30 March, 2007

Fun with cuisine travellers.

I was watching a travel show the other day, one of those "food" types where someone travels around the world and bravely eats whatever is customary there. A trained bald energetic guy was rushing around the streets of Madrid, checking out restaurants and cafes, enjoying every dish he was offered. There weren't a single item which he didn't like, everything was just perfect, delicious, marvelous -- including the bull's huevos.

I suppose each restaurant did its best to make the best dish possible, so I don't really doubt the guy's enthusiasm. However, I've got an idea for a restaurant owner: invent a "popular, but very expensive and therefore rare and less known dish", with some fancy name. Or, actually, an existing one could be used -- the point is to prepare it badly. So badly that the mere smell would trigger the puke reflex. Then, serve the dish to the guy in front of the cameras, may be take a bit from a specially arranged non-bad spot, and then enjoy how the food traveler pretends to like the food.

Oh, and locking the restroom may be a good addition.

26 March, 2007

How Tranai instant recall system would affect education level.

I may need to explain how the instant recall system works on Tranai (it is described in this book). Basically, every government official must wear a special collar (which can't be removed while the person holds an office), and there are special booths all around the planet. The collars contain a few grams of explosive and a radio detonator and in the booths there are buttons with officials' names. If a citizen is dissatisfied with the official's work, he can come to a booth and press the corresponding button, and, once a certain threshold is met...

Of course, the real system doesn't have to so brutal. Instead of the explosive decapitation, just recalling the official should be enough. There is, however, an obvious problem with such a system: it doesn't allow unpopular decisions to be made. Really, it isn't possible to satisfy absolutely everyone, so every political decision is necessarily a compromise of sorts -- and that is probably the major reason people hate politicians: every decision that is beneficial to one group is not so beneficial to another, and virtually everyone ends up in one of latter groups. Politician just have to try to satisfy everyone, which gives them an appearance of lying hypocrites (or you have to be a hypocrite to become a politician, doesn't really matter what is the cause and what is the effect here.)

This necessity of "balance" makes uneducated populace more attractive to governments: people who don't think critically can be cheated easily, so governments may want to decrease the quality of public education. Which creates a vicious positive feedback: the generation raised with worse education produces even worse rulers (of all levels, from city district officials to presidents/prime ministers), who, in turn, worsen the public education system even further.

Now, the instant recall system could start the cycle in the opposite direction: more educated people will more likely accept unpopular, but necessary decisions, so the government would be more interested in increasing the education level of the population. And more educated people will produce smarter rulers, who will improve the education even further.

Of course, this will work best if people live and occupy an office long enough so that their efforts in the area of educating new citizens could be statistically evident while they're still in office.

23 March, 2007

Politicians' promises database

One can often hear, especially near the election time, how someone who wants to get (re)elected speaks about his or her promises, that were either fulfilled by the hard work of the speaker, or failed, due to the obstruction of the evil opponents. Either way, says the the election-hopeful, you should elect me to the office, so I could continue actually doing the good deeds or fighting those who oppose them.

And certainly, the pre-election promises are often exaggerated, either by the candidate s themselves, if the promises were at least partially fulfilled, or by their opponents, if the said promises never materialized. In the latter case the mere existence of such promises is denied fiery.

Well, it used to be rather hard to prove or disprove whether the particular public words were said or not, and even if someone could do that, their claims could be easily refuted. Really, whom are you going to believe, the smiling successful pillar of the community and the farther of three adorable daughters, or some unwashed girl in broken glasses who spent the whole week in the library, "digging up all this nonsense"? The sad fact that most people would side with the former brings us to the necessity of the easily accessible promises database, that anyone could query.

And the necessary technology actually does exist today, a wiki-like engine is perfect for this kind of thing, the only thing that is needed is some sort of an operational protocol. Here's how it could work:

- Together with announcing the candidacy, a record in the web-accessible database is created and each candidate fills in his or her ideas on what should the targeted office do about "issues".
- During the campaign these ideas/promises can be updated but not too often, and each update should have a comment explaining the reason for the change.
- Once the elections are done, the database is frozen (the office-elect may only attach progress reports) and it becomes easy for anyone to see, what was and what wasn't done.

From the technical perspective, a couple of simple but effective tampering-prevention measures should be taken: copies of the database should be regularly mailed (on a CD) to anyone interested, and there should be several mirrors of the website. But, more importantly, the database should be universally accepted socially, so anyone with too many unexplained discrepancies in the database becomes a political corpse instantly.

The system could later be upgraded to something similar to what they had on the planet Tranai.

22 March, 2007

Phones on a plane.

FCC may drop plan allowing cell calls in-flight, which is good, because on a plane there's no walking away from someone who just has to describe her most recent visit to JCPenney™. I like the fact that we don't have to bear any white noise in addition to the engines' humming.

