Comments invited. They can be sent to me at unger(at)cs(dot)columbia(dot)edu
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May 21, 2013
At a time when we are still in deep economic trouble, with huge numbers of people unemployed, or under-employed, and with no serious effort to get corporations and the super-rich to pay more taxes, many states and municipalities are turning to gambling as a "painless" revenue source. We are seeing more state lotteries, licensing of casinos, etc., and the use of the internet to make it easier for people to gamble. Is this a good thing, or is there a serious down side? Place your bets as to what my position is on this.
February 20, 2013
The means used to protect people and the environment against harmful artifacts are falling further and further behind the rapid advances being made in science and technology. All kinds of attractive, but potentially harmful, new products are being marketed that have not been adequately studied. The regulatory agencies that are supposed to play a protective role in this area have been systematically weakened, mainly by legislation, and by gross underfunding. In effect, a product is assumed to be OK unless there is unequivocal proof that there are serious problems with it. The effects are particularly serious in the areas of climate change, pharmaceutical products, and our food supply
December 20, 2012
People who can't talk to one another won't get into arguments, but they also are not likely to become friends, will have problems working together, and won't be able to interact politically very well. In countries where different languages are spoken by different segments of the population, squabbles over language use are common and, in some cases contribute to, or lead to, separatist movements. So it makes no sense for the US, which is fortunate to have one language spoken by almost all Americans, to create problems by granting citizenship to millions of people whose English language skills are grossly inadequate. Unfortunately, this is what is now happening, as evidenced by the requirement that many voting precincts must provide interpreters at the polls, and foreign language versions of ballots.
November 3, 2012
As we see billions of dollars spent promoting major party candidates in our elections, many people are moved to fight to get laws enacted to cap such expenditures and/or to get some sort of public funding for election campaigns that would help third parties. But Supreme Court decisions thwarting such efforts, are leading to calls for a constitutional amendment. Is this the best way to cope with this truly difficult problem? I believe there are better ways in which people working in the interest of the great majority of Americans can use their time and energy.
September 19, 2012
Even at a time when we are seeing the steady erosion of so many of our civil liberties, it is interesting, and perhaps a source of pride, that the US has always been, and remains today, the country in which freedom of expression is the greatest. This freedom has been undermined elsewhere in the name of protecting people against verbal attacks that might hurt their feelings, or motivate others to mistreat them. Even here we have to be on guard continuously against attacks on free expression and the free flow of information, the most serious of which are currently being carried under the guise of protecting national security.
August 7, 2012
If the only effect of an election is to determine the winner, then, if there are only two contenders on the ballot, voting for the better of the pair, even if one strongly dislikes that candidate, might make sense. But, presumably there will be more elections in the future, and the outcomes of these elections may be influenced by the votes for ALL candidates in the current election. This, and other considerations, undercut the value of sophisticated, "strategic", voting and suggest a more straightforward process for deciding who to vote for.
July 25, 2012
War with Iran, starting some time in the next few months, probably not long before our upcoming presidential election, is a real possibility. The primary cause is related to the reputed desire of Iran to acquire nuclear weapons for use against Israel. As in the Iraq case, there is much controversy over assertions made by those advocating attacking Iran. Does Iran really intend to join the nuclear club, and, if they did, would this be something we could not live with?
June 7, 2012
While the internet is a fabulous resource, it does have some shortcomings, due, in part, to poor design of many websites. Immature or malicious users are also troublesome. What are the problems, and what can be done about them?
Apri 4, 2012
Uses of materials in a form consisting of particles with at least one dimension less than 100 nanometers (a nanometer is a billionth of a meter) are proliferating at a great rate. We are seeing this exciting new technology applied to increasing numbers of consumer products, industrial materials, and medical procedures. And it appears that this is just the beginning. This is the good news. The bad news is that the same properties that make nanoparticles so useful also make them potentially dangerous, both to humans and to the general environment. What is being done to protect us against us against such hazards?
