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Semiformalishmaybe

Cliché Guevara

Oh yay another permutation of that silly pun. Anyhow,

After lunch I passed a Dozen's Cupcakery, and noted that they (surprisingly) already had a batch of rainbow cupcakes celebrating the federal judge semi-overturning the anti-gay-marriage plebiscite in California known as 「Proposition 8」. I use the prefix semi to note that the judge suspended his ruling so there's no immediate effect. I felt a bit odd celebrating a judicial ruling, based on the notion that the judge ruled on that was legally proper and so at best we can give a halfhearted "yay" when he did it for the "wrong reason". Even the notion of "wrong reason" needs clarification before we get to the meat - I don't mean to imply that judges should bring their unmediated political opinions into the courtroom and rule by those alone. Although I don't believe rule of law should be absolute (even as common law system already bring human judgement and values into legal thinking, I would bring it a bit moreso), it's an important role for judges to ensure that our laws are consistent with each other, with broader legal principles, and to a certain extent with reality. They're intentionally a check on the passions of the people, ensuring that our laws don't represent the passions of the moment nor the lack of legal knowledge that common people have. So.. I don't mean when I saw "wrong reason" that the judge was acting wrongly for his role. The question is - was his value calculus similar enough to ours to consider this a victory for decency and equality, or was it judicial housekeeping?

Problem with coming to a reasonable answer on this is that that housekeeping is based on an idea of Ordnung that's not value-neutral - the Constitution, particularly the notions of due process and equal protection, is not a value-neutral document, and it's fair to say that we're not trying to advance the cause of gays because we think they're particularly more awesome than straight people, we want to eliminate the stigma and institutional and social disadvantages they have in society to the extent that, like the Irish historically were discriminated against, we mostly forget them as a category and their preferences are like everyone else's (perhaps more relevant - interracial marriage, which shares a lot of movement-history on the topic because it was illegal in many states in the US and the courts played a significant role in terminating those laws). A commitment to rule of law thus might incorporate our values.. in a sense.

Another subtlety if we're using this to judge the judge who made this - would he have made the same decision if he had strongly disagreed about the propriety of gay marriage but felt Proposition 8 was still unconstitutional? This is entirely possible - Judge Walker is a Conservative (but a California conservative), appointed by Reagan. Besides, in law it's not hard to find people defending laws with which they disagree - the Obama administration has been in the unfortunate position of legally defending BushJr-era laws they're trying to repeal.

The people's interest in having their own desires mediated (that is, for rule of law as a principle) and in having the discriminatory policy ended are complicated. (Yes, my use of the term "the people" further complicates things because I'm obviously not talking simply about the average California voter which probably does not care very much, nor about the mediated-through-prop8-will, but rather in my more nuanced notion of "will of the people") In general, I think this merits more of a "yay a good thing happened" kind of response than a "yay we have won something of great significance because good (for our notion of good) people lined up and did something about it" sort.

It further taints the happiness for liberals more moderate than I am that our centrist president opposes gay marriage. But then, I expected nothing more from Obama than reasonable competence, best effort, and some concern for the disadvantaged. For people who wanted more, sorry, that's the best our politics can easily produce, both because of the composition of our demos, and because our political system institutionalises buy-in from large financial interests. Obama is like a more attractive and slightly more eloquent vaguely liberal version of BushSr (who was quite a decent president by many counts) - if you wanted something more, you were being unrealistic.

Still, yay a good thing happened! Also, yay the rainbow cupcakes were pretty decent.

At work, faced with an ugly development crossing of the Rubicon..

