Random Musing

Discovered a really marvelous fanfiction — unfortunately it’s too long to fit in the margin. Fermat’s last fanfic? “Harry Potter and the Method of Rationality.” Witty, educational, not your ‘stereotypical’ fanfic at all.

It got me thinking… What are the boundaries of fanfiction? Are there predefined categories: anime, books, comics, etc. that must be adhered to?

Let’s find out. I think I’ll try writing a fanfic on the 2010 Official Kansas State Highway Map. Just to see if I can.

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Senatorial Earmark Irony

The news from Washington today is that the Senate came closer to (temporarily) banning earmarks than it has in years.

39 yea, 56 nay, 5 not voting.

But what’s this? “S.Amdt. 4697 to S. 510 (FDA Food Safety Modernization Act).”

So… the attempt to ban earmarks — unrelated, random amendments that funnel money to special interests — is, itself, an unrelated, random amendment.

The only way this could have been more ironic would be if someone moved to amend the amendment so it included an earmark.

Sigh. Maybe someday someone will seriously start thinking about a federal anti-hog-house amendment. And they’ll propose it as an amendment to some bill to, I dunno, establish an S.P. Dinsmoor national historic site.

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Time to play Don Quixote again and take another useless sally against a dull stodgy windmill….

Letter to the editor in the local paper today:

Banning earmarks won’t reduce debt
So the Republicans have started their deficit-reduction plan. They chose to start by eliminating earmarks. Wow.
The last I heard, earmarks accounted for less than 1 percent of the budget. What a bold move.
If Republicans were serious about reducing the debt, they would look at eliminating the tax cuts for the people who don’t need them, and think about ending the two wars that are the biggest drain on our economy.
I am sick and tired of hearing the old saying that lower taxes produce jobs. If that were true, we should be inundated with jobs, because the tax cuts have been in place the past eight years.
Also, does the earmark elimination include all the schools, roads, libraries and infrastructure that we are paying for in Iraq? Or do we help Iraq and yank the rug out from under a state in America?
If you were wondering how the Republicans were going to govern, there was a pretty good indicator in Tuesday’s newspaper (“Moran says he’d extend tax cuts, not jobless aid,” Nov. 16 Eagle). Sen.-elect Jerry Moran was sending out a “Merry Christmas” greeting. Was it for you?

Read more: http://www.kansas.com/2010/11/19/1595421/letters-to-the-editor-on-earmarks.html#ixzz15m50f1FU

To which I reply, Neener, neener,neener! No, not really. It’s this:

OK, OK, so earmarks are a tiny fraction of the federal budget (November 19 Eagle Letter). You’ve got to look at the larger picture.

A system that allows some senator to hold the entire federal budget hostage to a single bridge can only be described as broken. And let’s not forget that when those wonderful earmarked over-, under- and by- passes eventually require maintenance, it’ll be the _state_ government that pays for repairs, not the feds.

But the real corrosive power of pork-barreling isn’t in the budget. It’s in the voting booth. If congressman A sticks some enormously stupid earmark into a bill about apple pie and motherhood, and congressman B votes against it, what will you hear during the next campaign? That’s right: “Congressman B voted against apple pie and motherhood!”

Admittedly, with this two year moratorium, Republicans are fighting earmarks in a timid, half-hearted way — and why wouldn’t they? It’s what keeps most of them in office. So we’re going to have to help them stay honest. That’s why I support a federal anti hog house amendment. It just says “every bill shall be about one clearly stated topic, and all amendments to it must be relevant to that topic.” That’s it. Tear down the sty where the pork lives. Step one in a long trail to fiscal responsibility. After all, a billion dollars here, a billion dollars there, and eventually you’re talking about real money.

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Interstate highways: Porky all the way!

When Dwight Eisenhower first tried to get congress to ok his interstate highway plan in 1955, it failed in the house of representatives with 292 ‘nay’s and just 123 ‘yea’s. The next year, the same congress passed an essentially identical bill 388 to 19. Nearly a hundred congressmen changed their votes. The difference? Pork.

In September 1955, the Bureau of Public Roads published the “Yellow Book”. It showed how interstate highways might go around and through 100 major metropolitan areas — essentially, it was a whole book full of earmarks. It didn’t hurt that the new bill raised the federal share of construction costs to 90%. Who could turn down practically free roads? Every congressman whose city showed up in the yellow book voted ‘aye’ except one. He didn’t get re-elected.

It took over a decade for reality to set in, as people came to realize that those neat black lines on the maps translated into huge, ugly, gridlocked walls of concrete — expensiv concrete. Congress proved to be a lot more interested in building freeways than in maintaining them, and states and cities were left to fund repairs as best they could.

Would the interstate highway system have been built without those earmarks? Maybe. Many states had already built turnpikes. The Pennsylvania turnpike, in existence since 1940, had wildly exceeded traffic expectations, and was already well on the way to paying for itself. So perhaps states would have built a national turnpike network on their own, without federal assistance and without broad taxation. But much of the midwest was and still is thinly populated, and the economics of turnpikes don’t add up quite as much as they do on the more densely settled coasts. Without that 90% bribe from the feds, there would probably be a lot fewer freeways in the middle of the country.

There would also be a lot fewer freeways crisscrossing the urban landscape. Big cities would, presumably, have built turnpikes, too. That would allow for the same scrutiny of ROI (return on investment) usually faced by mass transit. And, while it’s hard to be sure, it seems likely those expensive urban turnpikes would come up short in the comparison, and cities across the country would still have viable public transit systems. Maybe.

