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Nov. 24th, 2015

devil duck

dream journal

From the POV of Hermione Granger:
we see her and Harry as friends, some time in their teens.
we see her and Harry as friends, some time in their twenties.
we see her and Harry as friends, some time in their thirties or forties.
we see her, in her fifties or sixties, find Harry (likewise in his fifties or sixties) on trial. He sits, silent and stony-faced, in a chair in the center of a sub-basement dungeon. Hanging in the air over his head is a handwritten list of all the library books he's taken out in his life, with about two thirds of them crossed out because they were returned. With tears in her eyes, Hermione has to bear witness that she saw him take out one of those unreturned books in his teens. His sentence, by now, has grown to longer than his life expectancy.

Nov. 20th, 2015

devil duck

security theater

Following up on David Friedman's post...

The Paris attacks left us all concerned about a similar terrorist attack happening to us, and wondering what we can do to prevent it. Let's look at the data. Almost all the attackers in the Paris attacks were either French or Belgian citizens, so we should certainly regard French and Belgian citizens trying to enter this country with extra scrutiny. And of the terrorist attacks that have actually taken place on U.S. soil, the vast majority were committed by U.S. citizens, so we should be especially cautious about allowing U.S. citizens to enter the U.S.

In fact, to be really safe we should kick everybody out of the country and only allow them back in one at a time after a thorough individual background check. Who will conduct this background check, I'm not sure....

Nov. 5th, 2015

devil duck

Another d**ned memorial service

So, four days after attending Will McLean's funeral, we attended the memorial service for Tom Zajac, a well-known and beloved fixture in the professional early-music world. And almost every professional early-musician in the Northeast (plus a few from farther away) was there, along with a lot of regular workshop-and-concert attendees like us. After two hours of alternating music and testimonials at St John the Divine, most of the attendees formed a procession, led by seven bagpipers (one in a wheelchair) and with a police escort to clear the intersections, to a pub several blocks away for the reception.

At both of these memorials, everyone talked about how extraordinarily warm, gentle, welcoming, patient, goofy, and talented the deceased was, before cancer took him in his late fifties.

I'm in my early fifties. Maybe I'd better try not to be warm, gentle, welcoming, patient, goofy, and talented....

Nov. 3rd, 2015

devil duck

Da Weekend

Friday afternoon shalmestere rented a car for the weekend, ours being MIA for a week and a half. We know it was ticketed for being in a no-parking zone; we suspect a "predatory tow company" that's legally authorized to tow vehicles that have tickets on the windshield, but which illegally towed it to a chop shop rather than to the NYPD tow pound. Anyway, we then drove to isabeau_lark's house to rehearse for Saturday's performance.

Saturday we drove to the Philadelphia area for Will McLean's funeral. Funerals are a place where all the different "boxes" of a person's life intersect: we knew a fair number of the people in the "SCA and living history" box (although some we had never seen in suits before), had met a few of the people in the "family" box, and have no idea what the other boxes were. Anyway, the funeral was held in the chapel (the original church building) of an Episcopal church, and we (i.e. me, shalmestere, isabeau_lark, and Beth/Deonna) had contracted to provide some music during the service. After the Old Testament reading we played F. Andris's deploration on the death of Guillaume de Machaut, "Armes, amours", on recorders, and as a recessional we did a mash-up of Josquin's and Morton's takes on "L'Homme Armee", on shawms. Both pieces went reasonably well, considering we had one rehearsal with all personnel, and I think they contributed to the atmosphere.

We took advantage of having a car to do some grocery shopping and to eat out, thus getting home after most of the trick-or-treaters (whom we really weren't prepared to entertain, having not planned to be home this weekend at all).

Sunday was spent on household maintenance and more car-based shopping.

Next big commitment: Musicians' Day, which promises to have a bunch of good music classes, good food, and good socializing at a site overlooking a beautiful forest-girded lake. Be there or be square-note!

Oct. 30th, 2015


Functional programming without a functional programming language

One of the numerous fronts in the Programming Language Wars is "how fast does the code run?" This is a remarkably difficult question to answer, for reasons discussed here, but one can make certain general observations. As pointed out here, there's a top tier of languages that are typically compiled to native machine code without run-time garbage-collection, including C++, C, Fortran, Ada, and ATS. A second tier includes a bunch of languages that are (a) typically compiled to bytecode and then JITted, and/or (b) run-time garbage-collected: Java, LuaJIT, Julia, Haskell, Scala, Ocaml, C#, Go, Common Lisp (SBCL), Rust, Pascal, F#. I won't bother with the several more tiers right now.

The top-tier languages are all fairly mainstream, primarily-imperative, three-piece-suit affairs, except perhaps for ATS (with which I'm not familiar).