February 10, 2012
A two thousand dollar laptop computer today is vastly more powerful than the most expensive supercomputer was in 1975. Great advances have been made in the related field of automation, and in many other technical fields. Applied to manufacturing and the supply of various services, the amount of labor needed to perform many tasks has been greatly reduced. This explains why working people today, despite shorter work days and more vacation time, are earning much more in real dollars than they were 35 years ago. Wouldn't it be great if the previous sentence were true? Why isn't it true?
January 5, 2012
What does China, Iran, North Korea, Yemen, the USA, and Saudi Arabia have in common? They are the top 6 countries of the world with respect to the number of annual executions. That doesn't mean capital punishment is necessarily a bad thing, but it does suggest that perhaps we ought to think hard about it.
November 29, 2011
It looks as tho, after a long slumber, the sleeping giant, American democracy, has suddenly awakened. A broad spectrum of Americans, recognizing how the country has been captured by the corporate elite, is effectively shouting, "I'm as mad as hell, and I'm not going to take this anymore!" Beginning with a few hundred, mostly young, people taking over a small park near the Wall Street stock exchange, a growing movement appears to be gaining momentum. This despite efforts by a number of city governments, led by New York Mayor Bloomberg, to shut it down thru the use of police equipped for combat with paratroopers. It seems clear that the Occupy movement is not going to fade away.
October 19, 2011
With millions of Americans unable to find jobs, leave alone decent jobs, it would seem sensible to do something about immigration, both legal and illegal. Corporate interests profiting from the availability of cheap labor strongly oppose any restrictions on immigration or serious efforts to deport illegals already here. Their motive is obvious. Less easy to explain is why they have as allies on this issue so many of the people who one would expect to sympathize with poor US citizens forced to choose between unemployment and working under very bad conditions for very low wages.
September 14, 2011
Governmental secrecy has been increasing along with other assaults on American democracy. The ostensible reason is fear of terrorism, which has replaced fear of the Soviet Union. It doesn't make sense, since, after the 9/11 attack a decade ago, there is little to indicate the existence of a significant credible threat, and, even if there were a credible threat, the kind of excessive secrecy we are now seeing would be counterproductive. What we have is a combination of bureaucratic incompetence and a cynical exploitation of fear to suppress resistance to the increasing concentration of power in fewer hands.
July 27, 2011
The time is fast approaching when the 2012 presidential election contestants will be selected. Republicans are excited about this and numerous hopefuls are volunteering to run. The only activity in the Democratic camp is the leadership raising tons of money, much of it from wealthy donors, to re-elect the incumbent. We don't hear much from those generally regarded as liberals. On the one hand, they are mortified at the way Obama has been morphing into a political replica of George Bush (tho with far better language skills), and on the other hand they are terrified by off-the-wall Republicans rhetoric. They seem too traumatized to even discuss the upcoming election. Not being traumatized, I have managed to examine some fundamental aspects of voting, to determine why the approach popular with liberals is faulty, and to suggest an alternative path.
July 11, 2011
Most co-ops that we encounter are consumer co-ops, set up to enable people to buy food and other items at lower prices. Going back over two centuries, and extending to the present day, American farmers have cooperated with one another, helping neighbors in barn raisings and, on occasion, at harvest time. Other forms of cooperation included sharing certain kinds of expensive machinery, sharing grain storage facilities, and pooling produce for marketing purposes.
In an era when US corporations are looking abroad for cheap labor, good jobs are becoming scarce in the US, and some people are forming co-ops of a different kind, the worker co-op. This might be considered as a do-it-yourself solution to the job problem. A worker co-op is a business firm owned and controlled entirely by the employees. There are some very successful examples of such enterprises in the US, most quite small, but some employing over a hundred people. They range from small retail bakeries to firms designing and manufacturing hi-tech products.
