Archive for November, 2009

Getting Out of Afghanistan: He says it better

November 22, 2009

This just in from Ron Cole’s Informed Comment, William Polk echoes my sentiments, but does it a lot better: Let America be America, and Depart Afghanistan. He lists mistakes we have made that make it impossible to win, discusses the costs in lives and treasure of possible alternatives, and lists the one thing we can do to end up better off than we are now — get out, but do it in such a way that we encourage the AF traditions of governance that kept the country stable for hundreds of years.

There is a concept called Dynamic Programming. It’s more like linear programming than computer programming and is designed to find an optimum path from where we are now to where we want to be. It is used in finance (I have put X% of my money into stock A, what do I do with the rest), supply chain management (I have X% of my inventory in warehouse A, what do I do with the rest), and project management (I have completed X steps towards my goal, what’s the rest of the path). There are problems with its strict application, because formally it requires computing all paths. That’s not usually possible, and so you have Approximate Dynamic Programming. The key point behind it, the takeaway lesson for AF, is essentially a restatement of sunk cost. You are where you are. However you got there, whatever the decision process or cost, the only thing you can do now is to optimize the rest of your path to your goal.

Jump to a different topic — Cybernetics. Cybernetics isn’t computers, it is control of dynamic systems. A quick and dirty description would be that you compare goals and results. If the results are not moving towards your desired goals, you take action to move them that way (traditionally, we insert a discussion of thermostats at this point). If you are consistently failing to achieve your goals, your choices are to expand the range of possible actions, or to change the goals. I will have a longer post on this topic after the end of the quarter, but suffice it to say that in AF, we have established (depending on who you read) a set of impossible goals, or no coherent goals at all. Either way, our range of possible actions is limited. A simple change of goals to something simple — a stable AF — and a clear-eyed recognition of the actions that would bring it about, would be a preferred way to establish a path that will lead us out of that country.

Global Warming 1

November 21, 2009

Over on Antariksh Yatra, there is a discussion of the state of the effort to fight global warming. The problem is that, as I see the Rules of the World seeing it, nobody is going to be seriously inconvenienced by global warming — at least, nobody worth mentioning. Yes, we’ll have bigger hurricanes, but the insurance companies are already factoring that into their price structure. Yes, we’ll have sea level rises, but that can be fought with tax increases on the middle class to finance dikes and pumps and things. Drought and famine and starvation? Well, they’ll happen in those dusty countries where they already happen. None of that is going to hurt this quarter’s earnings. In the far future, say, ten years out? There’s always winners as well as losers, and the winners can always find a bigger fool to buy their condo in Miami beach, and then just shift the money across national borders and buy beachfront property in Vancouver or Halifax or some other future resort area. It’s not that they don’t understand the implications of global warming, it’s that understanding it is not in their best interests — some homespun philosopher once said that it’s hard to get a man to understand something if his paycheck depends on him not understanding it. There are more optimistic views, for example, Sara Robinson over at Orcinus. Note: I have later comments on the problem, from a systems perspective.

Wednesday Wii: Scoring

November 18, 2009

The group that developed the Wii Fit+ from the Wii Fit seems to have been made up of different teams, who didn’t talk to each other. The best example of this is the scoring system on the exercises. In the old WF, each score was registered, and if you got an identical score, it didn’t overwrite the old one, but went to the top of a stack of identicals. In the WF+, some of the exercises continue to do this. In others, all but your high scores were zeroed out, and you add new ones as you go along. In at least two cases, and I have not tested them all, if you duplicate your personal best, it tells you. If you duplicate a lower score, it overwrites it — I think.

So, some of the developers got it right, but there doesn’t seem to have been any team discipline, any house standard. If my assessment is correct, this is incredibly sloppy and unprofessional, and the managers should be thrashed soundly for this.

Why the Patriot Act has to go.

