Wednesday, October 08, 2014

"That, Detective, is the Right Question"


“How did it come to this?”

-King Théoden, The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (movie) 

History is stories. History is facts. History is events. History is thematic. History is legend. History is truth. History is written by the victors. History is a weapon. History is an argument without end. History is the hand of the Almighty. History is people. History is interesting. History is context.

Yet if you ask the average American, I suspect the most common refrain will be ‘History is boring’. Why is that? What takes the natural curiosity of a child looking for answers and turns it aside with ruthless efficiency?

It is in no small part an absence of a need for understanding. People learn best when there is a definitive and useful application. You look both ways to cross the street to avoid a jarring life event. People brush their teeth to retain molars and smell pleasant. Many children even develop the skill of walking because there is a perceived use. Humans like to see immediate application of what we are learning. The common refrain of students learning algebra is “Why does this matter to me?” In the case of algebra, the material must be known for the future despite its minimal application in the present. It can be taught effectively through rigorous exercises and rote coursework. There is undeniably a correct answer, a solution without dispute. Where math can be effectively compelled, history becomes more obtuse and ephemeral with regimented pressure. It is far from obvious to the reluctant student that history has applications or benefits today or tomorrow. Humans live and learn in the present, often inconsiderate of future needs or utility. In history education, this barrier must be overcome.

The separation of a great teacher from a merely competent teacher is the ability to offer value to the pupil. History will not endure as a litany of dates and facts. It is and must be taught as greater than the sum of its parts. One robust way is through stories[i]. We like stories; our western minds intuitively seek the beginning, the middle and the end. Our empathic side can transport us into the story, riveting us in the search for detail and meaning and purpose. When the application and benefits of learning history escape notice this backdoor of stories can endow appetite. In the absence of this, history education frequently fails the ‘Why does it matter to me?’ question. We want and need the answer to ‘How does it matter to me?’ to prompt the Théoden question, ‘How did it come to this?’

Our standard narration of history begins with our first evidence of the written word in ancient Sumer, where we learn of clay tablets and many things we don’t actually know. Then Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, Persia, Greece, Rome, Here Be Dark Ages, Vikings, Leonardo Da Vinci, 1492, The Mayflower, George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, light bulb, trenches in Europe, Nazis, Atom Bomb, and JFK. None of these things matter in the daily life of most adults, less so in the daily life of a K-12 student. This only begins to matter when people look and ask our Théoden question. When asking this question, people are seeking context; now history matters a great deal. To understand History and its context a personal desire is required.

The challenge for history education is to encourage and enable a student to ask our Théoden question. I propose we work backwards from our present position. Trace out present context in reverse by noting the turning points along the way. Ask “Why are all Americans treated as equal under the law?” We want to trace this idea to its genesis. Tell of Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement. Share the story of Ricky Branch and Jackie Robinson. Let Susan B. Anthony be known. Tell the story of Abraham Lincoln and the Emancipation Proclamation. Skip not Andrew Jackson’s Trail of Tears and the Great Compromise of Clay. Remind us of the Dred Scott decision. Tell of John Quincy Adams and the Amistad. Honor our bedrock of the US constitution and the Declaration of Independence. Tell of the elder Adams and his defense of the law and impartial justice, of Jefferson and his defense of man, of Madison and the separation of powers, of Monroe and his pen, and of Washington and his integrity with power. Teach of those binary stars Burke and Paine. Recall Locke and Hobbes, Cromwell and John Cooke, and the still earlier Magna Carta. Know that Hammurabi of Babylon did codify laws and that the Medes and the Persians held their monarchs bound. Let us never forget that all men are created equal, each created in the image of his creator. The vast sweep of history and context require understanding, yet the knowledge must find rest in the fertile soil asking the why and the how.

Will that fertile soil come into being? Not all students will muse as Théoden, nor should we force them to. It is imperative to understand that force-fed history is worse than no history at all. It provides the veneer of knowledge through possession of paperwork certifying completion. It fosters distaste for the subject of the past. No one eagerly anticipates the next glass of milk if the previous one was curdled when consumed. Let us not behave foolishly and ruin the minds which may become agreeable to this study in the future by souring the mind in the present. Let those who wish to ignore history do so as their choice, and leave the minds that will choose to concern themselves with the context of history unsullied with milk miserably curdled.  




[i] Practical Note for grades K-6th: Look at the Landmark series of history books published by Random House. These are a vast collection of narrative histories and biographies written by prolific children’s authors from the 1950’s-60s, and do an extraordinary job of embedding the story of people’s lives into the factual narrative of history. 

[ii] Here are some thoughts on why history matters to civilization and public policy choices of the electorate from 2012. 

[iii] Title From I, Robot, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Nx8LAFSY3Ws

Saturday, August 09, 2014

Why Guardians of the Galaxy Matters and Will Not Matter

(Spoilers are limited to names and places of characters and generalizations of story conclusions.)

James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy is quick. It moves with deft speed through characters, scenes, story pieces, combat sequences, moral conundrums and always present humor. I found it to be fun, humorous, and complex. It is a pinnacle of the great American art form, the blockbuster summer movie. Great tie-ins to the other Marvel movies, edge of the seat adventure and subtle actions by off-focus characters that fill in the world as real and not a mere set piece on camera. A tree powerfully voiced by Vin Diesel. A cybernetic being resembling a raccoon with a wicked sense of humor and affinity for large weapons. We see Titans, empires, and galaxy spanning political machinations. Flashing lights and witty dialogue and eye candy coalescing into one enormous mound of cotton candy. It passes time enjoyably, but departs from the superhero movie norm by failing to nourish.

