It can't fail

Obamacare can't "fail," because it was never designed to work in the first place.

The only problem is that they didn't expect it to fail this fast.  Such a brutally obvious face-plant playing out in the news within a year of the midterm elections, in ways obvious to some of the lowest-information voters with the murkiest political philosophies, can't have been in the game-plan.


“If you don’t have time to do it right, will you have time to do it over?”   Good Robot Chicken link.


"I did not read the instructions, because I am a man."  This Amazon product review page is worth a read.  Many customers have been inspired to flights of composition by their remarkable experiences.  It's a little rude, so don't go there if you're easily offended.  My husband and I, being barbarians, have tears streaming down our faces, especially the part about the frozen brussels sprouts.

Talking me down from the ledge

Jonah Goldberg gives it a try:
Barack Obama, who holds a patent on a device that hurls aides and friends under a bus from great distances, also understands [the need to be the least acceptable available scapegoat].  That is why Kathleen Sebelius these days looks a lot like a Soviet general on his way to brief Stalin on the early "progress" in the battle of Stalingrad. 
. . . [A]s I've written many times, I don't think we have much reason to fear traditional jack-booted dictators in this country.  Ironically, the main reason we don't have to worry about them is that we worry about them so much. . . .  Deep in American DNA is a visceral aversion to despotism.  Sometimes, during a war or other crisis, it can be suspended for a while, but eventually we remember that we just don't like dictators. 
The bad news is that we don't feel that way -- anymore -- about softer, more diffuse and bureaucratic forms of tyranny.  Every American is taught from grade school up that they should fear living in the world of Orwell's 1984.  Few Americans can tell you why we shouldn't live in Huxley's Brave New World.  We've got the dogmatic muscle and rhetorical sinew to repel militarism, but we're intellectually flabby when it comes to rejecting statist maternalism.  We hate hearing "Because I said so!"  But we're increasingly powerless against, "It's for your own good!" 
. . . 
For instance, when the national-security types intrude on our privacy or civil liberties, even theoretically, all of the "responsible" voices in the media and academia wig out.  But when Obamacare poses a vastly more intrusive and real threat to our privacy, the same people yawn and roll their eyes at anyone who complains.  If the District of Columbia justified its omnipresent traffic cameras as an attempt to keep tabs on dissidents, they'd be torn down in a heartbeat by mobs of civil libertarians.  But when justified on the grounds of public safety (or revenue for social services or as a way to make driving cars more difficult), well, that's different. 
And it is different. Motives matter. But at the same time, I do wish we looked a bit more like the America Edmund Burke once described: 
In other countries, the people, more simple, and of a less mercurial cast, judge of an ill principle in government only by an actual grievance; [In America] they anticipate the evil, and judge of the pressure of the grievance by the badness of the principle. They augur misgovernment at a distance; and snuff the approach of tyranny in every tainted breeze. 
. . . 
The remarkable thing about this is that there's no real executive experience in his explication of his executive experience.  Yes, the candidate can fire people from the campaign.  But being the candidate and being the campaign manager are as different as being the lead singer for Spinal Tap and being the band's manager.  On the campaign trail, Obama's job was to "be Barack Obama," to sound smart and charismatic and rev up the crowds.  He's still playing that part rather than fulfilling the job description. 
And no one will tell him.  That's why, I suspect, when he went to check on the progress of the site's development he had no idea how to ask questions that would get at the reality of the situation.  Bureaucrats, apparatchiks, and contractors blow smoke.  That's what they do. Obama has no idea how to cut through the smoke.  He thinks being president involves constantly going out and giving speeches to crowds that love him about how hard he's working rather than actually, you know, working.  It's all very meta.  He's playing president Obama because he doesn't know how to be president Obama.  I think that when he went out on Monday and did his infomercial schtick in the Rose Garden -- Operators are standing by!  It's not just a website; it's a floorwax! etc. -- he honestly thought he was fixing the problem.  Well, I've done my part!
I can't link to this, because it comes from his email feed, but Goldberg usually has good stuff up at NRO.

Ways to be effective

When Virginia's Fauquier County cited farmer Martha Boneta last year for hosting a birthday party for eight 10-year-old girls because she did not have a permit and site plan, little did county officials think they would set off a revolution for legal remedies against such abuses.
Push, keep pushing, and push some more.

Horse Soldiers: USMC Edition

Tom sends a link to a page devoted to the China Marines. It's a chapter of the Corps' history that few know about, but a very interesting one.

