Wednesday, January 30, 2013


When you talk to people who have played the original Advanced Dungeons and Dragons game from the 1980s, one of the things that you'll learn is that almost no-one ever bothered using all of the rules. While there are a few different reasons for this, the one that is most applicable in my case is the fact that I didn't learn how to play the game from actually reading the rules. Instead, I was taught how to play by a friend, his older brother and some of his friends  In turn, I taught other people how to play. As a result there were a number of us that all played the game in roughly the same way, and ignored many of the same rules.

But it turns out that there were some rules that were almost universally ignored. One that is held up to this day as an object of poor game design is the rule that allowed for Player Characters (effectively, the players' avatars in the game) to earn Experience Points for collecting treasure. Experience Points were a form of in-game reward that tracked a character's level of "on the job learning" as it were, and, along with the idea of "leveling" is perhaps more than anything else, is the mechanic most associated with role-playing games - tabletop, console, personal computer et cetera. For many players, myself included, the idea that a character who happens to find one hundred gold coins buried beneath a barn has learned something about how to use their skills and abilities was ludicrous. To this day, it's not hard to find players and former players who openly deride the rule, and even other games have made special mention of it as something that they don't do.

Looking back and thinking about it, it's not actually as stupid an idea as it seems on its face. But it only makes sense within a greater framework that isn't explained very well in the AD&D rulebooks. In a nutshell, the rule does make sense - so long as you presume that gold, despite the game's inflated prices, is valuable enough to not leave lying around, and thus that to actually get at any given amount of gold, one has to overcome some level of potentially-lethal threat to do so. In other words, the amount of money that player characters could obtain in a given amount of time was intended to be directly proportional to the absolute difficulty of obtaining it. Without this presumption, you quickly ran into situations where the easiest path to character advancement was to convince the Dungeon Master to leave unguarded hoards of treasure around the countryside. But, taken into account, this understanding could be used to make quick determinations about a number of things.

Of course, Advanced Dungeons and Dragons was simply a game, but the idea that information often makes more sense in a context other than the one in which it was presented is, perhaps, universal. The infamous court case where a woman sued McDonald's after badly scalding herself with hot coffee is often sited as an instance where American litigiousness and unscrupulous lawyers after undeserved paydays combine to wrongly punish people and companies whose only crimes are having deep pockets and stupid customers. But tell someone that internal memos from McDonald's showed that the company was knowingly recommending that coffee be kept at a temperature higher than was considered safe as a money-saving tactic, and they're often surprised. And that simple fact casts the whole affair in a new light.

In a world where information often seems to come from black boxes, a certain level of skepticism that one is being given the whole story is often healthy. The answer to this, of course, is not to simply disbelieve everything one reads or hears, but to have more sources of information. And not to assume that our first impulses (or even lasting ones) about something are necessarily correct.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Are You Sure About This?

While it's to be expected that in a court of law that even the Roman Catholic Church would rely on the laws of the land, rather than Canon law, it looks bad for St. Thomas Moore Hospital and Catholic Health initiatives to argue that they shouldn't be held liable for the deaths of unborn twins because fetuses aren't considered people under Colorado state law. It casts the church yet again as valuing money over the principles that it quite publicly expects others to live by, and if given the chance, would codify into law.

Of course, one has to abide by the laws that are on the books, rather than the ones that one would rather were there. But given the beating that the Church's reputation has been taking for the past 20 years, appearing to ditch principle when it's convenient to do so may have been a mistake.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Uneducated Anger

This morning, NPR ran a Planet Money story positing that LeBron James is "underpaid." The basic argument was that James generates FAR more income than he receives in salary. From the standpoint of pure economics, the story relates, James should be pulling down a cool $40 million dollars a year. But he doesn't and there are a number of reasons for that, some of which, we are told benefit James.

