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How Tax Policy Drives Quirky Compensation July 24, 2014

Posted by federalist in Taxation.
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In some European countries tax rates are so high that there are vibrant parallel “black-market” economies.

But you don’t have to go to the Old World to see this. Distortions of healthcare markets by the tax code are something with which most Americans are familiar.

California has treated us to some more salient examples:

Even moderate income families in California can face marginal tax rates that approach 50%. When an employer tries to pay a worker one more dollar, the employee takes home slightly more than 50 cents. Most employee benefits, however, are tax free. That means that the benefit could be worth half its cost and still be a good deal for the employees.

Laser-corrected optics June 28, 2014

Posted by federalist in Uncategorized.
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This is just cool:
Four Lasers over Mauna Kea

This article describes how the Keck Observatory uses 40W laser pulses to measure atmospheric disturbance, which can then be reduced by changing the shapes of segmented 10-meter telescope mirrors and post-processing the resulting images.

Of course you can’t just go firing 40W lasers willy-nilly into the sky — the FDA considers any visible laser with output greater than 5mW to be hazardous — so the observatory has some interesting safety measures in place:

Our Federal Aviation Administration–approved approach to aircraft safety is to have two spotters outside during all laser operations, with switches to shutter the laser. We also have an IR camera boresighted to the laser that will automatically shutter the laser in the event of aircraft detection.

Prior to each laser observing run, a list of targets and their observation times is faxed to the Laser Clearinghouse at the US Space Control Center. The Space Control Center faxes back a list of any required blackout periods, to avoid illuminating satellites.

Government Competition Update May 18, 2014

Posted by federalist in Government, Government Regulation, Markets.
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What remains of state sovereignty in this country is both entertaining and heartening.

Of course state competition for business has a long history. Before government became a distinguishing factor businesses would often establish themselves based on access to needed natural resources, labor, and markets. Gradually each state’s tax and regulatory burden became a significant part of that equation. Now the political environment itself is becoming an explicit factor.

For example, the last round of gun control hysteria had quite disparate results. States that enacted draconian new gun laws have found themselves losing firearm businesses to more friendly states.

More recently the CEO of a California company complained publicly that its government is becoming reminiscent of the communist Vietnam he fled 35 years ago. Texas is one of the states that has been reaching out to companies with this compelling invitation from its governor:

Texas’ low taxes, predictable regulations, fair courts and world-class workforce make our state the ideal place for any business looking to relocate or expand….

Government Shakedowns May 4, 2014

Posted by federalist in Government Regulation, Markets.
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He knows that it’s cheaper to settle than it is to fight this investigation.

Most government shakedowns don’t get coverage like this in the Wall Street Journal. But then, as the FERC lawyers paraphrased above noted, most people realize it’s cheaper and easier to just settle.

In its legitimate role the government enforces clear laws and applies well-defined penalties to lawbreakers. In practice the government has promulgated so many laws that they are uncountable. Executive agencies ostensibly ordained to enforce these laws then compound them with rules and regulations so extensive and opaque that even expert enforcers often cannot say with certainty what is or is not permitted.

I have previously noted that the greatest peril of this situation is selective enforcement. I have since observed a more nefarious phenomenon: the government shakedown.

What motivates regulators in a system in which one can argue that virtually anyone is doing something wrong? Criminal convictions for clear violations of the law are great, certainly. But evidently when it’s too hard to find or convict criminals the next best thing for a regulator is a settlement. And, like all gangsters, the government goes after people with money.

I’ve seen this from traffic courts to tax assessors to market regulators: Pick an amount that is low enough that the target will decide it’s cheaper to settle than to fight. When you run out of criminals start with the wealthy, or just pull people over at random. Threaten them with laws and rules that may not even exist. Find the highest number they’ll pay to avoid further hassle, and if they turn out to be fighters just close the case and move on to the next target. There are no penalties for government enforcement agents who engage in such harassment. On the contrary, it seems, they are rewarded for “settlements” even if no wrongdoing was admitted or even committed. And since shakedowns are easier than full-scale prosecutions that could be lost under the judicial scrutiny of the courts and juries it often appears that enforcers would rather accumulate these token settlements than pursue the hard criminals they were created to take down.