The second-tier languages include Scala, Ocaml, Common Lisp, and F#, all of which are primarily-functional, as well as Haskell, which is purely-functional (e.g. it has no assignment statement at all, and it takes advantage of this fact to do lazy evaluation and a variety of compiler optimizations), and a couple of primarily-imperative languages.

If you've read anything technical about my current employer, Google, you're probably familiar with the MapReduce framework for massively parallel computing: we alternate "map" phases (do the same thing to a gazillion data points independently) with "reduce" phases (combine a bunch of data points into fewer data points). You may or may not have heard that MapReduce has been deprecated internally for new code for a year or more: in its place, we use libraries that turn C++, Java, and Go into, effectively, primarily-functional languages with lazy evaluation (think Java Streams). MapReduce is still around, but as essentially a compilation target rather than something humans are supposed to actually write.

Of course, it would be a whole lot easier to write in a REAL functional language with lazy evaluation, rather than trying to retrofit C++ to play that role, but we've got an awful lot of existing C++ code....

Oct. 22nd, 2015

devil duck

(no subject)

I saw Star Warson a field trip with my junior-high-school English class.  It was only showing at one theater in Washington, DC (and none in the suburbs where the school was), and there were still lines around the block, which my English teacher avoided with a bulk purchase.

That was the same teacher who, after watching the whole class exchanging middle-school insults for a while, said to me privately "Don't play this game, hudebnik; you're not very good at it."

Oct. 19th, 2015


The Opportunity Society

We're going to hear a lot from politicians in the next year about "the opportunity society" and giving people opportunities to improve their lot in life. Everybody seems to be in agreement about the desirability of an opportunity society, but they disagree completely about what that means: the opportunity for poor people to get richer, or the opportunity for rich people to get richer.

Obviously, Republicans are more concerned with the latter, whether because they don't care what happens to poor people, or (more charitably) because they honestly believe the barriers to rich people getting richer (income tax rates, capital gains tax rates, business regulation, campaign finance regulation, the ability to find and hire employees, upper bounds on executive compensation, etc.) are the same as the barriers to poor people getting richer (access to child care, access to health care, access to transportation, access to housing, the ability to find and keep a job, lower bounds on hourly-worker compensation, etc.)

Sep. 18th, 2015

devil duck

Ideology, pragmatism, and the Prisoner's Dilemma

You know the classical Prisoner's Dilemma game, which (along with several related games) can be characterized by the values in a payoff matrix in which R, the "reward", is what both players get if they both cooperate; T, the "temptation payoff", is what you get if you defect and the other guy cooperates; S, the "sucker's payoff", is what you get if you cooperate and the other guy defects; and P, the "punishment", is what both players get if they both defect. In any such game, I can choose between (T/P) and (R/S), but the other player's choice determines whether I get T or P (if I defected) or whether I get R or S (if I cooperated). The effect on me of my own choice is either T-R or P-S, depending on the other player's action; the effect on me of the other player's choice is either R-S or T-P, depending on my action.

Prisoner's Dilemma is characterized by the inequality
T > R > P > S
For any given other-player action, I'd rather defect than cooperate, but eliciting cooperation from the opponent is even more valuable: under almost any plausible scenario, R-S and T-P (the effects on me of the other player's choice) are larger than T-R and P-S (the effects on me of my own choice). When played iteratively for a long and unknown number of rounds, therefore, this game favors the development of strategies that are "nice" (not the first to defect), "punitive" (responding in kind to defection), and "forgiving" (responding in kind to a return to cooperation after defection). Since both players following such a strategy simultaneously is a stable equilibrium, the outcome feels "fair". (It is sometimes also stipulated that S + T < 2R, so successive rounds of (C,C) are preferable to an alternating series of mutual retribution: (C,D) and (D,C).)

The related game of Chicken is characterized by the inequality
T > R > S > P
Since S > P, you're better off being the sucker who swerves off the road than being one of two people who, both refusing to swerve, collide head-on. Again, my choice is between (T/P) and (R/S), but the implications are different: I'm not always better off defecting for a given other-player action, but I get to choose how large the other player's effect is on me (am I playing for large stakes or small?). No symmetric pair of deterministic strategies is a stable equilibrium for this game; it tends to favor the development of exploitative, dominant/submissive solutions in which one player consistently defects and the other consistently cooperates.

A less-studied variant might be called "Mine", and is characterized by the inequality
T > P > R > S
In this variant, my choices alone determine whether I'm in the better (T/P) part of the matrix or the worse (R/S) half of the matrix; the other player's choice only selects between T and P or between R and S. The effect on me of my own actions is unconditionally more important than the effect on me of the other player's actions. The obvious successful strategy is "always defect".

