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Why did I renew my NRA membership? October 14, 2015

Posted by federalist in Open Questions.
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This isn’t a rhetorical question.  I’m actually second-guessing my recent membership renewal.

I’ve never bought more than a year at a time of membership in the NRA.  I want to keep them feeling accountable.

The NRA has been justifiably criticized for things it has done in the past, but presently it is certainly the most powerful and effective organization guarding our civil rights to keep and bear arms.  However, it still does stupid stuff like this: Why is the NRA buying guns for government agencies, which are above the gun laws that apply to citizens?

Well, I figured $25 a year wasn’t a terrible price to pay just to add to a conspicuous count of citizens who support this particular individual right, and I do read the magazine.  But even the magazine is a disgrace.

Yes, American Rifleman is a disgrace of a magazine.

First of all, their layout editor has some disability that prevents him from keeping articles together.  Anything longer than a few pages and you have to flip towards the back to read the rest of the article.  And then there’s the reviews.  “We don’t publish negative reviews.”  That’s right: Their reviews of guns and gear are more boring than advertising copy and even less informative.

If you happen to be very knowledgeable and you read carefully you can sometimes spot the candy-coated points of criticism.  An example: The October 2015 issue reviewed a $3,500 Swarovski scope.  That’s top-of-the-line scope money.  The review is unsigned, which is a red flag to begin with.  As is the fact that the author failed the basic arithmetic needed to recognize that the oddly labelled “0.36inch/100yds” turrets are actually the quite-standard .1 mil clicks.  At one point the author explains that the scope automatically shuts off its illumination when it is canted past a certain angle.  After noting that mountain hunters frequently have to shoot at extreme angles the author says “this feature is an interesting choice.”  So there’s one codeword for “design flaw:” interesting choice.  Later the author subjected his sample to a standard water immersion test, and even though he gets the test backwards (you’re supposed to submerge, and then freeze) he begins describing the results with, “Beyond the normal minute internal … fogging ….”  Um, no.  Even a hint of Internal fogging on a $3,500 scope is a defect.  But if you know that you probably won’t waste much of your time reading American Rifleman reviews….

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.

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?

Emergency Medical Supplies September 25, 2012

Posted by federalist in Healthcare, Open Questions, Uncategorized.
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I raised the subject of survival stockpiling earlier.  Here I’d like to build a list of the drugs and medical supplies that would be most useful during an extended disaster.  Ideally one would be prepared to deal not only with traumatic injuries but also with the sorts of medical problems that tend to emerge during prolonged stress and in the absence of first-world infrastructure and sanitation. (Ref also the truth about drug expiration dates.)

Beginning the list are “first aid” supplies that should be accessible to everyone:

  1. Antiseptic swabs and ointments
  2. Adhesive bandages
  3. Sterile gauze rolls, pads, and tape
  4. Sterile saline solution
  5. Hemostatic powder/pad (Zeolite, QuikClot)
  6. Thermometer
  7. Tweezers
  8. Scissors
  9. Anti-diarrheals: loperamide (Imodium), bismuth subsalicylate (Pepto-Bismol)
  10. Rehydration powder
  11. Aspirin, ibuprofen, (analgesic, antipyretic, NSAID)
  12. Acetaminophen (analgesic)
  13. Antihistimines: diphenhydramine (Benadryl)
  14. Decongestants: pseudoephedrine
  15. Expectorants: guaifenesin
  16. Stimulants: caffeine
  17. Laxatives
  18. Antacids
  19. Emetic: ipacec
  20. Ointments:
    • anesthetics (lidocaine, benzocaine)
    • antibiotics (permethrin, malathion)
    • antifungals (ketoconazole, miconazole, tolnaftate)
    • antihistamines (Caladryl)
    • antivirals (acyclovir)
    • steroids (hydrocortisone)
  21. Cold packs (note: also usable for improvised explosives)
  22. Heat packs
  23. Smelling salts
  24. Breathing barrier with valve
  25. Latex gloves
  26. Condoms
  27. Contraceptives: levonogestrel (Plan B)

Anyone with emergency medical training will also want

  1. Manual aspirator or suction unit
  2. Sphygmometer
  3. Stethoscope
  4. Epinephrine auto-injector (Epipen)
  5. Epinephrine inhaler
  6. Hypodermic syringes and injectable lidocaine and adrenaline
  7. Sutures
  8. Airway management devices (OPAs or NPAs)
  9. IV catheters and solutions
  10. Obstetric kit
  11. Antiseptic scrub (chlorhexidine)

