Politics

Dealing with a pandemic in the post-internet world

There’s a lot of talk about the coming threat of Avian H5N1 flu, how it might kill many millions, far beyond the 1918 flu and others, because of how much people travel in the modern world. Others worry about bioterrorism.

Plans are underway to deal with it, but are they truly thinking about some of the tools the modern world has that it didn’t have in 1918 which might make up for our added risks? We have the internet, and a lot of dot-coms, both living and dead, created all sorts of interesting tools for living in the world without having to leave your house.

In the event of an outbreak, we’ll have limited vaccine available, if there’s much at all. Everybody will want it, and society will have to prioritize who gets what. While some choices are obvious — medical staff and other emergency crews — there may be other ideas worth considering.

Today, a significant fraction of the population can work from home, with phone, computer and internet. The economy need not shut down just because people must avoid congregating. Plans should be made, even at companies that prefer not to allow telecommuting, to be able to switch to it in an emergency.

Schools might have to close but education need not stop. We can easily devote TV channels in each area to basic curriculum for each grade. Individual schools can modify that for students who have internet access or even just a DVD player or VCR. For example, teachers could teach their class to a camera, and computers can quickly burn DVDs for distribution. Students can watch the DVDs, pause them and phone questions to the teacher. (However, ideally most students are able to make use of the live lectures on TV, and can phone their particular teacher, or chat online, to ask questions.) Parents, stuck at home would also help their children more.

Delivery people (USPS, UPS etc.) would be high in line for vaccination to keep goods flowing to people in their homes. You can of course buy almost anything online already. Systems like Webvan, for efficient grocery ordering and delivery could be brought back up, with extra vaccinated delivery drivers making rounds of every street.

Of course not everybody has a computer, but that need not be a problem. With so many people at home, volunteers would come forward who did have broadband. They would take calls from those who do not have computers and do their computer tasks for them, making sure they got in their orders for food and other supplies. Of course all food handlers would need to be vaccinated and use more sterile procedures.  read more »

Sermon on the Mount, as annotated by George W. Bush

George W. Bush names Jesus as the philosopher he admires the most. The most central of the teachings of Jesus can be found in the Sermon on the Mount.

I have come upong Bush's edited version of the sermon, amended to make the dictates of his Saviour easier to follow in these modern times.

Enjoy here in the Sermon on the Mount (George Bush Version)

Let's teach creation science in the schools

Creationists regularly complain that schools teach evolution improperly and should also offer creation science as an alternative. They went so far as to push one school board to put stickers on biology textbooks remindng students that evolution is a theory and should be critically viewed.

Well, surprisingly, I have some agreement with them. Evolution, like Quantum Mechanics, gravity and others is indeed a theory. And in proper science all theories are subject to intense scrutiny and testing. They are required to make predictions which can turn out false, and those predictions are tested with repeatable experimentation and observation.

So now I wonder, why if we give them their way — sort of — and mandate the teaching of “creation science” in the shools. Except I mean a rigourous, scientific treatment, by non-religious teachers, where a lesson about science and bad science is taught. Other examples of bad science should also be covered.

Students should be challenged to consider the predictions, past and present, of the creation “scientists” and whether they have come true. They should learn what happens when people conclude the results in advance and try to bend the facts to fit them. It happens in all areas of science, and a good education trains you to identify when it is happening, and when you are doing it yourself. They should of course also learn the predictions of evolution and many other theories and how they have been tested and verified. They should learn about theories that had supporters but then failed their tests and thus fell from favour.

Why creation science and not every other bogus fake science? Well, studies show it is probably the one most widely believed by the public, though psychic powers, alien abductions and others also rank highly. So as the #1 it deserves a place in our curriculum, because the critical examination of bad science deserves a place.

Indeed, for a student not actually going into science, it could well be that learning to understand bad science would be the most important thing they take out of the program. They will almost assuredly never need to calculate the velocity of a spherical monkey hanging from a massless rope over a frictionless pulley. But they will encounter bad science and have to deal with it.

