Octavo Dia

Tuesday, April 26, 2005


I took the Foreign Service Written Exam this last Saturday. To get myself onto days, since I normally work nights, I borrowed Noumenon's copy of Civ III. Time passes unnoticed when I play Civ III, so I could sit down and start a game, play it all night and all day, go to bed, and wake up on day shift hours.

I had to give it back. Having used it to switch shifts, and then switch back, I uninstalled the program, but that wasn't enough. I was sitting around contemplating a paper that I should be writing, and thinking to myself, "Oooh, that's something I should try in my next game. I could reinstall it and play it for an hour, which would surely be long enough to test that approach..." Of course, an hour of Civ III time is eight to the normal world.

I should just get my own copy of Civ III and play it until I was tired of it. The trouble with that approach is I don't really get tired of a game until I've tried more or less every option to see how it changes the game. It took an entire summer of playing Civil War Generals II, and a year or so of playing Civ II. Civ III is such a complicated game (heck, in all the times I've played it I've won the game in only four ways and there are six different ways to win!) that I would need a few years with no non-work distractions, such as school, family, food, to sate my appetite. And, if I did follow this path, I'm sure Hamlette would arrange an unfortunate accident: ("No, I don't know how I mistakenly used the CD as a coaster and dripped boiling coffee and molten chocolate on it. And to think it happened the day after I accidentally sent the instruction manual through the shredder. That coincidence is just eerie.")

This time, when I played it, I tried being a pacifist. I built my world around trade relations. I was involved in only a single war the entire game, and there were only two other wars. The second time I played it, I discovered that I could bomb improvements as well as cities and armies, so I built my wars around destroying enemy infrastructure. In one case, my enemies were reduced to fighting tanks with spearmen, because I had destroyed their iron supplies. The ability of a single discovery, that of attacking resources with ships, to change my entire strategy means that there's no hope for me.

The next time I play it (bad, bad, me), I want to try putting just two other civilizations on an huge world, high landmass pangaea. This would, most likely, make the date of first contact much later in history, and reduce the competition for resources dramatically. Would we trade? Would we fight? How well would we develop without the ability to trade for technology? What would happen to the civilization that made contact later? Would they be left in the dust? This would be the first in a long line of experiments. I would have to try every tribe, of course, and try to win in all six ways, but that wouldn't be the end of it. When I played Civ II, I used the map editor to create a map that was all grassland and tundra, with no special resources other than fish. Thus, though there was plenty of food and trade, no one had any production until they developed the ability to plant forests. Maybe I'll need more than a few years.

Monday, April 18, 2005

What's it good for?

This week, as usual, there were protests at UW Madison. The protestors were protesting the same thing which has been protested by, I assume, the same protestors on the same issue last week: the War in Iraq. Had I the inclination, and had I not the realization that slogans rarely coincide with objective discussion, I would like to have asked the protestors what they hoped to accomplish by protesting.

The War in Iraq is fait accompli. It cannot be undone. Nothing short of time machines could possibly undo it, and even time machines wouldn't help, since visits by time machines have already happened--they are already part of the past we know. So what then are they protesting? Bush wants out of Iraq more than anyone except the people getting shot at, surely more than students leading their comfy lives in Madison. What politician wouldn't want an end to that ceaseless political headache?

Now that we're there, however, we are stuck. To leave would be shameful. We replaced the misery of dictatorship with the misery of war. That war will continue if America leaves. It will continue because it is not unified under a single banner (other than "Yankee Go Home," which won't help once we're gone), nor does it have experienced political elements to establish a new government. If America leaves, who will fill the power vacuum? Without the experienced political elements, the competition for power will continue in its previous path, an insurgency--renamed civil war--only the guns will be aimed at fellow Iraqis. Thus, before we leave we must either have a unified force opposing us or an end to the insurgency and an established government. We need to leave behind a political structure to replace the one we destroyed.

