Friday, August 31, 2012

Friday Photo

Yes, this photo of a telescope shooting a laser into space is 100% real.
This is also real, though I have no idea what it is. I found it in a creek after a storm a while back. It has the consistency of a melon, give or take.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

New Legislation Round Up

The President has not signed a bill into law for two weeks now. He hasn't named a post office, he hasn't blown our tax money on bailouts or hookers or whatever he spends it all on, and he has not criminalized any behavior.

The thought has occurred to me before that people really have no idea what it is Congress spends all day doing unless you have immersed yourself in that world. Once you have immersed yourself, however, you will never, ever find a towel to dry yourself. I think normal employers can smell the stench of a political background and just instinctively know that unless they have a policy/politics related task to accomplish that it is best to stay far away lest you also become contaminated with government.

So think of you, dear reader, and I as the awkward couple at the pool where one person wants to swim and the other doesn't so they end up at the edge of the pool, one in, one out, talking. I promise not to splash, but when we have slow weeks like this one I will tell you things about how the water feels.

Terrible analogies aside, the most recent bill the president signed was Harry Reid's peculiar bill covered last week.

Before that were a pair of acts of congress establishing that the parking fees for the congressional parking garages should be raised as appropriate to install electric vehicle charging stations. On this I will simply say that if your congressman doesn't represent Maryland or Virginia there is no way that an electric vehicle can carry them to and from their nominal home in your district, meaning that they are probably out of touch.

Between the two of those was the North Korea shaming act that was covered two weeks ago.

Then there was a small miscellaneous bill correcting small errors in an assortment of trade agreements, including CAFTA.

On Friday the 10th, three weeks ago, they named five post offices, and the Friday before that they named another.

Also on Friday the 10th was a strengthening of Iranian and Syrian sanctions which had, among other effects, the effect of forcing World of Warcraft to stop operating in Iran. Because everyone knows that you can't build nuclear reactors without level 85 death knights and Elven wizards.

That Friday the president also signed a bill allowing the Ysleta del Sur Pueblo discriminate against people based on whatever "blood quantum" rules they cared to apply, a pretty racist and scientifically backward view for our post-racial blackberry obsessed president.

Additionally, an amendment to a commemorative coin act passed to help fund a National Infantry Museum allows for collected funds to be used to retire Museum debt.

That Friday there were also two bills conveying land owned by the federal government to a few counties and municipalities in Oregon. This (and the related land conveyance bills, they come up with some regularity) is probably the closest thing to Federalism endorsed by this president and the real truth is that no one involved thinks of the issue in anything more than the most base, utilitarian manner. Land transfers are simply things that must be done to increase land use efficiencies.

That Friday the Senate delegated away, and the president gladly accepted, the right to advise and consent to the appointments of the following positions:

  • Assistant Secretary of Agriculture for Administration
  • Rural Utilities Service Administrator
  • Commodity Credit Corporation (seven board members, five advisers)
  • Chief Scientist; NOAA
  • Assistant Secretaries of Defense (and the Ass. Sec Def for Networks and Information Integration as well as the Ass Sec Def for Public Affairs positions are eliminated, though whoever currently holds those jobs may continue to hold them indefinitely)
  • Six members of the National Security Education board.
  • Dept Educ Assistant Secretary for Management
  • Dept Educ Commissioner of Education Statistics
  • HHS Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs
  • Director of the Office for Domestic Preparedness 
  • Assistant Administrator of FEMA, Grant Programs 
  • Administrator of the United States Fire Administration
  • Director of the Office of Counternarcotics Enforcement (Spell check doesn't believe Counternarcotics is a word. I tend to agree)
  • Chief Medical Officer of the Department of Homeland Security (Sounds like something out of a fascist version of Star Trek)
  • DHS Assistant Secretary for Health Affairs
  • DHS Assistant Secretary for Legislative Affairs
  • DHS Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs (all these affairs make me think that these are Clinton era positions)
  • HUD Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs (this position is actually fabricated whole cloth in this bill, his job description being "...shall perform such functions, powers, and duties as the Secretary shall prescribe from time to time". Government of limited powers, my @$$)
  • Director, Bureau of Justice Statistics (This sounds like the best job in the world)
  • Director, Bureau of Justice Assistance
  • Director, National Institute of Justice (whose job it is to fight the bastards over at the National Institute of Injustice over in the Commerce department)
  • Administrator, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention
  • Director, Office for Victims of Crime
  • Dept of Labor Assistant Secretary for Administration and Management
  • Dept of Labor Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs
  • Dept of Labor Director of the Women's Bureau
  • Dept of State Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs
  • Dept of State Assistant Secretary for Administration
  • DOT Assistant Secretary for Budget and Programs
  • DOT Assistant Secretary for Administration
  • Deputy Administrator, Federal Aviation Administration
  • Treasury Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs
  • Treasury Assistant Secretary for Management
  • VA Assistant Secretary for Management
  • VA Assistant Secretary for Human Resources and Administration
  • VA Assistant Secretary for Public and Intergovernmental Affairs
  • VA Assistant Secretary for Operations, Security, and Preparedness
  • Appalachian Regional Commission; Alternate Federal Co-Chairman
  • 2 of the three Council of Economic Advisers Members
  • Managing Director of the Corporation for National and Community Service (How the hell did a thing like this enter the public sphere???)
  • All fifteen members of the National Council on Disability
  • Any number of paid members of the National Foundation on the Arts and Humanities National Museum and Library Services Board
  • Deputy Director of National Drug Control Policy
  • Office of National Drug Control Policy Deputy Director for Demand Reduction
  • Office of National Drug Control Policy Deputy Director for Supply Reduction (How are either of these real things? If I saw them on the internet there is no way I would believe we have not only a Director for both supply and demand reduction, but Deputy Directors as well)
  • Office of National Drug Control Policy Deputy Director for State, Local, and Tribal Affairs
  • Commissioner of the Office of Navajo and Hopi Relocation (Holy shit! Are we still doing that?)
  • US Agency for International Development Assistant Administrator for Management
  • Administrator of the Community Development Financial Institution Fund
  • DOT Administrator of the St. Lawrence Seaway Development Corporation. Also removes the seven year term limit
  • Mississippi River Commission Commissioner
  • 15 voting members of the National Board for Education Sciences
  • 10 members of the National Institute for Literacy Advisory Board
  • 13 voting members and 6 nonvoting members of the American Indian and Alaska Native Culture and Arts Development Board of Trustees
  • The entire Public Health Service Commissioned Officer Corps
  • The entire NOAA Commissioned Officer Corps
The bill also establishes a director of the census, modifies appointment regulations for the Governors and Alternative Governors of the Asian and African Development banks and Fund. It also establishes a working group for making the process for presidential appointment easier, with less pesky documentation. The GAO will report on all the new positions evaluating the costs and benefits of removing these position or converting them to career positions held indefinitely without presidential oversight.