(I think the same is true in math for non-professionals. One of the most important things they should learn is how statistics are misused.)

So give them what they want, and then see them beg to take it back.

Henchman law for vote fraud?

David Brin, whom I debated on the topic of Transparency yesterday, has been putting forward for some time the general idea of a henchman's amnesty law. Namely that, in the event of a criminal conspiracy, the first underling who whistle-blows can get some level of amnesty, witness protection and/or cash reward. A serious reward, in the millions. Such a rule would make it harder to pick henchmen, since in effect you're making them a millionaire if they turn on you.
Indeed, you have to worry that the very reason they might be joining you so easily is they plan to rat you out for the millions.

We have had a program for whistleblowers on companies that try to cheat the government, with some success, but I might suggest a good place to try a henchman law would be vote fraud. Combined with very stiff penalties (including life in prison for major vote fraud, which is effectively a coup d'etat) this should keep the conspiracies small, and less powerful.

Howoever, hacking of voting machines at the factory is a special type of vote fraud which could be done by a very few conspirators for a big result, so we still need voter verified ballots.

Of late, I've become curious about how readily we could, using certain encryption techniques, design a ballot system which would let you change or repudiate an already cast ballot, but still preserves the important principles of secret ballot. As you might guess, that's a challenge, since it seems inherent that if you can reverse a ballot you can know what it is. But it's possible some blinding algorithms might allow this.

Another option for mail-in ballots would be to provide each mail-in voter with two or more mail-in ballots. The ballots would be marked with a code, such as a red or green sticker. The voter would be told, through a secure and in-person channel, that one of the ballots is real and the others false. They must remember the colour of the true ballot. If they send in the ballot of the wrong colour, it also contains an encoded number that only the counting office is able to tell tags it as a bad ballot (and a sign of attempted voter coercion.)

The vote-coercer might have you send in all your ballots. One defence would be to have this void your vote. This allows vote coercers to use force or money to stop people from voting (which they already can do) but not to vote a particular way. Combined with my plan for secure internet voting it could allow one half of the secret ballot equation with votes cast over the internet.

Should we be able to perfect this, by finding a means for an audit trail on internet voting, this would, aside from saving much money, eliminate the problems of lines at the polls.

YA Call for preferential ballot

We see the talk of an America divided in 2, but in fact it's not. There are more viewpoints than that. Normally a 2 party system tends towards the middle, this election was unusual in having a larger than normal difference among the candidates.

But perhaps now is the time to take the Democratic energy and try to push it into a movement for real reform. Not ballot recounts, not crazy dreams that can never happen.

By that, I mean getting at least one state to move to a preferential ballot system, such as Australian "Instant Runoff," Approval or Cordorcet, with an unfortuantely complex additional rule for how to cast in the electoral college when done.

Reforming the electoral college is unlikely (though an interesting hack is discussed elsewhere in this blog). 3/4ths of states must ratify any change to the college, and the small states would need a big constitutional price in exchange for stripping themselves of the extra power they have in the college.

However, individual states can change how they select their electors through ballot resolution or legislative action. Entirely on the local level. Ballot resolution seems the simplest approach. The only thing standing in the way is that many voters get confused by instant runoff systems. Basic Condorcet is easy to understand, but the tiebreaker modifications are often hard to understand. Still, the Australians manage it.

The first effort will probably fail and only educate the public. Eventually, some state, probably a small one, will go over and have such a ballot. This in turn will start to educate the rest of the nation. The ideas, once understood, are good ideas, and will appeal to the populace. It's hard to argue against them.

However, the 2 major parties will _want_ to argue against them because they are bad for those parties. In many elections, there is somebody who won because there wasn't a preferential ballot. In particular, Bush in 2000 and (arguably) Clinton in 1992. (On the other hand, Bush the Elder arguably _lost_ because there was such a system, and thus might support it.)

