Books: Hidden Figures

June 17, 2017

I don’t remember a lot of details of watching the first moon landing, in July 1969. Mostly I remember being bored with how long it took before they finally opened the door of the lunar module. I don’t actually know if my memories of scenes from Mission Control are from that night, or from movies I’ve seen since then. But my impression of Mission Control is of a bunch of men sitting at banks of computers.

White men, in white shirts, figuring out whatever needed to be figured out to get three men to the moon and back. It never occurred to me, until reading Hidden Figures recently, that a lot of the work behind the scenes had been done by black women.

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Books: Why Nations Fail

January 26, 2014

For as long as I can remember, I’ve heard about how poor people are in many parts of the world and how we who have so much need to help them. Yet I’ve also read how so little of the aid sent to some countries gets to the people who really need it.

I’ve read how the poverty of some countries is due to exploitation by wealthier countries, including my own. I’ve read how the traditional culture is a factor, discouraging innovation, especially it is associated with cultural values different from one’s own. I’ve read in particular how the dominant religion of a society may affect its economic progress – or lack of it.

What I hadn’t seen before I read Why Nations Fail is an analysis that shows the links between politics and economics, or that explores in detail the economic history of societies in many different times and places. When I got the book from the library I wondered whether I’d be able to finish it (462 pages) before I had to return it, but it made for surprisingly quick reading.

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Books: The Well of Ascension

October 2, 2010

The Well of Ascension is the sequel to Mistborn: The Final Empire, picking up a year after Vin and her friends overthrew the tyranny of the Final Empire. A young nobleman, Elend, has helped the people set up an Assembly to govern themselves, its membership split evenly between noblemen, peasants, and merchants. Elend is King, but he wants the Assembly to have the real authority in the land.

Unfortunately, in surrounding regions, autocratic rulers have stepped in to fill the power vacuum left by the demise of the Lord Ruler. Seeing Elend and his Assembly-led government as weak, an army led by Elend’s father has marched on the city, prepared to defeat them and restore the former way of government and life. Another army soon arrives from another direction, and before long a third army, made up primarily of monsters called koloss, also threatens the city.

Much of the book deals with what it means to be a good leader, and what kind of leadership is good for the people. There is also the issue of whether Elend and Vin are really right for each other, and the meaning of the ancient prophecies about the Hero of Ages and the Well of Ascension, but the book revolves primarily around the political power struggle.

As with Mistborn, I found it surprisingly hard to really “get into” the book. I enjoyed it, but it just wasn’t compelling until pretty near the end. There are all sorts of subplots, but action on the main plotline seems to move very slowly. Vin can’t decide what kind of life she really wants, and Elend is frustrated with people’s unwillingness to accept his leadership, even as he affirms his desire for them to make their own decisions.

In steps Tindwyl, a woman from Terris whose special area of study is biographies of great men of the past. She sets about teaching Elend how to act kinglike so that people will respect his authority. From the way he dresses and wears his hair to his manner of speaking and of reacting to opposition, she teaches him to have confidence in himself and to project confidence in what he says and does.

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Whether and how to change the flag

July 2, 2010

Even since I first heard of Puerto Rico when I was a child, I’ve heard arguments about whether or not it should become our 51st state. As with other complex and controversial topics, the arguments I hear or read often sound convincing – until someone else presents a contrary view.

On the whole, I tend to lean toward agreeing with the proponents of statehood, both for reasons of principle and pragmatism. As to principle, why should citizens of this country not have the same kind of voting rights and elected representatives at the federal level? The practical reasons have to do with the economic boost that statehood proponents believe would occur, as it has with other states that entered the Union.

Trying to predict economic outcomes, of course, is difficult at best. But I do think that statehood proponents have a point when they point out the flaws in the economic arguments of opponents to statehood. The latter group claim that since rates of poverty are so high in Puerto Rico, having Puerto Ricans pay federal income tax would generate little revenue, while more tax dollars from the existing fifty states would flow into Puerto Rico.

The question is whether the current state of the economy in Puerto Rico would persist. The opponents of statehood seem to assume that it would. The proponent of statehood point to studies that purport to show that the island’s economy would experience a significant boost. People who know far more about economics than I do can’t agree on the matter, so I’m not going to try to render an opinion. But I do know that the economy is so complex, influenced by so many interdependent factors, that you can’t change a few factors and expect the others not to change also.

The purpose of this post isn’t to argue for or against statehood, however. If the subject interests you, there are a variety of website that discuss the matter. The U.S. Council for Puerto Rico Statehood is – as the name says – for statehood. No Statehood for Puerto Rico and ProEnglish oppose it. This one gives a fairly balanced view, I think, of the issues from both perspectives.

What I found interesting this evening was a far easier question: How could we rearrange the stars on our flag to add in one more? Fifty-one is three times seventeen, but it would hardly work to have three rows of seventeen stars. You could split seventeen into eight and nine, and have six rows of eight and six row of nine, but then you wouldn’t have the nice symmetry of today’s flag, with longer rows of stars at both top and bottom.

Of course, if Puerto Rico became a state, might there be other territories desiring the same status? How would you make a flag with fifty-two stars, or fifty-three? Fortunately, a mathematician and a computer can offer practical solutions to these questions far more easily than economists and politicians can answer the thornier questions regarding statehood.

