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Invitation to the 15th Annual Straggler's Thanksgiving

Oct. 16th, 2010 | 06:46 pm
mood: cheerfulcheerful

Many thanks to the folks at theChive.com and Whiteboard Girl for the great idea!

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Debate question: Libertarianism and Monopolies

May. 21st, 2010 | 10:26 am
mood: contemplativecontemplative

Rand Paul made a rookie mistake on hitting the national scene by stating extremist views honestly and unequivocally. Naturally, he is getting a lot of national attention for his fundamental libertarian argument - that government shouldn't have the ability to interfere with a privately-run business (i.e. would have voted against the Civil Rights act) but that government itself should not discriminate against citizens for reasons of race, creed, etc...

Ignoring Rand Paul's attempts to mitigate the interpretation of his convictions by trying the nuanced "I'm against racism in all forms but would not let the government stop it" argument, I have to say that I do understand the logic behind his argument. If I run a private club or a store, I should be allowed to refuse service to someone who would be disruptive or whose finances are questionable or who isn't dressed properly for my establishment. And, yes, even if I don't like that person's race. Abhorrent, but shouldn't be restricted. However, here are the scenarios where the argument becomes difficult that Paul doesn't really address:

  • Utilities, such as power, waste disposal, and cable, are becoming increasingly privatized. If I am the only supplier of a service and I refuse to deliver power to a neighborhood because "they represent a population that are not likely to pay their bills" but really because that neighborhood is a minority one, should the government force me to deliver that service? I could be sued but if I haven't broken any laws then that lawsuit might be hard to win.

  • If I am a minority living in a community where gas stations, supermarkets, etc. refuse to take my money, then I could open my own business. However, if banks refuse to give me a small business loan or I can't rent any space for the same reasons, then I'd be forced to move. Now, if I couldn't afford to move, then what are the free market mechanisms that offers a correction in this case.

  • In both these cases, they represent cases where a monopoly (or a collective monopoly) can create a situation that we might morally call socially unjust and where government has very little recourse to correct if we had a government run by Paul's rules.

    I do believe that society is more efficiently run if decision-making is pushed down to individuals or small groups. But, there are cases where a large amount of collective damage can be caused if those individuals and groups have enough collective influence to cause significant harm. I'm trying to figure out where the line should be drawn, if any. I don't believe that a society based solely on libertarian values can work for reasons like the above.

    Could anyone tell me what a libertarian would argue besides, "It'll all work out"?

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    The Rat's Ass Problem

    Mar. 12th, 2010 | 03:29 pm

    Under the loose theory that rational people would not screw over their close friends and family but would be tempted to screw over a complete stranger if they could get away with it and gain great personal advantage, the Rat's Ass Ideology is one where someone or a group of someones has clearly chosen a course of action or ideology because they really don't give a rat's ass about the people who would be adversely affected by it. The Rat's Ass Ideology could be said to be in opposition to The Golden Rule that states to do unto others as you would have them do unto you or not to do unto others, blah blah blah.

    The Rat's Ass Problem is one where the number of individuals, within a social network of people, engaging in Rat's Ass behaviors is such that the social equilibrium tilts from stable to collapsing. The Rat's Ass Problem is a significant one in tightly-coupled social and economic systems primarily due to the inability of most people to predict or estimate the second or third order effects of their individual actions on interwoven system components. It is related to The Tragedy of the Commons Problem but a little more insidious. In the Commons, rational behavior leads to the eventual breakdown of a system by degrees. In the Rat's Ass Problem, locally-selfish rational but systemically-irrational behavior actively forces a breakdown of a system. Steven D. Levitt has a nice essay on bagel economics that illustrates this quite nicely.

    A common form of Rat's Ass thinking is to use "Us" and "Them" thinking to justify Rat's Ass behaviors. "It's okay to screw Them over because they're not Us." In more extreme forms, "They" also deserve what they got.

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    The "N Car Accident" Problem

    Feb. 23rd, 2010 | 11:36 am

    We have documentation issues in a very complex project that I'm involved with. Mostly, we try and generate just enough documentation to manage against the "N Car Accident" problem that involves a number of people getting into a car accident at the same time where N is the number of core people who know how to run the project. If N of these people are incapacitated, could someone else take over?

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    A Presidential Moment - Obama debates House Republicans

    Jan. 29th, 2010 | 02:11 pm
    mood: hopefulhopeful

    Regardless of your party affiliation, I strongly urge you to watch this debate. President Obama attended the House Republican caucus's retreat and fielded questions from the audience without teleprompter, filters, or friendly members in the audience.

