A collection of essays by Bill (website@ccjj.info) accompanied by feedback from his friends.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Book Report: Systems of Survival

Systems of Survival, by Jane Jacobs

The most fascinating book about anthropology and politics I've ever read. I kept seeing things in it that I had thought of before, but never heard from anyone else.

The idea is the observation that nomadic societies are very different in their values systems than are agricultural ones. One example is given of a nomadic tribe in Africa that was told by a government to settle down and become farmers. They were provided with adequate land, equipment and training. They hated it, the whole experiment just didn't work. To apply themselves to an agricultural lifestyle would have required a big values shift. This is one of the most difficult transitions for a society to make. It means acts which used to be morally contemptible are now acceptable, and some acts previously considered commendable are no longer tolerated.

The book describes these two values systems in detail, goes through various examples of these two systems, and we see how capitalists are in the agricultural values system, and communists in the nomadic values system. Very much so. This means that the formerly communist countries that are trying to develop a working capitalism are dealing with a major values shift, and that's hard, and difficult, and takes time. Not only do they have to change the laws, they have to adjust to entirely new concepts of right and wrong.

It is interesting that the Cherokee Indians, who did the best among all the tribes I've heard of at coping with the injustice of the white onslaught, were an agricultural society before we showed up.

Most of the book is discussing the values systems of different societies around the world. This is very valuable, since values of different societies are one of the key issues determining the success of these societies.

It always struck me how those who condemn capitalism would have this overwhelming disgust at actions that I felt were completely acceptable trading practices. The values systems.differed, and it is the norm for people with different values systems to condemn each other. After all, it is easier to condemn someone as having no values than to understand how his values might in some ways be superior to your own.

For most of my life, especially during the cold war, politics were dominated by the conflict between capitalism and communism. Most people, even the capitalists, felt the communist system was "more moral" and defended capitalism on strictly pragmatic grounds. The Libertarians tend to defend capitalism and denounce communism on moral grounds, but they are so few in number that theirs is a viewpoint that is rarely heard.

The book describes the values systems as "Guardian" (communist or government) syndrome, and "Commercial" (capitalist, business) syndrome.

Guardian rules:
  • Shun trading
  • Exert prowess
  • Be obedient and disciplined
  • Adhere to tradition
  • Respect hierarchy
  • Be loyal
  • Take vengeance
  • Deceive for the sake of the task
  • Make rich use of leisure
  • Be ostentatious
  • Dispense largess
  • Be exclusive
  • Show fortitude
  • Be fatalistic
  • Treasure honor
Commercial rules:
  • Shun force
  • Come to voluntary agreements
  • Be honest
  • Collaborate easily with strangers and aliens
  • Compete
  • Respect contracts
  • Use initiative and enterprise
  • Be open to inventiveness and novelty
  • Be efficient
  • Promote comfort and convenience
  • Dissent for the sake of the task
  • Invest for productive purposes
  • Be industrious
  • Be thrifty
  • Be optimistic
This book does, in my opinion, have a capitalist bias.
For example, they feel that honesty is value cherished primarily by the commercial syndrome but not the Guardian syndrome. But in the US military, which is about as heavily in the Guardian syndrome as you can get, it is considered a very serious offense for one officer to lie to another -- people are subject to severe discipline at West Point for telling even the most harmless lie.
The book says the scientific world is heavily in the commercial syndrome, which is not really true, most of the most important scientific work is funded by philanthropists and government, and the scientists just give away the fruit of their labor for free.
The rules say ostentation is a quality of the Guardian syndrome, but many businessmen, especially sales types, feel it is very important to have luxuries to impress clients.

Book Report: "The Selfish Gene" and "The Blank Slate"

The Selfish Gene - by Richard Dawkins
The Blank Slate - by Steven Pinker

The Selfish Gene, written in the mid-70's, is a detailed essay by a biologist about evolution, particularly discussing animal behavior. Dawkins' writing comes across as very intelligent while at the same time very accessible. I have believed in evolution since I was old enough to understand it, and the analysis made felt like second nature to me, except that Dawkins, being a biologist, can discuss the matter in much more detail. Dawkins talks at length about how altruism and kindness can be evolved traits. The whole book is a delight.
But at the end of the book, I was left asking myself why Dawkins didn't make the next step and start talking about how genetic incentives influence human behavior. When I read The Blank Slate I found out the answer.

Steven Pinker, author of The Blank Slate, is enthusiastic about the field of Evolutionary Psychology, formerly known as Sociobiology, and he is furious about the political lynching the socio biologists received at the hands of the academic left in the '70's. In this book he talks primarily about two false dogmas that dominated academia during the 20th century: the myth of the noble savage, and the dogma that all human behavior is culturally, and not genetically, determined. Dawkins was right at the boundaries of sociobiology, and he caught some of the flak, but had he talked much about evolution and human behavior, he would have paid dearly.

To change gears a little, I never really understood why the Catholic church was so threatened by Galileo's assertion that the Earth traveled around the Sun. Pinker gives us some context. For one thing, there were some literal statements in the Bible, like Joshua ordering the sun to stand still (but that could just mean Joshua successfully stopped the Earth's rotation). But Pinker clarifies:
"According to the theory, developed in medieval times, the sphere of the moon divided the universe into an unchanging perfection in the heavens above and a corrupt degeneration in the Earth below... Surrounding the moon were spheres for the inner planets, the sun, the outer planets, and the fixed stars, each cranked by a higher angel. And surrounding them all were the heavens, home to God. Contained with the sphere of the moon, and thus a little lower than the angels, were human souls, and then, in descending order, human bodies, animals..., and then plants, minerals, the inanimate elements, nine layers of devils, and finally, at the center of the Earth, Lucifer in hell. The universe was thus arranged in a hierarchy, a great chain of being.
The Great Chain was thick with moral implications".
I wondered why the church made up all this crap when they had no idea what they were talking about. The answer is obvious -- religions have been doing that since day one. The telescope had not been invented, it did not occur to these people that their assertions could be tested and even discredited. Furthermore, the church controlled intellectual life, so they could oppress anyone who challenged their assertions, which is exactly what they wound up doing to Galileo.
The moral dimension is central here. When you're making a theme of the cosmos to sell to the masses, it is easy to fall into the temptation of making sure the story has a moral ending, a conclusion that will lead people to live moral lives. And once such a dogma is in place, anyone like Galileo who wants to challenge it is no longer just talking about the trajectories of big rocks, he's undermining the moral foundations of society and must be attacked, discredited, and oppressed by any means available.
Similarly, the political left in academia made up a bunch of dogmas about genetics and human nature out of thin air -- they did not research the matter carefully, but asserted their dogmas as a matter of political fashion, and based a whole set of moral conclusions and planned social policies upon them. Once these ideas were established, they defended them by vicious personal attacks on anyone who actually did some research into what the truth was.

