On the nature of society

The Facebook discussion of my previous blog about the difference between a health care plan and insurance raised the following questions:

  1. What should a compassionate society do?
  2. Should a compassionate society feed the hungry and house the homeless?
  3. Should we provide health care as a human right?
  4. Can we do something about ever increasing costs while maintaining or bettering actual care?

I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t have all the answers.  I do have some ideas, though, about what we should do, and why.  But first I need to lay some background.

A society is nothing more than a group of people who voluntarily pool their efforts in support of shared goals and values.  The members of society acknowledge that when they act as a group, each individual is stronger and more secure than if they acted individually.  Typically, they agree to a common code of conduct and commit to contributing some resources (effort, or the product of their effort) to the group.  Note that they don’t commit all of their resources.  Each member voluntarily contributes to the group, and does so as long as he recognizes the value of doing so.  What he considers value can be ego (the pride of knowing that he contributed), the gratitude of others, recognition of the strength to be had in numbers, love, or in order to benefit from the contributions of others, etc.

That’s an admittedly brief and incomplete definition of society, but it will serve.  The primary point is that it’s a voluntary contract among individuals.

As long as the voluntarily contributed pool of resources meets or exceeds the combined consumption, the society works and compassion is a non-issue.  Every member of society is cared for.  Only when consumption exceeds contributions (i.e. there is a deficit) does the question of compassion come in.  At that point, the society must ask for more from those who can contribute.  But when the society demands more, and uses force to obtain it, the society has become corrupt.

You see, societies cannot be compassionate.  Only people can be compassionate.  In order for a society to be “compassionate,” it must have the power to take, under threat of force, from its members.  Forcefully taking somebody else’s life or property is an immoral act, regardless of how that property is then distributed or how “noble” the cause.  Any society that condones or initiates such an act is corrupt.  The end does not justify the means.

I want to expand a bit on my use of “life,” above.  One can debate the morality of war, self defense, and capital punishment, but other than that the taking of a human life is generally regarded as an immoral act.  But depriving me of the product of my life is also an immoral act.  If you steal from me a tool that I spent a day fashioning from a stick, you have stolen a day of my life.  Theft of property is theft of life.  When society demands the product of my effort, it is demanding that I give up part of my life for the good of society.

Government is a construct created by society to protect that society from internal and external threats.  Society limits the government’s powers, cedes to it the exclusive right to initiate force, and tightly controls the exercise of those powers.  Recent history has shown time and again that Locke was right:  governments derive their power from the consent of the governed.  When government begins dictating to society, then the society has ceased to function and the people are at the whim of an entity that has ultimate power and no moral restraint.

Now, to the questions I mentioned at the beginning of this post.  The first two can be combined:  “Should we as a society provide food, shelter, and health care to those who are unable to provide for themselves?”  The simple answer is yes, with limitations.  The real question is how we should go about it, and that is the subject of the next post.  That post might also cover the final question of controlling costs and improving care.

The author of the third question, “Should we provide health care as a human right?” might have meant the question I just asked above, but his use of the term “human right” raises other issues that I want to cover in a separate post on the nature of human rights.

A health care plan is not insurance

One argument put forth by opponents of the recently passed health care legislation is that they object to subsidizing others’ health care.  A common counter-argument, often made by intelligent people who should know better, is that you already do that for auto or homeowner’s insurance, and nobody complains about that.  The counter-argument does not bear close scrutinty.

As I’ve pointed out before, the idea behind insurance is that individuals voluntarily contribute to a fund that is used to reimburse members in the face of a catastrophic loss.  This works well in situations where catastrophic loss is relatively rare.  For example, you can get quite good homeowner’s insurance coverage on a $150,000 home for less than $1,000 per year.  If your house burns down (a rare catastrophic loss), you’re covered:  your participation in the insurance fund insures that you’re compensated for your loss.  This kind of insurance works well in any situation where there are large numbers of people who individually have a small risk of loss:  property insurance and auto insurance being the types of insurance most people in the U.S. will be familiar with.

There are three very important conditions that must be met in order for insurance to work in the long term.

