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Thursday, December 24, 2009

Error Margin



There are times when a picture is quite literally worth a thousand words.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Intervention


A Colorado pine forest is a peculiar thing. In the depths of one you have the sense that you are wandering through the land which inspired Grim's Fairy-Tales and most of the more earthy old gods. Pan peeks out at you from around the trunks of the majestic natural residents and you get a sense that the trees are all very, very old.

This is not, of course, generally the case.

While periodically, on the lower slopes, you do run into a pine of unusually grand stature and robust character, for the most part the trees rise to a certain point and then rise no farther. The reasons for this are as simple as they are complicated. The forests of Colorado, certainly around the area of the fourteeners, are marked by a particular cycle of life, death, and rebirth, a cycle they share both symbiotically and parasitically with the pine-borer beetles.

A tree that is damaged becomes particularly vulnerable to these little buggers, but they can and will bore straight through the bark of a healthy tree to lay their eggs underneath. When the eggs hatch, the larvae roam around eating the "live" part of the tree (xylem, phloem) in random directions, a process which ultimately causes large strokes of the bark to fall off, and which kills the tree.

The tree will then gradually dry out. A dry tree is a fire-hazard, and as the number of these fire-hazards in a given area grows, the likelihood that one of them will be struck by lightning also increases. When this happens, the tree in question ignites like a bomb, burning down itself and igniting neighboring dry trees. The inferno is generally broken by the live-trees at the edge of the infestation (pine-needle carpets discourage underbrush from taking hold, which in turn makes it harder for fires to spread through healthy, live trees... no kindling to speak of).

Pine-cones in the Colorado forests do not open and release their seeds until incited to do so by extreme heat. The ash from the dead trees lays down a thick carpet of fertilizer that allows the new trees to grow quickly through their vulnerable adolescence and to a point where they can, again, wipe out all local ground-cover.

And the pine-borers? The inferno kills the majority of the pine-borer beetles in the area, preventing a massive exponential outbreak.

For years, the forestry teams in Colorado (it isn't just their mistake, remember Smokey the Bear? Cute lil' animals a'la 'Bambi' fleeing the great flaming evil?) have been tamping down forest fires. Initially the idea was preservation of forest, but more recently the problem has changed, and the strategy, unfortunately, has remained (by necessity) largely the same. They have, however, begun to use controlled burns in an effort to bring the forest back under control (unless my information is inaccurate in this area, which it might be).

You see, because they tamped down the forest fires, the pine-borer beetles got out of hand. Now, as you drive through Colorado, you may notice that the "evergreen" forests are abnormally brown. Entire mountainsides of trees are dead, rotting husks of their former selves. Forest fires of the magnitude created by a mass of dead trees that large, without intervention, become legitimate dangers to human settlements in the area, and the rangers must now run around determining (as much as possible) the extent of each blaze that takes hold.

Well-meaning human intervention has created the necessity of well-meaning human intervention, you might say.

There's a lesson in there somewhere, but I'm not sure I like what it teaches.

(addendum 8/30/09)
Had the pleasure of a chat with RR on a long hike the other day, on which the subject of the borer beetles came up. RR is a recently-retired Colorado ranger, so he knows his stuff regarding those.

The major infestation at present is actually the result of a long string of warm winters. In the normal borer cycle, the larvae are largely killed off every few years by a winter which reaches temperatures below 35 degrees F. This temperature is necessary because at that stage in their lives, pine borer blood is literally (chemically) antifreeze. Thus, while such massive infestations as the one presently menacing Colorado are not common, they are possible without human interference.

In fact, the first fire of such magnitude happened in Yellowstone in 1910, and was in fact the reason rangers started engaging in fire-control.

Additional random tidbits I picked up from RR- pine borers attack Lodgepole pines in particular, and all pines in general, with a certain voracity, however Fir trees (and to a limited extent Spruce trees) are extremely resistant to attack. RR theorizes that differences in sap discourage infestation, and also that thinner bark provides insufficient shelter for the larvae.

The borer beetles attack the entire tree, from top to bottom, but where they attack it is more or less random. In cold winters, the beetles deep under the snow level are much more likely to survive than those above (insulation), and this allows many to survive all but the harshest of winters. No winter is cold enough to eliminate the entire population, of course, but the percentage that survives the cold is small.

Some lodge-pole pinecones open and drop seeds like normal pine cones, and some drop seed only in extreme heat. The reason for this, according to RR, is that some pine cones are covered by the lodge-pole's sap, which seals them up until the sap is melted away, a process that (usually) takes just long enough for the fire to move on to somewhere else before the seal weakens sufficiently that they pop open.

I realize that this additional information doesn't feed well into the article, but hey. I don't feed you inaccurate information if I can help it, and usually I can help it, even if it hurts my point.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Of Shoes and Ships, and Sealing Wax...

"By doubting we all come to truth." - Cicero

Lately, I have been experiencing nearly constant reminders of a phenomenon that has bothered me from as early as I can remember. When I was younger, probably around the age of 8, I asked my mother why we went to church, worshiped Jesus, and so on (I come from a Catholic family), and my mother told me that it was what we believed. When I asked her why we believed it, she told me, "Well, you have to believe in something." Of course, years later, I now know that she was absolutely right. Regardless of our view of the world, we all have a set of fundamental assumptions and beliefs about the world - that the sun will rise tomorrow, that the laws of physics apply equally at my desk and at yours, or that humanity was born out of cornmeal and the blood of a god.

The phenomenon I'm referring to is the oft repeated claim that Americans, by and large, are afraid of complexity, bored by nuance, and only receptive to new information that fits neatly into their existing model of the world - call it 'passive ignorance,' if you like. Naturally, this is not true of all Americans, nor is it true only of Americans; and yet the claim gets made. I like to think of myself as practicing that form of 'healthy skepticism' that tries to ask questions about important issues, but that doesn't really mind taking unfounded assertions as long as the source has a reputation for reliability - and yet I know that I often fail to live up to this ideal.

Take your pick of any of the major news stories, and you'll see this: the current 'health care reform' maelstrom, the global recession, or my personal favorite, the swine flu pandemic. From the Synthesis blog, 'Apparently Swine Flu is Back' discusses a Fox News piece which, among other things, worries that the federal government might use swine flu as a way to impose martial law, and continue the transformation of the US into a totalitarian police state. To be fair, the Fox piece sticks to the facts of the case, describing the actions various national governments have taken, and leaves the discussion of various doomsday scenarios to quotes by various outside sources.

The coverage of this issue, and the popular reaction to it - at least from what I've seen - is basically what you'd expect: 'far-right' conservatives/republicans/libertarians see swine flu as an excuse for the federal government, using what may or may not actually be a legitimate issue, to further the implementation an ideologically-motivated welfare state; 'far-left' liberals/democrats/progressives see this response as the racially-motivated paranoid fantasies of a group so detached from reality that they would oppose any ideas coming out of this government, even at the expense of the safety and securing of the populace.

I don't think that either of the above descriptions is really appropriate, but I do think that most of of us, seeing this coverage, would pretty quickly dismiss at least one side's concerns as being somewhat nonsensical - and here is where 'passive ignorance' rears its ugly head. In truth, both sides do have legitimate concerns, and there are issues here upon which reasonable people might disagree. In dismissing either side, we deprive ourselves of the chance to study an interesting problem, engage in healthy debate, and be a little better for it.

First at issue is whether the fundamental problem - swine flu - is in fact a problem. If, as the Fox article mentions, the current swine flu strain results in a pandemic like the 1918 'Spanish flu' epidemic, which resulted in the deaths of an estimated 50 to 100 million people (see this article, references 1-5, specifically), including my own great-grandmother, then there is almost certainly a legitimate cause for concern, even taking into account the enormous strides medicine has made since then. Furthermore, even if swine flu doesn't cause such a pandemic (or epidemic), building the capability to defend against such an event is probably worth considering.

Next is the very real question of whether measures such as quarantine and forced vaccination ethical and/or legal. One argument for such measures is that by not being vaccinated during an epidemic, a person risks becoming infected and thus constitutes a direct danger to the safety and health - and thus the fundamental liberties - of those around him. On the other hand, as with all medical care, vaccination does carry risks, and the government's decision that such risks are outweighed by the interests of the state must have a defensible basis. Of course, we could avoid this by the use of quarantines, although this simply shifts the burden on individual liberties from those of life and health to those of the freedom of movement and due process.


Finally, the claim most likely to be dismissed by the 'liberals' among us is that of whether such practices constitute the advancement of ideology in the guise of public necessity; but the concern here is, at least in my (admittedly non-professional) opinion, a valid one. The Fox article mentions the Posse Comitatus Act, which, in general terms, prohibits the military from engaging in civilian law enforcement. The law was originally passed to end the use of the military as a quasi-police force, upholding and enforcing unpopular laws in the post-Civil War era South. In its current state, prohibits the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines as well as the National Guard when acting under the command of the president from being used to enforce civilian law, except in certain specific situations; this prohibition does not extend to the Coast Guard, nor to the National Guard of a state when acting under the direction of the state's governor. According to the Fox piece, the Department of Defense is considering a proposal which would allow the creation of military units permanently stationed in the US to assist local civilian authorities in dealing with an epidemic incident. (Note: the Fox article implies that the proposal describes setting up units specifically to deal with the potential swine flu epidemic, as seems to be confirmed by
this CNN article, rather than as a permanent force. Note also that this particular CNN article does not mention the potential legal issues, and searches for 'military swine flu posse comitatus' and 'swine flu posse comitatus' on CNN.com return no results.)

