Review: Strong Towns Blog

I’ve been following this site recently, and have found it more practical and current than city journal. Without ado, here is my review, good and bad.

The good.
THis site focuses a lot on infrastructure cost, the posts with numbers are eye opening. Infrastructure has increased enormously without a lot of benefit Part of the problem is centralized infrastructure leads to public cost, private gain.
It discusses what to do with old buildings. Part of me is bothered by seeing old unused building.
Another eye-opener is the problem with retail taxes. Two cities next to each other are in competition to attract retailers (to tax) and tax their combined pool of consumers. End result is retailers dictate terms to the two cities for their own benefit. THis is similar to the internet sales tax problem. A redistributed VAT tax would probably solve it.
I also enjoy their discussion of how public policy has tried to outlaw the poor, which makes life that much more difficult for them. The unmentioned elephant here is that people want to create/live in like-minded and self-policing communities but have no mechanism to do so and so resort to inefficient and costly means that harm the poor. They need to read The Big Sort and Steve Sailer.
They are in favor of land value tax, which I’ve long supported.
They like density. That’s not my preference but I agree on them that there are too many wasteful parking spaces in most places-that stretch out road and other infrastructure requirements.
They highlight conference centers and other redevelopment bondoogles which warm the money loving cockles of my heart.
I enjoy their discussion of mixed use small streets with low speed limits. Their idea is to put cars, pedestrians, bikes all together, like a parking lot. I’m not entirely sold but it is an interesting idea.

The Bad.
They have a vendetta against what they call stroads – which are roads with speed limits of 30-50 MPH, stop lights, a buffer and marked lanes. They want to do away with them but there needs to be some intermediary between streets and highways – branches between the leaves and trunks. These will naturally be a prime place for businesses. There is a reason there are so many stroads after all, they are filling a natural function.
People do want to go places that are not withing walking distances, to have more choices than what their local neighborhood can support – something niche or something with large crowds for example. I think they present enough evidence of problems that stroads clearly do need to be rethought which I will address in a future post.
The other is their blithe self assurance that the self driving cars will lead to a future parking lotless walkable paradise. It seems to me that the opposite will occur. People will travel in cars more since the costs of doing so is less. Since car use is highest during rush hour, many workers will still find it convenient to own at least one car. And parking lots will still be needed, preferably close to customers and arterial roads to save miles. One can hope they will be more efficient, but I don’t think you need self driving cars to accomplish that.

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Hacking an Election

I recently watched the movies Sneakers. At the end of the movie, the writer fantasized about hacking funds from RNC and moving it to amnesty international and the negro college fund – having previously taken the position that a true revolution would lead to chaos and misery (for the obvious Burkean reasons.)
   So what to hack for the biggest impact? The scenario outlined above would lead to internal investigations and the target hardening their defenses, basically it’s a one-off. Good but not best.
    Stealing an election would gets you four years of resources allocated more to your liking instead of a few weeks. How about hacking the vote? Risky because the chances of getting caught is high. Risky because getting caught here would outrage the public leading to harsh penalties and delegitimizing the candidate
   Perhaps best to hack the computers of the opposing presidential campaign to screw up their election day get out the vote algorithms. It’s potentially a one-off too, but with high impact as the campaign directs resources into places where they are irrelevant or ineffective. Vulnerabilities of the target are high as it is mostly newly built and rapidly expanded. Chances of detection are low, because the organization is disbanding in a few days. Consequences of detection are low as the public won’t think much of a would be POTUS that can’t even keep his own data safe – so risk of outrage and delegitimization is much lower.
  Is there evidence this has happened? Well, IT personnel and general and hackers like the group ~unknown~ are to the left. This attack would impact low turnout elections. Obama v. McCain was high turnout so any hacking would probably have been of negligible effect. Obama v. Romney was low turnout. Romney did much worse than generally expected, losing by a wide margin when expected to lose by small margin. The common explanation for that is hurricane->Chris Christie says something nice about Obama-> sways fence-sitters. I find that explanation thin as this was a mobilize-the-base sort of election, not a sway-the-fence-sitters election
  Additionally I would expect that the hacker types would support Obama over Hillary and Bernie over Hillary. I don’t know enough about the democratic primaries to offer an opinion on if there is evidence of that happening though.
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The Intrawebz: Becoming a small town.

