Tuesday, May 24, 2011

The best news I've heard all day

California and New York Attorney Generals are going to start prosecuting loan origination fraud, including lenders who ignored borrower's ability to repay.  The laws have always been on the books, so they can go as far back as the statute of limitations will allow them.

If I were a lender who had done business in one of those two states I would be packing right now, headed for a non-extradition territory with as much of my loot as I could carry.

I don't think that is going to happen.  I think that the banks are going to stall the lawsuits and finance competitors to these AGs.  And I am afraid that the cost for all of this is going to be borne by the little people, as banks raise fees and/or lower interest rates.

But it is the right thing to do.  The past cannot be fixed, but the future can only be salvaged if we start enforcing the rule of law.

Friday, May 20, 2011

The rule of law

I am very impressed by Barry Ritholtz.  His latest article is one of his best ever.

The rule of law must apply to the big banks.  The government should not be in the bail-out business because it undermines their willingness to apply the rule of law to those banks.  Barry has the details.  Go and read.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Killing in the name of

One of the things I love most about America is our ability to protest.  If someone says or does something I disagree with, then I have the right to call them down.  The closer that they are associated with me, the more my right becomes a responsibility.

The Catholic church can excommunicate people who stray from the faith.  The protestant church has no such tools.

I'm a believer.  The people of Westboro Baptist Church claim to be believers.  They are associated with me.  I would excommunicate them, if there were a way to do that.  But there isn't.  So I just have to protest as I can.

Westboro Baptist Church does not believe in the same Jesus I believe in.  They do not worship the same God I do.  They are not members of the family of faith that I am a member of.  They are heretics.  They embarrass God by spewing hate.

I denounce Westboro Baptist Church in the strongest possible terms.

I do not advocate violence.  I am not planning on doing any violence, and I do not want anyone else to do any violence.  Committing violence against Westboro Baptist Church would be worse than ignoring them.  If you are considering acts of violence, please do not do it.

However, I do hope and pray that the church would get destroyed by a tornado.  I don't want anyone to get hurt, but I would like to see that false community of believers face some of the so-called divine retribution the scream at everyone else who suffers.

As for the people themselves, I wish that there was some way that they could see the Truth.  I hope for a path to repentance for them.  I want to see them repent and apologize, rather than perish and suffer.  I wish there was a way that I could participate in God's work towards that end.

I'm convinced that God is working in that direction.  There is no one who is beyond His forgiveness.  No one, not even Westboro Baptist Church, has failed so badly that He cannot redeem.  But I wonder who God can call to reach them.  Who would they listen to?  I wish I were such a person.  But I am not.

I am happy that the world is finding ways to cope with the vile hatred that Westboro Baptist Church spews.  The good citizens of Brandon Mississippi have it right.  If I had been at that gas station ans seen that fight, I certainly would not have turned in the person/people who did it.  And I would gladly park my car behind theirs to keep them from being able to protest.

But the real trick here was what the cops did.  I believe that this will be the pattern that the authorities use from here on out.  The WBC members could learn to cope with having their cars blocked in the hotel parking lot.  They could work around that.  But they cannot work around being hauled down to the police station on investigation in regards to a crime.

Now, at every town where Westboro Baptist Church goes to protest, someone will call the police and report a robbery somewhere near the church members/protesters are staying.  The police will bring all of the WBC members in for questioning.  They will be questioned for a few hours, and then released.

This is not injustice.  This is not suppressing the freedom of speech.  This is a free people finding a way to work within the system to temporarily silence a voice that no one wants to hear.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

The shadow government

If you care about government spending, debt, or the future of America, then go read this article.  Warning: It's Rolling Stone, so there's ample profanity.  If you understand how we're being stolen from then you'll be tempted to partake in the profanity.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

The thing that has always amused me about the robot apocalypse

Isn't it funny that we always seem to be happy to create the tools of our own destruction?

I wonder if this guy realizes the Pandora's Box he has opened?  Surely someone else would come along and open it later, if he didn't do it now.  But it's still very creepy how we pretend that all progress is good progress.

Clearly the world would be better off if no one ever solved this particular software puzzle.  But there is no way for us to all agree to not do it, so someone is bound to do it.  I think that this particular economic problem--the lack of a system for agreeing to not do something--will be the great Achilles heel of humanity.  The last words of our species will be, "I wish we could have come up with a way to agree to not do that."

