Category Archives: News

Short Story: Perfect Justice

Almost two years ago, I wrote a post about the idea of “Rationalia”, a country run on scientific principles. I put forward various argument about why this was a terrible idea: that science would be politicized, that science is a moving target and that morals matter in constructing a society as much as facts do.

When I wrote it, I mentioned a short story connected with it. They story was written but I didn’t like it. It was choppy, blunt and crude. Eventually, I rewrote it an epistolary, which I hope you will find enjoyable. It is now here or on the link to pages to your right. If you want to avoid spoilers, go ahead and read it then come back.

What stimulated the publication was this article at Reason, which looked at the idea of a society run by algorithms. I am very skeptical of this idea, since algorithms are not magics spells; they reflect the thoughts and beliefs and biases of their programmers. So a society run by algorithms is still a society run by humans. Just more so.

But in reading through that analysis, I found out that the story I’d written had already been done. The novel Gnomon is apparently based on the idea of a society creating a “perfect” police force guided by an overwhelming surveillance state and the problems that flow from it.

For a while, I was just going to toss the story in the rubbish bin. But I hate throwing things away and there is one aspect of the story I really wanted to get out: an attack on the idea of Rationalia, an attack on the idea — very popular on the Left in particular — that we should enact various polices because social science tells us they will work. And the idea that such a technocracy is a desirable goal.

I am extremely dubious of these ideas because social science is in the throes of a replication crisis where many of its results have proven to be garbage. And we have a great deal of real-world experience in seeing policies informed by social science go badly awry: a Great Inflation caused by theories that said inflation could end unemployment; an obesity epidemic worsened by claims that fat was our biggest concern; hiring decisions made by an implicit bias test that has turned out to be worthless.

Harkaway’s well-received novel — which I have not read but now added to my “hopefully I can read this one day” list — apparently goes into the human aspects of such a “perfect” police state. My take is a bit different. What informed this story was two aspects of such a “perfect” justice system:

1. Our country has a zillion laws, many of which are contradictory, and the average citizen can not help but break numerous laws as they go through life.

2. Any attempt to “rationalize” our laws in the name of science would almost certainly produce an even worse situation, with laws based on junk science or laws that flapped and fluttered with every little breeze that blew.

In short, I don’t think a society like the one that Harkaway describes would function at all, even if it were “perfect” and insulated from human failings. My story is based on my hypothesis that such “perfect” state would almost instantly go up in a fiery blaze of contradictions. So it’s less 1984 I’m going for, and more Brazil.

Blindly turning to science — least of all social science — to solve our problems is a surrender of self-determination. It is little different from blindly turning to the divine right of kings. Science is important and can inform our debates. But we always be aware of its limitations and tendency toward error. This story looks at what would happen to a society that threw such blind faith into algorithms, computers and social science.

Something Like a War

This website hit its tenth anniversary on December 6. I mistakenly referred to that on Twitter as my anniversary as a blogger. But I actually started blogging here in the fall of 2005. I didn’t start blogging to get famous or to get a big readership (and indeed, neither of those has happened). I mainly started blogging to rid my head of the thoughts that were cluttering it so I could think about more important stuff.

(This hasn’t worked very well because writing things down just makes me think more. And having readers makes me write more carefully than i would if I were just writing a manifesto in a cabin.)

Now you might wonder why, if I started blogging in 2005, the archive only goes back to 2007. So I thought I’d detail the Spam Event Horizon.

The blog was pretty low key in the early days, just as it is now. I had a few friends who read and commented and would occasionally get a link from someone in response to an e-mail. Sullivan linked me once, RTFLC linked me a couple of times when Lee was still the only writer. But there wasn’t much going on to speak of.

Because I was such a low-level blog, I didn’t know that the blogging software we had — I can’t remember its name right now — was terrible at protecting the blog from spam. I had to manage the problem manually by deleting comments. At first, the spam attacks were a trickle – a few a week. It was such a non-issue, I would occasionally fall behind in cleaning them, which may have precipitated the later events.

