Saturday, October 30, 2004

Fixing the Ponzi Scheme

I was going through the statistics section of the Economist, looking over the performances of the various countries. Canada's wasn't bad, but the numbers for the U.S. scared the hell out of me: huge numbers for the trade deficit, budget deficit, and debt. All this after just having read that the U.S. Fed is being propped up by large investments from East Asia, and China in particular.

This situation may give China veto rights on all of America's foreign policy. This is precisely the situation Britain found itself in during the 50's, when Eisenhower ordered Britain out of Suez by threatening to destroy the pound using Britain's massive WWII debt to America. The debt put England's balls in his hand. He gave a little squeeze, and the last of the British empire fell and died with a wimper.

The outsourcing situation doesn't help. The economic theory is that allowing goods to be produced where they are cheapest leverages the relative strengths of various national economies. All well and good, when the two countries are more or less equal and able to maintain a more or less equal trade balance. In that case, both sides benefit by getting cheaper goods. But when the labour market is nearly infinitely elastic, enforced through totalitatian measures, as it is in China, wages in China remain at rock bottom, and there is little that Americans make that the Chinese can afford. Instead of trickling down, the money is being thrown right back at the Fed in a global Ponzi scheme. The result is the inevitable decline of the standard of living of American workers towards Chinese levels--or massive trade deficits, that can only be sustained through loans, giving China the power to threaten the American economy.

At the same time, China is building a massive industrial infrastructure, which could be redirected to less peaceful uses once established. Combine this is hordes of 'bare branches'--young males with little or no chance of marriage--and you have the perfect environment for massive military mobilization. If the time came that China wanted to flex this muscle (and this is not a given--China does not have a history of expansionism), it could remove America from the stage by playing its economic ace, after which Bill Gates entire fortune would barely pay for breakfast. The consequence of going through on this would be disastrous for China, but primarily to those at the lowest level of the pyramid. China is run mainly by party aparatchiks and triad gangsters, who aren't renowned for their humanitarian concerns.

Rest assured that the Chinese already know all this.

The solution would be a set of human rights and environmental tarrifs, which would partly cancel the attractiveness of outsourcing and provide strong incentives for businesses in the third world to raise the standard of living and the environmental standards in those countries. Essentially, follow environmental standards and pay your workers, or pay an even larger amount of money in tarrifs. This does not mean that third world workers would have to be paid the same as Americans. It means that they should be paid to achieve essentially the same standard of living as American workers, which may still amount to considerably less money given living expenses in that country. In other words, development in the third world would still be attractive. But the overall effect of this would be to protect job markets and labour rights in the first world while improving conditions in the third world and creating markets for first world goods. And those tarrifs would provide a much needed revenue stream for the government. This is not protectionism per se, so much as a strong incentive on companies, especially western companies, to act responsibly in other countries. It protects both sides. And while terrorists are not motivated by economic imperialism (they live in their own reality-free zone, which I won't get into here), it is a handy excuse they like to fall back on to generate sympathy for their cause.

The U.S. is in a unique position to do this because everyone wants to get into American markets. Even if America went alone on this, it would have a tremendous impact on the world. Too bad none of the politicians has thought of this.

Thursday, October 28, 2004

Everybody take a pill...

Found this on Harry's Place. Wow.

Also, check out Eminem's video Mosh. Every time I start thinking that rap is crap, this guy comes out and surpises me.

As the U.S. election draws closer, I think everyone down there needs to up their valium dosage. The lawyers are already gearing up, and the nasty thing is that I don't even think the parties have control over it anymore, passions are running so high. The kind of partisan nastiness that we're seeing is now happening on the grass roots level. With the Democrats that seems to be where most of it is coming from--the Republicans, well, Bush has a history of nasty tricks going all the way back to his bid for Governor against Ann Richards. And the American electoral process will probably break under the strain: 58000 absentee ballots disappeared in Florida, and the Republicans are contesting 35,000 voters in Ohio. Both of these are swing states, and Bush's brother is running Florida. Watch the fur fly.