Saturday, April 2, 2011

American Oligarchs

I've been writing about Democracy 2.0 / Evolving Democracy for a while now.  I've been treating it as a purely academic exercise, because I've assumed that there would be no chance for anything like it being adopted in my lifetime.  I just wanted to leave a challenging idea behind for future generations to chew on, in the hopes that a revolution would occur someday, and that my ideas would help form the next new best government without resorting to violence.

I'm starting to believe that there will be revolution in America in my lifetime.  These two commentaries mirror my own thoughts on the subject:
Joseph Stiglitz details the extreme income imbalance.
Paul Farrell identifies the delusion of the Super-Rich.

Kareem Adbul-Jabar's recent Op-Ed in Time also mirrors my own thoughts on this.  Mr. Adbul-Jabar's Op-Ed is in response to the recent unrest in Ferguson, Missouri.

"It's class warfare. My class is winning, but they shouldn't be."
     -Warren Buffet

Warren Buffet is right.  The rich are waging war on the poor.  Government is supposed to be the protector of the people; the mediator of class struggle. But the rich have infiltrated the government and undermined its ability to judge impartially.

Princeton University recently conducted a study of politics in America (summary - full results.)  The researchers concluded that America is no longer a democracy, but has transformed into an oligarchy--rule by the wealthy elite.

I hate the idea of America being an Oligarchy.  But if the shoe fits.....

I've been thinking about the right criteria for determining who the American oligarchs are:

Simply identifying the 1% or the 0.1% would get you a close approximation.  But the real oligarchs probably hide their assets in order to stay off of the Forbes list.

Tracking lobbyist spending will get you closer.  But the real oligarchs will not likely appear on that list--they have people who do that stuff for them.

Such a list has not been disclosed, but I'll bet every penny I have that the NSA has a "Do Not Track" list.  These are people that their government masters have told them are above suspicion.  Their phone calls are not recorded.  Their emails are not read.  Their license plates are not tracked.  All of the American Oligarchs are on that list.  How do we get a copy of that list?

Friday, March 18, 2011

This is what YouTube is for

Problems with my tires forced me to replace my shocks and struts yesterday.

My car has 100k miles.  The fuel filter has never been changed.  It idles low and rough, and has been losing power.  So it was time to change it.  The shop where I had my oil changed wanted $30 for the filter and $50 for the labor.

I bought a new fuel filter for $8.  After I had the rear shocks replaced I tried to pull off the old filter.  I have the Haynes repair manual that has step-by-step for stuff like this, and I followed the steps.  I fought with it for half an hour and couldn't get it disconnected.

This morning I googled it and found this YouTube video:

The voice is monotone.  But the instructions are better than the stupid Haynes manual because this guy shows the critically important fuel line disconnect tool!?!?!?!?  I can't believe that the Haynes manual missed this.

That tool is $5 at the local part store, and they have it in stock.

The shop wanted $1300 to do the shocks and struts, and $80 to do the fuel filter.  I'm going to have both done for $300 and about 5-6 hours.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

3d modeling in the near future

Microsoft provides an open interface for Kinect, which lets hackers use the Kinect camera for whatever crazy projects they can come up with.

This video is a little technical, but even non-technical folks should be able to follow the amazing new user interface.

I would expect to see more refined versions of this commercially available within the next two years.  3d CGI will faster, easier, better looking, and more accessible to amateurs.

Hopefully Microsoft will learn something from this project and open the interface for more projects.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Bankers talking about moral hazard

Bankers talking about moral hazard is something like rapists talking about chastity.

The New York Times is reporting that Bank of America is refusing to write down mortgages, as they have been paid and ordered to do by the government.  Their main argument is moral hazard.  They believe it would be bad business to reward home owners who took out larger loans than they could actually afford.  Seriously.

Tar and feather is too good for these people.  I have a strict non-violence policy, but the gall of these people is pushing my limits.

They are busy paying billions in bonuses to themselves, the crooks who wrecked the economy, and they claim to worry about the moral hazard of rewarding someone else?

Their secondary argument holds a little water.  They claim to be unable to figure out who to give how much write-down to.  This boils down to claiming that they are incompetent.  "Oh, the figures are just too hard to compute."  I've worked with the mortgage modification program people at Wells Fargo, and I would accept the argument that they are incompetent to do the math.