Is the potentiality of military police prohibiting suspected carriers of swine flu from leaving their houses looming on the horizon? Probably not. But still, there are legal limitations on what the military can and cannot do in such a situation, and these limitations must be respected; or, if the limitations aren't a good idea, then perhaps Congress should repeal them.


Personally, I like thinking about complex issues. I enjoy nuance, and, in most situations, I find ideas that don't easily fit into my current world-view more interesting than those that do. Which is why I have so much trouble understanding things such as this article,
'What Media Bias? Part 152.' The author quotes an article (I believe it's this Reuters article, but I can't be sure) saying that "U.S. consumer confidence took an unexpectedly steep slide in June," and accusing the media of presenting a biased view of the economy, asking, and I quote:

"Unexpectedly?
By whom? How much of a liberal pinhead do you have to be to not expect a massive slide in consumer confidence when unemployment is going heck for leather towards 10%?" (emphasis in the original)

Of course, the article (at least, the Reuters article that I believe he's discussing) goes on to say that the consumer confidence index dropped from 54.8 in May to 49.3 in June, as compared to the 55.0 expectation of 'economists polled by Reuters.' Other indices and figures come from Standard & Poor's/Case Shiller, the National Association of Purchasing Management-New York, and others. Now, I know the article doesn't give the names and employers of the 'polled economists,' but I generally tend to trust Reuters, and most of the economists I know would certainly not qualify as 'liberal pinheads.' Of course, I'm in training to be one myself (not a macroeconomist, but still...), so I'm certainly biased, but I still think its good to know that they were talking to economists as opposed to random people of the street.


I'll conclude, before I start ranting about the misunderstood 'dismal science.' In the words of Aaron Sorkin, et al. (via C.J. Cregg of The West Wing), "complexity isn't a vice."


- Tiro

Thursday, July 9, 2009

On Reading

The Stage: Mr. Hanna and his conservative movement requests that all representatives promise to read the whole health-care bill personally before they vote on it, and requests that bills be made available to the public three days prior to each vote on the internet. Mr. Hoyer (D-Md.) has been quoted replying that the idea of every representative reading every bill they vote on is patently ridiculous.

---

My take:

It would be easy to harp and whine that all representatives should read the entirety of all bills they vote on. I myself, in younger years, have whined the same thing, with no less justification. In an ideal world, this would, of course, be ideal.

The problem is, that most people writing these bills are lawyers, and lawyers are not known for keeping it short. Bills often run over a thousand pages. The Patriot act was seven hundred some (I read about a third of it, incidentally, and much like sausage, you really don't want to know what was in it), and health-care is looking to be something closer to twice that.

The record number of votes taken in one day in the House of Representatives presently stands at fifty-three.

Let's be generous and presume that an average bill is somewhere in the vicinity of five hundred pages. I suspect it is somewhat more, particularly if you factor in the pork.* Five hundred pages times (again, to be generous and to simplify) fifty votes is 25,000 pages of legislation you expect your representative to be current on at any given day and time.

Still, that's a record, so let's assume that a more normal voting day is, oh, ten votes. Ten votes times five hundred pages is five thousand pages of reading, every day, plus additional pages to keep current with revisions.

It is, quite frankly, not possible.

Which isn't to say that Mr. Hanna doesn't have a point. The health-care bill is not a standard bill. Most bills that go to the floor on a given day are not points of major contention. They get done big simple obvious things that need to be done. Things like "vote to take the unmaintained, tax-delinquent land between forty-fifth and forty-sixth street under eminent domain and classify it as 'business' land to allow resale to companies intent on improving the property." Or maybe "Bill to provide additional funds to nearby VA hospital which is unable to maintain ceiling lights."

This sort of bill requires only a check-through by staff to make sure that nothing nasty got slipped in. You hand it to your assistant (a friend of mine did this job over the previous summer, incidentally), and say "look through this and make sure none of the pork makes slavery legal or anything like that."

However, the health-care bill (and the Patriot Act) is not a minor piece of pittance legislation. It's a major, important bill that needs to be done right, or not done at all.** I'm inclined to agree with Mr. Hanna, additionally, that bills should be concluded three days prior to voting and put up online for public review. A major change in a bill's structure the day before a vote is a problem, because there is insufficient remaining time for that change to be properly vetted.

In this particular instance, then, I would say that yes, every representative should read every page themselves, so that they know what they're about to do to the country. In all cases I think bills should be available for public review 3 days prior to the vote, or earlier (perhaps have "versions" of the bill online with version-numbers so people can track changes if they want to).

I agree then, with Mr. Hanna in this particular case. However, I also agree with Mr. Hoyer that expecting every representative to read the entirety of every bill they vote on is patently ridiculous.

Neither man is out of line, and they're both right.

-Maxwell Evans

*(Not all pork is bad pork, incidentally, but we'll set that aside as an argument for a day when that statement is more true than false. These days, pork is pretty much always bad. We just don't have enough pigs left to go 'round.)

**(It does, however, need to be done. I'll explain my take on it in a later article.)

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Iran

[this will be replaced by a more detailed analysis at a later time, when the data is less green and the materials presently blocked by the Iranian government's media blackout become available.]

For the time being:

I would like to extend my support to the protesters, and condolences to those who have lost family or friends in the violent government reactions.

I would further encourage legitimate political leaders to not acknowledge the legitimacy of the present Iranian "government" until such a time as it consents to have an election that hasn't been blatantly rigged.

Perhaps more practically (being mindful of the dearth of political leaders among my readership) I would encourage my readers to contact their political leaders and let them know that acknowledging the present, illegitimate government of Iran would be unpopular among their people/voters/whatever.

A wide public acknowledgment of the legitimacy of the "election" would steal steam from the Iranian revolt (too much blood has been shed to call the incidents "protests," but perhaps too little to term it a revolution, particularly since the unseating of the Ayatollah does not seem to be a stated objective, yet. Also because the revolt does not yet seem to have a centralized leadership ready to take command of the country should the government be toppled).

To the people of Iran, our sympathies are with you. Our own country is rooted in revolution and in the principle that power accrues to, and issues from the people. If that power has gone astray, those who die reclaiming it are martyrs.

Nothing less.

Godspeed.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Abortion: The Value of Life

Due to my anger, my last posting became somewhat derailed (and I would like to extend a word of thanks to the lady who scolded me sternly yesterday in a comment and drew my attention to my own rage-post... we do read, and greatly appreciate, comments), and so today I would like to take a step back and look at a larger issue which the murder of George Tiller has brought to mind.

The Value of a Human Life

I believe that the arguments being made against abortion are presently the wrong ones. They tend towards hypocrisy because they are framed in terms of the sacred nature of all human life. This is not the issue. The issue is whether a life is sacred to you.

Human groups tend to weigh the value of out-group members lower than the value of in-group members, but their definition of "in" and "out" can at times be extremely complex. Islam, for instance, breaks the world into (setting aside that "house of armistice" nonsense they added in as a practical measure somewhere along the way) two houses... the house of Islam (Dar al Islam) and the house of War (Dar al Hab). Within the house of Islam are the protected people of the book, who enjoy the protection of Islam so long as they pay extra taxes and live as second-class citizens. This group includes Jews and Christians.

Christians, conversely, have a much more ephemeral understanding of "us" and "them." The operative difference between Christianity and Islam in terms of "them" is not so much the objective (converting the whole world) but the methodology. Thematically Christianity prefers to convert through peaceful methods, offering something in return for a willing ear. Of course, this has not always been the way of things in practical application, but for this particular philosophical discussion I feel safe setting a few thousand years of history aside and looking only at intent.

In either case (Islam or Christianity), "us" is believers, and "them" is nonbelievers, and being in the non-believer category makes your life worth less than it would be if you were a believer. Their daughters will not marry you, their businesses will distrust you, and if you die they are ever so slightly less perturbed.

Setting aside those two major religions for a moment (and Judaism, because they have no conversion mandate), let us approach the subject from a slightly more grounded standpoint: The State.

States, like religions, define "us" and "them" and value the life of "them" less than the life of "us." It isn't evil, or wrong, necessarily, it's just the way things work. There's no point in forming a State if your objective is to look out for everyone. A state looks out, first and foremost, for its own.

Similarly families look out first for their own family members, friends for friends, schools for their own students.

Why is it that on a small scale we see this sort of classification as "okay" or even "as it should be," yet when applied to a larger world, we see only evil?

I believe that this contradiction is the root of the abortion debate. In our society we generally view all children as "us" and all adults as "them" to some extent. The innocent and helpless should be protected, and anything over the age of eighteen should be able to take care of itself. Even adults that we consider within the "us" group, we also expect to operate as "thems" under certain circumstances. When we give them money, we expect it returned. If they're not family or close friends we might even expect interest.

Where the abortion issue gets into the flames is basically where we start drawing lines in the sand, lines that say where "us" really begins. For Catholics, "us" happens when the sperm and egg meet. For some on the far-left (quite farther than I myself care to go), "us" happens at birth. I personally draw the line, and I think Tiro draws a similar one, roughly around the time the child's brain starts functioning. Some draw it around a specific trimester, others around a specific size. Some, I'm sure, even think masturbation is murder. It is around this classification stage that the greatest contention arises, and not because of a disagreement about when the child feels pain, or when the child becomes human.

It's a disagreement about when the child enters that transient phase where they are "us" until they are older.

Philosophically, then, I can understand why someone might be pro-war, pro-death penalty and a gigantic fan of Ayn Rand, and still be pro-life. War, starvation and the Death Penalty happen to "them," and abortion happens to "us."