That's why a ballot proposition is the right way to do this.  read more »

Tradesports and exit polls give early sign of Kerry victory

Idea futures are interesting, so I went to tradesports.com to buy Kerry Futures contracts, since I believe pre-election polling is notoriously poor in quality. They were trading at 43 for a contract that pays 100 if he wins, and that seemed a good buy. By the time I could buy them (slow site, overloaded) they were 50 but now they are at 71. The bidders clearly have developed a strong reversal of feeling.

One source is the exit polls. While U.S. media are not publishing them, the CBC in Canada has few viewers in the USA and has no reason not to, and the news is good for the Senator, particularly in Pennsylvania.

Many have argued that idea futures with real money on the line are very good predictors. However people also clearly follow the polls, which is why Bush led in those futures for most of the election race, and even up to just a few hours ago. Still, Bush went south in these long before other sources so they're a good source as far as that is concerned. And perhaps I made a few bucks. (Not a lot, they limit you to $250 credit card if you do instant signup.)

On the merits of the Electoral College

There has been much writing (including here) about problems with the Electoral College in the USA, and I've even proposed solutions such as a tiebreaking system for close votes. I also noted the amazing coincidence that in the 4 times the winner of the college lost the popular vote, 3 were the 3 times we had a son or granson of a President elected.

But I thought it might be worth exploring the merits of the college, even though most individuals want it abolished. (Though no smaller states want it abolished since it gives them disproportionate power.)

First of all, there is the "official" goal of using the college system. It requires the President, who must win a true majority of the college, to be popular in at least half, and probably more, of the country. The framers didn't want it to be possible for a candidate with extremely strong support in one particular region to win the Presidency.

Example: Say a candidate, coming from a particular region, had immense support in that region, getting 90% of the popular vote, and much lower support (10-25%) outside that region. Such a candidate could win the popular vote since all those votes in their own region would count, even though they are not a national candidate. To win the college, their "region" would have to contain half
the population of the USA.

(This is based on the traditional, but not required all-or-nothing allocation method, which states do because it makes candidates want very much to please them.)

I'm not a fan of some regions having more power than others because of the political legacy of how big states were. 2 senators for Wyoming and 2 for California is grossly unfair. However, the concept of federalism does require some protection for regions, so you don't get one region ruling the land at the expense of another, which can lead to seperatism.

Another benefit is election cost. Due to the college, candidates know to spend their election money only in undecided, "swing" states. As such, they can campaign with much less money. With a popular vote, or even a proportional electoral college, they would have to campaign everywhere. This of course has downsides in terms of fairness, but if they had to campaign everywhere they would have to raise even more money, and be more beholden to the special interests that gave it.

One reason votepair.org hasn't paired many voters

You may have heard of the vote-trading concept, where a voter in a "decided" state (whose vote will make no difference) who wishes to vote for a major candidate pairs up with a voter in a swing state who wants to vote for a minor candidate. The idea is they swap choices. The swing state minor party supporter votes for the major party candidate (typically Kerry this time) and has a chance at making a difference in the swing state. The decided state voter, facing a large likely margin in their own state, votes for the minor candidate, boosting the national popular vote total for that candidate, which is all minor party voters care about since they don't plan to win.

Sounds good, but as you will see at votepair.org, they have 19,700 waiting and only 2300 pairs matched up, so the vast bulk of eager Kerry supporters won't get to swap.

There are many reasons to explain this. Some are simple. There are many more Kerry supporters than minor party voters. There are many more people in decided states than in swing states. And of course some people may wonder how much to trust the honour system used in vote swapping. You are supposed to meet your counterpart, and judge that they aren't a republican trying to play tricks, though in theory there is not much for them to gain by doing so.

One problem is the trade offers a lot to the Kerry supporter -- trading away a meaningless vote that can't change the results for a precious vote in a swing state -- but offers effectively nothing to the minority voter, since it doesn't affect the vote total for the minority party. (Indeed, it may hurt the minority party's prospects in that state.) As such, you are only going to get people who were more than happy to vote Kerry anyway, as they now will feel they gained from the trade.