During disasters that might involve extended disruptions of pharmaceutical supplies, a stockpile should also include the following drugs:

  • antibiotics: levofloxacin (Levaquin), doxycycline
  • antibiotic, amebicide, and antiprotozoal: metronidazole (Flagil)
  • antifungals: itraconazole, ketoconazole, griseofulvin
  • anthilmentic: pyrantel
  • oral antiseptic: chlorhexidine (PeriDex)
  • anxiolytics, sedatives, hypnotics, anticonvulsants, muscle relaxants: benzodiazepines and barbiturates
  • narcotics: morphine, oxycodone
  • stimulants: amphetamines, modafinil
  • steroids: hydrocortisone, prednisone
  • vasodilators: nitroglycerin
  • bronchodilators: theophylline
  • urinary anti-infective: methenamine
  • general anesthetic: propofol

Little Brother: Towards a Civil, Free Society March 30, 2012

Posted by federalist in Open Questions, Uncategorized.
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Dystopian fantasies often revolve around a “Big Brother:” An authoritative regime with excessive powers of observation and punishment that are invariably abused by its leaders. After all, as James Madison said, men are not angels, and so we cannot trust men with unchecked power. Benjamin Franklin concurs: If we surrender our liberty in exchange for security — or any other moral good — we are bound to end up with neither. In some incarnations the Big Brother dystopia is instead a machine which, though incorruptible, is blind to the nuances of the human condition. Though it does not abuse its power it applies it mercilessly. Such dystopian fiction warns that human nature is incompatible with Big Brother authorities.

But as an information age libertarian I wonder if we couldn’t benefit from a “Little Brother:” A social medium for establishing positive norms and nudging individuals away from less harmonious behavior. I envision a non-authoritative “Little Brother” social network: a database where anyone can report and comment on behavior, positive or negative. People are free to use Little Brother as they see fit. As with all social networks norms will evolve for its use. Will an open and non-authoritative Little Brother be a positive social force, or can it somehow be twisted or abused to anti-social ends?
(more…)

Why Isn’t Sign Language Ubiquitous? February 26, 2011

Posted by federalist in Language, Open Questions.
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Deaf children instinctively develop sign languages during the same critical periods for language development as other children develop spoken language. And these sign languages have complete analogs to the linguistic characteristics that distinguish and define all spoken human languages. (My favorite book on this is Pinker’s The Language Instinct.)

Given this innate instinct why don’t humans develop full-fledged sign languages unless they are deprived of hearing? The advantage of having a gesticular language to back up a spoken language seems compelling, as Matt Ridley suggests:

At loud parties, on trains or during ambushes, we could resort to signing, instead of having to shout, distract fellow travelers or alert our quarry.

Capital Punishment: Not That Difficult February 4, 2011

Posted by federalist in Open Questions.
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A shortage of the anesthetic thiopental sodium threw the capital punishment system into disarray. States go to great lengths to establish protocols for killing that are deemed both reliable and sufficiently painless so as not to constitute “cruel” punishment for those that have been sentenced to die for crimes.

A lethal injection sequence of three separate drugs, beginning with thiopental sodium, has become the standard in most states, which is why the absence of the first drug threatened to derail the process. But why has this become the standard means of execution? After all, you have to strap down the condemned and get a needle into a vein before you can even begin administering the toxins.

If the goal is a reliable and painless death, you can save the trauma and pain associated with placing an IV, not to mention issues with stocking reliably potent drugs, through simple oxygen deprivation. One might think this is what is practiced in states that use “gas chambers” for execution. But apparently the only gas chamber executions ever performed by U.S. governments have used poison gas (some variant of cyanide) which, if not painful, at least tends to cause a somewhat spectacular death typically accompanied by violent convulsions.