I do feel as though something might be wrong with this... but I can't honestly say that I find it in any way inconsistent with normal human decision-making about life and death.

----

You may compare the preceding article to yesterday's kneejerk as a case-study in the difference between sleeping on a matter and rage-posting on a dime. Eventually, I'll get better at catching myself when I'm crafting the latter sort, but until then, they'll happen from time to time.



That said, if you're happy that George Tiller was shot to death in a church (a view I have seen expressed in many forums, blogs and other such anonymous locations), you're still a rat bastard. Also, all of the biases expressed in the former article are probably still somewhere in my head, waiting to pop out the next time I get really mad about something. It's just the way heads work, and I wrote the words, so I own them.

I'm probably going to leave the subject of abortion alone for awhile now, as I don't believe it is an issue that anyone's going to agree on, anytime soon. The futility of beating the dead horse every couple years rather frustrates me.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

George Tiller

I give to you, four stories.

On Sunday last, George Tiller was shot to death in church in Wichita Kansas while handing out pamphlets.


On Sunday last, Doctor George Tiller was shot to death in church in Wichita Kansas while handing out pamphlets.


On Sunday last, Doctor George Tiller was shot to death in church in Wichita Kansas while handing out pamphlets. He leaves a grieving widow.


On Sunday last, Doctor George Tiller, one of the few doctors who, in certain circumstances (imminent danger to the mother, non-viable fetus), would give late-term abortions to women, was shot to death in Wichita Kansas while handing out pamphlets. He leaves a grieving widow.

---

If your opinion of Doctor George Tiller’s murder was significantly altered by the last paragraph, I have a few questions I would like to ask you.

Do you have a yellow ribbon on the back of your car? Did you vote more than once for Bush Junior? Do you own a gun?

If you answer “yes” to any two of these (there being perfectly reasonable explanations for any one of them individually, for instance an earnest belief that yellow ribbons buy Kevlar, not bullets), you are what we call a ‘hypocrite.’ Your rallying cry is “Stop killing babies, we need them to die for our crusade” and you value only human life that is either under the age of one, or Christian. ... pardon me, “Christian that agrees with you totally.” Remember, Tiller was handing out pamphlets in church at the time of his ungodly, untimely death.

You are also a rat bastard, in serious need of self-reflection.

Allow me to explain this to you. You cannot be “pro-life” and “pro-war.” You can’t. You just can’t. You also can’t favor capital punishment. In fact, about the only way you can justifiably be pro-life in the modern world is if you put a flower in your ear, do a lot of acid and lie around in a field somewhere musing about the significance of it all and trying to come up with new, creative poetry about free love.

Actually, most of the people I’ve met who I could see being pro-life without falling into the dangerous web of hypocrisy are either conscientious objectors, hippies, or Buddhists. Are you a conscientious objector, a hippie, or a Buddhist?

If not, you can’t be pro-life. I’m sick of this shit. You can’t cry about baby-killing and then go shoot a doctor to death in a church.

Fuck that shit. And if you’re secretly bouncing with joy about his death...

Well, then fuck you too. I hope you burn in a hell of your own creation.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Trains, Planes and Automobiles

Traveling by train is a powerful experience for those unused to it. I was unused to it. In the last few days I have seen dreamlands and wildernesses that still the heart. I have seen parts of my country that time itself has forgotten and watched the dawn overtake the stars on a river I grew up on, but apparently never looked at. Not like this.

I have seen barges aglow in the night and townships and villages you couldn't fly to even if you wanted to. I have seen horses in pasture and really looked at them in a way you don't, or can't, from a car. In the comfort of the lounge gallery wherein I write this, I have discoursed with a young man forging his way south to Austin, and with a Wiccan lady who has found all manner of new ways to the divine. I have listened as a young man and woman fell in love. I have watched four old men (old men) playing a game of Munchkin and laughed at jokes I've never heard before, even from Tiro (believe me, that's saying something).

I have traveled, and I have come to the revelation that I have never traveled before. When you are driving, you see nothing but broad expanses of concrete. You pull over where you can and enjoy a hamburger or the world's largest ball of twine, but when you pass a living factory in the night, you cannot simply gaze at it and wonder that such a place exists, where towers of concrete and steel glow golden in the light of a thousand magic stones. You cannot stare openly at the barge tied up, quite literally, to a tree by the side of the river. You pass so near these things but you can never, ever see them.

Twenty-four hours on a train feels like an hour on an airplane, and you don't even have to get molested by security on your way. You can freshen up, walk around, stretch your legs, grab dinner, plug your laptop into a power outlet to charge it, drink leftover beer from last-last night's (amazing) party and chat it up with fellow night-owls in the lounge as the other passengers sleep away the night in the spacious, comfortable, expansive reclining seats of Coach.

You talk to people, too. Plural. People here aren't in a hurry to get where they're going. If they were in a hurry, they'd be flying. A loading dock in the middle of nowhere goes by, workers starting to trickle in already at five thirty in the morning. Cars in the parking lots, men walking, a bridge, conveyor belts still silent, but there is a feeling here that these places are still used, that they do not suffer from the rot and decline of my native city. Would you like to look at my family history tracing back to the dark ages? I have it here, in this binder. Sure, why not. My goodness, you have a lot of bastards in your family tree. Oh, is that what Fitz means? I think we're coming up on the Grassy Knoll. Last time they called it out, but I was in the lavatory, I missed it. Left or right? You watch left, I'll watch right.

We just passed under a vehicle bridge, walled on the sides for safety. The drivers will all be looking straight ahead, desperately wishing they could safely glance out their side windows to enjoy the view. Their view is, at any rate, interrupted abruptly by the wall. It protects them from themselves. It pads the corners of their world so that they do not need to see, and takes their eyes as payment.

I do not envy them the hours they shave off their miserable journeys. They have forgotten that the journey is part of life, and here I sit in exquisite comfort, legs stretched out, fully charged laptop on my lap, Buddy Guy from the weekend's blues playlist flooding my ears, wondering at how easy it was to be reminded. What sacrifices mankind has made for the saved hour... I do not think the hour was worth it.

Mankind doesn't even realize that he's not, in fact, saving it.

If you need to, you can arrive off a train fully refreshed, shaved, in clean clothes, relaxed, having slept pretty darn well and having brushed your teeth in the morning. D pointed out to me, as well, that you arrive downtown. Avail yourself of public transportation and you've saved another 38 bucks in taxi fare and tip. Instead of getting off a plane, crawling into a bed and wasting half a day recovering from jet-lag, you can crawl right out of the sleeper-car (which cost you less than a coach ticket might have on a jet), and into your business meeting. Factor in time saved from security and from the fact that you don't have to check (or subsequently collect) much in the way of luggage (or pay for it), and you've turned one day of miserable airport-hopping into one day of luxurious scenery and relaxation.

And driving? You don't even save all that much time driving to begin with. You arrive tired, with a kink in your back and a foul mood in your gut. You don't get anything done in that time, but you feel like you've been working all week. You save money, probably a bit, but if the trip is over 12 hours or so, you're likely to need to take it in two days, so remember to factor in the 8 hours of (non-moving) sleep per night and the hotel rate, plus gas and toll fares. Add wear and tear into the equation, an oil change, spent tire rubber and the possibility of an accident along the way, and you might start to see where I'm going with this.

So.

When people ask me what I think of the administration's high-speed rail plan and whether it's a gimmick, it's hard to answer them. It isn't so much that there aren't plentiful good reasons why it's not a gimmick, or why it's a good idea in general... Even economically, it's a good idea. It generates productive, useful jobs which will return a net profit to the investors (not move-rock-move-rock-back jobs). It's environmentally advantageous if the rail is built right, and the fuel for the train will come more directly from an electrical grid rather than burned fuel, which means that more transportation can be shifted onto renewable energy sources. It will somewhat reduce our oil consumption and while it may be competition for our airliners, if you hadn't noticed, they're all going out of business anyway, and they're all terrible. Subsidize foreign air travel and let high-speed localized jet travel be cornered by a few smaller companies for all I care.

Honestly though, the major reason I think the high speed rail is a good idea is more ephemeral. Without significantly slowing down the nation, it would give the nation a sense of things slowing down. Business travelers would lose some of the wrinkles around their eyes. Reduced travel costs would improve the melting-pot aspects of our nation, and the increased ability of trains to stop at places airports are more-or-less useless to (D had the excellent suggestion of ultimately setting up two rail systems, one for express travel between large cities and one which stopped along the way) would make a lot of the isolated places in America seem suddenly less remote.

So no, I don't think it's a gimmick. In fact, I think it's one of the best ideas the administration is presently toying with, and I don't think the long-range implications for our future are being fully comprehended yet by the people doing the talking.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood

“I am not ashamed to confess I am ignorant of what I do not know.” - Marcus Tullius Cicero

You may have noticed Maxwell's comment on my last article, about the shortcomings of making predictions based on rather limited models. This post originally started as a comment addressing some of his points, but after considering it, I think there's a larger idea here that deserves a full post of its own. As always, I leave it to you, our dear readers, to be the final judges.

-------------------------------------------------------

Maxwell,

Your point about altruism is absolutely correct - and somewhat of a sore point between ('experimental') economists and psychologists. The argument, at least, from the rather biased point of view of the economist goes like this:

Economist: "If we model payoffs in X way, and we model actions in Y way, then, we can make prediction Z."

Psychologist: "Well, I tried that, and we don't get Z, we get Z'. Therefore, your theory must be wrong."