Well, I'll help them out.  We'll make it simple for them.  Any mortgagee who wants it gets a free re-fi, on these specific terms--regardless of their credit rating, payment history, LTV, etc.  If they currently do not pay PMI then they do not have to pay PMI on the new mortgage, either.
* Take the current principle balance and refinance that amount for 30-years at a low fixed rate.
* The rate they get depends upon the amount of their current principle balance, according to this sliding scale:
- Less than or equal to $100k -> 3%.
- Between $100k and $150k -> 3.125%
- Between $150k and $200k -> 3.25%
- Between $200k and $250k -> 3.375%
- Between $250k and $300k -> 3.5%
- Between $300k and $350k -> 3.625%
- Between $350k and $400k -> 3.75%
- Between $400k and $450k -> 3.875%
- Between $450k and $500k -> 4%
- Between $500k and $600k -> 4.25%
- Between $600k and $700k -> 4.5%
- Between $700k and $800k -> 4.75%
- Between $800k and $900k -> 5%
- Between $900k and $1M -> 5.25%
- Between $1M and $1.5M -> 5.5%
- Between $1.5M and $2M -> 5.75%
- Between $2M and $5M -> 6%

Obviously the sliding scale will be endlessly debated and negotiated, but I think that the government could cram this down the mortgage companies' throats.  And I think it would do a tremendous amount of good for the economy.

I'll take myself as an example.  We're not in the moral hazard set.  We paid down 10% and took out an 80% and a 10%.  We owe less than the market value of the property.  We have never been late on a payment.  And our credit ratings are still excellent.  We've been in our house a few years.  We would take this deal.  Based upon that sliding scale we would save about $350 per month.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

A day made of glass

It's a Corning commercial.  But it is an interesting view of what the near future might look like.

Unfortunately, I expect to see lots more advertisements.

Netflix feature requests and parental controls

We get Netflix now.  The kids are loving Netflix streaming on the Wii.  We haven't watched as many big people movies as I had expected.  But, overall, it is a neat service.  And the value per entertainment dollar spent is fantastic.

But I'm a software guy.  And Netflix is a software service.  So, of course, I have ideas on how to improve it.

I've scoured Netflix's website and I cannot find any way to submit a feature request or give unstructured feedback.  This is a mistake, both for their business model and the software itself.  Companies today have to engage clients and digest the feedback.  They have a blog, and comments are allowed.  But there is no way to contact anyone directly or engage with the company.

I'll link this blog post in the comments of their latest blog posts.  I'm also going to post it on their wall on Facebook.  But I doubt it will get noticed.

With that all said, I've got two feature requests/suggestions for Netflix.

1. A General Feedback Mechanism
Duh!  There are thousands of users out there who have ideas they would like to share.  Just listening to their ideas makes your brand more engaging and sticky.  Some percentage of those ideas are good or great.  Those ideas will genuinely make your service better.

As a baby-step you can just implement one of the general-purpose feedback websites, like Suggestionbox.com.  (Suggestionbox created that site for them as a teaser to try to engage Netflix.  Netflix isn't actively using it yet.  I have no affiliation with Suggestionbox.)

But you already have a platform where you are engaging with people.  So I would suggest that you build a 'Netflix feature queue' right into your service.  Give people the ability to write up feature requests (like this one) and place them in the queue.  Let others read and prioritize those features.  I'm sure that you have an agile development team (or three).  Put their scrum backlog in there and let clients interact with it.

You will have to moderate the content, obviously.  You will have tons of 'I got a DVD of Teen Wolf 2 that was scratched.'  Some of your customer service people will have to review every incoming post and filter out the stuff that doesn't fit.  And they will have to merge similar requests.

But when you build a feature that was customer-designed you should scream it from the rooftops.  Send someone out to get a picture of the person who wrote up the idea.  Give them a free month of service and a shirt.

2. Granular Parental Controls
I haven't seen anything from Netflix that suggests they want people to sign up for more than one account per household.  That means parents and children are sharing queues and streaming devices.  We have 4 kids--a large-ish family by modern American standards.  But I would suggest that our usage patterns are probably fairly typical.

In our house this means that the 'Suggested for Randy' queue is:
* Clifford
* Angelina Ballerina
* Se7en
* Salt
* Ben-10
* The Shawshank Redemption
* Blues Clues
* Dexter
* Cake Boss
* Shaun the Sheep
* The Blues Brothers
* Enter the Dragon
* Zombieland

This is disconcerting for me as a parent, because so many of my shows appear at the top of the queue when my kids are picking shows.  I don't need my kids watching even a few minutes of Se7en or Dexter while they know that I'm busy doing something else.

We have a Wii with Netflix streaming on our main TV.  We have Netflix streaming on the adult's computers, but we don't want to watch movies at our desks.  Everyone basically shares the main TV for Netflix.