But, this being NPR, cue the pious hand-wringing by the dutifully public-minded about how it's an obscenity that LeBron James pulls down an eight-figure salary to "run up and down a court with a ball" and "play a kids game," while teachers only made 40,000 a year. A few teachers waded into the fray to add their voices to the chorus of pious bitterness about the nations "out of whack" priorities and lack of value for what really matters. A few "free market" types waded in with (rather weak) defenses, giving the peanut gallery another set of handy targets for their sanctimony.

But lets look at things a bit differently. The NBA, regardless of what you think of it as a business, is an elite sporting league. There are a total of 30 teams, and each team may have no more than 15 members on the roster. If there were a grand total of 450 teachers in the United States, I'm pretty sure that they'd be raking it in like nobody's business. Instead, as of 2009, there were some 7.2 million teachers (from Pre-K through college) in the United States. If every player in the NBA made LeBron's salary, the combined total would only be enough to pay teachers a little less than $1,100.00 a year. If the entirety of the NBA player roster made the $40,000,000.00 a year that the article suggested is more in line with the value LeBron James brings to the Miami Heat, we could take all of their salaries and pay every teacher in the nation $2,500.00. On the other hand, if we took the combined salaries of teachers and made that the NBA's player salary pool, each and every active player who wore a team uniform would make more than 1,000,000.000.00 a year. (James' current salary utterly vanishes in the rounding error.)

Being both a bit broader and more accurate about things, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2008 there were about 16,500 professional athletes (basketball players to rodeo riders) in the United States, making an average of $79,460.00. While this does best the roughly $52,800 made by public school teachers, the fact there were roughly 3.5 million primary and secondary school teachers means that were there as many paid athletes in the United States as there were teachers, the collective salary pool of all professional sports wouldn't make for a decent part-time job. As a society, we clearly value teachers much more than we value sports. Allowing ourselves to believe otherwise because we're too busy being "outraged" to understand even the basics of the underlying economics doesn't strike me as the best way to honor education.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

One For You...

Sometimes, I'm of the opinion that the single biggest cause of "the Great Recession," as it's often called, is that most people don't really understand how businesses work. Whether it's airline loyalty programs, or just the everyday operation of the workplace, people don't seem to understand what goes on "under the hood" in the world around them. Especially when it comes to businesses.

To put it bluntly: we don't operate in a greater society that is set up to succeed when we do. In other words, in the grand scheme of things, the fact that you are I do better tomorrow than we do today doesn't do anything for everyone else. (Conversely, if we're worse off tomorrow than we are today, society at large doesn't really feel the effects of that, either.) And while there's nothing inherently wrong with this state of affairs, it does mean that there are no direct financial/economic incentives for  us to help one another do well. And this applies to businesses as well. And it leads to a very simple conclusion - things are rarely done by others for our benefit. Instead, people do things for their own benefit. We might be somewhat better off as well, but that's a happy coincidence, rather than the direct intent.

Realizing this may help us better evaluate the costs and benefits of the system that we currently live under. And perhaps decide that perhaps we should change it.

No True Human

Humanity is full of jerks. This should not be a surprise to anyone. Throughout the course of your day today, you will likely encounter one, at least in passing. This jerk may be of any creed, race or color. Because, well, humanity is full of  jerks, and so it stands to reason that any sufficiently large group is going to have at least one jerk in it. To a certain degree, we all understand this.

This, however, doesn't do anything to mitigate the human tendency to want to a) tar others with the behaviors of people that the tarred may not ever have even met or b) strive to portray whatever group one belongs to as absolutely free of jerks, crazies and criminals. Whether it's the assertion that Atheists are suspect because Communist dictators were non-believers or feeling a need to rebut assertions (warning, {unrelated} autoplay video imbedded in page) that recent mass shooters were "mostly registered Democrats," self-serving pattern recognition and the perceived need to combat it are alive and well.