Economist: "Actually, you thought you were testing people with payoffs X and actions Y, but you were actually testing people with payoffs X', and actions Y'. If we alter our model, so that it's talking about X' and Y', we do get (at least something much closer to) Z'. In fact, here's an exact measure of Z-Z', and X-X'. So shut up."

Yes, it's a childish-sounding argument. But, unfortunately, this is often what happens when economists pretend to be psychologists and vice versa, and often in any situation where individuals from different backgrounds meet.

You're correct in saying that the Prisoners' Dilemma, when it just takes into account time served, give us 'bad' predictions. But, if instead of time served, we were able to come up with some measure of 'overall value,' that included time served, what type of facility the time was served in, whether you'll get shanked as punishment for snitching, loyalty to your partner, and so on.

In this case, assuming that we've properly included all the relevant costs and benefits, we would be perfectly justified in performing some calculation, and coming to some conclusion based only on the numbers.

Which brings me to the larger idea of this post: understanding what, exactly, economic theory and the assumptions it must always be based on, actually mean.

This goes along with the idea that Maxwell put forth a few months ago: that claims that 'science has been wrong before' are incorrect, and that a proper statement of the claim would be, 'science has made incorrect predictions before.' It's important to understand the difference between process and product, whether in relation to science, economics, government/political systems, or any other complex field of study.

The field of economics, like essentially all modern sciences, is based at least partly in mathematics. Math gives us an incredibly powerful set of tools to work with, and a convenient shorthand for talking about problems, but we have to be able to translate everything we do from 'economics' to 'mathematics' and back again. Thus, while math is one of our chief tools, it is not necessarily the 'basis' of the field, but merely a tool used by it.

Economics is based, then, on an axiom and a definition.

First, we assert that, given a set of options - where this set can be almost anything imaginable - individuals will choose certain of those options. That is, for each individual, given a set of options, there is a set of choices they will make.

Most commonly, we think of this in terms of 'bundles of goods.' When you go to the supermarket, there are 'bundles' such as (+12 eggs, -$1.35), (+1 gallon skim milk, -$1.89), (+nothing, -nothing), and so on. Given these options, which may include things like the time of day, how hungry you are, and anything else that may or may not influence your decisions, you make certain choices.

Secondly, we define 'preferences' as some function that takes in a set of 'options' and spits out a set of 'choices.' Thus, we claim that there is some 'mapping' from (all the possible bundles of goods, which include all the relevant information about everything in the state of the world) to (some subset of that set) that describes how you actually behave, and we call this your 'preferences' (or, your 'preference relation,' and so on).

So that's it. Essentially all of economics consists of some 'model' of the above, which we then use to try and answer some question we consider interesting about the world.

How does this relate to the 'translation' to math mentioned earlier? Well, it turns out that, under certain conditions, we can come up with a mathematical representation of preferences as a a normal mathematical function that takes a bunch of numbers representing an option (X) and gives us a number that, in some sense, tells us 'how much you like X.'

This is, of course, the infamous concept of 'utility' - the idea that, inside each of us, there's a part of our brain that's constantly evaluating our options and plotting them on a line somewhere, and directing us to simply grab the highest one. This has, over the history of the field of economics, led to a number of arguments, much confusion, and conclusions that, while technically correct, are often useless.

The point is that these numbers, our 'utility,' don't really mean anything in any real sense. They are merely a mathematical convention, a container that we must put our ideas in before we can use the tools provided by mathematics. Of course, once we 'do math,' we have to translate the results back into 'economics' - unpacking the container, if you will.

Let's return to the argument between the Economist and the Psychologist again. The economist, in his model, says that if individuals have actions X, and preferences Y, and the 'game' they play is set up according to a set of rules, G, then we should see them do Z. Often, these games are designed to be like the Prisoners' Dilemma - we actually try to find places where, given a model that seems reasonable, the conclusions we come to don't match what we see in the real world. From this, we find ways to change and grow our models: is there a problem with what we included in X, Y or G? Is there something about the way we're coming up with Z that's wrong? Are we actually seeing Z, but not recognizing it, because we were expecting it in a different shape/form?

This type of thinking leads us to be able to say more useful things then just, 'The model (X, Y, G, Z) is wrong.' One way to do this is to ask, 'how wrong is the model?' If we can come up with a rule for saying when it's 'really wrong' versus when it's 'not too wrong,' we might be able to figure out where the problems are. Maybe Z is very different from Z', but it turns out if we change X a little bit, we get something very close to Z'.

Which is, essentially, what the Economist and Psychologist are arguing about. The Psychologist says, "Well, there's obviously something wrong here," and the Economist responds, "Yeah, I noticed. Here, tweak this knob, and see if it works."

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To wrap up, it's important to understand that there's a difference between process and product. The prediction that 'people will all throw litter on the ground' is correct, if we've set up our model properly. The concepts that this conclusion is based on are axiomatic - they are essentially true by definition. The fact that the prediction differs from reality is important - it's crucial, in fact, if we ever want to be able to say anything 'useful' in the sense of answering interesting questions about the world.

- Tiro

PS - My apologies to Maxwell - I really don't mean to sound like I'm disagreeing with you, or disregarding the issues you mentioned. You're absolutely right!

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Room for Debate

There are secret places on the internet that no one is watching. They are places where children romp and grownups stomp, and the seeds of a thousand villainies are laid and hatched.

For the most part they are designed to avoid confrontations of an undesirable nature, for their inventors and designers and tenders find confrontation does not profit them. Some of them are even moderated privately or safeguarded with filters.

Nonetheless, in these rooms I have uncovered politics and lives beyond my pale. I have discussed taxes with middle-easterners and tariffs with Serbians. Law-enforcement with Swedes. I have asked South Africans how the ANC is doing and received politically incorrect answers for which there will be no penalties.

After all, no one is watching these places. No one thinks they have value, or imagines them dangerous.

These places are “games.”

The effect is most pronounced in a game in which I have immersed myself more recently, EVE Online. I won’t waste your time with the mechanics of the game itself, but the game has only one server, and that server hosts people from just about everywhere. We don’t all speak the same language, and sometimes we don’t even use the same alphabet on our keyboards. We collide in channels and clusters and local spaces where we trade words, curses, philosophies and politics with a freedom even the founding fathers would have found daunting.

I have trafficked in these spaces (in dozens of games) with politicians, businessmen, physicists, political scientists and laborers, students, professors, teachers of music, artists and all manner of other men who have found their way to these spaces from places so far from my understanding it begs questions of the consistency of space-time.

I have argued with religious men, with atheists, with priests and with paupers, with the young and with the old.

If I were inclined to be a censor, I would encourage the government to take an active interest in those spaces it is presently ignoring. But I am not, and (fortunately) no government agency is going to be easily persuaded to take these spaces seriously. So instead, this rather takes the form of an invitation to those of you inclined to such things, to search these spaces out with an open mind and a bone to pick.

‘Games’ have come a long way while you were sleeping.

Wake up.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Putting Down the Lighters (Again)

"Certain signs precede certain events." - Marcus Tullius Cicero

First, I must apologize to Maxwell -- I don't mean to pick on his post about burning our wallets again, but the events of the day have turned my mind back to the subject of money, its value, and some of the more interesting ramifications thereof.

I am speaking, of course, of the new report released today by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which can be found here.

In short, March's inflation rate (as determined by the Consumer Price Index for all Urban Consumers - the "CPI-U"), when adjusted for seasonality, was negative. Granted, the change in the CPI-U was small - only -0.1 percent - but let us examine the reasons behind the change.

The report indicates that most of this drop came from the decline in energy prices - particularly fuel oil, natural gas, and motor fuel - which led to a 3 percent drop in the energy index. The food, housing, apparel, and transportation indices also showed a drop, although transportation was the only one of these which posted a change of more than 1 percent.

When removing food and energy from the CPI, though, we see a slight positive change of 0.2 percent -- over sixty percent of which, according to the report, comes from an 11 percent increase in the index for tobacco and smoking products.

So, why should we care about this? In short, this is exactly what I was talking about the other day. For people like myself, who are in relatively secure jobs, with a relatively low, essentially fixed income, the deflation that is occurring in some areas of the economy - particularly for food and fuel - is beneficial. I mean, we're getting to the point at which storing your money in your mattress is almost becoming a profitable investment.

So why is deflation often seen as one of the four horsemen of the apocalypse? I had no clear idea myself until I began researching the subject a few weeks ago, and the answer is one of those things that seems so obvious in retrospect. In the simplest terms, the answer is 'loans.'

In short, anyone who has borrowed money in the past, with the requirement of paying it back tomorrow, suffers during periods of deflation. As the 'value of money' (for those of you who care, I mean, the price of money in terms of real goods) increases, the 'cost' of paying back that debt increases. A loan which would have originally cost 'one 24" flat screen TV,' or 'one additional R&D scientist' to pay back may now cost 'one 42" flat screen TV,' or 'two additional R&D scientists.'

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But how does this relate to the original issue, that of burning our wallets? Well, Maxwell's argument has a definite place, and there is often value to controlling inflation by, essentially, destroying currency (or otherwise keeping its supply limited). The problem with this is that the destruction of currency is an example of what is known as the 'Prisoners' Dilemma' in economics.

Two men are captured by the police, who have only limited, circumstantial evidence against both of them. Both are offered the option of confessing, and turning on their accomplice. If neither confesses, they serve a year in a minimum security facility, and if both confess, they both serve three years in a minimum security facility. If only one confesses, however, he gets off with only probation, while his partner receives 5 years of jail time.