It's kind of cool to see everyone so impassioned, after forty years of near comatose apathy, but I get the feeling that a lot of people are thinking with their spleens. The fear engendered by 9/11 and stoked with inumerable alerts has made Americans desparate to do something. Bush supporters want to hit someone, even if that someone had nothing to do with 9/11. Kerry supporters figure that all this stomping around is just making more people mad. If Kerry does win, he'll be inheriting a hell of a lot of problems, which may make things worse for the Democrats in the long run. Still, I don't think they can afford not to; there are other reasons to get rid of Bush which I think may be even scarier; the mess he's made of the economy, his suppression of science he doesn't agree with, and the blurring of the line between Church and State, to name a few.

Saturday, October 23, 2004

Reality Check

Slashdot recently cited an article that demonstrates that Bush supporters hold beliefs that are out of sync with the facts. Most still believe that Saddam Hussein had WMDs, that Iraq had ties to Al Qaeda and that Iraq was involved in 9/11. The answers of most of the Bush supporters on Slashdot simply reiterate this position, or state that you have to be tough on Islamic fanatics because they want us dead.

The point is not whether you oppose Islamo-fascism. The majority of the most vehement critics of Islamo-Fascism also opposed the war in Iraq, because it played into the extermists hands. The argument is about strategy, not about the goal. And I am repeatedly astonished by the apparent incapacity of Bush supporters to distinguish between these.

This observation, shared by most of those critical of Bush and his supporters, is the reason we believe that Bush supporters have lost touch with reality. What we see is a rigid adherence to a single, poorly conceived strategy. This strategy is like trying to perform brain surgery with a pick-axe. The major points of this strategy are:

1. Use of superpower style tactics against guerilla opponents--long range attacks, with large area of effect destructive capabilities--in other words, Shock and Awe. Shock and Awe, however, has high collateral damage, destroys infrastructure, and has very limited success against small mobile guerilla groups. In fact, this strategy is designed for fortified emplacements of mixed units, including tanks, artillery, and infantry, who are committed to holding a position. None of these conditions apply in Iraq. Ultimately, Saddam and the majority of his forces were killed or captured by ground troops, not by cluster bombs and long range strikes. This scorched earth strategy was also used in Vietnam. It didn't work there either.

2. An obsession with Iraq regardless of its connection to Political Islam. This obsession pre-dated 9/11, and 9/11 was only the pretext for for doing what elements of the Bush administration already wanted to do. In fact, Saddam Hussein, however vicious, was the one leader of an Arab country who had no ties to Political Islam, and who had always traditionally been despised by extremist Muslims in general and bin Laden in particular. 9/11 made invasion of Iraq a lower priority, not a higher one, however much we may have loathed Saddam Hussein or been appalled by his policies. Removing him simply opened the door in Iraq to the very people we were supposed to be fighting against.

3. The inability to determine between friend, foe, and neutral parties. Bush came out early on and said that if you were not with America against terrorism, you were against it. There are many people who agree in principle but not in practice; they support the goal but not the methods. Most of the Iraqi people are neither with the American troops nor against them--most don't bear them any ill will, but simply don't want them around, shooting or blowing up their neighborhoods. This lack of enthusiasm is difficult to understand for troops who have bought the black and white picture and consider themselves liberators fighting the good fight, and who may have expected the reception given the Allies in northern Europe during WWII. Unprepared for the lukewarm reception, some are assuming that the civilians actually support the other side. It's hard to win the peace when you go in thinking that the people you were meant to save are already the enemy. The result is that the Bush administration is firing blindly into the world, missing the target and making a lot of new enemies.

4. Poor comprehension of the enemy. There is a tendency to describe all opponents in the war as terrorists. In fact, actual terrorists of the Al Queda type may be quite rare. Instead, American troops are faced with a combination of criminal gangs, nationalist resistance, foreign agitators, and terrorists, with the majority probably being criminal gangs. The motivation and tactics of each of these groups is quite different, and strategies which work well against one type will actually give advantages to others. For example, diplomacy is best used against nationalists, who can be turned against foreign agitators, and criminals must be hit financially.

5. Predictability and rigidity. Bush is steadfast, no doubt about that--so steadfast that everyone knows what buttons to push and what he'll do when they're pressed. This provides the likes of Al Queda with the opportunity to play him, and to plan long in advance, even before the event that causes him to react. The terrorists are suicidal; they not only have no fear of retaliation, they are counting on it. Their goal is to provoke the most extreme form of retaliation possible, in the hopes that the Americans will offend enough people to gain sympathy for the terrorist cause. They have gotten exactly what they wanted. In fighting terrorism, the target must be the meme itself. Innocent casualties work to spread the meme, and must be avoided. Otherwise the terrorists will replace their numbers faster than they lose them, and the war can never be won.