Pinker is a major intellectual giant, he has read many of the great thinkers through the centuries, he takes us on a whirlwind tour of anthropology and psychology through recent centuries, and the things he comes up with are impressive:

On Noble Savages
"The begin with, the stories of tribes out there somewhere who have never heard of violence turn out to be urban legends. Margaret Mead's descriptions of peace-loving New Guineans and sexually nonchalant Samoans were based on perfunctory research and turned out to be almost perversely wrong. As the anthropologist Derek Freeman later documented, Samoans may beat or kill their daughters if they are not virgins on the wedding night, a young man who cannot woo a virgin may rape one to extort her into eloping, and the family of a cuckolded husband may attack and kill the adulterer. The !Kung San of the Kalahari Desert had been described by Elizabeth Marshall Thomas as "the harmless people" in a book with that title. But as soon as anthropologists camped out long enough to accumulate data, they discovered that the !Kung San have a murder rate higher than that of American inner cities. They learned as well that the San had recently avenged a murder by sneaking into the killer's group and executing every man, woman, and child as they slept. But at least the !Kung San exist. In the early 1970's The New York Times Magazine reported the discovery of the "gentle Tasaday" of the Philippine rain forest, a people with no words for conflict, violence, or weapons. The Tasaday turned out to be local farmers dressed in leaves for a photo opportunity so that cronies of Ferdinand Marcos could set aside their "homeland" as a preserve and enjoy exclusive mineral and logging rights.
Anthropologists and historians have also been counting bodies. Many intellectuals tout the small numbers of battlefield casualties in pre-state societies as evidence that primitive warfare is largely ritualistic. They do not notice that two deaths in a band of fifty people is the equivalent of ten million deaths in a country the size of the US."
Pinker then shows a chart of various primitive societies and the rates of male deaths caused by war, and notes that while in the US and Europe in the 20th century, including deaths in WWI and WWII, the deaths are about 2%, while deaths in the tribes listed ranged from 10-60%, with an average of about 30%. In addition, Pinker adds
"Moreover, Keeley and others have noted that native peoples are dead serious when they carry out warfare. Many of them make weapons as damaging as their technology permits, exterminate their enemies when they can get away with it, and enhance the experience by torturing captives, cutting off trophies, and feasting on enemy flesh."
Pinker mentions that Edward Wilson, the author of Sociobiology, remarked that tribal warfare was common in human prehistory, and was criticized for this when the "against-socio biologists declared that this had been 'strongly rebutted on the basis of historical and anthropological studies'" - Pinker looked up these "studies" and found "the reviews contained virtually no data about tribal warfare".
Steven Jay Gould, the great evolutionist, came out against the socio biologists, and was hostile to any attempt to analyze warfare in terms of evolutionary motives because, as he said "each case of genocide can be matched with numerous incidents of social beneficence, each murderous band can be paired with a pacific clan.". Pinker answers "once again, a ratio has been conjured out of the blue; the data reviewed in chapter 3 show that 'pacific clans' either do not exist or are considerably outnumbered by the 'murderous bands.'"

On The Blank Slate
Pinker discusses the studies that can be done and that have been done, keeping track of identical twins raised together, identical twins raised apart, siblings raised together, siblings raised apart, unrelated adopted siblings raised together, and unrelated individuals raised separately, and with these studies, one can get a very good idea of the contribution that genetics and family will make on intelligence and personality. Family environment can affect intelligence measured when a child is young, but the influence decreases. I had heard the same thing elsewhere, that the intelligence of a young child will tend toward that of its adopted family, but as it nears adulthood, its intelligence converges on that of its biological parents.
Pinker says "The three laws of behavioral genetics may be the most important discoveries in the history of psychology.... Here are the three laws:
  • The First Law: All human behavioral traits are heritable.
  • The Second Law: The effect of being raised in the same family is smaller than the effect of the genes.
  • The Third Law: A substantial portion of the variation in complex human behavioral traits is not accounted for by the effects of genes or families."
Pinker goes on to tell us it is really amazing how little impact the family has on the child. He estimates the genetic contribution being 40-50%, the family contribution 0-10%, and the random, or at least so far unexplained, contribution is about 50%.
There are many, many studies that show correlations between how children are raised and how they turn out, but it turns out that most of these researchers were so certain of the dogma of The Blank Slate that they only studied children being raised by their biological parents, so all they were really observing was the genetic component!
Pinker goes on"The First Law is a pain in the neck for radical scientists, who have tried unsuccessfully to discredit it. In 1974, Leon Kamin wrote that 'there exist no data which should lead a prudent man to accept the hypothesis that IQ test scores are in any degree heritable', a conclusion he reiterated with Lewontin and Rose a decade later. Even in the 1970's the argument was tortuous, but by the 1980's it was desperate and today it is a historical curiosity. As usual, the attacks have not always come in dispassionate scholarly analyzes. Thomas Bouchard, who directed the first large-scale study of twins reared apart, is one of the pioneers of the genetics of personality. Campus activists at the University of Minnesota distributed handouts calling him a racist and linking him to 'German Fascism,' spray-painted slogans calling him a Nazi, and demanded that he be fired. The psychologist Barry Mehler accused him of 'rehabilitating' the work of Josef Mengele, the doctor who tormented twins in the Nazi death camps under the guise of research. As usual, the charges were unfair not just intellectually but personally: far from being a fascist, Bouchard was a participant in the Berkeley Free Speech Movement of the 1960's, was briefly jailed for his activism, and says he would do it again today.
These attacks are transparently political and easy to discount. More pernicious is the way the First Law is commonly interpreted: 'So you're saying it's all in the genes," or, more angrily, "Genetic determinism!" I have already commented on this odd reflex in modern intellectual life: when it comes to genes, people suddenly lose their ability to distinguish between 50% and 100%, 'some' from 'all', 'affects' from 'determines'. The diagnosis for this intellectual crippling is clear: if the effects of the genes must, on theological grounds, be zero, then all nonzero values are heretical."

Other Dogmas
Pinker really despises the political movement called "Post modernism", which is a very politically correct belief system. His first chapter discussing this belief system is titled "In Touch with Reality". He says
"With some important exceptions, stereotypes are in fact not inaccurate when assessed against objective benchmarks such as census figures or the reports of the stereotyped people themselves. People who believe that African Americans are more likely to be on welfare than whites, that Jews have higher average income than WASPs, that business students are more conservative than students in the arts, that women are more likely than men to want to lose weight, and that men are more likely than women to swat a fly with their bare hands, are not being irrational or bigoted. Those beliefs are correct. People's stereotypes are generally consistent with the statistics, and in many cases their bias is to underestimate the real differences between sexes or ethnic groups."
Regarding the passion that the politically correct have for arbitrarily changing the vocabulary we're allowed to use (without the general population being given a chance to vote on the matter), he comments on how "Even the word minority -- the most neutral label conceivable, referring only to relative numbers -- was banned in 2001 by the San Diego City Council (and nearly banned by the Boston City Council) because it was deemed disparaging to nonwhites. 'No matter how you slice it, minority means less than,' said a semantically challenged official at Boston College, where the preferred term is AHANA (an acronym for African-American, Hispanic, Asian, and Native American)."

There is a whole chapter about politics that is fascinating. Identical twins separated at birth have a tendency to have similar political views.
Pinker describes two fundamental views of human beings, the "Tragic Vision" and the "Utopian vision". In the tragic vision, people are seen not as bad, but as inherently selfish, and also quite corruptible. In the Utopian Vision, humans are a blank slate that society can mold into any form necessary. Given either of these two assumptions, a whole set of political positions follows, and the chapter sheds plenty of light on many issues.

There is so much great stuff in this book I can hardly cover it all, but it is basically a summary of how academic progress in anthropology, psychology, and even the fine arts in the 20th century was stifled by the political left.

The priests of different religious sects ... dread the advancement of science as witches do the approach of daylight, and scowl upon the fatal harbinger announcing the subdivision of the duperies on which they live.
Thomas Jefferson, quoted by
Richard Dawkins

The aftermath of the Galileo episode is still with us, and the consequence is that many clergy have learned that it's not their place to tell scientists what is true and what is not. The debacle with the Post Modernists is still going on, but I predict that in the end they, too, will learn that political ideologues also have no legitimate role in deciding which scientific statements are valid and which are not.