Guardians is a pinnacle and a new standard of what a blockbuster summer movie can, and maybe should be visually At no time is there an animation awry, no sound emits out of place, no character is poorly shown. The suspension of disbelief is complete, and one is transported into a world far beyond our own. It’s magic, and it is what a good movie ought to do. But I cannot imagine what the next frontier is. In my lifetime, we have moved beyond the mantra that ‘the graphics are so much better’ for the next big movie and the next big game console. Today, the ‘graphics’ are so reliably superb (Pacific Rim, The Avengers, Super 8) that there is no room for significant improvement. A simultaneous trend in storytelling has been to pace faster, to tighten up the sequences, to accelerate the story for an audience with failing attention spans. The pace Gunn sets in Guardians is warp 9; comprehensive stories cannot develop faster in the future.  Americans, we treasure our witty dialogue and want ‘take-home’ lines to pepper our conversations on and off Facebook. From Guardians, there will be no shortage of one-liners, not the least of which starts (I am…spoiler).

I suspect that human nature has always facilitated at least two manners of storytelling. There are stories we tell to amuse, and stories we tell to expand ourselves. Stories for amusement pass the time, offer escape from the mundane, tell us about whom people are, and provide glimpses of worlds and times beyond our own. Stories that expand us inspire, instill morality, illustrate good versus evil, pass the time, offer escape from the mundane, tell us whom people can be, draw us into worlds and times beyond our own, and have the capacity to endure. This endurance springs from being at least partly rooted in the character of the divine. It is the character of God to love, to protect, to give life, to prosper, to be victorious, and to sacrifice. The latter stories possess some measure of this.

Compare two movies in the same universe: The Avengers and Guardians of the Galaxy.  Both are successful movies at the peak of their craft with enormous pop culture resonance. Guardians’ is a story told only to amuse. Part of the entertainment offer is mockery of the story, intentionally destroying the atmosphere of nobility that may incidentally creep up on the characters. The sole moral direction appears to be ‘I don’t have friends, we’re totally doing stuff together, let’s be friends because friends are the most important part of life. Also I mostly don’t trust you.Guardians is a mirror to this cultural moment. It is loud and brash and self-depreciating and in constant search for the next diversion. It borrows weight and gravity by using words of which the audience will have a passing but incomplete understanding. Eastern myth is found in the vile Ronan (pronounced Ronin); the Greeks are not forgotten so long as Thanos and the Titans exist; the God of Abraham still resonates so long as the foul Ronan is called The Accuser and Gamora (pronounced: Gomorrah) walks among us. It reflects today because our affections lie with the outlaws and those on the fringe, but there is somehow a powerful yet benevolent government at the end of the day to offer us solutions (Nova Prime).  The religious are the troublemakers (Ronan and his Kree-ness). Our heroes are a band of misfits who claim no identity beyond individual selfish greed or revenge (except the tree (of life?)). Only vaguely does the team form through a collective self-interest (for money, pronounced Units) that is treated with featherweight gravity within the film and finds little resonance in my heart. There is no moment where the characters must strive to be greater beings then they have been before.

The Avengers is something different. The Avengers are a team formed to accomplish something greater than the sum of the parts; it requires sacrifice of the team members to be part of the whole. It represents a morality that says ‘Other people are more important than me, and I have the ability to make a change for the better. I am and will be the shield of protection and the sword of justice’. As in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings and Lucas’ Star Wars, Whedon’s Avengers show heroes becoming something greater then themselves. Guardians lacks in this essential, and I expect it will be largely irrelevant within a decade.

For the sake of my children to come, I find this irrelevance a desirable conclusion. The stories I want the children of my clan surrounded by should build up, edify, and offer a life giving view of the world. Classically, Homer’s Odysseus endures the foul play of beings beyond humanity to return to Ithaca, not for the land and treasure alone but to reunite with Penelope and restore justice. In literature, we find Tolkien’s Eowyn, shieldmaiden of Rohan, following her conviction and entering battle with Merry the hobbit at her side, which led to her circumventing the witchcraft, striking down the foul undead lieutenant of Sauron and changing the course of battle. More recently, Spiderman’s Uncle Ben cautions us “With great power comes great responsibility”. Del Toro in Hellboy ponders: “What makes a man a man? A friend of mine once wondered. Is it his origins? The way he comes to life? I don't think so. It’s the choices he makes. Not how he starts things, but how he decides to end them.”

Guardians of the Galaxy, for its fine craft and stupendous storytelling, does not build up, edify or nourish the parched places. There is no call to the heights of greatness, only an approbation of the false bravado and persistent mockery of all subjects within reach. Here lies the empty humor of sarcasm and bitterness, which does not give life. Watch and be amused, for Guardians does amuse. But man was not meant to subsist on cotton candy alone, be sure to feast well elsewhere.



Saturday, July 12, 2014

2014 Book List

Due to the overwhelming number of comments on the previous list, I will endeavor to continue the list for 2014.