Being primarily social animals, it's important that we care about what other people think of us. Within limits. And that is perhaps what is missing here. The "No True Scotsman" logical fallacy (and the converse, which we could term "Every True Scotsman") is driven by the need to expunge some group of people of a trait that is completely unrelated to the defining aspect of the group's identity. To use the examples from the Wikipedia page on the logical fallacy, what difference does it really make if a Scotsman turns out to be a sex offender or doesn't like haggis? Given that we understand that people are individuals, the willingness to surrender and/or deny that individuality simply in the service of cynical attempts to improve our social ranking, either by elevating ourselves or denigrating others becomes nonsensical, and the time spent attempting to refute such attempts is, quite frankly, wasted, especially in the industrialized West. Yes, there are places (and times) where what Group A, or simply certain powerful members, thinks of Group B is a matter of life and death. The Scotland of the 1970s and the United States of the 2000s are not typically counted among them, although it must be acknowledged that the tendency to confer "out-group" status, and then use that to justify taking actions that would not otherwise be tolerated is sadly, universal. (But it is, perhaps, important to remember the direction of causality at work here.)

While such groups do still exist, the majority of humanity is no longer comprised of small groups of hunter-gatherers for whom the people living just over the next rise were an unknown quality and potentially deadly threat. And so the evolutionary adaptations to that environment aren't always helpful anymore. But as is often the case with hard-wiring, it tends to be less about what's appropriate to the situation than it is about what's right at hand. But while negative stereotyping and the fear of same may be automatic responses, that doesn't mean that we should treat them as useful ones. We've overcome a number of evolutionary traits to get to where we are. Perhaps overcoming this one will help us go farther.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Greece Versus the World

Operation Xenios Zeus, launched in the summer of 2011 by the Hellenic police force, is ostensibly designed to halt illegal immigration into (and presumably through) Greece. As in the United States, Greece has a problem with people entering the country illegally. But as stories mount of foreign nationals being detained and, in some cases, severely beaten even after showing their passports to the "arresting" officers, there seems to be more going on.

U.S. citizens are strongly urged to carry a copy of their passport or some form of photo identification with them at all times when traveling in Greece.

[...] The U.S. Embassy has confirmed reports of U.S. African-American citizens detained by police authorities conducting sweeps for illegal immigrants in Athens.
Greece: Country Specific Information - United States Department of State
In a nation where austerity measures are ravaging the economy, one would think that it would make absolutely no sense to let things get to the point where foreign governments would take notice. People wealthy enough to travel internationally are normally welcomed for the money they spend. Allowing police officers to beat them up on the streets is bad for business.

As a matter of pure speculation, I wonder if we're not seeing a manifestation of a growing Greek anger with the whole of the outside world. What better way to tell the world to go drop dead than to start assaulting people from elsewhere who come to visit? Of course, to a certain degree, this is exactly what some officials say it is; rogue police officers who are violating both the law and public values of the police force. There is no reason to assume that the government is tacitly approving activities that have the very real potential to make their lives much more difficult for little or no noticeable gain. But it's worth remembering that Greece is the home of what we now understand as democracy. And, as the saying goes, there's nothing more democratic than a lynch mob. If a simmering resentment of "barbarians," is growing within the Greek population, the government there will find it an adversary they can't simply legislate away.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Myriad Ways to Pelt a Feline

"The Arab Revolutions: It's not about Democracy, it's about Freedom." It's a simple title to a straightforward article by one of LinkedIn's "thought leaders," a man by the name of Saeed Muntafiq.

But on the Internet, nothing is ever simple.

The number of comments that challenged Mr. Muntafiq on this basic premise was unremarkable. Neither was the tone, generally one of questioning how one could have "freedom" while at the same time eschewing "democracy." What struck me as interesting was that people would openly go on the record (after all, LinkedIn is a professional network) outing themselves as either not having really read, or actually understood the article. That English is a tricky language is unsurprising to anyone who has attempted to learn it as a second (or later) language. How easily it trips up native speakers, on the other hand, may raise some eyebrows.

"At the heart of the Arab uprising is freedom in a broader human sense; not democracy – a political culture and ideology which by itself satisfies very little of what the protestors want and need now.