Jesus told us to love our enemies. Sun Tzu said that we must know our enemies. In fact, they amount to the same thing--in order to know our enemies, we must first empathize with them and see the world from their point of view. This may lead us to find a way to end the animosity, but it will certainly lead us to understand better how to destroy them. Bush simply called them evil and left it at that. That's not good enough. When critics attempt to explain where the terrorists are coming from, conservatives always cry bleeding heart and turn away. The result is that they have no idea who their enemy is, or how to fight them.

A terrorist is always a man in a crowd, using innocents as cover, hoping you'll kill some of them too. If you want to take him out, you have to take careful, steady aim and take him out with one shot. Bush is just snapping the gun up and spraying the area on full auto. Maybe he will hit the target, and maybe he won't. But one thing is certain: where there was once only one angry man, there will now be a crowd of angry men.

Thursday, October 21, 2004


Just saw a documentary on stupidity. Pretty thin (and a little stupid), but there was one good point in it: people form schemas of the world, belief systems, which they use to filter out information that disagrees and process information that does agree. In other words, they see only what they want to see.

The intent is to prevent cognitive disonance. Even if we've had all your money stolen by a man in a gorilla suit, sold our children for magic seeds, and woken up with a sheep, we will try to rationalize your behaviour so as not to appear dumb, especially to ourselves. Police investigators encountered an extreme example of this in a man who got taken by the Nigerian scam and continued to believe, even after the investigators laid out the whole scam to him, that the con men were acting in good faith, and that things just went wrong. Anything rather than admit that we made a mistake. Genuine personal paradigm shifts are rare. That Zen ideal, 'New Mind', where the person approaches the world without preconceptions, is a rare thing.

There was a case of a man who had a brain injury which damaged the emotional part of his brain. He could reason perfectly, but he could not make a decision. Rationality may play a part in our decision making process, but only if we have an emotional attachment to rationality itself. Evidence may also play a part, but only if we value the weight of evidence over existing beliefs. I enjoy James Randi ranting and storming about pseudo-science, con artists, and irrationality, but he's preaching to the converted. To the True Believer it's like that Far Side cartoon about what the dog hears: "Blah blah blah Rover blah blah..." Rational empiricism demonstrates it validity only after one has accepted and practiced it, and even then it may take time. The original choice to accept it is a leap of faith, because at the outset there is no more 'proof' that reason and evidence will give you the answers than any other competing view. And it requires a faith in our own judgement, which requires encouragement to develop.

Unless kids grow up in an environment where learning is important, their natural curiosity will die out. In the conformity that rules elementary and high schools, too much knowledge makes you stand out. We all know the names: geek, nerd, bookworm, weirdo, and so on. The bullies usually consider themselves dumb and don't like anyone who shows them up. And, of course, who are the school heroes, but the jocks. It's as if we have to grow through the earlier stages of civilization before we reach adulthood. Homo Sapiens, meet Neanderthal Man.

So we end up with a population that has no curiosity, and doesn't like to think. Of course, we all think for ourselves--and yet, everyone thinks the same thing... Hmmm. We believe very strongly in our opinions, but is that because they are really our own opinions, or because they are the opinions given to us that we dare not part with, because we actually suspect that we are too dumb to come up with something on our own to replace it? It reminds me of an ad I saw years ago in a sleazy men's magazine: "What kind of man reads this? The kind of man who has firm opinions on current talking points!" Oh... my... God... Sort of like the latest fashions from Vogue. "Paris says ugly this year, and who cares?" Rush Limbaugh said it all. "Don't think, I'll think for you." His fans actually call themselves ditto-heads. The mind boggles--except, of course, when you don't have one.

And so the stupidity goes on.

Tuesday, October 19, 2004

Bush and Terror

I just caught a documentary on CBC which showed folks in America who are liberals in all other respects who intend to vote for Bush because they think he can stand up to terrorists better. They want a guy who the terrorists will know will come after them if they attack.