Nonfiction:
> Jon Meacham: American Lion; Andrew Jackson in the White House (It is fortunate for us that the man who could have been our Caesar was so dedicated to popular liberty and bank busting. The personal turmoil throughout this administration is astonishing and may have helped limit the already expansive increase in executive power. Long, long read.)
> G. J. Myers: A World Undone: The Story of the Great War, 1914 to 1918 (Truly a masterpiece representation of the the first World War. Extensive provision of context, welcome portraits of the men who changed the war, and an unyielding sense of the weight of the subject)
> Peter L. Bernstein: The Wedding of the Waters: The Erie Canal and the Making of a Great Nation (Having an even greater impact then even the transcontinental railroad, the project that made New York an economic triumph. Delightful work on an oft neglected subject matter.)
> Alexander Rose: American Rifle: A Biography (Rifles. Industrial Development. Personal machinations of inventors, soldiers, acquisition officers. generals. industrialists. Recommended for anyone with an interest in firearms or military development. 
> Paul M. Barrett: Glock (Lightweight, benevolent history of a pistol that changed the face of the worldwide firearms industry)
> Amity Shlaes: Coolidge (I learned an enormous amount of US history through the eyes of one of my favored presidents, a hand of character attempting to stay the progressive tide. Long but worthy read for minds interested in what it takes to reduce a federal budget)
> Susan Cain: Quiet The Power of Introverts in a World that Can't Stop Talking (This TED Talk has all of the book)
> Jim Powell: FDR's Folly (Good documentation of the mess that was the New Deal. Hard to get through, but each chapter is an essay worthy of completion in its own right)
>John C. Wright: Transhuman and Subhuman: Essays on Science Fiction and Awful Truth (Highlights include a keen review of the Hobbit movies, strong female characters, and the warping of the modern man by a worldview excluding the Creator. Recommended for scifi and apologetic types).
> Nathaniel Philbrick: The Last Stand: (Custer, Sitting Bull, Little Big Horn, a battle that is full of characters richly canvassed. If you like history told with notes on the footnotes and lively personal drama, this is it. )
> C. S. Lewis: Mere Christianity: (Exemplary apologetic, rarely shows it's age as Lewis discourses through timeless truths)
> Steven Dubner & Steven Levitt: Think like a Freak (Thin and repeats a lot of the podcast material. Did not care, they bring an A game to the table and it's worth the short time investment. I will be telling more stories as a result of this book.)
>Thomas Cahill: How the Irish Saved Civilization (intriguing survey of the classical world's collapse and the effect of Patrick's conversion of Ireland on Ireland and continental Europe)
>Maury Klien: The Power Makers: Steam, Electricity, and the Men who invented Modern America (Workman like prose, takes a lot of pages to describe the evolution of electricity
 in the US. Not for idle reading but I found it informative)
> Danny Silk: Keep Your Love On! (Could have been condensed to 24 pages, not compelling or revelatory or terribly helpful)
> Michael Pollan: The Omnivore's Dilemma  (Food Inc sourced a lot of material from Pollan's writings, but even after viewing Food Inc I still found fresh and engaging content throughout,. It did accomplish it's unstated goal, to have this reader review my food choices)
> Cityview Church: Perseverance; True Stories from Mineral Wells
>Margaret MacMillian: Paris 1919: Six Months that Changed the World
>Mark Kurlansky: The Big Oyster; History on the Half Shell
>Michael Lewis: Boomerang

Fiction:
> Isaac Asimov: The Currents of Space (Asimov brings a sci-fi who-dun-it. Fun and engaging)
> Douglas Adams: The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy (Hilarious and unrelenting in surprise)
> Douglas Adams: The Restaurant at the End of the Universe (Funny and continues the humor)
> Douglas Adams: Life, the Universe, Everything (moments of hilarity, too oft a story lost)
> Neal Stephenson: Snowcrash (Clever conceits, a collapsed world run by 'franchise city-states', skateboarding delivery teens, enormous virtual reality engagement, Sumerian myth, the Holy Spirit as an information virus transmittable from humans to virtual reality, a world spanning monopoly on the internet run by a renegade Pentecostal, an Aleut man with a hydrogen bomb... fun concepts which require enormous suspensions of disbelief to overcome chronic biblical mis-information. Audio version was dull. may be better in paper. Tremendous tongue-in-cheek humor. Frustrating characters due to thin thought processes. Unbelievably contemporary for being 22 years old, worth a looksee for sci-fi readers)
Arthur Conan Doyle: A Study in Scarlet (Sherlock Holmes)
> Larry Correia: Hard MagicBook 1 of the Grimnoir Chronicles (Story. Plot. Characters. Historical context. Magic. Steampunk. So. Good.)
> Larry Correia: SpellboundBook I1 of the Grimnoir Chronicles (An equal to the excellence that is Hard Magic)
> Edgar Rice Burroughs: Princess of Mars (classic interplanetary romance adventure science fiction, for boys young and old)
David Liss: Whiskey Rebels: (Mediocre historical fiction in the period following the war for independence. Yawn.)
>Larry Correia: Warbound Book III of the Grimnoir Chronicles. (Corriea manages the Everest of multi-part fiction, a conclusion worthy of its mighty predecessors. I listened to the audio versions all and they were tremendous, I will be seeking out paper copies to keep on the shelf.) 
>John C. Wright: City Beyond Time (Short stories of time travel and the people who live at the end of time and have to deal with the obnoxious consequences of those who travel in time. Thought provoking in the way good science fiction ought to be)
> Edgar Rice Burroughs: At the Earth's Core: (Fun and fanciful Sci-Fi/Fantasy of a long time ago. Felt like a compilation of a magazine serial feature)
>Arthur Conan Doyle: The Sign of the Four
>Arthur Conan Doyle: The Hound of the Baskervilles
>Victor Davis Hanson: The End of Sparta 

In Process:
Homer: The Illiad
John Piper: What Jesus Demands from the World

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Wage Limitations

EDIT: This is a response to an article on Yahoo!: Why We Need a Maximum Wage

Minimum wage is a labor restriction created and maintained by the US Federal Government. The rationale for its existence is to keep employer from driving down the cost of wages to the point where the wage no longer benefits the laborer. This is absurd. People don’t work when they don’t receive adequate compensation. In economics jargon we would say that the marginal benefit of the pay must exceed the marginal cost of the labor input. There are several problems with the concept that minimum wage laws help the poor or under employed, and they are standard fare for economics coursework. By artificially raising the price of labor, employers employ fewer workers and find alternative solutions. 

This is because of the nature of employment in a market environment. A business will not, and indeed, cannot, employ a workforce that costs the organization more than that work force increases revenue. This cost accounting must include payroll, healthcare, taxes, and all other costs associated with the employment. If any of these areas increases in cost, the profitability of each employee decreases and raises the ceiling for increasing or maintaining the size of the workforce. 