The internet I grew up with was a universal big city accessible to all in the privacy of their own homes. Allow me to explain: like a city, it could cater to very minority tastes. A big city, like New York, undoubtedly has Mongolian resturaunts and a pigeon roller club. A town on the other hand can only support instituionss and businesses that have a very broad following. In a small town, there is only one social network and all of you acts and interactions will quickly become public knowledge – thus it behooves you to be polite and behave yourself. In the city most everyone you deal with are strangers and you won’t see them again, and they have no access to your social network. Thus you can be as ill-mannered and poorly behaved as you like with little likelihood of long term repercussions. Now if you behave badly as a customer you will get rated and your bad behaviour will follow you around just like in a small town. The only think lacking is for goverment to adopt this system for its bureacrats.
 The internete of the nineties was the big city – minority tastes and anonymous, shopping done by botique. The internet of the teens is small town – social, doxxed, with reputation paramount. Shopping is by mail through the new Sears – Amazon. The logic of social is that one network will rule them all (or various social networks will allow themselves to be integrated seamlessly). Of course minority tastes can still be catered to, provided they aren’t frowned upon by The Society.
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Civil Servants

Civil servants enjoy a numerous protections. It is nearly impossible to fire a civil servant. These protections stem from the progressive era in an attempt to stop the spoils system, and abolish political machines that existed in every major city and in a few states (at the time these local goverments had a collective cash flow much larger than the federal level. These protections were granted to the federal level as part of the package).
     Unfortunately this did not long restrain human nature. This left both parties at the mercy of civil servants who are much more motivated to vote and campaign than people whose jobs don’t directly depend on goverment policy. Perversely the worse they problem becomes that they are to fix, the greater security and oppurtunity for advancement they enjoy. The board was tilted in the direction of goverment growth and away from any possible retrenchment. The Hatch act was passed to limit their power – they are liable to fines if they are caught campaigning directly for a candidate or prop. OTOH, promoting a viewpoint etc is still acceptable.
  I see parrallels in this to other protected classes in history-the clergy at the time of the reformation, the samauri class before the Meiji restoration. In both cases sweeping the class away restored the flexibility and drive to society that it needed to progress.
Therefore I float the following proposals:
1.Civil Servants can no longer vote in elections for the goverment they work for. That is federal employees cannot vote in federal elections, state employees in state elections, &c. One thing to be worked out is how employees of goverment dependent organization would be affected for example big defense contractors or employees of state supported universities. Or farm subsidies. Or are national highways a subsidy to car manufactures?
2. The power to fire goverment employees for non-performance be restored, not to politicians cajjing votes, but to the public who is served by them. This might be as simple as via surveys of users that is commonly used to rate employees in the real world. Alternately a jury could be called to ratify use of this power. I am thinking here of the recent VA scandals, and how the system could be made much more responsive to feedback.
Number one is to take away the automatic incentive that the political parties have to expand the bureacracy. Number two is aimed at making them more responsive by creating individual responsibility. These are rough ideas, but the proper functioning of our state requires that some steps be taken.
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Some thoughts on the Benedict Option

1. The mission of the mormon church is not related to the preservation or propogation of an ethnic group. The church attempts to preserve cultures when it is able to, but ultimately missionary work and temple work are core functions. (My view of culture is like that of Spengler (Goldman), cultures and peoples are mortal and all will die, except for the jews who are the Lazarus of peoples (among other things) – to demonstrate that God has all power over death. I’d add that just like individuals we try to preserve life and honor in memory those who have gone before.)

2. The core ethnic groups of the church is new englander, english, and scandinavian. All of these ethnicities “in the wild’ have embraced the project of radical individualism in a goverment frame that has lead to SSM, and is contrary to mormonism as we understand it. Any attempt to promote and preserve a mormon ethnicity will by istelf be self-defeating. Those ethnicities are weak reeds.

3. Given 1 and 2, the church will fail and corrupt if it is dependent on our children alone. Because the core mission will be lost-replaced with preservation of the ethnicity, and the church will be bent to accomodate the needs and desires of this ethnic group. And sooner or later bent to the point that it is broken.

4. The key question then becomes one centered around missionary work. How do we continue to do missionary work in the changing culture of the mainstream. Where will new converts come from? How will they be converted? What restrictions will be placed on missionary work? From this perspective what the bendict option offers is bases of refuge to recuperate and rearm between sallies into the unbelieving world.