On New Forms of Government

Over at VC, Elise and I began a discussion late in the comments to a post that probably deserves to be considered independently.

Elise asked:
What does abandoning ship mean here? Secession for some States?
I replied:
I think that's the right solution, really. Peaceful and constitutional dissolution of the union, followed by erecting new unions of like-minded states. The Federal government is dragging everyone down.

We might also give some thought to how to avoid the problem in the future. In ancient Athens they believed that any electoral system was going to be impossibly corrupt: even before the innovation of using public funds to buy votes (or whole constituencies), the rich could use private funds to buy them. Their belief was that no system based on elections was sustainable because of the bedrock corruption native to such systems.

They still wanted to distribute power among the many, though, and not to have an elite or a tyrant. So they did something very similar to what William F. Buckley suggested with his 'first 300 people in the phone book' quip: they chose citizens to fill political offices by lot. You held the office for as long as you held it, and then you were replaced by a new lot.

You'd want to think about how to build the pool so that the lot was taken only among people who were qualified. Having established some basic qualifications for given offices, though, everyone who met those qualifications would go into the pool and the chosen would hold the office for a term.

It might make sense to have a bifurcated system, with elections for direct representatives responsible to their constituents for some functions, but lotteries for other offices. In general I would think you'd want representatives empowered specifically to limit government's power over citizens, and lot-chosen officers to exercise power (rather than restrain it).
Elise responded:
Having established some basic qualifications for given offices, though, everyone who met those qualifications would go into the pool and the chosen would hold the office for a term.

Sounds kind of like jury duty - an interesting idea.

In general I would think you'd want representatives empowered specifically to limit government's power over citizens, and lot-chosen officers to exercise power (rather than restrain it).

Interesting again. Perhaps a variation on the tricameral idea: one house to propose laws; one to pass the proposals (or not); only that exists solely to repeal laws?
To which I would respond:

That might also work, and really we should be talking about different ways of thinking about it. So, I'd like to propose a discussion of the subject. Consider it theoretical, if you like. There's no need to commit to doing it in actuality, but let's talk about how it might be done if we were to do it.

What I was thinking of was a Parliamentary form of government with a Civil Service, like the British have: but whereas the analog to the House of Commons and the heads of the departments of the Civil Service would be selected by lot (to avoid the corruption the Athenians saw, and to keep the Civil Service from overwhelming the elected branches as it has often done in Britain), the analog to the House of Lords would be elected.

This elected branch would be empowered both to repeal laws and Civil Service regulations it decided were out of line with the constitutional order, or the rights of citizens, but also to generally oversee in an adversarial way all the exercise of government. It would not be empowered to make laws, or to enact new regulations, or to exercise force of any kind against citizens not acting as a part of the government. It would serve a formally adversarial role to the government, with each member of this house responsible to their constituents and to a constitutional oath.

Against government actors, though, it would need the full array of powers: subpoena, arrest, and an independent power to punish according to whatever forms were usual (i.e., not 'cruel and unusual' punishments, but exactly the same order of punishments that would normally be applied against citizens).

What state are you?

Can't resist those quizzes.  Psychically, my husband belongs in Montana and I in Colorado, but neither of us can tolerate the cold.  I like to think that our atypical little Texas county is our own private Montana/Colorado.

Practical politics

Speaking of ways to achieve the necessary changes in Congress and the White House, such as ballot security, I enjoyed this comment on a forum:
Since Medicaid requires photo IDs, is it a health suppression law?

The possum

Things I did not know about opossums:
1. Natural immunity.  Opossums are mostly immune to rabies, and in fact, they are eight times less likely to carry rabies compared to wild dogs. 
2. Poison control.  Opossums have superpowers against snakes. They have partial or total immunity to the venom produced by rattlesnakes, cottonmouths and other pit vipers. 
3. Omnivores galore. . . .  They have an unusually high need for calcium, which incites them to eat the skeletons of rodents and road kill they consume. They're the sanitation workers of the wild. . . . 
7. Impressive tails. . . .  Opossums have been observed carrying bundles of grasses and other materials by looping their tail around them; this conscious control leads many to consider the tail as a fifth appendage, like a hand. 
And a bonus for the Scrabble players:  Male opossums are called jacks and females are called jills.  The young are referred to as joeys, just like their Australian cousins, and a group of opossums is called a passel.

