Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Hexadecimperial metrics

I was reminded recently of a conversation I had a while back about weights and measures.  Though I was raised bilingually, speaking both Imperial and Metric, I find myself admiring metric but using imperial day-to-day.  (Of course, there are some archaic units I have a fondness for... I love cubits because they are one of the few units of measure I've found that intrinsically imply a lack of precision)  While I do love metric units, the entire SI finds itself mired in a tradition of base 10 numbering (side note:  that's a really poor way to name numbering systems.  All numbering systems are base 10, they simply disagree on the value of 10-1.  Shouldn't it be called base 9+1?  But I digress) Why does anyone think it makes inherent sense for a kilogram to be equal to 0x3E8 grams? (OK, one more side note:  that number is highly frustrating to those, like me, who are fans of both hexadecimal and scientific E notation.)

There are so many places where imperial units get things so tantalizingly close to right.  Rulers are already generally marked off in 1/0x10ths of an inch.  0x10 ounces make a pound.  Of course, they then wander off into lala land with 0xE lbs to the stone, 0xB inches to the foot, etc.  But instead of dismissing entirely, I say let's fix what's broken.  I say let's make a new system of heximetric (HM) measures based on imperial units, so that those with a familiarity with imperial can easily transition because their mental approximations are still approximately right.

0x10 inches to the HM cubit (off by 2 inches)
0x20 inches to the HM yard (off by 4 inches)
0x100 inches to the HM rod (off by 58 inches)
 (call 0x1000 inches a HM half-furlong)
0x2000 inches in the HM furlong (off by 272 inches)
0x10000 inches in the HM mile (off by 2176 inches)

(I'm shocked that a mile is so close to 64k inches, it's only off by
about 3%.  That's kind of neat)

0x10 drachm in an oz (exact)
0x10 oz in a lb (exact)
0x10 lb in a HM stone (off by 2 lbs)
0x80 lb in a HM hundredweight (off by 16 lbs)
 0x100 lb in 2 HM hundredweight
0x800 lb in a HM ton (off by 152 lbs)
 0x1000 in 2 HM tons
0x10 tons in another day older and deeper in debt

One of the minor side-coolnesses to this that I noticed in my conversation is light speed.  To 2 significant digits, lightspeed would be 0x2C,000 HM miles per second.  That just strikes me as kind of cool, in a c=2c way.  (although I would say that I need a better means of notation for powers of 2.  0x2c * 0x10^7 inches/second just looks uglier than 3E8 m/s (dammit, there's that number again.  It's haunting me.))

So, who's with me?

Monday, May 20, 2013


One of the things I'm always fascinated by is how the fundamental assumptions we make shape our beliefs, and how those beliefs shape our views of the world and, perhaps most importantly, shape our views of those with different assumptions.  I talked about this sort of thing with respect to crime and punishment in a previous blog post.

A very similar sort of dynamic shows up in the politics of economics.  On the one hand there are people who believe that wealth is money, or the related belief that wealth is a relatively static thing that can be sliced up like a pie and distributed in either a fair or unfair manner.  On the other hand you have people who believe that wealth is a side effect of the movement of money (or that the movement of money is a side effect of the creation of wealth) and that the forcible movement of money not only fails to create wealth, but that it hinders the natural movement of money and the associated wealth thereby generated.  Personally, I clearly fall into the latter category, but this post isn't about right and wrong, it's about how the adherents of those two viewpoints perceive one another.

If you look at economics as an exercise in slicing an immutable pie, then questions on such topics as tax policy are a matter of balance, where harm to the rich is balanced against help for the poor. Or perhaps it's a question of fairness.  Sure, maybe they'll admit that someone who has worked hard and made a bunch of money deserves to end up with a bit more than someone who hasn't, but "How much more is really fair?" they'll ask.

From the other point of view, tax policy is not at all a balancing act.  If the  creation of wealth by the free movement of money is damaged by the non-free movement of money, then taxes aren't a boon to the poor at the expense of the rich, they are instead a harm to all to the benefit of none and the fairest policy is one where they are kept to the minimum possible amount.

