Sunday, November 30, 2014

Links for November

Here is a really nice article about someone's project putting some smarts on a model plane.  The author explains things well and does the whole multi-media thing very well.

This is one scary chemical reaction.

For a while Hong Kong had a block that was essentially a lawless zone backed full of people regardless of any sort of zoning.  Here's an awesome cross section someone put together of it.

The roundworm c. elegans is remarkable for being the creature with the world's most studied nervous system.  Which was relatively easy since it only has a few hundred neurons.  Well, some scientists simulated those neurons and put them in a robot body.  Uploading here we come!

Boston is apparently in the running for the 2024 Olympics.  I hope we don't end up hosting it.

Many people have complained that Indian Jones isn't a very good archeologist but Max Gladstone weighs in to support him.

Apparently humans and dolphins can hunt fish together!

Our CTO's solar van.

For a long time I've been a sort of semi-pesca-pollotarian, which is to say that I try not to eat the meat of my fellow mammals when it's easy to do so.  Someone has done the math on how many animals it takes to supply the meat you eat and my takeaway is that I should probably eat more turkey.

I've always had mixed feelings about the Affordable Care Act.  On one hand it looks like an improvement in various areas and it ought to help get more people medical care.  On the other hand, it's very complicated and looked like it was deliberately obfuscated to conceal how much it was going to cost.  Well, apparently it's main architect went and said that yes, this was why it was written that way.  I appreciate that he felt that what he did was necessary but I still don't approve of those tactics.  This also doesn't reflect well on our journalists.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

On not tying revenue to expenditure

As longtime readers will know (all three of them) one of the things I worry about regarding government is complexity.  There are a lot of ways that government can be more complex than it has to be with various sorts of detriments to democracy's ability to control that government but one that annoys me out of proportion is taking some new tax or other revenue stream and saying that it has to be used for some particular purpose.

There was actually a ballot measure in Massachusetts that did this by dedicating the unclaimed deposits on cans and bottles to conservation; as well as increasing the variety of containers subject to deposits.

Why not just put any money that comes in into the same general fund and then take all expenses out of that fund?  Well, it seems that while voters generally think the money the government spends is wasted in general, they also think that for things the government spends money on it's doing a good job.  That means that taxes tied to specific spending increases will tend to be more popular than the alternative, and hence the temptation to tie new sources of income to specific purposes.

Now, if people are more adverse to taxes than they should be then having new taxes be encumbered might be a good thing if it gets them up to where they should be.  But I don't think I have clear enough evidence that taxes are too low to endorse this as a way of getting around the problem.  And even if the evidence was more clear then I don't see any reason why politicians couldn't just package tax increases with spending increases in the same bill without dedicating the revenue to that particular purpose.

And I should say that there are concrete harms caused by the ways we dedicate revenues to certain expenses beyond just concerns about how wieldy our government is.  There was a segment on Last Week Tonight recently on state lotteries.  Collecting money through a lottery might seem like a sort of taxation that falls disproportionately on people who are less well educated but they get more support than they deserve because the money is dedicated to education.

People are also sometimes fooled by revenue dedication into thinking that a given tax must fund all of the expenses of the cause it goes toward.  If I were to say that "The gas tax is used to pay for roads" then that's perfectly true, but it's hardly all the tax money that goes towards roads.  I know I've run into several people who've been against using general tax money for public transportation because they thought it was unfair that transit should get money from the general fund when (they thought) drivers paid for all their roads themselves.

How do we avoid having these dedications when they're so tempting?  Well, it would be fairly straightforward to pass some law preventing the practice in general.  If everybody recognized that these were bad in general but tempting in specific then the law would be a nice Schelling point keeping things in order.  There are a lot of things to dislike about California's Proposition 13 but one of the things it did was require "special taxes" dedicated to specific purposes to have 2/3 of the vote in order to pass.  So maybe that one provision is the way forward.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Links from October

Fantasy style map of Boston.

I've always sort of thought it was odd that the one place in the galaxy that Kryptonians were least adapted to was their home planet.  Julian Sanchez comes up with some interesting explanations, which I hope some story uses.

So we've all heard the phrase "To gird one's loins" right?  I once had no idea what that meant, but now I do.

If Nigeria can successfully contain an Ebola outbreak I'm pretty sure the US doesn't have much to worry about.  Better to panic about the flu becoming deadly instead.

The Metamorphosis cast with a robot.

When bad things happen to good robots.

Raccoons are getting smarter.

So recently the ESA launched a probe to investigate a comet.  And it's been taking some really cool pictures.

There's been this Gamer Gate furor going on recently.  I was going to write a post about it, but Ken at Popehat wrote almost everything I wanted to say.   Except this, a lot of people of all genders and political stripes have a tendency to come down harder on female politicians and pundits who they disagree with than equivalent men and it's good to try to be aware of that and avoid it.  There are women who are stupid, selfish, and evil just as there are men who are those things but try to keep your outrage proportional.

Technical stuff

How semiconductor densities have been changing.

We're trying to make our SARS-2 tests better than we should

Ok, that's a somewhat provocative title but I think it's basically accurate.  During this pandemic the US in particular has had a pr...