Of course, a real market in votes is illegal, as these orgs know, but you can't ignore the realities of what makes a market work.

As such, the sites should consider offering a larger trade. They should let minority voters set a price for their switch, which could be 1.5, 2 or even 3 minority votes in the decided states. Then both sides would gain and it could up the count. (Libertarians, who value deeply the concept of win-win contracts as a basis of society, would be particularly swayed by this, and they are one of the largest minority parties.)

The existing 2300 might still be willing to do it for just one vote (remember, they probably were considering doing it for nothing.) Others could ask higher and higher "prices." Of course ask too high and you won't get anything, the voters will be allocated first to those asking less.

Yes, you can do a 1 for 1.5 swap, and I think that's the easiest and fairest. In this case each minority supporter is given two people to arrange swap with, one fully, and the other 50%, in that this other is expected to have an identical 50% deal with another supporter of the same minority candidate.

(Ethically, after you arrange things with the first voter in a 50% partnership, you would need to tell them if the 2nd voter fell through, and get it resassigned. Ditto for a 2 for 1 exchange.)

Senator is a poor stepping stone to President

I have often heard it said that being a Senator is a good stepping stone to President of the USA. Research shows this to be really false, and that's bad news for Kerry. Oh, many sitting senators run for President, but for over 120 years, they have rarely and barely won.

The one exception that proves the rule is John F. Kennedy, the only sitting senator of the modern political era to be elected President. And barely so -- there are many who still say JFK stole the election, and in any event it was one of the closest in history before Bush/Gore. JFK was also a congressman, and he sat out a few years of his Senate career due to back problems.

Before Kennedy we have to go back 84 years, and out of the modern era, to Warren Harding, who won handily from the Senatem then died in office. And before that you go to Benjamin Harrison, who lost the popular vote but won the electoral vote.

The first century of U.S. history has many Senator->President transitions, which may have created this myth.

Some suggest that the reason is that a Senator has a long voting record which can be used against him or her, and that does appear to be the case. But the suggestion it's a good stepping stone is false.

(Also worth noting that Kennedy, Harding and Harrison did not defeat sitting Presidents. Defeating sitting Presidents is of course hard to do, but Carter and Clinton, who did it, were both Governors.) I didn't research enough to find out how far back you have to go to find a Senator unseating the President.  read more »

Who has been brilliant at Presidenting?

One of the thing that annoys Bush's opponents so much is that Bush does not appear to be the sharpest tool in the shed, and we feel the President should be so. I talked with Bush when he was running, and he wasn't as stupid as he appears on TV under all that scruity (nobody is, everybody reported that Quayle wasn't), but he's not at Clinton's level, for example.

In spite of sharing this feeling, I challenge people to look back in history for the Presidents who were smart at "presidenting." While there have been smart Presidents, the truth is the most admired presidents (in the modern era) seem to be admired not for how clever they were, but for their boldness or the strength of their convictions and leadership.

Intelligence, the voting public seems to feel, is not a top quality for the President, though his advisors should have lots of it. The President's job is to have his vision and decide which of his smart advisors' advice best implements that vision. The vision itself probably can't be all that smart, since the general public has to grasp it and follow it and approve of it.

A stupid President isn't good. He can be fooled by his advisors. He can be fooled or fool himself into thinking that you can invade an occuply a country simply because you have vastly superior miltary force. But smart Presidents can also make stupid decisions on the hard problems. (Americans should know the USA could never have existed if military power were enough to hold a territory.)

We keep an ideal of a philosopher-President like Jefferson, but we haven't had one for a while, we may never have one in the current electoral system. We yearn for President Bartlet perhaps. We like to hear how Clinton was on top of all his advisors told him, but what do you point to and say "This, that was done by Clinton or Carter or Nixon or whoever ... this was really smart."

The Democrats may not understand this. They don't understand how, with Bush shown to be a bit dim every day, he still gets half the country on his side. It's because it's not what that half of the country is looking for.

Will a party have the guts to cancel its convention?

