Archive for February, 2011

World Record

Posted in Politics and Society with tags , on February, 2011 by melendwyr

Recently, Belgium set an unusual record: they’ve waited the longest to establish a government. 250 days, this February 18th, beating out Iraq. But since Iraq took forty days after deciding on a governmental model to actually get people established in office, some argue that’s the real record Belgium needs to break. And it probably will, given how things are going.

Listening to a news story about protesting students stripping to their underwear in an attempt to motivate politicians to form a government already, I had to ask myself: what do they actually need a government for?

From Time’s story on the subject, we learn what I suspected was the case: Belgians really don’t need a nationwide government.

However, the absence of a government makes little difference to day-to-day life in Belgium. Many state functions, from education to welfare, have already been ceded over the years to regional and community governments.

The task is taking so long because there’s no urgency… so why bother doing it at all? Some misguided sense of nationalism?

People make my head hurt, some days…

Minecraft Note Blocks – MacGyver Theme!

Posted in Uncategorized on February, 2011 by melendwyr

Major shout out to Desick, for making a redstone circuit capable of playing the MacGyver theme. This is especially impressive given the rapid beat and brief duration of most of the song’s notes.

Wait a minute: maybe the CSI Effect is real after all…

Posted in Politics and Society, Science! on February, 2011 by melendwyr

…or at least, the reports of its demise are premature.

There’s been a bit of talk lately about a study which claims to show that the supposed ‘CSI Effect’, in which jurors have totally unrealistic expectations about the kinds of forensic testing that should be present in a court case (See this NPR story to see what I’m talking about) isn’t real.

Where’s the problem?

“What we decided to do was survey people called for jury service before they were actually selected,” he says.

Juror pools are not the same as collections of actual jurors, because in the American legal system lawyers are permitted to exclude a certain number of jurors for whatever reason they wish, with the result that each side tries to exclude candidates they feel will be unsympathetic with their arguments and include those who’d be sympathetic. In a mugging case, for example, the defending lawyer might ask the pool of potential jurors if they or any close family member had ever been mugged themselves and then ask that anyone answering in the affirmative be dismissed, reasoning that such people might be inclined to view someone accused of the crime with pre-judgment.

I’ve heard claims that people whose professions include training in standards of evidence or specific types of science likely to be involved in court cases are specifically excluded by lawyers – or more generally, anyone who would be inclined and capable of applying critical thinking to their arguments. To what degree this is true, I don’t know.

But the pool of potential jurors clearly does not accurately represent the population of actual jurors. A study on the attitudes of the former cannot be used to reach conclusions about the latter.

The Source

Posted in Politics and Society with tags , , on February, 2011 by melendwyr

Political power grows from the barrel of a gun.
– Mao Zedong

A weapon is a device for making your enemy change his mind.
-Lois McMaster Bujold

If people are strongly motived by convenience, those who can determine whether conditions are inconvenient will often be able to direct and control them; few circumstances are more inconvenient than death. As we might expect, it is those groups dedicated to physical violence who ultimately determine the structure of a society: the military and the police.

The uprisings in Egypt have persisted, and are likely to cause the political environment of the country to change (one way or another) because the police and the military have chosen to tolerate them. Similar attempts at revolution have been crushed because the military chose to support the dictator; in other cases, governments have been overthrown in coups lead by their countries’ militaries. What power does a dictator have if the people with guns will not obey him? But when the military supports the dictator, as was the case in Iraq after the First Gulf War, rebellion is usually obliterated.

As in the Armenian folk tale, political leaders only appear to be powerful because they persuade some people to give them their power; as long as some are obedient, others can be motivated to cooperate through violence and the fear of violence.

I find it darkly amusing that there has been so much talk of “the power of the people” to change the world and control their destiny, when the ability to overthrow the system isn’t really in the hands of “the people” at all. The only real power they possess is that of choice, which is far less palatable, as its consequences are so often unpleasant…

Thoughts on Egypt

Posted in Politics and Society with tags , , , , on February, 2011 by melendwyr

I’ve been watching the growing chaos in Egypt of late. Although the media like to make much of the resemblance to Tunisia’s revolution, there are few true similarities.

Some thoughts:

1) It’s always the economy. People will put up with any level of tyranny as long as they’re materially comfortable, and their discontent is inextricably linked to their perceived economic requirements. There are countless Egyptian young men who can’t find work – or more precisely, whose jobs don’t pay well enough that they can afford to carry out the traditional gestures of courtship, and as a result find themselves unable to marry, or are unwilling to endure the shame that they perceive from sidestepping or ignoring the customary requirements.

The French Revolution was similar: no matter how much high-minded rhetorical people offered as justification, everyone was willing to tolerate absolute dictatorship as long as they had enough to eat.

2) Democracy does not require concern for or implementation of ‘universal human rights’. It does not require amiability towards the West generally or us specifically. It does not require eschewing theocracy. It does not imply economic well-being for anyone. And it is not in and of itself going to solve anyone’s problems.

3) Quite a few of the protesters are conflating economic improvement with political revolution. This can only end in heartbreak.