Perils of the code

For you IT types. Go here for the whole thing, which is supposed to be set to a tune I'm not familiar with, "Leslie Fish":
Deep in engineering down where mortals seldom go,
A manager and customer come looking for a show.
They pass amused among us, and they sign in on the log.
They've come to see our pony and they've come to see our dog.

. . .

From briefcase then there comes a list of things we must revise,
And all but four within the room are taken by surprise,
And all but four are thinking of their last job with remorse;
The customer, the manager, the doggie, and the horse. 
. . .

Three things are most perilous,
Connectors that corrode,
Unproven algorithms,
And self modifying code. 
The manager and customer are quick to leave this bunch,
They take the dog and pony and they all go out to lunch.
Now how will we revenge ourselves on those who raise our ire?
Write code that self destructs the day the warranties expire.

We misunderstood him

When the president said, "If you like your coverage, you can keep it," what he really meant was, "If we like your coverage, you can keep it."
The U.S. individual health insurance market currently totals about 19 million people.  Because the Obama administration's regulations on grandfathering existing plans were so stringent about 85% of those, 16 million, are not grandfathered and must comply with Obamacare at their next renewal.  The rules are very complex.  For example, if you had an individual plan in March of 2010 when the law was passed and you only increased the deductible from $1,000 to $1,500 in the years since, your plan has lost its grandfather status and it will no longer be available to you when it would have renewed in 2014. 
These 16 million people are now receiving letters from their carriers saying they are losing their current coverage and must re-enroll in order to avoid a break in coverage and comply with the new health law's benefit mandates––the vast majority by January 1.  Most of these will be seeing some pretty big rate increases.
We are excited to be among those 16 million Americans!  Blue Cross tells me that my plan is not grandfathered, and that I get to pick a new one.  The new options are much, much nicer.  My betters in the Nanny State know that I never should have preferred low-cost high-deductible coverage of the sort that is now illegal for Blue Cross to offer me.  Instead, I get a brand-new policy with a deductible that is $3,750 lower.  And it only costs $4,800 a year more than my old policy!  Thank you, Mr. President!

I want this law dead, and I want some political careers ended.  We've got a lot of work to do in the coming election year.

Sigh no more

My linguistics reading of late is alerting me to survivals of archaic forms in popular culture.  The genius of Shakespeare and the King James Bible translation ensures that we never quite stop incorporating the English of 500 years ago into modern speech.  Last night I spent enjoyable hours watching Joss Whedon's recent production of Shakespeare's comedy "Much Ado About Nothing," staged in the present but using the original text.  Beatrice and Benedick are two young misfits everyone knows have to get together, though they think they hate each other.  They ultimately join forces to solve the problems of the secondary couple, Claudio and Hero, who have been tricked into an apparent tragedy that all comes right in the end.

Shakespeare often included bits of doggerel or folksong into his plays, with language that was archaic even in his time.  Modern adaptations tend to set them to tunes either in a style they take to be period-appropriate or in a style that's current for the production.  The song that caught my ear last night was "Sigh No More" (or, as we'd say today, with our Celtic restructuring of Germanic grammar:  "Baby Don't You Cry").  It uses the old-fashioned trochaic meter (DAH-duh), to which Shakespeare often switches from his usual iambic (dah-DUH) when giving voice to the old powers, like the witches in "Macbeth" ("Double, double, toil and trouble/Fire burn and cauldron bubble") or the fairies in A Midsummer Night's Dream ("Lord, what fools these mortals be!").

"Sigh no more" is a lament over the inconstancy of men, the counterpoint about male infidelity set into a play about the deadly consequences of even a false suspicion of female unchastity:

Sigh no more, ladies, sigh no more;
    Men were deceivers ever;
One foot in sea and one on shore,
    To one thing constant never;

        Then sigh not so,
        But let them go,
    And be you blithe and bonny;
Converting all your sounds of woe
    Into "Hey nonny, nonny!"

Sing no more ditties, sing no more,
    Of dumps so dull and heavy;
The fraud of men was ever so,
    Since summer first was leavy.

        Then sigh not so, 
        But let them go,
    And be you blithe and bonny;
Converting all your sounds of woe
    Into "Hey, nonny, nonny!"

Kenneth Branagh's "Much Ado" of a few years back set "Sigh, No More" to a pretty, old-fashioned tune and has the partygoers break into a fine barbershop-quartet performance.  Great stuff.