Much of the coverage I read last week of the Democratic Convention harped on how the conventions no longer mean anything. The platform is decided in advance. The candidate is decided in advance. Yes, there is lots of networking and schmoozing and building relationships for the elections of the future, but how much is accomplished in the here and now?

Not a lot. And I've seen estimates placing the cost of the convention at well over $150 million. $60 million for security alone. Other costs paid for by the city, and of course the party and its members and the other 35,000 attendees must easily spend 50 million or more on travel, hotel, food, facilities etc. The networks covered 3 hours of it. Cable covered more, but a lot of it was remarkably boring speeches by local politicians saying the same thing to an often mostly empty convention hall. The hall was full for the big speeches. The protesters were relegated to a distant free-speech-zone, in an aggregious violation of the 1st amendment.

All that to do nothing except put on a show for the cameras? What if a party had the guts to declare they would not hold a fancy convention like that. They would conduct the formal votes on platform and candidate by mail.

Of course, they would still have a big acceptance speech and related big speeches, and the networks would still cover them (if only because of equal time laws relating to the coverage of the other party's convention.) The faithful would watch in local gatherings, and the hall in Kerry's home town would still be filled with thousands of cheering Democrats, just not delegates.

Why? Well, first of all, anywhere from 50 to 100 million to spend on the campaign where it matters -- swiing states. Not chump change. A secondly, the bold step of leading by example, not just by words. "We don't waste 100 million of taxpayers money and shut down a town just so we can put on a fake show that rubber stamps a result worked out months ago. We don't waste our own money. We want to focus on substance, not flash."

Deeds mean a lot more than speeches. Showing up the other party would be a powerful message for the first party with the guts to do this. One would still get airtime for the introduction and acceptance speeches. And later, when it means something, have a lower-key convention to focus on real issues like the party platform, and networking among party members. And do a lot online.

Yes something would be lost, but at what cost is it kept?

Surveys and actual polls differ widely

In Canada, polls leading up to the election all the way to yesterday showed the Liberal and Conservative parties neck and neck. Yesterday's poll had them effectively tied in popular vote with anybody's guess as to who might form a government, presumably a minority one.

Now real results are in, and while not complete we see this:

 Overall Election Results
Party Elected Leading Total Vote Share
LIB 127 11 138 37.43%
CON 85 8 93 29.36%
BQ 52 2 54 12.76%
NDP 17 5 22 15.15%
NA 1 0 1 .04%
OTH 0 0 0 5.26%
308 seats
A remarkable difference and clear victory for the Liberals. As noted, we have seen this before. Surveys measure only "what people who bother to talk to pollsters want to tell pollsters." In spite of their claims of small margins of error, they can be very, very wrong.

It's important to not just learn when not to trust polls, but also to ask why, even when we see this sort of error time and time again, we continue to trust polls. We grasp at any information, even what we know to be unreliable.

It causes huge events. I remember in the 80s the provincial Liberal party seeing polls that showed a comfortable majority, so they -- based on the polls -- called an election. And were soundly trounced. (In part, in Heisenberg style, because people were annoyed they called an election for no other reason than their good poll numbers.)

So the idea to promote here: We often hear complaints from the "ordinary" folks that they don't like having to take all that Math in school because it will not be relevant to their life.

One course that everybody should take, and which is relevant, is a course on how to understand statistics and the misuse of statistics. Even if they came out of it not know a chi-square from a hole in the ground, they might be able to tell when stats can't be trusted. One hopes.

Is Versed being used for torture?

Here’s my most disturbing idea yet. There are drugs which erase memory (or rather block the formation of memories while they are used.) It seems disturbingly probable to me that these might be being used for torture. Espcially considering the light of new memos giving the US the green light for torture.

If you don’t know of this class of drugs, you may have heard of “Roofies” the “date rape” drug which have been used to both make a victim pliable and also to make her forget the rape. There are stronger drugs, such as Versed, which are used in surgery.