Not sure what bothers me most about the above bill. It could be the fact that Congress is being lazy and letting go of their ability to oversee and prevent corruption, incompetence and petty tyranny, though I doubt they are doing much about these positions now. It could be the fact that the President now has fewer checks on his already substantial power. It could be the fact that this is only a tiny fraction of the federal bureaucracy and that every one of these people is either useless and wasting tax money or not useless and holding some non-insignificant amount of power, backed by the world's most powerful coercive agent, to restrict my life in some way.

Also that Friday they designated the Haqqani Network as a terrorist organization.

This is why I am voting for Gary Johnson.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Happy Wednesday!

Why are things pretty?

I am quite certain that there are pretty things in the world, but I have long struggled with figuring out if there is any sort of commonality among all the pretty things in the world. So I did an impromptu experiment by searching for beautiful things on Google images. This got me a very "Hallmark" collection, and leaves a number of things out. The overall impression I get is the Southern Living magazines my mother used to read.

Note that you can click on any of these pictures of a bigger version.


It seems like there could be a good, evolutionary reason for certain things to be pleasing to look at. People at the peak of reproductive fitness are pleasing to look at, and this makes intuitive sense. If a hallmark for human fertility were ooze dripping the forehead that smelled like rotten fish, you can bet your bottom dollar that there would be dead fish ooze art and dead fish ooze porn.


Food, similarly can be pretty, though it can also be really gross and that doesn't seem to correlate with taste or health. Pretty food is also sufficiently dissimilar to attractive people that I feel safe(-ish) assuming that attractive people are pretty for some underlying reason as opposed to thinking that attractive things are attractive because of similarities to attractive people.


Plants, especially colorful ones, are pretty. Flowers are the obvious examples, and return us to the notion of fertility as attractive, except that plant sex is a sufficiently niche fetish that I have trouble seeing it as driving cultural norms of beauty. Colors are often cited as a source of beauty, except that note the example below and the two women above are fairly white.

Landscapes are pretty, especially with water. A point close to the life-sustaining theory, with the caveat that neither potability nor health seem to matter much. In the picture on the right, we are very clearly looking at a beach, and yet the knowledge that the water cannot be drunk doesn't make it less pretty. Before you tell me that obviously a biological system like beauty detection can't be that picky, take a look at some ugly people (no photo will be provided for this) and try to quantify just how different the faces are.


Maybe you can tie all these things together, but tell me about these things:
Perhaps I am somehow different from the common run of people, but I rather doubt it since these all came from top Google hits. All these things are pretty and have almost nothing in common.

Perhaps I should admit that the secret of beauty eludes me .

We close today with a duet of William Shatner and Joe Jackson singing Common People over well-edited episodes of the animated Star Trek:


Happy Wednesday!


Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Tuesday links: Storytime, featuring the internet.

Where is this country going? KPC offers a fairly depressing take that, try as I might, I cannot disagree with.

This person rebuts by saying that big government is ultimately unsustainable. I contend that "ultimately" can last a very long time.

What's more, there is no political party in America (other than the Libertarian Party) interested in actually shrinking government. Oh, sure, they talk a good game when they are out of power, but typically their real goal is not to shrink the government, but to prevent the enemy from "winning" for various definitions of winning.

Once people get into power, it seems that the most important thing is keeping power. Secondary to that is the need to be seen as triumphant in your endeavors, regardless of actual performance. Seriously, when was the last time a sitting president admitted a policy error? (no link on that last sentence because I really am drawing a blank.)

Then you remember that this is a nation that gives its government absolutely absurd powers, like a blank check for theft, almost unrestricted discretion on who and what to persecute, a mandate to be everywhere in everyone's business, the ability to strip you of your livelihood for the benefit of the established and wealthy, prevent acts of charity and suppress even the most petty forms of expression. There are American citizens murdered and imprisoned by our government despite having never been convicted of a crime. That last link has a happy ending, but is a terrifyingly real phenomenon occurring with legal sanction across the nation..

In a way, then, it is completely unsurprising that people who desire coercive power would seek to join the most powerful coercive institution on the planet. However, not everyone in government is actively villainous. There are plenty of people who are simply stupid or uncaring. Even those government employees who, at a glance, appear to be upstanding, decent people frequently possess terrifying and twisted worldviews and are often motivated into politics specifically to impose those worldviews on everyone else.

It seems so obvious to me that the best way to organize society is to keep as many decisions as possible in the hands of those people affected by those decisions and not in the hands of an incoherent mass of uncaring madmen with the world's largest guns. That isn't to say there is no role for government as an arbiter and a watchdog, but we as a nation have forgotten to be vigilant, we have forgotten that arbiters can be bought off by the wealthy and the powerful, and that watchdogs can turn rabid.

Oh, dear. I didn't realize just how neatly this would segue into a pitch for Gary Johnson. But it did.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Monday Links

You learn something new everyday. I had never heard anything but bad things about circumcision, with opponents typically writing it off as religious barbarism. That said, while it seems that the risks are wildly overblown, I am not seeing a great deal about non-religious benefits other than vague "reduced risk" statements. Oh, well. That's quite enough of that.

Speaking of religion, I was speaking with someone (who will remain anonymous) recently and they were telling me about their religion (a fairly mild Protestantism) and I realized that they had no idea what their religion looked like to someone who didn't already agree with them. So here I provide a few things:

This may become a continuing theme.