These cost increase can be in the form of higher pay, higher taxes, and increasing benefit requirements; indeed, we have seen this take place over the past decade with disastrous results on the employment level of the US labor force. It is apparent that mandating increasing the cost of employment has damaged the labor market.

In short, the relationship between an employee and an employer is a win-win relationship. The employee is receiving compensation in excess of value of their input. The organization is receiving more value from this employees work then they are compensating the employee. This is a wonderful arrangement as both sides willingly forego value in order to acquire a greater value offered by the counterpart.

There is a growing concern that income inequality in the US is a problem spot that requires remedy. Critics of high levels of income point to the disparity of wages at the very top when compared as a ratio to the wages of the average worker, or indeed, the minimum wage level of the US. The current solution to this perceived dilemma is a progressive marginal tax rate, where greater levels of income are taxed at a higher rate the income bracket beneath it.[i] This has the effect of permitting high wages while punishing those increased wages with higher levels of taxation. This results in lower taxes for the lower marginal tax rate brackets, so that the lower levels of income pay far less then do the higher levels of income. The current rate of income tax paid by the top 10% in the US is over 70%[ii], while the remaining 90% of those in the US making less than the top ten 10% pay only 30% of income tax. It is clear that low income tax payers benefit mightily from the taxes paid by the ‘elite’.

Suppose we capped the level of income to say, 1000 times the level of minimum wage[iii]. That is roughly 15 million dollars annually for the very top level income earner. The threshold for the top 1% of household incomes is 350,000[iv]. Very few households would be directly impacted by such a law, right?
In light of taxation impact from top income earners, this is wrong. Capping wages would reduce the income taxes paid by top level earners, thereby increasing the tax burden on the lower levels of income or increasing the spending deficit.

Let us return now to the micro question: Why do organizations employ individuals? Because the marginal benefit of that employee is in excess of the marginal cost to the organization. What holds true for the janitorial staff, the attorneys and the mid-level director holds true for the CEO. At some point, the perceived value of that employee was in excess of their rate of pay. While that may not continue to be the truth, it was nevertheless a crucial decision made along the way.

What water does that bucket hold? Payroll is not the only form of compensation. In the Great Depression, the US Federal Government restricted pay increases and other forms of compensation. In the finite wisdom of a government agency, it supposed that restricting pay increases would help win the War. As a result, companies found other ways of acquiring and retaining talent. Enter employer-paid healthcare insurance, or what we now call ‘benefits’[v].

The point is this: Exceptional talent (or those perceived to be) is highly prized in the market. In a marketplace where organizations are bigger then national governments, and annual revenues exceed that of many nations, the stakes for having the best at your helm is extraordinary and demands extraordinary compensation. Salary and bonuses are easy to see, stock options less so, and other forms of compensation become even more opaque. 

Simply capping the level of income will do little to reduce compensation; organizations will just find other ways to compensation top flight individuals. In the process, that low-income worker who has a lesser tax burden will suddenly find higher taxes or increased deficits, not a reduction in the ‘oppression’ of wage disparity. 

To summarize again: Wage inequality is not an injustice, to cap income for the wealthy is to damage all income classes, and compensation will continue despite a cap on income. 





[i] http://www.forbes.com/sites/moneybuilder/2013/01/05/updated-2013-federal-income-tax-brackets-and-marginal-rates/
[ii] http://money.cnn.com/2013/03/12/news/economy/rich-taxes/
[iv] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Income_inequality_in_the_United_States
[v] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Health_insurance_in_the_United_States#The_rise_of_employer-sponsored_coverage

Thursday, June 27, 2013

2013 Book List

As is readily apparent to all who enter, I have been unable to maintain a consistent presence on this blog.
That is likely to continue into the future, as my wife and I have begun to spend more time in ministry together and I am no longer at a university living the leisurely life of blogging from the classroom.

However, there is one joy in life I would still like to share and discuss. Books. This is the ongoing list of the books I've worked through this year, and it will be updated as the pages turn on.  No particular order, there may be parenthetical notes in regards to a work.

***** Five Star: (Unmitigated recommendation from this blogger)Richard Adams - Watership Down (A genuine classic that encourages the mind and soul. World-building on par with Tolkien, with rabbits rather then Hobbits)
David McCullough - John Adams (Virtuoso work by a solid historical author. Worth every minute. You can all have your Washington, Jefferson, Franklin, Hamilton, and Madison. Me? I'm pining for  Adams, a man exemplary in character and consequence in his own time. A lasting test of his mettle? His son John Quincy, marking John Adams as one who could straddle the line of Family and Country and succeed)

Fiction:
> Issac Asimov - The Robots of Dawn (disappointing social commentary thinly disguised as a robot whodunit, a rare Asimov miss )
> Stanislaw Lem - Solaris (A Polish work of 52 years past, translated. Excellent)
> Vox Day - A Magic Broken & Wardog's Coin & The Last Witchking (Compelling novelettes in a intricate fantasy world)
> Lars Walker - Hailstone Mountain (Off the beaten path Nordic fantasy from the perspective of a priest. Enjoyable.)
> Ray Bradbury - The Martian Chronicles (He doesn't so much write as paint with words. Compelling short form science fiction)
> Ray Bradbury - Dandelion Wine
> John Steinbeck - Cannery Row 
Alstair Reynolds - Revelation Space (Listened on Audible. Difficult to follow, not recommended)
> Richard Adams - Watership Down (A genuine classic that encourages the mind and soul)
> Vox Day - A Throne of Bones (Rome, Elves, Orcs, Dragons, intricacies to rivet the attentive reader)
> C.S. Lewis - The Screwtape Letters (Putting this on the 'Must Read to finish Homeschool' list)
> Larry Niven - Rainbow Mars (Science fiction of men and sundry martians that never left me quite enough rope with which to catch on)
Frank Herbert - Dune Messiah (disappointing following the masterpiece that is Dune)