The surgical use is quite disturbing. They want to perform a procedure on you while you will be somewhat conscious, but it is painful and upsetting and will leave mental scars — so they put you through the pain but block you from remembering it.

However, it must be obvious to those wishing to do torture that this could be applied here too. Apply the drug, then apply torture which leaves few permanent marks. The victim would awaken unaware they had been tortured or what they had confessed to. They could not testify later about their torture, they would not even know to.

It’s hard not to think that this would be a more “humane” form of torture, in the same way the surgical use of the drugs is humane. After all, you just want the information, why leave the victim with psychic scars, as there always are from torture. This is frightening because it might make the public much more accepting of torture. And on top of that, how will we ever find out if torture is going on? Only from the torturers themselves.

This is just the start of a trend. Tools like “brain fingerprinting” already exist which cause no pain but examine your brain to find out if you remember something you are being shown, or if it’s the first time you are seeing it. People have already suggested this is so benign as to be suitable for airport screening!

I predict we’ll see newer and “better” torture and interrogation techniques in the near future. Better brain scans. Polygraphs that actually work. More powerful drugs that affect not just memory but compliance. Perhaps eventually nanomachines that reach in and target brain centers to create compliance.

Some of these may already exist — though I think not too many or our intelligence communities would be doing a better job on terrorism than they are.

But they will exist. How will we as a society cope with them? We already seem willing to forget about the prohibitions on torture in the constitution and international law. We’ll pretend the prohibitions don’t even exist for these new forms.

The only way to avoid them will be to work soon for strong laws and eventually an explicit constitutional amendment protecting the right of privacy in our thoughts. And that will be a long time coming.

Update: More stories of Versed and other memory drugs in my new memory tag.

Hand Iraq to Sheikh Hamad of Qatar

Of course the Iraqis have not enjoyed having an American Military Governor, but are they ready now for a U.S. pullout? Here's an alternative.

The most remarkable man I have read about in the Arab world is Sheikh Hamad, the Emir of Qatar. How about giving him temporary power with a later handoff date to an Iraqi parliament. There's not a lot of coverage about him on the Web, but consider the following.

His family has been an absolute monarchy for a century. In 1995, however, he deposed his father in a family-supported takeover to become the new young Emir.

In just a few years since then he has:


  • Spread democracy in much of his country, with an elected legislature and elected local officials.
  • Given the vote to women, and enabled many freedoms for them, including freedom of dress. Education for girls is mandatory, women make up the majority of students in the national university. However, his people are Wahabi style conservatives, and there is still much repression of women, by our standards.
  • Disbanded his government's information ministry, and funded, with a hands-off no-censorship approach, Al-Jazeera and other free press.
  • Invested heavily in education for the Qatari, giving grants to U.S. universities like Cornell to get them to build branch campuses in Qatar.

Now he's still a monarch, and has kept a lot of power, and it's not all sweetness and light by any stretch, but the above record is one I find remarkable. Absolute rulers voluntarily giving their people the vote is rare in history. And of course it's easier when you have billions of oil revenue and you get to take your cut.

Of course Qatar is a strong U.S. ally now (though he refused Powell's requests that he muzzle Al-Jazeera during the war) and has some resentment in the Arab world for that role. But if I can imagine any Arab leader who might be trusted to take the temporary reigns of a country, and be trusted to try to reform it in the best interests of the people and then be trusted to leave, his record makes him top my list. He is Sunni, which may be an issue for the Iraqi majority.

Of course, my knowledge of him is sketchy. You don't find a lot on the web. I would like to know more. But if he has the potential to solve the problem (though he might well not want the job) he should be looked at.

McCain-Kerry Ticket

Many have seen talk of a proposed Kerry-McCain ticket, since they are longtime friends, and while McCain has been a loyal GOP member and endorsed the President, it's well know he is no real fan of Bush.

McCain has said he would not take the Democrat's VP nomination and no wonder. What's in it for him except a chance at the Vice Presidency? He would lose his Senate seat and probably never regain it. His old party would disown him and brand him a traitor. The Democrats would never nominate him for President when Kerry's term was over. Why trade Senator for a chance at VP and the end of your political career?

