Tuesday, January 31, 2012

The Gold Standard

Lately, there's been a lot of talk of returning to the Gold Standard, which implies the Gold And Silver standard.  Not in most conventional circles (to be polite), but it's been popularized by Ron Paul recently.  Before doing research for this blog, I admit to serious reservations (no pun intended) about the credibility of doing it; all the gold ever mined in the world is barely enough to cover half the US GNP[1], in terms of today's prices[2].  In other words, our annual productivity is worth almost twice all gold.  I don't like the idea of limiting our productivity to something anything less than the ingenuity of humanity itself, but before doing explicit research (I have this tendency to just putter around the internet answering questions that come to mind), I wasn't able to articulate why, at least not convincingly enough for blog entries on the subject.  The idea that our coins would be gold (at least partially) and our cash could be redeemed for gold at any bank is an odd one to me, personally, but I can see it as comforting.
Second, what prompted this article, was the claim I heard (not made by Ron Paul, but it wouldn't surprise me much).  "The only way to save ourselves [in the US] from hyperinflation is to go back on the gold standard."  I knew immediately that that was false on its face, but maybe there's something to the whole Gold Standard thing.  We're not even close to hyper-inflation in this country.  Hyperinflation is when the value of the dollar drops by 50% or more each month.  We've actually had mild inflation lately because we (painfully obviously) haven't been expanding much, and inflation is often associated with growth.  Economics are neat.
Before we go any further, we'll have a mini-economics lesson. (Not to be confused with microeconomics).
The biggest thing in favor of gold is that it puts a literal cap on the money supply, which is the amount of actual currency available in the market at any given time.  How does that work if the GNP exceeds the gold supply?  Easily, actually.  In fact, there's only about a trillion USD in currency right now.  Without getting into the details of the different types of money supplies, let's just take the following scenario.
Jake has $100 cash.  He goes to the store and spends every penny on shrubberies.  The shrubber, Kyle, takes the money and pays his only employee, Robin, who goes and buys himself a used Taser.
Throughout these transactions, there was only $100 being used out of the money supply; the $100 shrub, the $100 worth of labor, and the $100 Taser are all individual transactions, there's $300 that gets added to the GNP.  So it's easy to see how the money supply isn't a concern.
In fact, the Gold Standard is really good at doing this!  With the gold standard, if there's ever a shortage of currency, we can't just make more unless the situation is dire (World War 1 Dire).  Without it, we can just make more money to keep things running smoothly in the short term.  In other words, we inflate our own dollar by making more of them.  Going back to gold would virtually stop that in it's tracks!  If you keep $10,000 in your mattress, you lose money every year just by not spending it.  On the gold standard, $10,000 is worth (in today's dollars), about 1/2 pound of gold and it would be in 50 years, more or less (historically, about .1% inflation).  Without the gold standard, in 50 years, at 5% inflation per year, it would be worth about $750.
Inflation sucks, and the Gold Standard kills it.  So, why shouldn't we go back to it?  Well, there are a few things to consider.
First, what if you went to the store today and bought yourself eggs, milk, cheese, potatoes, celery, and bacon for a reasonable amount.  You didn't realize you were out of bread but you'd noticed that it cost $2.39 a loaf.  So you go back the next day, and it costs $6 a loaf, and you have no choice but to buy it or go without sandwiches. [3]
In my previous example (keeping money in your mattress), I used 5% for the inflation figure.  5% inflation is unusually high; in 2011, we only had 3%, and the last time we broke 4% was 1990.  Over the last 100 years, including both World Wars, we've averaged 3.35% inflation.  In fact, at 3.2%, that $10,000 would be worth about $1,900, not $750.
Sounds ludicrous, right?  Well, that's a huge problem with the gold standard.  Short term prices are insanely variable.  So you get long term stability (on average, your $10,000 will be worth $9,512 in 50 years) at the price of obscene volatility in the short term- it could be worth $2000 one year and $8000 the next.  On average, it would retain most of its value, but   The entire market becomes extremely sensitive to factors that affect the gold industry.  If somebody discovers gold in Iowa, or someone sinks a Spanish Galleon, the price of gold, and thus everything else will change.  Favorable for investors, I suppose, who are able to just leave their money in one place for decades at a time.
There are other confounding issues- if we go to the gold standard, what's to stop every other country from just buying our gold?  We'd have to establish cooperation treaties of some sort, and historically, they existed, but functioned poorly.  Also, nobody understood monetary policy (at least at the level we do today) back then, and inflation was a major concern.  But now we have the Federal Reserve, and other countries have their equivalent.  The Fed was established to attempt to control inflation just prior to WWI, and the major way it does that is through managing inflation.  I could do another post on the Fed alone, since understanding it is critical to understanding the current economy.  Ron Paul labelled it as "pure evil", which is just absurd.
I'm not one to argue that something is new, therefore it is better, but let's examine the track record of the Fed.  One of it's primary functions is to manage inflation. Sure, it's not perfect.  It's run by human beings, and that means it will make mistakes.  But honestly, it does a pretty damn good job.  Variation in inflation was wild between 1913 and 1948 (1946 was when the Gold Standard was abandoned[4]).  It was as low as 0 some years, and 17-20% in some.  This was still on the Gold Standard, but we give it a pass, statistically, because the World Wars were going on and they aren't great for the economy, at least in regard to inflation.  I think that's an important point- the world was in crisis, and the economy tanked.  I don't think there's a great deal of difference, qualitatively speaking, nowadays.  Crises are by definition difficult to deal with, and on or off the Gold Standard, the housing bubble still would have occurred, and collapsed- it just would have dragged gold prices down with it.
Governments also leverage inflation to keep unemployment low; before the Fed, unemployment averaged almost 7%- and those were good times.  Since 1946, it's averaged just under 6%, and that's including several financial crises, including our current one.
In the end, additional research didn't do much to change my mind, but it did inform my perspective.  I still feel that our nation, indeed, our world, has simply outgrown ties to any particular quantifiable resource.  I think that advances in science and technology are the reason for this, and that those very advances will continue to inform our monetary policy.  Ron Paul wants to go back to the Gold Standard and do away with the Fed.  I don't think this is suicidal, per se, but I do think it's a bit like gouging off your love handles to fit in your prom dress.  It's still self-harm, and there's no reason to do it- we're beautiful, and productive, just the way we are.  There's absolutely no credible evidence I can find of hyperinflation looming on the horizon; just more fearmongers touting their own paranoia as fact.  So eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow, there will be cake.