Tips For Job Searchers

I put this list of tips together a few years ago after a quite successful job search.

  • Don't use a functional resume if you can possibly avoid it. Everyone wants chronological.
  • If you want to change fields, try to avoid too much detail about the field you're trying to get out of. My resume was previously going on and on about EDA CAD, saying things that were incomprehensible to anyone outside of that field (including the headhunters) resulting in my getting hardly anything but EDA CAD interviews.
  • Keep your resume down to 2 pages
  • State employment offices often have free classes in how to write a good resume, and coaches who you can show your resume to for advice. This can make a big difference.
  • Things are substantially complicated by the use of Word to do resumes, and the fact that Word is an ugly, unreliable and shifting standard controlled by an evil empire, and Word resumes will look different when viewed on a variety of different platforms. But Microsoft Word is the gold standard in resumes. It's what the headhunters want to deal with. Some people like to publish their resume as a pdf, rtf file or other format, headhunters don't like that. Many headhunters want to edit / reformat your resume, at least to remove contact information, and they can't do that with any format other than Word or text. I've often showed up for interviews and found the manager was reading a substantially reformatted version of my resume. I never saw one that the headhunter had actually improved, but I figure let the headhunter do it, a happy headhunter is a headhunter who is more likely to find me a job. Also, the internet job boards are usually only able to cope with text or Word formats, most of them deal primarily with text format, so you have to have your resume available both as a text and Word document. If you send multiple formats to the headhunters, like a Word and a pdf file, they will use one (Word if it's available, or text), forwarding that to the hiring managers, and throw the others away.
  • Don't just do your resume in Open Office or Wine on Linux and start sending it out. I learned this one the hard way a few years ago. Although Open Office and Wine are trying hard to emulate Microsoft Word, for some reason, possibly legal, they aren't allowed to use exactly the same fonts, so things don't line up exactly the same way and your resume can look like a disaster (columns collapsing, pages overflowing 5-10% followed by a page break) when the headhunter views it using real Microsoft Word. Over a couple of months in 2002, I sent out many copies of a resume I had painstakingly done with Wine before finding out it looked absolutely horrible when the headhunters were viewing it with true Microsoft Word.
  • When you save your resume on Microsoft Word, don't save according to an old format. Saving to an old Word format was a good idea when new Microsoft products could read old Microsoft formats, but now Microsoft deliberately hobbles new versions of Word so they can't read files created by old versions of Word (to force people to buy every release that comes out).
  • Make sure you view it with the latest Word. I did my resume on Word 2000 and then viewed it on Office 2007, and it looked awful. It is outrageous that a resume viewed on a later version of the same company's product doesn't look the same, but that's Microsoft for you. You don't have to buy the latest Microsoft Office, just do you resume on whatever version you have, then take it on a RAM key to an internet cafe, and edit it on the latest Word there.
  • Just because your resume looks good on true Microsoft Word, don't assume you're home free. View it with Open Office. Often the different fonts will bite you then. Though basically none of the headhunters will be using Linux to view your resume, they will be forwarding it to managers and engineers, many of whom will be Linux or Unix-based. Generally, I have found that the fonts on Linux are a little bigger than the ones on Windows, so a resume has to have about 5% empty space at the bottom of the page on Word to fit right on Open Office.
  • One thing a headhunter told me is to make sure that your contact info appears on every page of a printout of your resume. Many headhunters have a pile of unstapled printouts of resumes all over their desk (I think I would use a stapler if I were in their position, but we have to play the game their way) and the pages get mixed up and they have trouble telling which page belongs to whose resume.
  • Don't change your resume too often, when you overhaul it, spend days on it. You have to examine it very carefully for typos, typos will kill you. The spelling checkers don't understand the computer jargon and acronyms, it's really easy to get typos into your resume, and every time you make any change whatsoever, you have to check it looks good from Windows, and that it looks good from Open Office. If you don't have Open Office, you can download it for free here.

Job Boards

  • The places to post your resume to get results seem to be craigslist.org, Dice, Monster, Careerbuilder, and Hotjobs. Craigslist seemed to be the most widely read.
  • The main thing I have to offer is my extensive C/C++ background. Most job boards can't cope with a search for "C" and return all job listings that contain words containing the letter "c", so you have to look at lots of irrelevant jobs. Some object if the search string contains a "+" character, perhaps thinking it's a regular expression. Only Dice and Careerbuilder were able to search effectively for "C" or "C++" jobs.
  • Dice is particularly good in that you can narrow down your job search to specific telephone area codes. No other job board that I saw can do this.
  • I was able to set up Dice and Careerbuilder to deliver to me, every day, an email listing all the new jobs in C/C++ in certain geographic areas that I was looking for. This was very efficient in time usage.
  • A lot of robots scan job boards to harvest email addresses to spam with really stupid offers for work at home schemes, "resume blaster" services, and invitations to visit obscure job boards that don't really have any worthwhile jobs on them. When you start a job search, create a new email address that is forwarded to your regular email address. When you finish your job search, forward that email address into oblivion so your real email address will be unspammed by these parties in the future. In my text resume, I put spaces between every char of the email address to make it harder for the robots to harvest.


  • If you use soft keys in your editor, turn them off at the beginning of your job search so you get proficient at using your editor without them. You may be asked to write some code during the interview, and it probably won't be feasible to load your own softkeys into the editor.

Web Presence

  • Headhunters and HR departments now commonly google candidates to get the dirt on them. Article.
  • Visit your social networking sites, such as facebook, linkedin, and twitter, and make sure nothing that you don't want a headhunter to see is visible on those sites. Update the privacy settings so a stranger can see as little as possible.
  • Age: If you are a programmer over 40, headhunters will discriminate against you illegally and quite strongly. Make sure that neither your pictures nor your full birthday are visible to strangers on any social networking site. If you dropped some of your early career off of your resume, make sure it's not showing on linkedin either. Take the dates of your college degree off of linkedin.
  • Google yourself. See if anything unfortunate shows up, and if you can, clean it up.
  • One trick to make websites, such as your blog, ungooglable is to remove your full name from text everywhere, and have your full name be visible only on a picture.
  • Always eat a big breakfast before interviews. You may need the energy, and you can't be sure what sort of lunch opportunity you're going to have. If you're in a strange town, the "Big Breakfast" at MacDonald's will do just fine.
  • Usually, they ask you if you would like a coke or something between each person you talk to. Always go for the coke so you'll be as awake as possible. Bring change to pay in case it's a vending machine. When I was interviewing at Amazon in Seattle, they didn't have a coke machine in the building, and at the end of the day I was getting exhausted and stumbled on this unbelievably basic question, something everybody learns in college, which I think cost me the job.
  • Always bring several copies of your resume with you. Often you show up and the engineer interviewing you has either a text version of your resume (which in my case is much harder to read than the Word version) or a horribly mangled version the headhunter has forwarded to him. It's good to be able to pull out a nicer resume and say "read this" and when I've done that they've always agreed that what I gave them was more usable than the headhunter's version. Plus it will have your contact info on it.

