2016/05/31

Tank Guns, Disruptive Technology, Techno-Libs, and Simple Explanations

Towards the end of the First World War, the tank was developed. It was barely tested and its full potential (given the technology at the time) was not realised before the War was over. In the 20 or so years to the start of the sequel, many people had written, postulated, and design tanks around ideas of how they believed tanks would be used.

It was found, in the earlier half of the Second World War, that designers could mount heavier guns and more armour while still filling the same role. Indeed, the small 37 mm and 40 mm cannon that many tanks fielded were far too small to keep up with even contemporary heavy tanks. This saw a ballooning of tank capabilities.

A larger gun has a number of benefits. It suffers less at range due to aerodynamics as it is comparatively heavier for its bore size. It can take a wider range of complicated ammunition types. The amount of explosive charge it can carry to a target can allow it to engage both fortifications and tanks.

However, a larger gun also has a number of drawbacks. Both the unit cost and the ammunition cost is a lot higher. The recoil of the weapon needs more space and a sturdier super-structure to avoid damaging the vehicle. The vehicle's battlefield endurance is lower (by virtue of carrying less ammunition). The rate of fire drops dramatically with the weight of the round.

Over the war and the following decades, these factors all balanced each other out. Initially, the change was very fast, jumping from a 40-ish mm weapon to a 76-ish mm weapon. But the changes became more gradual, and have now pretty much stopped. The current 120 mm bore size used by NATO and the 125 mm used by Russia's ballistic progeny seems to be the point at which we are. Indeed, the Russian round is so heavy that its recoil can damage the tank's transmission if it is currently engaged.

In this fairly simple example, we can see how a disruptive technology evolved. It is rather rare in that it (tanks and tank guns) had a 20 year gap between its inception and taking off before it was truly tested. However, you can still see the inception to ballooning of market to ballooning of capabilities and ideas relating to it, before the world becomes used to the technology and its presence is assumed. Typically, the extravagances of the middle stages are cut down to relatively efficient technologies balanced by their features' pros and cons.

The advancement of technology in this way is rather convoluted and complicated, and is very hard to predict (though not impossible). It is also something that the tech industry is aware of. I have used some of their language here to describe an older technology.

Thus, it confuses me that the Techno-libertarian movement seems obsessed with extremely simple political rules. Like, fleshy humans are much more complex and nebulous than transistor based technology, but techno-libs think that they can be appropriately and efficiently governed with a few short simple rules (thanks Rand, also RAND). This just boggles my mind.

But on reflection, it isn't that confusing. As much as the tech industry and techno-libertarians are snobbish in the extreme, they are a part of "the unwashed masses". And the unwashed masses have always sought simple explanations for their personal struggles. In that way, techno-libertarians are the same as their socialist counterparts.

We sometimes admit to ourselves that the stories we tell are simple versions of reality. Of course, we excuse it due to brevity or to support a point, and that's fine. The problems arise when the same simplified stories are told over several generations, large sections of the population actually believe it.

Politicians (in a democratic system of governance) get voted in when they play to these simple stories. People love being told that they are right, and they love remembering simple stories. Zingers, little one-line stories that validate their suffering, straw-men. With those simple stories come simple solutions to simple problems that are actually vastly more complex. Those simple solutions likely won't work, and will increase human squalor through gross mismanagement. Build a wall. Lower taxes. Raise taxes. Lower interest rates. The war will be over by Christmas. Have a child in a loveless relationship.

Sometimes simple solutions do exist. But not as often as we would like, and certainly not as often as we believe.

TLDR: Call people out on either side of an issue if they are oversimplifying it. But do it tastefully and without being incisive.

2016/05/03

Crime, Justice, and Punishment

My opinion of law has gone up and down over many years. Initially, it was immutable and all-powerful. After that, contempt. And now, hopefully, a little more nuanced than that. I had a bunch of thoughts which tied in with some uni study I was doing. Here they are!

This will mostly focus on appropriate sentencing, both when the law is written and when it is applied.

As far as I can tell, when sentencing there are five considerations: rehabilitation, public safety, deterrence, social movement, and justice.

The first four are relatively simple (at least to describe).

