Friday, December 31, 2010

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell

I just finished reading 'Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell'. It is a very good book. The most concise and accurate description I can give it is 'An adult version of Harry Potter' It is sophisticated, high-quality fiction from a previously unknown British author. It draws on a wide literary tradition and does an excellent job of building a world and characters.

The book was published in 2004, in a publicity campaign that was massive by the standards of the publishing industry, and earned a blizzard of positive award and prizes, including a Hugo Award. And yet I had never heard of it before this year. I first saw it on a friend's bookshelf, and it looked interesting, but I had never heard of it so I assumed that it was a bit of mediocre genre fiction. But then I saw it on a list of the most impressive fiction of the last decade, from a very smart blogger who reads very extensively, so I decided to borrow and read it.

It is scary how such a famous and high-quality book in a genre that I like could have escaped my notice for so long. There was once a time when every literate person read every good new book that their society produced. Now I cannot even keep up with the good speculative fiction books that my society produces. The dizzying array of options and choices in the modern world really has had the effect of fragmenting our culture.

Maybe I should resolve to read all of the Hugo Award winners, and to ignore any sci-fi or fantasy books that have not won the award. That would definitely improve the average quality of the books I read, and increase the odds that I could talk about books with people like me. It is a good solution to the coordination game of what to read and talk about. But it would also mean that I miss out on really fun books, like the 'Monster Hunter' books from Larry Correia that I really enjoyed reading.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Deaf Experience

Yesterday evening, a friend and I went to a dinner meeting for deaf people.  A few people there were training to be interpreters, and a few were friends, but most were deaf.  It was a very interesting experience.

In most dinner meetings, conversational range is limited and the conversation is communal.  You can only talk to people close to you, and everyone nearby will hear you and be part of the discussion.  But deaf people always communicate by line of sight, either with cued speech or sign language.  This means that they have no trouble at all holding a conversation with someone on the other end of the table.*  Several times during the night I noticed that several different simultaneous conversations were taking place between people far apart from each other.  This could never happen with sound-based speech.

On the other hand, conversation among deaf people tends to be binary.  It is very hard to read the lips or signs of two people simultaneously, or even to notice that someone else wants to speak.  Interrupting someone or jumping into the conversation requires a bit of effort, so the conversations tend to have only two people talking back and forth.  Sometimes someone else will be watching both of them.

If you want to get someone's attention, you have to either flap your hands at them when they are looking in your direction, or poke them, or poke someone else at pass along a message. (It is considered very rude to throw something at deaf people to get their attention.)

All of this means that conversation and group dynamics were very different than anything I have seen before.  I get the feeling that there was much more actual communication than there would have been in a group of hearing people.  Deaf people communicating never generates any 'noise pollution' so there is no limit to the number of simultaneous conversations.  In theory, fully half of the people at the table can be talking at once without interfering with each other, and you could talk with anyone at the table and not just people close to you.

I also got a taste of what it must feel like to be deaf in a world of hearing people.  None of them made any sounds when talking.  Often they would move their mouths, so that the others could lipread them to aid understanding, but they did not bother to put any stress on their throats or vocal cords by making sounds.  So I was at a table full of people chattering away happily, making no sound at all, and I could not understand any of it.

I also noticed that nobody had a pen and pad of paper handy.  They ordered either by talking or pointing at a menu.  If I was deaf or had any other kind of communication handicap, I would carry paper with me at all times and use that as my primary method of communication.  I would write things down and ask others to write in response.  But nobody else seems to do that. 

In fact, sometimes I think that the world would be a better place if everyone did this all the time.  But then, I am a bit odd in liking the precision of the written word rather than the vagueness and messiness of speech or gestures.

*They can also talk to someone on the other end of the room, or even, as I saw, through a window.  If they can see each other well enough to see hand shapes, they can talk just as well as if you were right next to each other.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

The Ultra-Imperial Presidency

Here's a Good Interview with a guy who warns about the dangers of steadily increasing executive power.  This is not one of those anti-Obama people that ignored the Bush abuses of power.  He points out that things have been getting worse under all presidents.

M-M: In your view, are Republican and Democratic presidents equally responsible for power grabs?
BA: Yes. It's true that the three worst incidents have occurred under Republican presidents — that is, Watergate, Iran-Contra and the extra-legal, illegal activities of the war on terror. But there has been a bipartisan effort by presidents from Franklin Roosevelt through to the present to aggrandize presidential power. And there are crucial features of the existing edifice that have been built by Democratic presidents. 