We need more public scrutiny of the everyday government shakedown. And we need more people like the Gates brothers to stand up and say, “Even though it’s cheaper for me to pay you to leave me alone, I’m going to fight you because what you are doing is wrong.”

Is Silicon Valley Ironic? March 23, 2014

Posted by federalist in Human Markets, Markets, Open Questions.
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I’ve had a number of friends over the years go to Silicon Valley (SV) to pursue opportunities in technology and finance. SV has a unique entrepreneurial culture, and I have seen second-hand how, once you’re plugged in, you have first call on talent, funding, and ideas.

I find this ironic because so much of the output of SV has been products and services that eliminate physical location as a barrier to production and collaboration. Yet there’s still no substitute for being there in person: absent a physical presence you’re an outsider. Unless you can show up in person you’re mostly excluded from the discussions, ventures, and partnerships that form in face-to-face meetings.

Is this an expression of a human social instinct that technology won’t be able supplant? Or is it just an expression of the path of least resistance: I.e., since so much of the money and talent is willing to make the physical move there it’s just not worth the trouble, however small, to engage someone remotely?

Why don’t I just move out there? Yes, the cost of living is exorbitant. But if you’re any good you’ll make enough money to compensate. Besides, as one outdoorsy friend said referring to the perfect year-round climate: that’s the price for living in heaven.

But there’s a second irony: the government. My understanding is that the dominant ideology of the SV tech/finance world is libertarian, yet they elect to live under the most heavy-handed state government in America. All evidence I’ve seen suggests this is in spite of, not because of, that government: just look at the number of entrepreneurs and companies that setup operations outside of the state at every opportunity. Yet the core of this capitalist engine still operates from within a political regime that seems to despise wealth and free markets.

Yes, I could leave all my CA-illegal guns in a free state. But I chafe at the idea of “voting with my feet” for such a bad government. Granted, California is still something of a constitutional democracy, so because in principle you have a marginal influence on its government joining its public body isn’t quite like handing your life and property to a totalitarian state.

Yes, there’s some level of compensation that would make it worth my while to move to an expensive and politically oppressive place like that. Evidently my price is higher than most.

EMTs and Doctors: Do you have a go bag? February 21, 2014

Posted by federalist in Healthcare, Open Questions, Uncategorized.
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This winter’s severe weather reminds us that emergency infrastructure isn’t always available. Even in populated areas a severely injured person could be stranded for days. Fortunately, medical technicians and specialists live amongst us. Unfortunately, many I have talked to don’t take emergency preparedness as seriously as they could.

If you are a medical technician and you found yourself stranded with an injury you’re trained to treat, would you have the tools you need? Typical first aid kits do not contain the following essential tools any EMT can use to save lives and limbs:

  • Airway management devices (OPAs or NPAs)
  • IV catheters and solutions
  • Hypodermic syringes and injectable lidocaine and adrenaline
  • Sutures
  • Obstetric kits

What if you’re stranded for days and have to handle and stabilize emergencies from anyone within walking distance? If you have surgical training wouldn’t you rather have general anesthetics, chlorhexidine, scalpels, and hemostats than have to try to improvise them?

Think of your training, and then think of what you could store in small “go bags” kept in your house and vehicle that you might wish you had on hand when hospitals, stores, and ambulances are hours or days away.

New TV Series: Chicago PD – Win; Intelligence – Fail January 12, 2014

Posted by federalist in Uncategorized.
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Not too long into the first episode of Chicago PD some police roll up on the apartment of a suspect, get out of their cars, and immediately take gunfire from a window. The sergeant on scene shouts, “Get the long guns,” so they holster their pistols and pop their trunks to grab their rifles before going into the building. Finally!

Contrast that with the pilot of Intelligence: America’s single most valuable intelligence asset, a soldier named Gabriel whose brain they’ve managed to meld with wifi and internet access, is also being sought by the Chinese who want to steal the technology and implant it in their own agents. No, this premise isn’t the bad part (and it worked well in the action comedy Chuck). The government wisely assigned a single Secret Service agent to protect Gabriel — the person, not the priceless technology, mind you — as he takes to the field to unravel the plot. Not long into the first episode he follows some leads to a Chinese gang compound connected with the plot. Even as he is told that a tactical team is minutes away, and even though there is no urgency whatsoever, he and his bodyguard decide to raid the compound. With handguns.

