Monday, February 18, 2013

I Wish I Had Bee Powers

I would eagerly trade five years of my life for the power to make bees appear and attack anyone, anywhere, any time I wanted.

I used to do corporate tech support over the phone. If there is a more fertile environment for encouraging fantasies about having the ability to inflict pain and suffering upon people remotely, I don't know of it. It was a common occurrence for someone to waste their time and mine by lying to me in order to progress through troubleshooting steps more quickly; I could see their system's uptime, I knew they didn't reboot it before they called me, I just asked so I could find out if I should expect them to lie to me about other stuff later. In order to deal with this, I imagined their lies being interrupted by the sudden appearance of a swarm of angry bees. My enjoyment of my work was substantially improved by this practice.

Naturally, this is the sort of thing that doesn't have to be done at work. I'd watch some C-SPAN and wish again for bee powers. It got me wondering how many years of my life I'd be willing to trade for them. Five years is no question. Would I go for ten? How long could I expect to live, anyway? Trading ten years if you've only got twelve left to start with is a bigger deal. Would I make God angry at me by using my totally sweet bee powers to attack people? Considering that three of the seven plagues of Egypt were lice, flies, and locusts, I figure God would probably be cool with it if I emulated Him by sending swarms of vengeful insects after politicians. One time is a random occurrence and twice is a coincidence, but three times is a spree and that's as good as an official divine endorsement.

I bet I could really influence policy this way, given a little time. I would never tell anybody that I was the one causing all of the bee attacks, and there's no way they could trace it back to me, sitting at home and watching C-SPAN. Instead, bees would just appear out of nowhere and attack any time someone introduced legislation that I did not approve of. Many theories would be offered to explain the attacks, and people would likely notice that the bees were appearing from thin air and that the pattern of attacks seemed to follow a political agenda. They'd take steps to protect themselves, but I could make the bees appear inside of a beekeeper's suit just as easily, so that wouldn't save them. Biologists, theoretical physicists, and political scientists would be called in to try to explain what was happening, and the best they could come up with would be to say, "A bee colony of indeterminate size has taken up residence within some higher dimension of hyperspace, and they seem to support a narrow interpretation of the general welfare clause of the United States Constitution."

Upon hearing this line, I could die five years sooner, content that I had accomplished something worthwhile with my life.

Friday, February 15, 2013

A Rambling Explanation of Fanfiction

I spend a fair amount of my time reading fanfiction. The typical response upon hearing this is to ask what fanfiction is, so with that in mind, I figure I can talk about it on my new blog and thereby forever dispel the dark fog of ignorance surrounding fanfiction. You're welcome, myriad peoples of the world. Just remember: you all owe me for this.

The short version is that fanfiction is fiction written by fans of a work rather than the original creator. Almost all of it sucks because there is no quality control, but some of it doesn't and if you know how to find the good stuff it's awesome. The rest of this post is the long version. There are a couple of links to good stories buried toward the bottom, like prizes in a cereal box.

The definition of fanfiction gets a little murky when you look at long-running comics that are written by people other than the original author, but for a quick definition it works. It is usually published online, and nobody makes money on it if they don't want to risk getting sued for copyright infringement. The legal status of fanfiction isn't quite certain, since nobody wants to take an author they like to court if they get a Cease and Desist order from them. The general idea is that it's a transformative work and thus falls under Fair Use, but this hasn't really been established with an actual court case yet as far as I know. Nobody's really in a rush to find out, and as long as you don't try to make any money off of it most writers don't care either.

Modern fanfiction mostly got started with the Star Trek fan-magazine Spockanalia, but fanfiction (as fiction written by people other than the original authors) is a very old idea. The stories of King Arthur spanned about a thousand years, and a lot of the stuff that we consider to be cornerstones of the story (questing for the Holy Grail, the round table, etc) didn't show up until hundreds of years later. The earliest accounts are 5th-6th century stuff, and the version of the story that we're most familiar with was written by Sir Thomas Malory and published in 1485. This is basically what fanfiction does; it takes existing stories or characters and expounds upon them. Tall tales made up about folk heroes are something of a predecessor.