But do we owe this blissful silence to the cell phone usage ban? May be, but only indirectly. I think there is a more powerful social factor.

See, the persons who like to talk over the cell phone a lot, they usually tell something, i.e. they produce a monologue. And you don't really need a phone for a monologue, right? The only time the telephone function is used is at the opening stage: "OMG I gotta tell you about..." and in the end: "Oops, these rude people are staring at me, talk to you later". Between these phrases there is virtually uninterrupted stream of words, so one doesn't actually need a working phone for this kind of "conversation".

So, we don't hear these entertaining monologues on the plane only because describing a JCPenney sale into a switched-off phone (or just into the open air, for that matter) is considered silly, ridiculous and otherwise socially unacceptable. We're spared -- but not because of the cell phone ban per se, but because the chatters don't want to look stupid, as if... oh, never mind.

Which gives me a wonderful commercial idea: someone could make a "talkbox", that looks like a phone, with a microphone and all. But, it isn't connected to any network, so there's no interference with the in-flight systems (and no bills to pay, so it can be used on the ground, too!). Instead, there's a voice-synthesizing system which once in a while says, "Uh-huh", or "Really?!", or "Tell me more!" and so on. Deluxe models could also have speech-recognition system, so when the user says, "Know what I'm sayin'?", the talkbox would answer, "Yeah, totally", or something like that.

It could be marketed as "Confidebot" or "Supportive Jenny" -- this needs more thinking. Just check your regular cell phone with a flight attendant, show her that you're going to use the Supportive Jenny and talk on the phone like you normally do, all flight long!

Of course, I feel a little guilty suggesting this, but if it works, I'd be flying first class my private jet, so why do I care!

/off to USPTO.gov

20 March, 2007

The new taste of travel.

It's interesting how one forgets his home a little after spending a few days away, getting somewhat used to how things are at the place where you stay. And once you get back, you "rediscover" -- or, rather, reload into the cache memory -- the particular smell of your home, the exact position of the light switches, the size and shape of your cups, etc. It is fun and it wards off Alzheimer's.

And now, with the (relatively) new Transport Security regulations prohibiting more than a few ounces of any non-solid substance to be taken aboard, there's a new feeling in homecoming. The taste of your own tooth-paste.

13 March, 2007

0% APR for life credit cards.

You know how banks offer credit cards with 0% APR for 6-12-18 months, so you get used to not paying off the whole balance during the grace period and get slammed with 15-18-24% rate once the promotional period expires.

It is interesting to note, however, that potentially banks could keep 0% rate forever, and still make profit, as long as you pay off your balance on time (and I guess they are making profit even if you always repay your debt within the grace period).

Suppose you get a credit card with $1000 limit, then buy some stuff for the whole $1000, then send a $1000 check to the bank a couple of weeks later and then restrain yourself from shopping sprees, admiring how you're living by your means. In effect, the bank gave you $1000, received it back from you and keeps it. So if you don't go buy another $1000 worth of stuff on the very day the bank got your $1000 back, the bank gets to use your money as it sees fit. For example, it can give someone a mortgage or a business loan and get a few pennies of interest on that $1000. And if they have 100,000 customers, each giving them a $1000 for a few days, these pennies add up to millions of dollars.

But that of course works only if you pay regularly and, more importantly, don't go waste all of the credit limit at once, but instead spend a $100 here and a $20 there, then the bank gets to use your money longer.

Therefore paying off the balance does not mean the bank gets no profit, I wonder if it gets even more profit then off those poor folks who just pay a minimum payment every month, thus being able to admire the wrath of 24% APR spreading its black wings across the Universe. See, if you don't pay off the whole balance, and may be get to pay an occasional overlimit fee, your credit limit probably isn't very high. And as the wise science of mathematics teaches us, even the humongous (24% APR) of multipliers can be brought to near-zero if multiplied by a near-zero number ($250 credit limit). On the other hand, if you are a fat cat with $50K credit limit and buy a G35 for the Junior to drive to school and pay off the whole ~$40K balance the very same month, the bank gets to use those $40K almost indefinitely.

So whether you're "financially responsible" or not, pay off credit cards or not, banks get profit anyway. Which is obvious, of course, but it was interesting to analyze the mechanism.

11 March, 2007

Daylight saving time holiday: 2-hour tax cut.

I support the free market as much as the next guy, but I just have to say that today, omnivorous capitalist sharks had stolen one whole hour of our hard-earned day-off.

Really, why this time shift has to happen on Sunday, of all days? Why not on Monday, around 4pm? Suppose you're at the office, and it's 3.59pm and then suddenly -- ta-da! -- it's 5 already, time to go home. Hallelujah!

But no, instead we're losing one Sunday hour. In the beginning of the 20th century people had died fighting for these precious day-off hours, and now we're just giving one away.

