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Wednesday 18 July 2001

Murder and Insanity

It occurred to me a few years ago, during some not-guilty-by-reason-of-temporary-insanity TV coverage, that quite a bit of homicide is at the hands of insane people, not just the cases of I-killed-him-because-the-voices-told-me.

It ultimately comes down to a question of self-preservation.

Ayn Rand would probably have said that no self-preservative act can ever be insane, and that no ultimately self-destructive act can ever be sane.

(NOTE: That my base premise there is meta-quoted from Ayn Rand is to warn you that I think there might be some problems with this argument, not that I think it’s Gospel. Jesus. You can’t mention Ayn Rand in any context without people coming up, assuming you’re a lunatic, and explaining that Ayn Rand is full of shit. I could probably say, "You know that cover art on Anthem? It’s really ugly," and someone would march up and say, "Ayn Rand is full of shit, you know." It’s like there’s just some lizard-brain response to those syllables.)

So anyway, the question becomes: Is my life (or my genetic or cultural inheritance, which is the biological and instinctual purpose of my life’s existence) going to be better off as a result of killing this guy, or not?

I like this way of putting it, because it accounts nicely for war.

Example 1: An easy one. Someone comes up to you brandishing a knife, and says he’s going to kill you. You pull out your gun and shoot him. In a him-or-me situation, me is the only sane answer.

Example 2: Ex-con running from the police, after robbing the Quick-E-Mart. He shoots at the police. Not insane, just risky.

Example 3: Ex-con, whilst robbing Quick-E-Mart and wearing a mask, shoots clerk. Insane. Shooting the clerk does not produce any gain for our friend the criminal, and in fact it makes his position much worse.

Complicated example: Palestinians who blow up school buses and such are not insane. They (perhaps rightly) see their entire culture threatened with extinction; preservation of that is so important that nearly anything can be rationally justified.

More complicated example: Consider the Air Force bomber crews in the early hours of the Gulf "War". They were in no immediate danger from Iraq’s weapons. The U.S. was not in immediate danger. American culture, however, requires that oil be very plentiful and very cheap (which is why I never agreed with the people marching down Pennsylvania Avenue shouting, "No blood for oil!" Jesus, if there’s anything that’s worth the U.S. going to war over, it’s oil. Having a society that’s so dependent on a commodity we’ve got to import may well be insane: but once you’ve gone down the road of oil-addiction, going to war to ensure that it keeps flowing seems pretty rational to me), and the future of those soldiers’ families requires that the U.S. continues to be the world’s wealthiest country (The bomber crew would also have been sent to prison back in the U.S. had they not dropped the bombs as ordered; thus the military bureaucracy calls the self-preservation instincts of the crew to bear on the honchos’ assigned self-preserving plan of action.)

Logical conclusion that bothers me: KKK lynchings (and the assassination of MLK, etc.) were not insane, in that they were required to keep the blacks in fear and preserve Southern cracker culture.

Note that I’m not arguing that any of this stuff is necessarily lawful or just, only that it’s not necessarily insane.

I don’t know if war is necessarily crazy in and of itself, though. Louis XIV had "Ultima ratio regum" cast into the barrels of his cannons: The last argument of kings.

Members of a nation tend to believe — should believe — that their way of life, optimally lived, is better than others, and that their way of life should be propagated, even at the expense of others. A sort of me-or-them on a national scale. Sometimes this is incredibly obvious (colonization, religious missions, ethnic cleansing), but it’s always subtly going on.

War is a violent expression of this. German culture is on the skids because we’re being oppressed by all these non-German Europeans, so I’ll invade Poland. Iran still exists because I do not control the entire Persian Gulf, so I’ll invade Kuwait and then Saudi Arabia. Republicanism requires that states submit to control from Washington, so I’ll burn Atlanta to the ground. And so on. Generally only nations that are backed into a corner will initiate a war (which is why the present treatment of Iraq is not a good idea), because the alternative is the decline and possible eventual death of their culture.

And the purpose of fighting back, aside from immediate self-preservation when you’re invaded, is to raise the cost of that war so incredibly high that eventually the rational decision is to give up.

Saddam Hussein would like to control the Persian Gulf (the whole Kuwait thing was just a ruse; Saudi Arabia was the real goal there) because this would enable him to crush Iran, and it would put his culture in a position to rule the world.

The current rulers of the world don’t think much of that idea, because it would mean that our culture (and children, and selves) would be diminished. This is pointed out to Mr. Hussein. He decides that he doesn’t care about the relative position of the United States: he’s an Iraqi, and he wants to be on top of the heap. This is all perfectly rational thinking so far.