  • Life is like pankration, the ancient Greek sport of no-rules brawling. It doesn't come with rules, just observations about what works and what hurts. That doesn't mean we can't impose rules from the outside, like "Don't kill children", but we have to recognize that ethics is artificial.
  • Pretty funny, though not intentionally. Slashdot bills itself as "News for Nerds" and asks its readers to figure out how to explain RPGs like Dungeons and Dragons to non-nerd friends and relatives. They don't do very well.
  • I am of the opinion that government should not recognize any marriage. This article has not changed my mind, but my certainty has vastly diminished.
  • This might be the next toy I buy. I remain skeptical after the disaster that was Microsoft Kinect, but also hopeful. If I am really lucky, it will come with a free Robert Downey, Jr.
  • Another article pushing me towards voting for Romney. A sample:
"Some Occupy Wall Street types, believing it to be the height of wit, have begun to spell Romney’s name “Rmoney.” But Romney can do better than that — put it in all caps: R-MONEY. Jay-Z can keep his puny little lowercase letters and the Maybach: R-MONEY doesn’t own a flashy car with rims, R-MONEY does billion-dollar deals with Keystone Automotive and Delphi. You want to make it rain? R-MONEY is going to make it storm, like biblical. Rappers boast about their fat stacks: R-MONEY’s fat stacks live in a beachfront house of their own in the Hamptons, and the bricks in that house are made from tightly bound hundred-dollar bills. You have a ton of money? R-MONEY has 200 metric tons of money if he decides to keep it in cash."

Finally (for today), things all economists agree upon:

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Sunday Sermon

This gets its own post. This is better than anything I could have written today. Stop reading my blog and go read his.

Town with a dragon (pt. 2)

The town was only a handful of buildings, so small that it lacked a dedicated public structure like a town hall or saloon, though in a sense every building was a public building. While the people had bedrooms that were their own, only two houses had stoves, so they would wander in to one of those houses for dinner, then they would typically carry everything out the screen door in the back into another screen door adjacent to get to a house that had enough room for a communal dinner. The older men had liked to cross the road after that to go to the butcher's house where there was a library and they would debate endlessly over the contents of one of the nine books or three pamphlets, but that hadn't happened in a while.

The townsfolk knew that their's was a small town, they tended to call it a compound when they referred to it at all, which was rarely as they largely viewed it as the sole and natural medium in which existence takes place. They like to tell each other that the town was so big that it housed three separate families, but this had not been true for at least two generations, when the last member of the family who lived behind the bakery died without issue. It was becoming less true even now, since after the dysentery took everyone over thirty-five and left only the middle daughter of the family which owned the library.

It was the town elder, a perpetually stressed man of twenty-nine, who met two thirsty and haggard travelers, a woman armored in steel and a man dressed in denim and leather.

"Did you hear that?" Asked the elder in an urgent, intense voice.

"Hear what?" Asked the knight as the two of them approached.

"You can't tell me you did not hear that." The elder insisted. Behind him, through an open-air window, two women not quite far enough apart in age to be mother and child looked at the elder and each other with worried expressions.

"I hear you. I hear the wind. Which one is 'that'?" asked the knight.

"Not that! Not that! The demon scream." The wanderer's hands went to his pistols by some mechanical reflex. The knight bent her knees and cast an instictive glance at the sky. "You can hear it?" She asked.

"Hear it? Everyone can hear it! Are you daft? Are you deaf?"

"The noise is a dragon we are hunting. When did you last hear it?"

"A dragon! Impossible! An impossible beast for an impossible noise! Our whole compound lives in terror of the noise!"

"Have you seen the dragon?"

"Seen it? Seen it? You are clearly mad! Clearly mad! No one could see a dragon and survive!"

"So you have only heard it? In which direction?"

"In your direction! Can't you hear it?'

"Right now? I would not be speaking with you if I heard the dragon right now."

"Not now! We would all be dead if it was screaming right now. Earlier!"

"When?" the knight sternly interrupted.

The elder, younger than either interlocutor, was clearly still excited, yet curiously unable to express an answer. As the gears of his mind continued to spin on the dueling topics of dragons and time his mouth began to sputter. When nothing coherent emerged, the knight stepped forward, scowling.

"You will tell me, fool. I will find this dragon, I will slay this dragon, and you will tell me where it is right now."

The elder broke down under this assault of questions. Finally, true words fell out, "The past, the past! Couldn't you hear it? You must have been there! It was before now!"

The knight took the remaining step between her and the man, grabbing his face with her left hand and punching his gut solidly with her gauntleted right. She screamed, the words travelling three inches from her throat to his ears and then continuing audibly for three quarters of a mile out into the flat and empty waste. "When did you hear-".

She was cut off by the wanderer's hand upon her back. She froze at this unexpected invasion as he leaned forward a bit and explained in a voice just above a mutter, "He has lost his time."

"What does that mean?" she snapped her head around, distracted into loosening her grip enough for the townsman to fall upon submissive knees.

"Time don't have the power it used to. Small town like this they have trouble keeping count for themselves now that nature ain't helping."

"But the sun-" She insisted.

"The sun don't work down here like it does up there. It forgets where it should be sometimes."

"We left the last town four days ago. Surely he knows the difference between earlier today and four days ago."

"Four days? We haven't had food or water since we left the last town."

The knight drew back into herself, startled by the realization, and began to consider. as her mind worked the elder looked up at the two of them, belly in the dirt, with a terrified awe on his face as he was forced to confront the enormity of the world around him. His world had grown from twenty three people to twenty five, but these two travelers knew more than was contained in all nine books in the compound combined.

"The sun rose four times. I am sure of it." She said, concentrating on her inexplicably hazy recall.

"Yes. And it set once."

The knight could not disagree, though she continued attempting to sort out her confusion. The elder reached out his hand, staring up at the space between the two, trying to speak but rendered mute by the incredible sight before him. He gave off a noise, a choked gasp towards the visitors. The knight ignored him, lost in thought. The wanderer turned to the right to let the leader of this tiny realm fall out of his sight.