The God Assumption

The Economist this week did a story about a new scientific research project called "Explaining Religion", which seeks to understand why religion is so ubiquitous among human societies. The article goes on to discuss how they are giving brain scans to pious and non-pious people, and analyzing various neurotransmitters and the role they may be playing.
I think it may be simpler than that.
Suppose that human beings are animals, created by evolution. It is clear that a nervous system as complex as a human's is capable of having detailed instructions programmed into it. Many species of cattle, possessing slightly simpler nervous systems, are able to stand up and walk, without training, within minutes of birth.
After a human being is born, it is trying to make some sense of the world. The faster it can do this, the less of a burden it will be to its parents, the sooner they can resume breeding, the sooner the individual can reach adulthood and being breeding itself. So having babies born with instincts that help them figure out the world would be a beneficial evolutionary trait.
One assumption that a baby could make is that the chaos surrounding it is controlled by an all-powerful, benevolent (or sometimes not-so benevolent) being, in many ways like the baby itself. If the baby makes this assumption and tries to establish a rapport with this benevolent being, it will sooner learn to communicate with its parent, a very constructive step. If humans are genetically programmed with this instinct, couldn't it reverberate through adulthood in efforts to establish contact with a cosmic almighty? Or, for that matter, in the popularity of conspiracy theories, the determination of so many college students in idle, unresearched bull-sessions to believe that everything that happens in political or economic spheres is determined by a small group in a smoke-filled room somewhere?

Book Review: Godless, by Ann Coulter

Ann Coulter's style is engaging, inflammatory, and entertaining. Her work is filled with jokes, and she often goes over the top, sometimes spiraling into crass tastelessness. But she is never boring.
She loves to attack, and she loves to get personal. She never tires of talking about Bill Clinton's sex life or Ted Kennedy's driving record (nearly 4 decades after the fact).
Coulter spends a lot of time in her books discussing obscure court cases. I think there are a couple of reasons for this - as an ex-law student, she is genuinely interested in the subject. But it is also a great source of ammunition - the book was written after 5 years of the Bush administration, which she has no desire to attack, and there are so many court decisions going on at any time that it is easy to cherry pick lunatic examples to criticize.
Coulter only operates in the negative. The closest she comes to saying anything nice is defending people she likes by attacking their attackers. This is not a good book to turn a liberal into a conservative, because she never proposes conservative solutions or describes how a policy she believes in will work. By contrast, in The Truth (with jokes), her nemesis Al Franken spends a whole chapter talking about how life would because paradise if only Democrats could get elected.
I've never seen Coulter mention Franken. Maybe she's afraid of him. But I haven't read most of her books.

Coulter's book starts off on the subject of crime. She blames the escalating crime rates of the sixties and seventies on liberal criminal-coddling, especially by the Warren court, such as in the famous Miranda decision. To the argument made in Freakonomics that legalized abortion resulted in a drop in crime right around the time the aborted children would have reached criminal age, she points out that this does not explain the increase in crime prior to Roe vs Wade. She gives Republican New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani complete credit for the drop in crime in NYC. Unfortunately, she doesn't describe what exactly he did - as someone who moved to New York after, and partly because of, that drop in crime, I would've been interested to hear more detail, but Coulter doesn't really enjoy praising anybody in detail. Also, she says crime rate dropped dramatically in Rudy's first year in office - if it was really his doing, wouldn't it have taken longer than that for his policies to have the desired effect?

She then spends a whole chapter discussing Willie Horton. Willie Horton was a famous murderer rapist who became a big campaign issue in the 1988 presidential election. Because I am middle aged and have lived most of my life in liberal territory, I had heard the liberal side of the story, accusing the Bush Sr. campaign of pandering to voter racism, many times. Coulter does an excellent job of cutting the liberal case to shreds, establishing that the Willie Horton case really did reflect on candidate Michael Dukakis's attitude toward crime, that Willie Horton, as a murderer sentenced to life without parole, should never have been furloughed and would not have been eligible for parole in any state but Massachusetts, where he was only eligible for parole because of a veto by governor Dukakis, and that most of the TV commercials discussing Horton did not even show Horton's face or discuss the fact that he was black. So, to that extent, good work, Ann. But isn't this issue a little old to be spending a whole chapter on in a book published in 2006?

She moves on to Roe vs Wade. She says many times that what's at stake is the right of women to "have casual sex with men they don't especially like". I think this is a major part of the issue, and it's a way that liberals don't like it framed. She also pokes fun at the pro-abortion side's fondness for euphemisms, how they always talk about "choice" and avoid the worth "abortion". But I had long observed that the anti-abortion people were just as bad, always using the term "life". Neither side of that debate wants to use the term "abortion", I feel the issue is the extreme case of one where each side insists on using their own vocabulary to the point where you can hardly tell they are talking about the same thing. Coulter points out that abortion is not just a women's issue, most abortion doctors are men, and many men are pro-abortion because they want women to be at liberty to have casual sex with them.
At one point she attacks some liberal newspaper that ran a story pointing out that the word "abortion" never occurs in the Bible. She quotes Ex 20:13 "Thou shalt not kill" as her entire scriptural case that God doesn't approve of the practice. How totally lame, coming from someone who, two chapters before, was raving about the virtues of capital punishment, and who obviously has no problem with killing Taliban. Also, if she does actually read the Bible that much (it's really not that clear she does), she would have found, 3 books later, by the same author, Deut 20:16-17 "However, in the cities of the nations the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance, do not leave alive anything that breathes. Completely destroy them; namely, the Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites; as the LORD your God has commanded you.". My take on reading the Old Testament is that "Thou shalt not kill" was intended by its author, and understood for centuries afterward, to mean "Thou shalt not kill Jews". So as long as the aborted fetus is of Gentile descent, the almighty will not be offended.
Coulter also completely fails to address the argument that a fetus is not yet a human being, any more than is a sperm or an ovum, and therefore not entitled to the same moral protection, though if she did read the Bible, she might point to Luke 1:41-44.
So Coulter, alleged super-Christian, fails to even build a good scriptural case against abortion.
Coulter also fails to make the argument that a believer might make, that if a woman is pregnant, it's because God wanted that to happen. One could then counter that if an abortion occurs, then God similarly must have wished for that as well.
She never discusses pregnancies due to rape or incest.
But Coulter also totally missed the central feminist reason for wanting abortion - if a woman wants to develop a career, or get advanced degrees, is it reasonable to expect her to remain celibate that whole time? No birth control method is 100% reliable (I know someone who got pregnant after having her tubes tied). For birth control to be effective, abortion is a necessary backup. Abortion is necessary to having more empowered women, and I would really be interested in hearing what Coulter, a strong woman with quite a career, has to say about that.