May 31, 2011
Something strange is occurring with respect to the US economy. Large numbers of ordinary Americans are struggling, often without success, to make ends meet. Many have lost their homes. Others feel insecure about their employment as they see jobs like theirs melting away. But, at the same time, business, particularly big business, is doing very well, with large corporations raking in huge profits. How can this anomaly be explained, and what lies ahead?
April 27, 2011
Few public issues generate as much emotion among Americans as do laws or proposed legislation dealing with guns. Most gun support activists are very sensitive to any measures that they think might hinder their ability to use their guns for self-defense against criminals, or to resist a tyrannical government. They also oppose regulations imposing gun purchase procedures that they consider excessively bureaucratic. On the other side are those convinced that guns pose a significant threat to life via use by criminals, and by accidents and suicides. They also fear quasi-military armed groups who might engage in terrorist activities on behalf of any of a number of far-out causes.
March 7, 2011
Perhaps the use of torture constitutes an ultimate test of end justifies the means arguments. Are there indeed ends that justify the deliberate torture of human beings? To get away from abstract arguments, should there be laws and regulations that would permit such acts as the torture of small children to get their parents to reveal where in Manhattan a nuclear bomb has been planted? If such laws existed, how likely is it that they might actually be used to avert a catastrophe? How likely is it that they would be grossly abused? What can we learn from recent events involving the use of torture by the US government?
January 5, 2011
When we say that a country is democratically run, we generally mean that, for the most part, the wishes of the majority determine government policy. There may be variations in how the government is organized and elected, but the essence is the concept of popular sovereignty (with protection of the rights of minorities). There are a number of ways in which the will of the majority may be frustrated in what appears to be a democratic country. These include election fraud and error, gerrymandering of election districts, and corruption of elected and appointed government officials. Few would dispute their importance. Less understood, but even more important, is the potent combination of concentration of wealth and the two-party system.
December 5, 2010
"It's tough to make predictions, especially about the future. ", said Yogi Berra. Who could have predicted a decade ago that, as part of the price for air travel, Americans, both men and women, would meekly submit to having strangers examine nude pictures of them, or handle their private parts? Surely only a defeated, demoralized, population would acquiesce to such humiliation. This is in addition to being exposed to radiation that, with some low, but unknown, probability might kill them. How did this happen? Is the terrorist threat serious enough to justify such a reaction? Are there less drastic ways to deal with this situation?
November 20, 2010
This is the third in a series of blog essays on protection of human life . The first (9/27/2007) presented an argument as to why a strong societal rule against killing is needed to minimize pain and anxiety among most people. It is interesting that, altho justifying a rule against killing without resorting to scripture is not obvious, there is a neat solution. In the second essay the rule is applied to abortion. Here it is applied to another difficult situation: unwanted newborns.
October 14, 2010
If you are not wearing ideological blinders, it is easy to see the path out of the economic wasteland we are now in. The key to widespread full employment has always been manufacturing. American factories have been shutting down for almost 2 decades and more are closing every day. This is because US corporations have found it very profitable to replace American workers of every type with grossly underpaid workers in, or from, other countries. The solution is to make this process unprofitable. Bring back the factory jobs, and prosperity for the great majority of Americans will follow. Let's consider exactly why manufacturing is so important, why it is being phased out in the US, and how we can turn things around.
September 29, 2010
All kinds of neat new ideas are being converted into useful products that many of us are happy to buy. Other products are "under the hood", designed, for example, to extend the shelf lives of canned goods. Some are medications supposed to make it easier to live with various chronic ailments. One thing they all have in common is that little more than token efforts have been made to ensure that they do not pose non-obvious threats to our health or to the environment. The societal mechanisms that ostensibly protect us against risky products have been gutted by commercial interests.