  1. The sum of the premiums (annual payments by those insured) collected must equal or exceed the expected cost of all losses experienced.
  2. In order to be fair, each individual’s premium is calculated based on the calculated risk of loss and the expected cost of such a loss.  In the case of auto insurance, the premium is based on your age group and driving record (calculated risk), and the value of the car that you’re insuring (expected cost of loss).
  3. The pool (the insurance company) must have the right to increase an individual’s premium as conditions change, or to refuse coverage (i.e. kick the person out of the pool) if the calculated risk for that person is unacceptably high.

If any one of those conditions is not met, then the pool will become insolvent because the accumulated cost of losses over time will exceed the premiums collected and any income generated from investing the collected premiums.

Note that insurance only covers unexpected losses.  Depending on your coverage (based mostly on how much you’re willing to pay), your auto insurance might cover glass breakage and hail damage, or it might cover just the cost of replacing the car were it to be “totaled” (cost of repairs exceeds the vehicle’s fair market value).  Usually, you choose your coverage based on two things:  how much you’re willing to pay for coverage (your monthly or annual premium), and how much you’re willing to pay out of pocket whenever a loss occurs (your deductible).

Insurance does not pay for gas, oil changes, tires, or other things that are considered normal wear and tear.

A health care plan is a much different thing than insurance.  The new health care legislation provides for the following:

  1. Everybody contributes, whether they want to or not, based on their ability to pay.  And before you tell me that the new legislation doesn’t provide for this, you might read it again.  There are subsidies for people earning up to $88,000, and much of the additional cost is covered by increased taxes on people who earn more than $250,000.
  2. All services are covered, with little or no co-payment (deductible) required.
  3. The pool is prohibited from refusing anybody for any reason.

Let me point out here that the new health care legislation didn’t invent the health care plan.  Most people who currently have “health insurance” actually have a health care plan that’s similar to but much more limited than the one described above (i.e. participation is voluntary and there are limits on services).  They’ve been around for decades.

Health care plans under the new legislation are akin to a “transportation plan” in which you obtain whatever car you can get hold of and, in exchange for a token monthly payment, everything but gas is covered.  You don’t have to pay for oil changes, tires, or scheduled maintenance.  If you fail to check the oil regularly and your engine burns up, the pool is required by law to replace your engine.  If you buy a trashed out 1955 Mercedes Gull Wing, the pool is required by law to restore it to original condition and maintain it.  No matter what you drive or how you abuse your car, your token monthly payment (amount based on your ability to pay) ensures that you’ll always have a working car to drive.  In addition, even those who don’t drive are forced to contribute, again based on their ability to pay.

Yes, I and any person who accepts the responsibility for his own driving habits would object to being forced to pay for that kind of transportation plan.  And yet that’s the kind of health plan I’m being forced to contribute to.  Of course I object!

Slow file deletion on Thecus N7700

I work with big files.  Really big.  Daily, I back up a file that is larger than 200 gigabytes.  We have a Thecus N7700 network attached storage (NAS) box that holds about seven terabytes.  Every day I copy the latest stuff there and delete some of the older files.  It all works fine except for just one little problem:  deleting a 200 gigabyte file takes a long time and interrupts other processing.

How long?  More than a minute.  Seriously.  And during that time, any other process that is trying to access files on the NAS gets really slow.  Sometimes, deleting the file causes the NAS to become unresponsive so long that other processes’ IO requests time out and the program crashes.  That is not a happy state of affairs when I’m running a job that takes 36 hours.

It appears that the slowdown is due to indirect block pointer updates in the ext3 file system, as described in this post.

Is this a fundamental shortcoming of the ext3 file system?  If it is, what are my options?  The Thecus supports a file system called ZFS, but from what I’ve read about it online, I don’t want to go down that path.  I wonder if a firmware upgrade would solve my problem.

