December 12, 2017

The Road to Independence – Finland in WW1 I THE GREAT WAR Special

Filed under: History, Military, Russia, WW1 — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 06:00

The Great War
Published on 11 Dec 2017

The Grand Duchy of Finland was a largely autonomous part of the Russian Empire when the First World War broke out, but that would soon change. Rising nationalism in the country and chaos in Russia, among other things, helped Finland on its way to becoming an independent country.

Kill the Mortgage Interest Deduction Now!

Filed under: Economics, Government, USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 04:00

Published on 11 Dec 2017

Thankfully, one of the biggest scams in the American tax code is finally under attack in the House version of Republican tax reform.

It’s the mortgage-interest deduction, which lets homeowners deduct interest paid on mortgages of up to $1 million for two houses. Ever since owning a home has been a central tenet of the American Dream since the end of World War II and the rise of suburbia, it’s been a given that deducting mortgage interest from your taxes is as American as apple pie.

The House plan would limit filers to deducting interest on the first $500,000 of a mortgage on just one house, sending a blind panic through wealthy home owners, realtors, and the building trades, all of whom are terrified that a government subsidy is being yanked away from them.

But the real problem with the House bill is that it doesn’t go far enough. We should scrap the mortgage-interest deduction altogether and let housing prices reflect real market values.

The mortgage-interest deduction is typically justified by claiming that it lets people—especially vaguely defined “middle-class” people–afford homes. But it also increases the price of housing by making it artificially cheap to borrow, meaning homebuyers are willing to pay more. England, Canada, and Australia don’t let their taxpayers deduct their mortgage interest and they all have higher rates of homeownership than the United States.

The mortgage-interest deduction disproportionately benefits the wealthiest Americans, who soak up almost all the $70 billion a year it costs in foregone revenue each year. Reason Foundation’s director of economic research, Anthony Randazzo calculates that only 20 percent of tax filers claim the mortgage-interest deduction. That group by and large are part of six-figure households in a country where the median household income is $57,000.

Killing the mortgage-interest deduction might cause a one-time 7 percent drop in real estate prices, according to one estimate, with wealthy homeowners feeling most of the pain.

As a homeowner, that seems like a small price to pay to end a policy that distorts the real estate market, complicates the tax code, and benefits mostly wealthier Americans on the false promise that it makes home-owning affordable for the middle class.

The mortgage-interest deduction is just special interest pandering wrapped in a gooey story that equates “the American Dream” with having a mortgage. The tax code should be designed to raise the revenue necessary to pay for essential services, not to nudge and prod us into spending money on something the government decides is good for us.

Produced by Todd Krainin. Written and narrated by Nick Gillespie.

“Well sir, there’s nothing on Earth like a genuine, bona-fide, electrified, six-car blockchain!”

Filed under: Technology — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

The way blockchain technology is being hyped these days, you’d think it was being pushed by the monorail salesman on The Simpsons. At Catallaxy Files, this guest post by Peter Van Valkenburgh is another of their informative series on what blockchain tech can do:

“Blockchain” has become a buzzword in the technology and financial industries. It is often cited as a panacea for all manner business and governance problems. “Blockchain’s” popularity may be an encouraging sign for innovation, but it has also resulted in the word coming to mean too many things to too many people, and — ultimately — almost nothing at all.

The word “blockchain” is like the word “vehicle” in that they both describe a broad class of technology. But unlike the word “blockchain” no one ever asks you, “Hey, how do you feel about vehicle?” or excitedly exclaims, “I’ve got it! We can solve this problem with vehicle.” And while you and I might talk about “vehicle technology,” even that would be a strangely abstract conversation. We should probably talk about cars, trains, boats, or rocket ships, depending on what it is about vehicles that we are interested in. And “blockchain” is the same. There is no “The Blockchain” any more than there is “The Vehicle,” and the category “blockchain technology” is almost hopelessly broad.

There’s one thing that we definitely know is blockchain technology, and that’s Bitcoin. We know this for sure because the word was originally invented to name and describe the distributed ledger of bitcoin transactions that is created by the Bitcoin network. But since the invention of Bitcoin in 2008, there have been several individuals, companies, consortia, and nonprofits who have created new networks or software tools that borrow something from Bitcoin—maybe directly borrowing code from Bitcoin’s reference client or maybe just building on technological or game-theoretical ideas that Bitcoin’s emergence uncovered. You’ve probably heard about some of these technologies and companies or seen their logos.

Aside from being in some way inspired by Bitcoin what do all of these technologies have in common? Is there anything we can say is always true about a blockchain technology? Yes.

All Blockchains Have…

All blockchain technologies should have three constituent parts: peer-to-peer networking, consensus mechanisms, and (yes) blockchains, A.K.A. hash-linked data structures. You might be wondering why we call them blockchain technologies if the blockchain is just one of three essential parts. It probably just comes down to good branding. Ever since Napster and BitTorrent, the general public has unfortunately come to associate peer-to-peer networks with piracy and copyright infringement. “Consensus mechanism” sounds very academic and a little too hard to explain a little too much of a mouthful to be a good brand. But “blockchain,” well that sounds interesting and new. It almost rolls off the tongue; at least compared to, say, “cryptography” which sounds like it happens in the basement of a church.

But understanding each of those three constituent parts makes blockchain technology suddenly easier to understand. And that’s because we can write a simple one sentence explanation about how the three parts achieve a useful result:

Connected computers reach agreement over shared data.

That’s what a blockchain technology should do; it should allow connected computers to reach agreement over shared data. And each part of that sentence corresponds to our three constituent technologies.