August 14, 2010
We can learn a lot about how to deal with the new chemicals and devices streaming into our environment by considering the history of asbestos, lead, and tobacco. Few would dispute today the hazardous nature of these products. But the corporations involved with them did a great job of keeping them in the marketplace for many decades after their harmful nature was beyond doubt. There is good reason to be concerned that mechanisms to protect us adequately against other such menaces are not in place.
June, 22, 2010
Wouldn't it be nice to have a single ID card that could be used to confirm who we are with a high degree of reliability? It could be used at hospitals and physician's offices, for voter ID, and possibly for a number of other purposes. A major application would be use by employers in satisfying the law against hiring illegal aliens. But some don't think it would be nice. They feel that such cards would lead to a dictatorship in which the government would monitor and control every important aspect of our lives. How valid are such concerns?
May 16, 2010
In response to the flood of illegal immigrants over its southern border, the State of Arizona, angry at the failure of the federal government to take effective action, has made violations of basic federal immigration laws also violations of Arizona law. This allows state and local police to help enforce those laws. The fact that the new Arizona law has been strongly attacked by a wide range of people from all over the political spectrum suggests that there may be a lot to be said in its favor. That, and its popularity with the American people, particularly in Arizona. So let's take a look at the facts and arguments.
April 26, 2010
Much has been written and said about the terrifying, sudden, unexpected acceleration problems encountered by drivers of Toyotas. Some episodes have been attributed to purely mechanical effects, but there are also claims that computers may be implicated. Since modern automobiles make heavy use of microprocessors, many frustrated computer users are worried about the possibility of computer crashes leading to automobile crashes. How valid are such concerns?
February 27, 2010
Would increased immigration and an expanded guest worker program solve a labor shortage to the benefit of Americans? Is coming to the US the solution for impoverished people living in poor countries? What is the effect of this migration on the home countries? Should there be a general amnesty for illegal residents here more than a year? Or should there be a concerted effort to apprehend and deport all illegals? Or ... what?
January 20, 2010
Being "tough on crime" sounds good. But when it leads to long jail terms for minor, nonviolent crimes, and to callous neglect and brutal treatment of prisoners, the result is more hardened criminals and inflated taxes and other costs for all of us. It is interesting that current toughness does not extend to high-level corporate executives convicted of crimes harming tens of thousands of people and involving hundreds of millions, of dollars.
December 5, 2009
Suppose a computer engineer working for Acme Software is given the assignment of designing a program for identifying people communicating on the internet. The customer is the national police force of Myanmar (Burma), which plans to use the product to locate dissidents. Should the engineer accept the assignment? Victor Paschkis would have said "no", while Wernher von Braun would probably have said "yes". Let's check out these men and the general principle involved.
October 22, 2009
Hey, its not surprising that Republicans are unhappy with the federal government after losing the presidency and control over both houses of congress. But a lot of other people are also upset over current events. Many feel that their views on important matters are being ignored. Some serious defects in our political system may account for this. What are they, and how can we fix them?
Energy Crisis: Part 2—Inefficiency and Waste
August 17, 2009
Big trouble is coming if the growth in worldwide energy demand is not reversed. The technical approach is to increase efficiency of energy use. While useful and important, this is not likely to suffice. We also need to revise the lifestyles that routinely and thoughtlessly waste resources on a large scale. Preaching and nagging won't do the job. Fortunately, there is good reason to believe that public opinion would support effective measures to bring about the necessary changes.
Energy Crisis: Part 1—The Supply Side
July 31, 2009
At current energy consumption rates, the world is headed for big trouble: depletion of fossil fuel reserves and global climate change, The descent into disaster is accelerating due to the rapid increase in energy use by the most populous countries. Our government's token effort to address the problems won't be enough. Much more R&D and investment in a variety of alternative energy sources, and in more efficient energy use is essential. But it is even more important that, as a society, we take effective steps to reduce energy waste.