Nothing could be more painless or less traumatic than death by oxygen deprivation (hypoxia). Anyone who has gone for a ride in a hypobaric chamber without an oxygen mask (as many military pilots have to do) knows that severe oxygen deprivation results in painless and almost instant unconsciousness. Left in a sufficiently low-oxygen atmosphere a person will be dead within ten calm minutes. And if the ear-popping associated with a low-pressure chamber is too discomfiting a low-oxygen atmosphere can instead be produced by scrubbing oxygen from a room and replacing it with physiologically inert gases like nitrogen. Unlike other means of execution, the failure of a hypoxic chamber cannot cause suffering: If oxygen levels can’t be brought down low enough or fast enough the worst that happens is that the subject feels light-headed instead of unconscious. (In fact, hypoxia is notoriously lethal because its symptoms are so hard to recognize; pilots are put through hypoxia to try to train them to recognize the symptoms and put on oxygen masks before they are incapacitated.) And unlike poison gas chambers a hypoxic chamber poses no risks to bystanders or executioners.

So why isn’t hypoxia the preferred means of execution?

What’s the Justification for the Prompt Global Strike Program? April 27, 2010

Posted by federalist in Government Spending, Open Questions, Uncategorized.
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The White House requested $250MM for research next year into hypersonic engines that could support a “Prompt Global Strike” (PGS) weapon system later this decade. Air Force General Chilton explains the need for PGS as follows:

Today we can present some conventional options to the president to strike a target anywhere on the globe that range from 96 hours to maybe four, five, six hours. If the president wants to act faster than that, the only thing we have that goes faster is a nuclear response.

Now I think hypersonic engines are as cool as the next geek, but PGS is going to consume many billions of dollars to produce a capability that we have had for half a century: Intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) can reach any point on earth in under an hour. Yes, today they may all be tipped with nuclear warheads. But it would be a lot cheaper to recommission ICBMs with precision conventional warheads than to build a maneuvering hypersonic cruise missile. And the proposed PGS doesn’t solve any of the strategic problems posed by conventional ICBMs: Russia and China are already protesting that PGS is as destabilizing as our strategic nuclear arsenal.

Put Unions in the Chain of Liability March 12, 2010

Posted by federalist in Judiciary, Open Questions, Unions.
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Unions negotiate the conditions of employment and work performance for their members, typically in an adversarial relationship with an employer. If unions truly represent their members, then why don’t they accrue any liability for their members’ work behavior?

After all, if an employee causes some injury or damage in the course of employment, tort law generally puts the employer right near the head of the chain of liability. But when a union has negotiated the circumstances and rules of employment and work, why aren’t they more liable than the employer? (Assuming, of course, that the employer is in compliance with the labor contract.)

I raised the question in response to a strange and unfortunate case mentioned in the Independent blog.

But I am truly confused: For union shops in general why isn’t the chain of accountability — and hence, liability — Employee -> Union -> Managers -> Corporation -> Shareholders?

Can we fix the calendar yet? January 3, 2010

Posted by federalist in Open Questions.
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I wonder how much the convoluted Gregorian calendar costs the economy — not only in terms of programming computers and clocks (and dealing with associated bugs) but also in terms of missed appointments because it’s impossible for most people to tell without checking a reference calendar what day of the week a particular date falls on.

There are good alternatives.

Emperor Has No Clothes: Oenophilist Edition November 15, 2009

Posted by federalist in Markets, Open Questions.
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Leonard Mlodinow summarizes extensive research calling into question the abilities and value of wine critics. It turns out that wine critics and purveyors have been attributing far too much detail and precision to their reviews.

I confess that I am no wine connoisseur, but even a nephalist can be amused by the prices, prose, and rituals that surround the marketing and consumption of wine. In addition to nuanced appellations that detail which grape varieties were juiced as well as when, where, and how they were fermented, each particular wine gets adorned with pretentious and colorful descriptions of its distinctive traits. Today critics also rank wines on a 21-point scale (80-100) intended to establish their relative value.

Not surprisingly, most of this is absurd. Critics disagree so widely on the same wines that the outcomes of wine competitions cannot be distinguished from simply awarding medals at random. In fact, even the same critic tasting the same wine at the same sitting cannot reliably reproduce his own ratings. This industry has simply strayed far beyond the precision and detail inherent in either wine itself, or in the human ability to evaluate it.