Let me make something clear: Islamic extremist militants do not give a rats ass if you come after them. They believe that if they die in their cause they will go immediately to paradise. It doesn't matter to them if you kill them, and it doesn't matter to their cause either if they can recruit enough people to replace their lost numbers. As a message from Al Qaeda affiliated group put it, "You love life, but we love death."

The situation in Islamic countries in the middle east is perfect for producing terrorists: huge numbers of young males with no purpose and poor prospects for marriage. 75% of the population of Saudi Arabia are below the age of 20. Polygamy means that the majority of women will be married by a select group at the top of the economic ladder, leaving vast hordes of "bare branches", young men with nothing to do and no attachments, in a land where the greatest social influence is Wahabbiism, a strict fundamentalist brand of Islam. All that is needed is a justification for the cause, and this is precisely what Iraq is providing.

Because Bush went in under false pretenses with gross underestimates of the challenges to be faced, heavy short term American casualties are extremely embarrassing to the administration and must be avoided at all costs. The preferred tactics are long ranged and automated: bombs and shells, which cause far higher collateral damage. A more realistic approach would have used more troops, less bombs, and would have taken more time to oust Saddam without Shock and Awe by encouraging a coup from within. In the absence of WMD and ties to terrorists, the Americans had time on their side, an advantage that the Bush administration squandered.

Terrorists do not hide amongst civilians in order to avoid being attacked, but to bring the attacks down on the civilians, in the hope that they will eventually feel compelled to fight back in self defense. The current American tactics play hand in hand with this strategy; in fact, terrorist elements are probably feeding the Americans with 'targets' intended to cause the maximum civilian casualties. And the result is being played and spun by the media to Muslim countries throughout the Middle East. The intent may well be to win freedom for Iraqis, but the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

There are other factors at work here. First, the American commitment to Iraq is tying its hands with regard to other threats. Right now, America couldn't do anything about North Korea even if it wanted to. Second, the American military consumes vast amounts of oil, money that is pouring into the Middle East, some of which is being used to fund the very terrorists they are fighting. Third, an army travels on its stomach, and the American economy is tanking. It is largely being kept afloat by outside investment, largely by countries like China who need to keep American markets alive but have no love for America itself. If the debt bubble that Bush is building busts, and the American economy fails, it will no longer be able to support a superpower military, nor will it be able to sustain the vast influx of money needed to support friendly nations like Israel.

This is not something that anyone should wish for. America bashers who think this would all be for the best are deluding themselves. And the fanatics in the Middle East who dream of returning to the middle ages may get their wish--only to discover that a medieval economy cannot support the vast majority of their people at even a subsistence level. You cannot eat oil. The scenario is bad for the west and very bad for Americans, who will see a dramatic decrease in their security, influence, and wealth. But the west, and America in particular, are very inventive and adaptive. They will adjust and recover, though America may lose its status as a superpower permanently. Islam, however, is not as flexible. And China will simply stop.

As for Israel, it will get very tough. But I have this suspicion that if everyone on the world got wiped out except for one single guy, when that guy woke up, the first words out of his mouth would be "Oy vey!"

I have three words for all those anti-semites out there: give it up.

Advertising and Fear

The NY Times has an article on Neuroscientists and Marketing. Like the answer isn't already obvious: fear.

Playing on fear hits on the second level of Maslow's hierarchy of needs, safety. This has to be satisfied before love, self-esteem, or self-actualization. Targetting this hits us at the mammalian level, even below the monkey. Only raw physical drives come before this. This is why SUV's are selling so well. Car buyers have been convinced that SUV's are safer. In fact, they're not--their center of gravity is too high for their wheel base, and their size and weight makes them less maneuverable, making accidents more likely and more deadly when they happen. But the perception, fostered by advertising, has made them a runaway success.

This also explains why politics has been so warped since 9/11. All those alerts are scaring the hell out of people who haven't applied a little statistical perspective and realized that even in 2001, your chances of being killed by a terrorist were far less than being killed by in a car crash. By the same reasoning, we should all stop travelling in cars. But rationality doesn't even get a chance at this level.

It also explains why Democrats are more frightened by footing of 9/11 than Republicans. Republicans actually think Bush is doing a good job against terrorism, while Democrats are aware that the invasion in Iraq had nothing to do with terrorism, and may make the problem worse by aggravating Islamic paranoia. In other words, Democrats see 9/11 as a threat which has not yet been dealt with properly.

