Monday, May 29, 2006

Single Purpose Legislation

A rider is a piece of legislation attached as an amendment to another unrelated bill. Usually the rider is something of specific interest to only a limited number of the members of the legislature, and the bill it is attached to is usually something of significant importance that is likely to be approved without much comment or controversy. An example of this is the REAL ID act passed about a year ago by the US Congress as a rider to a military appropriations bill. Riders can be used to as a means of pork barreling, if it the rider can be attached without too much notice.

A rider can also be used to sabotage important legislation. By attaching a rider with provisions that may be abhorrent to others, so that people will vote against the bill to prevent the rider getting through, even though the original bill may have many positive outcomes.

Riders are a problem for legislatures, as they increase the complexity of debate as well as splitting the focus of the legislature. They are bad for the people since representatives trying to get bills through without appropriate consideration are not serving the people they were elected by as well as neglecting the people as a whole.

There is a simple way to minimise the impact of riders. Every bill should have a single purpose that is clearly stated at the beginning of the bill, and all provisions of the bill must act towards that purpose. This still allows amendments that are aimed at improving the bill, but prevents the addition of riders that are unrelated to the bill. This also means that a rider would need it's own bill with its own clearly stated purpose and will get the appropriate debate.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Flawed Avatars

The idea of an avatar is an old one, coming from Hindu mythology, being a physical manifestation of a god. Since those days science fiction has used the concept with varying degrees of success and consistency. In science fiction, avatars are a human sized embodiment of significantly larger constructs that are self aware, such as ships or habitats. Rommie from Andromeda is probably the most well known, being one of the few who've made it to TV. In books, the Ships and Habitats of Iain M Banks' The Culture have numerous avatars.

Unfortunately, most of the time when avatars are used in science fiction, they tend not to act as they would given their stated capabilities. In Andromeda, the ship Andromeda Ascendant is a self aware entity. But it is a mixed up being. First there are four manifestations of the Andromeda. First is the ship itself. Andromeda's AI is able to control nearly every system on itself. Second is a visual display, that mainly just gives information. Third is a holographic projection that has a role similar to that of the visual display, but is more interactive and displays more of a personality. Finally is Rommie, an android who shows the most personality.

Nominally, all of these have the same ability to control ships systems, access data and sensors. However, in practice, the different manifestations not only have different levels of control, but indeed have distinct personalities. The android can be considered an exception as it is somewhat autonomous, both physically as well as computationally, as it has operated well beyond any ability to be controlled by the ship itself. But even while on board, differences in access and personality exist. This is a rather odd way of doing things, when the main task of these avatars is to communicate with the crew on board. Having more than one persona with varying degrees of overlap between the different versions would just complicate matters.

I think that the avatar is a good idea, and can be used to good effect. Iain M Banks has shown this, most effectively in Look to Windward, and not so well in Excession. The biggest difference in the presentation of these avatars is that Banks does not treat his avatars as independent entities. This is probably the root of most poor representations of avatars, that they are considered separate things to what they are a representative for. Banks' avatars are quite upfront about being the appendage of something greater.

So in conclusion, avatars good, just be clear about what they are and how they act.

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Monday, May 22, 2006

Avoiding Gerrymandering

Gerrymandering is the practise of moving the boundaries of electoral districts with the aim of gaining an advantage in the results of a vote. The term gets its name from Elbridge Gerry, an American politician born in the 18th century who was involved in a notorious allocation of districts in Massachusetts in 1812. Gerrymandering reduces the effectiveness of a democracy by reducing the impact of each persons vote.

For example, if in a population of 50000, support for party A is 60% and support for party B is 40%, and this is spread randomly throughout 5 districts, it would be expected that party A would win 60% of the districts and get about 60% of the total vote. But if the districts are drawn up so that some districts contain a great deal more voters for party A than would be expected, say about 90% vote party A in two districts, this gives party B a majority in the remaining 3 districts, causing them to do better overall, despite not getting a greater share of the total vote.

Gerrymandering can also be used to make it harder for incumbent representitives to be replaced through similar tactics, this time by rearranging the district to remove those who may not be happy with the incumbents performance and politics.

There are a few simple guidelines for establishing the boudaries of districts that can greatly limit the ability of people to gerrymander.

1) The people setting the boudaries should be independent of elected representitives or political factions. If this is not possible, then a system by which all parties must agree to all new boundaries. In the USA, district boundaries are drawn up by the current legislature, and as a consequence, some districts are quite convoluted such as the 4th congressional district of Illinois.