Ambrosia Maple

“Ambrosia maple” is what woodworkers call maple that’s been infested by the ambrosia beetle.  The beetles colonize a dead or dying tree and bore holes in the wood.  A fungus that the beetles carry around on the bottoms of their feet take up residence in the tunnels and begin to feed on the tree’s xylem tissue.  The discoloration of the wood (known as spalting) is the byproduct of the fungus’s digestion.  I thought the beetles ate the fungus, but perhaps they eat the nutrients the fungus leave behind.  In any case, the result is a rather striking figuring of the wood.

Makes for a cool looking little dog figure, too.  Click for a larger image.


Ram it through!

If you’ve had any doubts about the President’s previous commitment to bipartisanship and open government, you can put them to rest.  His recent actions make it clear that he will do anything to get some kind of health care bill passed.  The latest has Congress trying to resurrect legislation that was passed separately by the House and Senate back in December, but then discarded.  The idea is to use the reconciliation process to avoid any interference by Republicans.  This trick has been used before, but it’s not the normal way of doing things.  Nor, in my opinion, the right way to do things.  It’s a means for the party in control of Congress to bypass the legislative process.

It’s not smooth sailing for Democrats, though.  Many are resistant to passing the health care legislation, either because they think it’s a bad idea, or, more likely, they don’t want to take the chance of upsetting voters in an election year.  As a result, there is much wrangling by those in charge, adding bribes to the bills in order to placate those who are resisting.  At first, President Obama strongly requested that such provisions be removed from the bills.  Now he’s waffling, objecting only to “state-specific” provisions.  So much for his professed concerns about fiscal responsibility.  If he had any integrity, he would declare his intention to veto any health care bill that included non health care items in it.

But then, if he had any integrity he would have given up his insane idea of overhauling the health care finance system a few months ago when it became obvious that it can’t be done without wheedling, arm twisting, and bribes.

House Democrats are in an interesting position here.  They’re being asked (one might say coerced) to pass a Senate health care bill that they previously rejected.  There is a “firm commitment” by the Senate leadership that legislation to “fix” the objectional provisions is forthcoming.  I’ve long held that our elected officials are not stupid, but if they fall for this one, I’ll have to revise that estimate.

What is dragonwood?

It’s rare that I’m stumped when I try to find something on Google, but this one beat me.  Somebody on the woodcarving forum asked about “dragonwood.”  Always curious, I thought I’d look it up.

Dragonwood appears to be very commonly used for the trunks and larger branches of artificial (silk) trees.  It’s also commonly used to make perches for pet birds, and I gather somewhat less commonly used to make cat trees and cheap furniture.  That’s all interesting, but I couldn’t find a picture of a dragonwood tree or anything that gave me the botanical name of the silly thing.  The best I could find is that it grows in Florida.

Somebody else on the forum posted an answer this afternoon, identifying the wood as Lyonia Ferruginea (rusty staggerbrush), a shrub or small tree that grows in Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina.  In case you’re interested, that person also indicated that it’s good carving wood.

I’m really surprised that this one stumped me.  The common name dragonwood (less often, “dragon wood”) is used in a lot of places, but I was unable to find a any reference that showed its botanical name.  I figured I could find it just like I can type “bottle brush tree” and get the botanical name.  No such luck.

One resource said that “dragonwood” was a corruption of the original “draggin’ wood”, which describes how they get the wood out of the thicket after it’s cut.

Hopefully anybody else looking for a description of dragonwood will find this post and not have to wade through a few dozen pages of links to fake plants and parrot cage goodies.

New removable drives

Update on my removable drive troubles.

I tried drilling holes in the case (after opening it and removing the drive, of course) on one of those Seagate FreeAgent drives.  Getting the thing apart was quite a chore, and I had a fun time making a mess drilling holes in the case.  The unit tested fine afterwards when copying small files to it, but it went unresponsive after about three gigabytes of the large file.  It’s difficult to say what went wrong.  I suspect that the USB-to-SATA electronics, which were marginal to begin with, finally gave up the ghost.  At some point I’ll pull out the 1 TB Seagate drive that’s in there and see if I can use it as a normal SATA drive.

Yesterday I picked up two Antec MX-1 external drive enclosures and fitted them with 500 GB drives.  I got them installed last night, and initial results are positive.  I’ve heard that there have been some fan failures with the Antec enclosures, but a search didn’t reveal an inordinate number.  For the price (about $55 each, with tax), I might pick up a third just to keep on hand in case a fan does fail.