Which is where ideology and pragmatism come in. If you're a politician expecting to run for (re-)election on your record of accomplishments, you're playing a game in which eliciting cooperation from others is at least as important as your own unilateral actions, something like Prisoner's Dilemma. If, on the other hand, you're a politician expecting to run for (re-)election on your record of ideological purity, you're playing the game of Mine: you don't much care what anybody else does, and will always stand on principle (and seldom get anything accomplished).

For another example, suppose you're a government official charged with carrying out a law with which you personally disagree. If you believe in the rest of your job, and think you can make the world better on balance by doing it and maintaining a productive relationship with your co-workers, you'll find a way to live with it; if you're more interested in ideological purity than accomplishing anything, you'll stage a dramatic and futile protest (and set the stage for a future career as an ideological politician).

Now, what if I'm a pragmatist and you're an ideologue? I assume we're playing Prisoner's Dilemma, so I adopt a "tit for tat" strategy appropriate to that game, while you adopt an "always defect" strategy appropriate to the game of Mine. After cooperating once and getting screwed, I punish you by defecting. You are unchastened: my newfound intransigence only confirms you in your own, and we both continue defecting forever. If I'm feeling especially optimistic, I may occasionally send up another trial balloon of cooperation to see whether you've learned your lesson; you haven't, of course, and this only persuades you that I'm a sucker who can be taken advantage of, and that (because I sometimes cooperate) I have no integrity.

Of course, under some circumstances you CAN get something done by being ideologically pure. If your ideological position, while initially unpopular, is persuasive enough that you can develop a large voting bloc who believe the same way you do, you no longer need to elicit cooperation from the other side. Martin Luther King, by adopting strategies that initially looked dramatic and futile, captured the attention and conscience of the nation and gradually developed a solid majority in favor of racial integration and fairness (at least in theory), whereupon the remaining few segregationists could be marginalized and ignored. Today's Tea Partiers may anticipate something similar: by insisting on ideological purity, they hope to attract more and more people to their cause until the national consensus agrees with them. But as long as there's a large-but-not-majority ideological faction, not much will be accomplished.

Note that the ideologue/pragmatist distinction is almost independent from the left/right distinction. One can take an ideological or pragmatic approach to either left-leaning or right-leaning politics, although in 2015 most of the ideologues are on the right and most of the pragmatists are on the left.

At a meta-level, the whole thing is embedded in a larger game of Chicken: ideologues (whether left or right) have decided to play for the large stakes of eventually dominating the political discourse, while pragmatists (whether left or right) have decided to play for the smaller stakes of getting things done along the way.

Sep. 4th, 2015

devil duck

To Ms. Davis, and all the other clerks and judges in the same fight

You've received a great deal of attention, both positive and negative, for applying your faith-based conscience to your job. There's nothing wrong with applying your conscience, and all the experiences that have made you who you are, to every part of your life, including your job. Indeed, that's an admirable quality, and probably part of what got you elected to your office in the first place.

But you've been confused by a homonym -- two different concepts that happen to share the same spelling and pronunciation, like the noun "dog"[1] meaning a four-legged animal and the verb "dog"[2] meaning pester or bother. As County Clerk, you're probably called upon to issue dog licenses; when you do so, are you authorizing the licensee to pester and bother people, or to own and keep a four-legged animal?

In this case, the confusion is between "marriage"[1] in the eyes of God and "marriage"[2] in the eyes of the State. These two concepts have seldom been identical, but they overlap enough to be confusing. A couple married by a priest/minister/rabbi/imam/whatever who hasn't been empowered by the State to conduct marriages are married[1] but not married[2]. A couple married by a justice of the peace are married[2] but perhaps not married[1].

Members of minority religions have had to accept this fact for centuries. The Catholic Church says (said?) that a person who has been married and divorced cannot be married again; the U.S. Government and most or all of its States disagree. Islam and the Church of Latter-Day Saints, from their founding, allowed and even encouraged polygamy; the U.S. Government and most or all of its States disagree. You've been fortunate, most of your life, that as a member of the local-majority religion, your religious notion of marriage matched the legal one pretty closely, but now that's no longer true.

Fortunately, nobody is asking you to state that a couple can be married[1] in the eyes of God, which is a matter of faith-based conscience; you're being asked, as part of your job, to certify that they can be married[2] in the eyes of the State, which is a simple, objective, legal question.

If you insist that legal marriage[2] in your county must conform to your religious/conscientious notion of marriage[1], you are also fighting for the right of a Catholic clerk to refuse marriage licenses to people either of whom has been married before, and the right of a Mormon clerk to issue marriage licenses to people who are still married to someone else, and the right of a racist judge to refuse to marry people of different races, and the right of a Dexterian judge to refuse to marry left-handed people (remember, the courts have long held themselves incompetent to second-guess whether someone's claimed religious views really are religious views, so anything goes here). You are saying that the State and Federal governments have no place defining marriage at all, and everything depends on whoever happens to hold a local office this month. Are you sure you want to go there?