My wife is inclined to cut our losses when we see something start so poorly, but I couldn’t believe a major production company could bungle a full-budget series this badly and then have a major network pick it up as their midseason centerpiece. Apparently they can: Everything from casting to screenwriting was awfully amateurish and unredeemed by anything. So we slogged through the remainder of the episode with me intermittently exclaiming, “How does this make it through a script reading?” and, “Why do they spend money producing such crap?”

Chicago PD, on the other hand, showed all the makings of a top-shelf police drama. I guess when producers and actors pay attention to details like tactics it’s a sign they know what they’re doing?

Update: Chicago PD was something of a bait-and-switch. In all later episodes the stars use handguns almost exclusively. Even when heading into a confrontation with bad guys known to be wearing body armor.

I was recently talking to an experienced Hollywood armorer about this and he explained that directors don’t like to give the stars long guns because it’s harder to show their faces. And most viewers don’t care about the difference: A gun is a gun.

Re: Desert Tech Pakistan Contract — me too! January 8, 2014

Posted by federalist in Markets, RKBA.
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Desert Tech (formerly Desert Tactical Arms), a small Utah gun manufacturer, grabbed national headlines when it announced it wouldn’t pursue a $15MM RFP for small arms for Pakistan. Never mind that Desert Tech can barely meet domestic demand for their guns: they boasted that not pursuing the contract had nothing to do with their probability of winning or fulfilling it, and everything to do with their ethical concerns about their pricey bolt-action rifles somehow falling into the hands of enemies of American.

Which is funny, because I recently faced a very similar dilemma: The Pakistani government is looking for elite American technology strategists to enhance their infrastructure. Naturally I would make any short list for those roles, but given the turmoil in the region I have decided that regardless of the personal cost I will forgo any such opportunities for fear that they might lead to situations that could compromise my stalwart American values. Like Desert Tech, I know it’s not always easy or profitable to stand by one’s principles. And I just want to make sure everyone knows that.

Also, due to its latest human rights abuses I had no choice but to publicly inform the Russian Olympic Committee that I will not license my image for any of their public-relations efforts. (The U.S. government hasn’t put my striking good looks on their export control list, but you know it’s only a matter of time.)

Hopefully my manifest willingness to put my patriotism and principles before profit won’t deter anyone else from approaching me with enormous consulting, contracting, or modelling offers.

Due Process Update: NFA Tax January 3, 2014

Posted by federalist in RKBA, Taxation.
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NSSF provides an update on the time it takes the ATF to send applicants a stamp showing they paid the $200 fee required to possess a suppressor or short-barrel rifle. They cash the check immediately upon receiving the application, but they just reported that average wait times to approve them are still averaging 9 months!

This is worse than it was last year.

The Beauty of Bounties November 8, 2013

Posted by federalist in Markets, Uncategorized.
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Bounties for solving big or hard problems are not new. But they should be more common.

I was impressed to discover a data company (SNL) that issues cash rewards to anyone who finds errors in their data. Based on my experience not many data vendors could afford to do that! So it serves the dual purposes of advertising their quality and ensuring it. (And yes it’s real: I recently collected on a handful of errors uncovered during some tedious work.)

Many major information technology vendors have publicized substantial “bug bounty” programs for researchers who reveal serious security flaws in a gracious manner. (I.e., instead of exploiting their discoveries to attack, blackmail, or humiliate the companies, as is a sometimes attractive alternative.)

Another interesting “error bounty” is Donald Knuth’s, begun in 1968 for errors in his publications. I assume he began the program because he realized he had authored the most important reference texts in Computer Science, and he wanted them to stand worthy of the role. Obviously the scientific community agrees, since the bounty check is minimal and rarely even cashed: Evidence of earning it is far more prestigious.

What’s on my DVR Update October 30, 2013

Posted by federalist in Uncategorized.
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Update to What’s on my DVR:

The show I most look forward to now is Person of Interest. Of all current TV series it manages to sustain the most realistic action and tactics. Engaging characters and screenwriting more than make up where those fall short. Plus, this season they’re developing a sophisticated machine-as-god subplot.