Thus, the best overall outcome, from the perspective of the prisoners, occurs when no one confesses, and the worst occurs when they both confess. The problem, though, is that if the two cannot coordinate somehow - and more importantly, if they cannot commit themselves to some strategy - it is in each man's interest to confess, regardless of the other's actions, and thus we expect them to end up serving three years each.

This situation - in which individuals have a strong incentive to a way contrary to the 'greater good' - can be seen in countless everyday examples: US bank runs, prior to the establishment of the FDIC; arms races between enemy powers; people throwing trash on the ground, rather than in trash cans.

The last is a particularly interesting example, because it goes against our intuition. How many of us, when trying to get away with something like this, have been asked (perhaps by a parent), "What would happen if everyone did that?" The answer, of course, is that the place would be a mess, and thus we shouldn't litter. But the problem is that it doesn't matter -- regardless of whether everyone else does it or not, it's still in our best interest to take the easy way out.

Of course, this doesn't always happen, because we've found ways of dealing with these problems. Often, government is the solution - we force everyone to contribute, by way of taxes, and then hire others to take the costly actions for us, and we all end up better off. Social conventions, guilt, and other 'punishment mechanisms' also may serve this role.

But to get back to the subject at hand, we have one of those exact situations with the issue Maxwell describes. If inflation is destroying the value of the money we all hold, we will end up being better off - in some sense - if we can remove some of the currency from circulation. The problem with this is that, regardless of whether others burn their money or not, as long as my money isn't completely worthless, there is a strong incentive for me to hold on to it.

Of course, there's always the possibility that Maxwell had all this in mind when writing his earlier post, and that the entire article was simply an 'investment' of sorts....

- Tiro

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Somalian Pirates

I feel obliged to thank the Somalian pirates who, in failing to steal, failing to kill, and failing to dodge gave us all a reason to feel good on Easter. Congratulations are in order to the captain, his family, the (badass) crew of his ship, and lastly-not-least to the Navy SEALs who waxed the bad guys.

/salute

That said I think it wise to remember that the pirates in question were desperate, poverty-stricken fishermen who, in the unlikely event of success, call their captured target in to a central hub of 'real' pirates who move the stolen property. Thus, in the usual noncommittal manner of The Report, I shall follow my congratulations to the soldiers and crew for the slaying of the pirates by suggesting a moment of prayer (to whatever god you claim) for the families of the fishermen who died this day.

Sometimes I wish issues existed which had only one side... but I suppose if they did we wouldn't learn much from them.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Rhetoric, Revisited

I have recently found myself browsing ZDnet forums for information about the conficker worm, which I anticipate needing to remove from a number of friends’ computers in the coming weeks. Normally, I contain myself to reading the actual articles, but for some reason I found myself reading an article about the most recent chain of Windows commercials, and my eye was drawn beneath it to the spam of comments from what shall, henceforth, be referred to as “Mactards,” “Wintards” and “Linux fanboys.” Effectively the argument (copied out a thousand times in a thousand languages) always goes one way:


Wintard: “Macs suck.”
Mactard: “What? Windows has viruses!”
Wintard: “Macs cost too much.”
Mactard: “That’s because they’re better.”
While (x <= Num_tards) {
Wintard: “No they’re not.”
Mactard: “Yes they are.”
x++;
}
Wintard: “You don’t have games.”
Mactard: “I’m too cool to play games.”
Linux Fanboy: “Linux is free and it has no viruses.”
Mactard + Wintard: “shut up, fanboy, you’ve only got like 5% of the market share.”

(If the Mactard starts it, simply ignore line 1)

Normally I would ignore this redundant spam altogether and hunt for meaty meaningful and/or original tardspam, but I had, at this particular time, recently been browsing political forums, and I discovered something interesting.

The rhetoric is identical.

Democrat: “Republicans suck.”
Republican: “Republicans are stronger on national security.”
Democrat: “Yeah, but they’re fat bastards.”
Republican: “That’s because they’re smarter and more successful than your dumb ass.”
While (x <= Num_tards) {
Democrat: “No they’re not.”
Republican: “Yes they are.”
x++;
}
Democrat: “You have no domestic policy.”
Republican: “Good thing we have all the launch codes.”
Democrat: “Wait, what?”
Lin... err... Libertarian: “If everyone voted Libertarian you wouldn’t have these problems.”
Democrat + Republican: “Shut up. You’ve only got like 5% of the voting base.”


Now this is, of course, a gross oversimplification of what I’m sure is a very complex set of issues, but given that none of the Detards, Retards, and Libertardians making said arguments actually understand any of the issues they’re arguing about, it strikes me that really, it might be simpler if everyone just shut up.

Now, in the name of hypocrisy:

The present administration just upheld the Bush reinvigoration of that “government secrets” bullshit. Essentially the way it works is, government misconduct is a “government secret” and therefore inadmissable in court. In other words, evidence that the government has been behaving badly is actually, by virtue of being evidence the government has been behaving badly, inadmissable in court.

Detard, retard, Libertardian, whatever, you have to admit that checks and balances are probably a good thing... them being the single most essential component of our governing system.

Stop shouting at each other for a minute and start fucking paying attention. We have a new administration, but that doesn’t mean we can stop breathing down its neck. Quite the opposite. We’re still going to hell in a handbasket, and even after that fall has been aborted, it is ultimately the responsibility of the American people to ensure that they do not lose the rights with which they have been endowed.

And if the government doesn’t want judicial review of its actions, fine. So be it. We’ll review its actions with more straightforward, “traditional” methodology.

(There is, actually, another option - that the new administration not breaking with the old indicates that whatever secret is buried is so dirty that they can't bring it out in the light even to pin it on their political enemies.

But I'd rather not contemplate that one.)

Friday, April 3, 2009

Welcome to our Newest Author

I'll adjust this placeholder once he picks a pseudonym so I can refer to him "by name," but the long and short of it is that our newest author has for his credentials a masters in political science, a perspective I believe will be a nice addition to our literature. I'm not in the habit of giving out much information about authors who write on this site (if any), but suffice to say that comes with my recommendation and regard.

Those of you who know me personally probably realize that "comes with my recommendation and regard" means 90% of the human race is about to be mortally offended.

If any of said human race would like to bring arguments to bear against his article, which is deliciously confrontational, we will, of course, welcome said arguments to The Report. May they live long and prosper.

His first posting will be soon.

Carry on.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Worship

I am not an atheist. Quantum physics has given me a notion of God so large and so small that it works for me, as long as I don’t try to give that entity any particular attributes or humanize it for my own convenience.

I worship this God through my interest in the world around me. The structure of life, the mechanics of waves and particles and all the weird things electrons can do that they shouldn’t be able to do, all these things and more make up my bible. I believe that God’s nature can be understood only through understanding the nature of his universe.

I make no assumption that God created man, through evolution or otherwise, but we have come to pass in his universe and we thrive in the passing of his time, whatever time itself may be made of. We find ourselves surrounded by puzzles and toys and interesting things to see and do and discover, and in seeing and doing and discovering these things we pay homage to their creator.

So why, oh why, do the people who most claim to love god least seem to worship the universe he created? Why do they bury their heads in the sand and refuse to use the reason with which they were endowed? Why?

Why Texas? Why?

I cannot understand. Is the problem that evolution makes you feel humbler than you’d like? Aren’t you supposed to be humble? Did your god not specifically instruct you to view pride as a sin?

Is it so impossible that we, who must be to God as a pebble is to a mountain, might share a common ancestor with an ape? The new testament has freed you from the bonds of your infancy. Your bond with God is now a spiritual one, instead of a physical one, and your punishments do not come in the form of lost sheep and slain children. You wear what you like and come home whenever you so choose, because your father has said “you are an adult now, you can live as you like, and I will approve and disapprove from a greater distance.” Why is it so difficult for you to conceptualize that God might also have meant that you were free to give up childhood stories like the Stork and Santa?

When we are young, our parents lie to us because we cannot understand the truth, are unprepared for the truth, or the truth would hurt us. They tell us that the stork brings babies so they can avoid teaching us about sex until we are old enough to learn about it safely. They tell us that Santa brings toys so that we’ll go to bed early on Christmas Eve and let them lie down together on the sofa and hold each other like they did before we were born. They tell us not to touch the wall socket “because I said so” and not to climb that tree “because you’ll hurt yourself.”

Why should your experience with God the father be different? You are free to explore the universe in which you have been born. You are big enough now, and smart enough now, to know the risks behind the things you do. Wall sockets will hurt you because electricity will travel from them through your body and cause your brain to be unable to communicate with your muscles. With surprising slowness, you might die. Babies happen when a boy and a girl have sex, and in addition to this risk there are associated other risks of which you should be made aware. Both kinds of risks can be mitigated through the proper use of a condom. Leave some air at the tip to ensure it doesn’t break when you finish. Santa doesn’t bring toys, we do, and this year we’re very low on money so the toys are going to be simpler... it doesn’t mean you’ve been bad, it just means we’re on rough times at the moment.

The garden of Eden is your stork story. Evolution is your sex-education and the petri-dish antibiotics experiment (the one that shows you why it’s so important to finish all the medicine the doctor gives you) is your explanation of the proper uses of a condom.

It’s time to grow up.

And I’m not just talking to Texas when I say that.


Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Would the real Democratic Party please stand up?

"As Congress prepares for a crucial vote on President Obama's budget this Thursday, Republican leaders have been plotting an all-out effort to block it without offering a single specific idea of their own. But we can't allow them to obstruct progress with hollow rhetoric.