Connected Computers. The computers are connected in a peer-to-peer network. If your computer is a part of a blockchain network it is talking directly to other computers on that network, not through a central server owned by a corporation or other central party.

Reach Agreement. Agreement between all of the connected computers is facilitated by using a consensus mechanism. That means that there are rules written in software that the connected computers run, and those rules help ensure that all the computers on the network stay in sync and agree with each other.

Shared Data. And the thing they all agree on is this shared data called a blockchain. “Blockchain” just means the data is in a specific format (just like you can imagine data in the form of a word document or data in the form of an image file). The blockchain format simply makes data easy for machines to verify the consistency of a long and growing log of data. Later data entries must always reference earlier entries, creating a linked chain of data. Any attempt to alter an early entry will necessitate altering every subsequent entry; otherwise, digital signatures embedded in the data will reveal a mismatch. Specifically how that all works is beyond the scope of this backgrounder, but it mostly has to do with the science of cryptography and digital signatures. Some people might tell you that this makes blockchains “immutable;” that’s not really accurate. The blockchain data structure will make alterations evident, but if the people running the connected computers choose to accept or ignore the alterations then they will remain.

Why Hold Music Sounds Worse Now

Filed under: Business, History, Technology — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 02:00

Tom Scott
Published on 27 Nov 2017

It’s not your imagination; hold music on phones really did sound better in the old days. Here’s why, as we talk about old telephone exchanges and audio compression.

Thanks to the Milton Keynes Museum, and their Connected Earth gallery: http://www.mkmuseum.org.uk/ – they’re also on Twitter as @mkmuseum, and on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/mkmuseum/

QotD: The development of all the various university “studies” departments

Filed under: Bureaucracy, Education, Quotations, USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

After the 1960s cultural revolution, it was clear that the humanities had become too insular and removed from social concerns and that they had to reincorporate a more historical perspective. There were many new subject areas of contemporary interest that needed to be added to the curriculum — sex and gender, film, African-American and Native American studies among them. But the entire humanities curriculum urgently demanded rethinking. The truly radical solution would have been to break down the departmental structure that artificially separated, for example, English departments from French departments and German departments. Bringing all literature together as one field would have created a much more open, flexible format to encourage interdisciplinary exploration, such as cross-fertilizations of literature with the visual arts and music. Furthermore, I wanted an authentic multiculturalism, a curriculum that affirmed the value and achievements of Western civilization but expanded globally to include other major civilizations, all of which would be studied in their chronological unfolding. Even though I am an atheist, I have always felt that comparative religion, a study of the great world religions over time, including all aspects of their art, architecture, rituals, and sacred texts, was the best way to teach authentic multiculturalism and achieve world understanding. Zen Buddhism was in the air in the 1960s as part of the legacy of the post-war Beat movement, and Hinduism entered the counterculture through the London scene, partly because of Ravi Shankar, a master of the sitar who performed at California’s Monterey Pop Festival in 1967.

However, these boundary-dissolving expansions were unfortunately not the route taken by American academe in the 1970s. Instead, new highly politicized departments and programs were created virtually overnight — without the incremental construction of foundation and superstructure that had gone, for example, into the long development of the modern English department. The end result was a further balkanization in university structure, with each area governed as an autonomous fiefdom and with its ideological discourse frozen at the moment of that unit’s creation. Administrators wanted these programs and fast — to demonstrate the institution’s “relevance” and to head off outside criticism or protest that could hamper college applications and the influx of desirable tuition dollars. Basically, administrators threw money at these programs and let them find their own way. When Princeton University, perhaps the most cloistered and overtly sexist of the Ivy League schools, went coeducational after 200 years in 1969, it needed some women faculty to soften the look of the place. So it hastily shopped around for whatever women faculty could be rustled up, located them mostly in English departments at second-tier schools, brought them on board, and basically let them do whatever they wanted, with no particular design. (Hey, they’re women — they can do women’s studies!)

I maintain, from my dismayed observation at the time, that these new add-on programs were rarely if ever founded on authentic scholarly principles; they were public relations gestures meant to stifle criticism of a bigoted past. In designing any women’s studies program, for example, surely a basic requirement for students should be at least one course in basic biology, so that the role of hormones in human development could be investigated — and rejected, if necessary. But no, both women’s studies and later gender studies evolved without reference to science and have thus ensured that their ideology remains partisan and one-dimensional, stressing the social construction of gender. Any other view is regarded as heresy and virtually never presented to students even as an alternative hypothesis.

Today’s campus political correctness can ultimately be traced to the way those new programs, including African-American and Native American studies, were so hastily constructed in the 1970s, a process that not only compromised professional training in those fields over time but also isolated them in their own worlds and thus ultimately lessened their wider cultural impact. I believe that a better choice for academic reform would have been the decentralized British system traditionally followed at Oxford and Cambridge Universities, which offered large subject areas where a student could independently pursue his or her special interest. In any case, for every new department or program added to the U.S. curriculum, there should have been a central shared training track, introducing students to the methodology of research and historiography, based in logic and reasoning and the rigorous testing of conclusions based on evidence. Neglect of that crucial training has meant that too many college teachers, then and now, lack even the most superficial awareness of their own assumptions and biases. Working on campus only with the like-minded, they treat dissent as a mortal offense that must be suppressed, because it threatens their entire career history and world-view. The ideology of those new programs and departments, predicated on victimology, has scarcely budged since the 1970s. This is a classic case of the deadening institutionalization and fossilization of once genuinely revolutionary ideas.

Camille Paglia, “The Modern Campus Has Declared War on Free Speech”, Heat Street, 2016-05-09.

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