The next chapter was interesting, I had heard quite a bit of it in the media, stories denouncing Coulter for this. It's about free speech.
Just because you won't get thrown in jail for saying something doesn't mean you have free speech. Society will punish you so severely for saying some things that you will wish that all you had suffered was a jail sentence. Liberals love to limit free speech, and one tactic they have adopted in recent years is putting forward bereaved people, like Cindy Sheehan, the mother of an Iraqi war casualty, as spokespeople. Because Sheehan has suffered a terrible loss, it is considered unacceptable to criticize her. Sheehan then proceeds to utter statements like Bush is "the biggest terrorist in the world" and the US Government is "a morally repugnant system" and "this country is not worth dying for". Coulter wants to know, at what point is this person fair game? She says "After your third profile on Entertainment Tonight, you're no longer a grieving mom, you're a C-list celebrity trolling for a book deal or a reality show".
She moves on to talking about the "Jersey Girls", several wives bereaved by 9/11, who were wanting to investigate whether Bush could have prevented 9/11.
I never followed this story closely - it seems to me that, given that our enemies are so treacherous and low that they will come here disguised as peaceful civilians, one of them, in 1993, participating in a terrorist attack attempting to kill tens of thousands of civilians after having taken an oath of loyalty to the US when becoming a US citizen, and a context where the US had been immigrating more people than all other countries in the world combined, without discrimination against terrorism-prone ethnicities, while Al-Qaeda had declared war on us and trained 10,000 terrorists in Afghanistan, it just seems to me that a slaughter was inevitable.
Coulter talks about the August 6, 2001 PDB (Presidential Daily Brief), a confidential (now declassified) memo that liberals claim tipped off the administration that 9/11 was going to happen, and claim that the administration ignored it and could have prevented 9/11 had they paid heed. Coulter bitterly criticizes they New York Times (she's always criticizing that paper) for not publishing the document in its entirety. Well, Ann, since you've got a whole book and not just a newspaper, why didn't you print the whole thing? Coulter claims, as did Condoleeza Rice, that the document said nothing new, that it did not contain information that specifically warned of anything like the type of attack that occurred (hijacking planes and turning them into Kamikazes), and this time she's totally right. I found it on the web, it's less than a page and a half, right here.
After this subject, she moves on to another sacred cow, Valerie Plame. Coulter doesn't make a very convincing case here. She's in her element dragging the name of Joe Wilson, Valerie Plame's husband, through the mud and painting him as a loser and a nobody, but her argument that the administration's disclosure of her status as a CIA employee (Coulter claims she was not an undercover agent) was justified because it was relevant that Wilson only got to go to Africa on the CIA's behalf because his wife in the CIA wangled him the job. I don't think that justifies the disclosure, that's really a stretch.
Coulter moves on to talking about Democrat Vietnam Vets, and how wrong it is that nobody is allowed to attack these guys (which she promptly proceeds to do). But if free speech is what Coulter wants, how about the conservative limitations on free speech, like "No one is allowed to criticize the commander-in-chief once he gets us in a war", or "Anyone who opposes any US military action, future or past, is a traitor"? How about "It's wrong to question the virtue of any religion"?. How about the popular conservative refrain, whenever someone suggests we adopt some successful practice from another country "Why don't you shut up and move to that country?"?. One reason the Democrats keep fielding weeping widows and veterans as spokespeople is that the conservatives have excluded everybody else from the debate! And Coulter herself is very guilty of this - one of her books (which I haven't read) is titled "Treason".
I think there are way too many limitations on free speech in the American political scene, by both the left and the right. My solution to it is that personal attacks are to be frowned upon and we should attempt to discuss whatever the topic is on its merits, but I really don't think that's what Coulter wants, because it would exclude at least 80% of her material.
(News flash: Yesterday (August 10th 2007), Cindy Sheehan announced she will run for office against Democratic majority leader Nancy Pelosi unless Pelosi impeaches Bush like Sheehan wants her to. I guess if Schwartznegger can do it, why can't she? I predict that if she does run, she will be able to raise a lot of campaign contributions from Republicans who would love to see one of their most skilled adversaries replaced by a weeping mom).

The next chapter isn't very long or very good. She makes a pretty strong case that teachers are quite well paid, but spends the whole chapter insulting them in every way she can. She points out that teachers molest children at a higher rate than do priests, but I think that's partly because priests, unlike teachers, spend a large proportion of their time with the elderly adults who hang around church because they want to be reassured they will go to heaven when they die. True to form, Coulter never makes any positive suggestions about how education in the US should be reformed, preferring to stick to the negative. To my surprise, she never really talks much about the teachers' union, nor does she discuss vouchers.

In the next chapter, she discusses the many ways that liberals dislike science.
She talks a lot about IQ, and how liberals have scientifically unsupported dogmatic positions about how it doesn't really exist, isn't really genetic, and isn't affected by race & gender. She says Christians are more open-minded to opinions about IQ because "we don't think humans are special because we are smart. There may be some advantages to being intelligent, but a lot of liberals appear to have high IQs, so, really, what's the point?". She points out that "It's difficult to have a simple conversation, much less engage in free-ranging, open scientific inquiry, when liberals are constantly rushing in with their rule book about what can and cannot be said.".
She castigates liberal elements of the media for stressing that AIDS is every bit as much a heterosexual disease as a gay disease, resulting in AIDS hotlines being overwhelmed with calls from hysterical heterosexuals. She says it was determined in 2004 that 70% of AIDS cases were from homosexual transmission, with only 13% alleged to be through heterosexual contact. She also points out that many people who got it through homosexual transmission will lie and claim to have gotten it heterosexually, but not the reverse. So liberal concerns about stigmatizing gays prevailed over accurate transmission of medical information.
She discusses when Harvard president Larry Summers commented that women might have different levels of academic talent than men "Some of the women paired off and went to the ladies' room to discuss possible responses. Others went on eating binges. Most chose to just sit there sobbing. A quick show of hands revealed that every woman in attendance needed a hug. The Best in Show award went to MIT biology professor Nancy Hopkins, who told the Washington Post 'I felt I was going to be sick.' She continued, 'My heart was pounding and my breath was shallow.' (Some might describe Hopkins's response to Summer's remarks as 'womanish'). Hopkins told the Boston Globe she had to flee the room because otherwise she 'would've either blacked out or thrown up'".
Coulter continues "Can anyone imaging evangelicals behaving this way if someone mentioned evolution? ... Only the feminists can behave like children with so little reflection.". Later she says "If Summers's milquetoast remarks caused fainting and nausea in the ladies, they should hear what I think about women's genetic endowments! They'd have me burned at the stake -- if Cambridge weren't a 'smoke-free zone'".
Coulter goes on to discuss how trial lawyers, including presidential candidate Edwards, distort science to get astronomical rewards from corporations in lawsuits.
She discusses stem cells, claiming that embryonic stem-cells are a long way from curing anything, while adult stem-cells have cured many diseases. I find this hard to believe, but I'm not a biologist.
She says "What's so disarming about the Left's pretend interest in 'science' is that they have the audacity to shut down debate in the name of "science." Science is the study of the world as it exists, which, to their constant annoyance, is not he world liberals would like it to be. Liberals are personally offended that AIDS virus seems to discriminate against gays. So they lie about it. They are sad that IQ is not infinitely malleable but has a genetic component. So the lie about it (and denounce people who tell the truth as racists). They are angry that men and women have different innate abilities. So they lie about it (also cry and stamp their feet)."