Blue Bloods has jumped onto the list after I caught up on previous seasons over the summer. Each episode its family of protagonists — NYC police commissioner, detective, beat officer, and district attorney — tell synergistic stories, so there’s plenty of substance and resolution. And viewers are virtually guaranteed a comforting knockout of moral relativism by Tom Selleck’s principled character. (Though to many New Yorkers that may be discomforting ;)

Elementary is not far behind. It manages to keep its plots from seeming overly-contrived, and Sherlock Holmes supplies enough quirky wit to compensate for any other shortcomings.

The Blacklist must have blown its budget on James Spader’s character, who is so delicious it’s worth slogging through the rest of the show just to catch any scene with him. The protagonista is an inexperienced FBI field agent, but the writers apparently don’t have experience or budget for FBI fieldcraft either, so she bounces through international terror cases supported by what must be the most understaffed, isolated FBI a libertarian could dream for.

Pseudoephedrine Update August 30, 2013

Posted by federalist in Healthcare, Markets.
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My wife takes pseudoephedrine continuously to control chronic allergies. When the Combat Methamphetamine Epidemic Act took effect in 2006 I noticed an across-the-board price increase in the generic formulations: 20-count packs of 12-hour pseudoephedrine went up about 50%. Perhaps this was justified because pharmacies were suddenly liable for extra training, control, and logging of sales of any medication containing pseudoephedrine.

The law made it a big pain to keep a supply of the medicine: Individuals are prohibited from buying more than 3.6gr/day. And strangely, the largest and most economical size packaged by pharmacies was kept at just 2.4gr. (The daily limits do not apply if you go through the trouble of getting a prescription for the drug.)

Costco has finally come to the rescue: They now sell 3.6gr of 12-hour Sudafed for $10, which takes advantage of the full daily limit and is the same price as 2.4gr of the generic 12-hour I’ve found at any other pharmacy.

Victims of the Meth Epidemic need not worry: For whatever it’s worth it’s still a misdemeanor to buy more than 9gr in a 30-day period.

Lazy Law Update June 26, 2013

Posted by federalist in Government Regulation.
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We already knew that there are so many laws that it is impossible to determine whether an individual is completely law-abiding. I was alarmed to learn that even if we restrict ourselves to criminal statutes, and only those promulgated by the federal government, we still can’t say who is not a criminal. Paul Rosenzweig dives into the subject after noting:

Even the Congressional Research Service can’t count the federal criminal laws.

Why Civilians Need Machineguns June 16, 2013

Posted by federalist in RKBA.
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Would civilians benefit from the right to keep and bear fully-automatic firearms (a.k.a. “select-fire” or “machine” guns)? I’ve raised this question with firearms tacticians in the past, and the most common answer is, “Probably not.” This answer is usually buttressed by three arguments:

  1. You can’t deliver hits any more quickly with full-auto fire. After the first shot of a full-auto burst the accuracy of an unmounted gun decreases due to recoil. Hence, agencies that issue select-fire weapons prefer that shooters train to deliver three-round bursts instead of barrages.
  2. Reloads, running out of ammo, or overheating your gun are all more likely to get you killed in a fire fight than the inability to deliver an adequate volume of fire.
  3. Modern military tactics only call for fully-automatic fire in squad scenarios. Civilians don’t normally travel in squads with the full battle loads necessary to sustain a firefight with automatic weapons. (Though a militia formed in a state of emergency probably would.)

And yet, there’s this disconcerting fact that the government, which has the option, generally chooses to equip its agents with select-fire weapons. I’ve reasoned before that the argument should end there: If it’s appropriate for government agents it’s appropriate for The People. But the question is still interesting.

One does not need a vivid imagination to conjure scenarios in which a civilian militia or family would benefit from fully-automatic firearms. In fact, most military doctrine for the use of full-auto fire from man-portable weapons involves defensive uses: “breaking contact” to retreat, “denying access” to an aggressor, and “final protective fire.” As discussed in that last article by Oleg Volk, any home or business that has been attacked by a mob would have benefited from the deterrent of a machinegun defense. (Nothing says “go away” like sweeping a sector with automatic fire.)

