Prayer Request

If you have a moment, please say a prayer today for the repose of the soul of our son Andrew, who would have been 23 today, the Feast of the Beheading of St. John the Baptist. And please remember also his brothers and sisters, who miss him terribly. 

Thank you. 

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Book Review: Count to a Trillion

Do yourself a favor, get the hard cover.

Nutshell: This is a good book. Go buy it now, and get a couple copies to give to unsuspecting friends.

The large pile of books I bought last year has been barely touched – I did get to read Mike Flynn’s excellent Eifelheim, reviewed here, as well as some Gene Wolf that crept into the pile of its own volition, and several good books for a Catholic reading group I’m in. But wasn’t making much of a dent.

But not anymore! I’ve got my Great Books man-cave set up, with all the stuff off the floor and into a bookcase atop a large desk, where a couple hundred books to be read or reread sit at approximately eye level, taunting me. So, cracked into John C. Wright’s  Count to a Trillion, the first book of an epic six book space opera.

Whoa.

First off, the experience of reading this book brought me back to my time in high school – in a good way. Back then, I didn’t give a crap about schoolwork (have I mentioned I’m a terrible student?) and so, when a book grabbed me, I’d read almost till sunrise if that’s what it took to finish it. Well, over the few days it took to read Count to a Trillion, I twice stayed up past midnight reading (I get up before 6 every day, and have a job and dependents and stuff, so the ‘read until 4:30 a.m.’ thing ain’t happening – but 1:30 is the moral equivalent at this point in my life.)  That’s a pretty gripping book to do that! AND – I picked up The Hermetic Millennia immediately upon reaching the end and its cruel cliffhanger. I’ll review volume 2 in a day or two when I’m done.

The chief characteristics of Wright’s novels that I’ve read so far:

– There’s a good to great short story idea presented in passing about every 5 -10 pages. The dude has one fertile imagination;

– You will need a dictionary. I’ve got a huge vocabulary by earthly standards, but I bow to Mr. Wright. And they’re good words, too, not just flashy junk. One is grateful to have learned them;

– He makes up words by the bushel. Of course, every sci fi classic has new words for strange races and places and such – by having so many ideas packed so densely, Wright needs a lot of such words. He has a particular affinity for long, florid names;

– He cuts you no slack. If you thought Moby Dick or Last of the Mohicans was a tough read, then you’ll likely find this a little challenging. It is not written at a 6th grade level.

– but mostly: Whoa. The cool new ideas are coming so hot and fast, sometimes I needed to slow down and ponder. You know how a good Star Trek episode will have maybe two Whoa moments? Where the set up is a whoa moment and the resolution is a second whoa? Count to a Trillion is like all of the Star Trek OS episodes compressed into one 450 page book. Whoa.

Based on this, you will have trouble with this book if USA Today strikes you as the standard of clear English, or if the occasional wild word or name disturbs you, or if you’d like your new ideas ladled out slowly. I found myself thinking of Jack Vance and Cordwainer Smith, both of whom just throw you in the deep end of their stories and expect you to swim, and have great affinity for the sound of florid names and words, and have vivid and unusual ideas of grand sweep. So if you like those guys, Wright should be up your alley.

As the first book of a 6 book grand space opera, Count to a Trillion has to establish heroes and villains and set up a cosmic-level threat, and then leave you hanging so you’ll read the next book. These requirements are expertly met. Menelaus Montrose, our classically named hero, is shown to be loveable, cantankerous and heroic. Rania, our space princess, is beautiful beyond words and charming and brilliant and needs some serious rescuing. Blackie Del Azarchel is established as a suitably villainous villain, with a sympathetic back story that makes him and his hatred of Montrose real.

And there are cool weapons, an alien artifact, space ships, dramatic fight scenes, and explosions, in addition to a wonderful space princess and gun-slinging hero. But this is not Star Wars – there’s also philosophical arguments*,  plausible (more or less) technology, and a challenge that makes defeating the Empire sound like a mop-up operation.

The source of philosophical tension is that Montrose is the 23rd century manifestation of a cowboy living on the frontier, with all the independence, nobility, honor and horse sense that entails. His task is not just to defeat his enemies and their threat to the world, but to defeat their philosophies – philosophies that attempt to hide and excuse the pride, greed and brutality that drive them.

On to the actual story: Montrose, a Texan and a mathematical genius from a large poor family of ten brother and widowed mother, works as a lawyer specializing in out of court settlements – gunfight. He wins a particular duel, but is seriously wounded (the description of the duel, the weapons and armor is both very clever and amusing). A mysterious foreigner rescues him, and pays for his rehabilitation. He is sent off to California to be educated, and is selected for a space voyage based on his mathematical genius.