5. I don’t think our wards can always be considered that base. As pointed out there are considerable  numbers of members who are not on the same page as the brethren with SSM. Wards vary of course, but I don’t think we can assume that the world is not with us when we are at church. Now if we pursued the jettboy option and tried to purge them I think this would not get them to where we would want them to be. The results of the purge would poison the goodwill and damage the community that still remains. It would also limit missionary work because some of the purgees will have been doing missionary work, also it would change us to be less accepting of converts who though sincere are often not orthoprax or orthodox. The risk also is that we get in an ratcheting escalator of purging and purity that can only end in the churchs destruction.

6. I would like to respond to the comment that missionary work outside of the US is little value becuase the culture don’t transmit and retention rates are poor. As for culture, as per point 2 our culture is not a source of salvation. If the culture is put in pre-eminent place we will fail because the culture will (is)corrupt. It is only as the members seek Christ and work with him in the vineyard that the culture is leavened. As for poor retention rates: don’t look at those rates, rather look at what percent active people who are attending a ward are converts. I was in a latin mission. Easily more than half of the active members were converts. Even in the US wards I have been in its a third or more. I’d guess  if you included children whose parents are converts it would easily exceed half.

7. I think T. Greer is closer to the truth. Wether to accept or reject the gospel as mostly in the person, not in his upbringing. We need to teach the gospel to our children, but we need to accept that we cannot gaurentee that it will take. We also need to teach the gospel to everybody so that those who are his sheep will hear his voice and believe. Again, as per the scriptures this is not, and will not be most people. But there are people even now in the world rejoicing at the triumph of SSM who will become disillusioned with it, will see it as at best hollow, and will start to seek something else, something more meaningful.

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The Ancient and Modern culture of Japan


I just finished reading Alan MacFarlanes Japan through the Looking Glass. He argues that Japan is unique in that it is an industrialized but not modern society. In this post I first collect my thoughts on what I believe to be the origins of the Japanese. Then I react to what I see as the message of his book – industrialized but not modern.

Origins of Japanese
Pre historical Japan was unusual in that it was home to sedentary hunter-gatherers(-fishers). Heavy rainfall led to a temperate rainforest and rich seafood meant that hunter-gatherers did not have to move to other places to get enough food. It is likely that these permanent villages diverged drastically from each other, 1st due to the great variation in climate and 2nd because they did not move, there was a lot less need to find and stick to common language and culture. So pre-historical Japan was probably a lot like New Guinea-thousands of languages not neccesarily having much in common. Thus the Ainu, who are the only one of these groups that survived into historical times, should not be expected to have much in common with these pre-Japanese, not in language nor in culture. Genetically they are probably not too different from the pre-japanese (the Jomon).
Then, a group of Korean farmers came to Japan. This was probably not a large group. It was probably a medium sized group or a trickle of Korean farmers over a period of time. These koreans spoke an archiac form of korean and not just an archaic form, but a dialect that went extinct and not the dialect that evolved into modern korean. Their language could be seen as the uncle of modern Korean.
These Korean farmers introduced rice agriculture and started a revolution of affairs in Japan. Genetic tests show modern Japanese are mostly descendants of these farmers, perhaps 80% ancesral korean and 20% pre-Japanese. This is not too surprising, as these farmers would have had agricultural adaptations and the natives would not have. They would have had a genetic predisposition to tolerate long repetitive work, plan far ahead, resist the diseases that came with increased population densities of agriculture, and to resist the malnutrition that comes with the switch from a varied hunter-gatherer diet to a monotonous agricultural diet. This is the typical result when farmers move into an area occupied by hunter-gatherers. Neither Koreans nor Japanese will be thrilled with this kinship but the genetic evidence is pretty clear. What is unusual about this case though is that the culture of the hunter-gatherers prevailed over the farmers. Linguistic analysis shows a very small contribution of the ancient Korean language to the Japanese language. A little less than 15% maybe. Other cultural markers also show a little but not much affinity to proto-Korean culture. Perhaps the Korean farmers were brought back to Japan as slaves. Perhaps after settling they were quickly vassalized. Or maybe the pre-Japanese culture was simply more dynamic. In any case it seems important that the pre-Japanese had a high population density. Normally in these cases the farmers overwhelm the hunter-gatherers through sheer numbers + disease, despite that man for man the HGs are much better warriors. In this case maybe the comparative density was not great enough to overcome the farmers limitations and they lost militarily and had to accept inferior status.
This finally takes us the the message of MacFarlanes book. The unusual culture of Japan that is not seperated into parts like modern cultures except on a superficial level. What he calls the axial age pre-suppositions that nature is seperate from the superanatural, that the economy is seperate from the religion, that art is seperate from the family and so forth. The Japanese culture, at heart descended from a hunter-gatherers, has a view that does not see the world as a collection of different things but rather sees the world as an interconnected web. That is they see relations, not things. As MacFarlane says their world is still one of enchantment, not modern disenchantment. But despite having a hunter-gatherer culture they have a farmer spectrum of personalities – able to tolerate the daily grind, and to submit to authority and conform. THis means they are very succesful at modern economies which requires massive specialisation (daily grind for most) and massive cooperation/scale (submissive and conformist). In fact the extremely labour intensive form that farming took in Japan in later centures means that they are probably more farmer adapted than any other people in the world. Litte wonder then their economy is so productive. Further reading if interested:

As a mormon I find the takeaway of the book very interesting. MacFarlance concludes the book by saying that the lesson of the unique Japanese way is that (post)modernism with its alienation, disenchantment and competitiveness is not the only way to enjoy the material abundance and scientific know-how of modernity. There are alternate ways. He does not hold the Japanese way as a model because it also has a number of negatives, but it does show other ways are possible. This is interesting because one of the features of mormonism is to look towards a society where there is no competition, neither economic or for status. The early attempts of mormonism to create this society generally failed, through a combination of lack of productivity and an inability of the people in these experiments to completely leave behind their competitive orientation of their societies of origin. These attempts, despite failing at their immediate goal, have fruitfully influenced mormonism since then. Reading this book, I think the key is going to be an attempt to see things instead of seperate entities as together i.e. “truth is one eternal round”. Also in raising children to get them to grow in a way that they see society as an extension of family instead of a focus of getting them ready to stand on their own two feet. One might interject that such children would not be sheltered in an accomodating society like Japanese kids are, but I am encouraged by an article I read recently that BYU graphic arts graduated were in high demand, not just because they were thoroughly trained in that field but because they were team players and did not expect that everything should give way to their artistic vision. The Mormon idea of “Zion” will always haunt my vision of what good society is. As follow up I think reading some of his source materials expecially in regards to Japanese child rearing practices. Clearly a lot of Japanese culture is incompatible with the gospel, such as their casual attititude towards marriage. We are definitely of the view that husband and wife need to be one and this relationship has priority over all others except our relationship with God. I’m also curious as to how Japanese Mormons view and do things. Perhaps i can find a japanese mormon blog somewhere? But first- nihongo wakaritai des.

As a final thought. One thing that is unusual about Japanese genetics is that they seem to have an unusual number of anti-alcoholism adaptations such as higher levels of alchol allergies, higher rate of alcohol metabolism etc. (collectively speaking, individuals of course are all over the map like everyone else). As pure speculation, maybe alcohol didn’t come to Japan with agriculture like everywhere else. Maybe being sedentary they could ferment large quantities of fruit? tubers? unlike hunter-gatheres/pastorilists who are limited by how many bags they’d be willing to carry around. So perhaps they started adapting to alcohol before farming, and some of these genes are among the 10% that survived from the pre-Japansese

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TOE: Let’s you and him fight part II

Part 1 is a discussion on social media site of Professor Jared Decker on members of the church subscribing to the theory of evolution. This was written soon afterwards but publishing was delayed.

My argument is that biology and TOE (Theory of Evolution) does not contain transcendant truths. Not every member needs to be a biologist or even familiar with biology. They can and do still live happy productive lives even if they think TOE is false. I’m also saying the reason they think and say TOE is wrong is often because they’ve been lead to believe that TOE discredits the christina religion beyond saying that Jesus was a wise teacher and the resurrection is an encouraging metaphor. If I thought the TOE and my faith were incompatible then I too would jettison TOE and not look book. My faith has blessed my life immeasurably – TOE and genetics is a hobby. Now one can clearly believe TOE and also believe Jesus is the literal Son of God and Monson is the prophet. You and I are living proofs of that. But at the same time, we have to acknowledge that TOE has shaken the faith of some and has been an obstacle to others. That person in Sunday School is not making the statement about TOE in a vacuum. It is in reaction to the difficulties some have with it, and in reaction to attempts that are made to use TOE to shake peoples faith (which does happen). What that person is saying is that if TOE disproves the gospel then TOE is wrong because I know, that the Gospel is true and altogether good.