It was only by chance that he then glanced outward. The wanderer could have covered that spot with his outstretched thumb, but even at that distance the outline of wings was visible.

The wanderer stared with the elder until the knight broke off from her considerations to look with them. She was not paralyzed with awe, but sprang immediately into cool, efficient action. She turned to the wanderer and thrust her arm into a side pouch of the great leather pack on her back.

"Tie the Roh runes around your ears," She said holding out strips of arm length rune marked cloths, "and use the Waq runes over your eyes."

The wanderer did not take the cloths, instead preferring to look skeptically at her. The knight began to pull away to attend to other tasks, but noticing that the runes were still in hand she stayed and gestured again. "Take them."

"This is not my fight."

"Of course it is. You followed me all the way out here for this."

"I did not."

"Have you no honor?"

The wanderer stayed silent at that. The knight clenched the fist holding the cloths and drew back, her teeth grinding audibly. She turned to the elder. "I will be needing food and drink. It will take some time for the beast to get here, and we, or at least I, have traveled far."

"You cannot kill it." the prostrate man insisted.

"We both are hungry and can pay for what supplies we can carry with us." the wanderer said.

"Carry with us?" asked the knight, indignantly, "We will have plenty of time for that after we kill it."

The townsfolk had begun to venture out of their ramshackle wooden homes to watch the distrubance. At this comment, two young boys in mismatched, tattered clothing so heavily patched that it may not have ever been a single piece of fabric ran up to just behind the elder, close enough to feel like part of the action but as far away from the dangerous looking pair as their overdeveloped masculine pride would allow. The knight tossed her water skins on the ground at their feet.

"Fill these," She said, "While I prepare. Have food ready as well by the time I finish the holy rites. The dragon will be upon us soon after, and in this weakened state I do not have the strength to slay the beast."

The boys glanced in askance at the water skins. The boy on the right was marginally less filthy, and he asked "How you gonna fuck up a dragon?"

The scowl upon her face deepened. "You will do it, or you will die" were her last words before trudging off to the open plain northeast of the town.

The wanderer simply stood for a while longer, recovering from the journey and watching as the dragon soared across the sky towards the tiny town. Then he turned and walked past the unfilled water skins to the largest nearby crowd, a group of eight standing on a porch in front of one of the larger houses. There stood one woman who, to the wanderer's eye, seemed to be the center of the group. He walked straight up to her and pressed a small bag of coins, the only purse he had been able to recover from the wreckage during his previous departure, into her hand. The wanderer took a step back and spoke to her while clearly addressing everyone on the porch.

"Whatever you can spare." he said. The crowd looked at each other, and at the woman in the center, and they invited him in.

They fed him slow simmered potatoes and the dregs of a pot roast, the only meal he had had in days and the best he had had in months. Though no water skins of his own had survived the attack, they crowd deemed amongst themselves that the purse he had given them was well worth a pair of full skins, as well as some hard bread and heavily salted pork. As he ate the two dirty children peppered him with questions, all answered exclusively with the same non-committal grunt.

"Are you from beyond the town?"

"Why are you in town?"

"Are you running from something?"

"Are you running from the dragon?"

"Where are you going?"

"What will you do after you kill the dragon?"

"Hmm?" he stopped, finished swallowing, and said, "How would I kill a dragon?"

"With those guns." Said one of the boys as if it were the most obvious thing in the world.

"Yeah!" The other boy was quick to agree with the tone, "All the big mean lady's got is a sword."

"A runed sword."

"Yeah, but dragons can fly. Can she fly?"

The wanderer returned to his grunting. He stabbed a potato with a small knife the townsfolk had loaned him. He finished his meal with a small crowd of spectators gathered around to confirm for themselves that people from out of town consumed food in a manner remarkably similar to how they themselves did. When he finished, the wanderer stood, tied his newly purchased provisions on his belt where the coin purse used to be  and asked one more question.

"Do you have a horse?"

The townsfolk looked at each other uncertainly. It was clearly a yes, but there was no immediate consensus about telling him. After a moment of looking at each other, the crowd simply walked off into another room and began discussions in hushed tones, leaving the wanderer blinking and alone. Then he gave a slight shrug towards nothing in particular, turned, and walked back out into the heat of the waste.

He stood there for a while looking at the cloudless sky, hands resting softly on the mismatched pistol grips at his waist. The filthy boys ran out of the house first, shouting "Come on, come on!". They were followed by most of the rest of the town and a twenty person parade walked past two buildings to the northeast corner of town.

There stood a ramshackle, three-walled wooden shed that had probably looked exactly that structurally unsound on the day it had been built. The shed was lined with a thin layer of ancient straw that had nearly turned to dust under the weak and tired hooves of two horses that were old and sickly even by the poor standards of the waste.

Past the unstable horse stable the knight knelt. Her helm had been placed on the ground next to her steel shafted spear. She leaned upon the hilt of her sword, point digging deep into the ground, her muttering inaudible to those still in the town. Around her head, legs and arms were tied an assortment of runed cloths and as she spoke the letters glowed softly.

"You and your friend can have them," said an astonishingly wrinkled young woman, "after you save us from the dragon." She gestured off towards the shadow in the sky, still many miles away but larger than the wanderer's outstretched palm.

"I will not fight the dragon."

"But your companion is."

"We are not companions. We travel the same road by coincidence. And now I am leaving without her."

"But the dragon is headed this way."

"An additional motivator."

"But the dragon will kill us all."

"Yes."

"The who will save us?"

The wanderer shrugged.

"If not you, who will slay the dragon?"

"Someone," he said, "Or no one." He paused for a moment, considering, "Or time."

Those townsfolk old enough to understand winced at this last, knowing that, for them, only the first two were options, and if the armed wanderer left and the mystical knight failed, then they would be left not with three hopes, but the one certainty.

"I will be leaving now."

"You cannot take the horse unless you slay the dragon."

"Can you stop me?" There was no threat in his voice. He asked the question in the same neutral tone he had used for everything else. Still, the ugly young woman stepped back and a solution presented itself.

"You may take them if you need them to save our compound."

