Archive for June 2009

Oh. My. GOD.   6 comments

If you want to see the problems inherent in a representative democracy, look no further than this story.

In March, two members of the Oakland (California) City Council finally resolved an epic and high-stakes legal battle after a fight that lasted three months and spawned a legal opinion by the city attorney.  The burning question: who was entitled to the parking space closest to the front door of City Hall.

Oakland, you see, has no other problems or difficulties of any kind that might require the government’s attention.

Councilmembers Jean Quan and Desley Brooks both coveted the “prized parking space” that, until late last year, had been clutched firmly in the steely grip of Councilmember Henry Chang.  When Chang announced his retirement, the two women good-naturedly flipped a coin to determine who would get the space.  Of course they didn’t do that.

Seriously, Oakland, eject these two people on the next election.  OUT.  Get them OUT.  If there was ever a better case to say, “Hm… methinks these two Councilmembers lack the ability to negotiate major issues”…

Tip o’ the hat to Corey.

Posted June 18, 2009 by padraic2112 in politics, rants

That’s What I Call a Hefty Sum   7 comments

Karl Denniger links to a story that has some interesting details:

Italy’s financial police (Guardia italiana di Finanza) has seized US bonds worth US 134.5 billion from two Japanese nationals at Chiasso (40 km from Milan) on the border between Italy and Switzerland. They include 249 US Federal Reserve bonds worth US$ 500 million each, plus ten Kennedy bonds and other US government securities worth a billion dollar each. Italian authorities have not yet determined whether they are real or fake, but if they are real the attempt to take them into Switzerland would be the largest financial smuggling operation in history; if they are fake, the matter would be even more mind-boggling because the quality of the counterfeit work is such that the fake bonds are undistinguishable from the real ones.

What caught the policemen’s attention were the billion dollar securities. Such a large denomination is not available in regular financial and banking markets. Only states handle such amounts of money.

The question now is who could or would counterfeit or smuggle these non-negotiable bonds.

Karl’s take?

Those sound like Bearer Bonds – at least the Kennedy ones do.  We no longer issue those (nor does pretty much anyone else) for obvious reasons – they’re essentially money and can be had in VERY large size, making them great vehicles for various illegal enterprises.

But folks: This is $134.5 billion dollars worth.

If they’re real, what government (the only entity that would have such a cache) is trying to unload them?

If they’re fake, this is arguably the biggest counterfeiting operation ever, by a factor of many times.  I’ve seen news about various counterfeiting operations over the years that have made me chuckle, but this one, if that’s what it is, is absolutely jaw-dropping.

I can think of two other explanations, that neither Karl nor the AsiaNews reporter considered.  One, this might be the biggest heist in recorded history.  I can’t imagine that a government that lost $134.5 billion dollars would immediately start trumpeting that fact to the world… in fact, they’d be dying to cover that up, which might explain why U.S. media hasn’t picked up the story and run crazy with it (somebody made some phone calls).  Wow, you could make one heck of a caper movie out of that, inside job or not.  Two, this might be a case of money that belonged to a government that no longer existed; like, say, Saddam Hussain’s Iraq.  This seems less likely; while lots of the Iraqi treasury that was under the control of Saddam’s Baath party went missing, I haven’t seen any reports top the “tens of billions” mark.  They already *made* this one into a movie, so no artistic avenue there.

Personally, I’m not entirely certain this isn’t a hoax.  If it isn’t, though, I’m *really* hoping it’s a caper.  Can you imagine the details that would come to light in the next few years?

Posted June 12, 2009 by padraic2112 in news, security

Theme Thursday: Swing (and Clock)   4 comments

I missed last Thursday (clock), and I’m late this week.  Apologies to the other TT bloggers.

In 1952 a man named Bernard Malamud wrote a book about a baseball player.  The book was adapted in 1984 and made into a movie.  Hold off on the links!