So the U.S. Air Force drops several hundred thousand pounds of high explosives on his country. This does two things. First, it diminishes Iraq’s ability to do fight, and it makes the cost of gaining control of the Persian Gulf so incredibly high that the rational decision in the interest of self-preservation is to back off. Ultima ratio regum.

So we see some circumstances where murder (or homicide, in any case) is a sane action.

I should point out here that I have been mixing two definitions of ‘insane’ throughout. The law defines you as insane if you’re unable to tell right from wrong at the time you committed the crime. The basis for this is the M’Naghten Rule. The rule is named for a Scotsman — who was himself named McNaughton, oddly enough — who, in 1843, shot and killed the secretary of Sir Robert Peel, at the time Prime Minister. (Yes, that was in England, and we’re talking about American law here; this isn’t the only place where English law leaks into the U.S.) Apparently McNaughton intended to kill Peel, and shot the secretary in a case of mistaken identity. In any case, the rule is that the accused can be found not guilty by reason of insanity if

…at the time of the committing of the act, the party accused was labouring under such a defect of reason, from disease of the mind, as not to know the nature and quality of the act he was doing; or, if he did know it that he did not know he was doing what was wrong.

I’ve been using the word "insane" in the more colloquial sense, meaning something close to "irrational". However, even if one applies the M’Naghten Rule, it comes down to a definition of "wrong".

It seems pretty obvious, therefore, that anyone who kills someone else is insane when he pulls the trigger, even by the law’s definition. "Right" and "wrong" are defined, in the egocentric universe, as "good for me" and "bad for me". It’s hard to imagine a situation not included in the list above where killing someone would unambiguously improve the murderer’s situation. Ergo a large number of murders — possibly most of ‘em — are committed by people who are at least temporarily insane.

Posted by tino at 16:00 18.07.01

Flying Cars

I’d just like to ask, where the hell are the flying cars? I mean, here it is the twenty-first century, and I’m still creeping along in traffic on the ground like some kind of schmuck.

The argument that I most often hear against flying cars is this: Drivers have a hard enough time driving in two dimensions; add another dimension, and we’d all be dead within a month.

I don’t think this is true at all, and I’d like to explain why.

First, most traffic doesn’t work in two dimensions at all. It works in one dimension.

Just off the bottom of this illustration, imagine that there’s a big concrete wall. The driver of the blue car can control his speed, and little else. He can go faster, or he can go slower, or he can stop all together. He can’t move to the left without getting hit by the oncoming red cars. And if one of those red drivers is drunk or British (or both) and decides to suddenly drive on the wrong side of the road, the blue car is going to be making a trip to the body shop or the junkyard; there’s just nothing the driver can do.

Operating in two dimensions is actually much safer.

In this picture, the two cars can chase each other around this parking lot all day long without the risk of a collision, because they’re actually acting in two dimensions. One of the drivers can even put on makeup, talk on a cell phone, and eat a Whopper at the same time, provided that: 1. This driver has more than the usual number of arms, and 2. The other driver is paying attention.

(Note that in this illustration, as in real life, the lines painted on the asphalt are not actually large enough for the little cars to park there, at least not without getting some nasty dings in the sheet metal into the bargain. This is intentional, and should not be attributed to laziness or inattention on the part of Tinotopia Graphic Design GmbH, which produced the images.)

Now, imagine that the little cars are in fact little flying cars, zipping along in the sky. The driver of the little red car stops suddenly because some geese are crossing his path. Some things are the same in the sky and on the ground.

The driver of the following car now has at least four options: he can go to the left or right of the red car (since, without a road to build, there’s no reason for the opposing traffic to be inches away, and there are no trees or concrete walls on the other side), or he can go above or below.

This makes real computer-controlled (or at least computer-assisted) travel possible. Cars these days can be equipped with radar, or GPS systems, but they can’t actually control the car. There are too many obstacles like trees, curbs, medians, etc. to keep track of. It requires a person.

With flying cars, though, travel would just be a matter of telling the car where you wanted to go. The car would plot a course using GPS, and avoid collisions with other flying cars by communicating with their computers. Every flying car would continuously send out a short-range radio signal giving its location. Flying cars that determined that they were on a collision course with other flying cars would then negotiate course deviations to allow them to cross at different altitudes. The driver’s reactions and abilities wouldn’t enter into it. The driver’s duties, if he so chose, would be only be to pilot the thing the last few feet (where GPS accuracy would be an issue) and to park the car.