May 4, 2009
Research and Development (R&D) projects paid for by corporations are generally aimed at results profitable to those corporations. Since most R&D today is so funded, many problems important to the well being of people are neglected. Also, since incomes of most scientists and engineers come from corporations, it is hard to find unbiased experts to evaluate the safety and efficacy of many products, including medications. Greatly expanding the role of publicly funded laboratories would go a long way toward solving these problems.
March 19, 2009
I've expressed opposition to the war on drugs and to the Afghanistan war. Now I'm coming out against the war on terror. This one makes no sense at any level. Most of what we are doing in the name of this war is promoting the cause of the presumed enemy. It is also hypocritical because the US has a long history of practicing terrorism.
February 3, 2009
It looks like those worried that the "Vietnam syndrome" might inhibit US policy makers from aggressively promoting American interests on the international scene can relax. The lessons from the Vietnam War seem to have been safely forgotten, as we appear to be committed to expanding the war in Afghanistan, while maintaining a significant foothold in Iraq. War with Pakistan would be a logical next step.
January 13, 2009
Both directly, via early campaign contributions, and indirectly, via media control, very rich people determine which candidates for public office are "viable". After elections, their interests and views are treated by politicians with great deference. Great wealth can be deployed in many ways to influence governmental behavior. Wealth and income inequality in the US is large and growing. So a small subset of Americans are a lot more equal than the rest of us. What can be done about this?
December 2, 2008
The war on drugs has been going on so long that it receives very little media attention. But, it nevertheless continues to impact the lives of millions of individual Americans and affects the nation as a whole via a variety of monetary costs amounting to several hundred billion dollars annually. We really can't afford to continue on the present course.
October 6, 2008
When was the last time you heard a candidate for public office promise to increase a tax? The mantra, "taxation is robbery", once a far-out slogan, has been mainstreamed. But while valid where the government doing the taxing is in the hands of robbers or tyrants, as is the case in some parts of the world, it makes no sense in a civilized country. Since I am not planning to run for public office, I will stick my neck out and defend this very unpopular institution.
August 5, 2008
The kiss principle, "keep it simple stupid", is an important engineering principle. It is violated, big time, by e-voting systems, an expensive non-solution to a non-problem. Hand-counting of hand-marked ballots works very nicely in most industrialized nations, as well as in many New England towns. Here is why I think this is the way to go.
June 19, 2008
Over two hundred million Americans use cell phones. (I just bought one myself.) Isn't it crazy to suggest that they might be hazardous? Surprisingly, there is substantial credible scientific evidence suggesting that significant risks are associated with heavy mobile phone use over many years. This is another instance of a crumbling regulatory system. Here I try to clarify the issues and suggest remedies.
April 26, 2008
The American Dental Association, The National Institutes of Health, The National Academy of Sciences, The US Public Health Service, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention all agree that fluoridating our water supply to combat tooth decay is a great idea. They may be right, but I think there are good reasons to check out the wardrobe of this emperor.
February 27, 2008
I generally oppose the idea of laws restricting individual behavior that does not affect other people. Apparent examples are fluoridation of water supplies and requiring the use of automobile seat belts (and motorcycle helmets). The critical difference between these cases was made clear to me by a jarring experience that fine-tuned my thinking.
January 15, 2008
The Adam Smith free market concept is a great idea for setting prices in a rational, decentralized manner, depending on the independent actions of numerous consumers and suppliers. But, in practice, real world conditions are such that the invisible hand often needs help from other mechanisms, principally governmental regulatory agencies. Free market purists usually, but not always, vigorously resist such deviations. This discussion focusses on serious problems related to pharmaceuticals, and also touches on a few other areas such as agriculture. Finally, it addresses the question of the viability of a regulated free market.
November 19, 2007
For over two centuries, the US has put up with a system for electing presidents that makes no sense. This was made clear in a number of painful cases, but, so far, nothing has been done about it. Now there is a proposed solution that looks like it is simple enough and has enough support to be adopted.