Even individuals can find themselves in situations warranting a maximum volume of fire. For example, aggressors often attack by ramming with vehicles. To stop an incoming vehicle that threatens your life or property you’d ideally place aimed fire through the windshield at the driver. But if the vehicle is approaching too quickly or the driver takes cover behind the engine you have to stop the vehicle itself, and that requires a barrage of fire: The faster you can shoot the greater your chances of stopping or diverting it.
(more…)

Helium: A Very Non-Renewable Natural Resource May 13, 2013

Posted by federalist in Energy.
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Where are the environmentalists when it really matters? They pitch fits about depleting natural resources, most of which are to some degree renewable or replaceable. Except for one in particular that is practically both irreplaceable and non-renewable: helium. And who shows up to lobby for the continued preservation of this natural resource? “A coalition including orthopedic surgeons, industrial welders and balloon makers….

Helium has a number of unique characteristics that make it indispensable to current industrial applications, and that seem likely to make it essential for future technologies. (Here’s one interesting backgrounder on the element.) Unfortunately those characteristics include exceptional levity and inertness, so when released into the atmosphere helium gradually evaporates into outer space. The only source of terrestrial helium is radioactive decay, which over eons has produced some natural concentrations in impermeable geological formations. When we drill into these formations for natural gas we often get small quantities of accumulated helium. Once we have tapped those pockets we’ll essentially be out of industrial quantities of helium. The prudent course of action, which the U.S. government has been leading, is to stockpile helium found during drilling in the Federal Helium Reserve. This Reserve just became profitable, which strangely required Congressional action to allow it to continue operations.

Higher Education Bubble Update May 9, 2013

Posted by federalist in Education.
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ACTA has been fighting against one of the enablers of the higher-education cartel, the Accreditors, for some time:

The six regional agencies that accredit the vast majority of America’s non-profit colleges and universities have miserably failed to ensure educational quality but continue to control access to federal student aid.

Meanwhile the free market continues to provide solutions to our higher education problems. The latest I came across is StraighterLine: A company offering inexpensive online courses guaranteed for credit towards an accredited advanced degree.

U.S. Government Crosses the Rubicon May 7, 2013

Posted by federalist in RKBA.
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Our country was founded on the premise that citizens should have the means to restrain and reform their government, by force if necessary. Implicit in this natural right, which was explicitly enumerated in the Bill of Rights, is the principle that the government has no authority deprive The People of arms, or to reserve more effective weapons to its agents for domestic use.

U.S. gun laws have long since crossed this line. The most salient example was the recent request by the Department of Homeland Security for 7000 Personal Defense Weapons. As the name of the RFP indicates these are the best modern weapons for personal defense. With some extremely expensive and limited exceptions, they are also off limits to citizens for three distinct reasons:

  1. They are compact (regulated as “Short Barrel Rifles”)
  2. They are “select-fire,” i.e. capable of fully-automatic operation
  3. They shoot “armor-piercing” bullets (a restricted category that was recently expanded to include a large segment of popular target bullet)

Government agents are allowed to procure and carry these arms for personal defense. As a practical matter, citizens are not. And any citizen caught in possession of a firearm with one of those three characteristics that has not been properly registered is aggressively prosecuted as a felon and punished with up to 10 years in prison and $250,000 in fines.

This is always a step in the evolution of tyranny.

Our Collective Duty to Individual Citizens April 30, 2013

Posted by federalist in Diplomacy.
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Something about this is profoundly disturbing: There is compelling evidence that an American student is among the foreigners kidnapped by North Korea. And our government appears to be doing its best to ignore the matter.

Granted, far more disturbing acts of violence and privations are committed every day, including in our own communities. But we naturally revolt against these crimes. To the degree possible we strive to deter, punish, and seek redress for the wrongs visited on our family, neighbors, fellow citizens, and fellow men. After all, if we were the unlucky victim we would hope and expect our fellows to come to our aid. And if we don’t respond to an aggressor we should expect the lack of response to embolden them (and others).

The more brazen an aggressor the greater our imperative to respond. When the aggressor is a rogue country like North Korea the crime, though committed against only one of our citizens, is an affront to every American. One of the explicit purposes for which we formed our government was to “provide for the common defence.” We should each take crimes like this personally, and we should collectively demand the same response we would hope for had a foreign criminal taken us captive.