What's really interesting to me here is how each side's actions appear to one another. If you believe in equalized redistribution, then the capitalist insistence on minimum taxation appears to be motivated by an insatiable greed.  On the other hand, to a capitalist, the redistributionist's call for fair and balanced taxation make no sense whatsoever in terms of compassion and kindness.  From the perspective that taxation hurts the poor as much or more than it hurts the rich, then an insistence on balance in taxation is not a question of balancing help for the poor against hurt for the rich, but a question of how much hurt to the poor can be tolerated in order to provide hurt to the rich.  Such a thing cannot be explained by compassion, but only makes sense in the context of hatred for the rich.  So say, as an example, that you're looking at a 1% tax increase on someone who makes ten million dollars a year.  From the redistributionist's standpoint, they see resistance as insatiable greed.  "How can you fight against this $100 thousand?  That's merely a drop in the bucket with relation to your income!  You'll barely be inconvenienced by it!  How could you be so greedy as to deny that small amount?  Do you have no human compassion at all?  What kind of vile monster are you?"  While on the other side, the rich capitalist is thinking "That is a fairly small amount, it won't make much difference to the overall quality of my life, perhaps I can afford to let go a groundskeeper or two, I'm sure a slightly disheveled lawn will be a barely noticeable inconvenience to me.  How much coldhearted hatred must these people have for me, that they're willing to sacrifice the entire livelihoods of a few groundskeepers in order to merely mildly inconvenience me?  Do they have no human compassion whatsoever?  What kind of vile monsters are they?"

Thursday, May 16, 2013


Over the past year or few, it seems there's always a lot of talk about compromise between the parties, or more accurately the lack thereof.  Democrats say that the Republicans are resistant to compromise, Republicans say that Democrats have redefined compromise to mean getting what they want, and the media wails and moans about how everything would be rainbows and unicorns if everyone would just be willing to compromise a bit.  I've always had a more sanguine view that sure, there are times when compromise is good, but, to give an analogy, when someone says they want to stab you in the heart 20 times, a compromise position of just 10 times doesn't really do you much good.  Now I'm starting to re-think my stand (not on the stabbing part.  I'm still firmly anti-stabbing).

Personally, I compromise all the time.  Most often with myself, usually along the lines of an uneasy peace between my tongue and the size of my waist.  I compromise with my family, my friends, my co-workers.  All of that is fine and good, but I just don't think it scales to the size and shape of politics and government.  Let's take a logical look at it, unrelated to any particular issue.  If the Republicans believe that what the Democrats want to do is harmful to the country, and the Democrats think that what the Republicans want to do is harmful to the country, then what does compromise get us?  It gets us a little of what Republicans want, in exchange for a little of what Democrats want.  If only one side is right, then compromise just hurts the country a little bit.  If both sides are right, then compromise hurts the country more.  Arguing for compromise means that you're working on the assumption that your opponent's beliefs are wrong, as are your own.  Maybe my initial assumptions are wrong.  Maybe one side or the other doesn't really believe that the other side's desires would ultimately be harmful.  I find that unlikely.  I personally know plenty of Republicans who claim to view Democrat policies as immensely harmful.  The same is true of Democrats and their espoused view of Republican policies.  Certainly it's possible that both sides are lying about their views, but that brings up the obvious question, if they don't really see the opponent's policies as harmful, why do they resist them at all?

All of this is certainly not to say that Democrats and Republicans (as well as adherents to any other political philosophies) can't work together.  Going back to my stabbing analogy and making it much more literal, I think that stabbing someone even just once is almost always wrong.  I think there should be a law against it.  I think there is a law against it.  Probably several of them.  I think that Republicans, Democrats, and nearly every third party out there would stand behind that sort of law.  That is an example of working together.  But it's not compromise, it's agreement, and that is an entirely different thing.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Minimum jobs

Way back during Obama's first presidential campaign, one of the things he promised was a $3,000 tax credit for new full-time jobs.  Looks like it's still listed in the website, under "New American Jobs Tax Credit".  Now, promises are promises, and when they come from a politician they're fairly suspect to begin with (when you don't have absolute dictatorial power, they're both easier and harder - it can often be hard to keep them, but it's easy to blame a failure to keep your promises on someone else).  This particular promise was, and is, unique in a few ways.  First of all, it's an offer to lower (albeit very slightly) taxes on businesses by creating a new loophole for them (hey, if we're going to start saying that every company that uses the tax code as written to get out of paying taxes is using loopholes, let's at least be consistent in our terminology).  It's at least trying to use economic incentives to induce companies to engage in behavior that actually benefits the economy.  Those are shocking things to have proposed by a Democrat.  Of course, it's a one-time thing, and the amount promised is dwarfed by the actual expense of hiring a new employee, but I'll take laws that are minimally effective over ones that are actually dangerous and harmful any day.

There's another way this promise was unusual - it was actually kept, to some extent.  For most of 2010, new hires were worth a $1,000 tax credit, and were exempt from the employer side of Social Security taxes through the end of 2010, which would be a savings of between $940 (for a 40-hour a week minimum wage employee) to $8,010 (for an employee making $106,800 or more during that period, or $128,160 per year if they started on the day the exemption began).  So for some employees, it actually was a $3,000 tax credit, though it could have been as little as $1,940 or as much as $9,010.  As far as fulfilled promises go, that ranks better than most.

