Saturday, September 12, 2009

My Copyright Submission

For some reason the Canadian government sought opinions on the future of Canadian copyright law (web site), and asked five questions of submitters. The consultation period ends tomorrow. The following is my submission, plus some additional notes in [square brackets] that were not in the original submission.

1. How do Canada's copyright laws affect you? How should existing laws be modernized?
I think copyright affects our entire society more than we realize. For example, when copyright was retroactively extended by 38 years in the U.S. (18 years in 1976 + 20 more in 1998), two generations of people were denied any additional public domain works, yet few people even noticed. But those of us that did were largely angry about it.

The very premise of copyright — that the only way people should make money is by denying others the right to make copies, and then charging for each copy — frames every discussion about how the "creative economy" works and should work. This is unfortunate because I believe there should be other options.

There are many creative people such as myself that would like to be compensated for our work, but who would also like to share it with the world as widely as possible. I am a Software Engineer, and I make software on salary. What bothers me about my job is that I am making totally closed software, and the number of customers for it will probably be quite limited. I write many algorithms that could have a wide range of applications, but insofar as the software is closed, those algorithms will only ever by used for the one application for which I wrote them. What a waste! And the whole reason I wrote this software is that the third-party closed software we used before didn't meet our needs. If we had access to the source code we could have modified it for our needs (though the expensive license fees were also an issue), but since the software was closed, we had to write the whole thing from scratch. And the software in question—map software similar to what you get in a portable GPS unit—has been written many times over by different companies. Doesn't this amount to wasteful duplication of effort? And the government pays an SR&ED credit for it.

I don't think my company would be materially affected by any changes the government might make to copyright law. Whether you enlarge or shrink the copyright term, whether or not you pass DMCA-style legislation, whatever you do about orphan works, none of that is likely to affect the bottom line [my company relies more on contracts and secret source code than copyright, as we typically sell to business and government].

But for me personally, I would like to see a government program that actually pays some authors outright for their work, in exchange for making that work freely available for anyone in Canada to copy and remix (or, in the case of software, re-use and modify in source code form). Such a system would, of course, not replace copyright, but simply provide a way for authors to be paid without forcing authors to restrict copying.

2. Based on Canadian values and interests, how should copyright changes be made in order to withstand the test of time?
What does that even mean?

3. What sorts of copyright changes do you believe would best foster innovation and creativity in Canada?
As I mentioned, I think the government should provide more funding options for authors, artists and programmers. In addition to the standard "charge for each copy" model, the government should consider another public consultation about at least a pilot program to pay willing artists with tax funds to make free works, and to pay open-source software developers for their valuable contributions to society.

Long copyright terms are not necessary for innovation and creativity. Most commercial copyright works make money for under 20 years. If copyright was 20 years, do you think any film would not be green-lighted because "it may make millions at first, but people will stop buying copies in 2030?" However, perhaps non-commercial rights should last longer than 20 years, such as the "moral rights" of attribution and the right to prevent others from altering the work.

DMCA-style anti-circumvision laws are not necessary for innovation and creativity. Organizations like CRIA, RIAA and MPAA desire such provisions to help them keep using old business models and avoid joining the 21st century. It seems to me they would much rather squeeze more money out of the general public for existing IPs than create new IPs. Economically, if you give in to American lobbies, the main effect will be that Canadian citizens pay more to U.S. corporations.

Remember, these corporate lobbies mainly do not represent artists and authors. They do not represent the Canadian economy or the world economy. They only represent their bosses.

So please, stop considering such things. It would be better to do nothing at all.

4. What sorts of copyright changes do you believe would best foster competition and investment in Canada?
I don't think anything that strengthens copyright will have a tangible impact on competition or investment. But why aren't you asking what changes would be best for the people of Canada? It's not only artists and corporations the government should aim to please, but the citizens too! The citizens would benefit from having access to as many works as possible, with as few restrictions as possible. Ordinary citizens are the most important group to please, because there are vastly more of us ["the greatest good for the greatest number"]. This should be the focus of your lawmaking.