Watch this video and donate $5 or more to help us air an ad exposing the GOP's petty politics before Thursday's important vote:"

I did some work for the Obama campaign during the last election and, as a consequence, I am treated to lovely personalized spam in my Inbox from the Democratic National Committee, a group which seems to be suffering from the delusion that the last election was a vote for the Democratic party, which it most emphatically was not. In general, I ignore it (the irony pains me and the begging annoys me), shuffle it into my spam folder or read through it for a good laugh... but today the email caught me in a particularly philosophical mood, and so it made me think.

There is a peculiarity of our government that really does not make any sense. We vote for individuals, who build administrations, which either control, or are controlled by (depending on the potency of the individuals involved) a political party. Effectively we have two of these parties, ignoring the various fringe groups that muddy up the works either strategically (to draw attention to specific issues) or egotistically (Nader). These parties are the Democrats and the Republicans, and they have taken for their respective symbols a loud, stubborn, relatively inexpensive pack animal (you get what you pay for) and a fat, plodding machine that scares every other form of life away from the water hole and turns perfectly good plant matter into poop and Ivory, in order of quantity.

Setting aside the obvious parallels between their symbols and their general party lines, it is generally agreed that both parties are mostly useless, most of the time. Their hands tend to be tied by bureaucratic nonsense and their ability to change the status quo is as limited as their understanding of the forces that drive our universe. This is, of course, why the American system is so stable. For the most part you're guaranteed that things will work pretty much the way they worked last year, because the amount of red tape, ass-kissing and bribery involved in getting that semicolon in paragraph 457 changed to a dash is so monumental that you generally have about five years to prepare for whatever difference that will make in your life.

Generally, it won't make much.

This is fortunate, because when that semicolon is changed to a dash, it is generally presumed that anyone to whom that paragraph pertains will go to their local library, look up a copy of the paragraph in question that is less than 5 weeks old, double-check to make sure the semicolon has not, yet, been changed to a dash, and act accordingly when implementing whatever action (or inaction) the paragraph pertains to. This, of course, does not happen.

In reality, people generally ignore the entire body of the law, assuming that if a law exists that will screw them, the amount of time involved in toeing the line, combined with the effort invested in toeing the line, exceeds the value returned for the investment. Furthermore, it is generally impossible to accomplish anything legally, because American law is precedent-based and consequently contradicts itself rather prolifically. Laws vary state by state, even on big, obvious matters like murder, rape, arson and felony theft.

For the most part, people find that if they ignore the law, the law does them the kindness of ignoring them back, and while periodically you'll run into the bad neighbor who tickets your friends for violating the "resident parking only" areas, or calls the cops because your cocktail party has gotten too rowdy, you can pretty much safely assume that you won't be jailed for a bar-fight and your average ticket-price for ignoring all parking meters will not exceed the total price you would have paid into the meters you ignored.

All of which is a roundabout way of saying that government in America is good government precisely because it is so messy, so thick and so convoluted that you basically have to rob a bank to get a monkey on your back. The inefficiency of our government protects us, and prevents people from doing stupid things when the opportunity presents itself (Though Texas may soon prove me wrong on that count). In fairness I should note that recently, someone did rob a bank in St. Louis and so far, no monkeys have been seen riding him around.

When we vote for an individual for the role of president, however, we are effectively voting for someone to fill the only job perceived as one capable of "getting something done," and we must consider a few different matters... matters which weighed heavily in my decision to work for, and vote for, Obama.

1. Is this person capable of forming complete sentences?
-This is more important than people give it credit for. If your president is an idiot, it is generally presumed that your entire nation is an idiot, and diplomacy proceeds accordingly.
2. Does this person surround himself with people smarter than he is, or dumber?
-This is the most important thing to consider. A president is only as good as his administration, and he must demonstrate the ability to surround himself with independent thinkers. His administration should be the best of the best, whether the best agrees with him or not.
3. Does this person control his party, or does his party control him?

It is the subject of number 3 that I would like to dwell on. The chief reason I voted for Obama was that I noticed that he took control of his political party and caused it to act in a more intelligent way than it otherwise might have. However, the party was only incidental in that equation. It was a tool by which I established the quality of the man and his likely effect upon our government as a whole. The Democratic party (like the Republican party) is not an entity in which I would willingly place my trust.

The email spam is becoming bothersome.

The tone of these emails during the election was to be expected. The propaganda, the annoying turns of phrase and the anger-inducing injections of my name into every godforsaken motherfucking sentence (I can see the board meeting now... "Hey guys, I just discovered scripting! Let's beat the idea to death and then turn the remains into glue!"). I understood the rhetoric and the need for it. It was all part of the game.

The game is over. We won the game. All this rhetorical shit about our opponents' rhetoric is needless, counterproductive, and aggravating. I understand that the Democratic party wishes to milk their boy's good name for every dollar they can before his honeymoon is over (not that he got much of one of those), but I would greatly appreciate it if they could prioritize just enough to understand that there are larger issues to take care of right now, issues that can only be solved as a nation, not as a bunch of bickering idiots with delusions of grandeur who've come to believe their own propaganda.

So let me make this simple (albeit it may be too late for that). The Republicans (or Democrats, respectively) are not your enemy. Everyone wants the economic crisis to end and while the guy you're arguing with might not be right his heart is probably in the right place, so maybe you should try explaining why he's wrong instead of punching him in the nose and calling his arguments "rhetoric." If you can't explain to him why he's wrong, then either he's right or you shouldn't be the one arguing with him anyway, and should find him someone to argue against who is better informed.

We've had quite enough of this shit from both sides of the isle, thank you very much. I don't think the "change" we were looking for was a change of color from red to blue.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Geithner as Head Pretzel-Vendor

"The budget should be balanced, the Treasury should be refilled, public debt should be reduced, the arrogance of officialdom should be tempered and controlled, and the assistance to foreign lands should be curtailed lest Rome become bankrupt. People must again learn to work, instead of living on public assistance." - Marcus Tullius Cicero


Maxwell and I were discussing the current state of affairs in the world, and Maxwell was trying to trying to reconcile a 'debt-consolidation' metaphor he had constructed with the latest act in The Fall of the House of Geithner, and he asked for my take on things. I really tried to avoid doing the requisite blog-post-about-the-financial-crisis, but it seems to have been unavoidable. The following, with some minor cleaning up, are my thoughts on the subject.

---------------------------------------------------------------

Eh, the initial 'bailout' was more like lending your brother money so he can buy gas to go to work, since he's short on cash at the moment. Obviously, if he can't get to work, he can't make any money, so you give him the cash, and hope he pays you back.

But, since you don't actually have the cash on hand (or rather, you do have the cash, but you already have a bunch of loans outstanding to your neighbors (i.e. China, among others), you basically take out another loan so you've still got 'enough' cash on hand. Keep in mind that, in many situations, this actually makes sense (that is, it's not quite as insane as it seems). If your brother is going to pay you back $10 (i.e. a %200 return on your investment, before adjusting for the fact that it'll take some time to get the $10), then it make sense if your neighbors are only charging you, say, %5 interest.

What's going on now, and what was proposed originally, is that your brother bought a bunch of... um... Pretzel Wagon franchises. He thought the franchises would be making him lots of money, and that he'd eventually be able to sell them, but now, because he apparently misjudged how many pretzels people can afford, the franchises are worth a lot less.

Of course, the phrase "worth a lot less" is not really true. What it means is that the franchises are making a lot less money, but your brother is claiming they're still worth, say, $100 each. He's trying to sell them, but everyone else seems to think they're worth $30, so he doesn't want to sell them. Likewise, he doesn't want to admit that they're only worth $30 ('worth X' here meaning, 'people in the market are willing to pay X for them').

Of course, the whole thing is made worse by the fact that, because your brother is worried, he's not opening new franchises, and therefore not hiring people in town, and so people in town have, on average, even less money to spend on pretzels.

So, what do you do? Well, Geithner, as well as a number of other apparently intelligent people, have decided that we're going to hold a garage sale. But not just any garage sale. Here's what we do:

You tell people that you're selling your brother's franchises (at least, the ones that aren't doing well), but that you'll loan them most of the money to buy them. So, say Bob decides that one such franchise is worth $50, but he doesn't have that kind of cash on hand. "That's ok!" you say, and lend him $44, on pretty good terms. What's more, you agree to basically agree to cover half the remaining amount, and give him $6 more, in exchange for a partial ownership in the franchise. The end result is that he ends up putting up about $6 for something (apparently) worth $50.

But this isn't as crazy as it seems -- well, not quite as crazy. First, it assumes that your brother will be ok, once he sells off the bad franchises. Of course, this plan does nothing to address the fact that your brother is apparently an idiot, or at least, managed to a make a LOT of bad calls, all at once. Second, if the $50 purchase price is 'about right' -- that is, if the Pretzel Wagon ends up making about the same amount of money as $50 spent somewhere else, say, on a Mrs. Field's franchise, would have -- then things are pretty much okay. Bob will eventually pay back the loan and you'll get repaid, plus, because of that $3 you put up, you'll end up getting a cut of the profits. Of course, if the thing fails, and Bob never pays you back, or if the franchise ended up only being worth, say, $30, then you're pretty much screwed. Bob's not too upset, especially if he manages to get out of paying back the loan, since he only lost about $3. You, on the other hand, have lost $47. And your brother, who managed to sell off a worthless piece of junk for $50, is loving the whole setup. Stupid freeloader.

Of course, there's always the opposite possibility, where the thing ends up being worth $200, in which case Bob and you are both thrilled, and, in the end, your brother isn't too upset, since he needed cash at the time, and he's just happy to be rid of the whole mess.