[1] 2011 GNP was 15.3 Trillion USD
[2] Gold is worth 1,744 USD per troy ounce, as of 1/31/2012.  165 million kg in existence, 32.15 Troy ounces per kg.  Total = 9.3 Trillion.  2010 GNP: 14.56 Trilion USD
[3] A truly horrifying plight.  This is based on the coefficient of variance between the periods 1946-2003(The Not Gold Standard®) and 1880-1914 (The Classic Gold Standard).
[4] The Classical Gold Standard was abandoned in practice in 1913 because of WWI, essentially ended in 1946 for the Bretton Wood system, then formally abandoned in 1971 (in the US).  I don't have raw data for the Classical Gold Standard.
[5] This is a note.  This is not a note.  The note is real.  The note is a lie.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Ashes from ashes?

I wanted to write something a bit lighter tonight, but I'll be getting back to sexism in the future.
After logging an obscene amount of time playing Skyrim, I came across this game on Steam, it was 5 USD and looked like my style- it's called From Dust, by Ubisoft, and I figured, "Why not?  It's less than lunch at Applebee's."  Of course, I only eat at Applebee's on Veteran's Day because it's free for military (it's not that good), but the logic seems sound.  Last Wednesday, it was on sale for 66% off of 15 dollars, (those guys are great for selling gems at a huge discount, it's worth taking a peak every now and again).  And yes, for clarity's sake, this is on the PC.
It feels like an older game, but it's not.  It was released in July 2011, but it feels like it because it didn't have the budget of Assassin's Creed and other Ubisoft titles), and I had never heard anything about it until a week ago.  Ubisoft is just the publisher, so they fielded this largely as an independent work (I'm sure they provided assistance along the way, too).  And I have to say, it's surprisingly good.  It only took me about 7 hours to beat the story (much of which was spent burning my villagers because they displeased me), and I haven't gotten into the challenges yet, but it has the addictive sandbox-esque quality of the older Sim Cities (not those putrid new attempts at whoring out the name) or Tropico, only set in some time before countries or flags, or even farms, it seems.
It's like a cross between Black and White and Lemmings, only without the combat.  It's a sandbox game that touts the most sophisticated weather simulator found in a game, and it is quite good.  Like B&W, you play a demi-god who has to help your tribe, and as in Lemmings, you have to navigate a series of challenges to advance through the different maps, ultimately attaining the lost power of the ancients (you know, if the ancients were so awesome, you'd think they'd write this stuff down and make schools).  Like B&W, you'll be interacting crudely with the environment- picking up earth/water etc., and dropping it where you want it.  Like Lemmings, there's lots of lava and water to be found, and they're both very likely to kill your poor automatons.
Graphically, From Dust is not awe-inspiring à la Skyrim, but it does have its charms and I only recall one serious glitch throughout the game, and that was during a cut-scene, which occur occasionally.  The environmental effects are very attractive; lava in particular looks enticing and dangerous all at once.  Water on the other hand looks like... water.  It's mostly transparent.  And it flows.  There were some irritating things graphically, and one comes with the territory for this sort of game- there would be little puddles of water which were very difficult to see or target.  The easiest way to deal with them was to dump lots of lava in the area, evaporating it, which is generally fine unless there happened to be all sorts of vegetation in the area- then you'd start a fire, burn down all your villages, and have to start over.  The inverse would also hold, with pockets of lava, and applying a lake-full of water directly to the affected area would fix things (but then you end up with puddles...).  I could move it side to side, zoom in and out, but that third dimension that would have been so useful eluded me (I even... though it shames me to admit... looked in the help).  Not being able to skip cutscenes is an annoyance, but doesn't reduce the experience a great deal.  Slightly restrictive camera controls notwithstanding, the graphics merit a hesitant 7.
Sound is so much easier to get right on a limited budget, and they did marvelously in this regard.  The game is voiced, but in the Bahasa Indonesia language, something that sounds very tribal and generally fits the prehistoric motif (English subtitles mean you won't have to learn another language to figure out what to do, though).  The music is subtle, and does a good job setting the stage and mood.  But the sound effects, particularly the deafening roar of a volcanic eruption, is delightful, window-shaking, and coffee-spill-inducing-spasm-worthy.  In retrospect, it might be a bit too loud, but it is a freakin volcano, right?  The "Help Me!" of tribespeople does get irritating, especially if it's because they can't path to a new totem, but when it's not the AI freaking out it gets your attention; that's the only bad thing I have to say about the sound.  It sets the mood, stays out of the way except when appropriate (the music could stand to be more memorable) and gets a solid 9.
Finally, gameplay.  This is where From Dust shines.  And tanks.  AI is incredibly difficult to write from a programmer's standpoint in a game where the user can essentially literally create their own terrain.  So, taking that into account, from a gamer's standpoint it is incredibly frustrating when the little guy won't step up the 2 foot hump.  Like a cop, an AI programmer's work is often thankless- the only time you get noticed is when something messes up.  If you're doing your job well, your drones do as they're intended and nothing arouses any suspicions.  From that perspective, I think there were only 2 times where I actually had to completely restart due to villagers not executing some precariously timed maneuver, and they were usually because I built the target area up in a peculiar way (lava stacked on lava stacked on explosive trees stacked on lava, filled with dirt and doused with water, repeated until it looks right), which can understandably make mapping the area for a machine extremely tricky, and even then, the vast majority of the time, my villagers would stalwartly make their way to their destination, even if it was unnecessarily circuitous.
Mechanics killed me a lot more than AI.  Especially fire.  Forest fires are obscenely devastating.  They spread like a wildfire through a forest of firecrackers.  To make things worse, plants grow at exactly the same rate as fire burns, so they'll get into loops of perpetual tribesman death (who fearlessly charge to rebuild their burning village, only to have it burn again as soon as it gets built, ad nauseum).  That's my biggest complaint, but on the plus side the controls were incredibly intuitive (aside from the left and right mouse buttons being the opposite of the "natural", but that's an easy fix in the controls menu).  The AI was spectacular, given the load that it was under, and all in all, the environmental effects felt so natural and compelling, it was incredibly easy to just powertrip for a few hours, playing god, and that's the best part about games like these.  Gameplay warrants an 8.5, a hesitant 9.  Far and away one of the best sandbox games I've played since Tropico.  Overall, From Dust is a solid addition to your library, and it's a bargain- a brand new game, for only $15 without a discount at Steam.  Buy it.  You won't regret it, and hopefully you'll encourage more games like it in the future.  Final rating: 8.2.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Cell Phones Cause Cancer!