November 16, 2009

Data from an article in Wired, quoting FBI and FBI IG reports:
Last year FBI issued National Security Letters at the rate of 2,000 per month. Investigations have showed that 60% of NSLs issued in earlier years didn’t follow FBI rules, and another 22% may have violated federal law. So 80% of NSLs were wrongfully issued. The FBI has promised to do better.

If this were the FDA dealing with health claims of vitamin companies, or the FTC dealing with cases of false advertising, that kind of response would be expected and, in this benighted age, accepted. But we are not dealing with sleazy corporations. We are dealing with a federal government agency which, in law, has the balance of power on its side. In most cases, in court, the formal assumption is that an officer of the law is living up to his oath and is complying with the law. Here we have prima facie evidence that that is not so, and not so on a massive scale. This wasn’t some rogue agent. This was a continuing and coordinated effort by the entire bureaucracy. The only conclusion that can be drawn is that the FBI cannot be trusted with the power it was given, and that that power must be revoked.

Veterans Day

November 11, 2009

I hadn’t planned on writing anything for this day. Most of what comes out is too treacly-sweet for me. But there have been a couple of reports worth passing on:

First, former 4-star and current ambassador to Afghanistan has expressed reservations about troop buildups, given the current Afghan leadership. He probably wouldn’t agree with anything but item 5, but I’ll reiterate what I’ve said before:
1. No compelling national interest – AFPAK is not where terrorist operational planning is done, and there are other places available.
2. Our presence is not helping. The tribes see us as just the latest in a long line of invaders.
3. Our presence is making things worse. There was no active taliban threat in PK until there was a US presence in AF.
4. No reasonable chance of winning at a price this country is willing to pay. We’re talking decades of conflict here.
5. We are propping up a regime that is corrupt from top to bottom — Karzai, the ministries, the army, the police. This has never worked.

If you want to support our troops, and not the old men who are sending them off to die, then support the idea of not committing them to hopeless causes.

Second, there are two reports on the streets on how we are treating our discharged veterans. In a word, shabby. In two words, like crap. Last year, over 2,000 vets, under the age of 65, died because they didn’t have health insurance. And another report says that vets are twice as likely to be among the homeless.

If you want to support our troops, support legislation that will provide adequate health care for all Americans, and will prevent honorable and courageous people from being thrown out on the streets. The fight isn’t just for veterans, it’s for us all.

The Economy

November 9, 2009

Seeking Alpha, an investment advice website new to me (since I don’t go in for that sort of thing), has some interesting charts and commentary on the state of the economy. Summary: it’s bad, and we may not have touched bottom. Unemployment might drop below 10% early next year, or it might stay above that number throughout 2010.

What I find depressing are the charts on employment declines (second chart), and on long term unemployment (last chart).

The curves shown in the second chart say that the employment impacts of seven of the previous ten post-war recessions (including all that approached losses of 5%) were essentially over by this time in the cycle. Note that recessions are measured by GDP, and that the employment changes shown start at the beginning of a recession, but might outlast the official GDP recession for years. These are the so-called ‘jobless recoveries’. Also note that ’employment’ — number of jobs — doesn’t completely correlate with ‘unemployment’ — people seeking work — because of changes in population and population structure. We can refer to the long term impact of a GDP recession as an ’employment recession’.

Most of the previous employment recessions have similar shapes. Ours is not one of them. The only longer one was the 2001 drop in employment that was a feature of most of Bush(43)’s Presidency, and that bottomed out at a 2% drop in employment, not 5+%, like ours. Has ours bottomed out? Probably not. But even if it has, and even if we are optimistic about the rate of recovery, it’s not likely that we will be back to the 2007 levels for another year, at least. We aren’t going to know until the first Obama budget gets passed, and starts to have an impact. Remember that an incoming president is saddled with his predecessor’s budget for the first year, and most of what went on last spring and summer was band-aid application.