Every member of the crew is a genius, as one of the two main goals of the trip is to decipher the Monument, an alien artifact orbiting a nearby star, a star inexplicably made of anti-matter. Once the mission is under way, Montrose injects himself with brain-enhancement chemicals he’s concocted based on some partially deciphered portions of the Monument. It sort of works and doesn’t.

To avoid spoilers, we’ll just say the trip has mixed results. The rest of the book concerns how those mixed results occurred, the difficulties they raise, and how Menelaus attempts to right them.

What are you waiting for? Go read it! I’m planning to pick up a couple copies of this book and Eifelheim to press upon friends who need them but don’t know they do yet. Go, and do likewise.

* no, Yoda’s passing on his “wisdom” to Luke does not qualify as philosophical argument.

Flooding Headed for Southwest

Take a look at this picture: 

DROUGHT CALIFORNIA
‘Lake’ Oroville, low due to the ‘drought’ in California.

This year, my little brothers and I had to scrap plans for spending a week at Lake Nacimiento in the Coastal Range west of the Salinas Valley, because water levels were so low it would be a hike from many lakeshore cottages down to the lake. You want pretty on a vacation, and acres of cracked mud isn’t all that pretty. (Also, tends to be in the 90s at the lake, which makes being on or in it more important. 

Two things: First, Lake Oroville and Lake Nacimiento are both reservoirs, meaning that we human beings decided a lake needed to be in a place where nature had not put one. Second, yes, hasn’t been much rainfall the last couple years. When you put the two together – reservoirs collecting water where water didn’t naturally collect, and a lack of the rain and snow that supply the water those reservoirs are filled with, you get dry reservoirs. 

A friend was visiting from Vermont, and her kids thought everything looked so dead out here – by late August, the Golden State is just the Dead Brown State. But that happens every year regardless of how much it rained back in February. She pointed out that the trees looked stressed. Only the transplants, I pointed out back – the native oak and walnut looked about how they always look this time of year, while the fancy trees favored by landscapers did look a bit ragged and brown. 

I checked out the rainfall totals for Los Angeles over the last 135 years (Concord’s figures were not readily available on the Web – LA’s were. Go figure.) I did a quick eyeball test, and it looked like about +/- 7″ of rainfall from the average was “normal”. Out of 135 years covered in the records, exactly 100 times the annual rainfall totals were between 8″ and 22″ – 7″ either side of the 15″ average. So, one might conclude that “normal” annual rainfall is anything between 8″ and 22″. Seems reasonable. 

Now, a real statistician who, unlike me, would not need to crack some books and look some stuff up to do the math (I think, since I don’t have a grant, I may be legally prohibited from doing so in any event) could fine tune this up a bunch, figure the standard deviation, plot a curve, and make it all scientifilicious – and reach about the same conclusion as my eyeballs. The point here is that calling rainfall totals a drought when they fall well within the “normal” range that one would expect is curious. Pointing out dried up reservoirs and ratty looking non-native liquid amber trees as evidence of a drought is also suspect. When the natural lakes start drying up, and the big native trees start suffering, I’ll be a lot more worried. 

So, we’ve had 3 years of below average rainfall – but well within the expected range of “normal”, It was not enough to keep the reservoirs filled. I’m hoping this year we get 20″ of rain and a hundred feet of snow in the Sierra, because then we can go back to worrying about something else. But it’s a roll of the dice – it’s no more likely that 2014 will be a wet year rather than a dry year versus the average. Sometimes, you’ll get 4 in a row. I’m not sure we’d be in a drought even then – we’re in the middle of a water management challenge. Happens when 35 million+ people move to a semi-desert area. 

Back to the picture above. The caption to that picture reads: 

A stream of water trickles through a section of Lake Oroville that used to be under water on Aug. 19, 2014, in Oroville, California. As the severe drought in California continues for a third straight year, water levels in the state’s lakes and reservoirs is reaching historic lows. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images) | Justin Sullivan via Getty Images

Yep. But the article that this picture accompanies isn’t about the historical natural variations in rainfall. It’s about: 

35-Year ‘Megadrought’ May Threaten Southwest Within Century, Study Finds 

Why, yes! Yes, it might!

“This will be worse than anything seen during the last 2,000 years and would pose unprecedented challenges to water resources in the region,” Toby Ault, lead author of the study, said in a press release Wednesday.

Why is it ‘might’ in the headline, but ‘will be’ in the money quote? Strolling through the article, we find the bugaboos: 

Thanks to the expected effects of climate change, there’s at least an 80 percent chance of a decade-long drought occurring in the Southwest over the next century, a new study has found.