The wanderer gave her a withering look of scorn, but allowed her to save this little face as he mounted up and rode off towards the far horizon.

The dragon would be taking it all anyway soon enough.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Meta

I have been thinking about what I have been writing, and I have come to the conclusion that I am really bad at thinking clearly about big thoughts, and don't particularly enjoy writing about them. Therefore I will no longer be devoting Sundays to big thoughts, and am retiring the Sunday Sermon tag. I may replace it with something else. I may post thoughts on Sunday.

I am largely neutral to the links posts, since I am reading them anyway. I find that, when keeping in mind that I am looking for links to post, patterns emerge. I may organize future links posts around themes.

I will continue to celebrate Happy Wednesday, though I will make an effort not to over think things quite as much.

I have tremendously enjoyed writing the wanderer, in large part because I don't know where he is going. Oh, I certainly have a grand plan, a few places for him to hit, and an plan for where he will arrive at when he goes far enough west (and the seed of an idea for the place beyond that), but the wanderer will not get there any time soon. Going from town to town is enough for the moment, with each town being unpredictable. Unlike my previous writing projects which I have meticulously planned out, I start each wanderer tale with the title and go on from there. I had no idea that there would be a dragon last week until I started writing last Thursday. As I write this now I am halfway through part 2 of the dragon arc and do not know A) if the knight will survive, B) if the dragon will survive, C) whether the arc will continue for one, two, three, or possibly as many as four more weeks. I have vague notions of plot for all these possibilities, depending on how things stand at the end of this episode, which I won't know until I finish it Saturday night. This does wonders for keeping the plot fresh.

Lest you worry, my habit of over-planning has ensured that the wanderer has a tremendously detailed back-story, almost none of which will ever be related here. The world is vast, with intricate and varied history and geography, none of which will ever appear while the wanderer walks the east-west road. The only spoiler I will give out is that soylent green is made of people.

I will continue posting photos on Friday, because it really does take me two days to write the wanderer.

As always, I guarantee nothing.

Friday Photo

A pair of skylines


Thursday, August 23, 2012

S. 3510, The "What is Harry Reid Up To With This Patriotic Sounding Bill?" Bill

Ok, ok. It has been fun passing around malicious insinuations about Harry Reid in retaliation for his own malicious insinuations about Romney. I think the blog-cycle for that meme has pretty well run its course.

What does that have to do with the most recent bill signed into law by the President? Not a whole lot on the face of it, considering that S 3510, nominally "a bill to prevent harm to the national security or endangering the military officers and civilian employees to whom internet publication of certain information applies, and for other purposes" was passed unanimously through both houses and committee.

The bill itself is very short, without even a title section ,though the bill purpose, the quoted thing above that acts as a title when none is specifically given, is pretty long and obscure, the two in tandem helping the bill fly under the radar.

The bill amends the STOCK act, a bill signed back in the spring after a series of high profile reports about congressional insider trading. The text of the bill is short enough to post here in full, though absolutely baffling:

SECTION 1. EFFECTIVE DATE DELAY.

    The STOCK Act (Public Law 112-105) is amended--
      (1) in section 8(a)(1), by striking `August 31, 2012' and inserting `September 30, 2012'; and
      (2) in section 11(a)(1), by striking `August 31, 2012' and inserting `September 30, 2012'.

SEC. 2. IMPLEMENTATION OF PTR REQUIREMENTS UNDER STOCK ACT.

    Effective September 30, 2012, for purposes of implementing subsection (l) of section 103 of the Ethics in Government Act of 1978 (as added by section 6 of the STOCK Act, Public Law 112-105) for reporting individuals whose reports under section 101 of such Act (5 U.S.C. App. 101) are required to be filed with the Clerk of the House of Representatives, section 102(e) of such Act (5 U.S.C. App. 102(e)) shall apply as if the report under such subsection (l) were a report under such section 101 but only with respect to the transaction information required under such subsection (l).

Clearly not designed to facilitate easy reading. The full text of the STOCK Act can be found here for those who want to play along at home.

Section 1 amends two parts of the STOCK Act to push back deadlines by one month. Subsection 1 pushes back the deadlines for online posting of the stock transaction information for members of congress (as well as candidates for congress and congressional employees) by one month. Subsection 2 does the same thing but for an assortment of executive branch employees, from the president down to GS-15 or O-7 pay level employees (not gonna lie, I have no idea how important those people are. UPDATE: GS-15 is the top of the standard pay scale and the O-scale for military officers tops out at O-7). A full list of executive branch compilers is here, but basically it sounds like anyone with an important sounding title is required to disclose their investments.

Section 2 is a mess. I would say it is cunningly designed to frighten away lay-folk, but after running down all the references, it really does seem to be written in the most efficient manner possible. The necessary background is that in the original STOCK act, there was a section which required executive branch employees (the same ones mentioned above, from President to GS-15) to report basically any financial transaction over $1,000 dollars (with an array of exceptions and special inclusions). These reports must be filed under section 102, which has a certain set of requirements about how it must be reported that is somewhat stricter than those found in section 101. According to this bill, which has been signed into law, those new reports required by the STOCK act can be filed under the somewhat easier section 101.

Why do I say that section 101 is "easier"? Because while section 102 contains a large number of exceptions on transactions that simply do not have to be reported, they do not exempt any transaction required under the STOCK Act (though I could be missing something, let me know if you are playing along at home). Section 101, however, contains a subsection (h) which allows waivers to be granted for departing employees, as well as this gem:

(i) The supervising ethics office for each branch may grant a publicly available request for a waiver of any reporting requirement under this section for an individual who is expected to perform or has performed the duties of his office or position less than one hundred and thirty days in a calendar year, but only if the supervising ethics office determines that—
(1) such individual is not a full-time employee of the Government,
(2) such individual is able to provide services specially needed by the Government,
(3) it is unlikely that the individual’s outside employment or financial interests will create a conflict of interest, and
(4) public financial disclosure by such individual is not necessary in the circumstances.
The original text was, of course, not bolded suggestively (though I can't seem to get the formatting right when I copy-paste from the bill text).

