A Better Mousetrap

We’re having a problem this year with our pantry being raided by field mice. After several attempts to exclude them, I headed off to Wal*Mart to get some mouse traps.

I’m not interested in poison, or even more cruel, the sticky kind which entrap them and let them starve or dehydrate to death, and the electrocution type are expensive. So I picked up a pack of the old-fashioned kill-em-quick snap traps and something else they had called a ‘Mice Cube’. Note, it’s really a ‘Mouse Box’, as it can neither hold more than one mouse nor is a cube. It’s made of cheap plastic and has a hinged door on the front which can only open inwards and is just held in place by gravity. Simple, clever design.

First up was the old fashioned kind, with the brand ‘Victor’ on them. These were really poorly made, and I snapped my fingers twice trying to set the traps. I’ve used other brands of these in the distant past and had no such trouble. I loaded four of them up with peanut butter, placed them in a corner per directions, and came back in the morning to find three of the four snapped, no mice, and all four devoid of peanut butter.

Crummy traps, but I’ve learned my foes apparently like peanut butter.

Next up, the Mice Cube. I put some peanut butter on some leftover French cracker-ish-toast-ish-bread-ish things I had leftover from buying some Boursin Fig, Raisin, and Nut cheese (mmmm) at Stew Leonard’s in CT last month which have the nice property of being heavy enough to drop in the cube, and easy to break.

First night: big fat field mouse. He’s probably in charge of food gathering and eats while he works. He got dropped off in the woods a couple miles away where there are no houses nearby. To drop off a mouse, just turn the trap upside down, the door falls open, and the mouse scurries away.

Second night: nothing.

Third night: First female. She made quite a racket trying to get out of the trap in the middle of the night. She also made an awful mess of herself – for $1.42 these are definitely considered disposable.

Fourth night: Smaller male. Calm, not too messy, wanted to climb on the trap once he got out. Weird mouse.

The Mouse Cube is made by a company called Pied Piper in New Castle, NH. I don’t see a website for them, but they seem to be located on a nice little spot of land over there on the seacoast.

Conclusion: Safe, easy, clean, humane, cheap mousetrap. A better mousetrap.

Nonviolence and Freedom

I’ve decided that Dr. Ron Paul would be the best next President of the United States, and it comes down to two principles: Nonviolence and Freedom, which may just be two sides of the same coin.

To understand my train of thought it’s important to understand two principles:

  • Fundamentally, government is the sanction use of force. Nothing gets done by means of government without the threat of men with guns showing up to take you away or kill you if you resist being taken away. This was illustrated for me this summer when the Federal Government conducted a siege of the house of a local dentist and her husband for several months until they were finally apprehended and taken away to prison for not paying taxes they feel are unconstitutional. The only thing that stopped a military-style assault on their home in June was a call from a well-placed official in Washington after the assault was already underway. Without buying their logic, legal strategy, or motives, I can sympathize with how they must’ve felt.

  • The natural state of the human being is freedom, and government should exist to maximize the freedom of each individual, only limiting it where one person’s actions will limit the freedom of another. One can derive this principle from history, religion, or game theory, but regardless of motivation, Freedom is the central notion in the founding of the United States of America.

Now, there are some other ideas that are important to keep in mind to build upon those principles:

  • Government is part of Society – deal with this via set theory if it’s easier, as the current state of affairs of the Nation may lead one to think that Government controls Society. This is a corruption of the natural order of things, and Society is the moral superior of the two, as Society operates through consensus, not violence. Charity is one key element of Society, and Government has been working hard over the last century to get a lock on Charity, as a means to ensure power. Besides that, Charity done through the threat of violence can scarcely be given that label.

  • Government is very hard to fire – Let’s take a concrete example of this: Road maintenance. Let’s say that a stretch of road, Stretch A, has its maintenance contracted out to it by a local government (assume government ownership of the road for this thought experiment) to Company A. Stretch B’s maintenance is contracted out to Company B. Now, Company A does a lousy job. The road gets potholes and people damage their cars, they don’t salt and sand it properly in winter, people get into lots of accidents, the road washes out where it’s not maintained, etc. Company B’s stretch of road is kept very nicely. They fill potholes, do the proper maintenance, and people go about their merry way. So, what do you do as the local government? The answer is strikingly clear – you fire Company A and assign Company B to maintain Stretch A of the road. This is basic, basic, free market principles at work. Now, suppose the Government maintains the whole road. What do you do when it fails to maintain the roads? The process to fix it is far more complex, and far less certain to achieve the proper result. This is a simple illustration of why the Government should be involved to the smallest degree as possible in each of its affairs – we have no competition in Governments.