 Right now, we have an increasing number of highly skilled lawyers in the White House Counsel's office and in the Office of Legal Counsel. We didn't have these people before. Before Richard Nixon, there was no trained legal staff in the White House. Now there are 40 lawyers, 25 of them writing very polished opinions. What happens in an emergency is that these lawyers in the White House staff and the Office of Legal Counsel have powerful incentives to write very learned opinions saying the president can do whatever he wants.  

There are 7 billion people in the world. There are always going to be tens of millions of people who don't like America. And with the big technological shift, it's becoming possible for smaller and smaller numbers of people to buy more and more dangerous weapons for lower and lower prices. Five hundred people with a couple million dollars will, predictably, in 20 years' time, have nuclear capacities. One of these groups is going to be lucky. That's going to happen. The question is, whether it is totally going to destroy our tradition of freedom or whether it will simply disrupt it for a manageable period of time. 

 My proposal is to have a new emergency statute which recognizes that right after a 9/11 catastrophe — and we may well have worse catastrophes in the 21st century — it is appropriate for the United States government and the president of the United States to take really sweeping actions for a brief period of time — I'd say, 45 days. I say, however, that this state of emergency has to be approved by Congress, and that every 60 days thereafter, the president has to go back to Congress and get it approved again, with a supermajority — the first time, 60 percent of Congress has to go along, and the next time 70 percent, and the next time and for every time thereafter, 80 percent. What this means is that emergencies end. Our problem right now, after 9/11, is that so many of the emergency measures, which I would support as short-term devices after a tragic episode, have become part and parcel of our system. And when we have another attack, which we will, people will say, "Well, you know, these measures weren't enough to stop the attack, so let's be even more draconian." 
He also mentions disturbing tends in the erosion of civilian oversight of the military.  I am not sure how true this is, but I do know that a military that always follows civilian orders and does not get involved in politics is vital for the long-term health of freedom and democracy.  The problem is that civilians sometimes order the military to do really stupid things and they need to have the right to protest that.

I would say that the military should always have the right to argue that it should not be doing something, especially if that something involves the creation of overseas entanglements.  However, they should not have the right to propose new strategic actions or attempt to alter domestic policy or leadership in any way.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Future Shock?

Futurists often discuss the possibility of productivity-enhancing drugs and their potential to generate wealth inequality.  What if the rich had access to things that made them work smarter and harder?

Here's an interesting essay that suggests it has already happened.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Bank Law Consequences

There is an entire industry of fraud built up around a stupid little flaw in our banking system.  I refer to the fact that when you deposit a check, the bank always credits your account before checking to see if the check is any good.  If the check later turns out to be bad, you lose the money.  This can happen not just with checks, but with a variety of payment types.

Scammers of all kinds use this to defraud people.  They send a fake check and the victim deposits the check and sees money credited to the account.  After the check is deposited but before it is revealed to be fake, the criminal then ask for money back for some reason.  Many people who do not know about this flaw in the system will send money and lose it.

Thousands and thousands of people have been harmed by this.  The fraud works because the bank is basically lying to you.  They say that you have the money, but you do not.  The truth is wildly different from how most people assume bank statements work.

Banks do this because they are forced to by law.  There is some stupid banking law somewhere that forces banks to credit money to your account when you give them the check.  I am sure that banks would do things differently if this law was not in place.  They would only credit a check to your account when it actually cleared, and they would then advertise the fact that customers of their bank are much less vulnerable to frauds as a result.

If they did this, then the only disadvantage would be that you would have to wait a little longer for 'your' money when checks were good.  But the banks could probably treat different checks differently if they wanted to.  The more reliable kinds of checks could be credited instantly, and the kinds scammers use would not be.

I am not sure what the ideal rule would be.  Maybe no regulation would be best.  Maybe there should be a rule making it illegal for banks to claim you have the money from the check when you do not.  The current way of doing things is basically fraud, and it results in a lot of people losing money to con artists.

This kind of thing is why all laws and regulations should be considered guilty until proven innocent.  Every law that is passed has the chance for these kinds of side effects.  A single oversight or error in the drafting of legislation can create conditions that hurt people for decades.

Monday, December 6, 2010

More Wikileaks Thoughts

In competitive paintball games, there is a strategy called 'Designated Idiot'.  One player is assigned to make a lot of noise, to yell insults at other teams and the referee, to be flamboyantly obnoxious and draw attention to himself.  This distracts the referee and opponents, allowing the teammates to surreptitiously cheat their way to victory.