You mean, those effects expected but not actual over the last 17 years? And, most important and scientifilicious of all: 

Ault is part of a group of researchers from Cornell University, the University of Arizona and the U.S. Geological Survey who used computer models to estimate the likelihood that a drought lasting 10 years, 35 years or 50 years could occur in the Southwest in the next century.

They used a computer model, so it must be true! Notify investors in Long Term Capital Management

And, you know, Cornell, which is reputed to be a fine institution, seems to have its fingers in a surprisingly large percentage of junk science. Starting with Sagan and going downhill from there. Someone should look into that. 

 

Who Pays Taxes? Burger King Revisited

8/29 – APOLOGY & PARTIAL RETRACTION:  I missed the little buttons at the bottom of the page that showed there was another page to the essay. Oops. It doesn’t just end after asserting the contrary, which is a large part of what set me off. In the second page, the author does make something like arguments to support his position. They are all political arguments – it’s Politico, after all – not based on economics or the reasonable actions of people in response to taxes. He names names about who he’s arguing with. So, today, for once, *I’m* the guy who is wrong on the Internet. 

Sorry about that. 

That said, the major criticism – that the author uses the mantle of reasonableness to gussy up what is essentially an appeal to partisan fervor – that stands. 

Looking out for more outrage over Burger King’s move of its headquarters to Canada, to enjoy lower Canadian corporate taxes, found this:

Why Corporate Taxes Are Good for You

The author presents the argument against corporate taxes* thus:

The main argument against taxing corporations is that the burden of all taxation ultimately falls on individuals and that because of the uncertainty involved in establishing which individuals bear the burden of the corporate tax, ordinary voters are misled into thinking the tax does not fall on them. This uncertainty makes the corporate tax popular among politicians, because they can benefit from the fiscal illusion that its burden falls on “the corporation”—rarely a sympathetic victim—while in reality it is imposed on the voters. Corporations may be people, per Mitt Romney, but they don’t cast ballots—at least not yet.

The most revealing part of the essay is that last line: “- at least, not yet.”  Since this argument is clear, logical and convincing, we need to move the field of discussion from rational arguments to emotion in order to have a chance of “winning”. Therefore, the author inserts a subtle scare line, trying to conjure the image of a evil corporations out-voting us, tasking our most cherished right and using it against us! Oh, the outrage! 

Except nobody anywhere has ever seriously suggested corporations get to vote. 

He continues: 

Better, opponents of the corporate tax argue, not to tax legal entities at all.

While no doubt there are people who argue this, it is a bit of a straw man: all you’d need to do to keep companies from moving their headquarters for tax reasons is to keep our taxes in line with those of other countries that provide a similarly attractive business environment. Taxing corporations is not unacceptable. Blaming corporations for trying to minimize their tax burden is irrational. 

In addition, they (that ‘they’ again – who?) claim (a statement of fact is called a ‘claim’) that the revenue from the existing corporate tax is relatively low in developed countries (typically less than 10 percent of total revenue) and it can easily be replaced by raising individual taxes by a small amount (by, according to the argument presented above, revealing corporate taxes for what they are: taxes on individual customers and stockholders). Finally, they add that the corporate tax is very complicated and the transaction costs of trying to avoid it—all those fancy accountants (those lying corporations and their fancy accountants! It’s just like how we lying individuals can’t figure out the 1040 form and its myriad schedules and forms – we’re evil and lying when we say it takes us hours and often profession help to get them filled out to the IRS’s satisfaction.)—impose significant losses on the economy. Inversions are seen as a result of the United States having an overly burdensome corporate tax regime, which drives businesses and jobs overseas. (um, yeah.) 

None of these arguments is convincing (because no arguments are convincing – that’s why this entire article is an appeal to emotions dressed up in reasonable-sounding rhetoric. Hegel and Marx live!). There are three reasons why the corporate tax should be retained: At $300 billion per year, it is a significant revenue source that cannot easily be replaced (that $300B is paid by individuals now – it’s just conveniently out of sight); it preserves the progressivity of the individual income tax by preventing the rich from parking their income in corporations (this is class warfare gibberish – it is intended to confuse. I’m at a loss as to what it even might mean); and it enables Congress to regulate corporate activities more effectively (What? Is this a protection racket? No need to answer that. What he means here is that, by making corporations hire scads of people to spend their lives complying with government tax laws, the government finds out, via all those forms, what companies are up to. And that’s a reason to tax them?).

And the essay ends! What? Your entire argument hangs on three bald, nonsensical assertions? And we lemmings can be counted on to nod sagely in unison at what you say, because you’re on out team and we’ve been well-schooled to do so? 