Non Fiction:
> David McCullough - John Adams (Virtuoso work by a solid historical author. Worth every minute.)
> George Daughn - If By Sea: The Forging of the American Navy: From the Revolution to the War of 1812 (Comprehensive and accessible. A rare and noble feat.)
> Luigi Zingales - A Capitalism for the People: Recapturing the Lost Genius of American Prosperity
> Michael Lewis - Moneyball: The art of winning an unfair game (Baseball. Economics. Personal stories.Remarkable work)
> Michael Lewis - The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game (Football. Economics. Personal stories. Remarkable work)
> Matt Chandler - The Explicit Gospel (As good as hoped for, good for thinkers)
> Andy Staley/Bill Willits - Creating Community: Five Keys to Building a Small Group Culture
> James Wesley Rawles - How to Survive the End of the World as We Know It (With no limit on the budget, apparently no problem can not be surmounted)
> James Bradley - The Imperial Cruise: A Secret History of Empire and War (This rocked my view of 1890-1910 America & Teddy Roosevelt in a sharply negative direction)
> Kevin Dedman - The Ultimate Treasure Hunt
> Amy S. Greenberg - A Wicked War: Polk, Clay, Lincoln, and the 1846 U.S. Invasion of Mexico (Executive abuse of power leading to invasion of a sovriegn land. Echos of today)
> Giles Milton - Nathaniel's Nutmeg, Or the True and Incredible Adventures of the Spice Trader Who Changed the Course of History 
> Andy Staley - 7 Practices of Effective Ministry
> Cook's Illustrated - The Science of Good Cooking (Delicious and informative)
> Nathaniel Philbrick - Bunker Hill: A City, a Siege, A Revolution (High quality narrative nonfiction of Boston in the years surrounding the start of the War for Independence)
> Mike Dash - Tulipomania (Because flowers and market mania without inflationary monetary policy)
> E. F. Schumacher - Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered (Useful first half, not so much the second half)
Malcolm Gladwell - David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants (Stories and lessons learned of how the quick and nimble destroy the slow and ossified)
> Rob Goodman - Rome's Last Citizen: The Life and Legacy of Cato, Mortal Enemy of Caesar 
> Michael Lewis - The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine
> Jon Krakauer - Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith



Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Wednesday, March 06, 2013

Is Rand Paul Still Talking?

A worthy question.

http://israndpaulstilltalking.com/

As of now, yes. 5:38 strong.

Get it done Mr. Paul.
“I will speak today until the president responds and says, ‘No, we won’t kill Americans in cafes. No, we won’t kill you at home at night,’”

"Are you going to just drop a hellfire missile on Jane Fonda?"

UPDATE: Fillibuster still going  at 11:33.

H/t Gino:



Also:











To conclude, from The Hill: “They think the whole world is a battlefield, including America, and that the laws of war should apply,” Paul said in an interview on Fox News about McCain and Graham, who had described Paul’s comments about drones as “ridiculous.” “The laws of war don't involve due process, so when they ask you for an attorney you tell them to shut up. That's not my understanding of the way America works,” Paul told Fox. “I don't think the laws of war apply to America, I think the Bill of Rights do and I think it's a disservice to our soldiers that our senators up there arguing that the Bill of Rights aren't important."

Monday, February 25, 2013

Nuclear Wildcard


In his 2002 State of the Union Address, George W Bush warned Americans about the looming threat of the contemporary ‘axis of evil’. This trio – Iran, Iraq and North Korea - was ostensibly engaged in the headlong pursuit of nuclear weapons with the sole purpose of wreaking havoc on the west. In the aftermath of 9/11 and in the early days of combat in Afghanistan, Americans were eager for the next target of our indignant fury.   Within 14 months, combat operations would begin in Iraq, tearing apart the first of the three ‘axis powers’.

Fortuitously, we have not yet engaged or invaded Iran or North Korea. North Korea has continued to execute a strategy of being the crazed knife-wielding hyena of the East Asia. To placate the beast, we have and will continue to offer it food while maintaining the DMZ along the border. This is how Clinton, Bush, and Obama  maintained the peace. With Iran, we have  perceived the continual threat of nuclear armament for years on end. Subsequent predictions should the Persians develop weapons for the atomic age have conjured apocalyptic scenarios of a world without Israel and gasoline at $12 a gallon. While we have intentionally avoided official diplomatic discussions with Iran, we protest that it is Iran who is the aggressive power in the Middle East. It is politically convenient to ignore the reality that we have invaded two neighbors and control by military might nearly 60% of the borders in contact with Iran. In the face of such naked aggression on our borders, any nation would seek a more capable military response.

The solution for Iran has not yet come to pass, although it is debatable that such a solution is the responsibility or prerogative of these United States. It is unlikely that our solutions for North Korea and Iran will involve a land invasion reminiscent of Iraq. In simple terms, the financial and emotional wherewithal for a ground invasion and occupation of yet another nation does not exist. Military strategy in the near future will require different tools, tools developed and escalated within the past decade of military operations.  

Rémy LeBeau Knows Whats UpIn our rampant imperialism with boots on the ground, we have developed an unprecedented level of air superiority. A decade ago, drones were the infants in the arsenal of the west; today they are entering their adolescence. The military tools now seen in the Predator and Reaper drones, when combined with precision munitions, are capable of striking an enemy without endangering a pilot. This is a blessing, as combat operations retain a keen edge of destruction without becoming life threatening to military personnel. It is a perfect storm of superiority and safety in opposition theatres.

This risk free application of force has become the terrible vice of drone warfare, and in turn, our foreign policy. The tactical reality is that there is almost no cost to the US when autonomous missile throwers are employed. Economics imparts the wisdom that ‘there is no free lunch’; there are costs associated with all actions. One clear cost is the damage wrought on the ground by the ordinance. This is intentional, although properly controversial. A cost that is far more difficult to account for is the United States’ loss of moral standing in the world. The hearts and minds of people matter, as actions and preferences are born from people’s beliefs.