What about the fall time shift, some may ask. Aren't we getting that hour back on one glorious Sunday in October? We do, but that extra hour is well earned: productivity has also grown dramatically in the 20th century, so don't you think we could work one hour less -- per year?

And it's not like the government can't just order this change, it has no problem telling people what to do in other areas. But being a free market advocate and all, I propose an economic solution: 2-hour tax cut.

The idea is to reward companies that let the workers go home one hour earlier once a year. By doing that, they are going to loose 1 hour of their output, right? So, the new cool tax cut would allow them to write off profits of 2 hours. That is, divide the whole year's profits by the number of hours operated and deduct 2 such pieces.

This way daylight is going to be saved and people will be happy. It is a win-win for everyone!

/Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité!

08 March, 2007


Actually, there are some programs in place that intend to shuffle people a little. In the US, for example, there is a special visa class (J2, I think) that allows foreign students to study for a while, but then they are forced to spend at least 2 years in their home country ("2 Years Home Residency Requirement"). The idea is that after 2 years they'll have enough things going and won't try to return back to the US, instead staying in their homeland, thus spreading American culture. Some say that Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili is the program's greatest success.

For the opposite direction, there are organizations like Peace Corps and, I believe, some churches send young missionaries around the world.

Problem is, these programs are in no way mandatory, they are based solely on younger peoples' curiosity. And actually those curious and open-minded people would learn a lot about the world by themselves, it is other, less curious and open-minded people who need to be sent traveling but alas, they don't volunteer. Catch22 at it's best.

07 March, 2007

How to stop wars

Do you think a war is possible between the USA and, say, the UK? Or Australia? Probably not, right? Not completely impossible, but much less likely than a, for example, USA:Venezuela showdown. Or UK:Brazil, or Australia:Pakistan.

And it's not just the common language that counts, as there is also one more unlikely foe for the USA: Israel. The reason is, I guess, is that there are so many Israelis (i.e. citizens of Israel) and Jews (i.e. those who may have never been in Israel, but still associate themselves with it) live in the USA, that an attempt to start a war would be blocked by them on every level of the society, including the highest ones.

Same goes for the UK: there are so many people who have relatives there, that the mere idea of a war would be stopped with a simple thought: "Are we going to bomb the uncle Patrick's house, too?".

NATO-Schmato, WTO-Schmeeteeo, they don't mean much in this respect, really. Family\friendship ties are way more important in war preventing than all international treaties combines.

Which leads to a simple solution: people should be forced to move to other countries. For example, once you reach 18, you go to a college that is, say, at least 50 degrees away from your birthplace, longitude-wise. Even if you return back to your homeland, after 4-5-6 years in college you'll have enough friends there that you wouldn't want to kill. And they wouldn't want to kill you.

There may be a few countries who wouldn't join this marvelous program. Well, the rest of the world would just bomb those and voilà -- the world peace!

04 March, 2007

Speaking in tongues shuts down brain.

I've been rearranging stuff on my desk and dug up an issue of the Discover magazine, which I haven't read yet. Otherwise I would've known that "speaking in tongues shuts down brain areas responsible for executive function and thought control". But that wouldn't do me any good since, being a poorly educated person I didn't know what "speaking in tongues" meant. I thought it meant speaking aloud, like when talking on the cell phone, which would explain why trolls some people drive erratically.

Turns out, though, it is just a fancy way to call glossolalia, but, listening to some people who talk a lot -- like politicians ;) -- I think my original idea has some merit.

02 March, 2007

The greatest treachery, or where do assholes come from.

There is an old ballad about a mountain troll who wants to marry a man, Mr. Mannelig, and if she does that, she'll presumably become human. One has to wonder, though, if a troll becomes a human, won't he or she still be a troll inside? The kind of person that leaves garbage around wherever he goes?

Now, if you remember what your grandparents told you -- that "people were better in old times", you'll have to agree that somewhere down the line there was someone who actually got seduced by the promises of 12 mills and a mighty sword (a real, head-cutting sharp sword, not a MMORPG sequence of bytes) and gave to the requests, marrying the troll.

I don't know if she had offered something else in addition to what is listed in the ballad, but it doesn't really matter. The fact is, there was someone who hadn't quite think through what he was getting into and, as a result, has betrayed as all. Because apparently this happened a rather long time ago, when the science of contraception wasn't as developed as it is now. Besides, at that time it wasn't socially acceptable for a married couple to use even whatever sorry means were available.

So they had children and, sure enough, their children were half-trolls. Since the mitochondrial DNA is passed along the mother's line only, their descendants still have those distinct trollish genes. And that is why we see the number of assholes increasing, it isn't just the generation gap, it really is happening, objectively.

P.S. YouTube carries a nice version of the ballad by InExtremo.