Yea. And it works. 

Disclaimer: I’m one of those highly paid experts who help corporations legally minimize their tax burdens. In my defense, when I support making tax laws simple and transparent, I’m arguing against my own self interest – I’m arguing in favor of making taxes so straight-forward nobody would need guys like me. Don’t think I’m being heroic – there’s a better chance I’ll walk on the moon that that the tax laws will get simple in my lifetime. 

* Aside: I’m not against taxing corporations. I’m against pretending that taxes don’t have unintended consequences, and blaming taxpayers for behaving rationally.

BTW: Posted a similarly themed comment at Politico. Let’s see where that goes. 

Burger King and Taxes

From USA Today, Burger King, Tim Hortons merge into whopper-size firm

With a new base in Canada, the Burger King merger quickly was lumped into the growing public outcry over tax inversions, which allow U.S. companies to lower their tax bills by reincorporating in a country with lower corporate tax rates through a merger with a foreign firm.

 

By midday several thousand comments had flooded Burger King’s Facebook page. On Twitter, #TimHortons was a trending topic with #BoycottBurgerKing and similar tweets numbering in the hundreds.

And, from the overheated yet woefully underused brain of the bipedal Roger Hickey, the co-director of the Campaign for America’s Orwellian and Impoverished Future (something like that), were threats of boycott:

“On almost every street corner, there’s an alternative fast food restaurant where [consumers] can buy food once they learn what Burger King is doing,” Hickey told The Huffington Post on Monday. “You don’t even have to announce a boycott to let them know that they’re going to lose business.”

Ya know, for pretty much ever, people have taxed things like cigarettes and booze to reduce consumption. The theory goes that, if you make something more expensive, you’ll not only directly reduce people’s ability to buy it, but you’ll make them think twice about whether that next smoke or drink is really worth the money you’re going to need to pay for it. It’s a belief so ingrained that the people of San Francisco are certain it’ll work, even on carbonated beverages. 

Yet, the same logic applied to businesses – that you’ll get less of whatever you tax – causes outrage. 

I don’t eat at Burger King anyway, but, if I did and chose to stop, it would have more to do with this creepy spokes-entity than with tax evasion.

Strangely enough, it *should* cause outrage – at the idiots in government who play Russian roulette with the tax laws. See, a tax is just an expense to a company, like any other, to be minimized as much as possible. Many other countries recognize this, and try to keep corporate taxes as low as they can because – pay attention – that way, companies will want to stay in their countries, hire people, pay wages, supply goods and all sorts of wonderful stuff like that. 

But not the US. We believe that we should be able to tax companies as much as we want, and that it’s totally unpatriotic if the companies relocate in response. 

However much it pains our socialist souls, we need to tax business as little as we can, so that there’s MORE of it, and more of all those good things having thriving businesses create – jobs and goods. Taxing businesses more means you get LESS of those good things, eventually to the point where companies start looking for ways to get out of the US to someplace that understands basic economics. 

Headline of the Day; Earthquake

1. Pro-pot initiatives could like, totally help Democrats retain the Senate. Dude. 

That’s almost exactly what it said, I swear!

Wow! Washington does look better when viewed through a drug-fueled haze…

2. 20 miles away, the 6.0 quake didn’t wake me up. Very little damage outside the immediate area around Napa and American Canyon.TV pictures always make it look worse than it is – a thousand square miles of undamaged suburbs doesn’t make much of a picture, news-wise, The Loma Prieta Quake in ’89, which was much bigger than this one, still only did damage in a few particularly vulnerable places – 95% of the Bay Area was back to normal within a few days. The Cypress Structure in Oakland, and the Bay Bridge damage was serious, as well as damage to structures built on fill in the Marina (Fun fact: that fill was what was left of the building in downtown San Francisco after the 1906 quake – it was a marsh before that.) Other than that, stay away from unreinforced masonry buildings, and you’ll do fine – up to about a 8.0.

I didn’t appreciate the news freaking out our 10 year old. He’s at that age where everything worries him (especially after his brother’s death). So he’s ready to move somewhere NOW. We had to explain that there aren’t really any places on the planet that are all that much safer from natural disasters than where we live. Every century, we have maybe 2-3 bad earthquakes. But no hurricanes, serious tornadoes, blizzards (unless you want a blizzard – then go to the mountains, and you can have one), very few floods. It’s all earthquakes and brushfires, which frankly don’t happen much. Every millennium or so we have a volcanic eruption.