Saturday, April 16, 2005

Flat Taxes

The Economist has two articles about the flat tax this week. Between the two of them, I have been convinced that, if we must have income taxes at all, we should have a flat tax. My personal view of taxes is simple: if you want more of something, you subsidize it, if you want less of something, you tax it. Why then are we taxing income, profits, dividends, etc. We want all of those. What we should tax are things that we don't want, such as pollution. Anyway, these two arguments made the case for me: first, that it is so simple. Individuals wouldn't have to fill out tax forms at all. The IRS would send a form to WalMart saying, take the total payroll expense for this year, subtract $xx,xxx times # of employees (based on, for example, 2,000 hours a year). Multiply by xx% and send the check to us. Thus WalMart would prepare the tax form for all of their employees, and it wouldn't take them very long either. Plus, it wouldn't be hard to process all the forms.

Second, that progressive taxes are not progressive. Those with a good deal of money are also those with a good deal of political power (remember, correlation does not equal causation), and thus the tax system becomes flat by the creation endless loopholes, tax shelters, etc. So, in effect, we have a flat tax with the inefficiencies of a progressive, complicated tax code, instead of having a flat tax that's simple.

Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Writing Stinks

I am currently preparing to take the Foreign Service Written Exam. How am I preparing? I'm spending 50 minutes a day writing a short essay long hand. It stinks. I've been spoiled by my graduate school education. Even the GRE had computers for writing the essay. In 50 minutes, I can just barely squeeze out 3 pages. I could put those five paragraphs into type in less than ten. Why can't the darn U.S. government join the twenty-first century and provide computers with nothing but composition software on them? It would sure make everything a heck of a lot easier on those of us who can type, as well as on the people who have to read them and wade through endless pages of scrawl.

Tuesday, April 12, 2005


I hate to brag, no, no, wait a minute, I LOVE to brag. Sorry, my false modesty was kicking in. I have just read an article, that, if it turns out the way I predicted, means I'm right! Darn I'm good. I predicted that they would threaten to scrap Hubble, and then come up with some way to "save" it if they couldn't stop the budget cutters. Suddenly, there is a proposal to robotically service the Hubble Space Telescope. However, it does follow a typical bureaucratic pattern of increasing funding, "We can save money by spending money, honest!", when the reason this was an issue at all was because of funding cuts. Now we just have to wait on the Voyager.

Sunday, April 10, 2005


I read an article about how those we believe to be the homo habilis had a complex social structure. How did we come to this conclusion? We know that they cared for their elderly, because we found the skull of a toothless "old" (he was forty) man who "would not have been able to chew the raw meat and fibrous plants which made up the creatures' normal diet." Why couldn't he just cook his meat? Because "the Dmanisi hominoids had no fire."

Here's the problem: how do we know that they had no fire? We don't. The way we "know" that they had no fire is because we assume that fire was first used by the homo erecti. Thus, anything that uses fire is defined as homo erectus or later. If we do find a homo habilis or earlier using fire, we assume that it was made by early homo erecti, or that they themselves were early homo erecti.

In a similar way, if we were to find, for example, a spear point inside a dinosaur fossil, the idea that humans and dinosaurs lived together would be rejected out of hand. Rather, with no evidence to the effect, we would assume that the fossil had been contaminated, because our pre-existing interpretation skews how we view the evidence.

The point is that most people view evidence as objective. They are "facts" and facts are objective and unchanging. The reality is that facts must be interpreted. The normal test used in the scientific method to help deal with interpretation is the simplicity test (which is in itself a form of bias). The simplicity test means that the most simple explanation is the one to be preferred. Which is the most simple explanation? That the homo habilis had learned how to cook.

The Tragedy of the Commons

The Tragedy of the Commons is an economics term. The story goes that, in medieval England, ever town had a pasture that could be used by all the villagers. A typical village, for example, had enough pasture to support 100 cows. The concept is that one villager would decide to put two cows on the common pasture and double his income. The other villagers would see this and put all of their cows in the pasture. The trouble is, the pasture could only support 100 cows, and so it would soon become a mud patch full of scrawny cows.