I will be revisiting the flying car issue some more in the future. Primarily, I’d like to address the issue of where flying cars would be allowed to go. Most people wouldn’t like them buzzing their backyards on straight-line courses; I’ve come up with a solution to that that will not cause traffic problems in the sky.

Posted by tino at 13:00 18.07.01

Speed Bumps

I live in Northern Virginia, which has got to be the speed bump capitol of the world.  Or maybe speed bumps have just become very popular since I’ve moved here.

In any case, there are speed bumps everywhere.  There’s one outside the local IKEA store that causes normal passenger cars to bottom their suspensions and scrape the ground (artificially high because of the height of the speed bump) when the cars are loaded with furniture.  There are dozens outside the local grocery stores, no doubt financed in part by the egg industry.  There are some on normal through streets, on the way to loading docks, in parking garages, etc., etc., etc.  In short, there are a lot of them.

And they typically don’t do their job.  Presumably, the point is to keep the cars from going faster than the local authorities would like.  (Never mind that there are actually good ways to do this: Discussion of that is beyond the scope of this document.)  What they do is reduce the average speed of the cars.  The problem is that they do this by forcing the drivers to almost come to a stop before each bump.  Drivers don’t like this, so they speed up out of frustration once they’ve lurched their car over the thing.  I don’t think that this is the intended result.

This problem was solved, though, in 1953 by Nobel-prize-winning physicist Arthur Holly Compton (see photo at left).  Compton won the Nobel in 1927 for the discovery of the Compton Effect, the increase in the wavelengths of X rays and gamma rays when they collide with and are scattered from loosely bound electrons in matter.  During World War II, he was director of the Metallurgical Laboratory at the University of Chicago, where he was instrumental in the establishment of the first controlled uranium fission reactor — he was Fermi and Szilard’s boss, basically.  

After the war, in 1953, Compton was chancellor of Washington University in St. Louis.  Apparently the job didn’t require all of his attention (he had won a Nobel prize, after all), because he spent at least some of his time looking out the window of his office in Brookings Hall.

He noticed that cars tended to speed along the road in front of Brookings Hall, and he designed some speed bumps to discourage this.  His speed bump (bumps of this design are now usually called "speed humps") was a double-ramp kind of affair, as in his drawing below:

His calculations indicated that the bump would cause differing amounts of upward acceleration on the car at different speeds:

5 mph
10 mph
20 mph
30 mph
40 mph
50 mph

That is, the car becomes airborne at 30 mph.  At 20 mph, though, the ride is fine, and the bump is hardly noticeable at 10 mph.

I can personally verify both of those assertions.  A friend of mine once drove a Chrysler K-car at one of these things at 50 mph.  (He was a student at another school, and did not have the right amount of respect for Compton, or, for that matter, physics.)  The result was a lot of sparks, a missing exhaust system, and a dented roof (dented from the inside, by his head).  The trunk also popped open, presumably from a distortion of the entire body of the car upon landing.  These things are actually installed in pairs, which makes them much, much nastier.  If you drive the recommended speed, though, they don’t present a problem to any car I’ve ever driven.

Most speed bumps are particularly harsh on sports cars.  They tend to have stiffer suspensions and less ground clearance.  I once drove a car that had about 3.5" of clearance: a lot of speed bumps are higher than that, so I just had to avoid them for fear of winding up high-centered.  The 3.5" clearance car had no problem whatsoever with these, though.

These bumps are more expensive than the lump-of-asphalt variety, though, so they’re not used in many places.  This would probably change if drivers whose cars were damaged by the inferior kind would diligently submit claims for damages.

A.H. Compton Speed Bumps (at Washington University)

Posted by tino at 13:00 18.07.01
Tuesday 17 July 2001

Same-Sex Marriage


So lately there’s been more discussion about whether people of the same sex should be allowed to legally marry.

The argument being advanced in favor of same-sex marriage is essentially that homosexuals are being denied equal protection of the law because of their sex.  Certain legal benefits and rights are available to John and Jane, should they present themselves to the world in a certain way.  Should John and Jim do precisely the same thing, however, they get no special consideration, benefits, or rights.

The argument most often heard against same-sex marriage is that it’s an abomination!  God (pronounced, usually, ‘Gawd’) has spoken!  Marriage is a holy sacrament, a bond between a man and a woman, patterned after Adam and Eve! Perversion! Decadence! Et cetera!

In short, the only argument I’ve heard against same-sex marriage is one of conservatism per se.