I’ve read the book, and seen the movie, and this is one of those cases where a movie adaptation has a pretty major departure from the book that foundationally changes the message you get when you walk away from the art itself.  Some critics of the movie really don’t like the difference; the message in the book is certainly more complex and darker than what you get from watching the movie.

However, I think this is one of those times when the two products are of equal merit.  The movie is obviously over-the-top “feel good”; but it’s designed for a completely different audience than the book, so I don’t think of this as a detraction.  It’s just different.

Have you guessed yet how this ties into the theme for this week?

Almost at the very end of the movie is the scene that marks the departure from the novel.  In the book, Hobbs throws the game, throws away the payoff as a gesture, ruins his career, and breaks down on the last pages.  In the movie, this happens:

… and then the movie wraps up with sweetness and light.  It’s a fluffy ending, absolutely… but so’s the ending of “Rudy”.

There’s two swings in this clip, the swing that breaks Wonder Boy (the first bat), and the swing that brings on the stirring part of the Randy Newman soundtrack.  I leave it to the reader to decide which is more significant, in the frame of the movie.

[edited to add]

And here’s a handy clip germane to last week’s Theme Thursday, almost as if I planned it this way:

My favorite part in this scene is the old man, giving the hand sign after the hit.  I don’t know who that extra was, or if the guy was a professional actor, but he stole that scene.

Posted June 12, 2009 by padraic2112 in movies, Theme Thursday

For the Big Pharma Conspiracy Theorists   Leave a comment

I have a question?

According to this, the nutritional supplements market (vitamins) is currently about $68,000,000,000, and expected to grow 12% by 2011.  The homeopathic remedy market?  Can’t find a number, but this claimes that a half-billion people use homeopathy.  Herbal treatments net about another $20,000,000,000.  I don’t know the overall dollar value of vitamins + quackery + ginger root (which actually works, but you can buy that at the farmer’s market), but it seems like $100,000,000,000 would be a fair guess.  If you try and find numbers for the worldwide herbal market, be prepared to shell out $800-$4,000 for an industry report.

I confess, I’d like to know, but not at that price tag.

Now, according to this, the worldwide market for vaccinations is $10,000,000,000, or 1/10th of the above.

Ten billion dollars seems like a lot.  However, can you explain to me why a shadowy organization filled with money-loving antihumans who would inject millions of people with dangerous chemicals would go through the process of FDA regulation, undergo the scrutiny of CDC and NIH studies, and the general medical research community… when they can enter any one of the above markets, at no barrier, with little or no oversight?  Hell, they can produce vitamins and make almost seven times as much money as they make now, cut out their whole “bribe the FDA and our local congressperson” budget, balance their karma somewhat (since some people don’t have a balanced diet and actually have vitamin deficiencies), cut loose those medical researchers they’re paying on the side, and drop the ninja assassin brigade they use to kill off potential whistleblowers.  Well, okay, maybe they keep the ninjas, on account of ninjas are cool, right?

Are these the dumbest evil overlords in recorded history?

See, people on teh Intrawebs point to financial ties between medical researchers and the pharmaceutical industry as some sort of major point of evidence that the FDA is in the pocket of Big Pharma.  Of course, that ignores the fact that medical researchers might actually *develop* a vaccination or a drug and expect (like the good little American capitalists we all are) to get *some* sort of payment out of the deal.  Scientists gotta eat, too… and you can’t expense booze on federal grants anymore so where’s your beer money going to come from?

Why don’t these people ever point out the oddity that natural, herbal, homeopathic products (which generate more filthy lucre than the vaccination market) don’t even bother to *test* their products, and strenuously lobby to keep the FDA out of their business?  You’d think if you’re making more than Big Pharma, you could at least shell some money out to a research department…

Posted June 11, 2009 by padraic2112 in newsflash, rants

What Is The Law?   1 comment

The Oingo Boingo fan immediately responds, “NO SPILL BLOOD!”

That’s not what I’m going to talk about today, though.  I’m going to be talking about some other laws.

