Rebates: are you impressed?

We are getting another series of tax rebates. For home renovations (fifteen percent up to $1,500 I think), for sports costs (a hundred dollars or so?).

I submit that neither of these tempts those with close finances to spend money. If I spend ten thousand dollars today on a renovation, and get back fifteen hundred dollars next April or May, the implication is that I had the money all along and the rebate is pretty much gravy.

Sports/activities fees are perhaps even worse; if I really don’t have a few hundred dollars to get my kid into a sport, knowing I’ll get some of it back next year doesn’t solve my liquidity problem now.

I think rebates get voter support from the upper middle class, and above. It means a few extra dollars back for those who can already afford the expense now.

If you really want to help the middle and lower classes, find something they need and provide it cheap or free. Education comes to mind. As for rebates, are you impressed?

Are we fooled? Re the G20 damages

In today’s paper I read that some 17 people arrested, many held in jail, many held in house arrest, have agreed to a plea bargain.

In this bargain, 11 will go free and six will be sentenced to reduced charges. It is entirely possible that time served will suffice, but the courts have not ruled on this yet.

Reading more carefully, the arrests were done in a pre-dawn series of raids before the G20. The guilty pleas are, roughly, to counselling others to do bad things.

I infer that none of the window-smashers are in this group. How come?

Isn’t the damage done, admittedly by a small but violent minority, more important than some talk that may have gone on?

A cynic might suggest that this is window-dressing, to convince us that the police did get the malefactors while doing all that anonymous alleged beating of peaceful demonstrators, including the apparently pointless kettling of a crowd about a kilometre away from the protective fence.

Are we fooled? You decide.

War is Ordered Murder

All war veterans are hereby permitted to hate me: I do not think war is glorious.

Respect for the dead, and for acts of heroism and bravery, cannot be challenged. Implying that getting killed was often done voluntarily, can.

We lose too many in war. Any untimely death is one too many. Remembering the camaraderie of the battlefield is fine; I don’t have enough evidence to support or challenge that. Fictional accounts, such as The Red Badge of Courage (Stephen Crane) and Catch-22 (Joseph Heller) do not dwell much on what it feels like to be among a large number of similar soldiers marching or flying into gunfire. In neither fictional account do I recall wondering if they all got together in a bar after the war to swap retellings of stories.

I think war was too intense to be interpersonal, beyond perhaps a best friend marching nearby, or a co-pilot or bombardier in the same plane. I do not think a wide sense of camaraderie across the entire army ever existed. I think our veterans have created their camaraderie after the fact, bonded together by common survival and a common level of horror, not specific interactions during the war itself.

You may disagree with me; if you say it reasonably well in response to this post, you will find your words here.

I guess what I’m trying to get at, however indirectly, is that it bothers me to see the Remembrance Day parades treated as a celebration of war. To me, surviving the war was like surviving a hurricane, concentration camp, extermination pogrom. Viktor Frankl (Man’s Search for Meaning) described his own actions in a concentration camp with something approaching shame in some passages; the important thing was to survive, and being in the right place in a group of prisoners improved his odds, so he did that.

So, for me, war is not glorious. I’m with W.H.Auden (The Shield of Achilles) and Robert Frost (The Bonfire). War is barbaric.

War is ordered murder. Surviving is a gift, and for all the veterans who made it this far, peace be unto you.

On Vision

This should properly be called David Olive’s Law, from a comment he made in the Toronto Star on November 12, 2011, as follows.

A vision is just an idea in a black tie.

I like the statement very much. I think it properly un-smugs many things sold to us as examples of vision; our Mayor’s ideas for budgets and waterfronts come immediately to mind.

On a purely personal level, I would quietly like to disagree. Perhaps it is one’s definition, and expectations, of vision, that make a different view possible.

In a previous life, I called myself an Application Architect. Our team was always challenged to ask, how does this generalize, any time we found a new data processing approach or unusual requirement. The team was asked to think forward, and over-architect the software to support extensions and expansions in directions that the business could reasonably be expect to take.

The results were satisfying: client requests were responded to more rapidly, with less fuss and fewer program errors. Testability and debuggability was built into our vision of what a good architecture should include. This is a bit like building redundancy and verifiability into physical infrastructure: a second sea wall, sensors inside the bridge concrete that tell you it’s resonance has changed over the winter.

I don’t know if such a vision can be had for a city. It would be pleasant to see someone, or some team, try.

