Walking Alone

Amy is now standing and walking unassisted. Click the picture for a video (820K WMV).

Amy walking by herself

She can actually walk much further than that – all the way across the second floor and back, once – but it’s hard to get that on video especially when she finds the camera so darn fascinating.

Capitalism News

Two items today, neither shining a very good light on the capital uber alles crowd. Our first one is about what kind of people aspire to run what they consider one of this country’s most important institutions – the New York Stock Exchange:

A 32-year member of the New York Stock Exchange was charged yesterday with making a death threat to another NYSE seatholder who is suing the exchange to block its purchase of Archipelago Holdings Inc.

Edward A. Reiss, 65, turned himself in to the New York Police Department at the Midtown North Precinct in Manhattan and was released after aggravated harassment charges were filed. The NYPD has been investigating a telephone message that threatened William Higgins.

Higgins, along with three other NYSE members, filed a lawsuit in May to block the Big Board’s acquisition…

Threatening to have someone whacked because they disagreed? I guess that’s what blog/forum bullies do when they get some power. I almost said when they grow up, but…well, you know.

But wait, that’s not the big story. After the break, let’s go to our courtroom reporter for the latest in high finance:

The Other Jeff Darcy

Heh. This guy’s actually way better known than me, but it’s about time I gave a link to the other Jeff Darcy. A lot of his cartoons seem to nail the Thief In Chief better than I ever could.

The Meme Spreads

The Land Value Tax concept I discussed in Basis of Taxation seem to be gathering steam. Via both Mutualist and Freedom Democrats I find that Radical Liberal is warming to the idea. I also had occasion to mention it on Whistle Stopper, with more links that I’d found since my previous post here on the subject. I know that I’ve only done a very small part to expose people to these ideas, which have after all been around longer than I have, but I really think it’s an idea whose time has come and I’d really like to continue getting the word out. It’s the first political/economic idea I’ve found in a while that make me want to play activist. Maybe if enough people start talking and thinking about real tax reform, it could become a serious agenda item an election or two away.

Stephen Donaldson

A while back I ordered a set of Stephen Donaldson’s Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever, which I remembered rather fondly from my teen years (and possibly even early 20s). As a break from reading more serious things – Fate of Africa – is next up, I read the first of the series (Lord Foul’s Bane), finishing last night. My reaction can basically be summed up in one word.

Blech.

What was I thinking when I was a kid who thought these books were great? Did I really have so little idea what made a book worth reading? I’ll get some minor quibbles out of the way first.

  • The best-known criticism of Donaldson is that his writing is pretentious. One chapter started with “the sky was embittered with an excess of gall” or something like that. Maybe that’s wrong and I’ll correct it when I get home, but I think the reason I can’t remember it exactly is that it’s so bad my memory rebelled. Phrases like that are all through the book. The dialog is often of that stilted portentous type for which some have criticized Lord of the Rings, only several times more so. Characters don’t discuss anything; they practice oratory on one another.
  • My other minor gripe is with the setting. It’s all very well to set out to write an epic and to foreshadow mysteries yet to be revealed, but you don’t have to remind the reader in every single paragraph that it’s an epic. Tolkien was truly the master at this. While LotR is obviously epic in scope, and embedded within an even larger epic that is the history of Middle Earth, the focus on the characters is never lost. He writes about real people living in a complex world, not a complex world that just happens to have a few people in it. Donaldson’s references to yet-to-come characters and places come so thick and fast, and are so clumsily obvious as teasers for the next book, that the plot and characters suffer.

That last sentence brings me to my major criticism of the book: the characters are awful. It’s not just that Thomas Covenant is a jerk who does great harm to others, as many have noted (especially with regard to Lena). I don’t have to like the main character to enjoy a book, but it would be nice to understand him. Besides being a jerk, Covenant is the most incredibly self-absorbed character I’ve ever encountered. He wallows in self-pity and self-doubt even as people are making life-and-death decisions, sometimes even as they’re dying around (or for) him. It’s obvious this book was written in the era of narcissistic navel-gazing, but even that’s not what I really dislike about the characters. What is really bad about the characters, from a literary point of view, is that they act so arbitrarily. Covenant has these random, often violent, outbursts that hardly seem justified by what had preceded them. Even worse, other characters just blithely and inexplicably seem to accept this. They don’t seem to be shaken by it, and they try to be befriend our little sociopath despite them. The one exception seems to be Atiaran, who just kinds of runs hot and cold for a while and then goes off to sulk in the corner. There’s also arbitrary behavior unrelated (or almost unrelated) to Covenant. What the heck is up with Variol and Tamarantha? Was that supposed to be dramatic? It was stupid. Their actions are neither foreshadowed nor explained afterward, nor even particularly relevant to the plot. It’s the literary equivalent of interrupting an action movie with a scene of kittens being drowned, as a facile nod to providing emotional context.

In the end the best thing I can say about Lord Foul’s Bane is that it’s no Ruin Mist, but that’s damning with faint praise indeed. Nothing can ever touch that piece of crap for sheer ineptitude. Donaldson wasn’t trying to defraud anyone when he wrote the Chronicles. He’s not a fake author just out to make a buck. He’s a real author – just a bad one.