We have 2 preschoolers (who can navigate the Netflix menu on the Wii and pick their shows.)  We have a 9 year old, a 13 year old, and two adults.  In a perfect world that's 5 separate instant queues on this device.  In reality, though, if each of the big kids got a personal queue then both of the little ones would demand their own queues, too.  So that's 6 separate instant queues on the Wii.

Each queue needs an optional password.

When I'm in a queue, I need to see the name of the queue at the top of the screen.  (On the Wii, the queues should each have a Mii.)

If I have several streaming devices (Wii, iPad, computer, streaming Blue-Ray player, etc.), then I should be able to pick which queues appear on which devices  The default should be for all queues to appear as options on all devices.  Some devices won't be able to handle multiple queues, especially at first, so they will have to default to just the first queue.

Each queue needs to have it's own settings for what's allowed.

There is a sticky problem on content that is not rated--old movies and TV shows.  So I would base the parental controls on a combination of Common Sense ratings and MPAA ratings.  And for the shows that are not rated by either service, I would control by genre.

So my parental control options would look like this:

Little Jenny's queue allows:
* All shows
* R and below
* PG-13 and below
* PG and below
* G and below
For shows that are not rated by the MPAA, allow:
* All shows
* Common Sense age 17 and below
* Common Sense age 14 and below
* Common Sense age 11 and below
* Common Sense age 8 and below
* Common Sense age 4 and below
* No shows not rated by the MPAA 
For shows that are not rated by the MPAA or Common Sense, allow:
# Action & Adventure
# Anime & Animation
# Children & Family
# Classics
# Comedy
# Documentary
# Drama
# Faith & Spirituality
# Foreign
# Gay & Lesbian
# Horror
# Independent
# Music & Musicals
# Romance
# Sci-Fi & Fantasy
# Special Interest
# Sports & Fitness
# Television
# Thrillers

For that last category the interface is checkboxes, not a single select.  A movie that is categorized as both 'Documentary' and 'Gay & Lesbian' would be blocked unless both categories are checked here.

Few parents are going to select 'Gay & Lesbian' or 'Horror', but the control settings should simply include all genres for simplicity's sake.  Any new genre that gets added to the system should show up here, and be unchecked for everyone who has already set up their parental controls.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

What's in a name?

I thought I coined the term "Democracy 2.0".  That was in early 2004, according to a quick search through my old notes.  I didn't write that term on the internet until September 11, 2005.

I've run across the term in lots of places recently.  A Google search returns hundreds of hits--I got to page 20 without ever finding this blog.  A quick scan through those hits indicates that there is not one agreed-upon meaning of the term--beyond the most general idea that it is an upgrade of the process of Democracy.

I recently read Accelerando, by Charlie Stross.  He used the term late in the book.  The book was written as short stories, and that particular section was published in December of 2003.

Stross's "Democracy 2.0" was very innovative.  It was in a very different future where money was nonexistent.  Everything you wanted was free, because technology had progressed to the point that everything was so cheap to make that it wasn't worth the overhead burden of doing the accounting.  The only traded currencies were bandwidth and reputations futures--a futures market that traded reputations.

Control of the government was handled through the reputations futures market.  Everyone who wanted to be the president registered their candidacy.  A separate pool was created in the futures market for the reputations of the various candidates.  Anyone who wished to participate would buy or sell any of the candidates' futures.  And at a certain time the candidate with the highest-trading reputation future was declared the winner.

That's not what I was thinking of when I started using the term.

When I started using the term it was the title for a book I was writing.  The book was addressed to people who live under dictatorships.  The point of the book was to explain why we were waiting for them to free themselves, and to give them a vision for doing Democracy on their own terms.  Learn from our successes.  Don't repeat our mistakes.

I've since figured out that someone beat me to the whole "this is why we are waiting for you to free yourself, and this is how you can do it" book.  That book is Dictatorship to Democracy by Gene Sharp.  It's a free PDF that has been translated into dozens of languages and sneaked into just about every country in the world.  Every underground rebel faction has a well-worn copy.

When the dust clears Gene Sharp is going to win a Nobel Peace Prize for that book.

Dictatorship to Democracy is 93 pages.  The first 72 pages are dedicated to nonviolently overthrowing a dictator.  The last chapter covers establishing a democratic government that can last--4.5 pages.  The rest of the book is appendix and endnotes--14 pages.

I think that building a democratic government is harder than that.  These people are going to need more than 4.5 pages.