Net Human Product and Our Purpose April 25, 2013

Posted by federalist in Economic Policy, Education, Government, Open Questions.
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There is a great Twilight Zone episode, “A Small Talent for War:” An alien emissary appears in the United Nations to announce that humans on Earth have not progressed as fast as they had hoped. We have a small talent for war and have wasted our time bickering over borders with crude weapons, far short of the “better things” for which they bred us. Therefore, they have resolved to terminate the experiment on this planet. The American ambassador pleads the case for humanity. The emissary agrees to give the world 24 hours, though he doubts anything can be done in so short a time. When he returns, the General Assembly proudly presents the emissary with a world peace treaty. He leafs through it and then laughs, explaining that their objective was for us to develop weapons and warriors to fight across the galaxy, not to merely to achieve peace amongst ourselves. The episode ends with alien destroyers descending on Earth.

This essay is a discussion of existential matters: Something that, after adolescence, few people stop to consider in any broad context. Discussion following my post on falling fertility raised the Grand Question: What is our Purpose? In the context of that post a successful human life was one that created positive net production in our global marketplace. That’s a fine measure if our Purpose can be expressed as economic activity. But can it? Is our goal as a species to build the maximum economic power? I.e., to produce the greatest possible value of goods and services, where value is defined by the market of individual human wants and needs? By default, and in actuality, the answer is yes.

But we fancy ourselves an “intelligent” species, and so we should not simply accept the evolved answer to the Grand Question: I.e., to what end should our species devote its resources? If the answer is “to satisfy our instincts” then as a species we seem no more intelligent than any other life form.

Are we intelligent life?

We know the key characteristics of all successful life: survival and reproduction. We are currently an apex predator on our planet. As a species we are the apex predator, so we’ve got that to our credit. But we are surrounded by other species that are more survivable than our own: We know there are planetary catastrophes that would extinguish our species but spare “lower” life-forms that can survive more extreme conditions and extended deprivations. So in terms of survival our species is relatively unremarkable.

We console ourselves with the fact that we are “intelligent.” This does indeed seem to be a rare thing: In our own fertile sphere we are unique in our capacity to invent tools, and to create, store, and transmit information. Furthermore, we have achieved reasonable mastery of electromagnetics, to the point where we can send bursts of information into deep space and scan for other life doing the same. Yet our ability to create and harness energy and matter on a meaningful scale is abysmal. We can only transmute elements in the tiniest quantities, and the total energy our species can unleash, even in an uncontrolled fashion, would barely make the faintest ripple in our local space-time fabric. So by some measures we might be extraordinarily intelligent, while by others we may be pathetic.

The rest of our specie’s activities are no more notable than that of any other locally successful life form. In fact, we know that we are only one unlucky gamma-ray burst or other stellar event away from being wiped from the face of existence. Truly successful life would not be so vulnerable.

Intelligent or not, a successful life form would be one that could project itself across interstellar spaces, in some manner able to reproduce and survive on a vastly larger, less precarious scale. Could we achieve such a thing? Almost certainly not in our corporal forms, which have evolved only to survive and reproduce in the fragile fringe of our home planet. But in theory we could build interstellar seeders: self-replicating, self-healing machines that trawl outer space and seed our form of life anywhere it can take root. Our seed sphere would grow slowly, limited by the speed with which our machines can travel, but still exponentially as frontier seeders transform ambient matter and energy encountered en route to spawn more seeders. Perhaps it is possible to design seed rays: packets of energy that, when they encounter matter of suitable composition, transform it into seeders. Though that sounds vastly more difficult, it would allow our seed sphere to grow at light speed.

As intelligent life shouldn’t such large-scale survivability be one of our goals? One might argue that the absence of such a capability is evidence that we are not “intelligent life.” Intelligence may include the ability to create tools and transmit information, but life that cannot alter its evolved behavior and nature to better pursue its objectives does not sound intelligent. And since survival is the most elementary characteristic of life we, as a species, are clearly coming up short.

This brings us back to the Grand Question: What is our Purpose? Nature has given us an evolved, or “default” answer, and that’s mostly what we’ve accepted: Our default Purpose is to maximize Gross Production and Production Capacity – economic measures that we can sample with reasonable accuracy. These measures have steadily increased throughout history. But they reflect predominantly individual interests, not the reasoned, collective interest of our species. For example, included in Gross Human Production today are such things as:
• The construction and maintenance of coastal cities below sea level
• Gold-plated palaces and jumbo jets for sheikhs to fly their extended family around to the world’s finest resorts
• Manicured golf courses where the wealthy and non-producing (“retired”) try to hit balls with high precision

We have enormous production potential, but what are we producing? If one assembled any group of humans and asked them to vote on worthwhile projects for their – or any other human’s – spare time would any of the above examples be on their list? The sad fact is that we, as a species, have no intelligent Purpose.