Sep. 3rd, 2015

devil duck

armchair economics

So Krugman points to this commentary in the NY Times, calling on the Federal Reserve to "show some spine and raise interest rates."
The case for raising rates is straightforward: Like any commodity, the price of borrowing money — interest rates — should be determined by supply and demand, not by manipulation by a market behemoth....
The only way to return the assessment of risk to something resembling normalcy is to stop the manipulation. That requires nothing less than serious intestinal fortitude from the Fed and a willingness to raise interest rates in the face of determined opposition from Wall Street.

Wait, what? When the Fed sets interest rates to 0.25%, that's "manipulation by a market behemoth", but when the Fed sets interest rates to 1% or 2%, that's "stopping the manipulation" and allowing "supply and demand"? Seems to me the only way to "stop the manipulation" would be for the Fed to not set interest rates at all -- to be just another big bank with no economic goals but maximizing its own profit. Which Rand Paul might appreciate, but most people would consider a rather extreme shift from the past several decades.

In fact, a number of the calls for an immediate interest-rate hike (over the past five years) have been based on the notion that current Fed interest rates are "unnatural" and "artificially low", which as far as I can tell means "lower than they've been for most of the past fifty years" rather than having any objective basis.

I'm not sure how that's possible. The Fed is basically a really big lender-to-the-trade: if it sets interest rates "too low", i.e. lower than "the market" would on its own, banks will borrow vast amounts of money from the Fed, turn around and lend it out at higher rates to those poor suckers who can't get to the Fed's discount window, and make vast amounts of money on the difference. This would continue until either the demand for credit was met and "market" rates dropped to match the Fed's rate, or the Fed raised its rates to match the "market" rate. In the process, an enormous amount of money would flow into the functioning economy and be chasing either (a) too few goods and services, aka inflation, or (b) rapidly growing goods and services, aka rapid GDP growth. The fact that neither the arbitrage, the inflation, nor the rapid GDP growth seems to have happened on a large scale despite six years of "artificially low" interest rates seems to be pretty good evidence that they're not "artificially low" after all: those banks that have borrowed money from the Fed at 0.25% haven't found an abundance of high-yield places to lend that money, so it's just sitting in their vaults.
The right answer is self-evident: End the easy-money addiction, raise rates in September and begin the healing.

The words "begin the healing" suggest the reasoning he's using. As long as interest rates are "artificially low", there won't be the round of bankruptcies and extreme economic hardship necessary to pay off the karmic balance of the pre-2008 economic party, and without paying off that karmic balance, things will never get back to normal. To quote Ron Paul in 2009:
We need a correction. Correction should be a good word. When the government screws things up and makes things, you know, so much out of whack, we need a correction and a correction is a healthy thing and everything we do in Washington, everything the Central Bank does is they work real hard to prevent the correction. That’s why it’s prolonged.
In this view, the best solution to an economic slump is to "rip the bandage off" -- create some intense, immediate pain, with the understanding that things will then get better. When your people are out of work, you should lay off government workers; when your people have no money to spend, you should cut unemployment benefits and raise taxes; when the private sector isn't buying enough to keep the economy moving, the government should stop buying things too.

The problem is that there's no evidence that "ripping the bandage off" actually helps in economics (except in the "feels so good when you stop" sense). The countries that took the strongest doses of austerity medicine (Spain, Portugal, Ireland, Italy, and above all Greece) have had the weakest economic recoveries, while the places that enacted only moderate austerity (the U.S.) have had the strongest (albeit still slow by comparison with previous slumps that were not medicated with austerity).

This "rip the bandage off" reasoning seems to be based on two flawed assumptions. One is the notion of "karma", of macro-economics as a morality play in which irresponsible partying must be paid off with suffering (oddly enough, never by the same people who most enjoyed the irresponsible partying) before the party can resume. The other assumption is that an economic system has one and only one natural, stable equilibrium point, to which it will return automatically whenever the hand of government is removed. As long as government keeps trying to stimulate the economy, we must be operating above the equilibrium and would be better off letting the economy fall to where it "wants" to be. But what if the same fundamental economy could have several different possible stable equilibria? You could have lots of people employed and spending money and supporting other people's jobs, or you could have very few people employed and spending money and supporting other people's jobs, and both of those would be stable situations. Which means it's plausibly a legitimate government goal to pick a happier equilibrium over an unhappier one.

But that would mean government has a legitimate role in managing the economy, and "keeping big business owners happy" isn't the only road to prosperity. Unthinkable.

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