I wrote a long blog post the other day that had a reasonable outline of what I think a democratic government needs.  The central ideas are:
* equality under the law
* freedom
* capitalism
* goal-oriented
* measure your success
* experiment and innovate

Those last three points are unique to me.  I don't see anyone else out there, including the whole Democracy 2.0 crowd, talking about experimentation, adaption, and learning.  I call that evolution.  So I've started calling my particular brand of democracy "Evolving Democracy."

I'm coming back around to my original book idea.  Now I know that the first half of the battle is covered, I am free to focus on the second half:
* What are the key features of a democracy?
* How do you keep the people in control?
* What goals should you set?
* What should you teach your people?
* How should your government services operate?
* Who writes the laws?
* Who enforces the laws?

So much of what we do has evolved, and we don't ever think about things like why or how the judges and the police are kept separate.  You can't observe life in the US (or UK, or wherever) and figure out the first principles that democracy is built upon.

That's the book that I'm going to write.  I just need a name for it.

Monday, March 7, 2011


The Independent is reporting that the Obama administration is asking King Saud to arm the Libyan rebels.  It seems that the Obama administration isn't reading my blog.  If they were reading my blog they would know that King Saud is opposed to the rebels in all of the countries of his region.  Arming Libyan rebels provides moral support to the rebels in his own borders.

If this report is true--and I'm assuming that it is--then this signifies a new low for the administration.  They are hopelessly out of touch.  They do not understand which way the wind blows for their allies or their enemies.  King Saud has surely dismissed the administration as clueless imbeciles.

The administration has failed to form a coherent strategy for dealing with the uprisings.  Do we support them?  Do we support them within the borders of our allies?  Do we support them when the likely new government will be less friendly than the existing government?  And how do we express our support or opposition?

This series of uprisings is the most important event of this administration, and they have utterly failed.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

More good news from Egypt

Women have been suffering under the Egyptian regime.  It's no secret that women and children suffer more under dictators and other totalitarian regimes.

CNN is reporting that women in Egypt are feeling more free to express themselves, and feel more optimistic about their prospects for better treatment.  In one example, a lady was recently verbally sexually harassed by an army officer.  She slapped him and drove away.  She would never have gotten away with that a month ago.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Inception in C

I loved the movie Inception.  Someone loved it more than I did.

This person wrote a program that mimics the movie and implants the idea into Fischer.  I wish I could read C code.

Some people have action figures.  Some people have posters.  The Inception crew is now the first movie cast to be recreated as C code.

Friday, February 18, 2011

My life's work

I'm unemployed right now.  I've been unemployed for a while now.  I've been trying to figure out what I'm good for and what I want to do.

I have some experience and some skills in the software industry.  Unfortunately, those skills are not in demand right now, and there are very many people with the same skills out looking.  Software companies like to hire people who have computer science degrees or MBAs, and I don't.  That puts me near the bottom of the pile for any job that comes up.

I've done some coding.  There are a ton of openings for software developers right now.  I could probably take a few coding classes and reinvent myself as a coder.  With my non-CS degree I would probably only get a junior position.  But there are so many positions that I think I could eventually land one.  And I wouldn't be miserable writing code all day.

But that's not what I want to do.

I want to redesign democracy.  Or maybe I should say that I want to design a new form of democracy.

There are many problems with the forms of democracy that we have today.  There are many new features that I want to install in my new form of democracy.  (I'm not going to detail all of that here, but you can find much of it elsewhere on my blog.)

My problem is that I can't figure out how to get there from here.  How do I go back and get a PhD in political science at this point?  Or is there some other path?

My new hero: Dr. Gene Sharp

Gene Sharp is a retired college professor.  He is an introvert, thinker, and writer.  His field of study is the non-violent overthrow of dictators and establishment of democratic governments.

His seminal work is called 'From Dictatorship to Democracy'.  It is available as a PDF for free.

The New York Times has a nice article describing his life and writings, and explaining how his writings ended up in the hands of the protesters in Egypt.  (I can't link it here because they have hidden it behind their paywall.)

Dr. Sharp's writings are primarily focused on the first half of the struggle--toppling the dictator.  My interest is in the second half of the struggle--building a democracy.

If I ever achieve my life's goal, it will only be because I was able to stand on this man's shoulders.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Told you so

The Independent is reporting that Mubarak ordered in the tanks and the army refused; and that this confrontation was the moment that the army decided Mubarak would have to go:
"But the critical moment came on the evening of 30 January when, it is now clear, Mubarak ordered the Egyptian Third Army to crush the demonstrators in Tahrir Square with their tanks after flying F-16 fighter bombers at low level over the protesters."