Maybe.  I mean, they could, right?  The WHO (World Health Organization) said so, after all.  I mean, cancer is a pretty complicated disease, and seemingly trivial things can cause it, right?  I'm going into this blog completely blind, and we'll see where I end up.
Well, reading the WHO's article, I'm not impressed with their classification.  The idea that cell phones cause some radiation is not a new (or wrong) one, and the idea that it can cause tissue temperatures to rise makes perfect sense- that energy that isn't going into the air waves has to go somewhere, after all.  The cell phone produces radio waves, which go off into the air in search of (well, really just blindly toward) a tower, which copies them, and sends them into space, where they are redirected to another local tower, and then transmitted to the receiving phone.  The waves are emitted roughly in a half-sphere (hemisphere, I suppose) around the cell phone, and radiate outwards.  Half (or so) of the waves will hit you in the head, if you are holding the phone near it.  That much, at least, is fact (and even obvious).  In the short term, there don't seem to be any effects, but this isn't always indicative.  Cigarettes and asbestos don't have any immediate (cancerous) effects, either.  Cancer is a pretty nuanced state that cells find themselves in, it's not like a virus or other infection, and it takes years to develop, if it does at all.
Reassuringly, they ("Who?", "WHO." "Who?", "Right.") do set guidelines on how much radiation can be absorbed.  The IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers) is an internationally recognized organization that sets various standards for the creation of electronic devices (among other things), and so items produced after 2005 are likely to be in accordance with them.  This is good, since most users (by which I mean I) change their cell-phones every two or 3 years, any recent phone is likely to maintain this standard.
On the other side, people seem to believe that the WHO went overboard in declaring cell phones potentially carcinogenic.  They say that what the WHO means is simply that it's possible that cell phones cause cancer.  It's possible that Elves are planning an invasion of the dark side of the moon with their thermal technology seized from Under Armour (only after they win the presidency, Come ON Ron Paul, Phase 1, remember?).  Of course, cancer is a bit more plausible, but let's instead look at the mechanism.
First, we need to understand cancer, and even with a medical degree, this is difficult. It's an exceptionally nuanced class of disease all its own, and it doesn't fit generalizations easily.  What is known is that it's a state that otherwise healthy cells get in, where they begin to replicate uncontrollably, creating masses of tissue, called tumors, through many and varied mutations.  They can even transport blood to the tissues, by hijacking veins to irrigate their tumor.  It would be beautiful, if it didn't kill almost everything it touched.  Not all tumors are cancerous, sometimes they are benign growths of normal, if misguided, cells, and won't kill you.
Exactly how cancer happens is somewhat of a mystery, which is not to say that it is misunderstood.  The main takeaway is that minor copying errors increase exponentially (much like evolution itself), protecting the cell from the body's built-in correction mechanisms.  Exactly how these errors occur is the mystery I speak of- by their very nature, they don't happen overnight (at least in the vast majority of cases), and can chug harmlessly along for decades until the "evolution" occurs- there's a random, precipitating event and a horrible arms race begins at the cellular level.  So the bad news is you probably already have pre-cancerous cells in your body, somewhere.  They might get killed off by the regulating systems, but they might lurk in the woods and eventually stage a coup like Communists in Czechoslovakia (I figured I'd go with that metaphor as it's unlikely to offend since they don't make Czechoslovakians anymore).
More to the point, can radiation trigger cancer? Yes.  Can cell phones? As I said above, the WHO says it's possible, but doesn't go much further than that.  I say, what't can't cause it?  With a definition so broad and triggers so delicate in their understanding, I doubt that something as benign (pun intended) as drinking purified water hasn't (or at least, couldn't) caused cancer.  While I quickly concede that cell phones are a relatively modern phenomenon, I don't think we're strangers to radiation or its ill effects, and on that basis I'm thinking no, cell phones aren't likely to cause cancer (after all, ionizing radiation doesn't cause cancer except in extreme doses), and neither are power lines or televisions or microwaves. But the final say, e.g, evidence, is still out.  Check with me in the next 20 years, there may be new developments on that front.
For now, even staying away from proven carcinogens, there's no way to avoid cancer entirely.  The best studies have shown no correlation, and cell phones are far too useful to discard on such ephemeral bits of caution.  So eat, text and be merry, for we all probably already have cancer.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Bronies: Trolling is Magic.