Another, much more radical suggestion comes to mind. McCain-Kerry. This seems like a ticket that would win. The only question is whether more Democrats would bolt from the movement by not voting, voting Nader or trying to run a backup Democrat (Edwards, Dean, etc.) than Republicans would switch to the bipartisan ticket of McCain & Kerry.

I think this ticket could win, and has the best chance of defeating Bush of any ticket that might happen. For those in the "Anybody but Bush in 2004" camp, this would be the reason to support it.

But would more ordinary democrats support it? The machinations required would be large but I believe workable. (Many delegates to the Dem Convention are already committed to vote for Kerry or another.)

McCain would have to agree to compromises, to agree to be a bipartisan President -- just Democratic enough to keep the Democrats on board, and Republican enough to win over the moderate Republicans under-thrilled with Bush, the ones he had supporting him against Bush last time. McCain is a man of principle, he would keep promises he made, I believe.

He would promise to do some Democrat items, and back off on Republican ones. (For example, abortion, supreme court appointments and a few other items.) He might even promise to resign at some point in his term, or only run one term.

McCain gets the brass ring -- he gets to be President, and get rid of Bush. That's worth risking your political career over. Kerry gets to be VP in a White House that promises to give a lot of duties to the VP, and he becomes the presumptive nominee for President after the McCain-Kerry administration is done.

The alternative is a 50% (probably less) chance of being President, and a 50% chance of 4 more years of GWB.

How can the US have been a player in new Iraqi constitution?

The new constitution of Iraq says:

Article 7.

A) Islam is the official religion of the State and is to be considered a source of legislation. No law that contradicts the universally agreed tenets of Islam, the principles of democracy, or the rights cited in Chapter Two of this Law may be enacted during the transitional period. This Law respects the Islamic identity of the majority of the Iraqi people and guarantees the full religious rights of all individuals to freedom of religious belief and practice.

This constitution was signed by Iraqis, but can anybody doubt that the USA played a large role in bringing it to be, a role beyond toppling the Saddam government?

How can this be legal. No agents of the USA are permitted to take actions respecting the establishment of any religion. The 1st amendment does not just say "In the united states." I would say that US agents must play no role in creating foreign governments which have established churches.

The Iraqis, on their own and soverign, may decide to have an official religion. But they are not on their own here. I have no doubt it was Iraqi desires which led to the introduction of this article, and that the US probably didn't want it.

But the US is required to not just not want it. They are constitutionally forbidden from playing any part in it, I would say. Besides, the whole point of the 1st amendement is it doesn't matter what even the majority of individuals want with regards to religion, they are not to be given their way. It doesn't just say "in the USA." No agents of congress, including the military, may engage in this.

Of course, all this means is somebody could sue in US court that the US government violated the 1st amendemnt. It's not clear what remedy could be granted them.

Political action in anger

The recent attacks in spain appear to have affected the outcome of the election. Some say the voters rejected the pro-US stand of the former government. Others say they rejected the botched handling of the early investigation. Whatever reason, it seems the terrorist attacks altered the election, since the government was considered fairly solid before, and experienced quite the upset.

This, and the PATRIOT act in the USA convince me that to defend against the emotional response we all feel to terrorism (that being its goal) we should consider constitutional amendments to limit political action in times of great anger and emotion.

This amendment would first set to declare a major violent event -- a terrorist attack, or the start or major escalation of war hostilities within the country. The supreme court would get to declare when such an event had taken place.

Then the following rules would apply:

a) Should the event take place within one week of an election, said election shall be delayed by 2 weeks, such delay to be done no more than twice.

b) Any law passed by congress within 30 days of the event which significantly relates to the event, including any law relating to expansion of police or military powers shall remain in force for no more than 6 months. After 5 months congress may elect to renew or redraft the law.