There's some fancy networking stuff I'm adding to our network testbed, involving some database tweaks and some code changes on both our management systems and the OSImages. I'm having an issue with fear (literally) keeping me back from testing these changes, and so weeks of status reports fly by as I check and double check and keep tweaking the code nervously.. the thing is, once I actually put the code into use (basically, swap in an experiment that uses the new feature), there's this crazy complex bit of software that goes out to reprogram all our Cisco switches to prepare them for 802.1Q dual-trunked channels between the nodes. If it doesn't do what I expect it to, down goes the network, and I lose easy access to those switches to revert the changes (not that reverting them and the database and other state on the control nodes is easy to begin with) and probably get to visit each of them to reprogram them over a serial link, and then revert the database and selectively restore data directories on the control boxen. This piece of software is very complex and not well-understood by those of its authors who remain on the project. I am not very confident my changes work and they might require considerable dinking around to get them right. Plus, if the testbed goes down everyone using our system will become very unhappy with me, particularly if I can't bring it back up.

It's not easy to convince myself to take the plunge.

I think most of this dates back to ill judgement I had when I started this project (maybe even when I started the job). I had the chance to ask for enough machines to set up a duplicate tested on which I could develop. I could even have got some of the smaller Cisco Catalyst 29XX switches at low cost (maybe $600 apiece for the very-few-ports-non-rackmount models). There was some resistance to this (IIRC) but I could've pushed and gotten it, I'm sure. Developing on a production (even research-production) codebase is just dumb. If I had an independent developmental testbed, both this and some of my prior projects would've been done much earlier and with fewer headaches.

Played the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget's stabilise the debt game - maybe "game" is not the right term, but watching the (surprisingly not-boring) long committee meetings on youtube (sometimes while reading, playing a game, or sketching), the point is well made that there's a long-term deficit/debt problem that the US faces that will require either a much higher tax burden, much lower expenditures, or some futzing with both. If neither of these can happen, the nation is screwed. Sooooo the "game" is a budget simulator where one gets some canned things one can do. It doesn't let one depart too far from the status quo. I managed to cap the debt at 59% of the GDP by 2018 (still, we're *that* much in debt? oy). Here's how I did it (note that were I given free reign over policy, I would do things a bit differently) and why I made those choices:I first note as a principle that in my ideal answer to the problem, assuming I'm operating in a "liberal capitalist" system instead of the socialist system I'd like to build, that I'd like to reduce total public-private costs, not just public costs.