Understanding the role of fear in people's choices explains a lot of things: the War on Drugs (fear of gangs), McCarthyism (fear of Communism), Fundamentalism (fear of uncertainty), and knee-jerk patriotism (fear of foreigners.) Whenever you see people acting like lemurs, it's a pretty good indication that this is what's happening. And the best advertisement of this is the 6:00 news, where no news is good news, and the entire program is spent on statistical anomalies. This was also the real conclusion of Bowling for Columbine; the guns don't help, but other countries have almost as many guns as the Americans. What they don't share is the irrational fear.

Advertising just rides on the coattails of bad journalism.

Monday, October 18, 2004

Dungeons and Dragons turns 30!

Wow, dude has it been that long? Hey, where's the Cheetos?

I am partial to 2nd ed, and I loved the first ed Gygax modules (the Vault of the Drow series and Giants series). And I've got a shelfload of Dragon magazines. But really, the whole point was never the rules, but what you did with them. The nice thing about D&D was the fudge factor--as the DM, you could scale the difficulty level as you went to bring the party to the edge of defeat without wiping them out. More strictly defined rules systems didn't leave this leeway, because players could tell from the dice roll whether they had succeeded or not. In D&D the DM was always the final arbiter. Now you can run online adventures with Neverwinter Nights, so if your old D&D group has split up into different cities, you can still play together, but I'm not sure it or the 3rd edition gives the same leeway.

I was lucky in that I played in university with a bunch of people with multiple degrees. We had people in history, philosophy, english, political science, psychology, and engineering, all voracious readers, and a couple of hard core gamers. The interesting thing about running in a tabletop game is that the DM plays God, so you really get to see what their idea of justice, politics, economics, and human nature is. This led to a lot of interesting discussions on subjects like the nature of evil or medieval politics. We used to have pitched arguments about the difference between religion in the game world vs. the medieval world. The gods in the game world took active roles, while the God of the medieval church never intervened. This meant that religion in the game world was actually controlled by the gods--a very interesting premise.

Another interesting thing about D&D is that it is intended as a fully cooperative game. A lot of cooperative games were created in the 70's, but D&D is the only one that caught on. The opponents are provided by the DM, who nevertheless is not playing against the players. This was always missed by the hysterical critics, who were obsessed with the violence in the game or the mythical elements (eewwww--the occult!) Media coverage of the game in the early days was pathetic. They were always so intent on looking for a scare story that they couldn't see what was going on right in front of them: players working together in a creative hobby.

Sunday, October 17, 2004


This blog is intended as a repository for all of the comments, raves, responses, and opinions I have been posting on other sites. These comments range across a variety of subjects: politics, religion, science, philosophy, programming, games (I'm a game developer), and humor.

My bete noir, however, is political or authoritarian religion--religion used by demagogues for political gain. This blight on the human landscape is the result of a combination of pride and sloth on the part of both its leaders and followers. Not self-esteem, but false pride, the human desire to be right all the time, the temptation to claim final authority. Not the sloth so detested by the Puritans, but intellectual laziness so often disguised by busywork, a lack of curiosity and the atrophy of reason.

Political religion takes many forms. Out of political correctness or personal outrage, we all hone in on different manifestations of it: fundamentalist brands of various religions, narrow political and economic orthodoxies, pseudo-science, scientism, occultism, and cults.
But the enemy has always and everywhere been the same, and the plain of Armageddon is not on any map, but is a place in the human soul. The enemy is in all camps, because it is within us, and we have no devil to blame for it. In typical buckshot manner, the religions take aim at this too, but hit so much else that no one can tell what the original target was. I think I know what their original intent was, but there is just no way to prove what that intent was by referring to any scripture.

The Holy Texts are so vague and self-contradictory, so spread across time and influence, that nearly any meaning can be gleaned from them. Whenever someone argues for the infallibility of one of these books, they are in fact arguing for the infallibility of their own interpretation. Catholicism is criticised for having a Pope who claims to be infallible, and rightly so. But fundamentalists of all stripes make the same claim by hiding behind the Bible, or the Koran, or some other work. The world is full of popes. And nothing works in their favour so well as a flock unwilling to study the evidence and think for themselves.