Here's the trouble with this scenario. The peasants are not stupid. A few would notice that the milk was drying up, and decide to have steaks rather than milk. The peasants would cut their loses, either by moving their cows back to their own pasture, or by eating a few. Either way, the cow population would be brought back into balance with the available pasture. The only time that this would not be the case is if additional exploitation caused irreparable harm, yet such instances are few.

Friday, April 08, 2005

Modern Mythology

If you think about it, the myths we read from ancient people were the most logical, and scientific explanation they could come up with. Why was there lightning? Obviously, it was a weapon of the gods. That started me thinking of what people three thousand years from now will think of our science. Thus I present modern mythology:

In the beginning there was nothing but the gods. It was not cold, dark, and empty, for there was no cold, no darkness, no emptiness. Only the gods were. Then the great god Big Bang called the lesser gods to him and said, "What is there to speak to our glory? Who shall praise us for the works of our hands? Let us create. Then our creation will turn to us in awe and wonder at what we have made."

So the great god Big Bang opened his mouth, and from it poured, with the force of a billion novae, the energy that spread to form the universe. Some condensed into matter, some stayed as energy, but most the god held back, hidden from the rest, as dark energy, or ether, that wove the universe together.

Then Big Bang summoned the god Probability to his side. "Find for me a place in the universe I have made, suitable to show the glory of the gods." So the god Probability cast his lots amount the galaxies, and the Milky Way was taken. He cast them again amongst the hundreds of thousands of stars, and Sol was taken. He cast amount the planets, and the binary world of Earth-Luna was taken. Probability looked upon Earth, with its sister planet giving its oceans movement, with its rotation the right speed, and its tilt perfect for seasons, with the star Sol just the right distance away and the orbit perfectly timed, but mostly, he looked at the oceans, full of minerals from the thousands of volcanoes in the new land. He cast his lots again, and it fell to a tidal pool, formed by the lava of a slowly seeping volcano, and he struck it with a bolt of lightning. A chemical reaction began, a reaction which was able to incorporate the minerals around it to make more of itself. Then the god Probability rested.

Big Bang called the god Deep Time to him and spake, "I wish that nothing should happen to what Probability has made. There shall be no eruptions, comets, floods, or other disasters that might destroy these fragile beginnings. Make it so." So Deep Time stood as a wall around the pool, the planet, the solar system. Through countless ages he stood.

Big Bang called the twin goddesses Adaptive Mutation, the creator, and Natural Selection, the destroyer, and said to them, "Go, and make worshipers for us. Make those who will recognize our greatness." So the goddess Natural Selection came like the angel of death and began smiting the creations, but the ones touched by the hand of her sister she could not destroy. Protected by Deep Time, the goddesses labored through the ages, and, to their glory, they continue to work even though they have created those who could awe and wonder.

And this is how we are to worship. We are to imitate the gods, to make copies of what they have done. With our nuclear reactors and particular accelerators we are to worship the god Big Bang. With our SETI program we are to search the skies, as Probability has done. With our dating methods, we are to follow the path of Deep Time. By breeding and genetic engineering, we shall worship Natural Selection and Adaptive Mutation. And thusly will the great god Big Bang be pleased, and he will not swallow the universe and spew it forth anew.

The house built on sand.

I recently read an article, which, I'm afraid to say, was in an actual magazine, so I can't link to it (curse these darn analog formats). In this article, the author stated that one was "better off buying than renting, because when you buy, you're funding your own investment, not someone else's." I had difficulty restraining my incompetence-seeking fist o' death. What did the author think was happening to all the interest paid on the mortgage? Did it evaporate? Was it thrown to the wolves? Whose money did they borrow to get the mortgage? Was it not "someone else's investment"? The things that people can publish in relatively reputable magazines astounds me. You would think that they author would have heard of Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, and the wonderful things called Mortgage-Back Securities.

But I digress. Here is why I think we are experiencing a housing bubble, and why it will pop, rather than deflate. This is going to be dull. Art, theater, english, and literature majors: you have been warned.