5. What kinds of changes would best position Canada as a leader in the global, digital economy?
What does "digital economy" mean, exactly? If you mean online trade, or the software industry, or electronic trade in music and movies, I don't think anything has to be done to copyright law to keep those things healthy [you know what would increase online trade and lead to new business models? a ubiquitous micropayment system for making instant purchases under $1]. Don't listen to the scare mongers in the CRIA and Hollywood. Their piracy figures are absurdly large, and anyway digital trade is kind of a zero-sum game: "piracy" just means that some low-income Canadians are enjoying more songs/films/software than they can afford to pay for, and middle-class Canadians are spending their money on some other part of the economy instead of giving it to the record or film or game industries. It does not harm the economy as a whole. Let the people speak with their money: if they want to pay these industries they will. I do buy my favorite movies and shows on DVD, and I have paid for many terrific video games, even though I have the means to pirate anything I want.

In any case, the supply of artists and authors will never dry up no matter what you do. It's human nature to create — I work on open source software, even without pay. It's just that if I could get paid, I would make more of it [and better quality, and I'd be more responsive to users' needs--aspects which often harm the uptake of open source].

Look, we already have a bind-bogglingly rich landscape of copyrighted works. No one could ever consume a significant fraction of all available English works or software. Even if you just consume the "best" works, you could never come close to running out. But our laws are wasteful — both economically and morally — because they restrict the audience size for, and re-use/re-mixing of, those works. People don't realize the laws are wasteful because powerful groups have successfully propagated the current intellectual property system and long copyright terms throughout the world. Thus, there are no examples to point to of countries that have successfully taken a different path.

[One more thing I would add--though it is unpopular to say--is that we should seriously consider what size of market for entertainment and software we need. If people had freer access to creative works, they might realize that there are more than enough of them. If we are making too much, we should be open to the possibility that the market should contract--that less works should be produced, and yes, as a consequence, some creative personnel would have to leave the field. Personally I can see virtually unlimited demand for software, when you consider the infinite possibilities for niche customization, and the many new software ideas that have not yet been exploited. But there is a limit to the amount of mass-market entertainment that society needs, and if (when you include the vast library of past works) there is too much, we should not think it a tragedy if Copyright law were weakened so much that the market contracts.]

In conclusion, the Canadian government has so far only considered copying U.S. law. Please don't. Doing nothing would be better. Weakening copyright would be better. Almost anything would be better.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

What's wrong with me?

It's been over four months since I wrote a blog post, and it's not for want of material. So much is going on in the world, and so much is weighing me down in my own life, that I could write a heck of a lot about a heck of a lot if I were so inclined. But for some reason I have not desired to write. I suppose a big part of it is that I feel I have no audience for my blog, though this is probably due in large part to the lack of posts. It's a vicious circle!

I could talk about how corrupt/incompetent I suspect Alberta's premier is, or how disappointed I have been by the Obama administration, its DOJ, Joe Biden's pro-Hollywood-MegaCorp opinions and by the disgustingly superficial e-mails I get from "Organizing for America" (which I had hoped would really turn out to be a positive "movement", as they call it, rather than a way to herd sheeple). I could point you to a dozen news items that have caught my eye over the past few months, if I could remember them. But I don't feel like talking about that crap right now. Luckily, for the first time in over four months, there is some crap I am sufficiently motivated to write about.

I saw a movie called The Reader last night, and it left me feeling sad and empty inside. This movie comes in two halves, one a tale of a young man drawn to fornication (with his sexual experience presented in detail), and the other of a tale of a woman whose life was ruined by an awful past--a past the audience is told virtually nothing about. All we know for sure is that she lies to a court and as a result spends over twenty years in prison. It is a tragedy that is unrelentingly realistic--as often happens in life, the protagonist, out of fear, doesn't do the right thing and ultimately the audience is left without any answers, explanations, or closure for what has transpired. It's also a very slow movie, but somehow not boring enough to put me to sleep.

The movie gave me insomnia or contributed thereto; I couldn't sleep, and as is often the case when I can't sleep, I played a video game, which doesn't help me sleep at all. I was slaughtering zombies all night, yet the only real zombie was me.

It seems like I have been tired almost continuously for a month. It got so bad I asked my employer for permission to sleep in, and I saw a doctor, who made me go for a blood test, of which I don't yet have the results. One surely important factor is that for over six months I have had an medical condition (which I don't care to describe publicly) that often deprives me of sleep. My doctor, whose is overly concerned with getting his patients out the door as quickly as possible, decided it should be left basically untreated even though it had been going on for over three months when I first saw him.