This is what I wrote on Monday the 31st, before that story broke:
"If I were a gambling man then I would place my money on the military reporting that they received the order to massacre, refusing the order, arresting Mubarak, and then seizing control.  This gives the military control and a large measure of goodwill.  Notice that they don't have to actually get the order to massacre, they just have to say they got it.  There will be no way for Mubarak to prove otherwise once he is in jail."
At this point I haven't heard enough promises from the military for democratic elections.  I would not wager on how long it will be before that happens.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

More on Egypt and the revolutions in the Middle East

Of course there are a ton of articles floating by about Egypt and the Middle East.  Here are the four biggest, in my opinion:

1. 20 reasons why the world is burning
This article is required reading to understand why this is happening now.

2. The Muslim Brotherhood is saying it will not run a candidate in democratic elections in Egypt
I can't decide if this is genuine good news, or if the Muslim Brotherhood is simply biding their time.  On it's face, though, this is fantastic news.  If democratic elections happen in Egypt, and if the Muslim Brotherhood keeps this promise, then the next government of Egypt will almost certainly be secular (read: not radical Islamic jihadist.)

3. Saudi King Saud pressured Obama to support Mubarak
I predicted this one.  It is vitally important to Saud for Mubarak to not fall.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

The real story in Egypt

I found a fascinating article by a western-educated Egyptian.  Click, read, and cry for all that they have lost.

Monday, January 31, 2011

How to tax the rich

Scott Adams is a smart guy.  In general, I find that truly funny people are very smart--funny requires broad knowledge and keen insight.  I don't agree with him on several topics.  But his recent article about taxation is compelling (and amusing.)

His big idea is that the rich need to get something in return for paying their higher taxes.  There are some big devils in the details.  What sorts of perks should they get?  But the idea is definitely worth exploring.

Some would argue that the rich are already getting special treatment.  They get laws written the way they want.  They get loopholes that only they can afford the lawyers to exploit.  They have been getting increasing income inequality for decades.  But we must concede that those are things that they are already getting, without actually paying the higher taxes.  So we have to come up with some new benefits for them.

As he says, bad ideas are easy to come up with.  What are your good ideas?

My heart is in Egypt

My heart is in Egypt right now.  If I were free to go, I would have been there a week ago.  But I am not free to go.  So I will write this article instead, and explain what I would do if I could go.  Because I am American, they would not listen to me anyway.

If I were in Egypt I would find the people who wrote this protesters' manual.  I would hide with them in whatever closet they are holed up in.  And I would talk their ears off about what's next.

Transition to what?

Mubarak is trying to hold on to power and save his own life.  He needs the military to protect him.  He is giving more power to the military in order to get their help.  When Mubarak leaves, the military will be in the best position to take over.  Military dictatorships have a poor history of turning power over to democratically-elected civilian governments.  In the short-term, the protesters need to pay more attention to who will be in power after Mubarak leaves.

It is unfortunate that they began the protests without a a new constitution to offer, or a clear non-military candidate or two.  Now they need to find a core group of protest leaders to form a provisional government that will work with the military to administer free and open elections as soon as possible.  They will need to elect two bodies:
  • A constitutional congress that will have no powers except to write a new constitution.
  • A transitional government that will manage the country while the new constitution is being written.

The transitional government will be tasked with making as few decisions as possible.  Just keep the trains running and power on.  They should draft business people for these positions--people who want to go back to their businesses as soon as possible.

There are two basic types of government:
  • Governments based upon people: dictatorships, kingdoms, secret police states, mafia states, etc.
  • Governments based upon laws: representative democracies, police states

The stories I'm hearing about the protesters lead me to believe that they want to form a government based upon laws.  This means that the constitutional congress will be where all the action is.  That is where I would like to be--offering advise and helping them form a good law-based government.

Democracy is not enough.

I would bring three books with me to Egypt:
What is the point of government?  Peace, safety, freedom, economic opportunity, and justice.  These are outcomes that only democracy can provide.  But there are many forms of democracy that fail to deliver.  Kim Jung Il and Adolph Hitler were both democratically elected and re-elected, after all.

So, what does it take to build a good government?

I've identified 7 features of government and 4 features of society that are required in order to achieve peace, safety, and the rest.

