Octavo Dia

Monday, May 30, 2005

What goes around

I just had the odd experience of having one of my own theories promulgated back to me. Debating during college has skewed my view of persuasion. I'm used to arguing anything with anybody with the expectation that people will not take me terribly seriously. Being taken seriously has happened only once before, when I took part in a demonstration debate (college debate teams are always trying to drum up new members) on Martin Luther King Jr. day on the topic of "The Civil Rights Movement is Over." I argued that we had done all we could in regards to civil rights--we've removed the laws that are discriminatory on their face and even attacked laws that are administered in biased ways. Thus what remains are not civil rights, rights enforced by society, but personal, private beliefs. After that debate I was approached by a half a dozen people telling me that they agreed completely.

Anyway, what made this incident especially unusual is that it came back to me second hand. I had not only created a theory, but had it passed on. The theory is that, as meaning (purpose) is lost in an organization, it is replaced by ceremony. This works positively as well, since gaining a purpose reduces ceremony.

The best illustration of this is the military, which works through cycles of importance. The ceremony associated with the military, the spit-and-polish, close order drill (do we still do this?), etc., rapidly dissolve during wartime, leaving only those quasi-ceremonial features which serve other purposes. Religious organizations follow the same pattern--liberation theologians do not build cathedrals.

Mysteries

I am very particular about the kinds of fiction I truly enjoy, and by truly enjoy, I mean a book good enough that I'm willing to read it again. In terms of mysteries, I have one criteria--I have to have all the information that the detective has. If the author can present the evidence and still have me stumped, and yet through sheer brilliance solve the case, that is a good mystery. My favorite authors in the genre, using this criterion, are:

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle: Who doesn't love Sherlock Holmes? The brilliance, coupled with vivid storytelling, make him the supreme detective. I also strongly recommend the British television versions starring Jeremy Brett (yes, the guy who played Freddie in My Fair Lady) as Sherlock Holmes.

Harry Kemelman: The "Rabbi" series. For sheer hairsplitting logic, these are the best.

Isaac Asimov: the "Black Widower" short stories. The chief feature of these is that the "detectives" never leave the room. Everything they conclude is deduced solely from what was said.

And the flood waters rose

Theoretically, I should be looking for disconfirming evidence to fit my housing bubble theory. Since we do not and can not have perfect information, we never try to prove something true, we only fail to prove something false. For example, all the evidence people had piled up to prove that the world was flat were rejected based on a single piece of contrary evidence--Magellen sailed around it. However, I'm too lazy to approach this scientifically, so I present the first tremors in the collapse of the housing market.

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Money Money Money

I don't think that China's currency is as undervalued as we have been led to believe, for the simple reason that there has been a conspicuous absence of speculation surrounding it. Currency pegs have to be maintained, in other words, if someone wants to buy 8.28 yuan for $1, the Chinese government has to do it. If they can't/don't, then the currency peg collapses and the currency will be revalued.

How does speculation influence this? If the currency peg is significantly different from its value, a speculator will try to profit from the difference. In the case of China, various funds and banks would begin establishing speculative positions--they would be buying yuan as fast as possible--in amounts ranging well into the billions of dollars. By increasing demand for the yuan, speculators would cause the value would go up, causing more people to sell dollars, increasing the demand still further, until the Chinese central bank did not have the resources to purchase more dollars. Thus the currency peg would collapse.

A speculative fund which purchased, for example, $10 billion at 8.28 to the dollar, could then sell it's holdings once the yuan revalued to, for example, 8 yuan/dollar for an extra $350 million. That's a profit worth risking the bank on. If the currency were revalued to, for example, only 8.26, the fund would make only $24 million.

Since there is a lack of speculation, we can deduce that the potential profits are not great enough to encourage massive speculative positions, meaning that the yuan, if revalued, will not change all that much--meaning that it is not terribly undervalued.

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Good Books

Do you know how I define a good book? A good book is one that gives me answers to which I have not yet thought of the questions. Regulating the Poor: The Functions of Public Welfare. by Piven and Cloward is a good book. To determine the functions of public welfare, the authors understood that the logical first step was to study that with which it was correlated. They found that, throughout history, the expansion and contraction of public welfare is not correlated with any objective measure of poverty, but rather with the level of civil unrest in society. Welfare occurs not when people are poor, but when the people begin to burn things. The other function of public welfare they identified is that it enforces low-wage work. By making the process of obtaining welfare demeaning and arduous, it makes people willing to take any work available rather than apply for welfare. This book has dramatically shifted my opinion of the welfare system. I can now view it as an insurance policy, rather than a burden, since it is the price I pay to live in a stable society.

Because of reading this book, I have been attempting to construct the theoretically perfect welfare system. I believe such a system would contain the following elements:

1. Work: most aid programs involve the recipient looking for some sort of paid work, but I believe that this is unnecessary. Society derives few benefits from the economic contribution of low-wage work. Rather, it is the structuring, and discipline, of work itself which has the greatest societal impact (in terms of regulating the poor, that is). Thus any work, including volunteer work (even picking up trash alone highways), which may not be economically viable at any "living" wage, is still worthwhile for society and should be supported by a welfare program.