First, The Law of The Instrument.  In the book, “The Psychology of Science”, written back in 1962, Abraham Maslow famously said, “When the only tool you have is a hammer, it is tempting to treat everything as if it were a nail.”

Second, The Law of Unintended Consequences.  Often times in complex systems, an action has unforseen reactions, due to the layering of dependent variables.

If you ever run across one of those silly internet tests that attempts to tell you what your political affiliation is, you may be surprised with the results.  I’m still looking for a good one, because whenever I take those tests it invariably tells me that I’m a Liberal, and yet I find myself arguing with Liberals at least as often as I find myself arguing with Conservatives.  This recent discussion over at Phil’s blog is a perfect example of the sort of proposition that is usually supported by liberals with which I disagree.

The question at hand, for those who don’t want to read the entire screed is, “Should vaccinations be mandatory?”

(I’m really verbose on that particular thread, which is one reason why I haven’t been blogging recently on my own blog)

Now of course, you’re getting the standard votes of “no” for the standard reasons.  The Slippery Slope (“Nanny State!”)  The Religious Freedom argument, and so on.  Of course, you’re also getting the standard “yes” votes, for the standard reasons.  Nobody’s actually interested in the *first* question anyone should be asking, which is, “is this practical?”

From a philosophical standpoint, the question of individual freedom vs responsibility to the community is a question that is never going to go away.  It’s certainly well advised to have these discussions, I’ll grant you .  [edited to add]  For the record, I agree with Janet; people who don’t get vaccinated are rightly categorized as free riders.  [/edit].  However, if we’re going to be discussing one of the central, weighty issues concerning human societal structure, perhaps we ought to start with those questions that actually have a reasonable chance of being worthwhile.

As I argue over at Phil’s place (and also at Janet’s and at Jimmy’s), a government-enforced mandatory vaccination program is going to be expensive.  More importantly, most of that money goes directly to overhead.

See, audit is by its very nature very inefficient.  What you are attempting to do, in any audit process, is verify that something has happened.  This has several design considerations.  For starters, you need to recognize that if you’re auditing a process that is infrequently bypassed, *most* of the time you’re pouring money down a hole.  For the parents out there, here’s a humorous example: when you’re potty training, your toddler is somewhat likely to have accidents.  Therefore, when you take off the diaper and go with underpants, you’re going to spend a certain amount of time checking with your toddler fairly frequently.  “Did you go to the bathroom?”  “Do you need to go to the bathroom?”  “I think you need to go to the bathroom.”  “Honey, before we leave, I want you to try and go potty.”  In frustration alone (if you have a headstrong child), this can be a taxing process… your payback comes because you avoid cleaning up a mess in public.

However, once the child gets the gist, you don’t bother auditing them anymore.  They voluntarily go potty on their own.  You might have an occasional accident, but the occasional accident happens so infrequently that it’s simply no longer worth your while to constantly badger your toddler to go to the bathroom (unless of course you’re a control freak, but then you’re going to have slightly messed up children, and that’s a topic for another post altogether).

Enforcing government mandated vaccinations is a very costly proposal.  Some of the questions you need to consider (dragged from my commentary over at Phil’s) include:

  • What behavior are we trying to enforce?
    * A full vaccination schedule? Partial?
  • Who decides what’s on the list?
    * The CDC? How often to they revisit the list?
  • Who are we covering?
    * Just school-age children? Infants? Adults?
  • How many of them are already doing what we want anyway?
    * In which coverage windows?
  • How do you propose that they prove their compliance?
    * Required to… enter public school? What about private schools? Daycare? Drive a car? Register to vote? What are your avenues for authorization?
  • How do you propose that we trust the authorization mechanism?
    * Who can sign off? Doctors? EMTs? Nickel clinic workers? How do the people who *check* the authorization actually check it? Do they check a doctor’s signature against an authoritative database? Is there a physician ID number? Who has access to this information? How do you secure it? How do you ensure that FERPA, HIPAA, and other privacy regulations (in the case of the U.S.) are followed and enforced?
  • How do you have a reasonable audit?
    * You must assume that in the above there are going to be people who attempt to circumvent the process. Your audit design must therefore incorporate every weak part in the chain to a suitable degree, and in the above there are thousands of venues. How do you make sure that doctors are legitimately signing the forms? How do you make sure that school clerks who don’t believe in vaccination aren’t just rubber-stamping forms out of a sense of political freedom? How do you prevent fraud? How do you prevent forgery?
  • How do you enforce the audit?
    * What is your penalty system when people circumvent the process? Do doctors lose their license? Do you expel children, so they’re now uneducated and unvaccinated? Do you revoke driver’s licenses, so drivers now can’t get insurance? Revoke licenses for professionals?

