the article was out of context from the other 160,000 soldiers, it would seem to be trying to generate disgust for the war to help sway public opinion to oppose it. So far, no evidence has been produced that shows this isn't the case. TNR did not have a diarist who represented what is good and noble about the military, which is something it could have easily done. My guess is that there are way more of the noble service oriented kind, than of Beauchamp's ilk. I lean towards believing that this affair is ideologically driven, but still wonder about why TNR editors didn't cut their losses early on rather than compounding them.

I'm sure these points are not lost on the other writers at TNR and they have to know that after this, I won't be able to believe any of them. Not even if they start reporting favorably on the war, or any issues I happen to favor. I'd love to be a fly on the wall to hear (if flies can hear) the conversations in TNR offices on this subject. Given what is known now about the Beauchamp stories, and omissions and misrepresentations of TNR in defending those stories, I'm fairly sure that there isn't quite the unanimity there is in the current official position of TNR. If I were a writer, I'd be looking for someone else to write for.

Beauchamp's story isn't particularly important in the grand scheme of things. This isn't the first media scandal and it won't be the last. What is important is that people should know that news and opinion outlets are biased and willing to stand by false stories in service of their ideological agendas. TNR will survive as long as there are enough people still willing to support it. At the moment, those people will do so, so that they can hear what they want to hear regardless of the truth.

UPDATE August 20, 2007: A probing column by Richard Miniter of Pajamas Media

Sunday, February 27, 2005

Larry Summers and Political Correctness

It's old news, but the story is not yet dead. Larry Summers, who is president of Harvard, had the misfortune to suggest that women might be innately different due to genetic rather than cultural influences. The critics lashed out first. It is always fun to watch the entrenched philosophy resist new thought. Then the defenders stepped in and suggested a couple of things: first, that while his suggestion is misguided, he should be able to make it in the spirit of free speech and discourse or alternatively, he was actually being engaged in the true spirit of enquiry and thought it about time to find out why, after all the progress in the women's movement, why women were still underrepresented in the upper levels of science and engineering.

It sounds like a valid question to me. Why indeed. One of the things I haven't seen discussed are some of the logical fallacies being perpetrated in this controversy: groups such as women are not homogenous. A group is a generalization that breaks down when talking about its discrete components. A group consists of individuals sharing a particular trait, which in this case is a pair of X chromosomes. In all other traits they will distribute themselves over a statistical bell curve. For any given trait, the curve for that group will peak in a different spot. When the peak differs substantially based on gender, we articulate that by saying it is a "men thing" or a "women thing". On both sides of the gender divide, there are members of each group that will fall within one standard deviation of the other for a specific trait and could be considered in a very loose fashion as "equal". For those people, the generalization does not hold. Statistically, the differences are there. To deny that would be to stifle truth. So if we are in the truth business, we'll want to know why the difference is still there, what it means and how should it be dealt with.

Someone, somewhere, made a hypothesis that women are equal to men in capability with regard to science and engineering. The hypothesis then goes on to theorize that the differences are due to culture. Following the scientific method an experiment is proposed to change that culture in some way which increases participation by women and watch the differences vanish. When the results come in a few decades later, while the numbers of women in the fields of science and engineering has gone up, it is nowhere near equal. Is this difference due to insufficient cultural change? Is it due to one or more other variables? Why is finding out important?

Just because one can posit that women are equal to men, does not make it so. If not, what if any other variables are at play here? If the original hypothesis of equality is wrong, what damage may occur from forcing women to conform? We could be pushing people into careers where they can't succeed if we insist on making everything equal. I can't imagine anyone wanting people to fail. Isn't it funny (or sad) that so many people are trying to solve other people's problems when they can't even solve their own? Somewhere along the line we need to let people choose what they want to do rather than impose our view of the world on them. They will succeed or fail on their own merits and they will learn who they are without the harassment from people who can't read minds and who cannot see the whole picture.

The object of the law in all of this is that all people are equal before it regardless of gender, race, religion or political affiliation. The law shouldn't pick winners, or tell people what their interests should be or where they should be employed. The individuals should rise or fall on their own merits. In the world of business, the person that leads a company should be the one that can provide the most value to that company. In science and engineering, this shows up based on the contribution the individual makes and not on their gender.