The thing to keep in mind about fanfiction is that it's self published, which means the quality ranges from "professional quality" to "absolutely the worst garbage ever written." Sturgeon's Law states that 90% of everything is crap, and this seems rather a conservative estimate when it comes to fanfiction. If you go to a site like and start randomly clicking on stories to read, it's a lot like going outside, picking things up off of the ground, and putting them in your mouth in the hope that not only will they be food of some sort, but actually taste good as well. A more informed approach is needed. This is because fanfiction writers typically do not write for a living (although some do), and many don't even seem to proofread their work. A professionally published book will have an editor, and a publisher who has to sign off on it before it gets published. Fanfiction has no such requirement.

Not all fanfiction is horrible, though. Some writers who actually have an interest in quality will form writing circles and help out with reviewing, editing, and offering comments and criticism of each other's work before it gets posted for a wider audience. I help out in this capacity, although I don't really write any fanfiction myself. The trick to finding good fanfiction is to go off of the recommendations of someone you trust, and once you find an author you enjoy, see what else they have written. I've actually read original fiction simply because I wanted to understand the background of a work of fanfiction that came highly recommended. It's not unusual for such a work to be far better than the original that inspired it in the first place.

Another thing to know about fanfiction is that there is a ton of it. hosts over six hundred thousand different Harry Potter stories. That's the biggest fandom out there, but it should give you an idea of how much writing people are doing. Stories vary in length from a just a paragraph or two for a single scene, to being longer than the entire original series of books. Some of the longest fanfiction is significantly longer than anything on Wikipedia's list of longest novels in the English language. Probably my favorite fanfic is Kyon: Big Damn Hero, set after book eight of the novel series that was kicked off by "Suzumiya Haruhi no YĆ«utsu." It's roughly equal in word count to the English version of War and Peace, and it's still not finished yet.

Stories also might not even be in the same genre as the original. Using the Harry Potter example (since that's a series pretty much everybody knows), an example of this would be Oh God Not Again, which is a comedy wherein a magical artifact (artefact, since it's in Britain?) sends Harry back in time to when he was eleven and he gets another shot at everything. I really enjoyed it. Other writers will simply turn every story they can think of into a poorly written trashy romance novel. This goes back to the importance of finding good recommendations instead of just reading stories at random.

I suppose that's enough writing for now. I have more fanfiction to read.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Noshir Gowadia vs Aaron Swartz

Compare the following two cases.

Noshir Gowadia was a design engineer for the B-2, an important component of American intercontinental nuclear capability and hands-down the most advanced strategic bomber ever built. He was convicted of 14 of 17 charges brought against him after selling classified information to China, Germany, Israel, and Switzerland. He helped the Chinese develop a cruise missile designed to beat our existing countermeasures, and used the money to pay for a mortgage on his house in Maui. He was sentenced to 32 years in prison.

Aaron Swartz was a critic of US copyright law and outspoken opponent of SOPA who bypassed a paywall to download and freely distribute academic research papers. These papers are typically funded by NSF grants (tax dollars) but the papers themselves are not normally available without a subscription to JSTOR, an academic library database. He was not selling nuclear secrets to the Chinese. He wasn't making money on this at all. He was being threatened with 35 years in prison and a $1 million fine when he committed suicide.

This is what injustice looks like.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

On the Minimum Wage

To understand the above graph is to understand why the minimum wage is harmful. The line in blue is the supply curve for labor, indicating that when wages are higher, the supply of labor increases as more people are willing to enter the workforce or work more hours. The line in red is the demand curve for labor; as workers get more expensive, fewer people are willing to hire workers. The point where supply and demand intersect is the market clearing point, to which quantity of workers and wage levels will tend toward naturally. Wages at the market clearing point are w*, with quantity of q*.