We can see now where they hyper-patriotic bill descriptor came from, since this does loosen reporting requirements for military officers. I question whether whatever endangerment they may suffer from having these records disclosed is greater than the endangerment to the Republic of allowing government agents authorized to kill people or order the killing of people (including American citizens) to also engage in insider trading or otherwise hide their financial dealings from their employers (their employers being the American citizenry). But I will let that slide for now in the short term political interest of asking a wholly partisan question.

What is Harry Reid hiding?

Note that the main effect of this bill is to delay the release of certain financial documents by a month. When we consider the welfare of our government employees and servicemen, one month hardly seems significant. Indeed, even when we consider the welfare of our politicians, the bill itself doesn't raise any alarm bells. After all, September 30th is a whole month before the election, well before most early voting has started and plenty of time before November 6th to get the message out. And anyway, Reid was up for election last cycle and won't face the voters again until 2016, so the only potential political gain from this bill is pushing Reid's disclosure back a month. Not his filing deadline, since that hasn't changed, just how long he has before this information goes public.

Then we read the bill more closely and discover that September 30th is not the day that the records will go live. September 30th starts a 30 day clock for the records to be released. Suddenly we are not looking at a month for these records to be made public, but seven days. The seven days before an election when the people will have made up their minds, and may anyway assume that scandalous information released right before an election to be partisan lies.

Beyond that, who will be paying attention? This is why I single out Harry Reid for particular attention with regard to this bill. A brief timeline:

  • In November of last year 60 minutes did a special report on Congressional insider trading.
  • In January of this year Scott Brown from Massachusetts authored a bill with the junior Democrat from New York to stop insider trading in congress.
  • President Obama and Congressional Republicans (as well as a large contingent of Congressional Democrats) all come out in support of the bill, but Harry Reid holds it up for months. No explanation is given. 
  • The bill finally passes the Senate and is signed almost immediately to bi-partisan fanfare, becoming law on April 4, 2012.
  • Time passes and everyone except Harry Reid forgets about the new reporting requirements.
  • On August 2nd, Harry Reid introduces a bill to push the reporting requirements from his least favorite bill back to lessen the chance that it will interfere with the election. 
  • Then Harry Reid makes the malevolent inference noted at the start of the post, leading to all sorts of furor, including many people asking why he won't release his own tax returns.
  • People begin to ask just how Harry Reid made all his money. The possibility of corruption is investigated (pay-to-play and land deals), but stalls due to lack of public data.
This may not mean anything, and it may mean everything. If Reid had scandalous deals that came out at election time after alleging that Romney engaged in tax fraud, the blowback could seriously hurt national Democrats, Nevada Democrats, his reputation, and possibly his senior post if the Senate flips now that there is modern precedent allowing him to stay on top. Perhaps he is protecting someone else. Perhaps he is testing the waters to see how forgotten the STOCK act is for a future amendment gutting the whole thing.

And perhaps it is all a coincidence. I find that I get more predictive power assuming that legislators are idiots than by assuming that they are evil masterminds, but I find myself wavering on this issue.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Happy Wednesday!

“There is a single light of science, and to brighten it anywhere is to brighten it everywhere.” -Isaac Asimov

Happy Wednesday!

Videos first:


We live in the future. 

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Tuesday Links

To continue a theme from yesterday:

File the following under "miscellaneous":
  • Here is a story that is both important and under-reported.
  • Here is a story that is completely unimportant. I find it interesting that Nintendo's crime does not seem to be actively sourcing from war-torn regions, but simply that they don't seem to care one way or the other.
  • Two people (the author and the reviewer) mistake their personal preferences for universal truth. Also, why is everyone so down on purely consumptive leisure? I think it is great.
  • Partisanship!
  • Partisanship!
  • Bi-partisanship!
  • This person is exactly wrong. Government funding of science and arts should be cut, because it is not a proper function of the US Government, but since science so closely approximates a public good (neither exclusive nor rivalrous), it should be the last thing cut. Further, it is pure, arrogant, partisan rent-seeking to suggest that we shouldn't cut these programs because they fund people we agree with. 
  • Seen and unseen. It turns out that politicians are really good at over-selling and under-delivering!
  • An ongoing debate about the merits of Bastiat brings us this quote, "Effort without result no longer seems to me so desirable as result without effort." I am continually surprised by the number of people who seem to have never had this thought.
  • Three posts (1, 2, 3, all are short, all are very good) motivated by the proposition that central planning in the Soviet Union was not ideologically driven. They show that central planning is an ancient tool of tyrants predating Marxism and they imply that the Soviet Union would have had central planning in the absence of Marxism. My thought is that while you can have planning without Marxism, you can't really have Marxism without planning, and the foundational idea of the USSR was not planning, which then gave rise to Marxism, but rather Marxism, which then necessitated planning. Interesting nonetheless.
  • Presented without comment.
  • Presented without comment.
Was going to put this up for Happy Wednesday, but I will put it up now instead because the music isn't actually that good, just the juxtaposition. There is no need to watch more than about 30 seconds if you don't like the band Slayer (I don't).

Monday, August 20, 2012

Monday links

It turn out that Obama doesn't actually want to be reelected:

First, Read this.

Then look at this:

Then watch this:
Also, wow, look how much younger he looks. Not a partisan thing, it happens to all of them, but wow.

And now, your regularly scheduled linkage program:

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Values and Voters: The End of Political Compromise

Update 2: Continued thinking about this, and I am pretty sure that there is nothing of value here. I will leave this post up mostly because it is good internet practice, but also to showcase my Malcom Gladwell-esque tendency to fit meaningless anecdotes into a terrible, ad-hoc theory. So here you go, internet, proof that my mind is perpetually hazy.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Town with a dragon (pt. 1)

The sun crested high in the air, heating the town into a hazy stupor.

The town was built in the same style as all the others along the Great East-West Road, with buildings made of old wooden planks and placed haphazardly, as if they had been thrown by a giant child and left lying in the hard tan dirt when the gods were called to dinner. But this town had more of the structures, and each structure had more junk, tools, and knick-knacks laying about or hanging on iron pegs hammered into support columns at irregular intervals and angles. A thin layer of the gray local dust covered everything, but it covered it all more lightly than in other towns. The hard-packed dirt of the roads kicked up less dust and was packed in harder than usual, suggesting that there were extra pairs of boots to do the kicking and packing.