Government Features
Equality Under the Law
  1. Every person who is excluded from having a voice in the government will have no rational choice but to oppose the government.
  2. A government that can exclude someone else will eventually exclude me.
  3. A government that can grant special status to someone else will exclude me from that group, and will eventually exclude me entirely.
  4. If anyone is above the law then they will eventually establish themselves as dictator.
  5. Corruption cannot be allowed at any level in government, because corruption favors the rich--the poor cannot afford to pay the bribes.
  6. The rich gain and the poor suffer as the body of law grows, because only the rich can afford the legal expertise to remain innocent.
    1. A country where everyone is guilty of something will devolve into a prison.
  7. The rich gain and the poor suffer as the process of complying with the law gets more complicated (licenses, permits, and the like), because only the rich can afford the legal expertise to operate businesses.
    1. The poor will be limited to operating in the grey or black markets, where they lack legal protection.
  8. Corporations and religious groups are organizations, not people.  Organizations must be treated fairly, with respect to each other.  But organizations must be governed under a distinct set of rules specific to them.

Popular Control
  1. Only the people may change the constitution.
  2. The people define the government's goals, priorities, and long-term vision.

Protection of Rights
  1. The primary purpose of government should be to protect the rights of the people.
  2. A people who fail to understand and properly value these basic rights will achieve the bad outcomes that they deserve:
    1. Freedom of Speech
    2. Freedom of Property
    3. Freedom of Religion
    4. Freedom of the Press
    5. Freedom of Assembly
    6. Freedom of Vocation
    7. Freedom of Contract
    8. Freedom of Sexuality
  3. Governments are not the only infringers on these rights.  Corporations and religious groups must be constrained to protect these rights

Limited Government
  1. A government that can change the rules under which it operates will slide into corruption, allowing the rich to buy special privileges.
  2. A government that can kill citizens will eventually kill me.
  3. Governments are good at enforcing the rules by which everyone must operate--making and enforcing laws
  4. Governments are very inefficient at delivering services.  
    1. Some services can only be reasonably delivered by government, like military protection.  In these cases, the governments operations must be monitored closely for waste and corruption.
    2. Some services could be provided by the free market, like mail delivery.  In these cases, the government contracting process must be monitored closely for corruption.
    3. All of this monitoring is an expensive overhead.  The best way to reduce the overhead is to limit the scope of government.
  5. Find creative ways to limit government spending.  Make them report everything they spend in clear terms.

Separation of Powers
  1. Government is, by definition, a concentration of power.  Power corrupts.  Don't give any person any more power then you absolutely must, and don't let them hold on to that power any longer than you must.
  2. There are certain categories of power within government.  These must be clearly and irrevocably separated:
    1. Legislative: write laws
    2. Police: enforce the laws
    3. Judicial: apply and interpret the laws
    4. Executive: manage the government itself
    5. Ambassadors: official interactions with other nations
    6. Military: defense and war
    7. Measurement: measure and report the government's performance
    8. Oversight: watch the watchers

Balance of Powers
  1. The parts of government will have to interact with one another.  Each part needs to be reigned in by other parts.  Each line of power needs to be carefully laid out, to avoid any one part gaining too much power over the others, or to avoid having two or three parts forming a ruling coalition over the others.
    1. Within those interactions there will be some natural power struggles.  These interactions must be planned out. For instance:
      1. The police are completely subject to the judges when it comes to detaining and punishing wrongdoers.
      2. The military is completely subject to the legislature to for funding.
    2. Some un-natural power struggles need to be established, to keep any one part of government from gaining too much power.  For instance:
      1. Military senior commanders must be approved by the judges before they can take office.
      2. Executive branch officers are nominated by the legislature and confirmed or rejected by a jury made up of judges, police, and military personnel.

Regular Orderly Transition of Power
  1. No one may serve in more than one part of the government at the same time.
  2. No one gets to hold on to any power for an extended period of time.
  3. No one gets to control how or when they will relinquish power.
  4. When the people are unhappy, they must have a non-violent means for replacing the government and amending the constitution.

Social Features
  1. Government must be watched, or it will devolve into corruption.
  2. The people must tell the government what they want, or they won't get it.
  3. Some people must serve in the government for a time, and then return to private life without gaining undue advantage in the marketplace from their time of service.

  1. The people must speak up when they have a problem with the government.
    1. They cannot wait and let problems fester for too long before they do something.
    2. They must continually exercise their right of criticism so they don't lose the right through lack of use.
  2. Criticism must be public, so the public can weigh and judge the importance of the criticism.
    1. Kooks will abuse the right to criticize, and use it as a platform for their craziness.  The public should be the judges of legitimate problems versus craziness.
    2. The better your government gets, the more that legitimate problems will look and sound crazy at first.
  3. The government must be strictly forbidden from silencing critics.
  4. The government must have mechanisms for accepting criticism and making positive changes, when the people agree that the problem should be addressed.