Does it take a visit from a xenocidal alien emissary? When faced with a clear and present threat we unite in large groups and concentrate our excess capacity on survival and achievement. Think of the unified action witnessed during the World War II and the Cold War. But no leadership seems capable of marshaling such a response to anything less clear and present. For example, know the consequences and probabilities of a large asteroid impact, but haven’t waged any significant effort to protect ourselves from possible extinction from one. And the threat of a nearby gamma-ray burst is so abstract and challenging that almost nobody addresses it.

I wish we could unite behind one or more “Net Human Products:” Something that humans collectively produce that increases over years and generations, and that our species could hold up and say, “Here is something we did besides just surviving and pursuing our instincts.”

There are, of course, philosophic and religious answers to the Grand Question, but I don’t think they make good measures of Net Human Product. In the most general terms, most measure human success as something like maximizing the number of people who achieve peace with their creator, themselves, and/or their surroundings. But these are human-centric measures: In the end, some number of human beings have lived and died, and some proportion did so in accord with any particular philosophy. That tally may make adherents feel good, and some philosophies may be conducive to higher Net Human Products, but either way they are at best a means, not an end in this discussion.

What do humans produce that endures? Civilization has produced remarkable terrestrial monuments, although over eons our watery planet will eventually erode these all into oblivion. We have managed to sling a few small artifacts out of our heliosphere. Aside from those the substantive human products that have the potential to survive every natural catastrophe and all the assaults of time are our culture and our technology: Everything that can be transformed into data, which can be replicated and beamed to arbitrary recipients at nearly zero cost. We might measure our Net Human Product in terms of the quantity and quality of that data, and the means we have to protect its integrity and longevity.

Maybe if we reconsider our collective objectives we will refocus our resources. For example, instead of spending tens of billions of dollars each year on professional sports, the demand for entertainment and product placement will shift attention towards teams of developers and their efforts to raise our Net Human Product.

Can we spark a “Moon-Shot” program on a global scale to make our species truly “intelligent” by addressing the shortcomings I mentioned earlier? Can we motivate individual human beings to join an urgent struggle to develop fusion energy and interstellar seeders? Can children go to school aspiring to study the STEM subjects that will enable those technologies? Can we go to sleep each night as worried that a gamma ray burst will obliterate us before we succeed, as we did during the Cold War that a nuclear holocaust would destroy everything we know and love?

Transportation Stupidity Administration — Part IV March 30, 2013

Posted by federalist in Transportation.
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Following September 11, 2001, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) was created to strengthen the security of the nation’s transportation systems and ensure the freedom of movement for people and commerce.  [tsa.gov/about-tsa]

My last post pointed out how stupid are the rules propagated by the massive “Transportation Security Administration.”  The purpose and practical operations of the TSA bear further scrutiny.  After all, the institution directly consumes around $10BB of government funds each year.  Its rules and activities impose even greater indirect costs in terms of delays and obstructions throughout the global transportation infrastructure.  The TSA also imposes enormous political and social costs, since in its zeal to pursue its mission it consistently infringes what were once considered fundamental human rights against unreasonable search and harassment by government agents.

Given the public image of the TSA, its official mission and vision are downright Orwellian:

Mission: Protect the Nation’s transportation systems to ensure freedom of movement for people and commerce.
Vision: Provide the most effective transportation security in the most efficient way as a high performing counterterrorism organization.

I assume the agency’s political reasoning goes something like this: “People who are afraid of terrorism targeting transportation systems will hesitate to use those systems to travel.  Therefore, our job is to minimize our citizens’ fear, so that their fear will not prevent them from using the Nation’s transportation systems.”  And this would explain a lot of stupid stuff the TSA does in practice.  “Security theater,” and all that jazz that supposedly makes people feel safer.

