Friday, June 28, 2013

"We hold these truths to be self evident."

In just a few days, we will be celebrating the 237th birthday of the United States of America.

As almost every American knows, 237 years ago 56 delegates from the 13 colonies began to put their name to Thomas Jefferson's eloquently written Declaration of Independence, thus launching themselves and our country into the annals of history.

As you go about your personal celebrations and barbeques this Thursday, July 4th, 2013, take a few minutes of your time to re-read the Declaration of Independence, and reflect on its words.

And as you read it this year, also consider that the 56 men who put their names to that document were branded traitors by their government of the time.

If you need a copy of the Declaration,you can find it here:

Friday, June 21, 2013

The spirit vs the letter

As a long time player and enthusiast of all sorts of games, from board games to roleplaying games to wargames using dozens of miniature soldiers, I've spent more than my fair share of time reading various rule sets. Some are simple affairs, designed simply as a framework for people to have fun. Others are more complex, designed to be a simulation of some aspect of real life. And yet others fill multiple volumes of books spanning hundreds of pages.

In the case of miniature games, many sets of popular rules start out as slim, simple affairs, and as they grow more popular, they also grow in size and complexity - especially if the rules become popular among a crowd who play them competitively in tournaments. The reason these rule sets get so complex is because as the rules become more popular, the people playing them become more removed from the rules designers. And the more removed they become, the harder it is for these players to distinguish the spirit of the rules from the letter of the rules.

In games, determining the spirit of the rules shouldn't be that difficult. After all, the primary purpose of a game is to have fun. So whenever a situation occurs in a game that isn't clearly defined by the letter of the rules, it should be pretty easy to determine the designers intent, right? After all, the intent is to have fun.

Or so one would think. The problem is that not everyone's idea of fun is 100% the same. Plus, in a game, the way a rule is interpreted can make the difference between who wins and loses. So sometimes even the simplest rule can cause discussions and even arguments among players. In most regular gaming groups, the outcomes of these discussions and arguments usually evolve into sets of house rules.Informal rules that resolve these disputes to everyone's satisfaction.

Each group tends to create it's own set of house rules. In some cases, these house rules are fairly common among groups for any given game. Particularly where there is good access to the rules designer and/or their designer notes.  Designers notes in particular outline the thought processes of those who wrote the rules, and quite often give a good insight as to their intent - or the spirit the rules are intended in.

That's just the natural evolution of friendly disagreements about the rules.  Exasperating the situation are those players who actively seek out and exploit the letter of the rules. They will use every ambiguity, every bit of semantics to twist things to their advantage. The adhere to the absolute letter of the rules, while often blatantly in violation of the spirit of the rules.

And so, between that, and the times when those house rules aren't so close between different groups, the rules tend expand to clarify those situations.  Especially for officially sponsored games and tournaments. The letter of the rules become more restrictive to reinforce the spirit of the rules.

The reason I mention all this is the same thing applies to the law. The legislative branch writes the laws with a certain intent.  The executive branch is supposed to uphold those laws in accordance with that intent. And the judicial branch is supposed to make sure both of the other branches stick to the intent of the Constitution.

The reality is, though, that the legislature will write the law, and the executive branch will follow that law to the letter. Fortunately, the legislature expects that to some degree, and tries to write the law specific to their intent.  But no matter how well they do write it, there will always be some exploit, something the judicial will have to clarify.

Recently, the original author of the Patriot Act, Wisconsin Representative Jim Sensenbrenner expressed his concern over the revelation that the NSA had been using the Patriot Act as a means of sweeping up the phone records of millions of Americans, as it was "never the intent" of the law.

This is really the problem of certain laws - their intent may be pure, but someone, somewhere in the executive branch will push past the spirit of the law into the letter of the law. And maybe even beyond it - like has been done with the Patriot Act.

This is why it's important to look at every law in how it could be abused, not with just what the intent is. Because a lot of people operate with the belief that rules were meant to be bent, if not outright broken.

Remember that...

Friday, June 14, 2013

An Exercise in Trust

Trusting government should be like trusting a toddler.  Never, ever leave them unsupervised for too long, because you will not like the results.