  1. The people must understand that the government cannot meet their every need.
  2. The people must accept responsibility for the outcomes of their own lives, so long as they have been dealt with fairly.

  1. My freedom to swing my arm ends just before I hit my neighbor's nose.
  2. People who are not dedicated to freedom will be too thin-skinned, constantly imagining that their noses have been hit.
  3. Freedom will be constantly challenged by would-be authorities.  The people will have to continually defend freedom, primarily against religious authorities.
    1. When a religion has the authority to enforce its will on non-believers then freedom of religion has been violated, and a religious kingdom has been established.  All non-believers are outsiders, and rationally must work to overthrow that government.

What's Next in Egypt?

Maybe the powers behind the scenes in Egypt already know all of this.  Even if they do know it, it will be incredibly difficult to pull off.  If the protesters are not simply massacred, then a military dictatorship is the most likely outcome of their present course.

If I were a gambling man then I would place my money on the military reporting that they received the order to massacre, refusing the order, arresting Mubarak, and then seizing control.  This gives the military control and a large measure of goodwill.  Notice that they don't have to actually get the order to massacre, they just have to say they got it.  There will be no way for Mubarak to prove otherwise once he is in jail.

Life in Egypt will go from bad to worse under a military dictatorship.

What's Next in the Region?

America has been a big supporter of Mubarak for a long time.  In response, Mubarak has been an ally of the US and Israel.  No matter what happens now, America and Israel are losing that ally.  This is a dark day for the US, and a terrifying turn of events for Israel.  Calling Obama "the President that lost Egypt" is somewhat unfair.  From the moment this broke out Obama has had no option for saving Mubarak.

American could have supported the rebels, but at the price of losing Saudi Arabia.  Doing that would not have likely won friends in the new Egypt, because America was the biggest military supplier of Mubarak's government.  And it would have been very difficult for America to denounce Mubarak, seeing as how they are giving him so much money every year.

It may not be Obama's fault, but the importance of this for Mid-East relations is still immense.  This weakens every state in the region.  The likely benefactor of that instability is Al Qaeda.  They will gain influence either by supporting existing countries or by supporting the overthrow of enemy countries.

Egypt has a fairly healthy current tradition of religious moderation.  Christians and Muslims have been living in peace there for a long time.  I pray that won't change.  But I'm afraid that religious freedom will be curtailed by the next government--no matter who runs it.

Saudi Arabia is already locked in its own civil war--the pragmatic king against his religious extremist cousins fighting through their proxies.  Saudi Arabia is the biggest domino in the region.  Egypt is the second biggest.  Iran is third, and already unstable.  Iraq was fourth, and still unstable.  Expect more wars and civil wars in the region.

Talks with Israel will be on hold until several of these major countries stabilize.  But when talks resume Israel will have no friends in the region.  There is really only one issue that the citizens of these regions can agree on, and that is hatred of Israel.  This period of instability would be a good time to get out of Israel.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011


If you make time to read one article about the unrest in Tunisia, make it this article.  As usual, the Telegraph produces commentary that is thoughtful, compelling, and takes a broad view of the issues.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

The most encouraging news I have seen in a long time...

Moderate Egyptian Muslims are taking a stand against extremists in their country.  Last year at this time the extremists attacked several Christian churches.  Egyptian Christians celebrate Christmas in January, and it was last year's January Christmas celebrants that were attacked.

This year Muslims are attending the Christian ceremonies, mingling among the Christians, acting as human shields.  Their courage is worthy of praise.  Their devotion to peace is inspiring.  These acts of faith will not go unrewarded.

Prince plays guitar?!?!?!?!!!!

While My Guitar Gently Weeps, done my Tom Petty and several other great guitar players. I think that's Clapton behind the beard and glasses.

About 3:30 in Prince starts playing a solo. He goes on for the remainder of the video. Utterly unbelievable.

I seem to remember him playing lead guitar on 1999 and Little Red Corvette.  But I don't remember anything like this sort of skill.  Of course, that was a lifetime ago.  So maybe he's been practicing.

That guitar solo could stand with some of the best I've seen/heard from Clapton, Vaughn, and Hendricks.  I had no idea.


XKCD is always brilliant.  Yesterday's is especially so.

The Wikipedia List of Common Misconceptions article is real, and quite well done.  It is the sort of thing that everyone ought to read through at least once a year.