Assange is the Designated Idiot for Wikileaks.  I do not know if the strategy is deliberate or accidental, but it is working beautifully.  Attention is focused on one person, while the rest of the team continues to operate silently to build up the infrastructure and connections that allow Wikileaks to be so successful.

The best thing that could happen for the organization now is for Assange to be martyred.  If he is killed or injured in a suspicious way, a lot of people will start to see him as a hero and work to further his goals.  The people calling for him to be killed are idiots.  They show a complete lack of perspective, a contempt for the rule of law, and zero sense of strategic thinking.

The actual spooks are cleverer; they are aiming for character assassination.  A rape charge is the best way to destroy a reputation in today's world.  I am not dismissing the possibility that Assange actually committed a crime, but the timing of the warrant is quite suspicious.

WIkileaks has worked to prevent people from being hurt by this.  They have deleted several documents, and gone over them internally to try to avoid releasing anything harmful.  They also sent a letter to the State Department offering to hold back specific documents upon request.  The government did not point to any specific document that might be harmful.

This information is almost certainly available to foreign intelligence services already.  The database that the information came from can be accessed by over three million people.  Several dozen of these people are probably compromised by various foreign governments, and feeding them information.  If Manning had sold the files he downloaded to the Soviets or Chinese, nobody would have ever known about it, and the Army has plenty of people like him.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Plain Tales From The Hills

Since childhood, I had been vaguely aware of Kipling, as the author of the Just So Stories and of several poems that I never actually read but knew lines from.  I also knew of his reputation and a bit of his life story.  Over Thanksgiving break, I was looking through some old books at my Grandmother's house and found Plain Tales From The Hills.  I always like short stories, so I read one, and liked it so much that I asked to borrow the book so I could read the rest.

The book is incredibly good.  Most of the stories are first-class, very well-written, with lines and quotes that you want to repeat to other people around you.  They are very much like Mark Twain's early short stories, although with less emphasis on pure humor.  

In addition to their inherent quality, they are fascinating historical documents.  They reveal a way of life and thinking that is almost dead today, and very alien to our modern sensibilities.  One thing that particularly fascinates me is that I cannot tell if Kipling is subversively mocking these beliefs or if he actually holds them.  I tend to think the former; many of the statements are so outrageous that I think they must be like Swift's 'A Modest Proposal'.  Kipling constantly portrays the British colonial administration of India in a cynical way, creating the impression that the government was full of stupidity, waste, and corruption.

But then, he will write something in complete seriousness that is blatantly racist, or silly, or alien to the modern mind.  It is a fascinating mystery.

While reading these stories, I assumed that they were they work of a cynical, middle-aged, world-weary soldier.  I was surprised when I looked the book up and saw that all of them were written by the time he was 22.

I was also surprised by how many non-English words he throws around without explanation.  I do not know if all readers would have understood them, or if he did that to appear impressive and exotic.  Given that they were published in India at first, I assume the former.  As I was reading, I had to make a long list of words to look up, and there were a lot more that I already knew or could figure out from context

The stories are short and, aside from some of the vocabulary, very easy to read.  If you have a little spare time, read a few and see what you think.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Machinery of Government

Recently I have been reading Kipling's 'Plain Tales from the Hills', an amazingly good book.  When I am done I will write more about it.  But today I will bring up one point that relates to current events.  This is from the story 'Consequences':

Mrs. Hauksbee gasped as she read, for the first glimpse of the naked machinery of the Great Indian Government, stripped of its casings, and lacquer, and paint, and guard-rails, impresses even the most stupid man.

Over the last week, the world has gotten a glimpse of the naked machinery of international diplomacy.  It is an extraordinary sight.  The Wikileaks publication of diplomatic cables will change the world in important ways.  People who know about technology have been predicting something like this for decades, but the actual event was like 9-11 for the diplomatic community.

The reaction of our government to this leak really disturbs me.  When Wikileaks released a trove of military documents, the government made some noise about it but did not really take any action.  But now, they seem engaged in an all-out cyberwar against the site.  To me, this is backwards.  The military files did not really tell us that much, but they may have put our soldiers and intelligence contacts at risk.  The diplomatic files, by contrast, reveal a lot of lies and corruption at the highest levels of a lot of governments, but the risk of actually putting lives at risk is a lot smaller.

Basically, our government has revealed by its actions that it cares far more about the reputation of its diplomats than the lives of its soldiers.

I think that the principle of openness in general, and Wikileaks in particular, are good for the world.  Secrecy is a weapon.  It may be a necessary weapon, to safeguard things like your bank account, but we must always remember that it is a weapon.  You keep information about yourself secret for the same reason you lock your doors and keep a shotgun by your bed.  Secrecy is a collection of lies, evasions, and dishonesty that let you win social and political games in an adversarial world.  An honest world with no secrecy is like a peaceful world with no weapons: an excellent goal and dream even if it is practically impossible.