As the wanderer came upon the down, dripping with such volumes of sweat that both he and the torso of his hard, weathered horse had been bathed clean of dust, he saw tucked away on the south side of a building to the south a pile of rotten wood planks, the bottom most of which had started to grow small, scraggly weeds and the top of which had yet to even accumulate dust. South of a building to the north of the road lay another pile of lumber, all cleanly cut and neatly stacked. Dust had settled on the higher half of the stack, but a fair number of planks had been recently uncovered.

The buildings, while as shoddily constructed as every building along the Waste, showed some signs of care. New boards had been installed, sitting clean and light next to older dust-weathered lumber, but there were no rotten boards and none warped so badly as to allow more than a slit of light through. The few windows had thick, uneven glass, but it was kept as clear as it's imperfect nature allowed.

The true story of the town's prosperity was told with the location of the saloon, not in the middle of town to the north of the only road, as was common, but at the south face of a T-Junction marking it as the terminus for a northward road. Like the east-west road it was nothing more than hard-packed dirt which grew indistinguishable from the desolate landscape as one traveled out from the town.

Outside the saloon were hitched four horses to the right of the porch. Two were old working mares with marks along their coat from where they had been harnessed for years. One was a brilliant white breeding stallion whose coat reflected the sun so well it was difficult to look at, so nearby eyes were drawn to the fourth horse.

The fourth horse was not a local horse. Anyone who did not know all the local horses by sight would still recognize this stallion as out of his element. He wore over his head and mane scaled plate armor, decorated with tiny engraved crosses of war held by angels in scenes both ancient and holy. A single rounded plate covered his rump which doubled, with the help of a substantial amount of leather straps, as a packing harness. On either side it held two long, study spears which each ran the length of his torso and two feet more. On the top, and currently listing into the saddle, was a large leather pack, held shut with thick leather and metal clamps as well as a fat iron chain. The pack bore the ink runes of the northern holy men said to possess all sorts of magic, though the wanderer had no mind to challenge the tales.

He hitched his hard, weathered horse on the left side of the porch. While it was tired now from days of travel, it would soon recover and though it was outweighed by every other horse on the line, the wanderer kept him apart more out of consideration for the other horses than any worries for his own beast. He stepped up on the clean-swept, lightly stained wood of the saloon porch and walked through the doors.

The wanderer had passed towns with fewer people than sat in that saloon, though being the middle of the day it was no where near capacity and clung tenaciously to the ambiance of vacancy. The conversations were calm, subdued by the heat of the day which permeated even into the shaded building. Though the room was clean and the tables organized into rows, chairs were scattered around the room, evidence of a commotion that had since died down. The cause of the commotion was seated in the middle of the room, now alone, eating quietly.

The woman was of a piece with her horse, solid and powerfully built. Her iron gauntlets were laid to the side leaving her powerful, callused hands free to eat. Her arms were unconcealed up to the biceps, where chain link draped from her shoulder guards which wrapped around behind her neck and upper back, a single large engraved pilgrim's cross peeking out from behind a short, tight brown ponytail. Her solid steel breastplate bulged out perhaps slightly more than a man's might, but aside from the two foot tall inlaid bronze cross in the middle held no embellishment. She sat concealing steel leg guards and boots, all of the same workmanship and possessed of the same obvious durability.

There were few isolated tables left, but it was as the wanderer made his way towards one such that the knight-errant called him out.

"Hail, gunslinger" she called, giving him a stern look and a gripping gaze. The wanderer conceded to her company and set himself at her table. "Not, I" he explained as he approached.

"You have the look", she commented.

"I have guns."

"Are you Law?" she asked

"Not even slightly."

The knight gave a puzzled look as a man came to their table and asked if the visitors knew each other.

"So you are not a resident of this town."

"No, but," he said, turning to the attendant, "if you have any more of that beef..." He finished the sentence by dropping a thick brass coin onto the table. The server cast an appreciative gaze at the coin. The wanderer read his expression and added, "Gin, as well." The server nodded and picked up the coin before returning to the back of the saloon.

Heads had begun to turn, but, while those nearby kept an ear reserved for the strangers, they remained in their own conversations.

"I haven't seen you on the road, are you headed east?" The wanderer commented.

"I am headed south."

"There is nothing to the south."

"There is almost nothing."

The wanderer's face lost its habitually flat demeanor in favor of genuine surprise. "You know this for truth?"

"Such is the testament of the priests," the wanderer's excitement died. He fell back into his usual restraint as she continued, "I am as confident in that as I can be of anything I have not seen with my own eyes."

"The words of old books, read in failing light by failing old men?"

"My sect-master is an old man, but this truth comes not from books of any age. At mid-day exactly of midsummer last, the master sat in the exact center of an ancient temple. He had found his inner balance when a light appeared along the arch of his nose, equidistant from his eyes. The master's apprentice looked through him and into the light and witnessed a vision. Within the vision within the master within the ancient temple he saw the wasteland of death at the end of the southern road where time itself has perished and the people have no past. Beyond the end of that road is a desolate expanse, a place so vast and empty that even the soulless of the waste cannot survive there. Above the expanse, coming from a land darker still, so distant as to be unknowable even through divine vision, was a beast of terror and destruction, flying fast to annihilate the twisted and crumbling wreckage of what remains of the human realm."

"A dragon." the wanderer spoke under his breath, but the saloon had fallen silent, amplifying his words for the townsfolk. It was in that silence that a great wind arose, a single hard pulse of air which made its way through even the cracks in the walls with enough force to lift plates up from the tables and into the walls. When the burst passed, no one who had been standing or on a stool remained upright and the less stoic among the crowd let out alarmed yelps and screams.

