Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Rant: Not Being Poor

Not Being Poor
A Rebuttal to a Whiny Screed by John Scalzi

To not be poor...

...know exactly how much everything costs.

...don't let your kids waste their lives being indoctrinated by watching TV.

...buy $800 cars because they’re cheaper than fixing a newer one.

...know regular dental care and insurance is cheaper than tooth-rotting sweets.

...take care of your home so your kid's friends will want to come over to yours.

...don't be ashamed of saving money or accepting handouts.

...move far away from the freeway.

...buy a month's worth of rice for the price of one short-lived box of Raisin Bran.

...take a well-off sibling at his word when he says he doesn’t mind when you ask for help.

...buy off-brand toys.

...run a heater in only one room of the house.

...don't have "friends" who would steal $5 off your coffee table.

...plan for your kids to have a growth spurt.

...teach your kids stealing meat from the store is wrong and unacceptable under all conditions.

...buy Goodwill underwear.

...everyone who lives with you earns their keep.

...know the difference between inexpensive shoes and cheap shoes is not price.

...teach your kids to learn despite 15-year-old textbooks and no air conditioning.

...know $8 an hour is way more than most people on the planet live on.

...know most people don’t give a damn about you no matter how much you make.

...work an overnight shift under florescent lights if need be.

...don't give your body to a man who you would have to beg for child support.

...be grateful you have a toilet.

...stop the car to take a lamp from a stranger’s trash.

...keep your kitchen so clean you won't have to worry whether a cockroach will skitter over the bread.

...know a GED actually makes a goddamned difference.

...don't shop at the mall.

...marry someone whom you trust to watch your kids if you must take a job.

...call the police to bust into the apartment right next to yours if you know they are criminals.

...talk to that girl even if she’ll probably just laugh at your clothes; maybe she won't.

...invite others for dinner, however humble.

...sweep up a sidewalk with lots of brown glass on it.

...improve your language, knowing others learn about you by the way you talk.

...earn that 35-cent raise.

...make sure library, free and cheap books fill your home.

...go find 120 soda cans to earn that last six dollars for the utility bill.

...pick up and eat that dropped mac and cheese on the floor.

...work as hard as anyone, anywhere - then leverage what you've earned.

...don't be stupid.

...don't be lazy.

...spend the six-hour wait in an emergency room with a sick child asleep on your lap talking to the cashier about payment options and plans.

...never buy anything someone else hasn’t bought first.

...pick the 10 cent ramen instead of the 12 cent ramen because that’s two extra packages for every dollar.

...teach your 14 year old to live with choices s/he makes.

...make people tired of you being grateful.

...know you’re being judged.

...buy a box of crayons and a $1 coloring book from a community center Santa.

...check the coin return slot of every soda machine you go by.

...know you can always find or make shelter.

...don't spend that buck on a Lotto ticket.

...don't hope the register lady will spot you the dime.

...if your child makes the same mistakes you did, and won’t listen to you beg them against doing so, let go.

...don't ignore a cough that doesn’t go away.

...don't lease a couch.

...failing any other options, collecting cans included, you can survive a few days without $200 waiting for your paycheck to come in.

...take four years of night classes for an Associates of Art degree.

...sleep on a lumpy futon bed.

...know where the shelter is.

...know that many people who were poor are now not because they chose not to be so.

...quit sniveling over how hard it is to stop being poor.

...use the options you have.

...at minimum, run in place.