Now, there’s nothing necessarily wrong with conservatism per se.  Society and culture are very, very complex systems, and small changes in one place may have huge consequences elsewhere (e.g.: poor handling of Germany after WW I leads to bad traffic in Fairfax County, VA, eighty years later. But that’s another rant entirely.)

But very little in American society is about conservatism per se.  Especially in the last fifty years or so, the general trend is quite the opposite — in favor of novelty for its own sake (usually to our detriment).  So it seems a bit absurd to respect an argument of blind conservatism these days.

Benefits and the Cost of Marriage

Let’s look at what marriage gets you, in the United States.  There are a number of legal rights:

  • Automatic Inheritance
  • Automatic Housing Lease Transfer
  • Burial Determination
  • Immunity from Testifying Against Spouse
  • Medical Decisions on Behalf of Partner
  • Visitation of Partner in Hospital
  • Visitation of Partner’s Children

Anyone with a good lawyer can secure all those rights without marriage, though. The real Marriage Bonanza comes in economic terms:

  • Assumption of Spouse’s Pension
  • Bereavement Leave
  • Crime Victim’s Recovery Benefits
  • Exemption from Property Tax on Partner’s Death
  • Insurance Breaks
  • Joint Bankruptcy
  • Certain Property Rights
  • Reduced Rate Memberships
  • Sick Leave to Care for Partner
  • Wrongful Death (Loss of Consort) Benefits
  • Social Security Survivor Benefits

All of those benefits cost money.  Every single one of them.  For simplicity’s sake, we’ll just examine the last one, Social Security survivor benefits.

There’s a set of rules that determines whether or not you get this benefit.  Essentially, though, you get it if your spouse dies and you’re old enough, or if your parent dies and you’re young enough.

The Social Security Administration paid $5.1 billion in survivor’s benefits in December, 2000.

It’s impossible to know how many gay people there are in the U.S. — the census doesn’t ask — but 10% is the figure usually used by most gay-rights groups.

If we assume that gay people would marry at about the same rate as heterosexuals, and that they live as long, legal same-sex marriage would cost Social Security about $500 million a month in survivor’s benefits alone.  (It’s hard to find information on what proportion of survivor’s benefits are paid to children, which are presumably more common with heterosexual couples.  I am assuming that this is a fairly small slice of the pie.)

That $500 million a month is $6 billion a year, or $20 a year for every man, woman, and child in the country.  And that’s only for one benefit paid by one agency.

Which is ultimately why same-sex marriage is opposed so vehemently by "conservatives" in the government.  They’re never going to support anything that would cost the government billions and billions of dollars a year, particularly when there’s a thousand years of tradition backing up their "brave moral stand".

How and Why the State is Involved
(and what it has to do with religion)

So why are these benefits paid to married people at all?  Why not eliminate the marriage benefits all together, and save the country hundreds of billions of dollars a year?

Because marriage is by far the cheapest method of obtaining more taxpayers.  It’s much more economical than conquest.

The society as an organism is interested in its own survival.  Marriage and all the hooha surrounding it is society’s way of bringing new members into the society in an orderly way.  It’s such a terrible sin to have a child out of wedlock or by a Man Not Your Husband not because there’s anything wrong with procreation, but because society doesn’t know what to do with that kid.  What’s his name, to begin with?  What claim does he have on his father’s property when his father dies?  In a country with a hereditary system of government, who becomes the king?  Does the government even know he exists? Et cetera.  Possibly this would be simpler in a matriarchal society, but there you are.

This escapes a lot of people in the U.S., because we see religious matters and state matters as completely separate things.  Even the most rabid American Christian conservative sees that the church and the government are two separate things, even if he thinks the Ten Commandments should be posted on the wall at the D.M.V.  It’s important to remember that in England, whence comes our culture and legal system, the church and the state are effectively different branches of the Crown’s system of governing.  The most important laws are codified in the language of the church, and all the rest in the language of law.

The church’s sanction is much more powerful.  The most the state can do to you is lock you away for the rest of your life, or hang you by the neck until you are dead.  The church, though, can see to it that you spend eternity on fire after you die.  For a person of faith, this is a much more effective deterrent.  And you’ve got to be caught and tried to earn the law’s sanction.  Since God sees and knows everything, there’s no escaping the punishment promised by the church.

And this is why the church is so closely involved with life’s transitions.  