More troublesome is the last chart. It shows the percentage of the unemployed who have been out of work for 27 months (over two years!) or more. Yes, it’s high. Yes, it’s at a record high. That’s not the problem. Look at the shape of the graph going all the way back to 1969. Every single minimum has been higher than the one before. And four, perhaps five, of the last six maximums have been equal to or higher than the one before. It may be that we are too helpful to people, and encourage them to live on a stipend that barely pays for beans, or it may be that we are much less efficient than we think about retraining those who used to knit buggywhips or staple cars together. Or it may be that we are not creating jobs nearly as fast as we need to.

Wednesday Wii

November 4, 2009

Just got a Wii Fit+. It’s a disappointing improvement, with some good ideas, unevenly implemented, and some bad ideas retained.

To lead off, the yellow-green color is best described as ‘bilious’. The greenishness is offputting, and the yellowishness interferes with the target circles. The characters haven’t improved. He still sounds like a frat-boy-jock, and her hair now looks like a featureless helmet.

More substantively, Nintendo can’t make up its mind if the Wii is for people who want to be fit, or for casual gamers — extremely casual gamers. I think it’s come down on the Xcas side, and that’s a shame. One example of this is how the intro screen for each of the yoga/strength exercises has both an animated sketch and [Demo] [Start] buttons. The demo is primarily useful to someone who has never done that exercise, or who has done it so long ago that they can’t remember what it does even if they look at the animated sketch. How many people are like that? I’m not the smartest brick in the wall but not only can I remember things, I can usually figure out a totally new exercise merely by looking at the sketch. The Wii knows I did those exercises yesterday, why not at least default to the [Start] button?

At the same time, on the exercise game side (as opposed to the straight sweat-it-out/we’re-not-out-here-for-fun exercises) they provide the sketchiest of instructions for many of the games — flap your wings, get the ball in the hole. Yes, you can learn the nuances of the games, but only if you play them a while.

I am left with the impression that the target audience is casual game-addicted people who don’t exercise.

The Garden

November 1, 2009

So, this being Samhain, we’ve pretty well cleaned up the garden, and are evaluating out efforts. This is what I learned this year:

1. Don’t use straight ‘garden soil’ in containers. It solidifies and makes it hard for the plants to breath. Our tomatoes were all in the 100g range, even the ‘beefsteaks’. Mix with, or use straight potting soil next time. And read the label.

2. Although our taters were moderately successful, it turns out that Yukon gold is not the best kind for caging — we got about 3kg out of a 1x2m enclosure. And read the description.

3. For the third year in a row, the onion sets did poorly.  We’ve decided to give it up.

4. Our lemon-shaped summer squash did poorly. I’m not so sure I want to continue with squash, either. They take up a lot of room.

5. The carrots and seeded bunch onions did OK, but I didn’t thin them enough. I think I need to use one of those seed wheels, so I get them far enough apart to start with.

6. We planted a number of different varieties of tomatoes.  The Jet Stars did OK. The Early Girl and Beefsteaks did poorly (see 1), and had thick skins. As for heirlooms, neither of us was thrilled with the Abe Lincolns, and MJ doesn’t like the ‘black’ series (Black, Black Prince). Brandywine was a failure (see 1).

7. All our tomatoes were in planters (or in hacked open soil bags). They needed constant watering, and we lost a few to blossom-end rot. Try building some self-watering containers next year (see Instructables article).

8. Beans did extremely poorly — again. Our foot-long Asian variety came in at 3″. Give up on beans.

9. Peas against south wall did OK, but did poorly in the main garden.  Ditto for leaf lettuces.

10. Herbs did great. Potted Basil and Sage grew well. The Oregano wanted to take over the NE wall by the dog run. Too bad we had to spray that wall for carpenter ants. Well, cut it back this winter and let it grow again next year. See if we can get some Rosemary and Thyme to mix in there also.

Now, all’s I have to do is dig up the detritus, rake up the leaves, and start planning for next year.