Bronies are a new phenomenon that are currently sweeping through the internet, and I have little doubt that before long they will reach "critical mass", spilling over into popular culture and making their way into the everyday mainstream.  They might never be accepted (ask Star Trek/Wars geeks), but they do seem to be around for a while, and I'm fairly confident they're in for the long haul.  I think it's presumptuous to call it a movement, but for simplicity I will throughout this post.
For those few of you who don't know what Bronies are, they're just adults that enjoy the TV show My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic.  Well, maybe they're adults who enjoy it a little too much.  There are lots of YouTube videos made by these guys- and there's a lot of talent and imagination in the crowd.  It's a very large movement- Anthony Bourdain, Former President Bill Clinton, Stephen Colbert, Rebecca Watson are all either Bronies or have publicly endorsed it.  I have a friend who hated the movement a little bit too much, and before long he realized he had "become" one.  He described the transformation as more like he had a realization- he realized, he didn't want to be one but he was, and he just had to accept it.
I'm not sure I buy it.  I've watched an episode or two, and they're OK, I mean, no different from the Simpsons (except for clearer, lower pitched dialog, no pretense at being a kids show, and generally unambiguous messages about life, the universe, and everything), but nothing I could ever consider throwing myself behind.  Not because it isn't cool, because it just doesn't do anything for me.  Then again, I'm not a big fanboy, period.  I admit to an unfair appreciation of the Final Fantasy series, but mostly because it has deep, emotional ties in my childhood.  I like the Elder Scrolls, but the games are not without their significant flaws, I just enjoy the general freedom in play.  I never made up my mind between Kirk and Picard, Skywalker or Solo.  I just don't invest myself enough in media to change my daily life.  I enjoy Spock and Riker when I see them as much as I enjoy Voldemort or Dexter.  They're all just characters, and whether or not there's new stuff coming out, they're still just that, fictional characters I care next to nothing about.  I don't draw lines, or make judgments, I take them at face value.  As far as that goes, I don't care much for Fluttershy or Twilight Sparkle, but I can appreciate the ideas behind.  I can totally see the movement.  I just can't get behind it, anymore than I could any of the nation's other greatest fads.  I really enjoyed Army of Darkness (and the Evil Dead movies that came first), not enough to stand "behind" them, on any issues.
And those would-be-(if-I-were-talking)-air-quotes are, I think, the crux of this movement.  What are the requirements for entry into this movement?  Is it just an appreciation for MLP:FIM?  Is it just enough to acknowledge they're a good show, much like the Powerpuff Girls or The Adventures of Billy and Mandy or Invader Zim (I think it's evident I could go on)?  Or does it take more?  I'm asking, I don't presume to know the answer, and as I have only one contact in the Broniverse (to my knowledge, that term is copyright by me.  Originality is, after all, undiscovered plagiarism) I can't say with any certainty, but I do suspect  something more is required ("You're not a real Brony!").  An obsession with the culture.  And, as with House, Dexter, American Dad or Castle, I can't say I obsess.  I watch all these shows regularly, but I don't even engage in conversation about them, except for the occasional small-talk.  So I'm not a Brony, but there are a couple of sub-movements my friend has mentioned- maybe there's something .
The Pegasisters are Bronies who object to the idea that the term Brony is masculine.  If you've read my previous posts, you may be aware how pathetic I feel this argument is.  Many of them either feel men either shouldn't watch or should be ashamed of watching MLP.  It probably goes without saying that I find the needlessly sexist behavior off-putting if I'm feeling generous, and discount them without a second thought.  Many Pegasisters just refer to themselves as such because they aren't crazy about the title "Brony", given its obviously male implications.  I have no problem with them.
Then there are the Shippers, they write fanfiction (or sometimes just post/comment publicly, maybe make a Youtube video), usually romantic in nature, between characters in the series.  Consider "Huddy" fans, of House fame, people who publicly postulated that Drs. House and Cuddy should be (or were already) together in some romantic relationship, long before one actually started in the show.  Like the rest of the Brony movement, I have no problem with people writing fanfiction, even if it's of the romantic variety.  Practicing creativity is a good thing, and if some dragon-pony affair tweaks your muse, then so be it.  I won't read it, but I won't begrudge them for doing what they want.
Some mainstream Bronies don't take kindly to it, which is a little odd.  Their argument has to look something like:
Brony: "You wrote a story about Rainbow Dash and Applejack getting together?  That's weird."
Shipper: "That's weird?  I wrote a story about something I enjoy."
B: "Yeah, but they're cartoons.  And ponies."
S: "And?  I'm being creative."
B: "But it's a kids' show, and that weirds me out."
S: "So, you feel about me the way the rest of the world feels about you."
B: "Well played."  >.>
I admittedly haven't watched enough of MLP:FIM to get a good idea of exactly who it applies to, but they exist, and they draw some line there.  Again, I think it's a silly line to draw, but in any cult following, you end up with shippers, and you end up with "normal" members of the obsessive group disliking them.
My Brony friend doesn't think anything analogous to the Brony movement exists.  I don't think it's unique in any way.  Like any cult following of, well, anything (The Rocky Horror Picture Show comes to mind), it's a culture where people can meet each other and have a common ground.  Like 4chan and Reddit, some of the people within the movement are obscenely talented, and they put together technically impressive videos, or sometimes animate their own spin-offs which are nearly identical to the original.
I don't know what to expect from this movement.  Personally, I'm not overly impressed.  My friend seems to think it's a completely unique development, but I think I've shown it's nothing new, just a new object of fandom.  It's another movement, we'll watch it surge, wither and finally discover a sustainable homeostasis, eventually earning a solid position in society.  Or not.
What's the difference between Bronies and Twilight fans? (Team Rainbow Dash or Team Pinkie Pie?) Demographics, I'm guessing, and there's probably considerable overlap.  Being a Brony is just a level of fandom that started, I think, as a troll, and ended up with people legitimately enjoying what is nominally a kids' show, and spreading the magic to others (ie., growing the fan base).  But like most modern kids' shows, there are plenty of adult jokes embedded in the story.  It's clearly a charming, enjoyable show, and I don't think there's anything wrong with enjoying it.  Or obsessing about it.  Whatever dills your pickle.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