Check here for an interactive flag calculator that lets you see possible configurations for anywhere from one to one hundred stars – with three exceptions for which there are no valid patterns (at least not using the six most common star configurations). Many numbers offer two or more possible patterns (try clicking on the long, short, alternate, equal, wyoming, and oregon buttons when they are not grayed out).


Money and politics

January 28, 2010

I’m sure I’ve read only a tiny fraction of what has been written in the blogosphere since last Friday regarding the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. But I’ve been thinking about it a lot. Much of the argument over the decision deal with the nature of corporations and whether they are persons deserving protections guaranteed in the Bill of Rights. Other arguments speculate as to the possible outcome of allowing corporations to spend billions of dollars to influence elections.

The two questions are separate issues, I think, and should not be conflated. One can believe that corporations have the right to free speech but worry about the possible outcome of letting them exercise that right. One can believe that corporations are mere legal fictions with no inherent rights, yet believe that letting them get involved in political campaigns will not corrupt the democratic process (more than it already is, anyway).

At least on WorldMagBlog, the opponents of the SCOTUS decision seem to view corporations in a very negative light. They worry about how safety regulations will be dismantled, workers will be maltreated, and only the wealthy stockholders will profit. I find myself arguing on the side of corporations, because both from my experience (I have worked for seven different corporations, mostly large ones) and my studies for my MBA, I see corporations playing a positive role in society.

We probably all have read about the horrible working conditions before worker safety laws were enacted, and how bitterly companies opposed reforms. I remember reading The Jungle by Upton Sinclair in eighth grade, and I was appalled at the awful conditions people lived and worked in. There is a need for some level of regulation. But that doesn’t mean that if we allow corporations greater latitude, that they will push to return to those “bad old days.”

In business school (at Rider University), we learned that, in the long run, businesses benefit from working for the interests of all their stakeholders, not just their stockholders. They may gain short term profits from actions that hurt workers, the environment, the community, or even their trading partners (suppliers and customers), but in the long run they profit more by maintaining the good will of all those stakeholders.

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Books: Liberty and Tyranny (part 3)

September 12, 2009

[continued from previous two posts]

Levin covers a number of different areas of conservative thought, but important to all of them is the idea of limited government. There is a need for government to perform certain essential tasks – but no more. And as much as possible, the best level of government to handle these responsibilities is the one closest to the situation. That is why education is best handled at the local level. Very little was originally intended to be handled at the federal level.

Growing up in Connecticut, I was puzzled by the slight differences in laws between different states. When I went shopping in or near my hometown, I knew how to calculate the sales tax and thus the total I would need to pay the cashier. But when we did any shopping during camping trips elsewhere in New England, my calculutions were always off, because I had forgotten that other states had higher or lower sales tax, or includes/excluded different items.

There were also different traffic laws. Most other states allowed right turn on red, before Connecticut adopted the practice (it was the next to last state to do so). Speed limits were different (until President Nixon imposed the nationwide 55 mph speed limit in 1973). I think I was also vaguely aware of different state laws as to the sale of such things as alcohol, firecrackers, and lottery tickets.

None of the differences seemed huge. As far as I could tell, from visiting relatives in different states, there was not a lot of difference between living in one state or another, except those that had to do with by physical laws (climate, topography) rather than manmade law. As I studied history in school, I learned how and when different states had been added to the Union. But the reason why they each had a state constitution and their own set of laws remained a mystery to me.

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Books: Liberty and Tyranny (continued)

September 10, 2009

[continued from yesterday’s post]

One thing I liked about this book was that it discussed conservatism primarily in the abstract, citing examples more from history than current events. That way you can focus on the concepts themselves, without the emotional baggage the accompanies current manifestations of conservatism, either in personalities or programs. Discussions on worldmagblog so often become mired in specific details of what some well-known conservative or liberal did, or anecdotal evidence of the success or failure of some particular program.

Since no one is perfect and no one’s program is perfect, there will always be places to find fault, and somehow the faults of one’s political opponents always seem somewhat worse than those of people on the same side. Even when this is admitted, however, such fault still end up being used as evidence of the perversity of the opponents’ political views. This tendency is less pronounced when it comes to discussing history – though it’s hardly absent.

On the other hand, discussing conservatism in the abstract makes it hard to envision how it can be put into practice in the real world. And it paints a picture of the conservative as the paragon of moral clarity, while his opponent is a tyrant, the source of unmitigated evil. There may be people in the world who fit those two extremes, but most people are much more a mix of noble and ignoble thoughts and motives.

Who is this Statist, anyway? Levin explains right at the beginning that he will use the term Statist rather than Liberal, since Liberal should rightly mean broad-minded, and Levin considers today’s “liberals” to be the very opposite. They want to control people’s lives by government regulation that reaches into just about every aspect of people’s lives. What products you are able to buy, how you can use your money, how you can use your own property – these are just a few of the ways that your liberty is abridged by those who call themselves liberals. Therefore, Levin calls them Statists, to emphasize their use of government power.

While it is true that liberals generally favor regulation far more than do conservatives, I have trouble with the idea of assuming to know their motives. Levin says, “But it is the Statist’s purpose to make as many individuals as possible dependent on the government.” I have known quite a few liberals, and they are variously motivated by concern for the poor and oppressed, protection of the environment, or reaction against what they perceive as the moral code that conservatives seem to be attempting to impose on society. The result of their efforts may well be dependence on the government, but that does not mean it is their purpose. If Levin thinks that all or even most liberals are Statists in the full sense he describes, he is blinded by his own ideology.

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