The drive comes with USB and eSATA cables.  I was all ready to go eSATA until I discovered that my server doesn’t appear to have a spare SATA port inside.  I suppose I could go eSATA at the office and USB at the datacenter.  I might still do that, although it’ll have to wait until I can take down that office server.  It serves other important duties here, so I can’t just shut it down without affecting a lot of other things.

In any case, I think (hope) that my removable drive troubles are over, at least for a while.

Big Brother doesn’t want you eating pizza

According to the Reuters article, Tax soda, pizza to cut obesity, researchers say

U.S. researchers estimate that an 18 percent tax on pizza and soda can push down U.S. adults’ calorie intake enough to lower their average weight by 5 pounds (2 kg) per year.

I’m not sure what “average” is supposed to mean here.  What little I can glean from the article indicates that they’re saying that the combined average weight of U.S. adults would drop by five pounds in a year.  That is, if you sum the weight of all the adults and divide by the number of adults, the result will be five pounds less than the previous year’s result.  That’s a pretty astonishing number, especially if they claim that those results will continue for any length of time.  That average five pound loss would be a higher percentage of the total weight every year and as the years go by there would be fewer people contributing to the loss.

I suppose I’ll have to find the actual research paper if I want to make any sense of things.  The reporting in this article is, like most medical or science reporting I see in the mainstream press, chock full of logical holes and “conventional wisdom” presented as fact.  For example, the article repeats the oft-reported statistic that two-thirds of Americans are either overweight or obese.  That statistic is based on a questionable sampling of BMI results, and the BMI standard is the subject of quite some debate.  That said, there does seem to be an overabundance of fat people.

That taxation is successful in changing behavior is no big surprise.  We’ve seen government attempt to limit teen smoking by making it more expensive, and it appears to work.  Although it never works as well as proponents say it will work.  And, if our experience with taxing tobacco is any indication, it’s unlikely that taxing “unhealthful foods” will have anywhere near the effect that these researchers claim.

I can imagine new Food Taxation Boards popping up around the country, contracting with Certified Food Health Consultants whose team of researchers investigate the Healthful Food Score of every type of food imaginable.  They’ll change labeling requirements so that every box of anything you buy at the supermarket, convenience store, or vending machine will have a letter grade indicating its Healthful Food Score.  Of course, due to political considerations (i.e. powerful representatives from states like California), foods made with organic sugar will have a higher score than foods made with plain old sugar.  That’s what we need, another obese bureaucracy whose mandate is to make us healthy.  Oh, the irony.

I wonder if the article’s mention of the estimated $147 billion annual cost of obesity in the same paragraph advocating taxation was meant to imply that taxation could offset those costs by any significant amount.  Probably not, although I suspect a lot of people will read that paragraph and think that the taxes will raise $147 billion per year.  I’d be surprised if the taxes raised even 10% of that.

The researchers did raise an interesting point, though:  government subsidies of the corn industry artificially lower the cost of corn syrup, making sodas and other sweetened foods much less expensive.  But then they make a mistake when they recommend that federal subsidies should go to producers of more healthful foods, rather than suggesting that government eliminate food subsidies altogether.  All too often, as in the case of tobacco, government can’t decide what it wants to do.  It props up the tobacco industry with subsidies and then taxes the heck out of it in order to limit consumption.  Wouldn’t it be more reasonable to just eliminate the subsidy?  Or is that too sensible a thing for a government to do?

I don’t know about anybody else, but I’m more than a little uncomfortable with the idea of yet another corrupt bureaucracy sticking its hand out, this time demanding tribute if I decide to indulge in a bit of junk food.

Catching up on the carvings

I still have all 10 fingers, and no major cuts.  I’ve been carving a few things here and there, although other things take precedence.  I haven’t had a lot of time to work on larger and more complex projects, but I’m sure getting an impressive kennel of little dogs.