Actual choices

  • Budget Path
    • Reduce Iraq/Afghanistan Troops to 60k by 2015 - This is drastic, but necessary. All of those troops should be in Afghanistan, and we need to nation-build as vigourously and with as many international partners as we can. The only long-term solution is to beat civilization into the tribal regions. Anything less risks regional and global security. This needs to be coordinated with efforts to engage Iraq and reform Saudi Arabia/Syria/Lebanon and very strong efforts to shove Israel and Palestinian groups towards a lasting arrangement.
    • 2001/2003 Tax cuts - Reduce lower-rate tax cuts by half, let uppers expire - I would rather actually raise taxes on the rich and leave the middle class alone, but that wasn't an option.
    • Grow discretionary spending with inflation - It's the only long-term solution. We can't let it keep expanding more forever
  • Defense/Diplomacy/Security
    • Enact Obama's Weapons Systems Cuts - No conventional wars (except maybe Taiwan?) on the horizon. No need for this kind of thing, as far as I can tell
    • Leave foreign aid alone - Important to use it wisely to aid diplomatic and developmental goals
    • Expand Veteran SS benefits - It is merited.
    • Cancel Missle Defense - Not useful
    • Reduce spending on ship building - There has got to be a way to stop this from growing faster than inflation. A squeeze would help us find it
    • Leave Homeland Security's funding alone - creating the department was a bad idea (even if the issues its creation addressed were real). Expanding it does not serve a clear purpose
    • Reverse "Grow the Army" initiative - Wasn't necessary.
  • Domestic Spending
    • Leave TARP alone - Useful given our situation
    • Enact new jobs bill - Employment is very important for a number of reasons. I believe this would help
    • Leave food stamps alone - I don't see any reason to reduce or boost this
    • Leave unemployment benefits alone - shrinking to past levels squeezes the vulnerable
    • Leave TANF alone - important program (although it actually needs some serious non-funding-related reforms)
    • Leave federal K-12 education funding alone (in reality, I'd federalise education, which would change everything)
    • Leave new markets tax credit alone - important to repair/maint societal fabric
    • Leave school breakfast programs alone - important until enough reforms reshape society so they're not necessary
    • Double funding on adoption/foster care - very important to produce productive adults/keep crime down/support emotional and other needs of these kids
    • Leave funding for education of disadvantaged/disabled children alone - my thoughts on this are complex and likely controversial. Not going to get into it now
  • Social security
    • Leave retirement age alone - Retirement planning is pointless if people often die of old age before they can retire. The age is ridiculously high now, and pushing it higher is absurd. I'd drop it to 60 if I could find a way to pay for it
    • Progressively reduce benefits for the wealthy - Those who need it less can sacrifice a bit
    • Use alternate COLA formula - Sounds like it's more accurate?
    • Reduce spousal benefits - corrects a problem, possibly curbs either inequities or abuses or both?
    • Increase years used to calculate benefits - Cost cutting measure, although I would find other ways to do this if I had more options. I believe people should be retiring at 60.
    • Include government workers - if they benefit from it, they should pay into it. Sure, it's technically the government paying itself, but it's good bookkeeping and makes those workers more vested in the national discussion
    • Institute a minimum benefit - Tempted, but I see no way to pay for it given the options presented
  • Healthcare
    • Leave healthcare law alone - seems reasonable given options. I would rather entirely socialise the entire system though
    • Increase medicare cost-sharing - curbs possible abuses
    • Leave GME grants alone - important to support this vigourously, although I'd rather make education costs covered through the taxbase if I found a workable way to do that
    • Malpractice reform - it's a small thing, but probably a good thing.
    • Leave medicare retirement age alone - Again, grumble grumble.
    • Do not use insurance vouchers instead of medicare - That would be a terrible idea
    • Leave medicaid funding to states alone
  • Other
    • Eliminate certain "outdated" programs - will trust the administration on this one
    • Leave highway funding alone - I really really want to cut this, but we need to rebuild our train infrastructure to do so. Once we do, trains should be our primary way of getting people and goods around, not planes or cars. We're not there yet.
    • Leave "certain transportation programs" alone. These programs include rail programs.
    • Don't cut the federal workplace - If you want government to not work, all you have to do is break its back. This would do that.
    • Leave NASA missions alone - We should not give up on science and human meaning for the sake of this amount of money saved.
    • Reduce farm subsidies - I would do this in a very very targeted way - corruption has long tainted this industry and its products. Corn subsidies in particular must end.
    • Expand federal R and D funding - Science is the way to keep modernising.
    • Cut Earmarks in Half - Oh yes. Let's cut them to zero.
    • Increase Mass Transit Funding - It may not reduce government spending, but it reduces societal spending (public+private), and that's the right thing to worry about
  • Revenue
    • Increase User Fees - Exposes costs. I'd be careful not to discourage healthy lifestyles from it though - park fees should not be instituted, for example, while driver's license fees should be much more expensive
    • Do not sell government assets - We can only do that once so it's not a long-term solution to anything, and these are tied to strategic or otherwise important projects.
    • Impose Responsibility Fee - stupid that we had to pay for this out of taxes - sure, we were paid back, but by providing that assistance we were providing fiscal value (risk, opportunity cost) to those companies out of the general coffers. It was necessary, but we should arrange never to need to do it again. This is one way to do that.
    • Reform international tax system - Tax dodges arn't cool
    • Cap-and-trade - Not really the right way to do this, but it's a start.
    • Increase gas tax - I would increase it by significantly more. Private car ownership should be severely discouraged, and this is a means. It is not necessarily the best means.
    • 5% VAT - Maybe a good idea as supplement to existing tax system? Still, I'd prefer to use income tax or even wealth tax over VAT because VAT gets so complicated
    • Leave dependent exemption alone
    • Increase surtax on income over $1m - I'd rather mess with the tax brackets though
    • Increase payroll tax - Seems necessary
    • Raise SS Payroll tax cap to 90% of earnings - rolling back the tax rate was irresponsible
    • Leave corporate tax rate alone
    • Index tax code to chained inflation - seems necessary
    • Reduce tax gap
  • Expenditures
    • Convert mortgage deduction - closing a tax dodge
    • Limit itemised deductions for high-earners - doesn't go far enough, but it's a start
    • Curtail local deductions - Necessary
    • Eliminate life insurance tax benefits - right now life insurance is easily manipulated into being a huge tax dodge. This fixes that partly
    • Leave biofuel subsidies alone - for now, although we should revisit this when we see how the market reacts to ending farming subsidies and see how that works out
    • Make R and D tax credit permanent - Research is in the national interest
    • Extend Making Work Pay credit - Trusting that this is a good program? Don't know much about it
    • Leave EITC alone - I need to more know about this program to know if it should be grown, shrunk, or left alone
    • Extend College Tax Credit - Again, I believe education costs should come mostly or wholly from the public coffers. This is at least a reasonable start towards that
    • Begin excise tax on high-cost tax plans - people should be taxed by total recompense for their jobs-- benefits should not be usable as a tax dodge
Have also been thinking about how people might approach political theory - I think a good start that's reasonably universal would be to describe human nature and how it interacts with society - differences in emphasis there probably paint everything else. I'd start with: humans are naturally animals, capable of much ugliness or prettiness, and they're very improvable - culture and education civilise us, and we have a duty to make self-improvement and wellness to a certain level probable and self-improvement and wellness beyond that possible. A me from the not so distant past would instead define certain things as "right" and suggest those formalisms divide people into the righteous and/or capable and the unjust and/or incapable. So much comes from where we start, and it can be hard to drag people back to the starting ground (even to establish "virtual perspectives" through which one understands others). How do paradigms and values interact? Is one more fundamental than the other? Values are more discrete and as a metaframework can describe more of the realm of mental experience between perspectives, but it is not guaranteed to capture the inner logic of worldviews.. but then, do people actually follow the inner logic or a value calculus more? I imagine people are capable of following either, but inner logic is more rare (and often but not always inner logic can be derived from value calculus).