Monday, September 20, 2010

Rant: Social Security

There’s two core issues with arguments over Social Security’s viability.
1.       The existence of the “trust fund”
A key premise of the “Social Security is broke” crowd is the line “there is no ‘trust fund’, it’s just a Ponzi scheme.”
One may contend that there will be trillions of dollars in the fund a la federal bonds, ready to carry it on for decades to come.
One may contend that those dollars are merely self-owed IOUs, with the money having already been spent.
Roughing the numbers...
You pay two dollars of FICA tax.
Those dollars go to the Social Security Administration.
One dollar, allocated to current costs, goes right back out to pay dad’s SSI check this month.
Other dollar, being surplus, buys a US Treasury Bond as long-term stable investing – to wit, the “trust fund”.
That bond purchase routes that other dollar right back out to facilitate deficit spending.
The only “investment” at that point is a promise by the left hand that it will pay back the right hand.
This can only happen if
-          there is sufficient revenue at the time payment by the left hand is demanded by the right
-          another dollar of debt is created
-          or another dollar is printed.
Notice there is no actual investment, to wit tangible or legal property, involved in this “trust fund”.
The only way money goes out is if there is enough money coming in, either directly from FICA taxes or from general revenue used to pay off the bonds involved.
The “trust fund” is just shuffling the books with “I O Me”s.
It’s a Ponzi scheme.
2.       Political axioms and their impact on solutions
The reason some of the “myth”s originally enumerated were phrased the way they were is that if one holds certain axioms, there is no other way to put them. This, of course, strikes as odd those who hold different/conflicting axioms. Example:
"Myth: Benefit cuts are the only way to fix Social Security."
If, for assorted legitimate reasons, one holds that tax increases are not a valid option, and that budget re-shuffling is unviable, the short way to put the point is that, indeed, the only way to fix the problem of long-term Social Security viability is to cut benefits. Hold that axiom, and there is no other realistic option.
This, of course, seems odd to someone who does not hold that axiom. The response advocates that which a large fraction of the population opposes:
"Reality: ... If the very rich paid taxes on all of their income, Social Security would be sustainable for decades to come.5 Right now, high earners only pay Social Security taxes on the first $106,000 of their
income.6  ..."
Hence what is plainly reasonable to some is legitimately outrageous to others. Their differing opinions are the natural consequence of differing axioms.
There’s an old computer science joke: “two plus two equals five ... for very large values of two.” To call some of the points “myths” is to create straw-man arguments: remove the foundational principles and definitions creating the wording, and look surprised and delighted when the wording crumbles.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Rant: "Daddy, what's a newspaper?"

"Daddy, what's a newspaper?"
"They're like websites printed on paper. They would have the day's news."
"That would be a lot of paper. How were they distributed before WiUltraMax/15G networking?"
"Each street corner had a box that would have some."
"Really ancient technology, huh?"
"Not really dear. Here's a photo of you next to a newspaper vending machine."

That future conversation is why I took the picture.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Rant: We Count Wrong

We count wrong.
OK, so integral base-10 works pretty well for most human endeavors, and floating-point base-10 covers most of the rest.
Kinda like Newtonian physics: good enough for small orders of magnitude.
Then there’s π.
Here’s a fundamental mathematical constant which is simple and ... untidy.
For all practical purposes it’s a perfect random-number generator – it’s that untidy.
We are amazed at the “transcendental” nature of such a simple and fundamental ratio.
We pick some arbitrary number of digits and make do with that approximation.
We try calculating it, and are amazed at the elegance of the patterns within the equations.
We obsess over how “cool” π is.
We’ve got it backwards.
It’s not that π has an infinite number of digits seemingly random yet produced by elegant equations.
It’s that our number system is grossly inefficient.
It’s not that π is irrational.
It’s that we are irrational.
We count wrong.
e = 2.71828182845904523536…. in base-10.
Like π, e is transcendental and fundamental, with many of the same characteristics.
Many years ago I stumbled across someone’s observation that e – akin to π – could be expressed in “base-factorial” notation in a very clean way. Rather than each digit being a simple order-of-magnitude multiplication, it represents a factorial multiplication. Follow the link for more confusionclarification.
e = 10.011111... in base-factorial.
Expressed in the right terminology, it’s very simple.
π exhibits much of the same behavior, lacking only suitable simple expression.
One of the great failings of humans is the insistence on forcing everything to fit within our prejudices.
Great success oft comes from getting over those prejudices and accepting what is as it is.
We have a profound ingrained prejudice born of our DNA-influenced number of extremities.
Methinks the great hindrance to human mathematical progress is our stubborn insistence on mapping the universe to our fingers.
This works fine for small orders of magnitude – just like Newtonian gravity works fine for falling apples.
This gets untenable for large orders of magnitude – just like Newtonian gravity doesn’t work for apples falling at speeds near that of light.
Approximations to a few decimal places work fine for most cases.
To be correct, however, we find the theory of base-10 counting just doesn’t work.
Computing π to any significant degree takes enormous amounts of effort; figuring any given digit requires figuring all the digits before it.
When we took a change in counting seriously, by embracing and following base-2, we changed the nature of human knowledge in a few years.
Computing π in base-2 is, in fact, easy; figuring any given bit can be calculated directly, independent of bits before and after.
Our counting, and by extension our math, is wrong.
We count wrong.
Computers demonstrate it.
π proves it.
I now return you to wondering what the he11 I just wrote and why.