Also, if you want to get real philosophical about it, you can even make a case that California is such a great place to live *because* of seismic activity: the mountains and volcanoes, which are lovely, make for our fertile valleys and keep all of California from being a desert; the crust block under San Francisco Bay, which sits between the San Andreas and Hayward faults and is slowly sinking,  keeps the Bay from silting up solid. The Bay is responsible for the lovely area weather – not too hot, not too cold.

But the reality: we are so doomed, and we know it – when that 8.0-ish quake hits, all the power and water goes down – aqueducts and transmission cables straddle faults – and all the major roads are out, as the roads are either built on mudflats or fill (80, 880, 101) or run through areas with serious rockslide potential (280, PCH, 680), or both.

Another fun thing to contemplate: there are hundreds of square miles of farmland in the Delta that are protected by levees. These levees are mostly old earthworks, and will crumble in a big earthquake. But that’s not all: the farmland they protect is, after drying out and settling for 100 years or more, significantly below river level. When the levees break, millions of gallons of water will flow in. But, wait! There’s more: since the Bay is actually an estuary, AND much of the water from the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers is diverted to agriculture, the Bay is a more or less thin layer of fresh water on top of salt water. Over the years, the salt water has intruded farther and farther up as the fresh water flow that pushes it out has decreased. So: the levees break, sucking in vast quantities of fresh water – so salt water flows in to take its place. The places that used to be fresh water and now salt water. Which happens to include the drinking water purification facilities for several million people.

The aqueducts will be down, and the local water supply largely destroyed. And there won’t be intact roads to ship water in to many places. I need to put in a survival bunker. Add that to the To Do list.

Farms in the Delta. Miles and miles of levees. You might wonder: why not repair and strengthen them? Would cost a Sagan-load of Billions. Better: why not have the state buy, oh, 2% of the farmland every year, and puncture the levees one at a time s-l-o-w-l-y? California has a a bazillion acres of farm land – it wouldn’t make a dent, and might save thousands of lives and billions of dollars down the road. And, hey – wetlands!

No wonder Californians party hard and vote Democrat – we ain’t got a future anyway. Only kidding a little.

The St. Louis of France Day Guide to Dealing With Barbarians

In the spirit of the St. Nicholas Day Guide to Punching Heretics, we here expand on a comment attributed to St. Louis of France, as relayed by Chesterton: : 

I must either argue with an infidel as a real philosopher can argue, or else “thrust a sword through his body as far as it will go.”

He’s got a sword.

Of course, there are rules: 

1. If you’re not the king, or have a similar set of duties, then you don’t get to shishkabob barbarians under normal conditions. I mean, really, if every right thinking individual went around skewering all the loud mouth balloon-heads just begging for it, what would that look like? It would be awesome! But we still can’t do it. 

Now, some may rightly protest that these are hardly normal conditions, what with barbarians running most of our political, “news” and social institutions. Yet, as much as many talking heads undeniably both blaspheme and reveal themselves incapable of rational argument, it’s really not our place as civilians to disembowel them, no matter how much they’re asking for it. 

Of course, if you are a king or have similar responsibilities toward good public order, have at ’em. Just keep your sword sharp, and try not to prolong the miscreant’s suffering beyond reasonable bounds. 

2. For the rest of us, it is rare for that we would be confronted with a sword-running-through levels of barbarity that we need to take care of. The most we can do is importune the king, praying His Majesty do his duty. Only if the social order has broken down to the point where total chaos prevails (scheduled for next Thursday, last I checked) would we dare to take such an awesome, if deeply gratifying, responsibility on ourselves. But a guy can dream. 

So, just in case, here’s a few pointers: 

– When done, clean your blade on the grass, or the now-dead barbarian’s clothes. No need to be messy, and cleanliness is next to Godliness. 

– Something along the lines of a cavalry sabre is probably the best choice for weapon. While a claymore or longsword are very impressive, and make people dead real good, where do you keep it? And they’re a pain to accessorize – you need a kilt and a charger and goodness knows what else. 

Impressive, but not practical.
Now we’re talkin’. Perfectly useable, and stylish to boot.

– It’s really important to play fair. Give the barbarian a heads up, such as saying, as you draw your sabre, “If you don’t zip your gaping pie hole Right Now, you mewling baboon, I will be forced to darken the floor with your entrails.”  Of course, you work up a warning that you feel comfortable with – put a personal touch on it. 

– Finally, if they do shut up (unlikely) you really must stop. That said, if you happen to nick them up a bit in the heat of the moment, or whack ’em silly with the side of your blade, your confessor will probably go easy on it.

3. Fantasy aside, in virtually all real-world situations, we need to fall back onto the St. Nicholas rules for punching heretics linked to above. Just remember: brotherly correction! Revenge is mine, sayeth the Lord, and all that.