Terrorism is one consequence of desperation, the killing of innocents to draw attention and make a point. It is not a consequence of living among sand, nor is the result of raising goats rather than cattle. Terrorism is a tactic employed to provoke a response and affect the hearts of the enemy. The ostensible mastermind of the 9/11 attacks did not see the breaking of the towers as an end, but as a means to an end. Bin Laden believed that when the US retaliated and began to destroy the lives and families of Muslims, they would join his jihad against the United States. Our invasions fit the historical US pattern of invasion, occupations, withdrawals, and intermittent air strikes; we have returned to the very tactics so strongly decried by those recruiting new terrorists. In Afghanistan alone, there has been a 72% increase in drone air strikes in the past year.

Pakistan, Yemen, Syria, Iraq, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Libya, Ethiopia, Djibouti, Niger, Somalia, Mali and others are now active theatres for US air strikes. These strikes frequently create collateral damage. At the very least, they are annoying to those who live nearby. In a primitive society, this is a god-like power, to strike across borders from the air without consequence. These people are not primitive; they are well aware of who bears responsibility for the bombings. It has inflamed opinion against the US. It will bring on additional action against the US. It will spur the very hearts and minds of those whose tacit opposition to the jihad we so crucially depend on.

George Friedman said it well, "A military strategy to defeat the jihadists is impossible. At its root, the real struggle against the jihadists is ideological, and that struggle simply cannot be won with Hellfire missiles.”

Pakistan is rightly opposed to US actions: our invasion of their borders, our assassination teams sent in without permission and our continually escalating air strikes by drones. According to Gallup, 92% of those polled in Pakistan are now opposed to the US leadership in Pakistan. The single nation on earth which lays claim to being both Muslim and a genuine nuclear power is the sovereignty we have violated with reckless abandon. The democracy of Pakistan is on shaky ground, propped up by the US, which is detested by the population. It is no far-fetched proposition to see a future in which the nuclear weapons of Pakistan are deployed against the west in retribution for the wrongs committed in the name of preempting terrorism.

In a poker game where cards represent nations, and the cards showing nuclear threats are Iran and North Korea are on the table. The card of Pakistan still sits in the deck. History and God deal many wildcards over the course of time, and Pakistan could be the next one. If such a deal comes, we will look once again in wonder and anger and ask, “Why do they hate us?” The answer will be found in our actions, our vice, and our imperial hubris that led us to believe that there could be no consequences to rampant bombing of individuals the world over.

Liberties and the constitution are sacrificed for security upon the altar of political expediency. Once again, we will see the Military-Industrial complex fully primed for a war financed by continual deficits. It is glory and it is pain to see from within an empire behave as an empire, but better perhaps to be within then without. 

Tuesday, February 05, 2013

Zimbabwe

Has a good lesson to teach on the dangers of printing money to solve a government budget deficit.
I've been sitting on these pictures for a while, but this story seems like a good one to bring them up with.
In 2008, Zimbabwe reached 231 Million Percent Annual inflation. Here is the result:


 Even more distressing? 
The national accounts of Zimbabwe total up to $217 following payroll last week.  


Lesson? A government cannot simply create more money to exit economic recessions, deficits, or liquidity traps. The current financial world has not yet reckoned with the potential for rampant inflation of the US dollar, but the time will come. Inflation is more rampant in an environment of economic growth, it is the boom not the bust which brings the destruction.  This lasting doldrums of the past four years has suppressed price inflation, although cracks still appear in the ceiling. See, gas prices rising consistently without obvious changes in supply or demand. 

To allay this gloom, recall an American electorate which as a long history of rejecting inflationary government measures. The Continentals, Greenbacks, and the Bimetallism of Williams Jennings Bryan were all cast upon the ash heap of history. We will either remember that crafting new monetary units from the ether results in hardship for the poor, or these current United States will cease to exist. 


Friday, January 25, 2013

The Culture that is Germany

BBC News:
"The man drove up to a Hell's Angels clubhouse near Munich, wearing only a pair of shorts and carrying a puppy.
He dropped his shorts and threw the dog, escaping on a bulldozer from a nearby building site."

The best introduction to an article which is perhaps the best news story ever written.  Germany is a far more interesting tourist destination today then it was a week hence. 

Artistic representation of a hurled puppy

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Gino On Firearm Restriction

This is an excellent excerpt from another 5 star blog post over at In Shredz.
"But nobody needs one of these rifles, right? They are not practical for civilian use, they are just killing machines, right?
Guess again.
Forget that scenario of warrior patriots standing up to defend their freedom from military forces. I'm not going there here.
Instead, I can tell you what happened in Los Angeles during the riots 20 years ago. The rioting quickly spread, so fast, so far, so violent, so out of control, that vast swaths of a very large city were abandoned by all forces who's job was to provide law, order and protection to the citizens."

The entire post is eminently readable and will provoke one to thought. Its also an angle which has been unfortunately drowned out in the cacophony of Left/Right media discussions. The possession of firearms to maintain domestic security is not directed merely at deer (Cuomo!), or at any specific standing administration (you know who you are) but also at the terror that comes when a mob rises up. In historical context, this has been a very quiet time for populist or violent movements, but America is no stranger to sudden and violent uprisings. 

The Culture that is Ireland


The County Kerry Council in southwest Ireland passed a measure on Monday that allows rural drivers to legally drive while under the influence of alcohol.The council voted 5-3 - with 12 absent and seven abstaining - to issue special permits to individuals who live in rural areas and wish to drive home on remote countryside roads after consuming two to three alcoholic beverages." - YahooNews

I put this under 'America has many problems, but this ain't one of them' category. At least we require a quorum to make decisions effecting law. 