2) The shapes of each district should be as simple as possible, while maintaining equal numbers of voters. Boundaries should be straight lines except when following natural features such as rivers or coasts, or where restricted by other causes (such as us congressional districts being in one state only). Ideally each district should be rectangular, or as close to as possible.

3) There are a few mathematical tricks and restrictions we can specify to prevent outragous districts. Set a maximum for the ratio of the square of the perimeter to the area of a district (For a circle this ratio is 4 pi, or about 12.57. Any other shape will have a higher ratio. A square will have a ratio of 16, a rectangle 4 times as long as it is high has a ratio of 100.

4) Get people out of the process all together. Computers can do all of this. We have a map, with people spread out all over it. We need to split it up into a certain number of divisions, and we want those divisions to have almost the same number of people in them. We also want the shape to be as simple geometrically as possible. This is exactly the sort of thing computers are good at. If someone were to put up a thousand dollar bounty and publicise it, this thing would be done in a week. Hell, I'm going to give it a go for myself once I find some useable population data.

These steps are all aimed at preventing people from setting district boundaries to suit their interests, because when that happens the value of a persons vote, and their say in the government is diminished.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Sucks to be me

So after having previously described the final interview for the data analyst job, you'd expect soon after I'd have found out if I got it or not. And indeed I did find out. Lamentably, I did not get the job. Apparently my references were not up to scratch, and so I did not get the job. This puts me in the rather frustrating position of not having any references I can use for job applications. And everyone it seems demands references, although apparently the whole not giving references out is not just something GE does, it's a growing trend. This does not bode well for my immediate prospects. I think I may give in and do as Mum suggested and have one of her partners brothers act as a reference.

And so I have gone to centerlink and applied for the dole again. I had hoped that I wouldn't need to but my savings are almost gone, and I still need to pay rent and so forth. It should be enough to get by on, but I won't be going to any movies or any other paid for entertainment (free movie tickets hopefully will continue to come on a regular basis, this month I've got tickets to two movies from triple j). Of course dealing with centerlink brings with it a number of hassles, but this should hopefully be a motivating factor for me.

The longer this goes on, the more I think going back to university to do an education course sounds like a good idea. I've just looked and while UQ does not have mid year entry for such a course, QUT does. I shall investigate further. A big concern is if HECS or some equivalent will apply to such a course. Otherwise I would need to find the cash to pay for it.

Well this has been really depressing writing this. It seems very little good has come from leaving things. I left my PhD and went to a crap job. I left the crap job and have been unemployed for nearly four months. I currently don't seem to have any prospects, and on top of that I'm hungry.

On a more positive note the BSOL stuff is going well. I've had two sessions with the first old lady I was dealing with, and they went well. In fact she tried to pay me the second time round. On Monday I meet with my next mentee, who is less experienced, so we'll probably have more sessions.

Well, I'm going to stop typing now and go to the gym, and then go shopping for a cheap lunch/dinner.

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Writing time: 26 minutes
Time since last post: 3 days
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Monday, May 15, 2006

I Ran From Iran

So two days ago I read the letter that the president of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, recently sent to the president of America, George W Bush. It is interesting to read the communications that occur at those levels, just to try and get a grip on what world leaders might be thinking.

The thing that really impressed me was the sensibility and rationality of the letter. It covered both recent events in the middle east as well as the regions history of the last 60 years or so, as well as America's actions with things such as Guantanamo, the secret prisons in Europe, and the whole War on Terror.

None of what Ahmadinejad says is new or a revelation, it's things most people have been aware of for some time. However, he presents it in a non confrontational way, and points out how Bush's actions contradict his statements that he is for freedom, democracy, liberalism, peace, etc. He appeals to Bush to consider the things they have in common, rather than trying to foment further conflict.

The only part of the letter I disagree with is the last few paragraphs, where Ahmadinejad claims that the world is heading towards a more theocratic society. This I think is not the case, and should not be the case. Religion has an important part to play in society, but religion and government should be separate. No government should either promote or disparage any religion or it's practitioners. If people wish to embrace spirituality, they should do so, but it should not be mandated by law.

The letter is quite well put and respectful, and if the situations were reversed, I cannot see Bush being able to write such a letter, or even being willing to put his name to it. Given all the antagonizing things America has done, it's impressive that the leader of Iran can be so well mannered about things.

Bush has seized upon the uranium issue in Iran and used it to build up tension with Iran. The nuclear non proliferation treaty allows countries to develop nuclear technology for civilian purposes. This really shouldn't be an issue. Except for some statements regarding Israel, Iran's leader seems to be a reasonable leader.