Perhaps now we can retreat to a more realistically coarse system of description and quality that is both reproducible and standardized. A reproducible rating system would be one that is sufficiently coarse that (A) the same critic should never diverge from an earlier rating of the same product and (B) all critics should be within one point of the average rating. Obviously a 21-point system for wine will never be reproducible, so how about 4 levels — call them bad, not-bad, delicious, and sublime? A standardized system of description would dispense with nuanced and subjective prose and hew instead to positive — perhaps even measurable — qualities. Sweetness, acidity, and viscosity seem like obvious dimensions for any beverage. The universe of permissible flavors should be substantially narrowed. After all, we’re talking about fermented grape juice. Is there a meaningful and consistent distinction between “leather” and “tobacco?” Do we gain by dissecting the general flavors of “berries” or “flowers” into the subtleties of “black-currant” and “lavender?” Mlodinow notes that “even flavor-trained professionals cannot reliably identify more than three or four components in a mixture, although wine critics regularly report tasting six or more.”

I wonder why wine in particular has developed such a peculiar and unjustifiable culture of devotion. In other times and places wine has been a commodity more like, for example, grape juice: Juice may be bad, good, or delicious. It can come from this grape variety or that. But one glass of good red concord grape juice is treated pretty much the same as any other. Likewise, tea, coffee, and chocolate have in times past enjoyed ritual and nuance to rival that of wine today, but now they are now mostly treated like commodities. Why?

Justifying Preemptive Defense September 28, 2009

Posted by federalist in Natural Rights, Open Questions.
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Two years ago I asked, “How Can a Free Society Defend Itself?”  which raised several questions to which I still haven’t found satisfactory answers.  Among them:

  • How can we defend against asymmetric threats?  (You have to dig into my discussion on the Mises.org forum where I point out that “asymmetric threats” are essentially a product of modern technology: e.g., an individual can build and deploy a truck bomb that can kill hundreds of people, where before the 20th century an individual could not easily wreak havoc disproportionate to his ability to suffer justice.)
  • In an age of asymmetric threats how can we defend against aggressors who are suicidal or otherwise immune to deterrence?

Paul Robinson, professor of law, had an essay in the WSJ pointing out that international law lacks reasonable and moral provisions for states to deal with threats preemptively.  He suggests that the American “Model Penal Code” provides a better standard since it allows for the use of force when “immediately necessary.”

I don’t believe the MPC really addresses this problem, since the key point is defining when and what defense is “immediately necessary.”  For example, if somebody says, “I’m going to kill you — not now, but sometime when your guard is down,” our current laws do not allow you to use force against that person.  The best they offer is a judicial restraining order telling the aggressor to stay away from you.  In the context of states and international law we have the same problem: An aggressor can tailor his threat so that defense is only justified when it is impossible.  Then he can retreat as soon as a forceful defense can be mounted … at which point defense is not “immediately necessary” and hence would be unjustified.

Following some brief correspondence Professor Robinson offered the following clarification:

The point here is that modern [penal] codes switch the focus from the timing of the threat to the timing of the force needed to defend, as it should.  This is a popular provision in state criminal code reforms.  The timing of the threat – its imminence – simply is no longer the relevant test for triggering defensive force.

This has not yet been incorporated into any laws that I am aware of, but it’s at least a first step in principle to addressing these difficult questions.

Why Don’t Cars Display Engine Performance Data? July 27, 2009

Posted by federalist in Energy, Open Questions, Transportation.
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Most modern cars have engine control computers and sensors that can tell not only whether your current tank of fuel is contaminated but also whether you would benefit from higher-octane gasoline. Yet few (if any) cars readily communicate those data to the driver. Why not?

Many car engines are designed with higher compression ratios that require “premium” gasoline for optimal performance. These cars can still run on lower-grade fuel: They rely on knock sensors to detect the failure of low-octane fuel to resist detonation and can adjust valve timing to counteract it. However this adjustment reduces engine efficiency and power, so typically drivers want to avoid it. (Conversely, higher-octane gasolines are sometimes sold at such a premium to regular that their higher cost might outweigh the efficiency benefit to engines tuned for them.)

But gasoline octane rating is not the only factor that determines safe engine timing. Air density, which decreases with altitude and temperature, also affects detonation. Fuel that works great in summer or mountains may bog your car down in cold or sea-level conditions. Only your engine knows for sure whether it’s running optimally, or whether it would benefit from a bump in your fuel tank’s octane.

Apparently some aftermarket engine computer interface devices (e.g., the ScanGauge or the DashHawk) can allow a driver to monitor engine timing retardation in realtime. Ideally manufacturers should convert these data into useful dashboard information. Perhaps something like, “Your current fuel is handicapping the engine. Increase tank octane by 2 for optimal performance in current conditions.”