October 16, 2007
Previously, I presented an argument for a strongly enforced rule against killing, and showed that it is broadly applicable, protecting, for example, elderly and senile people. In the present essay, I discuss entities not covered by this rule. In particular, I show that fetuses are not covered, so that abortion is not murder.
September 26, 2007
We hear a lot about a "right to life", which seems like a simple notion, easy to justify and to apply. Actually, as is shown here, demonstrating the need for a strongly enforced rule against killing is surprisingly interesting. The nature of the argument helps clarify some very important issues, including abortion, euthanasia, and capital punishment.
September 8, 2007
Our patent system relies on the granting of monopoly privileges to persuade people to create and to reveal new technological ideas. This system never really worked all that well and, in recent years, has been rewarding lawyers more than anyone else. What are the problems, and what can be done about them?
August 4, 2007
From fruit pickers to computer engineers, American workers face a cloudy future. There is already a lot of fog obscuring what is happening. This is an effort to pierce that fog to get a realistic view of the exporting of jobs and the importing of workers.
July 8, 2007
The Coast Guard often comes to the aid of people in serious trouble, exhibiting great courage in effecting rescues. This is about Michael DeKort, an engineer who, at great risk to his career, came to the aid of the Coast Guard. He demonstrated how an ethical engineer should behave when the going gets rough.
June 5, 2007
If you want to be on the winning side, it seems obvious that you should join up with the really good fighters, those who have the skill and will to win. For some of us, there is a serious problem when applying this idea to politics, but I have found a surprisingly simple solution.
May 24, 2007
Cluttering ballots with races for court clerks, state university trustees, dozens of judges, and decisions about routine bond issues strikes me as a bad idea. It may look like true democracy, but, for reasons presented in this essay, I think this is an illusion.
May 2, 2007
How did it come about that over 18,000 voters in Sarasota County, Florida showed up to vote, but didn't vote in the hard fought battle for the House seat vacated by Katherine Harris? Were they too angry about a nasty campaign to vote? Did they fail to see the race on the ballot due to bad ballot design? Was the touch-screen system too slow for fast voters? Was there a program bug? Was there foul play? This is a report critiquing the work of some first-rate computer detectives who tried to solve the mystery. This episode clearly illustrates what a frustrating task it is to evaluate the accuracy of e-voting results.
April 10, 2007
More about elections. Even the best candidates can't win if nobody ever hears about them. Nobody hears about them if the media ignores them. The media ignores them if they don't have a lot of campaign funds. They can't raise money if nobody hears about them--unless they are wealthy or have the backing of wealthy people or organizations. What can we do about this?
March 26, 2007
Instant runoff voting is an improvement over plurality voting in that it allows a voter both to support a third party candidate and to help choose between the major party candidates. But it has some serious drawbacks not shared with alternative schemes with the same benefits.
March 11, 2007
This is about a different type of voting system that allows voters to express their views more completely. One important advantage is that third party candidates do not have a "spoiler" effect.
March 1, 2007
In my February 5 blog, I discussed e-voting systems in some detail. Here I focus on some specific issues such as why there is so little public discussion of hand counting of ballots, tactics used by e-voting system vendors, the Holt Bill, more about costs, and some possible solutions to a major problem associated with hand counting. I also elaborate further on why the use of machines increases vulnerability to fraud.
February 14, 2007
Drawing legislative district boundaries for federal, state, or local government is a difficult problem, highly susceptible to manipulation for a variety of purposes. It is difficult even to define what a fair result would be. An attractive solution, presented here, is to use a conceptually simple mapping algorithm that generates a unique solution in which the districts are compact, and where there is no opportunity for manipulation.
February 5, 2007
E-voting is vulnerable to virtually every corruption technique applicable to manual voting systems. There is also an unbounded set of cheating methods, many of which are extremely difficult to protect and guard against. Some of these can have very large scale effects. E-voting is also almost always more expensive than manual systems and offers very little in the way of compensating advantages.