Joss Whedon adapts the same song to a nice jazzy lounge number, suitable for some relaxing entertainment at an elegant house party, with pretty acrobats out by the pool.  (The film was shot in twelve days at Whedon's home while he was taking a break from final editing on "The Avengers."  The actors are many of his regulars.)

Here's a snappy 1940's take:

Branagh directed a playful "Love's Labour's Lost" (a financial flop) set in the 1939 and using show tunes and modern dance, including the "Charleston."  He emphasized the play's iambic beat by setting the lines "Have at you now, affection's men at arms" to a tap-dance exercise, then breaks into Irving Berlin's "Cheek to Cheek":

I'm sorry that film didn't do well.  It's the kind of thing that makes my husband run out of the room, but I love dramas in which people spontaneously burst into song and dancing.

Aristotle on Causality

I'm moving into Aristotle's Physics and it depends heavily on his theories of causality, so I thought I'd start with Andrea Falcon's SEP article on that.

According to Falcon, Aristotle proposes that we have knowledge of a thing only when we understand its causes, and he proposes four possible causes: material, formal, efficient, and final.

The material cause: “that out of which”, e.g., the bronze of a statue. 
The formal cause: “the form”, “the account of what-it-is-to-be”, e.g., the shape of a statue. 
The efficient cause: “the primary source of the change or rest”, e.g., the artisan, the art of bronze-casting the statue, the man who gives advice, the father of the child. 
The final cause: “the end, that for the sake of which a thing is done”, e.g., health is the end of walking, losing weight, purging, drugs, and surgical tools.

The final cause for a statue is the statue itself.

With the final cause, Aristotle's theory is teleological; the purpose of a thing is a kind of cause of it. Because of this, he has been accused of anthropomorphizing nature, attributing to it psychological reasons for the way things are. However, while the theory can take desire, intention, etc., into account, the final causes of natural things don't require psychological causes. For example, Aristotle explains that the 'final cause' for why frontal teeth are sharp and back teeth are flat is because that is the best arrangement for the survival of the animal.

A couple of other key points are that, in studying nature, we should look for generalities. We aren't concerned about exceptions; we are trying to discover the rules. He also doesn't require that we use all four causes. In some cases,  like the bronze statue, the formal and final causes are the same. In some cases the efficient cause is enough. For example, Aristotle explains a lunar eclipse with an efficient cause: the earth comes between the moon and sun.

The idea of a final cause was controversial in Aristotle's day. (I think it became controversial again in the 18th or 19th century.) Many philosophers* proposed that material and efficient causes were good enough. Aristotle claimed that material and efficient causes alone failed to account for regularity. If we ask, why are front teeth sharp and back teeth flat, material and efficient causes alone leave us with coincidence; animals produce offspring like themselves, and that's it. There is no reference to this arrangement making survival easier. Final causes, on the other hand, allow us to say that teeth are arranged that way to make survival easier; they explain the regularity in ways that material and efficient causes do not.

Leaving Falcon behind for a moment, why did final causes become controversial in the 18th or 19th century? Because teleological explanations seem to imply Nature has a personality. Before this time, Christian philosophers who adopted Aristotle would often point to God to provide final causes: Why were front teeth sharp and back teeth flat? God designed the animal that way to improve its chances of surviving. But God had to be killed in the Enlightenment (Hegel proclaimed it long before Nietzsche) and all that sort of thing removed. Biology today still uses teleological terms, but they intend them in reverse: the animal survives better because the teeth are arranged that way, and survival means a better chance of reproducing, which produces offspring with teeth arranged that way.

Next up, a dive into the Physics.


* Science as the organized / methodical study of nature was a branch of philosophy up through the Scientific Revolution, and some branches of science (such as physics) were still called 'natural philosophy' up into the 19th century.


Some great nature shots at this Atlantic website, but the last one is truly amazing.

Lost arts

From the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica entry on "Turkey" (the bird kind).   You can't find genteel trashtalk like this any more:
The bibliography of the turkey is so large that there is here no room to name the various works that might be cited.  Recent research has failed to add anything of importance to what has been said on this point by Buffon (Oiseaux, ii. 132-162), Pennant (Arctic Zoology, pp. 291-300)--an admirable summary--and Broderip (Zoological Recreations, pp. 120-137)--not that all their statements can be wholly accepted.  Barrington's essay (Miscellanies, pp. 127-151), to prove that the bird was known before the discovery of America and was transported thither, is an ingenious piece of special pleading which his friend Pennant did him the real kindness of ignoring.