Never mind the fact that a lot of people object to what the TSA does, often to the degree that they avoid commercial air travel explicitly because of the TSA’s antics.*

As I will explain in a moment, the TSA can’t prevent or even significantly reduce acts of terrorism.  If the TSA were to honestly pursue its vision it would simply close up shop because, given the current threat environment, “the most effective transportation security” would be to leave us alone — let the travelling public and for-profit transportation companies take care of themselves.

Let us think, for a moment, like a terrorist.  Your goal is to generate fear and attention through random acts of mass mayhem.  You may be willing to die in the act, and you may be able to conspire with like-minded individuals.  Would you target commercial aircraft?  9/11 demonstrated that a heavy airplane can be turned into the most powerful conventional weapon you could hope for … if you’re able to take control of it.  9/11 also made that nearly impossible to repeat: Today you not only have to breach a fortified cockpit and overcome armed pilots, but also hold off a cabin full of people who realize they’re probably dead if you succeed.  If you’re able to pilot a heavy jet wouldn’t you rather face down the two or three guys in charge of one of those cargo planes at the far end of the airport?

So, with or without the TSA, you can’t turn a commercial aircraft into a guided weapon.  But what about destroying it?  If you can get a modest explosive on board and detonate it in flight you can kill a few hundred passengers and cost an insurer a few hundred million dollars.  You might cause further damage on the ground.  Sure enough, airplanes have been consistent targets for terrorist bomb plots over the years.  The TSA does not appear to have put a dent in either the number of attempts or in their rate of success.  After all, even the TSA admits of bombs, “These items are extremely hard to spot.”  So what does the TSA do?  More reactionary security theater: A bomber conceals explosives in his shoes, and now we all have to remove our shoes.  A plot is uncovered using liquid explosives, and now we can’t carry liquids through security barriers.  A bomber conceals explosives in his underwear, and now we all have to have our underwear groped.  None of these charades change the fact that the TSA passenger screening process cannot detect explosives.

In fact, even if you were strip-searched and had agents X-ray and paw every item in your carry-on luggage you could, with 100% certainty, make it through security with enough solid secondary explosive to buckle a heavy jet’s wing spar from a cabin seat.  The thing that seems to keep this from happening more often is the detonator, which is the trickiest part of a bomb.  But the TSA has no better chance at identifying a concealed detonator.  Apparently the only thing that keeps plane bombings from happening more frequently is that nobody who is good at building detonators is willing to kill himself, and somebody is preventing good detonators from getting into the hands of suicidal terrorists with airplane tickets.  TSA passenger security lines are not stopping airplanes from being bombed.

Still thinking like a terrorist: What if the TSA were effective?  What if the thing keeping your functional suicide bomb from instilling fear into the heart of the flying public was that long security line?  I wonder what would happen if you instead detonated your bomb right there in the middle of an airport on a peak travel day.  You could potentially kill as many people as you’d get on the plane.  You’d certainly wound many more.  And unlike on the plane, you might be able to slip away right after your bomb makes it to the center of mass and you trigger a detonator with a slight delay.  You might get away, or you might get caught, but either way you’d be alive and have all the publicity you could want.  I have a theory on why no terrorist has tried this: Because the TSA is already terrorizing the flying public.  What more could a terrorist hope for?  The diversion of more resources to a bureaucracy determined to harass and humiliate the flying public to the utmost tolerable extent?  Of course not.  The TSA is a grotesque, living reminder that terrorism works.

We don’t need the TSA.  If you’re a terrorist and you can build a bomb you’ll blow up an important building, bridge, or tunnel.  Otherwise you’ll rent a heavy truck and plow it into a large crowd at a public event.  Or you’ll carry a bag of weapons into a “gun-free zone” and kill as many law-abiding citizens as you can (starting with any government officers who might be armed).


* A June 2008 study by the U.S. Travel Association revealed a deep frustration among air travelers that caused them to avoid an estimated 41 million trips over the past 12 months at a cost of more than $26 billion to the U.S. economy.  Air travelers expressed little optimism for positive change, with nearly 50 percent saying that the air travel system is not likely to improve in the near future. The effect of avoided trips cost airlines more than $9 billion in revenue; hotels nearly $6 billion and restaurants more than $3 billion.  Federal, state and local governments lost more than $4 billion in tax revenue because of reduced spending by travelers. (Source: Air Travel Survey, 2008)

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