Cub in a stump is a pattern from Mike Shipley’s Woodcarving the Country Bear and His Friends.  The orange face is a bit brighter than I had planned.  Debra says he looks like a traffic cone.  So I named him T. Cone Bear.

I carved the rabbit one night in a bit of a rush.  I had been invited to an old friend’s birthday party and had two days to come up with something.  She and her husband have rabbits for pets, so I thought this refrigerator magnet would be appropriate.

Cub in a stump

Rabbit refrigerator magnet

You might remember the sweet potato I carved over Thanksgiving. Here’s what it looks like after drying and antiquing:


The snake below is carved from a piece of 400 year old mahogany that a friend gave me.  It’s beautiful wood, but the hardest dang stuff I’ve ever carved.  It sure finishes up nice, though.  The snake is seven inches long.


And more little dogs.  In the first picture, the two dogs on the left are carved from spalted maple.  The dog on the right is from a piece of mesquite.  The dog in the middle is two inches tall.  The second picture shows my latest little dog, carved from a piece of Bradford pear, much like the piece shown in the picture.  This one, too, is two inches tall.

More little dogsBradford pear pup

This sure would be more convenient if I could just link to the photos I post on Facebook.  For reasons that are unclear to me, I can link to the pictures, but I can’t actually show the pictures from there in my blog.  They must have a block of some kind to prevent image hijacking.  Oh, well.  If you like, you can see the entire photo album.

More removable drive troubles

I’ve mentioned before that we use USB external drives for transportation of data from our colocation facility to the office.  After struggling to find reliable devices, we finally settled on the Seagate FreeAgent 1TB drives.  They’ve served us quite well for over a year now.  But recently it’s been taking a very long time to copy our data.

It used to take about three and a half hours to copy data (a couple hundred gigabytes) from the server to the removable drive.  Recently it’s been taking on the order of 10 to 12 hours.  At first I thought it was another idiotic problem with caching, similar to the problem I had copying large files between servers, except this copy would eventually complete.  The odd thing was that when I started the copy it would proceed at the expected rate and at some point slow to a crawl.

So I wrote my own program that reads a gigabyte at a time from the local drive and then writes it to the USB device, timing each write operation.  Running locally (at the office), the program reported a steady 24 MB/sec write speed, and copied the entire file at that rate.  Run at the data center copying the same file, the program reported the same 24 MB/sec for the first 20 gigabytes or so.  Then it slowed to about 4 MB/sec.

That smacks of a thermal problem.  Either the drive electronics or the server’s USB port was overheating.  I quickly eliminated the server’s USB port as the problem by hooking up a different USB device and checking to see that the server could pass more than 50 gigabytes of data without trouble.

So the problem is with the FreeAgent drive.  If you spend a little time searching online, you’ll see that other people have experienced overheating problems with the FreeAgent drives.  And looking at the design, I can see why:  the only ventilation is at the bottom of the device where the electronics are.


The picture on the left, above, shows the drive as we typically would place it in the rack at the data center.  It sits on top of one of our servers.  The spot where it’s sitting is directly above one of the disk drives.  That spot is cool to the touch when I tested it yesterday.  Note, however, that you can’t see any ventilation holes.  Those are on the other side of the enclosure, as shown by the red arrow in the picture to the right.

Since air enters the cabinet from where I was standing taking this picture, and flows towards the back, mounting the drive as shown on the left doesn’t allow for very good airflow.  So yesterday I placed the drive in the cabinet as shown on the right.  Then I ran my test program.  I was able to write about 90 gigabytes before the drive slowed down.  I’m convinced now that it’s a thermal problem.

I don’t quite know where to go from here, though.  I think the first thing I’ll try is lifting the drive higher off the surface it’s sitting on.  That should allow for better airflow, and perhaps will be enough to keep the electronics cool.  (The problem, according to what I’ve found online, appears to be the USB to SATA conversion electronics at the base of the drive enclosure.)  If changing the drive location doesn’t solve the problem, I’ll have to find a different model of removable drive that has better ventilation or better heat tolerance.  Perhaps it’s time to visit Fry’s and see about buying an enclosure that’s designed for use in the warm environment of a server rack.



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