Friday, October 26, 2012

government as a design problem

trying to work on a paper revision due sooner and sooner, but i keep thinking about politics. of course, it is The Time to think about politics, but i wish i could escape it.

anyways, here's what i've been thinking, a tiny idea:

from the institution of a new state or government, for a time, it is reasonable to expect the government to grow and acquire new features. this is just because upon its institution, the government must be incomplete or flawed. virtually nothing complex can approach perfection, especially in its first design.

however, at some point, we might consider the institution - or, and here's the real idea, a given version of the institution - to be complete. that is, we have this complex structure, with many parts and many layers and many functions, and it is intended to accomplish many things under particular constraints. presumably, changes made to this structure over time are intended to fulfill these intentions. we could think of this as efficiency, i.e., how much of what the system is meant to do is it actually doing? this is a funny idea, since it implies that if the system exceeds its mandate, it is being overly efficient. i will get back to this in a moment.

the idea is that a version of the institution can be considered complete, in that a time will come when it's clear to everyone that no changes, or only basic maintenance changes, are necessary to meet the objectives of the system; or, it might be decided that the objectives are outdated, and that new objectives have arisen, and that a new system needs to be designed to replace the old one. have we ever reached that point with the american federal government? i think maybe we have, and it was a long time ago: pre-civil war, really. in the 1850s, the federal government wasn't really creating many new responsibilities for itself, and was instead preoccupied with its intended functions of maintaining relations between the states, applying tariffs in international trade, occupying new territories that would eventually become states, etc. i think this is the tail end of what historians refer to as the "second party system": FED2.0. FED2.0 was rolled out in the 1830s, had some successes early on, and then crashed and burned.

it was around the time of the civil war that the government basically went through a big redesign, acquiring new responsibilities which then required new features to be fulfilled. this was the "third party system" that lasted until the 1890s, when it was replaced with FED4.0, which lasted until the great depression. versions 3 and 4, i think, are not really considered to be very good versions (and probably could be collapsed into subversions of FED3), while a lot of people are clearly very nostalgic for versions 1.0 and maybe 2.0 (and might see those as subversions of FED1).

in the 1930s, the government went through a huge redesign: FED5.0; the end of the 1960s saw a big advance on this (FED5.1), and now we're probably at version 5.3 or 5.4. version 5 is the longest-lived political system that the US has had (or similar with FED3/4). clearly, i think, it's time for a redesign. at this point, the two parties are just concerned with adding, subtracting, or modifying features, with a strong tendency towards addition (the 'ratchet effect' or 'featuritis'). i think that a lot of people thought that with o* and the d*s, after the 2008 election, we would be moving on to a new version 6; a lot of people thought that in 2004 with b* and the r*s. neither succeeded; i don't think that either really succeeded in moving a new subversion, either: we're stuck in beta, at 5.3.2 or something like that.

so, back to 'excess efficiency'. what is that? it's not what it sounds like. when a system isn't quite fulfilling its promised aims, if it wants to preserve itself (consider that institutions don't want to die), it might throw up new proxy aims. it can them give the illusion of accomplishment or fulfillment by moving to meet those new aims, thus obscuring the fact that the old aims aren't exactly complete; or, that they're no longer valid, and that the system thus is working to fulfill aims that no longer exist. i.e., excess efficiency is a sign that a system is desperate and needs to be replaced.

Monday, October 22, 2012

taxes and politics

a friend posted this link on facebook, along with a quote to the effect of, "raising taxes to pay for investments in the middle class creates jobs". i resisted posting a response there because i don't like to argue about these things and would rather keep my opinions to myself, and because (relatedly) i am afraid to affect others' opinions of me in ways that i don't have close control over. so i thought i'd post a response here, where no one can read it:


while i agree generally with sentiment that says the rich should be taxed relatively more, the idea that this is then turned around by the federal government into "investment in the middle class" is not obvious to me. i think that very little of taxation, at least in a developed country like the US, translates directly into economic growth. in fact i think it tends to be the opposite, and i agree more with the idea that raising taxes tends to suppress growth.

a large portion of government spending put in place by the democratic party (which is presumably the favorable political dimension for the approving audience of this talk) is in the form of political favors to constituencies that have an insignificant impact on the economy (poor, elderly); institution of new bureaucracies which have to be funded at the same time that their mandate is usually to impose some form of *restriction* on certain types of economic activity; increased funding of dysfunctional programs without improving function ("education"); and, you can be sure that the more the US government collects in taxes, the more it will spend on the military, or on foreign aid, etc.

interesting case in point relevant to our livelihoods: significant government spending goes into biomedical research, which winds up making people live longer at the same time that it makes all forms of healthcare more expensive (MRI for everybody! one-of-a-kind cancer drug for my grampa! YOU CAN LIVE FOREVER NOW). i guess this creates jobs in the hospital/rest home industries.

*not that any of these things are wrong per se*, but it's not clear how any of this works as investment in the consumer class that generates net jobs. i think the government of a developed country actually has very little capacity to "create jobs", except in managing trade policy and maintaining transportation infrastructure. i.e. i think this guy's argument is pretty arguable.

Sunday, October 14, 2012


finally working on that blur adaptation paper. not much else to think about or report.


last saturday (the 6th) woke up with a headache, fairly painful: i'd rate the usual ones at 2/10, and this was a 4/10. today, i wake up with one even worse: i'd put this at 6/10 (assuming it can get much worse). this is awful - it's as bad as that night tukrong punched me in the head 10 times. what is going on with my brain?

Friday, October 05, 2012

task done

we made it: the proposal is submitted. transitioning to revising papers. woo hoo?

Wednesday, October 03, 2012

inevitable negativity

i am now (technically) a faculty member at harvard medical school ("instructor": about as junior junior junior as possible)! wow! and, (technically), no longer a postdoctoral fellow: i am now a "senior scientific associate". all so i can apply for a grant with a less than a 1% chance of getting funded (optimistic i am). so, something there. beautiful appearance of progress.

also, couple of papers accepted; probably will have a paper in PLoS-one, which is nice, but i'm third of four authors, so..


came up with this on the train, coming home last friday night (9-28-12)

on Cambridge Street
put away
your umbrellas
or they'll wind up
cast aside
in tattered heaps

on Cambridge Street
thrust your head
into the wind
and bear the rain
it's autumn
it's not cold yet
be thankful