Peril of really believing in inner logic was made in a recent conversation with my friend who was in town this last month (making it slightly less lonely) - given any set of sufficiently independent issues (of which there are many) and a given permutation of positions, you can imagine/construct a coherent political philosophy that would bind them together coherently, and you can probably find actual people who hold that position. He challenged me on this, asserting that libertarians seem always to be pro-state/local-control and anti-federal-government, and I named some people we both used to know and some factions of libertarians, highly skeptical of democracy, who believed in a federal-level libertarian state that would guarantee liberty according to formal libertarian political theory and have very little to vote on (as states and local government could not override that guarantee of liberty -- no bans of alcohol in a town, for example).

All of this leads to interesting questions as to what political liberty really means - do libertarians prefer subnational government or communities have the right to self-govern given how governance usually restricts liberty, or do they prefer the formal philosophy that adheres strictly to minarchism? We could see them going either way, which is part of the whole idea of endless permutations.

Neat example of improving heuristic systems with heuristics actually learned from people.

NexusOne DevPhone is finally available and on its way. Looking forward to playing with it, and I have some ideas for geek-social games that'd be fun to develop. It might be good for me to find some other programer types to brainstorm/work with for some good GPL-but-paid (or maybe GPL-and-free) apps.

I've been jogging a lot more to try to deal with depressive fits, mostly in the evenings so I don't feel odd running around in just tights and an athletic shirt (running tights are one of the many nice things about jogging). I've been thinking it'd be interesting to try a jog with a weight, namely my ridiculously outgoing male cat who loves the outdoors. Not sure how well that would go - I'm pretty sure I could avoid him escaping, but his enjoyment and my comfort are things about which I'm unsure. If I had a mesh bag that zipped entirely closed I'd be more keen to give it a go.

I am sometimes amused at how magical programming seems to people who have no experience with it. Given how at least many fields require minor proficiency with programming (from spreadsheets on up), I expect the "programmability gap" to be eventually a major societal issue. It'll be like reading.

Oh, almost forgot - my Sam and Max soundtrack CDs came in. Bloody awesome!

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