Dye-Free, Perfume-Free July 26, 2009

Posted by federalist in Markets, Open Questions.
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I was surprised to learn from a discussion with a P&G product manager that dye- and fragrance-free consumer products are only a 5% market niche! This is baffling to me, and not just because I find most artificial fragrances irritating: It’s not like we’re living in primitive conditions where lack of hygiene and sanitation permeate our surroundings with the stench of unwashed animals, waste, and decay.

I suppose nosegays and perfume might still be in order for excursions to the zoo, circus, or municipal waste processing facilities. But why would normal humans in a well regulated household in a civilized community want to immerse themselves in the cacophony of artificial scents from their laundry detergent, fabric softener, dish soap, surface cleaners, bath soap, shampoo, antiperspirant, lotion, etc? And maybe then further compound that with “air fresheners” and colognes?!

As I wondered before: Shouldn’t I be able to buy dye- and perfume-free products at a discount, since they require fewer ingredients and development? Apparently not, and because consumer product companies consider “dye- and fragrance-free” to be a niche market they typically don’t consider removing those ancillary additives until a product line is well established!

Chemical Interrogation for Counter-Terrorism? July 18, 2009

Posted by federalist in Natural Rights, Open Questions, Social Politics.
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If the War on Terror left any doubt, episode after contrived episode of TV series 24 has shown that there are circumstances in which we may want to use any means necessary to extract life-saving information from a hostile captive.  Following years of controversy over what interrogation methods should be publicized and allowed to fight terrorism, the federal government is considering the creation of a special interrogation team with new tactics.

Note that we are not talking about securing information for use in judicial proceedings, but rather about extracting accurate information from subjects intent on resisting interrogation that could thwart future — perhaps imminent — homicides.  It is fatuous to discuss whether interrogation methods in such scenarios are “degrading” or “coercive.”  Most pragmatic people probably don’t particularly care whether methods constitute “torture,” so long as they are effective.  Many may even countenance real torture that causes permanent physical damage to a subject withholding information that could avert a mass homicide.  But one problem with torture and coercion on any level is that subjects can be prepared to resist known tactics.  And even when a subject appears to break interrogators can’t always be certain he hasn’t provided them with false information.

So what happened to the art of chemical interrogation: I.e., dosing subjects with drugs that diminish their capacity to consciously evade questions or formulate deceptive answers?  Jed Babbin addressed this early in the War on Terror:

So-called “truth serums” are not foolproof, and do not guarantee success. But chemically assisted interrogation can significantly increase the interrogator’s chance to get the facts without descending into barbarism. There are legitimate differences between the constitutional and legal limits we impose on police interrogating a suspected criminal for prosecution in a civilian court and the means interrogators use to get as much as they can — as quickly as they can — from Mohammed and his ilk. Those limits do not require us to forego chemically assisted interrogation.

Intelligence agencies and the military have been experimenting with so-called “truth drugs” since the Egyptians began making beer about 5,000 years ago. During World War II, Germany and Japan both used chemical interrogation with very mixed results. Today, there are several drugs that are more effective and safe than the ones used then.

The object of a chemically assisted interrogation is to release the cortical functions of the brain. Most of the drugs that would be used — sodium amatol and related drugs — are sedatives that have a general calming effect. So do barbiturates. Another group — valium and its progeny, including Versed — have essentially the same effect, but also induce short-term memory loss, so the subject won’t remember this morning what he told you last night. The beauty of these chemicals is that there is a minimal danger of allergic reaction, and they can be administered in relative safety to all but the most elderly or those with diabetes, or other conditions that can generally be detected by blood tests and an electrocardiogram.

If a suspect is being interrogated while under the influence of one of these drugs, it is possible to further boost the ability of the interrogator to succeed by administering an amphetamine. If administered properly, the sedative calms the suspect and breaks down resistance. The amphetamine can raise his anxiety level, causing him to blurt out what he might otherwise conceal even under sedation.

Even if the a drugged subject doesn’t crack, the short-term amnesia that can be induced with some of these drugs can itself be a useful interrogation tactic: leading him to believe he has given up useful information, and thereby weakening his resolve against further questioning.