On Nader running and third parties

I've been reading a number of pieces, both before and after, on the evil of Ralph Nader running for office. The arguments for the harm that could come to Nader's cause if
he "spoils" the election are possibly quite valid. I doubt Nader is
unaware of them; perhaps is he more aware of them than anybody.

But I continue to find great dismay in those who tell him not to
run. Perhaps it is my perspective as a non-citizen of this fine
country, since in my country, and many others, strong third parties
are common, and it is common for them to change the outcome of
an election.

The argument to Nader seems to say, "You should not run because you
might make a difference." In this case a difference other than the
one he wants to make.

But with this philosophy, that third voices may only be heard in
U.S. politics when hearing them won't actually make a difference, the
U.S. will never hear more than 2 voices, and indeed 2 similar voices.
(There was a nice paper on Dave's mailing list not too long ago which
demonstrated how a 2 party system pushes both candidates to the middle.)

Exercise your political will, you tell Nader, only when it can make
no difference. If you ever get popular enough to actually alter the course of
an election, back off.  read more »

Solving the electoral tie problem

In 2000, the Florida Presidential election ended up in a tie. Many people get offended at that remark, because they don't think of elections as being compatible with ties, they insist that their candidate really won.

However, to scientists, you have a tie when the results differ by less than the margin of error. And I refer not simply to the margin of error from the problems in the voting machines, but a much more bizarre margin caused by political pressure to interpret the results in different ways.

This is a curse because if you get a close result, there will be tremendous political and financial captial spent to try to push the results one way or another by redefining the rules. It's an unstable situation, solved that time only by damaging the surpreme court by forcing it to make such partisan rulings.

How to avoid this? One of the causes of the problem is that almost all states decide to give all their electoral votes to the winner of their state, rather than apportioning them. One reason they do this is that it makes the state a bigger prize in the election, and so the candidate works harder to please the state. (This is the same factor, as they will also work like crazy in a tie to be the prevailing party.)

To solve this I propose a slightly different formula for allocating the electoral votes. I'll flesh it out with 2 candiates in a state with 50 votes and 10M voters.

If one candidate gets, say, 51% of the vote (5.1M votes or more) then give them all the electoral votes. This, as before, keeps the candidate very interested in winning the state and pleasing its voters. If a candidate gets under 49%, they get zero as before.

If they get between 49% and 51%, apportion the votes on the pro-rata portion of this region. For example, if both candidates get 50%, they split the votes, 25 each. If one candidate gets 4.92M votes and the other 5.08M, we see 5 votes for the first candidate and 45 for the 2nd.

What this means is that if, by recounting or re-interpeting, you can add 4,000 votes to your total, you win one whopping electoral vote.

So it's worth fighting and recounting a bit, but not going crazy, because you aren't going to change the results a lot no matter what you do.

Yes, this means Gore and Bush would have split Florida's votes and Gore won the presidency, but of course it could easily benefit the other side under different circumstances.  read more »

Where's the shame?

Ok, so the USA invaded Iraq with fear of WMD the announced reason for the extraordinary step of a pre-emptive war. The White House doesn't plan to apologize or say oops as evidence mounts the reasons were bogus.

Question: Would it be a wise move for the Democrats, for example, to issue their own apology. To say, "We voted for this war because we were told there was a serious threat. Learning there was not, we are deeply saddened, sorry and ashamed. How could we have done this?"

Saying this would ask the other side of the aisle, "Why aren't you ashamed, too?"

However, saying you're sorry or ashamed is, for better or worse, un-american. It's weak, too many feel, to admit remorse for errors. You don't do it unless you're forced into it.

You can still feel removing Saddam was the right thing to do. And you can still blame the bad intelligence you were given. But if I make a grave error, even if I make it in good faith because I trusted the wrong people, I still feel remorse over the error. Can the USA? Can some of its politicians?

Back in 1984 I participated in the World Debating Championships. (My team just missed the quarterfinals, alas.) During the finals, the proposition being debated was "The USA should apologize for the American Revolution." One of the most amusing "pro" arguments was that the USA should indeed apologize, and just not mean it. That this was the true American way.

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