Far too many people put their trust in government without verifying tht trust is warranted.  This is a recipe for disaster - simply because the very nature of government is ripe for misuse by those with ill intent.

I'm not proposing that you should distrust government for grand conspiracy theories, or anything like that.  No, I'm proposing you shouldn't trust government blindly simply because of the sheer number of government employees we have. Even if the vast majority of government employees are completely trustworthy individuals, there is still room for damaging corruption.

Take, for example, the Federal government, which has on the order of around 3 million employees. Estimated totals of ALL government employees at all levels of US government top 20 million. If 99.9% of those employees are trustworthy, that still leaves about 3,000 corrupt Federal employees, and another 17,000 corrupt state and local employees. About 400 per state, if they were distributed evenly (which they're not - Illinois tops the nation in corruption, and Kansas is the lowest).

That's a lot of people who can still do a lot of damage, especially if we the people aren't vigilant.

That's assuming 99.9% of the people are moral enough to be 100% trustworthy. I have no idea what percentage of people in the world are 100% trustworthy, but I can ask you this - do you trust 99.9% of the people in your life?

If we take a look at public corruption convictions among government employees, the number of employees and elected officials convicted of corruption runs as high as 0.8% in Illinois - or eight times higher than my hypothetical example. To be fair, the conviction rate in Kansas is about the 0.1% my hypothetical example gives - but even then, most states have higher rates than my hypothetical example

That's just corruption convictions though - it makes no account for the people who don't get caught, or who got caught, but weren't convicted. How much higher is the real corruption percentage? And that's just for corruption - actual violations of the law.

What about those who pass and enforce bad laws and policies because they truly think it's the right thing to do?  Surely that percentage is much higher.

The bottom line is that you shouldn't trust government, not because of ideological differences or conspiracy theories say you shouldn't, but because the statistics suggest that they are not worthy of complete trust.

If you can't bring yourself to actively distrust your government, then at least go by the old adage - "Trust, but verify."

If you would like to do more research on government corruption, here are some handy links:

Friday, June 7, 2013

A Fearsome Tool

Given the current political climate, and my past blog posts, there is a good chance that the title of this post brings guns to mind first. After all, there is an intense national debate on what to do about guns, particular those most fierce looking ones, the so called assault rifles.

A fearsome tool indeed, yet in the hands of a responsible citizen, it is merely a tool.  A deadly one, true, dangerous in the hands of an irresponsible person, and doubly so in the hands of someone with evil intent.  A tool that requires great personal responsibility to wield properly

But that is not the fearsome tool I’m thinking of today. No, there is another tool that many of use, some of us daily, that is also dangerous, that has also led to unwanted deaths, that also causes fear and distress among many of our citizens.

The automobile?

Nope - another tool that requires personal responsibility to use, but still not the one I’m thinking of.

I’m thinking of the internet.  Yes, the internet.

The internet is a wonderful tool that has allowed some profound changes in the world. But it has a darker side, a side that requires personal responsibility. A shadowy side to it that we ignore at our own peril.   I’m not referring to the dark underbelly of the internet where porn and piracy sites reside, nor the cybercrooks and spammers.

To paraphrase Caveat Emptor -

“Let the user beware.”

Most of us adults are quite aware of the dark underbelly, and take appropriate precautions.   But the shadowy side I’m referring to is not typically part of the dark underbelly, it sits boldy in the light, sometimes even unaware of it’s own darkness.

I am referring to misinformation.

The internet makes it so easy to spread misinformation in the guise of facts and truth. Much of it is done without ill intent - that is, people pass on information because they think it is helpful, without taking the time to check it.  Things like fake stories of children missing, or the supposed trick of using your ATM PIN backwards to call police.

But some of it is deliberate, too, particularly among teens - the internet has become the new home of nasty rumors and bullying.

Bottom line, when you think about it, the internet - for all the good it’s brought us - can be used in many, many different ways to hurt, and yes, even kill people.

Like any dangerous tool, using it demands personal responsibility.

Perhaps we should put the same onus of responsibility on using the internet that we do on things like automobiles and firearms?