  • You don’t have a right to steal from your neighbor. The logical extension of this principle is that all of the people on your block don’t have a right to steal from a given neighbor just because they decide they’d like to. However, a tipping point is reached, typically at a town level, where a large enough group of people decides to take from a person a portion of the fruits of his labor, and the general consensus these days is that this is OK. It’s balanced to a degree by the uniform application of taking across the citizenry, but it’s still inconsistent to the starting principle. To the extent that there isn’t yet a suitable replacement for taxation, the degree of taxation must be minimized to maximize Freedom and the ethics of the citizenry.

  • The Ends Don’t Justify the Means – the most common rallying cry of the Socialist is that ‘everybody will be better off in the end’. The justification “The ends justify the means” has been used by the most gruesome dictators throughout history, and is a lift ticket up the Slippery Slope. A virtuous people do not pepetrate evil, no matter the outcome.

  • The Rule of Law Ensures our Freedom – The United States of America was a unique experiment built upon the principles of the greatest thinkers in human history and these values are enshrined in our Constitution. The Constitution limits our Government’s power, ensuring that our personal freedom should flourish. To the degree that we ignore it, we imperil our freedom, as if our founding principles are ignored, the only thing preventing an oppressive government is the righteousness and incorruptibility of those holding government offices. We would be wise not to count on that.

  • Corruption Increases with the Square of Distance – This is a name I’ve put to an observation – that the further away from the people power is rested, the more likely it will be influenced by corruption. Just ask yourself how much corruption is present on your Selectboard vs. how much corruption is in the State government, vs. how much corruption is present in the Federal government, and I think you’ll agree that it clearly gets worse at a distance. This is both a function of how easy it is to make a change, and how easy it is to keep an eye on the policy makers. Also factor in how easy it is to organize opposition, and how easy it is to concentrate corruption when it’s centralized.

So, deriving a set of policies from those principles is fairly easy in practice, and I believe this is why Dr. Paul often sounds so prepared on TV – it’s not all that hard:

  • The government should be as small as possible at every level.

  • Taxes should be as low as possible.

  • Charity should be returned to Society, where it can be done better.

  • Citizens should be allowed to make their own choices, so long as they don’t harm others.

  • Citizens should be treated as adults, and allowed to fail if they make poor choices. Only through this process can poor choices be eliminated.

Now, the biggest issue of the current campaign seem to revolve around issues of charity, so it’s worth expanding on that briefly. The current thinking among the Socialist-leaning candidates (please, ‘liberal’ and ‘progressive’ are meaningless labels) is that ‘somebody’ needs to do ‘something’ about [insert favorite issue here]. This thinking is a combination of laziness and guilt. Penn Gillette recently told a story about a conversation he had with an affluent friend of his arguing for government healthcare for children. This man asked Penn, who was arguing for small government, “but who will take care of the crack babies?” Penn answered with a pointed finger, “You. You will take care of the crack babies. If you care about them, then you will donate your money, you will donate your time, you will give of yourself.” But it’s easier to just make other people do it, isn’t it? This is part of treating the Citizenry as adults – they can make their own decisions, and we need to respect people’s decisions, even if they are the wrong ones. Sure, try to peacefully convince them otherwise – I’m all for it – but don’t ignore them and then send men with guns to their houses anyway.

So, if you can follow my line of reasoning, there’s only one candidate for President who agrees with nearly any of the above: Dr. Ron Paul.

He has many great ideas. For instance, taking the budget-neutral stance of returning Federal spending to Year 2000 levels and abolishing the personal income tax. Participating only in declared wars, so that our soldiers are afforded the protections of the Geneva convention. Unleashing the free market on our energy problems so that we can get out from under the thumb of the Middle East and other oil-rich thugs and dictators. Returning as much power as possible to the States, so that our Laboratory of Democracy can operate effectively.

And, the proof, as they say, is in the pudding: At the last debate, the candidate to volunteer to tackle the question of gasoline prices was Dr. Paul. He pointed to a Wall Street Journal article from the previous day comparing the price of gas compared with 8 years ago. It’s up about 300% in US Dollars. But it’s only up 200% in Euros. And it’s flat in terms of the price of gold. Dr. Paul has talked for hours about monetary policy and argues for pegging the US Dollar to a reserve, most reasonably gold. I’d sure like to be paying $1.03 for gas today, wouldn’t you? People complain that he prattles on about fiat currencies, fractional reserve banking, and the weakening of the dollar, but c’mon, people, this is a country of 300 Million people and the world’s largest economy we’re talking about putting somebody in charge of, we need somebody who understands this stuff cold, not someone who plays a mean riff on guitar. If we’re asking to be treated like adults we ought to start acting like ones.

In closing, I’ll be taking a stand tomorrow on what I believe in, not based on what some talking head on national TV has told me is reality. If everybody does so, we’ll prove those taking heads wrong.