And, throughout all of this, your neighbors (China, et al.), are wondering if you've completely lost your mind, or if there's actually something sensible, in an odd, twisted way, about your relationship with your brother. Of course, they'll keep lending you money throughout the whole thing; you may be paying it off for the rest of your life, but they know you'll pay it off. Plus, who's gonna buy the crap at their craft store, if you and your brother are bankrupt?


-- Tiro

Monday, March 23, 2009

Put Down Your Lighters

"I never heard of an old man forgetting where he had buried his money! Old people remember what interests them: the dates fixed for their lawsuits, and the names of their debtors and creditors." - Cicero

Now hold one just a minute.

It is just me, or do other people get the sense that they've had to spend a larger share of their time talking others down from various extremist positions lately?

The concept of money is one of those deliciously complex ideas, which seems so simple at first; the fact that we use it everyday, the fact that it is so familiar, makes us forget what, exactly, we're talking about most of the time. The 'undergraduate explanation,' to borrow a phrase from one of my colleagues, is that money serves three purposes: 1) as a medium of exchange, 2) as a store of value, and 3) as a unit of account.

In other words, farmers use money because it's easier to trade dollars for haircuts than radishes, and because dollars don't go bad, unlike radishes, and because it's easier to tell others how productive your farm is in dollars, rather than in radishes.

There are, of course, other philosophical motivations for money. One of my personal favorites has always been Ayn Rand's, in Atlas Shrugged:

"When you accept money in payment for your effort, you do so only on the conviction that you will exchange it for the product of the effort of others. ... Those pieces of paper, which should have been gold, are a token of honor -- your claim upon the energy of men who produce. Your wallet is your statement of hope that somewhere in the world around you there are men who will not default on that moral principle which is the root of money."

Of course, I do take issue with some of Rand's claims (that of a gold standard, mainly), but general point is still valid: we hold money because we believe other people will hold it as well; money has value for me, today, because it has value for others today, and tomorrow as well.

But back to the point at hand -- burning our wallets.

Maxwell brings up an important problem, one that was especially common back in the days of gold-(and other 'scarce resources)-backed currencies. The easiest way to think of it is this:

A country has a fixed amount of resources at any given time(i.e. 'stuff'), and some production technology (i.e. means to make more 'stuff') which allows for unbounded growth (i.e. over time, the amount of 'stuff' keeps going up). If the country has a fixed amount of money, each unit will become worth more over time. On the other hand, if the amount of 'stuff' goes down drastically - or if the quantity of money available drastically increases - then each unit becomes worth less.

This, in and of itself, isn't necessarily a problem. One example of this is Milton Friedman's concept of a 'helicopter drop' -- if the government were to simply give everyone more money, nothing would change, in relative terms. The price of a loaf of bread might double, but, if your salary (and the price of milk, eggs, haircuts, etc.) doubles as well, it doesn't matter.

The problem Maxwell mentions, with the candy, is an artifact of the discrete world we live in - things like indivisible units, transaction costs, and so on. Of course, there are cases in which this doesn't matter: the other major form of currency we use is electronic currency, which, theoretically, can be divided as much as we want. And, in other cases, there may be other issues: recently, there's been much discussion about retiring the penny from use in the US, with supporters claiming that the cost of producing and using the coins far outweighs the cost of potential issues (like those described above!).

Which brings us, again, back to the original point -- burning out wallets.

If there was ever a time to burn our wallets, this is most definitely NOT the time to do it. If anything, the value of the cash in your wallet may actually be going up, given current circumstances.

The concept of inflation is relatively well-known to most of us - the idea that money, over time, becomes less valuable. Intuitively, the 'inflation rate' is the rate of interest you'd have to be getting on your money for it to maintain its value over time. Usually, this is calculated using what is known as the Consumer Price Index, or CPI. The CPI is a measure of how much a 'standard bundle of goods' costs, in dollars, at some time. So, since the CPI in January of 1991 was 134.6, and in February was 134.8, we know that things 'cost more,' in a very specific, quantitative way.

So, why is this interesting right now? According to most measures, we're in a period of deflation at the moment.

In 2008, the CPI slowly crept up, from 211.080 in January, to a high of 219.964 in July. But then it began to fall, dropping to 215.303 in December. The CPI went up from January to February, but February's numbers were still a good deal lower than the peak last July, coming in at 212.193.

Now, I'm not predicting that this trend will continue, and that in a few months, $5 will buy you a new car, but I think it's safe to say that it's not quite time to reach for the lighter yet...


- Marcus Tulius Tiro
-----------------------------------------------------------------------------------

A side note: I meant to talk about more current events, and some of the other reasons (and there are many) that we shouldn't be burning our wallets (but why it might still be a good idea for Maxwell to be telling you all to do so), but I managed to get a bit off track. Hopefully, this means I'll be posting again soon!

Wisdom 11-20

11. Overkill works.

12. Never share a cockpit with someone braver than you are.

13. If everything is going according to plan, start looking for the ambush.

14. No plan survives the first contact with reality.

15. The fuse is always shorter than you think.

16. Teamwork gives the enemy someone else to shoot at.

17. The enemy diversion you are ignoring is the main attack.

18. The shortest distance between two points is always a trap.

19. Your greatest regrets will be the things you did not do.

20. Most of the things you regret not doing would have killed you or ruined your life.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Wisdom, 1-10

Because everyone needs a dose.

1. Fly only what you can afford to lose.

2. If a fight is fair, someone did not plan well enough.

3. If you are going nowhere, be sure to travel in good company.

4. Do what you will, death will do as it wishes.

5. Truth is often sad, but there is much fun to be had in making light of it.

6. Few things are more dangerous than an incomplete education.

7. No education is ever complete.

8. Make few rules. Enforce all of them.

9. You can either learn to win, or learn not to lose. These paths lead to entirely different life experiences.

10. With enough guns, you can destroy the universe, but they will not rebuild it for you.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Burn it All

Our government is about to print more money. In times of economic boom, this is done as an intentional devaluation of the currency so that it can be used more effectively in the economy - in other words, when the penny is too valuable to be spent on a piece of candy, something needs adjustment because the currency for buying pieces of candy individually does not exist. There was a time in Britain when golden guineas were so scarce that they were hoarded by the nobility and by rich merchants for foreign trade... also Britain's peasants at times fell back on something resembling a barter economy for lack of silver pennies (one of the reasons governments switched from precious metals to paper/faux coinage was so that the government could control the money supply and use it to represent wealth like sheep’s wool and wheat).

This is not an economic boom. In times of economic downturn, recession, or (as I am beginning to suspect this will be) depression, printing more money is a way for the government to pay government workers. The hope is that no one will notice the devaluation of the currency until it is too late, allowing the government a few years of peace and quiet in which to shuffle blame around and decide which hee-hawing asses are going to take the fall for everything.

So this is a call to all Americans who can afford the losses:

Please burn your money.

Technically the government is burning your money as we speak, so you’re not actually losing anything. You have been robbed already, and burning money only serves to create a realistic image of how much money you actually have.

If enough Americans go out back and burn money, maybe we can avoid the currency collapse that struck China so many years ago. Its government devalued the currency so fast and hard that people were paid in wheelbarrows full of bills (incidentally I am not using hyperbole here) that weren’t worth anything by noon the next day. Maybe we can avoid starving to death in the streets, and war with all the nations who refuse to allow us to settle our bills with the unstable dollar and demand that we barter off the homeland instead.

Trust me... we do not want war with China. Not now, and probably not ever. War these days does not mean what it used to mean. The weapons are too mean, too unscrupulous and too destructive. War between superpowers in the old world meant millions of dead soldiers and cities burned to the ground. They accomplished this with gunpowder and napalm and bullets.

Today, we have missiles that can reach orbit.

We have nuclear weapons hundreds of times more destructive than the horrors that fell on Hiroshima and Nagasaki (any one of these monsters would vaporize all of Manhattan instantaneously, then carry on gallantly into New York State). China has these toys, just like we do, and the question you need to ask yourself is this:

Is China the evil (or amoral) giant or a state of great conscience?

Let us evaluate the options. If China is evil or amoral, they will use nuclear weapons in a war with America. War with them would result in the devastation both of China and of the U.S.. No one would win, and (honestly) no one would probably survive, including you.

If China is a state of great conscience, war with them is not morally justified, and we would be (in actuality) the “bad guys.” History would write us in as the guys that couldn’t pay off our debts and solved the problem by going to war. We would be France! The very fact that I am, this day, mocking France for improper banking practices hundreds of years ago is evidence that you never recover from that kind of idiocy. That doesn’t jive well with me.

So we do not want war. We just don’t.

If we do not want war, we want our creditors to think we can pay them back with money. Which means our money must be worth something, which means we need to stop printing more of it.

Money, like anything else, is prone to supply and demand. If there is more supply, the money is worth less. If there is less supply, the money is worth more. Money must be worth little enough to buy candy, but enough to buy F-14s and nuclear submarines. Right now, the dollar still has value. I can go to Ecuador, pay a Taxi three dollars to take me cross-town and get a huge gourmet lunch for a buck fifty more. Then I can crash at a hostel for six dollars and get breakfast in the deal.

Keep your eye on exchange rates. Right now, Pounds are selling for about 1.1 dollars and Euros for about 1.25 dollars. This is an improvement, mind you, over where we were recently, but this has less to do with improvement at home and more to do with economic collapse in the world outside. The bubble is bursting everywhere.

If the government persists in printing money, then we who can afford it must counter the effect. Consider it a donation of sorts - the printed money is being paid in to repair broken roads and do other such useful stuff, and it is feeding the families of American poor. Every dollar you burn makes their money worth more.