More on Sexism

Misogyny/Sexism is a huge topic, and plays into many other, and often broader realms of human rights.  In my last post, I talked primarily about Male Privilege and defined my terms for the upcoming discussion.  Like Star Wars, the sequels will be better- I can spend less time focusing on definitions and more on actually discussing.  This time, I'm going to take a look at the sex work industry (prostitution, stripping, phone sex, BDSM, etc.,) and how it plays (or doesn't play) into human trafficking.  There will be milk and cookies later.
Sex Work is an unusual industry.  Partially or completely outlawed by religious moralists centuries ago, it has continued to exist and even thrive till modern times.  Prostitution is often referred to as the first profession, and it may well be the last.  It's interesting that such a storied industry would be so reviled, poorly understood, and discouraged.  The concerns are unsurprising- most of us were raised with them, explicitly or otherwise- and those are morality (it's wrong to visit a stripper!) and human rights (they're forced into their position and by paying for services you are furthering their misery).
As morals are individual values, they're much harder to dispense with, but we'll return to them (maybe not in this post).  First, lets look at human rights, because these are serious concerns.  Now, here I think it's critical to divide them into legitimate concerns and unfounded ones.  The legitimate concerns are human slavery and pedophilia, where the person, usually a woman, is forced into some kind of sexual service against her will (or if she's too young to consent).  The illegitimate are the reasons along the lines of "She hates her work and she can't get a better job."  Sorry, but pity isn't something any whole class of people deserve (except maybe interns).  Fry cooks, accountants, geologists and gaffers may all have shitty jobs they may or may not be able to get away from, but we don't pity them.  And we certainly don't abstain from french fries, tax advice, mineral samples or TV shows in solidarity.  They might hate their jobs, they might love their jobs, or they might be indifferent, but it doesn't automatically follow that they shouldn't be doing their jobs, or that it's any of our business.
Human trafficking is a huge concern.  Lives and families are destroyed every single day by conniving slave traders duping the hopeful into selling themselves, or worse, opportune kidnappers stealing their lives without even the courteous veneer of guile.  This manifests itself in modern times in various ways, but two of the most common signs are a poor command of the local language and exorbitantly low prices for a generally high-quality service or product (so that used-car dealer on the radio...).  The language is important, because they may not be able to explain to their clients, or to the police, just what is happening to them.  They might think it's legitimate- many are told they need to work off their debt of additional expenses incurred- oh, did I mention that many of these people buy themselves into slavery?  They go to a person who is selling, say, a new life in America for a fee.  They scrape and save to put this money together, and then do the deal.  They aren't necessarily trusting saps, either- they're often just desperate, and the scumbags who do it for a living (a nauseatingly lucrative one) are very skilled salesmen.
It seems like there's an exception to everything I've been writing so far, and that is probably the only constant.  The slave labor could be anything from prostitution to car washing, from maid-service to clerical work.  And you'd never know because you don't see them, or you wouldn't be in a situation to talk to them (and even if you were, there would be a language barrier).  To make matters worse, many of the activities they are being forced to do are illegal for the consumers, and make it even less likely that anyone who does spot the problem will actually alert the authorities.
With human trafficking, there are things that you can do without coming off like an arrogant prig.  One is, if you suspect something fishy, call this number (There's also a lot of other info on the site regarding human trafficking).  You can be anonymous if you choose.  Some things to watch for, besides your Creepy sense tingling, are people who work very long hours, act strangely, or owe large debts.  Boarded up windows are also a bad sign.
My biggest piece of advice here, I think, can serve to improve just about any relationship: Care.  Don't pity.  Don't judge.  Care.  Treat each other with respect, and more than just a token.  If someone works for you, whether employee or freelance, waitress or accountant, stripper or landscaper, get to know them on at least a superficially personal level.  Give them the dignity they deserve as a human being.  You'll get better service, and hey, you might just save a life.
More to come.