    If you are a diehard Republican - ask yourself whether a John McCain, Sarah Palin, George W. Bush or a Dick Cheney would have even made the appearance or conducted themselves politely and in a manner that demonstrated a full command of the issues. This may be the most substantive policy discussion across both parties that I've seen in a very long time. I can only hope that the Republican Senators muster up enough courage to invite the President to a similar venue and address him with their policy arguments.

    The video is available from C-SPAN.

    The Q&A session from MSNBC is here:

    Visit msnbc.com for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy


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    The Serengeti Problem

    Jan. 29th, 2010 | 11:35 am

    Assuming you believe that human beings emerged out of something like the Serengeti and Olduvai Gorge then the Serengeti Problem is simply a situation where the biological instincts of human beings take precedent over the things that civilization has spent 5000 years in development. Ignoring the Serengeti Problem in things like economic modeling or social policy only produces theories that assume a kind of cold, logical, rational behavior that is only found in fictional Vulcans. While we would like everyone to be driven by a sense of community, civic pride, national responsibility, or even law and order, people are also driven by pesky things like fear, survival, animal self-interest, tribal bonds, and greed. The Serengeti Problem is also exacerbated by the limitations of human perception of space and time (i.e. people can make very "rational" local decisions that have harmful long term or far reaching impacts.)

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    The "Tragedy of the Commons" Problem

    Jan. 15th, 2010 | 09:09 am

    The "Tragedy of the Commons" references an essay by Garrett Hardin in 1968 discussing the social and economic costs to public resources by individuals acting rationally in their own best interests. When communities were organized by plots around a shared plot called the Commons, activies such as grazing, depleted the common areas much faster than the regenerative capabilities of that area because everyone took more than their sustainable share of those resources.

    Areas that suffer from this problem in Spades include American fresh water sources
    and the Earth's oceans - especially commercial fish populations.

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    The Spot Obvious Problem

    Jan. 15th, 2010 | 08:49 am

    Way back when I still played Pen and Paper Role-Playing Games, my Hapkido instructor Mark and his wife Leslie ran a brilliant Runequest game. He had a roll called "Spot Obvious". Normally, to resolve a characteristic roll (to see if you performed a feat of strength or constitution, for example) you take your stat, valued from 1 to 18 or more, multiple it by 5, and attempt to roll under it with a "percentile" roll - two 10-sided dice valued 0-9. For example, if you're pretty strong with a Strength of 15, you have a 75% chance of succeeding.

    A "Spot Obvious" roll requires you to take your intelligence, multiply it by 5 and roll over it. If you're brilliant, say 18 Intelligence, you only have a 10% chance of spotting the obvious.

    So the smarter you are, the less likely you will be to spot the obvious. In effect, a common sense roll.

    The Spot Obvious problem references any case where a bunch of really smart people and experts have completely missed something so blindingly obvious that a 5 year old pointed it out ages ago.

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    The "Everyone Flushes the Toilet at the Same Time" Problem

    Jan. 7th, 2010 | 02:36 pm

    My dad, with his PhD in Mechanical Engineering and multi-decade work as a Civil Engineer in the Civilian Battalion at the U.S. Navy's Pt. Magu and Hueneme bases in California, dropped many tidbits over the years to me. One of my favorite ones has to do with engineering estimations of worst case throughput. If a building supports a certain number of bathrooms (like a high rise skyscraper), should the plumbing systems be able to support every toilet being flushed at the exact same moment? And what happens if it doesn't?

    Anyhow, the "Toilet Flushing" Problem is my shorthand to describe any situation where someone has to manage or design against unexpected but non-zero-probability maximum throughput.

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    The Surf and Turf Problem

    Jan. 7th, 2010 | 11:27 am

    The Surf and Turf (Lobster and Steak) Problem is a little heuristic I've noticed. No matter what the restaurant, there will be at least one high end dish that exists for the sole purpose of giving someone something to order that's very expensive and will/may impress the person they're dining with. It generally won't be something that the restaurant is known for or that fits the cuisine they serve. In Chinese restaurants, this will typically be something like Shark's Fin soup. In American style restaurants, this will be your Big Hunk of Meat or Seafood or both. More subtly is to super-plus every dish up with an expensive ingredient (or a mundane one with a fancy point-of-origin or name. A decent Menu Fu heuristic I use is to look for Surf and Turf items. If they feel disproportionate in number then there's a good chance the restaurant maybe overpriced for what they do.

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