I've seen a number of people predicting Bush will invade sometime before November, when the mid term elections occur, and given his actions in the past, I doubt I'll be surprised if it happens. I just hope Australia will have the sense to stay out of it this time. Another invasion is not a good idea. Iraq is nowhere near stable, America has already used up whatever goodwill they have with most of the world, as well as having run up a massive debt in process.

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Writing time: 33 hours (about 30 minutes yesterday, then restarted this evening about 40 minutes ago)
Time since last post: 8 days
Current media: Dr Who

Saturday, May 13, 2006

Elected Representative Responsibility

Within a representative democracy, the elected representatives are chosen by the people to represent their interests to the rest of the government. Before voting they should consider the matter being considered, how it will affect the people they were elected to represent as well as how it will affect the country. In practice, most elected representatives vote along party lines unless the consequences for their electorate are particularly bad, and may not even read the legislation that they are passing.

One factor behind is that apart from the desire to be reelected, in most countries I'm aware, elected representatives have no obligation as to how much attention or consideration they give a bill before they vote on it. This is particularly the case in countries with only two major political parties.

To discontinue this trend and make sure that representatives have considered the matters being voted upon, I propose that when a vote is called within the legislature, the representatives must sign a declaration stating that they have read and understood the bill that they are voting on under the penalty of perjury. Those abstaining would not need to sign a declaration, but a minimum number of representatives must vote on each act (this I believe is a requirement in most governments already).

If applied properly, this should ensure that representatives vote on matters only after having thought about the matter, and not just trusting the people who proposed the bill. Also, it should slow down the rate at which legislation is introduced and voted upon. I very much doubt anyone is able to read 4 whole bills each day, as well as fulfilling the other responsibilities of a representative.

The only downside is the problem of enforcement. I guess a first check would be the rate of legislation the representatives vote upon. And of course, any claims they make to not have been aware of certain parts of bills they have voted upon should be looked into.

Sunday, May 07, 2006

The Final Interview, Ford and other miscellany

Tomorrow I have a final interview for the data analyst job I've been jumping through hoops for. I'm a bit uncertain as to what's actually going to happen. Apparently they weren't able to get in contact with my former supervisor on Friday, so have missed yet another reference. If they were really upset, and were adamant about having references, I guess they wouldn't be getting me in for another interview, they'd have just told me over the phone or by email. The first thought I had was perhaps they'll make an offer for a trial period, sort of we think you've got potential, but we want to make sure of how you work. I'll see how it goes tomorrow.

In other news, Ford has just got a pile of cash from the federal government, and is going to get some more from the Victorian government. While encouraging companies to work in Australia as opposed to other countries is good, I don't think we should go to the point of actually giving them huge gobs of cash. 52.5 million dollars is not a small amount of money, especially when Ford's net profit for 2004 was 185.6 million. There are many other things the government could have done with that money. Health care and education are the first two to come to mind. Both are areas that the current government is neglecting.

Having looked at some more recent posts from Shelley the Republican (see previous post), I have come to the conclusion it is just one big horrible joke. The tech stuff is quite blatant.

Also, one cool link: Communist Mario

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Saturday, May 06, 2006

Limited Duration Legislation

Under the current way of doing things, once a piece of legislation is enacted, it remains in place until another piece of legislation is passed that repeals or amends it. This is despite changes in the community's attitudes towards things, changes in technology, side effects of the legislation or it's implementation. A government has no obligation outside of the publics desire to review existing legislation.

Additionally, each year a number of new bills are passed, adding to the totality of the law. During the 1st session of the current parliament in Australia which was from the 16th of November to the 9th of December in 2004, 73 bills were introduced, and 29 of those where enacted during that time. The great majority of these were amendments to existing bills (this seems to lend more weight to last weeks idea than this weeks). All this occurred in less than one month. During the 1st session of the previous parliament, in five months 428 bills were introduced of which 150 were passed. That's a rate of about 1 in 3 being passed and about 4 bills per day (parliament has a very generous work week).

My idea had been that all legislation must include a date by which time it must specifically be extended, lest the bill lapse. The amount of time would have been about 10 years at the most, but a lesser amount could be stated. In light of the rate of amendment, I don't think this would have a great effect.

I had also been thinking that one of the consequences of such a time limit would be to devote a certain amount of the governments time to reviewing legislation coming up to expiration, and so this would reduce the rate at which new legislation is introduced, but again the current rate of amendment suggests that only a minority of government is creating truly new legislation.