Those screams were drowned out in short order by the second great pulse. The transient flow of air hit the upper floor of the saloon as if it were a building sized boulder pushing the wooden planks so powerfully that they had no time to snap before ripping the planks below them from the very foundation of the building. A moment later, however, all the pent up shattering hit, raining splinters and sawdust and sticks and logs on the customers.

The roof hit the ground all at once with an impressive thud, followed almost immediately by a great, source less pounding as if mocking the force a collapsing building could exert. Those still on their feet were thrown to the ground and those on the ground were flung into the air, only to fall back into the pit of splinters and shards. The sounds of collapsing buildings could be heard throughout the town, but so much dust had been kicked up that the air was suffused in a thick, grey cloud, obscuring even the far edges of the rubble from the sight of the injured tavern-goers.

Even as the prodigious cracking of wood subsided, the moans of the wounded began to grow, the rising chorus of a dire symphony. And then the roar sounded, the screech of ten thousand mad ravens shredding the air from a single point, blanketing out all other sound, imprisoning the townsfolk in a dim nightmare world of impenetrable gray, the uniform pain of being tossed through wreckage, and a mad screaming din muting all external existence. The sound continued, paralyzing the mortals beneath it.

The wanderer kicked upward, moving what had been a table off of his body with every bit of power as his nerves fell to twitching. The table flew higher than a man could jump and crashed back down into the dusty gloom a few yards away, eliciting two barely audible screams of pain at what must have been the full lung capacities of the impromptu duetists. No longer physically bound, he found himself less mobile, pinned only by the unseen force of the sound and the pain of innumerable wooden shards pierced deep into his body.

The roar, as impossible as it seemed to those suffering, finally faded away, leaving a paralyzing shock under the clouds of dust and splinters. The wanderer began to assess the damage to his body. He had reached seventy three wounds and gotten from his left toes to his left shin when he decided that the usual methods were not going to be effective here. His shoulders slumped and he let his head fall back against the hard. irregular debris. His eyes were wide and both hands were loosely gripped around holsters, his left holding wood paneled grips and his right around iron.

A third gust of wind blew through, clearing the sky in an instant. The wanderer squinted briefly in the sudden, harsh sunlight but his eyes soon adjusted and fell upon a shining figure towering above the wreckage, helm gleaming in the sunlight, broadsword in her left hand, steel-shafted spear in her right. His eyes darted around, unable to stare too long at the light reflected in the spotless steel and saw a town that had been literally flattened, nothing rising above the knight's armored thighs. She stood proud and firm, a pillar of light among the blood and splinters, the second tallest thing clear out to the horizon.

In front of her where the town crossroads had once been, stood the tallest thing in town. The dragon was hunched, wings folded in at the conclusion of the most recent flap, leaning as if perched on a branch, though what tree would hold such a beast defied imagining. As the creature pulled its greenish dun wings back out it revealed a chest of fine white scales running together so smoothly that they could almost be mistaken for soft. It's legs, even bent as they were, reached the beast's torso at a height greater then two men standing atop each other, and it was the height of another five such legs to the top of it's wingspan. Those wings were a leather thicker than a cat at the very bottom, and the bones at the shoulder were thicker than a horse's gut, though they reached out through the wing to appear as fine filaments.

When the beast pulled itself to full wingspan, a reach which ran longer than the town, such that neither tip cast a shadow on wreckage but on the dirt of the wastes, it hunched forward and straightened out it's legs, casting itself upward with a mighty push which spread the viscera of horses and men that had clung to its jaws upon the broken wood and broken bodies of those left behind. The wind of this fourth thrust crushed the survivors back down upon the wood shards, but the screams were drowned by a final departing roar.

A roar that was joined by a harmony. As the dragon left, it did not deafen the town alone, but the bleeding eardrums of the town bore witness to the voice of a knight-errant crying out a wordless threat, a promise in a scream.

Both sounds faded as the monster flew straight up, into the sun. The knight fell to her knees, though what further sounds she may have made, what vows and what curses were lost to the waste. The wanderer joined the town in abandoning consciousness.

He awoke some time later in a pool of blood, his and others'. The sun had moved west by two hours, and a dark silhouette was still casting a visible shadow. The knight, still armor clad though once again without helmet or gloves, knelt to the side consulting an ancient runic tome.

The wanderer moved gingerly, expecting pain but finding none and scattering wood shards with a strikingly loud clamor. The knight looked over, commanded him to hold a moment, and pulled rune marked cloths off his chest.

"Runes?" Asked the wanderer, "Do those work?"

"Do they?" she replied. The wanderer considered a moment and grunted an affirmation.

"Will you help me slay this dragon?" It did not sound like much of a question.

"No."

"No?"

"No."

"Look what it did to this town."

"Yes. I was there."

"It will not stop."

The wanderer picked himself up and sat leaning against a pair of haphazardly stacked corpses. He shrugged.

"It is a harbinger of doom sent in a vision. It is stronger than humanity."

"Then I hope it eats me last."

The knight gave a start, and then cast a queer look at the wanderer, "Do you jest?"

"Is my sentiment unreasonable?"

The knight clearly did not know how to take that and instead tried a different tack.

"When I slay the dragon, my name will be remembered forever. You too can have that glory."

"I would not be out here if I was looking to be remembered. I would best be well and rightly forgot."

The knight looked down at him, and then around at the ruins as if attempting to stir guilt. Seeing her failure, she stood. "When you continue east, know that you are fleeing from you duty."

"I am not headed east."

"I do not care which direction you flee, coward." She packed the runed cloth and musty tome into the tan leather pack which had once sat on an armored horse. She hefted the bag with ease, though it clearly outweighed both her and her armor. She slipped her steel gauntlets on, fastened her helm to the side of her pack, and hefted both weapons in each hand. She stood for a moment in the sun, a figure of strength, a symbol of power looked upon by none but corpses and a coward. She began to walk, taking the road out of town.

A few minutes later she was joined by the wanderer.

"I thought you were not going to help slay the dragon."

"I am not."

"But you are walking with me."

"I am walking west."

"Towards the dragon."

"Away from the east."

As the sun set upon what had once been a town, two figures upon the horizon could be seen silhouetted by the red sun walking grim and determined beneath a monstrous cloud.