In business, capitalists being what they are, try to pick those who will likely achieve success and create value. They act in their self interest. They don't care about superficial things like gender. It is true that some do, but I don't think it is the norm.

All of the above commentary deals with making it to the top science, engineering or business through the conventional path of working one's way up the career ladder. Accepting ladder climbing as the only way is self limiting. There are other paths. If you are good, create your own business and provide value to the public. When you create your own business, you automatically start at the top and there is no one to install a glass ceiling over your head. As an aside, the glass ceiling doesn't just apply to women. It applies to guys too. And the reasons members of both genders cannot rise any higher may not have anything to do with gender. The only difference is that women have been defined into a victim class and those that play the victim role can and do point to discrimination as their first resort. Guys don't get that advantage and have to make do with what they have. If moving up isn't working, complaining about it won't help. Things will have to change.

The old saw about "do what you've always done will always get you what you've always got" is true. I've seen it said in other posts in the blogosphere that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. If you want different results, you have to do something different. If you think you have what it takes to go higher, let the real world give you the message about your abilities rather than people who may not know better or who have different agendas from yours. Either what you try will work, or it won't. The people with the most fulfilling lives persist until they succeed. Persistence is not gender based. It is available to any who wish to engage in it.

Having said all that, many women have the capability to succeed in science, engineering or business and if they can find fulfillment there, they should by all means go for it. But they should do it on their own power rather than trying to fill the expectations of some counsellor or political group with a different agenda. Schools should quit telling people where they should go, and instead tell them the way the world is and how it works, what the real obstacles are, how people in the real world have solved those problems, and then let them make their own decision. People either know what is best for themselves or can figure it out on their own. Perhaps this is one of the major differences between conservatives and liberals: that conservatives trust that people can handle their own problems and liberals think they need to handle those problems on their constituent's behalf because they think their constituents can't handle it on their own. How condescending is that? Any minority should be insulted by the idea that somebody else should take care of their problems. Invariably, those caretakers get it wrong.

Back to Larry Summers, if his questions about why women are not succeeding in particular areas are answered, they can provide the knowledge necessary to eliminate barriers not affected by gender and how to successfully navigate those that are. Not finding out will not help anyone. Summers should be applauded for raising the level of discourse.

Are we having fun yet?

Sunday, January 23, 2005

Accountability and the year 2000

The end of the second millenium has come and gone and we are busy setting the tone of the next century, perhaps even the next millenium. So, to the extent we can, it would be helpful if what we do makes a positive difference. The question arises: How do we know we made a positive difference? The only way to know is to have a purpose which is well defined and clear. However, being well defined and clear isn't always as simple as it appears, especially if your mind isn't set correctly in the first place.

By way of example, lets go back to the year 2000, specifically at 12:00 AM January 1. The world celebrated the beginning of a new millenium and had a grand time in general. The only problem being that it was a year too early. The people in charge of celebrating the occasion and those who put them in charge got it wrong. In an enlightened world, with science blazing new paths and worldwide standards of living going up, how could this happen?

First, people get to thinking a certain way and have a difficult time changing simply due to inertia.

Second, the inertia of thought is caused by biases we so take for granted that we have become unaware of them. Think CBS, NBC, ABC et al.

Third, the people don't understand the fundamental concepts used in solving a particular problem. The idea is to be able to come to valid conclusions based on some set of valid facts in a systematic way. To be valid, the conclusion must fit all the facts or at least some minimal subset consistently. This requires an understanding of all the underlying issues.

These reasons then compound to create mistakes. We aren't always as enlightened as we think.

So let's go back a few years and see how these reasons play out with the turn of the millenium. Just what was it we celebrated on January 1, 2000? It wasn't the beginning of a new millenium. We had just completed the 1999th year of the first two millenia. Please note in the previous sentence that the 'th' in '1999th' is not superscripted and could have been done on a manual Olympia typewriter in 1972 :). Ask Dan Rather. 1999 years is not equal to 2000 years and that moment was yet to arrive. This is about hubris, an overbearing pride or presumption in which the world collectively thinks that it really knows what it is doing. In this case, it didn't.