The Geneva Conventions prohibit chemical interrogation.  But terrorists are not covered by the Geneva Conventions.  Drugs used for chemical interrogation are neither painful nor, when administered to healthy individuals, particularly dangerous.  Rather than continue to debate the boundaries of torture for official policy, our terrorist interrogation guidelines should include the routine use of helpful drugs.

Why Run Ships on Oil? April 29, 2009

Posted by federalist in Energy, Open Questions, Transportation.
3 comments

Vote for Dave asks an excellent question: Massive container ships burn low-grade “bunker” fuel for power. Wouldn’t it be more cost effective to run them on nuclear power, as our navy has done without incident for decades on submarines and large warships?  Shouldn’t global warmists be thrilled at such low-hanging fruit in the fight against carbon dioxide emissions?

[Addendum: Four nuclear-powered cargo ships were built, but the technology is simply not cost-competitive with fossil fuels.  The United States Navy has abandoned nuclear power for all vessels but submarines and aircraft carriers, where nuclear power confers unique tactical benefits.]

Rethinking Prison February 11, 2009

Posted by federalist in Human Markets, Judiciary, Open Questions.
3 comments

I previously lamented our society’s increasing dependence on imprisonment as a means of providing “justice.”

Anthony Gregory has an excellent discussion of this issue in the context of the current California prison system.

It seems clear that American-style imprisonment is an ineffective form of justice: It does provide deterrence to most criminals, but in general it is a poorly tailored punishment (except, perhaps, with respect to crimes of kidnapping).  It does not effectively reform criminals — in fact, it often seems to harden them.  It does not protect society from the criminally disposed, except when they are given life sentences.  And it certainly does not serve any interests of restitution, as Gregory notes:

Each prisoner costs taxpayers thirty-five thousand a year. Victims are not made whole, but forced to foot the bill to house their perpetrators. The state used to have some restitution centers through which white-collar convicts could work and pay back their victims as well as some of their detention costs—but these were closed down last month. State officials said the program was too expensive. Only government could lose more money making people work than just locking them up, feeding and clothing them.

Reform is a difficult problem, and tailored punishment may be easy (and fun) in principle but we can leave that for another discussion.  If society feels justified in taking away the freedom of convicts, why can’t it profitably employ them?

Evidently government cannot profit from slave labor, but surely for-profit enterprises can.  There has been a lot of criticism of “for-profit prisons,” but those are not what I have in mind.  For-profit prisons simply try to do in a more cost-effective manner what government prisons do, which is to confine and care for large populations of criminals. They are not permitted to exploit prisoners as slave labor.

Unfortunately, twentieth-century Russian Communists gave penal labor a bad name (“Gulag”).  But that doesn’t mean that a more open and capitalist society like ours can’t profit from prisoners within reasonable bounds of justice.

(more…)

Survival Stockpiling October 17, 2008

Posted by federalist in Open Questions, Uncategorized.
6 comments

Imagine a catastrophe like an EMP attack that destroys our power infrastructure.  Before long the pumps that bring us water and fuel will stop.  What can you reasonably do to prepare to survive in such a post-apocalyptic world?  You and those for whom you care will need clean water, food, and shelter.  Eventually you may also find a need for other things, like medicine.

If you own a rural estate you can transform into a fully self-sufficient compound that’s great, but suppose that, like most people, you can’t move far away from cities.  With small amounts of land you might be able to install a well for fresh water and a garden capable of supplying some food.  With extra storage space you can stockpile food, though to maintain a food stockpile you have to either adopt a regimented rotation system or buy extended shelf-life emergency stores that you refresh every ten years or so.  You can’t stockpile significant amounts of fuel.

At some point you will almost surely want something from somebody else.  What can you acquire now that is easy to store and that would be very valuable to other people during a crisis?  At this point you may expect me to shout “Gold!” or “Silver!” followed by an offer to sell you coins near the current spot market price.  But I can’t imagine precious metals being worth very much in this scenario.  You can’t eat them.  They don’t keep you warm, nor do they protect or heal you.  They are not particularly useful for anything, and not many people today are competent at authenticating a piece of metal as being precious, not counterfeit.  In a crisis precious metals are not more useful than any other fiat currency; people will accept them only so long as they believe other people will.  Therefore a wad of twenty-dollar bills would be just as good as a pocket of gold coins — probably better since people are familiar with paper currency.

