Monthly Archives: August 2010

Quote (& Chart) Of The Day

From Ezra Klein:

“The revenue loss over the next 75 years just from extending the tax cuts for people making over $250,000 — the top 2 percent of Americans — would be about as large as the entire Social Security shortfall over this period,” write Kathy Ruffing and Paul N. Van de Water at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. “Members of Congress cannot simultaneously claim that the tax cuts for people at the top are affordable while the Social Security shortfall constitutes a dire fiscal threat.”

There are a whole host of issues with this approach, but I might consider this option… AS LONG as we change the name from “Social Security” to “Welfare From The Rich To Old People”.

Might as well call it what it is, right? Trying to refer to this program as “insurance” is getting tired.

Quote Of The Day

The Economist’s Babbage, on computing education:

That, for me, sums up the seductive intellectual core of computers and computer programming: here is a magic black box. You can tell it to do whatever you want, within a certain set of rules, and it will do it; within the confines of the box you are more or less God, your powers limited only by your imagination. But the price of that power is strict discipline: you have to really know what you want, and you have to be able to express it clearly in a formal, structured way that leaves no room for the fuzzy thinking and ambiguity found everywhere else in life. The computer is an invaluably remorseless master: harsh, sometimes to the point of causing you to tear your hair out, but never unfair.

As many bloggers and blog-readers are internet-adept nerds, I suspect that his piece will resonate with you as it did with me. As many of you may know, I’m an electrical engineer. But what many do not know (though it may hardly surprise) is that in college I chose to minor in philosophy. I did this because I’d had some exposure to philosophy in high school, and because I thought it would be a good way, being in the School of Liberal Arts, to meet women. Sadly, philosophy was not quite as blessed with the fairer sex as I’d hoped.

What am I waxing self-referential? Because computers, engineering, mathematics and philosophy are fundamentally similar. All work as systems of basically fixed rules, where you “build” products based upon the inputs and structure of your system. In engineering, it is materials and the laws of nature. In computers and digital electronics, it is all a complex structure for deciding rules for how to make transistors turn on or off. In mathematics, as in philosophy, it is starting with premises (or mathematical axioms) and deriving from those premises and the laws of logic/math a conclusion.

What weaves these disciplines together is not the inputs and structure — it is the mental process of working within the structure. Much of the educational system involves teaching a student what to think. Math and philosophy teach a student HOW to think, and for students less suited to the abstract, subjects like engineering or computer science provide a much more tangible feedback loop than math.

Though I hadn’t realized it in advance, engineering and philosophy are not so unnaturally paired. In fact, I had signed up for one class without realizing I hadn’t completed the prerequisites, and when I spoke to the professor to drop it, he cautioned that often engineers to very well in philosophy, because we’ve already internalized many of the rules. When I later took a class on “Introduction to Logic”, I exactly saw his point: everything we were doing was a slight variant on what I’d covered in digital logic courses 2 years before.

Sadly, I think this is a portion of education that is widely overlooked. These are the very building blocks of reason. These are the skills that can help humans weed the truth from the bullshit. A good grounding in logic and critical thought might help see through corporate marketing campaigns — and of the bread and circuses of American politics. It makes one wonder if there’s a reason these subjects are neglected – it makes us all better subjects.

The New Prison Ray of Death

Some things you just cannot make up:

A device designed to control unruly inmates by blasting them with a beam of intense energy that causes a burning sensation is drawing heat from civil rights groups who fear it could cause serious injury and is “tantamount to torture.”

The mechanism, known as an “Assault Intervention Device,” is a stripped-down version of a military gadget that sends highly focused beams of energy at people and makes them feel as though they are burning. The Los Angeles County sheriff’s department plans to install the device by Labor Day, making it the first time in the world the technology has been deployed in such a capacity.

Maybe this is the sort of thing that Ray Bradbury had in mind when he assessed that government was too big. I’d certainly rather have tax dollars going toward exploring space than coming up with new way to control inmates likely in jail for violating drug laws.

Even Death Penalty Supporters Urge Ohio Gov. Strickland to Spare Kevin Keith

Its one thing when anti-death penalty activists petition a governor to pardon or commute a sentence of an individual scheduled for execution but quite another when death penalty supporters agree. Kevin Keith is scheduled to be executed by the state of Ohio on September 15th for the 1994 murders of 2 adults and 1 child; a crime he has maintained he did not commit. Despite exculpatory evidence which points away from Keith and despite Gov. Ted Strickland’s (D) own public comments where he said he found “certain aspects” of the case “troubling,” the parole board voted 8-0 in favor of executing Keith.

Fortunately, the parole board’s decision is non-binding; Gov. Strickland or perhaps SCOTUS can still do the right thing and halt the execution until the more ‘troubling’ aspects of this case can be fairly reconsidered.

According to this article in The Guardian, among those who are urging Gov. Strickland to halt the execution are more than 30 former judges and prosecutors including former Ohio Attorney General and death penalty supporter Jim Petro (R) and former Ohio Supreme Court Justice Herbert Brown.

Jim Petro in a letter to Gov. Strickland:

“I am gravely concerned that the state of Ohio may be on the verge of executing an innocent person”

Justice Herbert Brown in another letter:

“There is a mass of exculpatory evidence, suppressed evidence, faulty eyewitness identification and forensic reports that support legitimate claims of innocence”

Innocence Network President and Clinical Professor at the University of Wisconsin Law School Keith A. Findley, while likely biased against the death penalty also wrote to persuade the governor:

Like so many of the wrongful conviction cases, tunnel vision by police, prosecutors, and even courts appears to have played a central role in Mr. Keith’s case and his ultimate conviction.

[…]

The evidence of these pernicious effects of tunnel vision, coupled with the compelling new evidence in Mr. Keith’s case, suggests that Ohio might be on the verge of executing an innocent man […]

Keith’s defense team, in a statement following the parole board’s decision points out that Gov. Strickland signed a bill into law which prohibited some of the very techniques investigators used against their client. Unfortunately for Keith, the banning of these faulty procedures came too late.

Yes, the case of Kevin Keith is indeed troubling. Maybe if a few thousand more can petition Gov. Strickland, he will be even more troubled to the point to where he will end this madness (click here to sign the petition).

In other troubling death penalty news, a federal judge has denied Troy Davis’ innocence claim despite 7 of 9 eyewitnesses recanting their testimonies against him.

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