Democracy will not put food on the table or provide for jobs. The protestors, you and all of us must focus on freedom."
To say that the various uprisings that are collectively termed "the Arab Spring" are about freedom rather than democracy is actually make a fairly obvious point. It's about the end, rather than the means.

Here in the United States, Democracy and Freedom are often considered synonymous terms. It's not hard to find people who will say that we are free because we are democratic. But the Constitution, placing as many restrictions as it does on the activities of the duly elected representatives of the public, is a decidedly un-democratic document. While it's true that a properly placed minority of the overall population of lawmakers could amend it, thus changing its provisions, the fact of the matter is that it takes many more than that to have a realistic chance at it, exactly as was intended. Democracy isn't necessarily about promoting and protecting freedom for the entire populace - otherwise one wouldn't have the phenomenon of "the Tyranny of the Majority," in which a democratic majority forces everyone else to dance to their tune. Indeed, democracy is often likened by Libertarian/Anarchist critics to a group of wolves and a lamb deciding what (who) will be eaten for lunch. Or, perhaps more disturbingly as a gang rape. In such formulations, freedom is likened to the party of one being able to hold off the majority by force of arms.

The saying "there is more than one way to skin a cat," is about a simple point - the idea is to get the job done - exactly how one manages this is secondary. It is perhaps time that we in the United States become less convinced that we hold the One True Way to peace, opportunity and prosperity, and allow others to decide for themselves how to get the pelt off the cat.

Saturday, January 19, 2013


Wednesday, January 16, 2013


By this point, the story of the guy who "outsourced" (sub-contracted, really) his coding work to China has gone viral enough that you don't need me to tell you about it. The idea that he was, for something less than 25% of his salary (if not far less), earning stellar performance reviews and the ability to basically slack off all day is simply hysterical. There are some details about the whole thing that lead me to doubt its accuracy, but even if it turns out to be a hoax, I think I'll raise a glass to "Bob," wherever he is.

Monday, January 14, 2013

It's Not Them, It's Us

One of the biggest problems that we have is a lack of insight, due to opacity or a lack of interest, into the federal budget. This allows people to believe that deficits and the public debt are driven by expenditures on the undeserving (a.k.a., someone other than themselves) or the convenient political bogeymen of Waste, Fraud and Abuse. Over the past few decades, revenues have averaged at about 18% of GDP, while expenditures have come it at about 22%. What many people don't realize through either negligent or willful ignorance, is that the gap - roughly 4% of GDP, contributes directly to the standard of living of the nation as a whole, and perhaps directly to their own. Nearly two-thirds of participants in the Coverdell Educational Savings Account program, and just over 50% of participants in federal student aid programs reported that “No, [They] Have Not Used a Government Social Program.”

This is untenable. For starters, it feeds into the divisive politics of "let someone else pay." But perhaps more importantly one can't have a serious discussion of solutions while remaining ignorant of the actual problem at hand.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

No, No... Look Up Here...

This fetching young lass is having her face appear all around the internet. In a number of cases it's as a visual designed to illustrate something people feel is wrong with the Consumer Electronics Show being held this week in Las Vegas. Namely, Booth Babes. "A year after the BBC first highlighted the issue scantily clad women are still a staple of electronics and technology shows around the world," we are told, as if a year should have made all the difference.

The message is one that we've heard many times before, that using women in sexy outfits to show off technology (among other things) is sexist and degrading. And some well-meaning guys have chimed in with the observation that they'd be unlikely to remember the actual product being marketed after such a display. I realize that they're trying to be helpful, but if the sight of some partially-exposed breasts are enough to torpedo someone's short-term memory, it's not only the exhibitors at CES that one should be disappointed in...

The message that there shouldn't be booth babes because men's tiny little caveman brains can't see anything other than their tits seems to shame those who attend trade shows more than it shames the executives in charge of such things. In this vein, I think a better message would be "If your product is so uncompelling that you have to nestle in between a woman's breasts to have it be noticed, why should I waste money on it?" Get the trade show attendees to adopt that attitude, and the Booth Babe issue will take care of itself. And likely more besides.