Meanwhile, I have stopped going to church, even though I still believe that of all the world's religions, mine is the one most likely to be the truth. I have read and seen media recently that leaves me greatly disliking Atheism, for it is a religion that deceives people into thinking it is not a religion. Yet my mind has been dwelling on the more unsavory aspects of God as we know Him. In particular, the law of Moses and the events of the old testament stand out as something awful. Admittedly, I have not actually read the Old Testament (it's so damn big, and not exactly a page-turner), but I know some of its stories and laws.

I'll give two examples that distress me to no end. In Old Testament times, if you had an affair and it was discovered, your own community would murder you by stoning. Well, let me be bold and just state what's on my mind, because I've been fuming inside: I find this barbaric and evil, yet it seems to be God's own idea--even His commandment. My second example: when the Jews came to the promised land, the land was already inhabited. Therefore, God ordered the extermination of all its people--men, women and children. To me, something like this is even worse than when God killed everyone in the great flood, because this time he had His children do the dirty work rather than bearing it himself. In this instance he actively encouraged His children to develop blood-lust and a belief that violence is God's Way.

People often talk of how wonderful Jesus was and indeed, it seemed in the New Testament as though there were no end to his kindness and tolerance, though perhaps I just haven't noticed the bad parts. Yet in Mormonism, the God of the Old Testament is supposed to have been the very same spirit that inhabited the body of Jesus. How can these be the same beings? And why would he cancel the law of Moses halfway through human history? It does not make any sense to me. Certainly, I would say, good riddance; but changing the law does not excuse the law's original content. I don't worry about those law-of-Moses rules like "don't eat shellfish" or "watch out for the cloven hoof!"--those laws may have made sense at the time on for hygienic reasons. But I believe that a punishment should fit the crime, and death for adultery is overly harsh. Moreover, to have God's tacit approval to kill someone, based on the flawed judgments of man? It is disgusting.

In my view these laws demand explanation and justification. It is not enough to say "that was all in the past, we have new a law now and we can ignore the old law"--no, for it is the same God that made both laws, and God even claims that he never changes. What changed, then? Did man change? I do not think the typical person in 50 BC was so starkly different from the typical person in 50 AD that God should give them different laws or judge them by different standards. It seems to me that there is more variation among human beings in different cultures at any single moment in time, than there was between an average Jew at 50 BC and an average Christian Jew at 50 AD. Why then does God's law depend on the timing of his birth and not on the circumstances of his upbringing? My church has no answer to offer, and I find no comfort in ignorance.

There is also a principle, that God presents repeatedly in the Bible, that I have refused to accept. Basically the principle is the same one that you hear every day from mothers that are in public places with their children. "Don't do that, come here, stay beside me, don't say that, put that away!" The parent gives an order, and the child asks "why?" And usually the mother's response is "because I said so." Or, if the mother prefers to be condescending, "because I'm your mother".

To me anyway, it sounds a lot like God, when he says things like "thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself: I am the LORD." But "I'm your mother" and "because I said so" are not reasons at all. These statements mean "I refuse to provide a reason at this time". And I know only a couple of reasons why a parent would refuse to give a reason for a commandment. One is that there simply isn't time (the parent needs obedience immediately); another is that the parent does not know how to explain in such a way that the child will understand. So, as our eternal parent, what are God's reasons for his commandments? Every week I spend an inordinate amount of time wondering "why?"

Why did God change his commandments? Why doesn't God help us reconcile his version of history with science? Why did God forsake every person on Earth in the dark ages? Why did God create sex and sex drive in 12-year-olds and then tell us never to have sex before marriage? And most of all, why won't He tell us why?

Unfortunately, God uses the rationale "because I said so" by default. I am not even certain that God ever provides reasons for his commandments. Reasons are often provided, though typically brief and superficial, but I wonder sometimes whether the reasons actually came from God or if it was merely the writers of scripture writing the reason they assumed would justify the commandment. Bah, never mind, I'm probably just getting cynical from all my heartache over this issue.