Waterhorse

Emma and I went to see Waterhorse: Legend of the Deep the other night. It was exactly as it should have been. So, 5 stars on the lived-up-to-its-job scale.

I was especially impressed that it was emotional, suspenseful, and just about scary for a kids’ flick. Emma was on the edge of her seat more than once, but it never stepped over the edge. If you think Disney flicks are all that kids should see, you won’t like this one. There’s no inane humor, and while there is toilet humor, it’s not fart-jokes at all, it’s very tastefully done.

I had an ounce of trepidation going in as it’s billed as part of the Chronicles of Narnia, and I didn’t like The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe all that much, but there are almost no similarities between the two.

Plus, the display out in the lobby is fantastic:

Hi

Welcome to my personal blog. If you’re looking for computer stuff, head over to the BFC Computing Weblog where I post that stuff.

Here you’ll find stuff on my other interests. It’s likely to be varied and unpredictable, and you might get politics, physics, humor, economics, building products, silly snapshots, family stories, philosophy or woodworking projects, depending on the day.

Comments and trackbacks are on. Please let me know what you think.

Perceptions of Technology

Wow. Just go read the article now. It’s a a good learning opportunity for those of us who assume that most people have a reasonable working knowledge of technology.

An excerpt, in case that link rots:

the couple convinced numerous people that Stacey Finley was a CIA agent and with her contacts she could schedule a medical scan of the victims’ bodies by satellite imaging that would detect any hidden medical problems.

The Finley’s convinced their victims that, if any medical problems were found, secret agents would administer medicine to them as they slept in exchange for payment

Could it hurt to teach kids basic physics in the 10+ years we have them captive in government schools? Apparently enough people think the answer is, ‘yes’.

Prius or Corolla?

Somebody on the Cartalk forum asked about hidden surprises/costs for the Prius. I wondered where the break-even point was on gas, since everybody is “buying a hybrid because gas is so high”.

Here’s where my research led me: 280,613 miles.

This is using a worst-case difference for the Prius, in this case EPA Highway, and price numbers from Edmunds.

My rusty high-school algebra (work below), assumes comparable maintenance costs and $3/gal gasoline. If common battery worries pan out, score down the Prius. If WWIII breaks out, score down the Corolla. If either car makes it to 280K, call Guinness!

I picked the top Corolla to be pretty close in options, but if you want to save more, you can. A really fair comparison would add ABS to the Corolla, so somebody please price that and re-run the numbers. Similarly, an all-in-town (Taxi-service) calculation would be better for the Prius, somebody can run those numbers too.

So, don’t buy the Prius to save money. You’ll definitely save on gas consumption. Whether the Prius has a total carbon load lower than the Corolla is a matter of some debate, given the additional electronics involved, and the high cost of nickel mining.

And, obviously, I’m quite used to high school algebra teachers bleeding all over my work, so have at it, in the name of science.

Dartmouth: A Way Forward

I previously wrote some thoughts on the Trustees Decision of 2007, which for those who haven’t read them, it basically boils down to “it sucks, but it won’t last.” But I didn’t specify any mechanisms by which change would be effected.

Since I wrote last I’ve done some more reading on the roles of the Trustees, the Charter, the Alumni Constitution, and who has power and authority over what. I doubt any lawsuits are going to change the current situation – I think the AoA has been mortally wounded. “I’m not Dead Yet!” is only worth something until the undertaker’s club meets its target, but go ahead and prove me wrong on these points, I want to be wrong.

The debate is certainly rancorous and many of the discussion boards have descended into acrimonious anonymous postings, debasing the reputation of all Alumni. I suspect this is a bit of ridicule on the part of those defeated in recent elections and a feeling of helplessness, betrayal even, by those on the other side. Emotions run high and it serves none well.

So, this is here to declare the situation not helpless. Now I do believe it is futile for anonymous posters to whine, “fine, I’m not sending my yearly contribution” online, but the power of the Alumni is in those contributions, both large and small. When the question is asked, “what right do Alumni think they have to have a say in how the College is run?” the answer is, “the College couldn’t run without their support.” I can’t exactly say to what degree that’s true – if somebody can tease apart the annual report and find that number, please post a comment.

We can also figure out what percentage of the alumni voted for the ‘insurgent’ candidates but I’m not sure anybody on the outside can tell what percentage of giving that group represents. This would be very handy to know.

So, what choice do they have? Stop giving to the College they love and thus weaken it? Give anyway, and just accept that the Alumni shall have no real control over the College’s destiny? No, as I wrote earlier, the Alumni derive power not just through their contributions (which isn’t remarkably different today than in the past), but through their ability to organize (that’s what’s new and deeply troubling to the status quo). So, this needs to be applied to the cynical version of the Golden Rule.