Monday, January 9, 2012


Feminism, and usually soon after, sexism, keep coming up lately in both my personal life and on the interwebs.  I have some strongly held beliefs on the topics, which I find are seldom represented elsewhere, if at all.  I am a feminist, though many feminists I know will disagree with me.  So, let me climb into my asbestos suit before I continue.
First, let me define my terms.  In a nutshell, feminism is the the belief that both all genders are equal.  It is not women-are-superior-to-men-in-every-single-way-ism, which also appears and fits into the broader category of sexism, one gender being better than the others.  Again, I'm simplifying (read: Wikipedia disagrees with me) but these definitions are sufficient for the discussion at hand.
A trickier term to define is privilege.  As the name implies, privilege is always beneficial for the person being described.  Privilege is also usually invisible, in this context, to the person benefiting from it, such that unless I compare myself to someone outside of my group, I won't notice it.  For instance speaking English has many benefits; these benefits could collectively be referred to as the privilege of English Fluency (or something similar).  One benefit  is that it's much easier to find a job in the US.  It may not seem obvious, if you speak English in the US, but try not speaking it, but if you look into many workplaces, even without the confounding factor of discrimination, people who speak English just understand someone who also speaks English better.  They follow directions better- even if they're less intelligent, because they have a common ground. The Tower of Babel myth comes to mind.
Privileges come with all sorts of classes, whether something biological, as good looks, social, as speaking English, or through accomplishment, like being the CEO to a Fortune 500 company, possibly language as well.  All of these things have their privileges, but as a buzzword in discussions regarding feminism, privilege refers to the rights/benefits/entitlements of men, solely based on their gender, generally referred to as Male Privilege.
OK, now that the tiresome work of defining terms is done, lets talk about the debate.  It's a heated topic, with people on both sides making logical mistakes they'd almost never make in other areas of their life.  Ad Hominem attacks are common- "You think women have it easy?  You're just a misogynist."  "You want me to change my behavior?  You're a feminazi." (FemiNazi is also frequently said with a self-satisfied chortle, as though they invented the term themselves). These are brilliant people- but they seem to expect simple solutions to complex situations.  And sexism is a convoluted situation.
Consider for a moment this checklist.  Many items on it are legitimate.  Most are.  If you're a male, I highly encourage you to read through it for a bit- it's quite instructive.  There are a lot of things which are skewed in our favor, simply because of our apparent gender.  But there are some that smack of over-reaching (#23, for instance).  And some that are just outright wrong (#13, 20); they could be pleas for sympathy, attempts to flesh out an otherwise remarkable list, or something somewhere between these two- I wouldn't go so far as to say they are deliberately deceptive, however.
What I find most remarkable about the list is the absence of female privilege. If we're being fair-minded, for instance, #4, (from the point of view of a male) "If I fail in my job or career, I can feel sure this won’t be seen as a black mark against my entire sex’s capabilities." A significant corollary, indeed one thing that terminates many careers for men, is that there are 20 times as many males in prison as females.  For no reason other than birth, I am 20 times more likely to go to prison than half of the US population.  #22 mentions driving discrimination, but it remains mum on 9% lower insurance. Or #33 "I will never be expected to change my name upon marriage or questioned if I don’t change my name." Changing your name after marriage is viewed askance at the very best or is illegal at worst- if you're male.
My point here isn't to nitpick (though believe me, I want to nitpick, it's sort of my thing), but to gently point these things out.  There are some very good biological reasons for some of the privilege- and some awful social ones.  There are some based in social culture that aren't based in animosity toward women.  Awareness is important, but once that awareness is raised, we need to reasonably recruit the other side to listen to our points of view.  Being a dick (take that, #29) doesn't advance anyone's cause, and for the most part, aside from the most hostile parties on either side, we want some measure of equality, and we're probably willing to listen. That said, fricking listen.  Progress comes much more slowly from a never-ending series of self-destructive collisions.
In large part, sexism is the result of a series of social constructs generally built around the way we have lived for centuries.  Much of them can be dispensed with in a generation or so- the wrongheadedness about women not being able to vote, or marry, or drive, or show their ankles, these have all gone by the wayside.  And, in large part, they needed help from progressively-minded folks.
Chivalry is a favorite point of non-feminists.  They like to talk about holding open doors.  Many of the extreme feminists took this to the other extreme, making a point of opening the door themselves.  What changes?  If you don't want to be pampered, well, it's going to take a lot more than opening your own doors to do it.  (On a sinking ship, I wonder, would the same impulse be as strong to allow whoever was first in line to the lifeboats?) Personally, I hold the door for anyone, because you're (except for the one turtle) a human being.
But this discrimination has a good point, biologically!  The general idea that women's life is more important than male life is true, biologically-speaking.  A population can have its males decimated (literally divided in ten) and continue to survive, reproducing the numbers back to 50/50.  Do the same thing to the female population and it's nearly certain extinction within a couple of generations.  Nature makes us different.  There's nothing wrong with embracing that difference.  And when there are more important battles to be fought out there, the frustrating thing is watching smart people butt heads over it day in and day out with no gains made, when deep down they're both rational and intelligent and want the same (ultimate) thing- a better place to have more arguments.
My advice?  Take care of other people's rights.  There are plenty of places where people love each other and can't marry, where people don't love each other and can't divorce, and brilliant minds that can't get an education.  I'll hold the damn door if I want to.  I'm not doing it to be superior, I'm doing it because I like turtles.  If it offends you, let me know, and I'll let it close in your face the next time- because that wouldn't be rude.  And, for the love of Thor, leave the English language out of it.  But that is a post for another day.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012