God told Adam to kill a lamb every so often and burn it at an altar. As I recall, Adam did this without question, until one day an angel appeared and asked him if he knew the purpose of this action. He replied that he did not, and so the angel explained that it was symbolic of the death of the messiah that would later come. Centuries later, God told Abraham to kill his only son, Isaac, and when Abraham told Isaac of this commandment, he agreed to allow himself to be killed. As Abraham was about to stab his son to death, an angel appeared to stop him: the commandment had been given only to test his obedience.

I feel as though God has made this the measure of a man: his willingness to obey without demanding a reason to. And I think many Christians would agree that this is a fine way for God to choose his leaders and to rule his people. But I am utterly unsatisfied by this approach to governance. It may make sense in a military relationship, where the superior gives orders and the subordinate obeys, but for God's sake, God, we are your children, not your soldiers and not your slaves!

Yet I seem to be the only person around that feels this way. We sing a song: "Onward Christian soldiers, marching as to war / with the cross of Jesus, going on before." I don't like this song. I mean, I like the music, but I don't like the attitude. I do not wish to see life or eternity as a war: I prefer peace. I do not wish to be a mere soldier in God's army: I want to be His son. Is the purpose of life to expose us to war? Is this why God will never attempt to justify himself in our eyes--because he is our commander, and we are here to obey, and if we do not wish to obey without reason or question, we can damn well report to the brig and tell it to the court marshall?

My problems in the church started in the groin. I was told that masturbation was wrong, and even as I did it, I believed it was wrong, too. But I couldn't stop; I was too weak. I used to feel so guilty, though now I feel less guilty and more unhappy that I am a weak person. But as time went on it slowly dawned on me that the commandment did not seem to make sense. Incidentally, should any non-Mormons be reading this, it should be noted that the Bible doesn't say anything whatsoever about masturbation; rather this commandment is given by the modern prophets (whose existence might come as a surprise, I know...)

It doesn't make sense because God created it. We are told He created not only the genitals themselves but the associated urges--hormones, and whatever it is in the brain that makes us feel the way we do. You may have heard a rumor that 98 percent of men masturbate--and the other 2 percent are lying. While I have no doubt some people don't do it, I think this little joke just reflects the reality of how difficult it is to remain 100% sex-free. How can God himself create something and then condemn its natural use as a sin? Consider the related doctrine in the Catholic church that one must only have sex with the intention to have a child. Mormons don't go that far, thankfully. But consider the church's justification: they say God only "intended" that the genitals only be used to procreate. It's like if God created the cat, then condemned it for licking itself, saying God only "intended" that the tongue be used to assist in food consumption; ergo, any other use is a fault in the cat's character (and God can disavow all responsibility for the behavior--it must come of the devil!)

I don't think you can blame this one on Satan, and it's a stretch even to blame it on man. How can we be held responsible for the design of our bodies? It isn't fair! It just is not fair!

Yet despite a probable prevalence of masturbation among Mormons, "good" Mormons (i.e. not me) do not need to know why they have been asked not to masturbate (or fornicate, for that matter). They just accept the claim that it's a sin, often feeling a sense of shame instilled at a young age, and somehow, they do not see any contradiction in the fact that God is both encouraging them to have sex (because of His design of body and mind) at the same time as he absolutely prohibits it (but only in word).

I often liken our bodies to the Garden of Eden. In the center of the Garden of Eden, like the center of our bodies, there was forbidden fruit, from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, that Adam and Eve were not allowed to eat. Eating of this tree was beneficial in the sense that it bestowed knowledge upon the partakers, yet forbidden because God said so. In the timeless land of Eden, according to Mormonism, nothing noteworthy would ever happen as long as Adam and Eve obeyed this commandment--they could not have children, for they did not know how (for some unspecified reason, their immortal junk didn't work); and they could do no good or evil, for they had no knowledge of either. And so, inevitably, a day came when Satan convinced Eve to partake of the fruit, and God's response was to cast them out and cut them off from his presence. Why? Because they did not obey. And yet this had been his design from the beginning. So far as we know, partaking of the fruit was a sin for only one reason: because God said so. And so it is with masturbation.

Because He said so.