But for now, our vision continues to be just an idea in a black tie. At one point there was a joke that a feature was just a bug dressed up in a suit and re-presented.

With apologies to David Olive, for whom my respect is great and my gratitude (for his columns) greater.

Agreement is futile … when

Henry Kissinger (and this is not an endorsement of this individual) wrote a fascinating and disturbing book, A World Restored. It covers Metternich, Castlereagh, Tsar Alexander, and Napoleon, among others, in an era of much military and political change.

The book’s hero is Metternich, who maneuvers everyone so that from being sort-of head of an empire which is tattered, falling apart, and unarmed, his Austria/Hungary becomesĀ  the armed negotiator of the peace after Napoleon. The central theme of the book is that, when everyone’s understanding of what can and cannot be done (between nations, in this case) is shaken up badly, the world is uncertain and unstable. Metternich restored stability with a series of maneuvers, none of which were suspected, all subtle, apparently pointless, misleading, always doing what he was asked to do – which moved his country/empire to his goal. At the end, a new set of understandings was in place, and the world was restored.

All that is a fun read, and I recommend it. Today’s post is about something you will find in the introduction. I will try to recapture the discovery here.

Kissinger defines a revolutionary power as one that does not believe the current system, which is a collection of tacit understandings of what can be done and what consequences will ensue. Napoleon was such a revolutionary power. In dealing with such, agreement is futile. Negotiation is futile. The revolutionary power does not believe “you” or the system can or will give it what it wants. Therefore its demands appear to be unlimited. Nothing is good enough. No promise is respected.

Today we have several examples of a revolutionary power, I will list just a few. Israel with respect to the Palestinians. We’ve had fifty years of negotiation, all of which resulted in more settlements, poorer living conditions for the Palestinians, with reduced economy, freedom, even tax income withheld. And still it is not enough. Israel seems to need the utter defeat of the Palestinians, just as Napoleon needed to utterly defeat his enemies.

As a footnote, Kissinger later in the book notes that this made Napoleon a very weak negotiator later, as he had had no practice in it.

Another revolutionary power is the USA. If you read any CRS reports about national interest, you will eventually notice that there seems to be no morality involved. What’s best for the USA, and that’s that. Therefore nothing offered is ever enough. We want it all.

I suspect that Iran is a revolutionary power, but cannot be certain as the truth of various news sources is hard to prove. I note that the USA is now blurring “evidence” from as far back as 1983, restating “no evidence of weapons development” as “no proof of not developing”. To quote Rumsfeld, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. We may see another smoking gun argument, shortly.

This means that, with respect to Iran’s nuclear program, which may or may not be trying to build, or to be ready to build, or to threaten to have, nuclear arms, with respect to that, negotiation is futile. Negotiation is futile when agreement is futile; the revolutionary power will immediately demand more.

Iran behaves like a revolutionary power. It does not believe the system (NATO, UN, Europe, Doha negotiations, whatever) will give it what it wants: freedom to act plus international respect.

The USA is a revolutionary power. It does not believe that that same system will give it what it wants: absolute control over energy, and then economics, food, and water.

So, with respect to the Iranian nuclear efforts, negotiation is futile. Any agreement is subject to immediate doubt and contradiction. This is one thing that makes Ahmadinejad so interesting; his speeches are meant to be outrageous, and generally succeed.

I suspect the Palestinians have also noticed that negotiation is futile.

This is not to take sides (being a bleeding heart, I have a reflexive sympathy for the oppressed or exploited or economically sanctioned, but that’s just me) in either International Discussion, I think the rest of the world should realize: if you want this resolved (either problem) you have to change the rules for the participants. This means changing their perception of the rules, of what can be done and what will result. There has to be something in it for any participant in negotiation who believes himself to be giving up something. And that gain has to be fairly well guaranteed. The latest incursion into Gaza makes such a guarantee hard to make credible. The American experiments in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iraq, plus the history of the Shah in Iran, make such a guarantee hard to make credible to Iran as well.

Negotiation is futile. Change the rules instead. But how?

Remember the softwood lumber and related agreements. Agreement was futile there, too. The revolutionary power promptly re-interpreted the agreements, or broke them, and waited for the repercussions. What to do?

The 99 percent may have it right. A decent break for the middle class would be a good start; then their influence might increase enough to move their governments to follow the rules of decency, humanity, and fair play.