I'm not one to talk politics here, I generally try to stick to Science(!) as a topic, but SOPA has me bothered.  It has bi-partisan support and opposition, so I urge you to read this with an open mind, regardless of how wrongheaded you are ;-)

Most of the time, with issues this polarizing, it’s easy to figure out, after a fairly cursory look, which side is just out of their heads.  Then you can kind of find a middle ground, somewhere usually on, or at least towards the opposite side.  Here, it took a lot more work, but only because I remembered how awful the DMCA was for we hobbyist programmers who weren’t interested in pirating movies but, under the new regulations, would be facing a federal crime writing our own DVD playing program for our own personal use.  So, the last time politicians were trying to stop piracy, personal liberty and innovation took a hard blow, and the shrill arguments against this year’s incarnation of Governments Against Rampant Piracy rang truer than they often would.  Reading about the Stop Online Piracy Act wasn’t going to get me any closer to the answers, either.  So I choked down the full text of the SOPA, and I can tell you this: it is chock-a-block full of loopholes and vagaries, which are good for at least two types of people: lawyers and pirates.
On their face, the opposition of SOPA may as well be doomsday prophets, and while I doubt it will go that far personally, it actually could.  Not all the way to doomsday, obviously (Mayans have that covered), but their claims are far from as far-fetched as I'd like.
There are two problems here, and they are, I think, fundamental to understanding the problem SOPA tries to stop.  First, pirates are motivated, and not just by not spending money- many are ideologues who have embraced freedom of speech or something similar as their vanguard, armored in self-righteousness and fighting the good fight, thriving on the persecution layered upon them.  Some are just motivated by the challenge, others by the sheer thrill of breaking the law.  But they all have strong personal reasons (strong, not necessarily good or right) for doing what they do.  And, as mentioned above, they often thrive on their persecution, but more importantly, they survive it; they learn how to strike from the shadows.  They learn how not to get caught.
Legal vagueness (along with plenty of off-shore servers eagerly awaiting paltry sums of American dollars) only helps them evade capture- and while this bill does an admirable job of attempting to ensure quick action, they would be caught up in a legal quagmire as thousands of reports rolled in, many legitimate sites, all of which would have to be sorted through and individually shot down as being illegal.  Then those very sites, particularly the pirate sites, would spring up again, days or even hours later, under a new IP address, and they would have to be rooted out again.  Meanwhile, the legitimate sites would be frozen, and may or may not be agile (or too law-abiding) to simply switch to a new server.  Let’s not even look at the biggest points of concern- places like Youtube and Facebook- where even uploading a 30 second clip of a copyrighted song could get you shut down, because the good senator assures us that those sorts of sites have “have nothing to be concerned about.” If there’s anything we can trust, it’s the assurances of an American politician.  Just like the WMDs in Iraq or Gitmo being closed.
Besides legal vagueness, the biggest problem with SOPA is it violates the Presumption of Innocence (generally considered, if not explicitly stated, as a Constitutional right).  Good intentions are wonderful -there are plenty to see from the hand-basket, I hear- but they don’t substitute for the burden of proof resting with the accuser.  Under SOPA, I could claim your site was peddling illegally reproduced photography, dispatch a series of letters attesting to this “fact” and the ISPs would have to blacklist your site.  Then you would have to demonstrate you weren’t the purveyor of purloined pictures, and in the intervening timeframe, your site would remain blocked.  And by demonstrate, you would have to prove a series of credentials- including signing a letter under threat of perjury- that you were indeed not intentionally doing this activity.  Of course, if I’m wrong, it’s just my bad.  No penalties on my end.  But you, the defender, could inadvertently perjure yourself; you could end up with a heavy fine or even jail time.
On the other hand, common people don’t usually benefit from vagueness either; in my above example, mean-spirited or ideologically opposed individuals could silence entire companies because, well, maybe they didn’t say Christmas enough and they wanted to make baseless accusations of copyright infringement.  With proposed laws like SOPA, it’s not hard to exploit them for selfish reasons.
Another telling fact is that the support consists mostly of RIAA and movie companies, a few video game companies, along with a bunch of politicians (list of companies here).  Opposition consists of almost everyone else (Google, Facebook, Twitter, can't find an exhaustive listing, but here are 40+, and a startling number of musical artists [yes, it is with heavy heart I admit to being in the same camp as Justin Bieber on something]).
I’m not saying that we should give up trying to defeat piracy, but when hare-brained schemes like SOPA come along trying to do it, it seems a good enough option.
Of course, saying something is a bad idea is easy; coming up with options to fix the problem aren’t, and I don’t claim to have all the answers.  On piracy, I would say that games have managed to bounce back well from it- online services like Steam and other systems do very well at limiting a rampant phenomenon.  But they don’t do it by making it any more illegal- they do it by making it less interesting.  They’ve leveraged the social aspect of video games to make an environment where most people want to pay so they can play with their friends without limitation.  Exactly how movies and music could do that, I’m not sure, but unless the RIAA and the movie companies start trying something new instead of lobbying for more and more draconian legislation, nothing is going to change.