Government bureaucracies will always try to accumulate as many weapons as they possibly can, and claim that it is for the benefit of the country.  The citizens of the country must resist this trend for the same reason they must resist the accumulation of physical weapons and military power by their governments.  Weapons may be necessary, but they are always and everywhere a necessary evil, useful only if they prevent greater evils.

The optimal amount of government secrecy is certainly not zero, but I believe that it is much lower than the amount we currently see.  Wikileaks helps us move in the right direction.  If our government could be trusted to only classify what was necessary for the country, and not necessary for bureaucrats, then Wikileaks would be pointless and damaging.  But given the tendency of governments toward excessive secrecy, leaks like these are good.  They tell the public what is really going on, and threats of disclosure should make governments less likely to lie to their citizens.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

1895 8th Grade Exam

I saw this exam quoted in a newspaper article once, and tried to find it online but could not.  But another blog linked to it today.  I'll copy it and give comments on the questions, and then discuss it a bit:

This is the eighth-grade final exam from 1895 from Salina, KS. USA.
It was taken from the original document on file at the Smoky Valley
Genealogical Society and Library in Salina, KS and reprinted by the
Salina Journal.

8th Grade Final Exam: Salina, KS - 1895

Grammar (Time, one hour)
1. Give nine rules for the use of Capital Letters.
2. Name the Parts of Speech and define those that have no modifications.

These are simple enough, but I'm not sure the lists I could come up with would be complete.  It would be easy to study, though.
3. Define Verse, Stanza and Paragraph.

I had no idea what the difference between Verse and Stanza is.  After looking it up, I saw that the two words have been conflated in the past century, but 'Verse' was single line of poetry whereas 'Stanza' was a group of lines.
4. What are the Principal Parts of a verb? Give Principal Parts of do, lie, lay and run.

I had no clue what they mean here.  Even after looking it up I am not confident I would get it right.  Looking at all the labels for each tense, like 'preterite', make my head hurt.  I have excellent grammar, but that comes from simply reading a lot of high-quality prose rather then memorizing rules like this.
5. Define Case, Illustrate each Case.

No clue.  This is apparently something to do with how you use nouns.  I started to look it up, saw that it was a twisted complex mess, and decided that I don't even want to know; I have better things to do with my brain.
6. What is Punctuation? Give rules for principal marks of Punctuation. 
7 - 10.  Write a composition of about 150 words and show therein that you understand the practical use of the rules of grammar.

Finally, something reasonable and practical.

Arithmetic (Time, 1.25 hours)
1. Name and define the Fundamental Rules of Arithmetic.

I know a lot of basic rules of arithmetic and math, but I do not know which they are asking for here.  Is it the definition of the operations, or things like the Associative Property? <looks it up> The former.
2. A wagon box is 2 ft. deep, 10 feet long, and 3 ft. wide. How many bushels of wheat will it hold?

Notice how they require you to memorize the volume of a bushel.  I do not know how many cubic feet there are in a bushel, so I could not get this right.
3. If a load of wheat weighs 3942 lbs., what is it worth at 50 cts. per bu., deducting 1050 lbs. for tare?

For this one, you have to know how much a bushel of wheat weighs.  Farmers in Kansas would find it useful to know this, but I certainly don't.
4. District No. 33 has a valuation of $35,000. What is the necessary levy to carry on a school seven months at $50 per month, and have $104 for incidentals?
5. Find cost of 6720 lbs. coal at $6.00 per ton.
6. Find the interest of $512.60 for 8 months and 18 days at 7 percent.

These are easy.  Many of my college students probably could not handle them, though.
7. What is the cost of 40 boards 12 inches wide and 16 ft. long at $20 per m?

I have no idea what 'per m' means.
8. Find bank discount on $300 for 90 days (no grace) at 10 percent.

I assumed that this was referring to 10 percent annual interest, but it is not.  The math here is very simple, but you have to know what these terms mean.
9. What is the cost of a square farm at $15 per are, the distance around which is 640 rods?

I have no idea how long a rod is.
10. Write a Bank Check, a Promissory Note, and a Receipt.

How is this Arithmetic?  

U.S. History (Time, 45 minutes)
1. Give the epochs into which U.S. History is divided.