First, what is a bubble? A bubble occurs when investors confuse prices with productivity. A price is how much someone is willing to pay; productivity is how much of a good it actually creates. Thus a simple, reliable car produces the good of transportation. A fancy roadster, while it may produce some intangibles such as sex appeal, produces very little more--you don't get much more transportation value. However, the price people are willing to pay rises dramatically with those intangibles. If investors start piling into the roadster market, prices will go up and excellent returns will be realized, causing more people to enter the market, causing prices to go still higher, and so on. However, when investors realize that the return on investment is coming solely from people purchasing intangibles, rather than from the actual productive output, the bubble bursts. In the grand-daddy of them all, the Dutch Tulip Bubble, people were paying astonishing prices for all things tulip, because they were "sure" they'd get their money back as prices kept rising. When people realized that they were trading away their livelihoods for glorified weeds, the bubble burst.

Second, what makes this a bubble? Houses are often misunderstood because they function both as usage and capital investments. One can buy a house and rent it out, but one can also buy a house and live in it, thereby reaping as a profit the money that would otherwise go to a landlord. Thus the value of a house is directly linked to the amount of money either earned by renting it or saved by living in it. We would thus expect that owning a house should be only marginally less expensive than renting (the difference being the profit the landlord takes from their investment). Since house prices are, the nation over, advancing by leaps and bounds above the historical rate for rents, we definitely have a bubble. If it is not a bubble, then houses have been significantly undervalued for most of history, which seems unlikely.

Third, why will this bubble pop? Some argue that, because houses are major investments, people will not sell them when prices begin to fall, rather, they'll hold them off the market until they can get a decent return. In short, they'll become speculators. There is one difference, however. Most speculators purchase the goods in which they are speculating straight out. Homebuyers purchase their homes on the margin; they purchase them with borrowed money. They are therefore subject to fluctuating interest rates, particularly with this latest round, due to ARMS, interest-only mortgages, 100+% mortgages, etc. People have stretched their financial resources to the limits to buy the biggest, best, tulips, er, houses they can afford. Thus when interest rates climb and stretched finances mean people can no longer afford the mortgages on the houses they "own", they will be forced to place their houses on the market. (And, as Noumenon pointed out to me, we have a brand new bankruptcy bill for just such an occasion.) They will become price-takers, accepting what they're offered, since they can't hold out for more. Thus the bubble will burst.

Thursday, April 07, 2005

Hubble Double

Back in the very early beginnings of this blog, the post "Hubble," I wrote about how a bureaucratic organization would, unlike a business, threaten to destroy its most valuable asset in order to retain its funding. I predicted that NASA would end up scrapping other parts of its program in order to save Hubble. I was not exactly correct. New facts have forced me to update my theory. Which other parts of its program will a bureaucratic organization scrap if it comes down to the wire? Unlike a business, once again, a bureaucratic organization will select targets of value for cuts, in the hopes of preserving funding by making people question whether the funding cuts are truly necessary. NASA has selected the Voyager space craft, which, as the Washington Post termed it, is "as if Lewis and Clark had got all the way to the Rocky Mountains, and then turned around and headed home." I am curious as to what the result will be when the budgets gets its shave. Will they truly cut common programs, or will the chopping block be blue with the blood of royalty?

Sunday, April 03, 2005


I have a proposal for the good of society: I propose an end to the 9 to 5 crap. My mind has been liberated by working a 2-2-3 shift, and I would like to spread the good cheer around. I propose that we all work 10 hour days on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, Friday. In this way, by a mere two extra hours a day, we could have a third day off every week, and we would never have to work more than two days in a row. The lovely extra day off, besides the time it would save in commuting, would provide us with an extra "Friday" a week. Yes, I know that it would provide an extra "Monday", too, but my experience with the 2-2-3 has been that, the awfulness of "Monday" is very much the anticipation of five loooooooooooong days of work. With only two days of work, "Monday" isn't nearly so bad, yet "Friday" has lost none of its sweetness.