It's Not A Double-Standard If You Never Thought Of It

A friend of mine sent me this picture, which I found rather surprising. I don't think it's a double standard, so much as their just not being interested in the quality of boys' toys to the same degree. I had honestly never thought of their point at all. Of course I remember He-Man, who was just a cleaned-up kids version of Conan, a physically similar character.

All three are really popular, which may say something about what is really going on here. When we talk about Conan books, the usual screed against them is that they represent a simple kind of male wish-fulfillment. I think that's unfair: at least the original R. E. Howard stories are really quite good. But it might be true for He-Man.

My New Favorite Syllogism

The moon is made of green cheese. Therefore, either it is raining in Ecuador now or it is not.

In our earlier discussions of logic, the failure of modern logic to take relevance into account seemed to me a great failure. Specifically, I maintain that the forms of natural language cannot be entirely separated from the content, no matter how many logicians deeply pine for such a situation.

Now, to the extent that modern logic is a branch of mathematics, I have no problem with it. It has found uses in computer programming and probably other fields, and it's an interesting intellectual exercise in itself. It is to the extent that modern logic attempts to use natural language to create or understand meaning that it fails.

Relevance / Relevant logicians have tried to develop formal expressions of relevance and have come closer to making premises and conclusions relevant to each other, but they haven't solved the problem entirely.

As for me, while I fully understand there are practical uses for modern logic, it seems that Aristotelean logic is superior for analyzing arguments in natural language. Else, it is either raining in Ecuador, or it is not, because the moon is made of green cheese.

Project Euler and Self-Directed Learning

Problem 2

Each new term in the Fibonacci sequence is generated by adding the previous two terms. By starting with 1 and 2, the first 10 terms will be:

1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55, 89, ...

By considering the terms in the Fibonacci sequence whose values do not exceed four million, find the sum of the even-valued terms.

Apropos of Tex's recent post on child-centered learning, I thought I'd add this.

Computer programming is a hobby of mine and something I am very interested in getting better at, but I was never good at math. Call me lazy, but the most difficult thing in math classes was keeping my eyes open; after missing the instruction, the problems were often impossible. (If it's impossible, it's not difficult, you see.) The textbooks were even more boring than the teachers, so they were no help, either.

In the last few years I've become increasingly interested in learning more math, but the problem is where to begin and how to approach it. I dread taking university math courses, an expensive cure for insomnia in my experience. Then I read James Somer's article, How I Failed, Failed and Finally Succeeded in Learning How to Code, where he introduces Colin Hughes, a British math teacher and the creator of Project Euler.

The core of Project Euler is a set of math problems designed to be solved by simple computer programs. Currently, there are more than 400 and Mr. Hughes adds a new one each weekend during the school year (he takes summers off). Interestingly, other than a simple explanation like the one above, he provides no instruction in math with the problem, but after you give the correct answer, it opens up a discussion thread for everyone who has solved the problem to share their solutions and comments with each other.

My route to solving these problems has generally been either to just start writing the program, if I immediately grasped the problem (like Problem 2 above), or if I didn't, to look up related math topics on Wikipedia, which has a surprisingly large number of helpful articles. I try to find a principle that will allow me to solve that type of problem (I avoid simply searching for  the problem itself; some unsporting types have posted their solutions publicly). After solving the problem, I go through a dozen or so solutions from others who have also solved it.

Hughes explains his method like this: "The problems range in difficulty and for many the experience is inductive chain learning. That is, by solving one problem it will expose you to a new concept that allows you to undertake a previously inaccessible problem. So the determined participant will slowly but surely work his/her way through every problem."

That seems to be how it's working for me. While the problems have gotten more difficult, I've become quicker to pick up on patterns in numbers and, when I don't understand a problem, I have a better idea of how to approach finding the answer. I've built up a better understanding of how numbers work together, a clearer understanding of some math concepts, an appreciation for different types of math (number theory, graph theory, combinatorics, etc.) and am solving the problems faster. I am, in fact, learning math.

My proudest achievement there so far has been solving problem 15. Wikipedia was entirely useless (I later found out that I was looking in the wrong articles), so I had to sit down with pen and paper and work through simpler versions of the problem until I found a pattern. Then I created my own formula to solve the problem, implemented it, and it worked. It took me nearly a week of spare time. Then I went into the discussion forum for that problem and found two vastly simpler ways to solve it, and of course I got a good laugh out of that. Then it was on to the next problem.