By far the best comment:
"This is quite surprising.
I had no idea drunk driving was illegal in Ireland."

Thursday, January 17, 2013

The Fed and Prices

The consumer price index over time in the US, note the creation of the Federal Reserve, and the subsequent change of pace. Also note the subsequent change of increase when the gold standard was completely removed from the US Dollar in the early 1970's. H/t ZeroHedge


Increasing prices as related to an increasing currency without a commensurate increase in wages? Check.

A currency increase unrestrained by any backing requirement? Check. 

A currency quadrupled in quantity over the past 10 years and not yet reflected in this chart? Check.

Dire consequences to follow? History says, Check. 

Friday, December 28, 2012

Financial Interest And Citizens

Cheaper Than Dirt .223 Rifle, Empty 12/24/12
10 Round .223 AR-15 Mag, Bullet Trap Inc, 12/27/12 Cost: $75.
Academy Sports .223 Rifle, Empty 12/27/12




Cheaper Than Dirt 9mm Handgun, Empty 12/24/12
In the wake of the Sandy Hook massacre, the national political climate has taken an apparent shift from toleration of an armed citizen to open mockery of a free citizen being armed. It has apparently troubled more then a few, as stores which I have never seen an empty ammo shelf have become the norm. 

Within hours, the national outcry for the reinstatement of the 1994 Abridgement of the Second Amendment Assault Rifle Ban swept the internet and media outlets. The result? A run on the existing supply of such rifles, and a rapid increase in the private holdings of such rifles. To wit, the result of intoning increased control of fire arms is to increase the number of fire arms in private hands, and to drive the existing supplies of ammunition off the shelves and into the closets of private citizens. 

Anecdotal evidence from a local gun show on 12/22 was compelling. The doors opened at 9am, we arrived and stood in line from 8:45am to 9:15am to even enter the show floor. After 11:30am, I was no longer able to locate a dealer of ammunition selling .223 Rifle at any price. 

Equally of note, the AR-15 style rifle has become exceptionally difficult to locate and purchase. At the show we visited, most vendors began the day charging double the previous going rate for rifles, with many rapidly increasing prices until selling out within only a handful of hours. 

The standard magazine for these rifles holds 30 rounds, and were priced with a 800% increase from the price a month previous. Supply and demand functioned efficiently, these prices reflect a selling of magazines in 3 days equivalent to 42 months of sales.The picture above of the magazine priced at $75 is representative of a magazine with 1/3 the capability for 8 times the price of the standard magazine in the beginning of November. In essence a cost growth of 2400% as a result of a few words spoken in public. The short run inelasticity (Inflexible, difficult to increase supply in the short run) of the quantity supply is seen by rapid increases in prices as the retails cope with very elastic (increasing quickly in the short run) demand.

An AR-15 rifle is known to the industry as a 'Sporting Rifle' and has a more tactical look and feel then does a traditional hunting rifle. To those who do not understand the tools they seek to condemn, these are frequently referred to as 'Assault Rifles'. The fear and hysteria surrounding these implements is such that before anything approaching clarity was available regarding the Sandy Hook story, officials were decrying the presence of an AR-15 style rifle without regard for the facts regarding it's use, or even the legality of its presence on the school grounds. 

 Really, it is almost as if Diane Feinstein and her compatriots have a large financial interest in increasing the sales of all arms makers and ammunition manufacturers. Think about it, millions of extra rounds of ammunition purchased in the past year for non-combat departments of the Federal Government were done with some cause.

Monday, December 24, 2012

The Hobbit

In the early months of 1999 my mother hauled her two boys to the Grapevine Public Library. While I was busy casting about the children's book section, she went out of her way to pull a large, dully colored book down from the shelf and force me to hold it and look at it. While I gaped in impatience at the cover, she explained that although she had never read the book or the author, it was a book I would probably like.

As mothers tend to be, she was correct in her assessment. After all, I had plowed through CS Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia nearly six times.Taking her consultation into account, and with all the skills of discernment I possessed,  I looked at the book with the map with a lonely mountain and the desolation of Smaug, decided it was silly, and returned it to the shelf. Thus ended my first interaction with J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit.

Accelerate now to the end of 2006. I had read the account of the Baggins adventure twice, the companion Lord of the Rings thrice. I still reckon on the four part cycle by Tolkien as one of the finest reads on my shelf, and relished the movies by Peter Jackson.
Enter 2012, as the Hobbit receives a three movie rendition of its own and audiences across the United States visited beloved Middle Earth yet again, enthralled by the deeply human story of the Halfling struggling amidst all the joy and terror and perils this fantasy world can offer.

The movie represents the book quite well. Tolkienoids will appreciate the inclusion of the musical numbers which were often notably absent from the LOTR trilogy. Continuity folks will revel in the inclusion of Ian McKellen reprising Gandalf the Gray. Purists will adore the time lovingly spent in Bag End, the lines of the script taken straight from the quill of Tolkien, and the dedication to a properly blown smoke ring. Young and old alike ought to be entranced by Smaug, the Kingdom Under the Mountain, the Goblin kingdom, the Trolls and the Eagles.