In January of 2007, the blog suddenly started getting hit hard. First a few hits a day, then tens, then hundreds of spam comments. I shut off comments and backtracks. But we still kept getting hit by spammers who had us down as a site that was not protected. You know those documentaries about how bees find a source of food, go back to the nest and do a little dance to tell the other bees where to go? Spambots do the same thing, apparently, because we started getting thousands of hits per day. Then hundreds of thousands. The traffic trend was exponential.

We weren’t set up for that kind of traffic. My brother, who hosts the site, was seeing all his other websites become unavailable. In the end, the only thing we could do was shut down the website completely.

We waited a month before bringing things back. This time we went with WordPress, which has, for over five years, done an outstanding job of protecting the site. Even when I get links from more-trafficked blogs and a surge of a couple of thousand legitimate hits, the spam spikes but Askimet catches all of it. The spammers quickly figure out that We Are defended and go on to ruin someone else’s day. To date, some 22000 attacks have been thwarted.

The one downside of our “shoot the hostage” response was that all my posts before February 2007 are lost. The MySQL database that had all my old posts was so mangled we never had time to unpack it and recover the lost posts. This is why I refer to the events of January 2007 as the “spam event horizon” as no information escaped from it. That saddens me a bit as it includes some good posts, including my transition on the death penalty.

One of the things people don’t appreciate is that there is a constant war going on underneath the internet. Not a terror cyberwar, which does happen but is a bit overblown. No, this is more like the constant war our bodies wage against infection. Every day, our physical bodies are exposed to bacteria, viruses and fungi that would wreck merry havoc were it not for the constant vigilance of our immune system. And every day, every web site on the planet is attacked by hordes of spammers who could destroy a blog — as they destroyed mine — without the constant vigilance of programs like Askimet.

My Belly and Me

You’ll excuse me if this isn’t up to my usual standard. I’m still feeling a bit delicate and out of it.

I knew I was in trouble when they came into my ER room with morphine.

Tuesday was going to be a heck of a day. I had a bunch of stuff at work to do and was on call for a spacecraft. Sue was coming home from her mother’s funeral in Australia and I was going to pick her up from the Harrisburg airport. So it was going to be a busy day, but I knew that if I got through it, the rest of the week would be a breeze.

And then about 2:00, my belly started hurting.

This had happened three weeks before. It had hurt so badly, in fact, I had gone into the ER. They had diagnosed a bad case of reflux and used a GI cocktail — maalox, lidocaine and belladonna — to set me right. So I chomped down some Maalox and tried to relax.

It got worse. By 6:00, I knew I was going to have to go the ER again. But I held on until 7:00, when Sue was changing planes in Chicago, so I could let her know. All our plans went out the window. I went over to our neighbors and imposed on them to look after Abby and drive me to the ER.

I thought they would give me a GI cocktail and have done with it. But then they came in and gave me some morphine for the pain. I have to say that while I respect morphine’s role in history, I don’t care for it myself. It makes the chest heavy and the mind wander. But I knew something was wrong. And then the doctor told me: he thought it was not reflux, but my gallbladder. A quick ultrasound confirmed it. And with two attacks in three weeks, I was going to have to have it out.

I had surgery the next afternoon through a laparoscope. They put four small ports on my right side and inflated my belly with CO2. They found my very diseased gallbladder, cut it out, closed off the arteries and ducts, cleaned me up and had me out in about half an hour. I have a vague recollection of being somewhat combative in recovery because I had to urinate badly and could not. I was confused and, to be frank, a little delusional. In fact, it would be a few hours before my systems recovered enough from anesthesia for me to empty my bladder of almost a liter of fluid. And it took me many hours before my mood recovered. I can’t imagine what it’s like for people who get really sick and have very serious surgery. The comparatively less amount of pain and suffering in this was enough for me. Now I can understand those people who say, “Hell with this. Give me some pain meds and let me die with dignity.”

It’s now been 24 hours and I’m home. And the more I think about it, the more I am amazed with modern medicine. A couple of centuries ago, my gallbladder would probably have led me to an agonizing death. A couple of decade ago, I would have had open surgery and spent weeks recovering. Now, four cuts and a day later, I’m home and should be recovered within a week or two.