The horizontal line labeled "minimum wage" shows what happens if you set a price floor on labor that is higher than the market clearing level. More people start looking for work (indicated by qS) and fewer people are looking to hire them (indicated by qD). The difference between the quantity of labor supplied and the quantity of labor demanded is an indicator of unemployment or underemployment. The higher that line is, the more unemployment is caused by it.

People who were making more than the new minimum wage will not be affected, so it's important to look at what the impact will be on people who were making less than the new legal minimum. Some of them will get raises (up to the new minimum), and some of them will lose their jobs. That's it for the economic effects of the minimum wage, but there are also social effects and political effects as well.

As mentioned before, the supply of workers increases when the minimum wage is raised above the market clearing level. If employers have any sort of preference for workers on the basis of age or race (and even though it's technically illegal, a white 30-something is probably going to have an easier time getting hired than a black teenager) then expanding the quantity of labor supplied while reducing the quantity of labor demanded means that a disproportionate number of the people who lose their jobs will be members of those less-preferred groups; mostly teenagers, and to a lesser extent ethnic minorities. The Bureau of Labor Statistics indicates that as of January 2013, the seasonally adjusted unemployment rate of various groups was as follows:

White males, 20 years and up: 6.6%
White females, 20 years and up: 6.4%
Whites (both sexes), 16-19 years: 20.8%
Black males, 20 years and up: 13.4%
Black females, 20 years and up: 12.3%
Blacks (both sexes), 16-19 years: 37.8%

Another report on characteristics of minimum wage workers for 2011 (the most recent year available) shows that the minimum wage affects teenagers disproportionately. While blacks (at 6%) are slightly more likely to work for minimum wage or less than whites (at 5%), workers aged 16-19 earned minimum wage or less 22.8% of the time. At ages 20-24, the rate of minimum wage workers drops to 3.8%, which is still nearly three times higher than the 1.3% of the over-25 workforce that makes minimum wage or less. All groups considered, the under-25 cohort comprises about half of all workers making minimum wage or less. While Obama talked about how hard it is for a couple with two children to get by on minimum wage, fewer than one percent of married couples earn the minimum wage. It is simply a political distraction away from the people who actually make minimum wage.

The reason that the minimum wage persists despite being awful economic policy is because it is a political no-lose situation for the party that has set itself up on the principles of class warfare. The worker who gets a pay raise as a result of an increase in the minimum wage is grateful to the government for raising the minimum, while the worker who loses their job when the minimum wage is increased is far more likely to blame corporate greed, as his political masters tell him to. He's probably never seen intersecting supply and demand curves before in his life and doesn't understand that it is the government's fault that he is now a legally non-profitable (and therefore unemployed) worker. Instead, he goes on the dole, and is grateful to the government for providing support in his unemployment. Businesses who pay the minimum wage will be upset, but the bourgeois are irrelevant in popular elections and most of them don't vote Democrat anyway, so what's there to lose by pissing them off? Minimum wage increases will likely be vocally supported by companies that pay higher than the minimum wage but are competing with companies that do not; Wal-Mart supports a higher minimum wage because they pay more than that already, but smaller grocery stores often don't. For politicians, the minimum wage is a tool to ingratiate themselves to undereducated voters. For big businesses, the minimum wage is a tool to put pressure on smaller competitors. Neither of these groups care as much about the economy as they do about their own success, so they support the minimum wage.

Monday, February 11, 2013

It's All Downhill From Here

Every house has a junk drawer. It's that special place where everything that you can't be bothered to organize properly ends up, to either be dug out later or forgotten about forever. It occurred to me that I needed such a place on the Internet, where I could post anything that I thought I might want to look at later, or not. That brings me to the point where I officially declare, with all the histrionics I can muster, this very spot shall be filled with the things that are of interest to me, and possibly also to some other people, if they know what's cool like I do.

Mostly that'll be geeky stuff like economics, PC games, anime, and fanfiction reviews. Also occasionally poetry about one of the above, or snippets of conversations I've had that I feel might be of interest to anyone who hasn't yet been driven off by the other things I write about here. In addition to liking things, I also like to hate things; expect a little vitriol when the mood strikes me.