In fact, there is something in this movie for everyone to enjoy. It is long. It is obsessed with the world of its creation. It does bear obvious foreshadowing and superfluous additions to the story. Regardless, The Hobbit remains enjoyable and even memorable, which is something many films, sequels, and prequels fail to achieve. (Here's looking at you Lucas!) Do yourself a favor and spend a few more hours in enthralled by Middle Earth.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

How to Watch Netflix: Last Train Home


Last Train Home is a documentary crafted by Lixin Fan and released in 2009. Fan follows three years in the life of a family swimming in the annual labor migration of the Chinese industrial revolution. In many respects, this family presents a non-typical image of modern China. Courtesy of the barbaric One Child policy, the fertility rate of the Chinese mainland has fallen 6 births per woman in 1970 to a low of 1.4 birth per woman in 2010. What is also notable, the first born is a daughter. For variety of reasons, this is not as common as it statistically should be in china. (Freakonomics: Misadventures in Baby Making)

Father and Mother are Zhang Changhua and Chen Suquin, both among the 130 million textile workers who live and work and eat and breathe the factories of Guangzhou (near Hong Kong).Despite the low wages earned in the factory, they are able to save enough Yuan each year to more than offset the earnings of their agricultural options at home.  Meanwhile, their children are raised in the agricultural homestead by their grandmother. Last Train Home begins as the parents near the end of their fifteenth year of migrant labor. They work to save enough to send both children to school.  Each year, they return home to celebrate the Chinese New Year, duration of one to two months. On each occasion it is an ordeal of immense proportions to journey home by the trains which navigate the Chinese countryside.  Fan does a fine job capturing the scope of humanity which travels at this time, comprising nearly 130 million souls headed back home at the same time. To miss the train going home is to miss home entirely for the year.

The first born is Zhang Qin, a daughter of high school age who appears to have nothing but distain for the efforts of her parents and her grandmother. Her coming of age story unfolds with remarkable alacrity and feeling throughout Fan’s work. Her younger brother is struggling academically, and the reasons develop over the years as well. There exists a powerful tension between the three generations, as the young and old clash over ideals and lifestyles. Distance and time spent apart remain enormous obstacles to overcome, and like all families in history, there is no final conclusion to the joys and struggles of life.

The obvious question is never asked, but I will address it here after finding my own answer. Why would this family not move to the city? Due to the hukou of the Chinese political system, the farmer families are unable to access public services beyond their district. The hukou status grants government services to people, provided they remain in the proper place granted to them. These include education, medical care, housing, and pensions. To move into an area where the hukou is not applicable is economic suicide. Wealthy city dwellers are unwilling to debase their hukou benefits and refuse to grant a change in hukou status to migrant families. In consequence, a population comprising nearly 40% of the United States migrates hither and yon on a yearly basis.  

Last Train Home is presented only in Mandarin with lively and responsive English subtitling. Before this begins to daunt, consider this: It is rare that you will devote your entire attention to what is on a screen before you, because you can simply turn away and listen to the audio whilst your mind cleverly fills in the void. Not so in Mandarin with English subtitles, as the subtitles require constant attention.
Use your Netflix for good tonight, this is highly recommended viewing. 

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Redistribution and Times of Tempest

In a nation racing towards insolvency at the speed of a falling falcon, the state of Pennsylvania is worth a look. But first, some reality.


The redistribution of wealth by government entities has two consequences which are seldom discussed. First, the wealth must be removed from the hands of citizens who possess it. In our national system this means taxing people with income and profitable investments. Second, the confiscated wealth is utilized to encourage individuals without income or profitable investments to retain such vocations. In our rational world, we punish that which is productive and reward that which is not. Even bypassing the moral arguments against theft of wealth by the power of guns, this is a miserable set up and provides negative incentives to both parties of the transactions. 

Take note of the following graphs from the Department of Public Welfare of Pennsylvania in conjunction with the American Enterprise Institute. 

Exhibit A: The income curve of a Pennsylvania family of a single mother and two children. The red line indicates the level of earnings. Blue bars indicate net earnings and are representative of take home pay and benefits following Federal and State taxes. Notice that while a progressive tax rate is active, it is in all cases better to increase earnings. 





Exhibit B: The income curve of a Pennsylvania family of a single mother and two children. Note the remaining red income line and the blue area of net income. Note also the stark level of redistributed wealth. The dashed horizontal line is important, as this individual earning $29,000 per year will rationally refuse any increase in income, unless such income were to exceed $69,000 per year.


Exhibit C: The outcome of increased redistribution of wealth. The programs we collectively call welfare are not the only source of redistributed income, wealth producers are subject to an additional form of exploitation.  Government employees are paid from this same pool of forcibly collected wealth. At this very hour there are only five privately employed wage producers for every 4 individuals collecting from this sour pool of redistributed wealth. For a look at the growth of government employment in comparison to the growth in private employment, look at slide 14


Clearly there is room for disagreement on the role of government and the level of employment under the banner of the government system, but there ought be no dispute that every dollar used to pay the wages of government employees is that which stems from taxation or excise. My umbrage is not with the individuals who have rationally chosen work within the government apparatus, but with the apparatus as it exists and from where the resources for it's existence are derived. 

Can it happen here? Will the motor continue to turn? Have we passed the event horizon

Big questions with no easy answer, and the sky continues to darken uncomfortably. It was without error when Romney declared 47% of the electorate would be firmly opposed to a candidate who even pretended to rearrange this acrimonious construct. We may be watching as that 47% swiftly surpasses the 50% mark over the coming two years. The political firepower simply does not exist on a national level* to reduce the spending on these any policy. The rational and expected action of an elected official at this time is to encourage redistribution of wealth just as Senators of Rome pursued headlong the panem et circenses politics of the republics latter days. 

The time is past and present to remedy this insult to human dignity. We must no longer sanction the punishment of the productive on behalf of the collective society. Equally important is to restore the hope that comes when an individual is capable of improving themselves. It is implausible to believe that a single mother with receive a promotion from $29,000 a year to $70,000 a year. Short of that pay rate, she is told that her most valuable place in society and for her children is to earn less then $30,000 year. In the desire to provide for a low income family at the expense of others, we have managed to strip away hope and pride and desire for personal and professional improvement. 

Irrevocably and predictably our solution falls once again upon the shoulders of the individuals who make the teeming mass of people we call Americans. Will the hearts and minds of the people change to alter the course we are set on? Human history is rife with societies who have quibbled over the gold on a sinking ship, but of equal abundance are ships righted in times of tempest. May God be with us.




*(Ryan, Gowdy and Paul notwithstanding)