So the next time you find yourself on a freeway, thank pork. And when the road turns into a potholed, gridlocked mess, thank pork. And the next time you gas up your car, and find yourself gasping at the price, thank pork.

(Note: source for most of the facts in this essay is ‘Divided Highways’ by Tom Lewis)

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The word “freeway” has got to be one of the most masterful pieces of misdirection of all time.

The term was supposedly coined to describe the fact that the road was “free” of annoying obstructions like stop signs and cross streets (and, in the midwest, scenery). But the word ‘free’ is normally used in the monetary sense: It’s free; doesn’t cost anything. So when we see the word freeway, some little piece of our brains goes “free! That means it didn’t cost anything!” We override this foolish voice, of course, but we are still left with the gut impression that freeways _must_ be cost effective.

The United States’ method of funding highway construction doesn’t help things any. It’s hard enough to viscerally connect the cost of filling the gasoline tank with our driving habits. Freeway construction costs are so far removed from every-day experiences that it takes a pretty strong effort of will to remember: a large chunk of the cost of that tankful goes to road construction. Now, ideally, that gasoline tax would provide 100% of the cost of building and maintaining all the nation’s streets, highways and freeways. But it doesn’t. Things as varied as vehicle registration fees, property and sales taxes may be applied to road projects. It’s not that politicians are _trying_ to conceal freeway construction costs. It’s just… so easy to get away with, you know?

So, in Wichita, KS, we have the paradox of a billion dollar freeway project proceeding while potholes on surface streets go unrepaired for want of a few millions. We have people arguing that $39-$56 million for a comprehensive bus system is “expensive,” but $250 million to rebuild a single freeway intersection isn’t. In other cities, people who are supposedly conservatives complain bitterly about the fact that mass transit systems don’t collect enough in fares to cover their operational costs, while utterly ignoring the fact that urban freeways collect _no_fares_at_all_.

Something is clearly wrong here. But how to fix it?

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Review of “I.O.U.”, by John Lanchester

“I.O.U. ¬†Why Everyone Owes Everyone and No One Can Pay” by John Lanchester (Simon & Schuster).
Hot off the press and on the 2-week shelf at the local library, this book sets itself the goal of explaining the 2008 mortgage crisis so everyone can understand it. Does a pretty good job, too. Lanchester has a wonderful wry sense of humor that he deploys every once in a while to hold your attention. Example: “…if it wasn’t, well, then, the head of the Bank would have to… would have to… would have to jolly well write a letter to the chancellor to explain why it wasn’t.” Veddy British, wot, wot? Even the chapter titles: “The ATM Moment”, “Rocket Science”, “Enter the Geniuses”, “The Mistake”, “Funny Smells”, etc. are witty. Great mnemonics, too. “The ATM Moment” introduces the crisis with the moment Rakel Stefansdottir found her ATM card no longer worked. “Rocket Science” and “Enter the Geniuses” describe the flawed mathematical models that were supposed to manage financial risk, and points out how few “experts” actually understood what the models even were: “Gaussian copula” — the term alone sounds vaguely pornographic. Chapters titled “Boom and Bust” and “The Mistake” pinpoint precisely how supposedly intelligent bankers could so horribly underestimate the probability of a systemic collapse, and “Funny Smells” describes the failure of regulators to squelch the madness.
So, in a nutshell, the problem started when bankers were seduced by mathematics. They thought, with the right formulas, they could quantify risk — predict the future, as it were. Duh. They pushed for ridiculous amounts of deregulation and, astonishingly, got it. They took a reasonably clever (if somewhat sleazy) idea: the CDO (Collateralized Debt Obligation), and squared it, creating a ticking economic time bomb. In short, they got greedy, and took advantage of other peoples’ greed and credulity to sell off hideously dangerous investments behind the mask of top-of-the-lien (hey, look! a typun*!) AAA bond ratings.
Lanchester reserves his most scathing comments for those who make a religion of laissez-faire economics, citing research by Kanemann and Tversky that proves — mathematically proves, I say! the falsity of the “…central shibboleth of contemporary academic economics. The assumption of rationality…” ¬†Intelligent markets, pah! Bubble-prone, charlatan-laced, hyper-emotional, dysfunctional markets, is more like it.
In the end, Lanchester’s prescription is simple. Remember that, if the system allows room for abuse, someone will abuse it. If the system makes it possible to hide dishonesty and criminal antics, someone will do just that. And, for whatever reason, the human race will always breed greedy grasping bastards who don’t have the brains to realize when enough is enough.
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Just speed up Amtrak, already

I just spent a few minutes looking at the Midwest High Speed Rail Association’s web page: http://www.midwesthsr.org/

They (We)’re doing it again. We want the biggest, fastest, coolest technology we can find. That’s how we ended up with our hugely over-designed, over-loaded interstate highway system. Let’s try some short-range thinking.

Huge railroad mergers have happened in recent decades. Companies have, essentially, parallel lines all over the place. For instance, BNSF barely uses the old Southwest Chief route (Chicago-KC-Raton Pass-Albuquerque) any more because they have a more southerly route they’ve put all their money into double-tracking. In fact, New Mexico has already had to take over track rights to prevent abandonment. Suppose — just suppose, the Feds snagged that track from BNSF and started upgrading it in place — not to bullet train standards, but to, say, 110 mph minimum speeds across MO, KS, CO, and NM. Suddenly Amtrak is a lot faster than driving. No, it’s not as fast as an airplane, but, then again, nobody ever flew a train into a skyscraper.

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