The Book of Common Prayer — basically, the Anglican missal — specifies that newborns must be Baptized with a number of witnesses (godparents) in attendance.  It also is quite strict on the points that no minister may refuse to Baptize a child, provided that the rules are followed, and  that any child to be Baptized must not have been previously Baptized before.

This is important because it’s the church register that determines who exists, in the eyes of the law.  If you’re Baptized twice, you’ve got two identities.  If you’re not Baptized at all, you can’t be identified and thus taxed.

Likewise, in the Order for Burial of the Dead, there are no fewer than six prayers specified to be said by the minister while "earth is cast upon the body".  The idea is that the minister, a representative of the Crown and a respectable person, is in attendance until an allegedly dead person is quite decisively buried.

So, to get back to the main point, the state subsidizes marriage between heterosexuals in order to regulate fucking, basically.  The state’s purpose for existence and means of survival is the control (or regulation, anyway) of people.  Just as the state monitors the ports so it knows who’s in the country, it has a role in the legal creation of offspring, for the same purpose. The traditions and cultural taboos surrounding marriage make the state’s job of dealing with its new small citizens or subjects much easier; the state spends less (presumably) subsidizing marriage than it would peeking in every bedroom window, thus justifying the subsidy.

All of this might be obsolete these days, now that the tax man has a computer and you’re required to show official identification for all complex transactions — thus assuring that there a person running around unknown to the state would run into serious difficulties.  Regardless, the fact remains that the state’s interest in marriage is as part of society’s larger sex-control apparatus, an apparatus designed primarily to regulate the production of children.

Deroy Murdock, in a generally well-reasoned article today in National Review Online, seems to misunderstand the church/state relationship.  He says that "Legal requirements that people get licenses before tying the knot have made gay marriage a public rather than private concern."  He fails to understand that marriage has always been a public concern, and always about the person’s (and the couple’s) relationship with the state and society, and that the church and the language of the sacrament was just the way that relationship was codified.

Modern Problems, and a Suggestion

Now that I’ve said all that about marriage being important, historically, in the regulation of sex and of the production of offspring:

The modern purpose (benefit to society) of marriage is to simplify the legal relationship between two adults.  Parents tend to die long before children, and siblings often drift apart.  There is a legitimate societal interest in the majority of adults having a legally-established relationship with another adult of similar age.  Marriage is ideal for this.  Presumably, each party (i.e. spouse) to the marriage have an interest in the well-being of the other party; the law recognizes this by, for instance, allowing one to make medical decisions for the other should he or she be incapacitated.  Unmarried people are  at the mercy of the state or of distant relatives in these kinds of situations.

Ultimately, I suppose the right solution is to adapt the institution of marriage to better serve its modern purpose: to pair people off into mutually-responsible units.  This both makes the people involved happy, and it simplifies the state’s relationship with these people, by establishing a secondary point of contact for every married person, in the event that that person turns up wandering the streets in his bathrobe, or dead, or otherwise in need of some assistance, identification, or advice. It also tends to foster relationships where each party to the marriage acts as a "sanity check" of sorts on the other. This is the nugget "marriage increases stability" argument, I believe.  It is not merely a coincidence that Timothy McVeigh, Ted Kaczynski, Mark Chapman, and John Hinckley are (were) all unmarried.

The modern purpose of marriage, though, has nothing whatever to do with getting additional financial benefits from the government or anyone else.  The laws surrounding marriage should be reformed to provide only the legal short-cuts that automatically assign heirs, power of attorney, joint credit, etc., and to eliminate the mandated benefits windfall that makes up the government subsidy of marriage today.

(It shouldn’t cost you anything to get married, either, of course: if Nicole and I were married instead of just shacked-up, we’d have paid over $5000 more in federal income tax last year, paying for the marriage subsidy.  This is the main reason we’re not married.  I can’t believe that the moral conservatives on the Hill are not screaming about this — but that’s the topic of another rant.)

I believe that, under reformed marriage, very little would actually change, after a period of initial turmoil: the market would favor insurance plans that gave discounts to married couples (if it’s profitable now, it would still be profitable for the insurance companies), and employers who offered spousal benefits.  Sure, it costs money for the company to offer employees "compassionate" leave to deal with a sick or dead spouse.  It probably costs more money to have them come in to the office and screw things up because they are, understandably, not paying attention.

If those benefits were mandated by the market and not the government, though, allowing people of the same sex to marry would not be this absurd political dilemma.  Same-sex marriage could then wind up saving everyone money and trouble, and we wouldn’t have the odious spectacle of "conservative" politicians complaining about gay people wanting "special rights".

Posted by tino at 10:25 17.07.01