I suspect this will not happen this year. The cold weather, government repression, legal arguments, smear campaigns, and a few black block incidents, and we’ll all forget that those demonstrators, however incoherently, were talking back to the establishment … for us.

Meanwhile, watch the negotiations with Palestine and Iran. But don’t expect to see any agreement, not just yet.

Is Monitoring Protection?

I ask this dumb question because I just saw a TV ad that seemed to say this:

a father leaving town via the airport sees on his phone/tablet that his daughter has entered their home. She waves. This is sold as protection.

I am reminded of the case of the young woman who apparently hung herself while her jail guards watched by closed-circuit television. They at least were in the next room.

The father in the airport can’t do a single thing, except possibly call police, should there be a problem with his daughter. And if she simply doesn’t come home to wave, he has no idea what action is appropriate.

I submit that such monitoring is not protection. It is invasion of privacy.

This is important in an age where the ability of our various police and armed forces to monitor us is always being increased, with sometimes diminished court oversight. They may claim they are protecting us, but they are just spying on us.

Of Laws and Systems

For this post, let’s consider a system to be anything that executes steps and accomplishes a purpose, probably a social or business purpose. The margining of brokerage accounts could be accomplished by a system of computer programs, data, and hardware. The turnover and recycling of nutrients in a forest could be accomplished by a system of scavengers, detritus feeders, bacteria, and fungi.

Systems are fascinating in their own right; they generally begin small and grow in complexity to some upper limit, that seems to be set only by the vicissitudes and fickleness of their environment.

Experience with systems indicates that many of them will eventually benefit from re-organization or reconstruction. A village may be centuries old, but people and even the buildings in it, are not. Ecosystems and biological entities can evolve into traps, see comments about evolutionary traps elsewhere in this blog. In this case some limitation prevents the system from expanding, and prevents it from modifying itself in adaptive ways.

I submit that our system of law is a system in this state. We always add laws. We add special cases to laws. (Discrimination against: blacks gays elderly the poor: why not a general decent-behaviour law?)

When a computer system is redesigned, a good architect will be asking, how does this generalize, with every step the system is meant to accomplish. This results in fewer special cases, less and cheaper testing, and thus the system can be made more effective and stable with less code.

Our legal system seems never to do this. We add amendments, make laws that partially contravene other laws, argue about jurisdiction when laws conflict.

In computer systems, there is some reward for not-doing something if it has become unnecessary. Parts of the system get retired. A large report may be replaced by a more modern user query which is more relevant and whose results are actually read.

In legal systems, laws seem hardly ever to get repealed entirely.

One symptom of an old computer system is what is called spaghetti code: the modifications upon modifications make following any logic thread difficult. The impact of a small change becomes not-predictable; every conceivable case has to be tested to be sure of what the system will do. Similar things seem to happen in law; when lawmakers are asked what a law means, they may reply: we won’t know until it goes through the courts.

Old computer systems are generally replaced when it becomes feasible, prodded by the cost and riskiness of maintaining and tweaking them. Before this happens, expensive experts weigh in on every conceivable small change or challenge to the system.

Our legal system requires expensive experts merely to tell us what it means; and sometimes expensive legal actions are required to test that.

The law is an old system. Lawyers, like programmers in antique systems, are in short supply and command lucrative fees.

When these fees are to decide something simple for an ordinary citizen, it seems that the legal system’s cost of quality is being borne by its users. Those employed by the system enjoy a sort of monopoly over testing the confusion of spaghetti-code-like legislation.

When a computer system becomes outdated, and is also considered life-blood to its owning corporation, there is generally a carefully architected replacement, modular by function if possible. Big-bang system switches do occur but are avoided when practical.

How this might be done with our legal system is an interesting question. I will be both amazed and pleased if any lawyers make suggestions here. They are the experts, eh?

___-er than you Think!

You get to fill in the blank in the above exclamation. For fun, here are some of the ways I’ve seen it filled in:

You’re richer than you think!

This is hilarious or ridiculous depending on your philosophy. If you think you’re richer than you think, do you have to think again, or have you already done that? Will you keep getting richer as your brain continues in this loop?

It’s easier than you think!

This is just about as misleading as the previous, imho. Generally said about exercising or dieting. By sales people. Or said about something really tricky, like a new programming tool or hobby machine.

It’s closer than you think!

Generally said about somewhere you’re driving to, when you already know it’s too darn far. I think a leather place tried this line a couple of years back.

If you believe any of the above, you’re dumber than you think. {8;^<}