Did Obama view it as a complete and total failure?  Because, during his State of the Union address, he said he wanted to raise the federal minimum wage to $9 per hour.  By my calculations, that's a cost of $3,913 to companies for each full time minimum wage employee they have.  So the person who believed a one-time $1,940 tax break for new hires during most of a single year would encourage job growth for some reason doesn't believe that an additional $3,913 per year cost per minimum wage employee - and a cost that lasts forever at that - will hurt employment?

So say I have a company with 200 employees, half of them minimum wage.  I'm going to be paying an extra $391,300 per year.  If I were planning to hire new employees, I could just cut the number I was planning to hire by 26, and it'd balance out.  If I wasn't, I could fire 20 people, on the assumption that the other 80 could manage to work 20% harder (that's probably not a good assumption).  I could cut the wages of the other 100 non-minimum-wage employees.  That certainly wouldn't be a popular choice, but maybe it's the only choice I could make.  I could always raise my prices to compensate, and maybe that would work, or maybe my customers would decide that they could do without my product and demand would dry up.  If I wasn't planning to expand, my workers can't work harder, my non-minimum-wage employees either make too little to be able to drop their pay or have other opportunities that they would take if I tried to, and if my customers won't pay more, then eventually, I will end up closing up shop and putting all 200 people out of work.  Which of those choices is compassionate?  Because they all sound pretty bad to me.

Now the really fun thing is the plan to index minimum wage to inflation.  That's a horrible idea, but does raise a very interesting possibility.  Inflation is the rising cost of goods.  Goods are made by people earning wages.  If we were to tie the wage to the cost of goods, then all it would take is for companies to tie the cost of goods to the minimum wage (which they already do, it's just not obvious), and in mathematical terms we've set the minimum wage to infinity.  Say in simplified terms, that inflation is the cost of a Big Mac, and the minimum wage is set to be 2 Big Mac's worth per hour.  Now all it would take is for McDonald's to set the price of a Big Mac to be one minimum wage hour's worth, and suddenly everyone is making infinite money, but can't afford to buy a burger.

The best analogy I've seen for minimum wage is a short basketball player.  "I sure do wish I could slam-dunk" he thinks to himself, "but I'm only 5'9", and all the guys who can dunk are over 6' tall."  So he comes up with a plan.  He goes to his garage and works late into the night, and the next day heads out to the court.  "Guys" he says "last night I built myself this ruler.  The feet on this ruler are 11" long. I just measured my height with it, and I'm 6'3", so watch me dunk now!"

Thursday, October 28, 2010

A Wealth of People

I have to say that I'm a little excited about the current state of US politics, which is unusual for me. It's been a fairly depressing decade or two for a political mutt of my particular pedigree. My leanings are somewhere in the constellation of Republican, Conservative, Libertarian, Constitutionalist, or perhaps even Federalist. It's hard for me to find any party that shares most of my beliefs, and I always find myself saddened when I stand firm, then watch the major parties wander further and further away from me. That's why I find myself deeply gladdened to see a major force within the Republican party taking up as their core issue a push to decrease federal spending. It's like I'm getting Christmas early.

But nothing's so good that it can't be made better, and there's something about the current crop that drives me to confusion. At the base of it is a question of the value of a person. Not the emotional or spiritual value of a human being, but the economic value. I've long held that one of the core differences between Capitalist and Socialist systems hinges on the value of people. In a free market, the minimum economic value that a person can have is zero. But most people have more value than that. Every person in the society is someone with whom I may engage in trade. In a free market, all trade is voluntary, so if my trade with another person has negative value to me, I will chose not to engage in it. Expanding the volume of people gives me both a broader market to sell what I produce, and a broader market of people producing things I may want to buy. Both ways, I win. Adding a person to the society doesn't mean he's taking "his share" of the overall production of the society, it means he's adding his share to it, participating in the overall flow of money and wealth. In contrast, a Socialist society takes on the responsibility of caring for its citizens. While that may sound noble and generally laudable, in practical terms it means that the value of an individual to society is negative. Each person in that society is a liability, not an asset. Each person is someone with needs that must be met. They certainly may have value as well, and in general people who live in Socialist or Communist societies do end up creating value and wealth, but while the Capitalist philosophy guarantees that a person's value can be no lower than zero, a Socialist philosophy can only guarantee that there is a negative component to each individual's value, with no such guarantee as to the magnitude or even existence of any positive component. My gut feeling is that this is the reason why so many of the mass murders of history were committed by Socialist dictators such as Mao and Stalin - for those societies, there existed the possibility that a person's value to society could be increased if they ceased to exist.