She goes on to discuss evolution, for several chapters. "Liberals' creation myth is Charles Darwin's theory of evolution, which is one notch above Scientology in scientific rigor.".
She spends a lot of time on the standard claim that transitional forms have not been found in the fossil record. I find this unpersuasive - if one found a fossil halfway between two species, a creationist could just claim that the fossil is from a third species. The only way to prove it was a transitional form would be to show that it could interbreed with both of the neighboring species, but that they couldn't breed with each other, a difficult experiment to perform on fossils. However, with living creatures such experiments can be performed. Armadillos from north Texas can't interbreed with those from south Texas, but both can interbreed with those from mid Texas, making mid Texas armadillos a transitional form between northern and southern ones. But Coulter stresses at great length that not a single transitional form has ever been discovered.
She complains that evolution is a tautology that cannot be disproved, that evolutionists will not discard it regardless of how much evidence against it is provided, instead, they just keep changing the theory. I don't think that's true. For me, evolution makes many predictions about the world that are true. If someone presents me with another theory that does a better job of making as many accurate predictions and has fewer flaws, I think I would adopt that theory.
Coulter does the standard creationist tactic of attacking evolution as imperfect, but never comparing it to any alternative. A theory does not have to be perfect to be accepted. It just has to make predictions that are true, and do a better job of this than any competing theory. Is the Bible really a more accurate discussion of the past? It says the universe is about ten thousand years old or less. How then, do we explain the stars in the sky that appear to be much further than 10,000 light-years away? The Grand Canyon sure looks like something created by millions of years of water erosion, and that's what most geologists say it is. The Bible says, in 1 Kings 7:23, that pi is 3. I measured a circle once, you have to do it very carefully, but it was definitely more than 3. The Bible has myriad inconsistencies, which you can google or read a list here. Evolution does not have anywhere near so many flaws, or such serious flaws.
Coulter, to her credit, is apparently not a young earth creationist, and she bitterly attacks evolutionists for painting all creationists as young earth creationists. But she never says exactly what she is. This is partly because that is standard operating procedure for creationists, and partly because she is just a very negative person who prefers to attack others rather than promote any specific belief.
If God were going to write a book, couldn't He have done a better job than the Bible? Really.
She says that one can be a Christian and believe that God used evolution to create life, but an atheist needs evolution. I don't think that is true. I think there are many magnificent things about the world that I have not explained, and that would therefore tempt one to believe they were intelligently designed, but that would leave me with a question: how was this even more magnificent creator created? Postulating the existence of this creator would just leave me with a bigger unanswered question than saying "I don't know" to the original question. At the same time, one cannot be a fundamentalist Christian and believe in evolution. If you are going to believe the Bible is literally true, you have to be a young-earth creationist.
She says some really dumb things about we have not observed creatures evolving within the past couple of centuries.
She complains about how scientists who give any credit to creationists get ostracized from the scientific community. This may be true.
She spends a lot of time discussing how the Scopes trial happened, and that it was all really a publicity stunt and a sham, nothing like how it's been portraying in many movies. I didn't see those movies, so I don't really care.
She talks about how the Nazis liked evolution. This is interesting. Shortly after denouncing the Left for it's hostility to talking about genetics and IQ because they fear a slippery slope to eugenics, she applies exactly the same tactic to denounce evolution. I find this unpersuasive. The Nazis believed 2+2 = 4, too, but I'm not going to quit believing it.
Similarly, we can see how nuclear physics led to the atom bomb. The atom bomb was really horrible. Should we therefore conclude that nuclear physics is scientifically inaccurate? As Coulter so recently pointed out, science is supposed to show us the world as it is, not how we want it to be. If you don't want to commit atrocities, then don't commit atrocities. I don't see how believing lies is necessary to achieve that. Personally, I think that people who make a habit of lying to themselves are much more likely to do terrible things.
Coulter describes the Nazi holocaust (which she says is a consequence of believing in evolution) as "the first genocide in recorded history". What an idiot! What about the Armenians, and the American Indians, and the many genocides in the Old Testament that the Jews committed, sometimes with God performing miracles to help them do it (ever hear of a place called "Jericho"?)?
She blames Stalinism on evolution - that's a stretch. Stalin was a monster, but no big evolutionist. The Left believes in evolution just long enough to get God out of the picture, they really don't have the stomach for the part about evolutionary progress depending upon the death of the weak -- leftism is generally very enthusiastic about being nice to the weak. Also, believing that evolution was how we got here and thinking that we should take murderous measures to accelerate it are two entirely different things. Stalin's murderous rampages weren't based on eugenics, they were based on a ruthless drive for personal power. People say he was paranoid, but I'm not sure he was -- if I'd been a Russian those days, I would have wanted him dead.
She then has some fun talking about loony animal rights activists.

If you buy this book, be sure to get it new, because there's an afterword that she wrote a year after publishing the rest of the book. It's pretty funny. She just talks about the media response to her book, and her disappointment with how many of her attempts to shock failed to provoke a response. For example, no one really complained about her calling liberals "Godless". Not a peep about that. "The fact that liberals are Godless is not even controversial any more.". Hillary Clinton made no complaints about Coulter calling her husband a rapist. Coulter goes on to complain that some of her valid points, like the irrelevancy of the August 6 PDB, have been ignored. But face it Coulter, you're a comedian, not a philosopher, people don't take you seriously. You're a conservative, female shock jock in print.

Movie Review: Capitalism: A Love Story

Capitalism: A Love Story
by Michael Moore

I saw this movie with a woman who did not normally read the business news, and her reaction was that Moore only showed negative consequences, he did not explain how things happened. I agree that Moore's intention was to incite class hatred, rather than to inform. It was two hours of non-stop vilification.

A few things:

Pilot Pay:

Moore went on and on about how little airline pilots are paid. The fact he quoted was that beginning pilots on American Eagle are paid $20K a year.

Lots of people want to be pilots, the pay if you're flying a large plane is reasonable to good, but you have to log a lot of hours to be qualified to do that. To get those hours, you have to work many years for practically nothing as a flight instructor or flying small planes, basically as an apprenticeship. Eventually an experienced captain of a jumbo jet will make over $200K. Moore doesn't talk about that -- the fact that he raves about the low pay of beginning pilots without mentioning the high pay of experienced pilots is such a grave omission that it's basically a lie, or at least a major distortion. Source on pilot's pay: http://www.fool.com/community/pod/2000/000522.htm


He spends 20-30 minutes on this one couple being evicted from a farm in the Midwest they'd lived on for 40 years. A few questions come to mind: if they'd been there for 40 years, why wasn't the farm paid off? Most mortgages are for 30 years. If they'd taken out huge equity loans on the farm, then it wasn't their farm any more, was it? Lots of people would like to live on a farm, but they have to live in apartments or trailers to make ends meet. If this couple was finding themselves strapped for cash, they should have sold the farm and moved into cheaper accommodations rather that just sitting there waiting to be foreclosed upon.

The Wayne County Sheriff

The movie covers the announcement by the Wayne County sheriff (Wayne County includes a major part of Detroit) that he would no longer evict anybody from houses that were being foreclosed upon. Michael Moore depicted the guy as a hero, a role model for other law enforcement officers to follow.

If no one could be evicted when foreclosed upon, no one would have any incentive to pay their mortgages. If I was a bank, I would take note of the sheriff's actions and stop making any home loans to anyone for a house in Wayne County. If the banks did this, which they should, it would become impossible for anyone in Wayne County to sell their house.

Banks don't foreclose upon people just to be mean. Foreclosure is a necessary part of the system. It is interesting that Moore puts no responsibility on all the people who borrowed money that they weren't going to be able to pay back.

The devastation of Michigan:

There was a feeling of deja vu for those of us who had seen "Roger & Me" as he spent a lot of time talking about how the Michigan auto industry was devastated. It never seems to occur to Moore that the reason Michigan's auto industry got so wiped out was that aggressive unions had undermined its global competitiveness.


Moore interviews a lot of clergy who tell us how profoundly "evil" capitalism is. Interestingly, he does not interview any Evangelicals, only Catholic priests.

I do not disagree, however, that Jesus had a negative attitude toward the wealthy. He lived centuries before anyone said anything intelligent about economics. He thought the end of world was going to happen in a very short time, so he was not the least bit concerned about productivity or job creation. Pretty much everything he said about economics was counterproductive. Catholics are more faithful to Jesus's messages about economics than Protestants, there was a re-thinking about the subject in the Protestant Reformation called the "Protestant Work Ethic" that reconsidered these values and resulted in a great increase in productivity in the Protestant countries.

The Clown:

Moore spends a lot of time interviewing some red-headed bearded guy who I didn't recognize and who I don't remember being introduced. He said that Wall street served no productive function, in fact their function was totally destructive. He said Obama's Treasury secretary Timothy Geithner had been a screw up in every job he'd had before nomination, and that Geithner's only qualification was a willingness to tell his bosses whatever they wanted to hear, however absurd. I was really wondering who this clown was, and what his qualifications were, other than a willingness to tell Moore whatever he wanted to hear, however absurd.