Now keep in mind that most people vaccinate already (of course, there are communities of non-vaxxers, but we’re talking about universal policy here, not fixing the outliers)… so all of the above checking, auditing, authorizing, with all of the attendant red tape, paperwork, and frustration is being borne by all those people who vaccinate voluntarily to no benefit.  We’re not even considering legal costs, legislative costs, etc. involved with getting such an initiative on a ballot and past the inevitable court challenges.

Whatever you believe that is going to cost per capita (and keep in mind, there’s 80 million children under the age of 19 in the U.S. – thanks to Jimmy for checking my numbers there – and 306 million people), that’s going to wind up being a pretty big chunk of change.  The NIH funds cancer research at the National Cancer Institute to the sum of $660 million dollars (in 2007).  Cancer kills a half a million people every year.  If you’re going to convince me that this audit process is going to be worthwhile, you’re going to have to convince me that spending all that money is a better idea than just taking the lump sum and transferring it wholesale to the NCI.

Or better yet, give the money to the NIH or the CDC and ask *them* how they think it ought to be spent.  I bet dollars to donuts anyone who works at the CDC would recommend spending that red tape money on buying vaccinations for those that can’t afford ’em before funding red tape.

[edited to add]

Dr. Paul Offit, director, Vaccine Education Center, and chief, Division of Infectious Diseases, Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP) penned an editorial in 2007 in the WSJ that indicates that it’s likely he’d disagree with my last paragraph.  Then again, perhaps not; I don’t know that anyone has ever offered him a few hundred million dollars and asked him to choose between research or enforcement.  It would be an interesting data point in the argument, though.  The existing mandatory vaccination laws in the U.S. (for public school or daycare entry) do have a demonstrated reinforcement value, which is not considered above (that is, many people might otherwise vaccinate but forget or are lazy or what have you… and the existence of these laws reminds them that they need to get their vaccinations) – thanks to Jimmy for those links.

Now, that may or may not indicate that the existing laws are an effective mechanism, but I’ll grant that point – the reinforcement value alone appears to be pretty significant.  I’m not suggesting we change the status quo.  I don’t think this is necessarily compelling evidence that major changes to the existing laws (covering home schoolers, or extending mandatory vaccination requirements to adults) are going to be effective, however.  The low hanging fruit aspect means that every additional person you want to compel is going to require that much more in the way of audit and enforcement, so the existing mechanisms are not likely to scale in a linear fashion.

[editing done]

The law is a good venue for fixing a lot of societal problems.  It is generally, however, very bad at efficiently auditing any behavior… if you can find a good counterexample feel free to leave it in the comments, but on the whole government audit processes of public behavior tend to spend lots of money and not substantially alter citizen behavior… the “War on Drugs” is the poster child for this.

Don’t think the law is your only tool.  Then your only response to behaviors you don’t like is to criminalize it.  This usually doesn’t fix your problem.

Posted June 10, 2009 by padraic2112 in parenting, philosophy, politics, science

I Would Love To See This In The Fall Lineup   2 comments

From Corey, via Facebook:

(edited to add)  The original, for comparison:

(edited again) Also from Corey, side by side, for better comparison:

Posted June 3, 2009 by padraic2112 in humor, noise