Analogies: Better Pocket Protectors

This is a general analogy. It can apply to police reform, but it’s generally applicable.

The basic analogy is that people used to wear shirts with breast pockets and keep pens in them. Those pens would leak, and it would ruin the shirts. So some people took to wearing pocket protectors—small containers that would be inserted into the pocket and if a pen leaked, it would catch the ink and keep the shirt safe.

The analogy is is for a policy deficiency, where rather than fixing the problem of the leaky pens, there’s a call by some for better pocket protectors. That is, the source of the problem, leaky pens, is not addressed. What are the conditions that lead to leaks in pens? Shoddy manufacturing, poor storage conditions, whatever. But these things, prevention of the conditions that lead to ink being spilled, are left alone. The focus is placed on better pocket protectors.

So, for climate change, for example, the pocket protector might be things like doing geographic surveys to figure out what land will be inhabitable and arable in the future and relocating people, but otherwise not doing anything about carbon pollution.

Or, for police and justice reform, it’s calling for more police and police militarization, rather than redevelopment of distressed areas, better social policies, etc.

Or for wildfire policy, it’s moving mountains to fight fires rather than doing controlled burns and groundfuel management.

For immigration policy, the wall is a very expensive and mostly useless pocket protector. Lacking policies that both encourage orderly immigration and economic stability in other parts of the world is a good way to find out exactly how useless a pocket protector it is.

For pandemic policy, containment was supposed to be the strategy to get control over the caseload while alternatives became available, including testing and tracing. That’s right—sometimes, and usually for a limited time, a pocket protector does make sense. We put a hardcore pocket protector in place to give time to work on tracking leaky pens. But many of the governors and president never actually worked on tracking leaky pens. They removed the pocket protector anyway, and now we see ink running over much of the nation.

We’re also not too picky when it comes to pandemic pocket protectors—we would love to cease every case and be free of this plague, but honestly if a combinations of masks and scheduling and tracing, or a vaccine, or whatever reasonable and practicable policy combination can simply lower the rate of transmission so that it is stopped, that’s what any reasonable government should be working toward.

Or consider the problem of nuclear waste. It is currently stored in what was intended as temporary storage at the power facilities, and a permanent storage was planned, but has never opened. Given the nature and longevity of that particular sort of pen, a pocket protector might be the only viable solution for long-term protection.

The main purpose of this post is to highlight the connection between disparate policy areas. That the same patterns exist in various policies is worth understanding. When possible, common principles should be brought to bear in policy matters and therefore more consistency can be had in regulation and governance.

The particular choice of a pocket protector, instead of, say, tupperware or antimatter containment units, is not particularly important. Depending on the policy area, a different container might be more appropriate.

The characteristics of a containment policy are necessary for the application of the analogy. Taxes and spending policies are seldom meant to be outright containment, and so are ill suited to this analogy.

On an unrelated note, the term reopened early is incorrect. The timing of their opening is not at issue, but the condition in which they did so. Reopened unready would be more apt. The main point here is that these places delaying their opening wasn’t going to magically prepare them any more than they were, and their lack of preparation is the flaw, not how soon or late they took an unprepared action.

analogies society

Healthcare is Jars of Jellybeans

Insurance functions on risk pools. Think of this as the old jar of jellybeans, where you guess how many of each type are in there. In this case, each person pays to put their jellybean in a jar. There are all kinds of jellybeans, and insurers pay the sum of what’s in each jar, using the money people paid to add their own jellybeans. You want a nice mix of lots of low-cost jellybeans and fewer expensive ones, so that your total doesn’t cost too much.

The individual mandate required people with low-cost beans to add them to the jars. But the Republicans want to do away with that provision, because they believe people should be free not to add their jellybeans if they don’t want to. Fine. But without the mandate, there has to be some other way to balance the mix of jellybeans, if the system is going to work. The Republicans haven’t offered a good solution there.

The main pre-ACA way to deal with the known expensive jellybeans was to set aside jars just for them. The government would subsidize that jar, trying to keep the main jar cheaper. But the government would underfund the high-risk pools, meaning not everybody could put their beans in the jar.

The ACA tried to move the pre-existing jellybeans into the main jar by balancing them with young, healthy jellybeans. Again, the jellybean jar is the main thing to think about when you think about insurance, but the Republicans seem to not know about it. Their plans do not reflect an understanding of this jar and jellybean system.

Under Medicaid, poor peoples’ jellybeans are put in the Medicaid jar, which is cost-shared between states and the federal government. As most poor people are still healthy, and only a small amount are expensive, it works out pretty well even though it’s all paid through government spending.

The ACA expanded that jar in most states, with the federal government paying the overwhelming difference, but some states decided to keep the old jar, meaning there is a gap between jars, with those peoples’ beans just sitting on the counter, not getting covered.

Healthcare is not as complicated as the president claims. It’s only complicated when you deny the essential model of healthcare, when you pretend it’s not jars of jellybeans. When you recognize it is, and you are honest and willing to do what’s needed to make the system work, it becomes a hell of a lot simpler. The Republican reluctance here is all about explicitly not wanting to fix the ACA or do anything that actually works. That’s sad. Maybe they should get them some jars and jellybeans and let the Democrats show them how it works.


