Thursday, December 29, 2005

Terry Goodkind: Chainfire

Terry Goodkind's Chainfire tries very hard to be libertarian (it's nominated for the Prometheus Award); the main characters talk constantly about self-determination. But most of them, along with all the minor characters, celebrate self-negation in one form or another. And the narration makes it clear that the acts of self-negation are healing, joyous, uplifting acts. I don't recommend this book.

I didn't enjoy the previous book from the series that I read (Naked Empire), but it was harder to explain what didn't work for me in that book. (And I wasn't yet blogging reviews.) This book makes the divergence between the (often pro-freedom) character's words and the feeling presented by the world itself more apparent. This is a world of magic, and the main character is preordained to save them all from an enemy who is using magic and military might to take over the world in the name of the greater good. It's nice that the villains represent a bad idea taken to its logical extreme, and that the protagonists are trying to preserve self determination. It's wonderful that the protagonists understand what they are fighting against and what they are trying to preserve. It's unfortunate that the religious faith that undergirds the hero teaches his followers to chant

"Master Rahl guide us. Master Rahl teach us. Master Rahl protect us. In your light we thrive. In your mercy we are sheltered. In your wisdom we are humbled. We live only to serve. Our lives are yours."

Sometimes they repeat the chant multiple times on the same page. It's clear that it's not an empty litany either. When Rahl asks his military forces whether they are willing to accept his orders, even though he's abandoning the role that is assigned to him by prophecy, their response is to chant "We live only to serve. Our lives are yours."

For me, the time spent attending to the villain's torture and depravity detracts from any positives in the book as well. I don't get a kick out of seeing characters on either side suffer, and I don't need the details to be gory in order to be convinced that the bad guys are bad. And when one of the good guys (who just happened to have been one of the most evil before seeing the light) tortures one of the (current) evil doers in order to find out what she knows about the "ticking time bomb", I see it as a not-well-hidden argument for torture. To add to what I said in a recent post , we already know why some people think torture is sometimes justified. Even if there are such cases, they don't constitute an argument that routine degrading treatment is or should be acceptable.

This book is much too long for what turns out to be an inconclusive chapter of a long saga. At the end of the book, Master Rahl has figured out the solution to the problem that has been driving him the entire course of the book, but hasn't resolved the issue. If we're supposed to be left hungering for the next installment, it didn't work for me.

Sunday, December 18, 2005

Garbage in, more Garbage in

MarkM has argued for years that the polically correct focus on recycling was seriously misguided. It has been driven as much by a belief that we're running out of room as by the belief that plastics, being petroleum-based, are a non-renewable resource, and that trees aren't renewable at the speed we're using them up. MarkM argued that the free market will respond with rising prices if there's a shortage of raw materials and find new sources, or send us price signals that will tell us what materials to use as substitutes. And there's plenty of space to dispose of rubbish, and it won't be long before we figure out how to use new technology to harvest useful feed stocks out of the dumps more cheaply than we can at this point.

I thought that MarkM was mostly right, modulo politics. My thought was that local politics in most areas was making it increasingly difficult to set up new dumps and increasingly expensive to operate existing dumps that would eventually fill up. That leaves all the politicians, in the short run, without a palatable solution that can be implemented by short-sighted politicians who are driven by the next election. This, I thought, would lead to an increasing crunch on room at the dump, an inability to ship the stuff further away, where we know there's plenty of room if the value of getting rid of it all rises high enough. So, while I thought it was caused by lack of planning and easily remedied if the market was allowed to take care of it, I was willing to not kvetch too loudly when people got on their high horse about the moral imperative of recycling.

Well, it turns out that MarkM was more right, even taking short-sighted politicians into account. According to a short piece by Jeff Taylor in Reason, dump operators have improved the efficiency of handling waste enough that the capacity of reasonably well run ones don't decline. Simple techniques can lead to rapid enough decomposition of the organic waste that many dumps no longer project a date at which they will run out of room. And of course, the market speaks as well: costs for dumping average $35 per ton nationwide, a level that apparently hasn't risen significantly over the last decade or more.

And I'm willing to argue that we aren't running out of petroleum or trees if anyone wants to fall back on that point, so it looks like I'll have to start taking MarkM's side more vociferously.

Perhaps I should point out that MarkM, as is his way, doesn't argue with people about this, he just refuses to pay any attention to containers marked recycle. If you ask him why, he'll explain, but that's about as far as I've seen him go.

Friday, December 16, 2005

Slow light again

Remember Mercury Delay lines ? No, I wasn't there at the time, but it's an odd bit of technology that hackers like to tell one another about. The UNIVAC I (and other early computers) used this technique to store electronic pulses of information to be used later. The basic idea (and metaphor to be emulated) is that you find a way to send bits out on a slow loop so they'll return at a known time in the future when you'll be ready to use them again. Originally used in WWII radar to remove static objects from images, they were eventually used as generic (short-term) memory.

Well there's new work on slowing down the speed of light that may bring this metaphor in reach again. Remember in 1999, when scientists used clouds of ultracold sodium gas in a Bose-Einstein condensate to slow light down to "walking speed"? Well, the current work uses a silicon crystal full of holes to slow the light. When they send small currents through the crystal, temperature changes in the crystal vary the delay that is applied to the passing light. This means they can vary the delay, making the delay lines more versatile.

Everything Old is New Again.