If I may share a scenario so you can see what it would be like if the shoe was on the other foot. I am an electrical engineer. I’ve noticed that most people are shockingly ignorant of even the basics of electronics engineering such as the right hand rule, let alone understanding more important things like Maxwells equations. And you know what – I’m beginning to suspect they have pretty much zero interest in the field. Shocking, I know. Yet somehow they manage to live good lives, get saving ordinances done and increase in faith, wisdom and charity with charity being the most important thing we can attain in this life. Yes I imagine that as part of our eternal progression we will learn all things including electronics – we will become polymaths. But that isn’t the focus of this life. So let us suppose then that you are one of those people, ignorant of how electronics work. Let us say that to make a point about some gospel principle you make an analogy based on an incorrect understanding of how your smartphone works. Then let us suppose I jump all over you and thoroughly demonstrate how your understanding of electronics is stupid and foolish. Result: you and everyone else in the class will think (correctly) that I am using my superior knowledge in that field to bully you. They will continue to be ignorant of the principles upon which electronics are based. And I will have completely missed your point which had to do with a gospel principle and not that you suddenly decided that you needed to educated everyone on electronics.

The bottom line is that richard dawkins and the like claim that biology has a transendental truth (It can make definitive claims on things outside of the field) more specifically that the Theory of Evolution discredits christianity and pretty much all forms of theism where god(s) has any particular interst in us. I say it does not contain an ovarching truth that is applicable to life the universe and everything. Like other fields the truth are applicable within its field, and those of us outside of that field can benefit from it without needing to be knowledgeable in it. For biology – I can take medicine and eat food without understanding biochem, genetics, or how application of the breeders equation and old school genetic engineering techniques have increased crop yields tremendously. If we really do all need to be knowledgeable in all fields (because we are voters or something?), then we are screwed because we simply aren’t smart enough. I think the last time the sum of human knowledge was small enough that one person could claim to be knowledgeable in all fields (and for simplification lets limit ourselves to hard science and leave out law and history and sociology and such), I say the last time someone could expect to be knowleadgeable of all fields was probably over a hundred years ago and probably a lot farther back than that. It ain’t going to happen. Thousands of smart people are resarching thousands of different things. They aint enough time in life to learn them all. And there are other things we want to do with our life. Fortunately just as the body of christ can have its different parts working together to function well, I believe our society can have its specialists working in their spheres to meet societies needs and wants. Some will need to be biologists, some doctors, some farmers, and so forth. The bottom line is we need to stop looking to researchers and scientists for transcendental truth. Not in fashion nowadays but once upon a time people claimed that Ensteins theory of relativity disproved religion. Again what happened is that people had looked to Newtonian physics to construct a framework of meaning within their religion and support their understanding of gospel truths and Einsteins theory of relativity showed Newtonian physics to be small part of a much larger and different looking picture. Oops!

The arguement that TOE disproves gods existence is a reformulation of an argument first popularized during the enlightenment but much older than that. The arguement goes like this: We live in a world full of misery, where both good and bad suffer and eventually die. TOE of evolution can at best be used as supporting evidence that this world is imperfect, people by nature are selfish, and we will die. How could a perfect and good God have created such a world? But for us, believers, these additional observations about the world have little power. “Well, duh, this is a fallen world after all.” Dragging the theory of evolution into this old argument adds little to it for the imperfection of this world is obvious to all*, but for the fact that the churches of those days had once again gotten into a scientific controversy, and picked the wrong side.

(*Except to Leibniz apparently, which proves the old adage that some things are so dumb that only a genius could believe them. If you were ever requireded to read the dreadful Candide; it rebuttals Leibnizs rosy view ad nasuem until in the end you want to punch Liebniz, Voltaire and the phrase, “this is the best of all possible worlds” in the face.)

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