2. Level of aid: the amount of aid should increase, rather than decrease, with the amount of work done. The economy, through means of paychecks, provides an incentive for improving one's status. By decreasing aid as more work is done, welfare systems work against the market incentives. If anything, we should be encouraging the market to incorporate these people, rather than fighting against it.

3. Simplicity: any sort of means testing involves tremendous administrative costs. However, these means tests also serve to enforce low-wage work by making the aid process demeaning and arduous. Thus, if we eliminate the complexities of the system, we also eliminate our ability to control who enters the aid program--a serious limitation.

4. Cut offs: if at any point benefits are terminated, or severely cut, it reduces the incentive to better one's position--leading to a permanent underclass. Thus an ideal program would have voluntary cut offs. The only way I can think of to make this work is through a name and shame program. Publish the names of those receiving aid (preferably in a searchable list online). This information would thus be available to credit agencies, for everyone doing background checks, employers, and most importantly, to fellow aid recipients. This would produce pressure to leave the roll as soon as possible. The social pressure, furthermore, would be particularly strong if there was a strictly limited amount of funding available.

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

The Monkey is French?

I know that slanted messages are in the eye of the beholder, but I'm still not sure I'm seeing things clearly after reading this article. Here's my attempt to be objective in analyzing the word choices:

The article is rather tame (interesting word choice of my own, I must admit) until the paragraph beginning with "Mary Shelley..." The phrase "Playing Creator" is unusual because the normal phrase is "playing God", yet the "C" is still capitalized, making it a proper noun. Looking later in the article, however, the use of "Creator" distinguishes it from the "evangelical Christians" who are "exploiting God." Thus, by saying "Creator" she is using religious, as opposed to Christian, terminology. Not that "God" is a uniquely Christian term, but in the context in which she uses the two words, it is.

I realize, once again, that this is a news story and that it will most obviously reference modern events. However, the "tricky" consequences of "Playing Creator" apply only to actions of the W. administration. Such a narrow selection, four events (the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the democratization programs therein, North Korea, Abu Gharib, and the insurgency) from the current administration is biased in its selection. A balanced sample of events (and also a better proof) of the trickiness of "Playing Creator" would involve historical examples, such as democratizing Japan and Germany, international examples, such as Britain's pacification of the Malaya insurgency shortly after WWII, and examples from other administrations, and examples of successful experiments. Of the four, furthermore, the Chimerical creations and their consequences, which is the ostensible subject of the article, North Korea and Abu Gharib do not qualify.

The term "injecting" is also strongly slanted. "Injections" have connotations such as shots, needles, pain, etc. Try the sentence with different words, "President Bush's experiments in Afghanistan and Iraq created his own chimeras, by infusing feudal and tribal societies with the cells of democracy..." Or "President Bush's experiments in Afghanistan and Iraq created his own chimeras, by grafting feudal and tribal societies to the root of democracy..." Or "President Bush's experiments in Afghanistan and Iraq created his own chimeras, by planting in feudal and tribal societies the seed of democracy..." Or alternatively, "President Bush's experiments in Afghanistan and Iraq created his own chimeras, by forcing on feudal and tribal societies the instability of democracy..." Different meanings. (By the way, it is my considered opinion that every society is ready for democracy, it's just that the elites, those with power under the old system, that are not ready.)

Here's a sentence that I misunderstand entirely, "In dealing with Bush, real weapons trump imaginary - or chimerical - ones." Chimerical weapons? Weapons put together from pieces of other weapons? Huh? Rocket mounted machine guns? Huh? I'm guessing it's a stylistic thing, but it confuses me.

Here's a list of slanted terms in the rest of the article:

Mutant (refering to the GOP): bad connotations since the 1950's.
Old Guard: entrenched interests--connoted with political machines, elites, power politics, etc.
Exploiting God: entire paragraph that follows.

"A spine-tingling he-monster with the power to drag us back into the pre-Darwinian dark ages is slouching around Washington. It's a fire-breathing creature with the head of W., the body of Bill Frist, and the serpent tail of Tom DeLay."

For those of you who like Latin, that's called an "Ad Hominem" attack. In parental terms, it's name-calling. In my terms, even on the opinion page, it's an affront to journalism and scholarship.

Friday, May 06, 2005

In Defense of Valley Girls

For many long years, I, like many people with an academic bent, despised the wanton misuse of similes. I have since changed my mind, due to acting. In "Finding Nemo," for example, the sea turtle says this line: "First you were like woah, then we were like WOAH!, then you were like woooah." Except he doesn't just say it, he acts it. In this line he repeats not only the verbal message, but also the emotional and nonverbal content that accompanied it. Since perfectly replicating emotion and nonverbal communication is almost impossible, his portrayal is only "like" the original. Thus, in oral communication, if the speaker is portraying emotion and nonverbals, the use of the word "like" as a simile is justified. I will still, however, flog anyone who uses it in non-dialogue writing. Unless, of course, they're John McWhorter in his eminently readable book, The Degredation of Language and Music: and why we should, like, care.