Saturday, December 10, 2005

Clemency for the Exceptional case

I look at it from the economist's point of view. One of the things we should take into account is the effect of relative incentives on people's behavior. I don't know a lot of details about Stan Tookie Williams, but it is apparent that he stands out as someone who has turned himself around while in jail awaiting the death penalty. If we want to encourage good behavior on death row, then clemency for the best behaved is one of the few carrots we have to offer. If Williams isn't a candidate for clemency on the basis of behavior, the only avenue out for others on death row is to be found innocent or to find a loophole like an incompetent attorney. Some inmates can hold onto one of those hopes, but others can't. If there's no decent hope to avoid the death penalty, then there's no reason for them not to try to cause as much havoc as possible while they wait. That seems like the wrong incentive.

Just to be clear, I think capital punishment is justified for some crimes. (And murder during a robbery certainly qualifies.) In most cases, in the current setting, it appears to me to be too expensive to be worth pursuing: we spend so much money taking their cases through the legal obstacle course to get final approval that we'd be better off in most cases just giving them 15 life sentences. But Williams' case has made it through the gauntlet, and that obstacle course has been passed.

The questions the Governor should ask are whether clemency should ever be granted for good behavior, and whether Stan Tookie Williams' turnaround isn't one of the best examples available.

Filed in:

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

The Tax Panel and Real estate investment

The President's Tax reform advisory panel submitted some proposals early in November. The proposal that caught my eye was the suggestion that the home mortgage interest deduction should be reduced. Rather than breaks for loans up to $1M, the number would fall to the average housing price in a region. I kept seeing descriptions of this, and all the money it would bring into the treasury.

I'm interested, of course, because I'm now a real estate investor. We now own two 4-plexes in Arizona, and continue to look for attractive properties. So I kept wondering, as I read all these media reports, whether the panel had suggested changing the taxes on interest for investors as well. Non-investors don't seem to have noticed, but interest on investment property is also deductible, but it's a completely different section of the tax code. Here's the scoop:

Home mortgage interest
interest you pay on a loan secured by your main home or a second home. The loan may be a mortgage to buy your home, a second mortgage, a home equity loan, or a line of credit.
Investment Interest
If you borrow money to buy property you hold for investment, the interest you pay is investment interest. You can deduct investment interest subject to the limit discussed later.

The limit was harder to locate, but here it is:

Limit on Deduction
Generally, your deduction for investment interest expense is limited to the amount of your net investment income.

I had to look pretty hard, but I eventually found a short paragraph describing the proposal's affect on investment interest:

Individual investors would be able to deduct the amount of interest incurred to generate taxable investment income. The deduction for investment interest would be limited to the amount of taxable investment income reported by the taxpayer.

That is to say, the panel's proposal would make no change in the deductibility of interest on investment property. This is one of the two largest factors making real estate such a lucrative investment. The other is that it's easy to leverage at 5 or 10 to one: Banks will lend you 80 or 90% of the money that it costs to purchase property. There are markets that are growing in value at 5-10% per year, and have decent prospects to continue growing. In most (outside of California), rents are sufficient to cover the expenses (including the mortgage.)

You have to put up the down payment, but then the property pays for itself, and you get both the appreciation and the amortization. Even if a market has a downturn (which is rare, and when it happens is usually reversed in a few years), if your cash flow is positive, you can wait it out. If you have an 80% loan, and the propterty appreciates at 5% a year, you are making 25% per year from the appreciation. Meantime, the rent, by paying down the mortgage, is also increasing your equity each year.

Obligatory libertarian statement on taxes: I don't consider it immoral to take advantage of tax incentives that provide ways of not having to pay taxes.

Sunday, December 04, 2005

Tortured Logic

There's been enough discussion of the Bush administration's attitude and tortured logic on the subject of torture that I feel compelled to comment. It seems pretty well agreed by all those with relelvant experience that torture is ineffective in producing reliable information. Torture subjects will confess to whatever they think the torturer wants to hear to get it to stop. Water boarding and other techniquest that some reports have described as "merely psychological" are completely inhumane. The descriptions make it clear that the subject ends up in complete fear for his life. The distinction between how much pain is produced, and undergoing a genuine feeling of suffocation is pure sophistry and it's despicable. The idea that some kinds of treatment, while forbidden under the "cruel and inhuman" provisions of the constitution, are acceptable in some circumstances is foul and unworthy of any civilized people. It is also counter-productive for two reasons. First, as I mentioned, it's unlikely to procure useful information, and second it gives others an argument to hide behind when they want to torture our friends. Torture does have an effect, and that is to degrade, and to the extent it is publicized, to scare some people away from contact with potential torturers. I don't think anyone is arguing that the US wants to achieve those effects in Iraq or Afganistan. Once you become convinced that torture is not an effective means of interrogation, no justification remains. If we renounce torture because it is inhumane and ineffective, (and it is both) our enemies cannot torture and claim to be civilized. If we (our government) use torture, our opponents can torture in an attempt to convince us and our allies that we don't want any of our soldiers there. As long as we don't fully renounce torture, the arguments about whether we're any better than Saddam or Zarquawi will distract the people of Iraq and the rest of the Middle East from finally making the decision that they want to be in control of their own future enough that they'll actively work to subvert the insurrection. Some of the discussions I've seen on-line have claimed that the last argument remaining to the torture proponents is the "ticking time bomb" argument. But if we don't believe that torture produces informative confessions, then that argument is vacuous. And I don't think anyone has claimed that any of the torture in any of the prisons maintained by the US in Iraq, Afganistan, or Cuba is justified because we need information quickly. If there were any force behind the ticking time bomb argument, it would only apply in the first few hours someone is in custody. After that, it's pure savagery. Torture is wrong. Officials at all levels of our government and our military should be promulgating the message that it's counter to our ethics and counterproductive in both the short and long term. The descriptions I've seen of interrogation techniques that are "cruel and inhuman", but somehow arguably acceptable when applied overseas make it crystal clear that they are torture.