So this brings me to my perplexity at the attitude of our staunchest Capitalists towards immigration. In a free market, every immigrant will add to the overall health and well-being of the economy, just as every other person does. You could say that the problem stems from the fact that we have strayed so far from a free market that immigrants may bring with them a negative value, but I see no one articulating that point. If that's what people are thinking, then I have to respond that the solution to that problem is to fix the free market, not try and cure the symptom by restricting immigration. You could argue that illegal immigration is bad, and I'd have to agree with you there, at least insofar as when laws are broken, and even more so when the breaking of those laws is ignored, it foments a general contempt for the rule of law as a whole. The problem with illegal immigration isn't the immigration part, it's the illegal part. Once again, it's a problem of too many laws.

When I read The New Colossus, I can't help but get a bit misty-eyed. It's a powerful poem. When I see those words
Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
I think that may be descriptive of some, but certainly not all. Immigrants aren't necessarily tired nor poor. We shouldn't refuse to allow entry to those who fail to prove that they are wretched refuse, or that the shores they hail from are insufficiently teeming. Hidden within all of that loose description is the one requirement that I believe should be the foundation of our immigration policy. Those that wish to join this great nation, be they rich or poor, strong or weak, wretched refuse or shining beacon of humanity, they must meet one fundamental requirement: They must yearn to breathe free. If we wholeheartedly embraced that philosophy, I think we would all be better for it.

Avoiding Taxes

A "moderate" friend recently sent an e-mail to me and some of our mutual friends, and I felt like the answer should have a wider audience and discussion, so I'm putting it here. He asked:
Remember how we had a conversation a few weeks ago about taxes? Can my conservative friends help me understand why something like this is NOT a bad thing?

I don't want to raise taxes, I just don't think that having a tax code that allows you to dodge them in this way (provided you're a corporation and have enough money to do so) is something that should be tolerated. However, any attempt to close this "loophole" (or whatever you want to call it) is attacked as "They want to raise taxes!!!!!".
Google is saving money. Let me assure you that they don’t have a secret cave in the hills of Nevada filled with millions of mattresses stuffed to overflowing with $20 bills. They’re going to do something with it. That something will involve buying things or hiring people. If you make things or want a job, or provide services for people who make things or have jobs, then you might be happy to know that there’s more of that going on. Cash sitting in a vault does not equal an economy. An economy consists of money moving. Kind of like electrons sitting in atoms are fine and dandy, but when they start moving around, then you’ve got power happening. People generally want money to move. They want it to move into their wallet as fast as possible, but they also want it to move out of their wallet and be replaced by a nice big flat-screen in their living room. Money moves in three ways: first, by freely executed exchanges. This generally makes up the bulk of an economy, and in a micro scale consists of a bidirectional flow where money flows in one direction while value flows in the other. The money is neither created nor destroyed, but by its movement creates value. On a macro scale, this appears as a turbulent flow of money that generates a steady stream of value. The second manner in which money moves is by individual forcible action, such as theft, extortion, fraud, etc. In these cases, money still moves, but in the process of doing so generates no value. If a guy mugs me, he gets my money, but I don’t get to demand a flat-screen in return (or if I do demand it, I’m likely to be disappointed. Also shot). The third way is through taxation, which in economic terms is indistinguishable from theft, extortion, or fraud in that money moves, but no value is created. (there are actually some sub-categories of taxation, for instance fiat currency can be created out of nothingness, or time-shifted taxation in the form of bonds can be used to divert money from useful endeavors into zero-value transactions, but they all fall under the same umbrella concept of moving money without creating anything useful)

Closing these loopholes is all well and good, but if that’s all you do, then you’re taking money that could be creating value and stopping it from doing so. So yes, it is “raising taxes”. Any work to close loopholes such as this needs to be balanced with work on lowering other taxation. Or, more importantly, with lowering government spending, no matter what you do with taxes. (actually, it is possible to go too far with this. If you reduce spending below the level of taxation, you end up with a surplus, which is fine and dandy while you have a national debt, but once that debt is paid, the surplus equates to money coming out of circulation, which causes deflation of the currency, which is bad in its own ways. Much as I generally dislike inflating the monetary supply, it is useful in some ways. It discourages the hoarding of cash, thus encouraging a higher velocity of money, and it lets employers lower functional wages for unproductive employees without having the psychological burden of actually enacting a pay cut. The one nice thing about a fiat currency is that it gives you precise control of inflation. The down side is that you aren’t forced to exercise that control, and can let it run rampant, the Weimar Republic being the poster child of exactly that problem)

It’s also a great object lesson in how lowering taxes can raise revenue. Here’s a huge chunk of tax revenue that would stay in the US if the US taxes were low enough that it would be unprofitable to export that money elsewhere.