At any rate, regular review of existing legislation to ensure that it is still achieving the aims it was created for, and not having adverse consequences in other areas is an important task for governments, and should be done in a regular and consistent manner.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Driving, job and scary Shelley

So a few things have come up since the last time I wrote something. On Thursday I drove up to Rockhampton with Mum. She had been planning to do the drive by herself, but at dinner on Wednesday she really seemed not up too it, so I offered to go up with her to help with the driving. I got the train back to Brisbane on Friday.

While driving up got a call from the recruitment company handling the data analyst job I'm in the recruitment process for. Apparently there as been some problem with the reference from my team leader at GE, so they asked for a new reference. I think they just haven't been able to get in contact with her, as they mentioned in a call about a week before that that they couldn't get though to her. If she had said something bad, I doubt they would have asked for a new reference. One of my old supervisors has agreed to be a reference, so hopefully it will all work out. On the same topic, I called the police today to check on the progress of the criminal history check I ordered for this job. It's taken a week longer than usual, and while it should have been posted today, they did mention that it had been delayed because they picked something up in an interstate check. This is worrying one because I shouldn't have a criminal history anywhere, especially interstate where I've only spent maybe two months total. I shall see what's on there when it arrives, and if need be take matters further if it's inaccurate. I am slightly concerned as I had to fill out a form for GE to do a police check when I applied for a permanent spot, but they wouldn't have kept me on if something had turned up.

I found a blog yesterday that is either one of the scariest sites out there, or one of the most elaborate jokes ever. Shelley the Republican is worrying either way. Although Mosquewatch is also pretty messed up, even if it is just a guy ripping off another rabid conservative. Both of these sights err by taking their belief in their own rightness to the exclusion of any other possibilities. From my perspective, most of the truly horrible things in the world come about because people are so certain that they are right they consider all those to be not just wrong but less worthy than those who are right. Once the people in the wrong are less important than those in the right, it's easy to justify doing things against them, all while thinking that what you are doing is good and right.

Over the last week I've slacked off with my exercise, as I was spending more time with my family, so this week I aim to get back into the habit, and go to the gym at least 4 times.

Well, now I'm just rambling, so I'm stopping.

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Writing time: 1 hour 52 minutes
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Current media: Penn & Teller's Bullshit

Monday, May 01, 2006

Complete Amendments

When a law is passed, it's effects endure until specific action is taken to negate it's effects. This continuation occurs regardless of whether the concerns that brought about the law are still relevant, whether changes in society render the law harmful or unneeded, if the law is having the desired effect, if the law has unexpected consequences that are unwanted and other concerns.

When a law does need to be changed, it is usually done so as an amendment to existing law, and then only listing the changes that are being made, what is known in computer circles as a diff. For example is the following from the USA-PATRIOT Act, section 201:


Section 2516(1) of title 18, United States Code, is amended--

(1) by redesignating paragraph (p), as so redesignated by section 434(2) of the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (Public Law 104-132; 110 Stat. 1274), as paragraph (r); and

(2) by inserting after paragraph (p), as so redesignated by section 201(3) of the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996 (division C of Public Law 104-208; 110 Stat. 3009-565), the following new paragraph:

`(q) any criminal violation of section 229 (relating to chemical weapons); or sections 2332, 2332a, 2332b, 2332d, 2339A, or 2339B of this title (relating to terrorism); or'.

Changes like this make it very difficult to work out what the effects of the amendments will be without having to compare and contrast great portions of legislation. Indeed the section quoted changes something that was previously changed by another bill.

In most countries ignorance of the law is not a valid defense. However, when learning exactly what is the law requires extraordinary time and effort, eventually everyone will slip up somewhere. In Australia, there is no fair use clause in copyright law, and so numerous devices such as VCRs and iPods technically are not allowed to be used, which means a large part of the population have violated the law, though few would consider that they weren't allowed to use such devices. The law should be such that everyone can understand and find the whole of the law. Tax law is another example, with many loopholes, exceptions and variations.

So, in response to the onslaught of amendments that don't make clear there purpose and require the checking of many other documents to find their full effect, I propose the following. That when an amendment to a law is made, the bill state the previous version that is repealed, and then state the new version in its entirety. Notations showing where changes have been made should be included throughout the text of the law bill, and a complete list of changes for those who like the old format could be included as an appendix.

One consequence of this is that a bill could change one and only one already existing act. This would be particularly important when some wishes to make wide ranging changes to a number of laws, forcing a separate vote and debate on the changes in each area.

It will also make it easier to see the history of a law, as any bill that changes an existing states what it is replacing.

This should not have a major effect on the way amendments are developed, and laws would still be changed as needed, but the new laws will be much clearer and thus easier to understand, debate and consider.