Having followed the business news, it was amazing to hear that Geithner was so unqualified. Wall Street was quite happy with him -- if Obama had picked someone unqualified for such an important position at such a crucial time, there would have been a lot of alarm about it in the marketplace and in the news.

Wall Street's function is not "totally destructive". It is where decisions are made about which companies are going to survive and which are going to fail.


Moore asserts that derivatives are "deliberately difficult to understand to avoid regulation" and interviews some boob who can't coherently explain what an option is. I can assure you, the people who trade in derivatives generally understand them, it's very unwise to trade in derivatives you don't understand. I've been paid handsomely with stock options, it's an excellent way to provide incentives to workers in a start-up.

The Advisors:

Moore makes a big deal talking about how much money many of the economic advisors had been paid prior to being appointed, as though that were a disqualification for office. I want the best financial minds in the world in those jobs, and one sign of being one of the best financial minds in the world is having made millions of dollars.

Moore extensively vilifies Goldman-Sachs, and makes a big deal of the fact that Henry Paulson, Bush's Treasury Secretary, and many of his advisors, worked there. For one thing, Goldman-Sachs came through the housing bubble better than any of the other big banks and was the least in need of being bailed out. For another, there's nothing wrong with people who've worked in the private sector taking jobs in government.

Vikram Pandit:

Vikram Pandit, the CEO of Citigroup, was among the bankers vilified by this movie. Pandit did not assume control of Citigroup until AFTER his predecessors had made a mess of it, and he is currently being paid $1 a year in compensation.

The Bailout:

Moore really goes out on a limb, saying there really was no financial emergency, there was no risk of the economy sliding into a depression, it was all a hoax concocted by Bush to justify the bailout and thereby steal taxpayer's dollars. This is totally disconnected from reality.

For one thing, much of the bailout money has been returned to the government at this point, so if it was theft, it wasn't a very effective way to steal. For another, the bailout was terrible news for the Republicans -- it all but guaranteed a victory for the Democrats in the elections, both presidential and congressional, whereas before it, McCain had a fighting chance. Most of the resistance to the bailout in congress came from Republicans. Moore interviews some female congresswoman, a blithering idiot, who said it was very "suspicious" that the whole thing happened so shortly before an election. I don't see how being before an election HELPED pass the bailout, when 90% of the phone calls congress was receiving about the measure were against it. The congressmen voted AGAINST what their constituents were overwhelmingly telling them to do. They did it because the alternative was to be eventually held responsible for disaster. When Fed chairman Ben Bernanke announced the need for the bailout to a bunch of congressmen, one of the first questions they asked was "Can't this wait until after the election?".

For that matter, if the bailout was an evil Republican plot, why did Obama vote for it?

Suburban Public Transport

Description of Problem

A large share of the residential neighborhoods of the United States consist of suburbs, which have very low population density, consisting of one or two story residential buildings with lawns. Among the adult residents of these neighborhoods, car ownership is nearly unanimous, public transportation in these areas being of extremely poor quality, consisting of routes that are very far apart, with vehicles that come extremely infrequently, and most of these public transport systems are utterly dependent upon government assistance to exist since they are completely unprofitable.

Having every adult in the population own and drive a car is not a sustainable situation for the coming decades. It involves a high use of energy, and the preferred form of energy used for operating automobiles is the combustion of liquid fossil fuels, which 1) has negative implications for global warming, 2) has negative implications for smog, 3) will run into serious problems as oil reserves get depleted just as the developing world increases its appetite for these fuels, 4) involves a dependency upon a few countries that, in recent years at least, the United States has not been getting along with very well.

It is possible that the US could be in for a rude awakening, due to some sort of political change such as a nuclear-armed Iran taking over the Persian Gulf, or the collapse of the House of Saud, sending oil prices to hundreds of dollars per barrel and many Americans suddenly finding it cost-ineffective to get to work. We need to change our transportation system, and the sooner the better.

In some American cities such as New York, particularly Manhattan, population density is high enough that high-quality public transport is possible (though it still needs government subsidies). However, as energy and environmental issues become more pressing, it would be extremely economically painful to massively move the population into cities, abandoning a fortune in suburban real estate. Since the peak in 2006, real estate prices have dropped 20% in this country, and that drop is destroying our financial system. If all the suburban real estate were to be abandoned, thereby losing 95% of its value, the economic consequences would be much more dire.

Unacceptability of Current Alternatives to Passenger-Owned Cars

In a typical American suburb, a consumer has to walk a very long way to get to a bus stop going in a desired direction, and then wait a very long time for the next bus to arrive. Rarely is the consumer lucky enough that a single bus route stops both at the start and end of his trip, he has to take multiple buses, waiting something like a half hour for each one.

With trains the problem of buses is exacerbated since special tracks are required, and a train is as big as many buses, so the tracks are even further apart than bus lines and the trains come less frequently.

With taxis, the expense of the driver is very great for a given amount of transportation, even though the driver is often working ridiculously long hours for very little pay. In addition, cities often severely limit the number of taxi licenses issued, resulting in major areas (like all burroughs of New York except Manhattan) being completely underserved. In a place like Manhattan, a consumer can hail a cab from the curb (at least on the right street, in the right neighborhood). In a suburb, that option is totally unavailable, one must call a cab company and wait for a cab to come pick one up, which typically takes a long time. Taxis are generally an extremely expensive way to get around.

It is generally understood by American suburban dwellers that it is so difficult to survive without a car that only really, really poor people even try. People who've had their licenses revoked usually drive illegally, people who can't afford insurance drive without it.

Part of the reason public transport is so bad in suburbia is that almost no one is using it, making the effective population density of actual public transport riders much, much lower that the density of the total population. If an acceptable public transport system could draw a critical mass of customers, the response time of the service would improve, resulting in a virtuous cycle of "improved service begets increased ridership begets improved service ...".

Desirability of Larger Vehicles

Larger vehicles are more economic and energy efficient than smaller ones. At highway speeds, most of the energy expended by a car is in the form of air friction. A bus has less air friction than enough cars to carry all the passengers in it, and the air friction a train encounters is negligible compared with that encountered by enough cars to carry its load. Also, larger vehicles need fewer drivers per rider carried. The technology for large transit vehicles exists and is well-developed.

The Last Mile Problem

It would be nice to be able to get everybody in large efficient vehicles to get efficiently to their destination, but these large vehicles can't stop at each rider's start and destination. Getting everybody that "last mile" to and from their thinly spread-out homes is key -- if we can solve that problem, we can then get people within reach of trunk lines of efficient, large-scale transportation that we know how to do well. Solving the "last mile problem" is key.

Jitneys or Shared Taxis

In the United States, "jitneys", also known as shared taxis, that is cabs carrying several independent passengers, were quite popular in the early 20th century, but were mostly banned due to pressure from public transportation monopolies. In many places, particularly the third world, shared cabs are today quite popular. Due to low wages in the third world, the cost of the driver is low, and due to the vehicles being small, the routes are close together and vehicles come frequently, providing very good service at a low price. More on Share Taxis

Computer-Routed Jitneys

Computer navigation systems are now quite common in cars, the technology is very well-developed. It should be possible for a rider to call a dispatching service that knows the location of all of a fleet of jitneys, which would issue orders to one of the jitneys that is near the rider and has a spare seat to deviate from its route to pick up the rider and take them toward their destination. The jitneys would follow no fixed routes, but roam about the suburb following orders from the dispatching service. The jitneys could go directly to addresses rather than riders having to congregate at stops. The driver would not know the details of where the jitney is going to go, he would just follow short-term instructions from the navigation system which is being driven by the dispatching computer.