Layout Change

I didn’t want to do this, but I had to change the site layout again. I swear it used to work in the three browsers I have handy (mostly Firefox, occasionally Internet Explorer, and Konqueror only for testing) but somewhere along the line it broke for Internet Explorer again. Specifically, the main content area consisted of a small blank area at the top, followed by a large gap, followed by the banner and then everything else near – but not quite at – the end of the right sidebar. The starting and ending points of the gap didn’t seem to line up with anything in the sidebar or in the HTML source; IE just drew this big grey box in the middle for no apparent reason. Grrr. In any case it seems to be fixed now and looks identical in all three browsers.

For the HTML weenies in the audience, what I did was switch from using a “float” for the sidebar to absolute positioning. Floats have always been a little weird, but I thought I had all the weirdness figured out. Apparently not. There’s absolutely no reason the float version and the absolute-position version should behave differently, and they don’t in either of the standards-compliant browsers, but IE just couldn’t get the float version right no matter how I tweaked it. What a piece of garbage. If floats worked they’d be the Right Way to do a sidebar, but when the browser with the largest market share messes them up you just have to adapt.

Video from Michigan

Here’s the best of the video from our trip to Michigan. Click on a picture to see the associated clip.

Sharing State

It looks like my last post about threading has gotten around a bit. Len Holgate linked to it, for example, and following various links from there eventually led me to something by Herb Sutter that I want to comment on. He attributes the following quote to Iain McInnes, but I can’t find the original context.

Don’t share data between threads. Just don’t
Easy to say: People didn’t like giving up GOTO, either.
What’s the alternative ? Asynchronous message exchange.

I don’t think that’s exactly bad advice, but it’s a little bit too limiting. Contra Herb, I don’t believe shared state is inherently evil; it’s all a matter of how you use it. Simply leaving state (by which I mean data within a single address space) lying around in scattereed pieces, with arbitrary sections of code accessing it at their convenience (even with “correct” locking), is evil. However, simply not sharing state is a degenerate way of avoiding the problem, just like not having more than one thread is a degenerate way of avoiding concurrency problems in general. For one thing, those asynchronous message queues themselves represent a kind of shared state, with appropriate locking. It suffices for a great many purposes, but there are also many situations where trying to fit a program’s natural synchronization to that model is a bad idea. The analogy I’d make is not to GOTO but to abstract data types and object-oriented program, and the injunction I’d offer as an alternative is this (click through to read beyond the quote):

Share data between threads only in constrained high-level ways.

Pictures from Michigan

Here are the best pictures I could get from the trip to Michigan last week, starring Amy and her supporting cast (including me).

Basis of Taxation

For a long time I’ve been a bit uncomfortable with the idea of income and/or sales taxes being the primary basis of government revenue, since it seems to be taxing the very activities we want to encourage. A greater emphasis on property (and most especially estate) taxes has seemed much less regressive and more likely to stimulate economic growth. More recently, I’ve also been intrigued by two other similar theories of taxation which seem more consistent with those same goals. My thoughts on both are more half-formed than usual, so I’ll probably ramble a bit, but rambling is that blogs are for.

The first theory is that of the Georgists ([1]) and geolibertarians ([2], [3]). Yes, I know there are differences between them, but there are more similarities. Their basic idea is that land is a special kind of property, which confers upon its owners a special kind of power, and that wealth and income disparities that exist even today can be traced back to morally unjustifiable royal grants of land going back at least to the feudal era; the very term “real estate” is etymologically derived from “real” = “royal”. The geolibertarians in particular seem heirs to a pretty rich philosophical tradition going back at least to Locke, whose labor theory of value recognized an important limitation which too many have subsequently ignored:

Though the earth and all inferior creatures be common to all men, yet every man has a “property” in his own “person.” This nobody has any right to but himself. The “labour” of his body and the “work” of his hands, we may say, are properly his. Whatsoever, then, he removes out of the state that Nature hath provided and left it in, he hath mixed his labour with it, and joined to it something that is his own, and thereby makes it his property. It being by him removed from the common state Nature placed it in, it hath by this labour something annexed to it that excludes the common right of other men. For this “labour” being the unquestionable property of the labourer, no man but he can have a right to what that is once joined to, at least where there is enough, and as good left in common for others.

The problem, of course, is that there is not an infinite supply of land, and those who were left out of the royal land-grant process end up permanently screwed out of their just share of the wealth which derives from land ownership. Since nobody can live without some access to land, if all the land is already owned then any newcomers’ very survival is contingent on paying whatever rent the current owners choose to charge. This potential for extortion may be exercised to a greater or lesser degree, but is never absent and has played an important (some would say primary) role in creating most of the great historical fortunes. Even those who supposedly built their fortunes some other way are/were dependent and often beholden to previous owners of land-based wealth who invested in their enterprises. The Georgists and geolibertarians, recognizing this for a fact, say that the solution is to charge for the privilege of owning land. Furthermore, they claim, the revenue from such land rents or land value taxes would be sufficient to remove the need for other forms of taxation. Thus, taxes on income earned via labor can be replaced with much more justifiable tax on possession of a static asset to which the right of ownership (especially free and in perpetuity) is morally questionable. Obviously I disagree with the geolibertarians about how much revenue that should be, being more of a “geoliberal” myself, but their pages which I cite do an excellent job of explaining both the moral and practical justification for such a tax.

Don’t stop reading yet; there’s more.