Sunday, February 1, 2009


Darwin and The Origin of Species have been in the news quite a bit lately, seeing as how they're both nice big round numbers old recently. It's been over 80 years since the Scopes trial. It's very depressing to realize that almost no one believes in evolution. Of course, you probably disagree. Perhaps you think that too many people believe in evolution. Perhaps you think that you believe in evolution. Chances are, you're wrong. Let me explain. (Unlike Inigo Montoya, I suck at summing up. I'm sure those of you who've been reading here long agree...)

As with so very many things, it all comes down to a question of definitions. First, let's talk some about what evolution is. There are certainly some good definitions in a nearby dictionary, but those are generally immaterial to the point at hand. What's more interesting to me is what people tend to mean when they say "evolution". The first is the most entirely logical. If you accept as fact that organisms inherit traits from their parents, then it follows naturally that if an organism is unable to procreate, its traits will not flow into the next generation. Thus, the average traits of that organism have a tendency to migrate towards a configuration that is capable of reproduction before death. I believe that this is generally accepted. (So, perhaps nearly everyone believes in evolution. I'm sure there's some disagreement there too.)

So, what do people mean when they say they don't believe in evolution? They may mean that they don't believe that all life evolved from archean prokaryotes. That is certainly a tough pill to swallow, but I think the biggest barrier is the ability to conceptualize a billion years, let alone four. For many, it may mean a disagreement on the genesis of life which, interestingly, has little or nothing to do with evolution. In order for evolution to exist, life must precede it. There are plenty of theories about where life came from, be it random chance, panspermia, or the hand of God, but evolution talks about what happened after that. For most, it seems to mean that they don't believe that man evolved from the lesser primates. Some believe that God created man. While this doesn't preclude a belief in evolution, those who hold this belief generally claim that they don't believe in evolution. (Personally, I have difficulty believing in the possibility of a non-omnipotent God. An omnipotent God could have created the universe 14 billion years ago. He could have created the Earth 4 billion years ago. He could have created everything on Sunday, October 23, 4004 BC. He could have created everything 4 minutes ago, including you, me, and all of our memories. But I digress...)

So, let us consider the people who claim that they believe in evolution. For many, their attitudes do not bear that out. You will note that among those who claim a belief in evolution, there is a very strong tendency to make a distinction between that which is natural, and that which is man-made. If you actually do believe in evolution, then that which is man-made is a subset of that which is natural. Also, this begs the question(1), exactly when did the works of man break off as no longer a work of nature? Was it the advent of H. Erectus? The beginnings of civilization? Last Tuesday?

Moving on from that, we come to our next definition, that being the word "believe". There are two distinct definitions of this word. The sense that I have used in the preceding paragraphs is that of accepting the existence of a thing. The other sense is that of accepting as beneficial. Most notably among those who believe in the existence of evolution, one finds a notable lack of a belief that it's a good idea. Consider gopherus agassizii, a turtle which, when picked up by a helpful person trying to move it out of the road, will become so frightened that it will empty its bladder, thus losing so much water that it becomes dehydrated and dies. If your reaction to the perception of a threat is effectively suicide, there may well be an entirely valid reason that you are becoming extinct. And yet, those who say this animal should be protected are often those same ones who claim to believe in evolution.

Even better, try an experiment (please note that I do not accept any liability for damages you may incur as a result). Find a person who meets these three criteria:
  1. They claim to believe in evolution.
  2. They are concerned about the extinction of species from our planet.
  3. They are concerned about the dangers of nuclear waste.
As these beliefs tend to cluster, it shouldn't be particularly difficult to find a subject affected by all of them, however if you wish you may merely imagine a person who might well fit all of those criteria. Tell them that you have devised a novel solution to problems 2 and 3. Explain to them that we can box up nuclear waste, load it aboard cargo planes, fly it to South America, and drop it in the Amazon Rain Forest. The lush, tropical climate, when combined with the ionizing radiation from the nuclear waste, should produce a strong tendency towards mutation. This will in turn cause rapidly enhanced speciation, thus replenishing the earth of the number of species that have been lost to extinction. After outlining this proposal, observe the subject's reaction. Ask yourself this question: Is this the response you would expect from someone who really believes in evolution?

Note 1: For all of you pedantic grammarians out there, yes, I'm well aware that I am misusing that phrase. Irregardless(2) of what you think I will continue to use it as I see fit.

Note 2: OK, yeah, I'm just screwing with you on that one.