If all of us burn even just a dollar, it will help. Given how little a dollar will be worth soon, that's nothing.

Burn it.

Burn it all.


[Alausi will continue when I've finished the salvage-work on the relevant photographs]

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

On Free Trade and Reasoned Debate

"Men decide far more problems by gate, love, lust, rage, sorrow, joy, hope, fear, illusion, or some other inward emotion, than by reality, authority, any legal standard, judicial precedent, or statute." - Cicero

Recently, an article appeared on the New York Times blog Room for Debate with the title "That 'Buy American' Provision." For those not familiar with the blog, the idea is to give a range of viewpoints on issues and topics currently in the news, via an introduction and a collection of short (~5 paragraph) statements by various guest authors.

In "That 'Buy American' Provision," the subject was the section of the recently passed stimulus package which essentially requires government funded projects to use US-made steel, rather than foreign-made steel, even where domestic materials are more expensive. The guest writers included 5 economists, a union official, a historian, and a US Senator, Sherrod Brown. The article can be found here.

Upon reading Senator Brown's piece, I felt that a response of some kind was necessary. The Senator, an ardent critic of unrestrained free trade and a proponent of 'fair trade,' constructed an argument for the provision that was, in my humble opinion, essentially hand-waving and demagogic. The following is a letter I sent to his office, and I'll post his reply, if I receive one (and no, the actual letter was not signed using my pen name).


-- Marcus Tullius Tiro

--------------------------------------------------------

Senator Brown,

After reading your comments in the article "That 'Buy American' Provision" (February 11, 2009) on the New York Times website, I must say that I'm disappointed, and more than a little offended. In an impressive display of irony, you took an opportunity for honest discussion of an important issue and sunk to name-calling and making sarcastic comments - on a blog entitled 'Room for Debate.'

You're right in saying that "some Ivy League economists don't like" protectionist trade policies, such as favoring domestic suppliers. But you fail to mention that, by and large, most economists agree with the basic theory of free trade, such as David Ricardo's original assertion that free trade allows countries to mutually prosper via the existence of comparative advantages. You may claim that the theory fails to take into account many of the complexities of the modern economy, or that existing trade agreements fail to guarantee standards of environmental stewardship, or that the effect of 'creative destruction,' which is a natural outgrowth of free trade, should factor more significantly into the discussion on trade policy -- but you do none of these things, and instead offer a snide dismissal of those who disagree as 'elitists.'

Correct me if I'm wrong, but wasn't this exactly the kind of attitude that was supposedly rejected by the American public in our last round of elections? The dismissal of the expert opinions of people who have devoted their lives to studying this issue based on the fact that they are experts is bordering on the absurd! Of course, one can always add that there are many highly respected economists and other experts who support the concept of free trade who, unlike yourself, are not Ivy League alumni.

Contrary to what your claim about these 'elitists,' many of them are exactly the people whose jobs are threatened by free trade policies. In my doctoral program, the vast majority of my colleagues are not US citizens; rather they are foreigners who came to this country in search of educational and academic opportunity. When I enter the job market, many of my competitors will be Americans, but many others will be American-educated foreigners, here by virtue of our policies on the free flow of intellectual capital.

Ignoring, for a moment, your dismissal of "some Ivy League economists," the point that there may be lessons to be learned from the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act and its impact on the Great Depression is a valid one. Although the actual impact of Smoot-Hawley is still debated today, history shows us that retaliation from our trading partners is a real threat to be mindful of, especially when our country is economically weakened.

If you'd permit me, I'd like to submit another claim to the people of Ohio for 'straight face test': the act of subsidizing domestic producers at the expense of foreign producers, by explicitly favoring them in government spending bills, is anything other than protectionism. Reasonable people can disagree on whether protectionism is right or wrong under different circumstances, but let's not try to avoid calling it what it is. Closing a door, whether it's open a foot or an inch, is still closing a door.

Senator, I believe that you care deeply about the issue of free trade, and I'm sure that you understand the intricacies of US trade policy much more that I do. So, when given the opportunity to voice your opinion in a forum like Room for Debate, to an audience that genuinely wants to understand the conflicting views on such an important subject, why reduce yourself to name-calling and drastic oversimplification? A solid case certainly can and should be made for trade policies that help strengthen American industries and protect American workers, and the Room for Debate blog would have been the perfect forum for such a case.

Sincerely,

Marcus Tullius Tiro

Sunday, February 8, 2009

The Long Road to Alausi II - Ecuador 4

In part because the hostel was closed, and in part because there were only a few hours remaining before the adventure we sought was due to begin, we opted to explore a bit instead of sleeping, placing our bets on the local coffee-shops and bakeries opening around 6:00. From 1:50 (our time of arrival) to around 4:00, we wandered, aiming at first at a large, colorful statue of Jesus in the center of town (think “Buddy Jesus” but without the thumb's up and with a slightly less ostentatious grin), which is as good a time as any to mention the way “dogs” work in Ecuador.

I put the word “dog” in quotation marks because in Ecuador the line between dog and wolf is somewhat narrower than in America. In America, if you run into a stray dog, odds are he's more scared of you than you are of him. This is not always the case in Ecuador, where strays arguably serve a very important purpose, and that purpose is inflicting pain on unknown elements who stray too near. The streets of any town at night are roamed by three sorts of dogs. Domestic dogs out for a piss, Strays of domestic origin out because they have nowhere to go (these are often in search of garbage or the leavings of whomever happens to be around), and strays of unknown origin out because they're hungry.

Any encounter with a dog in the street at night (or during the day) in Ecuador is most easily explained with diplomatic terminology. The two parties meet, size each other up, and attempt to ascertain who would have the advantage in a fight. If the dog is alone, this is you. If the dog is not alone, this is him. Borders are drawn depending on who wants to go where, for how long, and why. If both parties merely want to pass, each chooses one side of the street (not the same side) and the meeting is brief and painless, if wary.

If the canine party intends to stay, or considers part (or all) of the street territory (this is often a problem with domestic dogs, near their homes), the human party ascertains the threat level. This involves a series of determinations, starting with the health of the dog. A healthy dog is either a domestic or a stray of unknown origin. Strays of domestic origin usually appear somewhat emaciated, and are most likely to turn tail and run if you opt to move forward. If the healthy dog is also clean, it is domestic, at which point you must ascertain if it is chained. If it is chained, walk on the opposite side of the street. If not, or if you cannot tell, assume the dog is feeling territorial, and find another route. One friend of Ma.'s made the mistake of not heeding her regarding a particular gang of dogs, and paid with a goodly portion of one of his legs. This is not a joke.

If the dog is healthy and dirty, you probably have a problem. Look around for other dogs. If you see any, and they're looking at you, you're either being hunted or you're close to their “territory.” In either case, do not make eye-contact, and attempt to back away. If they follow, antagonizing them would be redundant and so it is wise (according to Ju., a friendly fellow we met in the hostel) to throw rocks, preferably large and/or sharp ones.

The dogs of Alausi know where you are at any time, and you cannot wander the streets at night without them raising unholy hell in whatever neighborhood you are passing through. While we were on the road itself, a small pack of them staked us out, but the arrival of a bus threw off their rhythm (and ours... it was dark and foggy and there was a bend in the road) and they left off their curiosity. Near the Jesus statue we found the final leg blocked by a couple angry-looking small dogs, could not ascertain if they were chained, and found a new way around instead.

We arrived at Jesus to discover the view somewhat obstructed by fog, and photography of the view rendered impossible by the bright white lights which were used to light the statue up at night (though I admit, I was too tired at any rate to pull out my camera, at this point). An interesting consequence of these lights, however, was that at night, every insect in the city (otherwise dimly lit) gravitated upwards and to the center, and hung out (like a pack of mall-rats) around that central square on a hill. Jesus himself was swarming with horned beetles, moths, and other small insects I initially mistook for mosquitoes but later recognized as tiny-little-doohickies-that-don't-bite-so-who-cares.

Aside from the difficulty of not stepping on the horned beetles (I did step on one, which made a rather depressing krunch noise and made me feel rather miserable about myself as a person... they're quite pretty and they are BIG), the square was pleasant enough and contained a map of the town which informed us that there was to be a market held there. Around this time, I identified some of the odd noises as bat noises, and mindful that rabies was a bad thing to have, I suggested we make our way down. The bats were, of course, hunting the local all-you-can-eat buffet, and so left us entirely alone.

We wandered for a time, and eventually set up shop for a nap on a bench, and a bit later in one of the doorways of the train-station while we waited for the town to come alive:


People passed by and said “hi” and such when a certain hour rolled around, and such encounters became more frequent (and more hurried) as time wore on. We gleaned bits of information from passersby while we were awake, learning that the train station actually opened at 8:00, that the train we were here to ride left every hour or so (rendering useless the inane difficulties we had gone through to arrive the previous day to ensure we could get tickets) and no longer arrived from Riobamba because (accounts varied) there had been a mudslide, a rock-slide, or some other catastrophe which closed the rail between those two towns.

Tickets to ride the Devil's Nose cost us eight dollars each, which was a relief, since someone had earlier told us it would cost twenty-five. At this juncture we learned that due to some ten-year-olds managing to seriously injure themselves, the entire point of the trip (riding on top of the train) had been rendered illegal by mayoral edict. At that point, we thought the universe had won, and that the Devil's Nose trip was to be a near-total loss. We took our seats behind muddied, jammed windows and prepared to be underwhelmed.

That said, I have gleaned some degree of perverse pleasure from stringing this tale along over several days, so why don't we leave it there for now, and return to it tomorrow?


Signing out,

Maxwell Evans