There are a large number of ways to divide history into 'epochs' and none of them are any more correct than any other.  You can come up with any classification system you want.  They may have just been memorizing a pointless list, or they may have been using these epochs as labels to aid a good understanding of history.  It is impossible to tell.
2. Give an account of the discovery of America by Columbus.
3. Relate the causes and results of the Revolutionary War.
4. Show the territorial growth of the United States.
5. Tell what you can of the history of Kansas.
6. Describe three of the most prominent battles of theRebellion.

I could handle these easily, replacing Kansas with my home state, but most people probably could not.
7. Who were the following: Morse, Whitney, Fulton, Bell, Lincoln, Penn, and Howe?

I knew these, but I would not expect most people to.  All of them except Lincoln and Penn were inventors of various tools and practical technologies.  An analogous modern question would be about Steve Jobs or Bill Gates.
8. Name events connected with the following dates:

I could not think of anything special about 1800 and 1849.  I forgot about the 'gold rush'.  I knew that Jefferson was president from 1800 but I would not have considered that worth writing about.

Orthography (Time, one hour)
1. What is meant by the following: Alphabet, phonetic, orthography, etymology, syllabication?
2. What are elementary sounds? How classified?
3. What are the following, and give examples of each: Trigraph, subvocals, diphthong, cognate letters, linguals?
4. Give four substitutes for caret 'u'.
5. Give two rules for spelling words with final 'e'. Name two exceptions under each rule.
6. Give two uses of silent letters in spelling.  Illustrate each.
7. Define the following prefixes and use in connection with a  word: Bi, dis, mis, pre, semi, post, non, inter, mono,super.
8. Mark diacritically and divide into syllables the following, and name the sign that indicates the sound: Card, ball, mercy, sir, odd,cell, rise, blood, fare, last.
9. Use the following correctly in sentences, Cite, site, sight, fane,fain, feign, vane, vain, vein, raze, raise, rays.
10. Write 10 words frequently mispronounced and indicate pronunciation by use of diacritical marks and by syllabication.

Why is this separate from grammar?  How is it even useful?  I could give a decent answer for 1, 6, 7, and 9, but everything else seems completely pointless.  Memorizing rules like this do almost nothing to help develop good language skills.  The contrast between this and the arithmetic is staggering.  The arithmetic is too narrowly practical, while this would have no practical use at all, except maybe for a newspaper editor.

Geography (Time, one hour)
1. What is climate? Upon what does climate depend?
2. How do you account for the extremes of climate in Kansas? 
3. Of what use are rivers? Of what use is the ocean?

Good questions.  Note the emphasis on how things are used by people.  This test seems to be a sign of a curriculum that is a good mix of theory and practicality.
4. Describe the mountains of North America.
5. Name and describe the following: Monrovia, Odessa, Denver, Manitoba,Hecla, Yukon, St. Helena, Juan Fermandez, Aspinwall and Orinoco.
6. Name and locate the principal trade centers of the U.S.

4 and 6 are easy general knowledge questions, but 5 is all about pointless memorization.
7. Name all the republics of Europe and give capital of each.

This question was a lot easier in the 19th century than it would be today.  There were a lot fewer countries.  At one point in the 1800's, there were less than two dozen sovereign nations on the entire planet.  Everything else was a colony.
8. Why is the Atlantic Coast colder than the Pacific in the same latitude?

I thought the Gulf Stream made the areas around the Atlantic warmer.  But that only applies to Europe, I guess.
9. Describe the process by which the water of the ocean returns to the sources of rivers.
10. Describe the movements of the earth. Give inclination of the earth.
Also easy, and good to know.

Aside from the grammar nonsense and questions like Geography 5, I could ace this with a little bit of studying.  The grammar probably would not be too hard if I had ever been taught it by someone, and I could certainly learn it in a week or so if I really had to.

Most people could not do so well, but that does not necessarily mean that we are stupider.  Every society demands a different mix of knowledge from its people.  The '8th grade final exam' in many primitive tribes would involve going off into the woods alone with a knife and surviving alone for a couple weeks.  Very few people today could do that, but it does not mean we are inferior.  Our education has simply been focused in a different direction.

Still, it would be interesting to need to find some modern 8th grade tests to compare.  My memory of by own middle school years is so fuzzy that it is useless as a comparison.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Good Article

Keep Your Identity Small

More generally, you can have a fruitful discussion about a topic only if it doesn't engage the identities of any of the participants. What makes politics and religion such minefields is that they engage so many people's identities. But you could in principle have a useful conversation about them with some people. And there are other topics that might seem harmless, like the relative merits of Ford and Chevy pickup trucks, that you couldn't safely talk about with others.