Alumni Investment Corporation. As of this writing the term has no hits on Google. Maybe it exists by another name – somebody educate me, I am not expert in the ways of educational fundraising, though I’ve never heard of this idea before. But here’s the basic idea: form an investment vehicle for like-minded Alumni to donate funds into in lieu of making donations directly to the College. The corporation would have to have a clear set of principles, by-laws, etc. so contributors know where their money is going. Being an investment vehicle, the investors would be issued shares and thus be able to pull their money out should the governance of the fund go astray. Changes to the fund’s policies would be done though a shareholder vote (stop me if you’ve heard this before) and there’d be nothing to stop competing funds, should they become necessary (though a proliferation of funds would incur weakness to each). The fund would need to be well-managed, so that it grows safely over time, and it would probably have to do the same kinds of fundraising (or smarter) that the College does. It would disperse funds to the College on its own terms, with strings attached. If the College were uncooperative, the fund would instead grow, until such time as the College were willing to accept the money.

There isn’t much here that’s new – there are mutual funds that organize to effect social change – the twist here is a select set of potential contributors and a very specific set of potential beneficiaries. The fund would have to be properly organized to garner a charity status so it would be as attractive a donation target under our Federal Income Tax regime. Obviously, profits from shareholder withdrawals would be taxable.

This arrangement leverages the two powers the Alumni really have and largely ignores the one that has been or can be abrogated from it. It allows the disaffected Alumni to continue to donate to the College, but in a manner they find morally acceptable and fiscally prudent.

Now, I have no idea how to organize this nor the time or expertise to manage it (I’m busy trying to get a startup funded), so somebody take the ball and run with it. I might even donate.

Emergence At Dartmouth

Things change.

Sometimes there’s something you can do do stop it.

And sometimes there’s not, but you try anyway.

On Saturday, the Dartmouth Board of Trustees enacted changes to the Dartmouth Constitution, last modified over a century ago, to change the balance of power from 50/50 alumni-voted/administration-appointed to a 33/66 split, in favor of the administration. They fancy to implement a model closer to Harvard’s, which isn’t all that well regarded by folks who aren’t in the habit of appointing trustees. Much more info on what happened and why can be found at Dartblog.

The strategy isn’t even all that creative – Roosevelt tried this in 1939 when the Supreme Court wasn’t voting the way he expected it should, and it’s seen as the most egregious political blunder of his Presidency (quite the curious model to emulate). Just as that move enraged the other three branches of government, this has sparked talk about getting big name law firms involved in the process. It’s even brought ridicule from the non-academic intellectuals – the Wall Street Journal gave the idea a good dressing down. A shame, but this will passs.

What won’t pass is the surge in Alumni participation in governance in the College, and that’s why this article appears on my blog. It’s about the Internet.

10 years ago, Dartmouth offered its alumni (n.b.: this blog is in English, not Latin) a lifetime e-mail account. Then it added some alumni services websites, access to the Library, online voting, social networking, etc. The idea was to keep the Alumni closer to the College. And guess what? It worked.

But rather than just fondly fire up BlitzMail and think, “boy, I think I’ll send those guys $100 today,” they also thought, “where’s that money going … what are these guys up to?” And so they checked in and the majority didn’t like what they saw.

So, they organized websites, campaigns, analysis sites, and decided to set out to change things, in the liberal democratic fashion set out for them in the Constitution.

Now, these alumni didn’t share the same values and plans that the incumbents shared, and they were batting a thousand. The Trustees weren’t used to the Alumni exercising their rights as laid forth in the Constitution. So “something had to be done”. And it was. But it won’t last.

You see, the Internet isn’t going away. The power of Alumni to communicate and collaborate is only going to get stronger over time. They can look in whenever they want, even if they can’t get up to Hanover, or to the U.S., even.

Just as Linux (the poster-boy for all of Open Source Software) appeared just as soon as there was an Internet to support its development, Alumni Governance will come to be seen as an emergent property of Alumni linked together with the ability to easily cooperate. It’s no mystery that all of this happened just as soon as it was feasible – what’s mysterious is that some think they can hold back the sea.

Polly Dog – 1996-2007

Sad news, friends – Polly had to be put down this morning. She’s been battling sudden-onset kidney disease for about six weeks and despite her best struggle it got the better of her. Until yesterday, she was still fighting through it and always had a bit of energy to chase a squirrel, run after a ball, or bark at Evil. She oversaw Emma’s birthday party last week and was retrieving sticks in Mascoma Lake just before that, but yesterday lost the use of her legs and she and I stayed up last night with her labored breathing which eventually turned into continuous seizures. She died just before 8 o’clock this morning with her whole family comforting her. Her ashes will be spread on our property at her favorite resting place.

She was a magnificent beast and the best friend a man could have. While we had planned to have several more years with her, we greatly value all the time we were honored to call her part of our family. She will be greatly missed.

Rest in peace, P-dog.