The first reason kicks in with a majority of people believing that the turn of the century occurs on January 1, 2000. There was a group mindset willing to accept that as a fact. You know the concept in animist terms: a sheep mentality. They simply never thought about it and never thought it important to investigate. Everybody is doing it, so what the hey?

The second reason is a bias in favor of large round numbers. As soon as a big round number comes along, it is something to celebrate. There is nothing wrong with this other than the big fat round number doesn't mean what they think it means. If you want to celebrate, almost any reason or excuse will do. In this case you are celebrating the number 2000, not 2000 years. Another bias is the leading number bias. We talk about the 60s, 70s, 80, and 90s. You have a 10 year periods where the leading number is 6, 7, 8, or 9. For example 60 is the last year of the sixth decade of the 20th century, and the rest of the 60s are in the seventh decade. To see it real clearly we go back to the first decade: you have years 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10. Count them up and you have ten numbers. That makes one decade, a decade being defined as 10 years. Year 10 is part of the first decade, 11 is in the second. To make the difference more pronounced, note that having finished the second millenium, we are now in the third. The actual time elapsed is 2.004063 millenia with today being January 23, 2005. No one would say that by entering the third millenium that we should celebrate 3000 years. The error of one year or a thousand is the same.

The third reason plays out for our premature celebration because a consensus of people didn't understand the difference between points and intervals. 2000 years is a point. The year 2000 is an interval from 12:00 AM January 1, to 12:00 PM December 31 inclusive. At what point in that interval do we complete 2000 years?

The correct answer is at 12:00 PM December 31, 2000 or 12:00 AM January 1, 2001.

You don't agree? Ok. Let's lay it all out.

There was no year zero. However, in order to measure 2000 years you must have a starting point: point zero. That is 0.00000... using as many zeros as you wish for precision. Starting at point 0 we enter the year 1. At the end of the first day how much time has elapsed? That number is 0.00273 years. We're not even close to 1. Yet it is year 1. That is because we use an integer to represent an entire 365 day interval. It is not a point. Any particular moment during the first year is a single point within the range of zero to one. At the end of day two, we are at 0.00547 years. Still nowhere close to a full year. We are closer. At the end of day three we are at 0.00822 years which is closer still. We don't have a full year until the end of the last day of year one. At this point we know that it is the end of the interval which tells us when we have accomplished our goal. If there are going to be 2000 full years, our measurement is complete at the end of the 2000th year, not its beginning.

The millenium celebrations were a year early. As errors go, it wasn't important really. But if you were sending a missle 2000 miles, you want it blowing up at the end of the 2000th mile, not its beginning. Unless there is an atomic warhead on it, one mile is too big of an error.

The point of clarity and accuracy is so that we can arrange solutions that really work. While it isn't always important, being in the habit of being clear and accurate prevents these kinds of errors whether the problem is important or not. Fundamental errors propagate through whole systems and make things complicated when they needn't be. When things go wrong and you can't account for why, it becomes far more difficult to find solutions. When things go wrong it is because assumptions are wrong or the set of assumptions is incomplete. In government, bureaucrats, agencies or polititians deliberately try to hide information about results or fundamental facts with the idea of promoting their own agendas at the expense of the rest of us. To this end, we want to be clear and make everything government does open to examination so we can determine whether we want to keep the status quo or whether we need change.

This article may contain errors of bias, inertia or lack of facts and you are free to comment and let me know. You might even find other categories of errors. :) I'll try to fix up any problems you discover.


Sunday, January 09, 2005

Welcome to the Accountable Government Blog

Hi. Welcome to the Accountable Government blog. The purpose of this blog is to discuss ways and means of making government, media and other organizations accountable to the public they serve or affect.

This site encourages and endorses limited government and free markets.

Discussions will center around:

  • Politics
  • Media and media bias
  • Logic and persuasive argument
  • Dissections of articles, editorials to note what would or wouldn't have helped the expression of particular ideas
  • Religious toleration and separation of church and state
  • Accountability in pursuit of normal life activities.
  • Miscellaneous subjects which pop up from time to time
This is my first blog, so anyone with comments or suggestions feel free to post.

Please keep conversation civilized and please use language that would encourage parents to let their kids learn about politics here.