Monday, January 7, 2013

Shaky Ground

“This is an in-your-face nomination by the president to all of us who are supportive of Israel,” Graham said on CNN’s “State of the Union” yesterday. “Chuck Hagel is out of the mainstream of thinking on most issues regarding foreign policy.”
Hagel Independence Attracts Obama as Israel Issue Looms

In an interview with his hometown newspaper on Monday, the Lincoln Journal Star, Mr Hagel said his record showed “unequivocal, total support” for Israel and that his critics had “completely distorted” his record.
Obama names Hagel and Brennan to lead Pentagon and CIA
The degree to which, to succeed in American Politics, one must be seen as properly supportive of Israel is, to many people, a strange and disturbing thing. Were it simply a facet of American foreign policy that people believed was living in the past, endlessly fighting and re-fighting the Cold War in the Middle East, I suspect that there would be less discomfort with it. After all, government is often a lagging indicator of things here in the United States, and the idea that not everyone had gotten the memorandum that the Soviet Union was no more would strike many people as sad, yet basically par for the course.

Instead, there is a lurking suspicion that what's really at work here is a need to appease a segment of the conservative/evangelical Christian community in the United States that's actively hoping for the End of the World, and therefore wants the United States to take an active role in fulfilling Biblical prophecy. To be sure, I don't think that many people are actually concerned that the United States government is actively working to bring about literal Armageddon. (Since you'd have to take several parts of the Bible as literal truth.) Instead, I think that it plays into people's fears that there is a deeply religious, and thus somewhat non-rational, backstory to American foreign policy, driven by the need to please people who are living even further in the past than the Cold War.

It's indicative of an interesting fault line in the American electorate, and one that shows no sign of closing anytime soon. We will see what happens if the tectonics become more active as time goes by.

Keyword Chaos

Everything, it seems, is a keyword for an advertiser somewhere.

Saturday, January 5, 2013


Wednesday, January 2, 2013


Despite all of the sturm und drang coming out of Washington over the past several weeks, the "Fiscal Cliff" was never the problem. This chart is the problem.

The two blue lines need to cross until the United States has paid off or significantly paid down its Public Debt, and then they need to stay together (barring some sort of real emergency). Either the light blue line needs to go up higher, the dark blue line needs to come down lower or both. But there is no other option.

There are multiple ways to skin this particular cat - all that matters is that the cat is skinned, one way or another. The longer we wait, the more drastic the measures that need to be taken are going to become. We're really already past the point where it's possible to place all of the burden on one group or another. We're all going to have to pitch in.

Which is never going to happen. (I'm aiming for realistic here, not brain damaged.) At least, not until it absolutely has to, and maybe not even then. If international banking and investing has taught us anything, it's that if you promise a high enough rate of return, the fact that you stiffed the last set of chumps for a few billion (or trillion) dollars won't be an obstacle to other people lending you money. It's been said that the United States does the right thing after it's run out of other options. I'm starting to think that the smart money says that the "right thing" won't happen even after the other options are exhausted.

We live in a society where people will, with a straight face, describe waving enough money in someone's direction as a form of coercion. And no matter what happens, there is someone waiting for every dollar of government outlays who is convinced that they'll drop dead on the spot if they don't get it. And someone else who's convinced that every dollar of government revenue is condemning some hardworking soul to a life of poverty. Raising revenues and cutting outlays both have large constituencies that are lined up to oppose them at every turn, backed by a public that is easily convinced that it will all work itself out in the end.

Which it might. After all, there was a surplus, however brief, during part of the Clinton administration, and there's nothing that rules out another economic boom like that in the future, which allows the government to pay down the public debt without people really feeling the pinch. But that isn't likely to happen by itself. We're going to have to roll up our sleeves.