Thursday, May 05, 2005

The Supervisor of Lies

I told a lie today. I told a lie and put in writing and signed my initials after it. Not for love or money, not even for thrills. I did it with the collusion of my supervisor, who wanted me to do it so that he wouldn't get hassled. You see, we have standard operating procedures where I work. Whenever someone violates a standard operating procedure, even a supervisor, they're called up by the managers and interrogated about it. For those who don't know, I manufacture plastic sheeting for the printing industry (You've probably seen my work. Next time you go to WalMart, look at the name tags that the associates are wearing. Those are printed on my product. Stuff I've made shows up all over the U.S. in tens of thousands of places and uses.)

Today, the standard operating procedure called for us to use about $500 worth of one kind plastic to run a job. I was using a different, more expensive kind, and if I continued using it, I'd use about $700 worth for that job. The $200 difference is nothing to sneeze at, but to change my material, and change back again, if everything worked perfectly, would cost at least $300 and 20 minutes of machine time (valued at $300/hour). Thus I'd be losing $200 to save $400. To save the company $200 I told a lie. I said I had used the material they wanted me to when I hadn't. Referring to the post before this, my company has tried to reform by making ever more precise rules and enforcing them with greater severity. These reforms have achieved exactly the opposite result. Not only are the rules not effective, but management is receiving only the semblance of compliance, thus undermining their control.

From the perspective of administrative law, when authority is delegated, and the delegator doesn't approve of a decision made by the delegatee, the delegator should never question the decision itself, but rather the process by which the decision was made. If the delegatee made a valid decision in terms of process, then the decision-making process needs to be changed. If one questions the decisions, rather than the process, one may as well have not delegated authority. One of the departments at work, which has ten employees spread over seven shifts, has essentially only one employee: the supervisor. None of the underlings will make any sort of decision at all. They'll put it on hold for the supervisor to evaluate. Why? At one time, early in their careers, all of them made a decision that the supervisor disapproved of. They were then "coached" and written up. After a few such occurrences they lost all ability to decide.

A similar thing is happening with my department. The supervisors have been delegated authority by management. The supervisors cannot use their delegated authority without getting hassled. Some have just given up and no longer make decisions. Some use the crystal ball technique (trying to predict the future) to make decisions that they think will please management. And some, such as mine, make the best decisions they can and then cover their tracks. That's why I lied.

Diminishing Returns

Long ago, in my childhood, I remember reading the sentence, "Any program of social reform, when taken to its logical conclusion, produces exactly the opposite result." Either my memory fails me and I read something only slightly like that, or it hasn't made its way on to Google yet. Regardless, it means that the law of diminishing returns will eventually produce negative results.

What brings this up? I read a report from a political action committee about the number of minority actors in prime time television. In the attempt to achieve diversity on television programming, this group complained about, among other things, that Native Americans, who form about 1.5% of the population, are significantly underrepresented. In another case, they complained that, of the few Asians depicted, some were "mixed-race asian". Suppose that this group could achieve their program, and have every racial/ethnic group depicted in perfect proportion (including portions from the mixed ethnic groups): would that be diverse? No. Part of diversity is the randomness of association. A group with, for example, many more Hindus than proportional, would most likely create a different dynamic than a proportional group. Including such a group would therefore create more diversity. Thus, if the PAC achieved its program, it would achieve exactly the opposite result--it would be undercutting diversity.

Monday, May 02, 2005

People

People can surprise you. A coworker of mine ripped and advertisment out of the Popular Science that was in the breakroom. I looked at the ad and said, "Dude, that's a scam." He replied, "I know. When I see an ad that I think's a scam, I'll write to them and visit their website to get information. If they still look like a scam, I'll report them to the Consumer Protection Agency. So far I've gotten fifteen groups investigated and four busted."

That surprised me because he didn't seem the type to be a consumer activist. He just seemed to be a regular guy doing regular guy things. It does seem like a very interesting hobby, however.

Poetry Contest :-)

In the manner of Rat from "Pearls Before Swine", I thought I'd start a post about people (not individuals, tempting though it may be) who should be hit in the head. As more people occur to me, I'll update the list.

1. People who rake their lawns, stuff the leaves into plastic bags, send them to the landfill, and then buy chemical fertilizers. Just take the lawnmower over the leaves a couple of times and voila--fertilizer! How the heck do they think soil becomes fertile naturally? Magic?

2. People who either don't use their turn signals or turn them on when they're already part way into a turn.

3. Okay, I lied. I'm going to specify an individual. His name is C. F. Payne. He's an artist who has been commissioned by Reader's Digest to do a series of paintings "Our America" for their back cover. He thinks he is Norman Rockwell. He isn't.

4. People who insist that cutting hair makes it grow faster. The hair is DEAD, okay? D-E-A-D dead. Dead things don't care what happens to them. Trimming a dead thing will not make it grow. Not trimming a dead thing will not make it grow either. If anything changes the speed of hair growth, it's something that happens to the hair follicles--which are ALIVE--not the hair.