I am not a lawyer.  I read the text of the Stop Online Piracy Act here, and you can too.

Sunday, January 1, 2012


First of all, Happy New Year!  Just think, a year ago, the earth was in the same relative position to the sun as it is today.  (Of course, we could say that any day of the year and be completely accurate; there's nothing remarkable about 1 Jan astronomically speaking, though 22 Dec is pretty neat).
Today I wanted to talk about radiation.  There was a bit of an outcry during the Fukushima disaster, which triggered a lot of conversation and somewhat less thought on the topic, but what prompts this writing is something slightly more personal.  I have a friend who is considering taking a job at Holloman AFB, which is in Alamogordo, NM, and also happens to be the site of multiple atomic and nuclear weapons tests.  He has a child, and the idea of being raised near a potentially hot radioactive site is understandably problematic.
The first thing we should remember about radiation damage is that it's cumulative- it "metabolizes" very, very slowly, and can quickly build to toxic levels (Rads in the Fallout series are fairly accurate, if only in this respect.  In fact, I think I'll use the term).  Being exposed to 100 Rads all at once is only slightly more dangerous than being exposed to 10 Rads a day for 10 days.  And by Rads, I actually mean milli-Sieverts, or mSv.  Rads just sounds more... rad.
At Alamogordo, at the Trinity site, the radiation level at ground zero pings at about 10 times the background rate.  At first, that sounds threatening, but I wasn't sure what the background rate was- and it turns out, on average, the yearly consumption of Rads for anyone just living in our society is about 2.  So, if you camped out on ground zero at Alamogordo for a full year, you'd receive a cumulative dose of 20 Rads.
Still, this doesn't put things in perspective, and for that I came across a handy reference from the World Nuclear Association.  I won't reproduce it here, but there's also a good table here, down towards the bottom.
What I'd like to highlight are specifically the thresholds- after 100 Rads, over the course of a year, there's some increased chance of cancer.  It says it's about 5%.  To get this from Alamogordo, you'd have to camp out at ground zero for an entire year running chest x-rays twice a day, and even then you'd have a 95% chance of walking away with no ill effects (well, besides law enforcement constantly trying to stop you from trespassing, and the owner of the x-ray machine convinced you're trying to void his warranty).
50 Rads per year, for techs that work in the industry, is the legal limit for professional exposure, and there are no discernible effects on health at this level (they are as likely to be beneficial as not).
But that's just at ground zero.  Alamogordo is a healthy distance south, and the interesting thing is the fallout never reached it- the explosion carried north and west.
 Trinity Fallout Map
It's almost entirely certain to be safe to live in; as for being a place you'd want to live, well, you'll have to make up your own mind.  It is New Mexico, after all, and it's a small town, not unlike Altus, OK.
Finally, I'd like to end with a quote from the WNA linked to above.  Radiation is dangerous, but even more dangerous is the misunderstanding of radiation.  "In 1986 the Chernobyl nuclear accident caused a few (preventable) deaths from thyroid cancer and massive psycho-social impact due to relocation of over 100,000 people, mostly unnecessarily. (It also caused 28 to 47 deaths among clean-up workers who received high radiation exposure.) For members of the public, fear of radiation was much more devastating than radiation itself."