The Doer, the Writer, and the Reader

A decorated three-layer cake on a platter. Titled "tarta de no-cupleaños," meaning "un-birthday cake."
]1 Tarta de no-cupleaños by a_marga under a CC-BY-SA 2.0 license.

Occasional polls show that people don’t know the three branches of the US government. Today I will be explaining them like I’m five. Err. I’ll be explaining them like you’re five.

The Why

Remember when you wanted a puppy and you asked your mum and she said yes if your dad says so, but then you asked your dad and he said yes if your mum says so? Well we needed a better way than that to run a big old country so we made a government.

But mum isn’t queen and dad is no king (even if he does a mean Elvis impersonation), so we wanted to make the government spread its power out so that it had to fight with itself on hard decisions. To do that we made three parts: the doer, the writer, and the reader.

My favorite analogy for these things is baking, so let’s say we’re making a cake.

The Doer

The doer is elected and called president. She mows the lawn and does the laundry and watches the football game. He reads you your bedtime story and does the grocery shopping and all that.

But the doer doesn’t get to just decide to mow the lawn any time she wants. No. She has to do it when the writer tells her to.

The doer is the one that gathers ingredients, mixes the cake batter, bakes it, and ices it. She also decides how much cake everyone gets, as instructed by the writer.

The Writer

The writer is elected and called legislator or either senator or representative. It is a bunch of people from all over the country. They get chosen to go to Washington, D.C. and be writers. They listen to what people say and then write what they think will fix it.

Like when you get sick and we go to the doctor’s office and she listens and then says, “you have to drink some yucky crap twice a day for a couple weeks.” And then he writes it on a pad and we go get the medicine.

But sometimes the doer and the writer disagree. The writer might say we have to eat all our vegetables but we don’t like them. So we have to have someone to figure out if we really have to eat them all.

The writer is the one that comes up with the ingredient list, the recipe and directions, chooses the type of cake to make, and how to decide who gets how much of it.

The Reader

The reader is not elected, and is called a judge or justice. The doer picks who will be judge and the writer decides if she wants to agree. The reader decides what the law actually says. She reads the law and hears the arguments about it and then makes up her mind who is right.

He also listens to other cases, like if someone forgot to put their toys away and one got broken when someone stepped on it. But he does not do the punishing, he tells the doer to do it.

The reader is the one that oversees the cake making to make sure the doer washes her hands, that the writer doesn’t ask for a completely inedible cake with crayons and glue, and so on.

It gets more complicated from there. But the basic government we have is a doer, a writer, and a reader. Executive, legislative, and judicial.

And we, the people, are the ones that eat the cake. Good or bad, well made or a horror, we eat the cake. Bones and all.


Analogies for Tech: The Web as Houses

One of the historical patterns we see is where a specific field or part of life moves from being expert to common.  That’s been true with reading over time, for example.  It’s been true with automobiles in some countries.  There was a time when only women had babies….okay, you got me there.

But over time there’s an expectation in the computer industry that average people will learn technology to a greater degree, even if not to the same depth as a computer scientist or computer engineer.

I am examining potential analogies for explaining technology of various sorts to laypersons in the hopes they will grasp the relationships of the world they use every day.  I’ve already given part of the explanation of why, but here’s the other part:

Until you see the cracks in the walls with the sunlight slicing the darkness, and until you see the bubbles rising to the edge of the universe and ask what if it isn’t the edge at all, you have very little reason to jump out of the water or break into the day.

With that I hope to, from time to time, examine potential analogies for bits of technology.

The Web

The metaphor for the web is moving to a house you are building. In this, HTML is a set of special boxes.  You have some like title that are meant for very particular contents. You don’t put your china in a box with your hammers.

You have other boxes like html itself, which are there to hold everything you put in them. You put your china in one box, and your hammers in another, but both of those boxes can fit in a third, bigger box. That bigger box is actually the truck, in this case, but you might have palettes that hold many smaller boxes, as with something like div.

Then you have CSS, which are tags you attach to the boxes to tell the movers where they go. “This is a very dark brown room.” Or, “all of the windows should be blue, but after you have looked through one, it is purple.”

If you’ve seen that last bit, it’s the style applied to links using the default styles of most web browsers.

That’s right. There are default styles that come with the browser. They are there so that if you don’t specify, there’s a good base to work from.

Now, additional styles let you override those defaults, but there are also some amount of styling implied in the way you pack your boxes.

If you put some text in one box, then it will end up together in the house unless the styles applied are very explicit.

You also have peculiar boxes like script, which tell the builders that they contains fixtures or robots that will respond to visitors to the house in some way. They might be faucets that will, when turned on, create or delete whole rooms. They might be spy cameras to watch the visitors and tell the owners of the house what they did in the house.

Extending the metaphor out, the creator of the document packs everything up in their boxes with their blueprints and send them up to a server. Then you visit the server and it spits out the boxes with the blueprints, which your builder, the browser, assembles.

Some of the documents aren’t made in that way. Increasingly, the houses of the web are made in factories called applications. Think about some service like Google Search. They have thousands of computers working to find the content all over the internet, and when you search those computers shove that content into the right boxes with the blueprints and styles and deliver them to you.

Anyway, I guess that’s enough about the web for today. Did this analogy make it clear how the web works?