Rehabilitation is making sure the offender doesn't repeat the crime. More than that, it is also making sure that at the end of sentencing, the offender becomes an upstanding productive member of society. A severe failure of this is the American War on Drugs, which turns offenders into worse offenders after a while. Obviously, you'd hope that the opposite would happen. For a while, I thought that rehab was really the only purpose of prison systems, but I'm going into a bunch more down below. It is a common progressive thought though, which I'd like to address here.

Public Safety is related to the first, in that while rehab is occurring the offender should be put in a position where it is unlikely they can commit the crime again. This can also affect groups outside of the prison system, as a group the offender is part of cannot draw on him for support. Modern-ish prisons tend to fail at this, mostly by placing prisoners in close proximity to each other.

Deterrence is, perhaps, the most controversial, at least currently. The sentence you apply to this offender may affect similar potential offenders. It is hoped that they wouldn't become an offender. How much this works really depends on the crime, how consistently the punishment is applied, how enforceable the law is and so on. When it comes to crimes of passion, having a harsher punishment has little to no effect. But it is a consideration when passing down a sentence.

Social Movement is the last (before justice, which we'll get to), and is less popular than it used to be. In the past, politicians would enact wide reaching laws that affected society to promote a worldview that the politicians wanted. After disastrous applications of this (the Temperance Movement and Abolition, the Soviet State, various eugenics movements etc.), this is certainly less overt than previously. Indeed, there is a perception that politicians should simply be public managers, rather than pushing towards some better state/nation. But it does still happen, just not in the big showy way it used to.

And lastly, Justice.

Oh ho.

Towards the start of Batman Begins, Rachel Dawes tells Patrick Bateman (regarding revenge and justice)
"No, they're never the same, Bruce. Justice is about harmony. Revenge is about you making yourself feel better. Which is why we have an impartial system."
However, Rachel should know better, as a trained legal-y person. Justice is the set of broad cultural perceptions about how people should be treated based on their behaviour. While this informs law, it doesn't necessarily dictate it, and is, in fact, a separate concept.

For instance, a father (say) who has worked his 9-5 for forty years and has a decent amount of his retirement funds in stock options losing most of his retirement due to that feels unjust, even if it's not against any law. It seems just that good people have good lives and bad people have bad lives.

But culture is different from state to state, so should laws be different? I hear someone ask. And yes, this does sound like moral relativism. Which is fine.
Yes. The laws should be different depending on the culture. But not even that. When written, the law should be aware of the culture they are written for, both in terms of what it is addressing and how sentencing should work.
For instance, we all have the notion that a greater crime should have a greater punishment.
Or, more relevant, that punishment should happen at all. Imagine a murderer. Now imagine we had a rehab program that would guarantee the good behaviour of that murderer in a week. The murderer goes in, and out comes totally functional and non-violent florist Joe Murderer. While we can rationalise that this is better than letting the murderer go free, or even perhaps leaving him in prison for 20 years, it severely damages the faith that anyone who knows the murderee has in the 'system'. Imagine culture hadn't changed accordingly yet.

Legal systems work best when as many people as possible have a healthy amount of respect and faith in the system. So, while we can't say that it's necessarily cheaper for the state or better for the murderer that he spends some time in prison (where our culture says he should reside for a while), for our legal system and the society that it supports he should go.

And this, I think, seems rather unprogressive to some. Unnecessarily cruel, perhaps. But at the same time, we can all see when citizens don't have any respect for the law. Even more chaotically is when the law enforcement has no respect for the law.

You can see when courts hand down unjust punishments one way or another. The Afluenza case was one that hit a cultural nerve, that the rich can get away with manslaughter simply due to their wealth, and the media outcry was insane. In that particular instance, I'd say that whoever determined guilt and handed down the sentence failed to take justice into account.

Curiously, I found that the American prison and legal system fails on a lot of counts, which probably explains some of their high crime rates (also, poverty explains some). It is not corrective, despite its name. The people don't have respect for the system. Any attempts at social movement are all over the place. And the prisons famously allow prisoners to be cruel to one another. Seems like a shame.

Anyway, those were some new thoughts I had on that topic (new to me, anyway). I'm not legal-y person.