I’m also very happy about my iPhone, which became my lifeline. Thanks to the iPhone, I was able to call all my favors in, keep Sue updated on my status, e-mail my colleagues so that they would take care of Swift and even play a few games of Scrabble and let everyone know, via Facebook and Twitter, what was happening. It could have been a very lonely night in the hospital with Sue out of town and Abby with friends and the rest of my family scattered over the country. Thanks to modern communications, it wasn’t.

And I’m also grateful to the good people I’ve surrounded myself with who made sure work was covered and that Abby was taken care of. Thanks to them, nothing was dropped on the floor.

Life is good.

Dear Comment Spammers

See, the thing is that I can see what URL you are coming from. So your “you’re so awesome” comments that attempt to link your sites/services don’t fool me. And no comment gets through here unless it’s either approved by me or comes from someone who has previously had an approved comment. So all your spam commenting does is occupy about the ten seconds of my week it takes to go through askimet’s queue and delete everything. Five seconds if I’m in a hurry. And maybe every two weeks.

I love askimet.


For a blog with very little traffic, I get a hideous amount of spam. 15,000 comments and links since the spam crashed the site five years ago and lost the first 1.5 years of blogging (at that point, I was getting something like 100,000 a day — no, I don’t know why). Askimet has put a stop to that, killing almost everything I don’t want. Maybe one or two comments have slipped through but since I get so few, they’re easy to spot.

It’s picked up a bit since I started tagging posts. But Askimet is still up to the task.

I have to wonder why they’re doing it though. Is it pure mendacity? ‘Cuz there’s no benefit to them at all.


It’s going to be quiet around here for a few days. I’m still reacting to the tragic passing of my fellow blogger, Lee. On the one hand, I never met him. On the other hand, he’s the reason this site exists at all and has as much influence on my political thinking as anyone. He was what Joe Posnanksi calls an “e-migo”, someone I felt like I knew through his blog and a precious few e-mails exchanges. Over at Right-Thinking, people who knew him in meatspace are posting their memories, which makes me only wish I had met him in real life.

I will be posting again sometime soon. One thing Lee didn’t explain to me when I started doing this — eventually it becomes a necessity.

Flight of the Wife

So sometime today, I’ll run out to Pittsburgh to pick up the wife unit. What’s odd is that she’s flying through Baltimore, which is equidistant from State College (State College, being the exact center of the state, is three hours from everywhere). I could just as easily drive to Baltimore and save her a three-hour layover. But Southwest — usually a reasonable airline — charges more for flying from Baltimore. So we save money by taking an extra leg and using more fuel.

I know this isn’t exactly unusual with the way airline fares work. Maybe they’re trying to promote Pittsburgh or something.

Update: After finding out here Pittsburgh flight was delayed, Sue eventually got them to pull her luggage off and I picked her up in Baltimore. This was good because I got to deposit some checks (no Bank of America here), have dinner at one of our old haunts and remember why I didn’t care to live in Baltimore any longer.

Predictions for 2009

I guess it’s time for my obligatory prediction post for 2009. I did OK last year. I predicted Obama would win the election, although I said it more out of hope than insight. The year was better in movies, although the finances were worse. I did get a job in astronomy and TV continued to suck. But I erred on oil prices. They both got worse and better.

All in all, 2008 was an interesting year for me. I was only partially funded for the first half, but found a job and moved across the country. I read a lot of good books but didn’t write nearly enough. My baby became a little girl and I lost one of my best buds when Huxley went to the Big Pile of Papers To Be Graded In The Sky.

And 2008 was an even more interesting year for the world. An astonishing election, a recession, wars, olympics and particle colliders created a world that was still better than ever, but full of foreboding.