So it might make sense to keep some hard currency on hand, but in a major crisis where the supply of essential goods is in question barter will be the only kind of trade you can count on.  One other thing you can count on in such a scenario: If you do possess essential goods there will be a lot of other people desperate to take them from you.  Which brings me to the list of things I think are worth stockpiling for a crisis.  Each of these has two key characteristics:

  • High crisis value: These are things that you would want for yourself in a crisis, or that most other people would want enough to barter for in a crisis.
  • Easy to store: This means they pack a lot of “crisis value” into a relatively small space, and also that they have an extended shelf-life.

Which suggests:

  1. Knowledge and Skills.  Granted, some knowledge will be in greater demand than other.  Medical and survival skills are bound to be the most valuable.  Mechanics, crafts, agriculture and husbandry will probably also be quite valuable.  Nothing is easier to store than knowledge.  Useful books are also easily stored.
  2. Weapons.  Specifically firearms and ammunition.  In a crisis there are those with guns and then there is everybody else.  He who has a gun can defend himself and his possessions.  He who does not is at the mercy of the mob.  Guns and ammo have a virtually unlimited shelf-life if kept dry.  They are also among the densest stores of value for crisis barter.
  3. Water.  A well outfitted with a hand pump that produces high-quality water would be indispensable.  Don’t overestimate the reliability of municipal water: During the 2003 Northeast Blackout taps began to run dry after less than twelve hours!
  4. Medicine.  All varieties of analgesics, antibiotics, antifungals, antihistamines, antivirals, steroids, and vitamins are worth stockpiling.  (If you are concerned about biological or radiological catastrophes be sure to add doxycycline and potassium iodide to the list.)  They are a very dense store of value, though the ability to barter them may depend on how easily they can be authenticated.  Actual shelf-life needs to be determined, since “expiration” dates are really just a lower bound on shelf-life.  [Update: See this post on the question.] Other medical equipment should also be stockpiled though I would welcome a list prioritized by value density. [Update: See my list here.]
  5. Food.  Extremely valuable, but bulky and difficult to store.  You will almost certainly want as much as you can hold and maintain.  Vendors like Walton Feed sell dehydrated food sealed with oxygen scrubbers that can last for decades when kept in cool, dark storage.
  6. Seeds.  Eventually people with even a little land will want to start to grow food.  In such a case seeds are much more valuable than food.  But shelf-life is a concern as with food and drugs; all need to be stored in a cool, dry place to preserve potency.
  7. Liquor.  Distilled alcohol seems to be a reliable and relatively dense store of value.  It also has a virtually unlimited shelf-life.  I would stockpile sealed bottles of mid-grade well-known brands of liquor for bartering.  High in calories, alcohol can be used not only as food or fuel but also as an antiseptic or anesthetic in a pinch.
  8. Tools.  Most likely hand tools since any fuel or power is bound to be scarce for the duration of a crisis.  Here too I would welcome lists prioritized by value density.

Better Sex? (Optimal Gender Ratios) May 21, 2008

Posted by federalist in Open Questions.
1 comment so far

A WSJ Op-Ed today offers a summary of the modern sociology of polygamy.  Indeed, monogamy may be the single greatest institution of human equal rights.

But this begs the question: Why are gender ratios evenly matched?

In large sexual animals, where gestation is a long and arduous process, it seems that there would be a tremendous benefit for a species to turn out females in much higher numbers than males. Consider elephants, for example: Females gestate babies for 15 months. Elephants don’t face significant predators, and males don’t appreciably contribute to the ability of a herd to forage or raise calves. If anything, they compete for scarce food. A single bull could conceivably keep a herd of 1000 females pregnant. A species of elephant that gave birth to many females for every male would seem to have a tremendous advantage in numbers and population resiliency over one that produced genders in equal numbers.

It doesn’t seem hard to imagine a diploid genetic process in which the sex trait is carried on a separate, extraneous chromosome, and whose propagation to gametes is highly skewed to exclusion.  In humans, for example, there would be additional advantages to carrying the male sex determiner on a 47th chromosome (whose absence results in a female): Males would not be as susceptible to recessive disorders on the X chromosome as they are now.

Are there any higher lifeforms in which sex is determined entirely by genetics and in which the proportion of male to female births is significantly less than one?  Why not?