Requesting a ride will be particularly easy because so much of the population already has cell phones, and most cell phones have GPS receivers in them, which could be incorporated into the system, so a rider would call the dispatcher and the dispatcher could instantly see from the GPS where the rider was, then needing to find out only where the rider wanted to go. More advanced phones such as iPhones and Blackberries could have efficient interfaces for requesting rides to favorite destinations, simplifying the process and cutting down on the expense of operators. Riders could also request rides from computers at home or at work.

Multiple-Vehicle Routing

There is no reason one would have to spend an entire trip in a single vehicle. You could be picked up near your home by a jitney, dropped off at a train station or bus stop, then ride the train or bus express 40 miles at high speed with few stops, then take a jitney the last 2 miles to your destination. So most of your trip is done efficiently, at high speed, with fewer stops.

If you're not in a hurry, you could get a cheaper cost ride for short distances by taking multiple jitneys. For an oversimplified example, if you were going about 6 miles northwest and most of the traffic in your neighborhood was east-west and north-south, you could catch one jitney 4 miles west, be dropped at a corner, and picked up by another jitney headed north which will take you to your destination.

If a large amount of the traffic were to eventually shift from driving their own cars to riding this public transit system, we could find ourselves in a situation where most of the freeway traffic is people riding in buses and jitneys, resulting in far fewer vehicles on the freeway for less congestion.

Computer-Driven Vehicles

Because a jitney carries many more passengers than a taxicab but many fewer than a bus, the cost of the driver is less problematic than for a taxi driver, but still much more problematic than for a bus or a train driver. If the jitney drivers are paid as poorly as NYC cab drivers, who I am told work 72 hour weeks, cheat on their taxes, and then take home only $20,000 a year, well, that's just gross. If they are paid as well as NYC subway drivers, who are paid $55,000 a year and retire with half-pay at 55 years old, the cost of the jitney service would be prohibitive.

The technology for computer-driven vehicles is getting fairly mature. In 2007, DARPA held an event called the Urban Challenge where university teams built unmanned, robot-driven autonomous vehicles driving a through streets in a neighborhood (actually an abandoned military base) with other traffic and traffic signals. Six vehicles successfully completed the course. Computer-driven jitneys could be an extremely cheap way to get riders around. When traffic is limited, jitneys could just park somewhere, turn off the engine, and wait for someone to want a ride. It could still take a few years before computer drivers are good enough that we will want to trust them driving around suburban neighborhoods with children and pedestrians in the streets.

Evolution of the System and Political Considerations

Evolution, not Revolution

Generally it is vastly preferable, with any new idea, to start small, prove the concept, learn from experience, and grow, rather than make a sudden change. It is unnecessary to plan a scenario where everyone junks their cars and starts riding jitneys overnight. Some people will really like their cars and want to continue using them. Also, raising initial funding a system capable of assuming the entire load of a suburb would be a huge problem.

The biggest reason that people have resistance to this whole idea is that they think I am proposing that everyone will abandon their cars and rely 100% on computer-routed jitneys overnight, and that if that doesn't happen, the entire idea is a failure. This idea is a success if one can make a computer-routed jitney company profitable, and my assertion is that such a company could be profitable anywhere a taxi company is profitable, which, right now, is basically everywhere. If one has a company with 30 jitneys operating in a suburb sprawl of a million people, it can move 0.001% of the people there more cheaply than a taxi company with 30 cabs, and make a profit. It will, at that point, be able to sustain itself and grow to carrying an increasing proportion of the area's total transit load.

No Monopolies

There is no reason the jitney service has to be given a monopoly, We have benefited from allowing UPS and FedEx to compete with the post office, we have multiple cellphone companies operating in the same areas, we have multiple cable TV and internet companies serving the same neighborhoods, we have multiple long-distance bus lines in this country. Competition will serve the customer better than imposing a monopoly. Some services might specialize in providing the cheapest service, while others might provide a higher-quality of service, perhaps ensuring faster delivery by taking fewer riders per vehicle, or providing more comfortable seating.

Customers could also negotiate different price schedules -- for a higher price, the computer will place a higher priority on assigning a jitney to deviate to pick you up, and put fewer co-travelers on that jitney since stopping to pick them up / drop them off will slow you down on your way. People could thus gauge how much of a hurry they're in and decide whether to save time or money on a given trip.

Proof of Concept

Government is mostly an obstacle to this change. It was government that killed the jitneys in the early 20th century, many public transport systems have legal monopolies, and to implement this idea nationwide will cost billions of dollars of legal fees. The main strategy should be to prove the concept in areas where regulation is lax to nonexistent, and then other localities will want the benefit of the service and that will drive the necessary political and legal change.

We have lots of large suburban areas in this country. To prove the concept of the computer-dispatch jitney, it would be best to find an area that does not have a public transportation monopoly that is going to provide legal barriers to entry. New York City is out of the question.

One ideal way to get a foothold is doing "para transit". In many cities the government provides para transit, a subsidized taxi service for people who are medically unable to drive, such as blind people or epileptics. Computerized jitneys could enormously enhance the quality of service provided by these services, while providing developers a chance to get the bugs out of the system before they have to achieve the efficiency necessary for profit-making competition. In New York, an eligible rider can get a para transit ride for $2 each way, but they have to reserve a day or two in advance. Computer routing could greatly reduce the lead time between making a reservation and being picked up.

Once the technology is fully developed and the concept has been proven, I anticipate it will spread to other markets. For example, in NYC, taxis have a legal monopoly while, for stupid political reasons, the number of permits for cabs is kept so low that only Manhattan and the airports are serviced, leaving Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx virtually without cabs. I think once the effectiveness of computerized jitneys has been established in other cities in the country, there will be no way to prevent the voters of the outer burroughs from voting to allow this sort of service in their neighborhoods.

Early Adopters

One argument I hear against this idea is that people like their cars. They aren't going to give them up easily. The answer to that is simple -- 150 years ago, people really liked their horses, and many people preferred animals to machines. But in the end, nearly everyone gave up their horses, not all at once, but slowly they did.

I feel that while many people absolutely love their cars, for many people owning a car is a big hassle. Many people, especially women, feel helpless taking their car to a mechanic because they fear being taken advantage of. And it's not a groundless fear. The median income in the US is about $43,000, with 20% of the population earning less than $18,000. Brand new, the cheapest cars sell for about $12,000 plus sales tax. Many people are afraid to buy used cars because they are not competent to deal with problems a used car may have, so buying and insuring a car is an enormous expense for a lot of people. If a cheap public transport alternative were available, many people will jump at the chance to use it.

Other than the poor, there are people who want to go out drinking sometimes yet are responsible enough not to want to drive home drunk. People medically unfit for driving, the blind, the elderly, epileptics, would all benefit greatly from this service, as would people too young to drive.

Resistance to Computer Drivers

There are a lot of people who drive vehicles for a living, and many of them are in unions, meaning they can organize themselves politically very easily. They will fight the introduction of computer driven vehicles to our roadways with everything they have. Another problem is that while computers won't make some mistakes human drivers will (for example, they will never drive drunk), they will have accidents of a sort that human drivers generally won't have. Lives will be lost, and it will be difficult to sell that to the public as an acceptable sacrifice. For example, the BART subway system in California originally had robot drivers in the '70's, until a robot malfunctioned, speeding a train up when it should have been slowing it down so that it crashed through the barriers at the end of the line. Ever since, BART trains all have drivers.