Anyway, here’s my 2009 predictions, for what it’s worth:

  • In entertainment, the year will be a catastrophe. TV will continue to slide. With Doctor Who on special break and Galactica ending, there’s barely anything I want to watch anymore. The movie slate looks particularly grim. Potter VI should be good but the new Trek movie looks awful.
  • The international picture is looking shaky. Iran is rattling its saber and I predict will continue to rattle throughout the year at they test Obama. Russia could get dangerous if the price of oil stays down but Hugo Chavez might be forced out. But the real concern for me is Pakistan, which seems on the brink of collapse. Watch them carefully. Or not so carefully, as wars involving nuclear powers are hard to miss. On the bright side, Iraq will keep its shaky grip on the future even as we draw down our presence.
  • In sports, Florida will beat Oklahoma in a thriller, the Steelers will beat the giants and, tragically, the Yankees will win the World Series. I tried very very hard not to write that last bit but I just can’t see any team that will match them.
  • The economy will not get worse but will be very slow in recovering, especially if the Democrats pass Cardcheck, trade restrictions or a “stimulus package”. The only way the recession gets worse is if they do all three. I base this just on my gut instinct. All the experts told us the economy was fine when it was collapsing. Now they are all predicting doom and gloom, so it must be turning around.
  • Obama’s popularity will begin to fade a bit as the economy is slow to recover and debts pile up. He will mostly spend his first year propping up the economy and following a more-competent version of Bush’s foreign policy abroad. He’s going to have way too many balls in the air to devote resources like the stupid Freedom of Choice Act or immigration reform.
  • That’s it. I expect 2009 to be a slightly better version of 2008. Things will slowly improve but we will still have many concerns that could blow up at any moment. As for Obama, I really believe those predictions above. I keep the getting the feeling that his reign will be less like Clinton or Carter and more like Eisenhower. We’ll get a nice boring four years of competent government.

    Of course, we’ll see what happens when the rubber hits the road in 18 days. If Obama does strike out a radical and stupid course, you’ll be hearing about it.

    35 to 20 to 835 30 to 440 to 40

    Those are the highways I followed from home to Memphis, where we’re staying with friends before continuing on. It occurred to me today that I have seen much of the US — although not as much as I’d like. Here are the states I have been to, sorted by importance.

    States I have lived in, not including denial (8): Illinois, Mississippi, Georgia, Minnesota, Virginia, Maryland, Texas, Pennsylvania (pending)

    State I have visited, by which I mean spent a night and seen the sights (20): Florida, South Carolina, North Carolina, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Alabama, Tennessee, Louisiana, Iowa, Wisconsin, Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, Montana, New Mexico, Arizona, California, Washington

    States I have changed planes in or driven through (8): West Virginia, Delaware, Connecticut, Ohio, Kentucky, Arkansas, Missouri, Nevada

    That leaves 14 states I need to visit at some point.

    Unfortunately, my record on countries isn’t as good. Australia, New Zealand, Spain, Germany, Switzerland, Belgium and Canada is kind of pathetic for a supposed man of the world.

    The Second Law of Movodynamics

    So we’re moving at the end of the week. I think I had blocked out how stressful a move can be. I’d forgotten, for example, how packing works. I always start packing weeks in advance, boxing up easy stuff like books. By the time the last week rolls around, I’m feeling pretty good, getting down to maybe that last 5-10%.

    And then things get weird.

    Because no matter how much effort I put in, that last 5-10% seems to never get done. I’ll pack 16 boxes and there will still be the same amount of crap left in the various nooks and crannies of the house. I have become convinced that the steady state expanding universe theory is correct. The closets of my house that are spontaneously creating new matter with which to fill the universe. All of which I have to pack.

    Ugh. I can’t wait ’til this is over.


    A little crazy today as we’re closing on a house. The HUD document specifies — no shit — 18 different people/companies that are getting money out of this transaction. The city, the county, the schools, the state, 2 realtors, the lender, the appraiser, a flood certifier, a tax service, a mortgage broker, my home insurer, the settlement company, the wire transfer company, the home warranty company, a radon mitigation company, the holders of the previous owner’s mortgage. Oh, and I think the previous owners might be getting something too.

    No wonder our politicians want to prop up the housing market.