I can't tell you how frustrating this has been for me. "Because I said so"? Why is this reasoning sufficient for everyone else? Am I the only Mormon on the planet who can't stand the fact that God is keeping the reason for such an important commandment secret? By the way, is this commandment even important, or am I "making a mountain out of a molehill"? I know that church leaders take it seriously. I have a Church-published pamphlet here called "Repentance Brings Forgiveness", which lists the unforgivable sins (murder and denial of the Holy Ghost) and says "Next to the unforgivable sins come sexual sins. Some such sins may be committed with oneself and some with another person".

So there you have it. Masturbation is "next to [...] unforgivable". Sounds pretty serious all right. No wonder the Holy Ghost doesn't want to hang around with me.

Why doesn't such an important commandment warrant an explanation from the Lord beyond simply "God intended for this organ to be used during marriage, ergo any other use is a sin?" Why is it wrong of me to demand from the Lord to know why masturbation could be considered worse than lying, stealing, vandalism or violence? Why is it a big secret?

Well, my best friend has arrived home. It's time to set this putrid matter aside and enjoy some light entertainment and a meal. But will this matter keep me awake at night? Will I become depressed with worry for my soul, again, and suffer reduced performance at work as a result, or will I be lucky enough to forget the whole thing until the next Sunday comes along? I am hoping for the latter, but admittedly, not praying.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

$838 billion. Whoa.

So how about this $800+ billion stimulus plan? Add the existing $700 billion bailout and I am very concerned we've got a recipe for disaster in the form of massive money mismanagement. My concern is fairly simple. There are only 535 congresspeople and they are vastly outnumbered by lobbyists. For each congressperson there is over 1.6 billion dollars in the $838 billion stumulus plan, but I expect most congresspeople don't directly decide how any of this money will be spent, while a few probably have tremendous power. Thus, there are probably a handful of congresspeople, each of whom are deciding--in the course of just two or three weeks--how to spend tens of billions of dollars. How is it even humanly possible to spend this money responsibly? How will it be micromanaged? How will it avoid giving enormous amounts of free money to undeserving recipients that have good lobbyists?

I like Jon Stewart's idea on the stimulus plan which he discussed with an economist on (IIRC) Feb. 2. They talked about lowering the payroll tax from 15% to 7%, an idea that (AFAIK) is not under consideration by either party, and about refinancing bad mortgages with lower interest rates. They also talked about the importance of giving not to large banks that caused the crisis, but to individuals with lesser faults--a "trickle up" stimulus plan instead of a "trickle-down-from-the-rich-bastards-who-caused-this-mess" plan. What I like about these ideas is that there isn't a lot of room for lobbyists, pork-barreling, or slipping in special-interest funding unnoticed. With fewer line items on the bill, less irresponsibility would get through. These ideas spread some of the government relief money just about equally to all citizens, and some of the money is targeted at people that need it--but at individuals who have no lobbyists, rather than banks and megabusinesses.

It also seems risky to increase the national debt by $1.5 trillion, which is about $5,000 for every man, woman and child in the U.S. The total debt after this stimulus plan will be about $11 trillion, I'm guestimating, or almost $37,000 per person. But in the U.S. money system, money is debt, and more debt means more money for everyone. Make sense? Well, to me it's a head scratcher. It seems like most countries around the world are borrowing--but who's lending? In the U.S. I assume most of the money will be "lent" by the Fed, which really means the Fed will punch some numbers in a computer to create the money out of nothing.

Now I don't really have a problem with printing money like this in a time of crisis--as long as they don't print so much that inflation gets out of control. In fact, printing money could be considered a perfectly even (if not perfectly fair) form of taxation: instead of taxing people, just print money. Then inflation decreases the value of everyone's money equally.

But instead of just printing money, the U.S. "borrows" it. But to me this seems ridiculous, when they are borrowing money that didn't exist before, from an organization (The Fed) that doesn't actually have any money in reserve. Presumably they will pay it back someday, and if so they will pay it back with interest. So my question is--and I have never seen anyone try to answer this question--who pockets the interest when payments to the Fed are made against the debt?

Update: This appears to be Obama's answer to my concerns about accountability - "a new website where citizens can track every dollar spent and every job created".

RIAA and BSA's Favorite Lawyers Taking Top Department of Justice Posts

Hmm, Obama certainly isn't bringing change in the intellectual property arena. Quite the contrary. Presumably at the behest of Joe Biden, the lawyers who participated in suing tens of thousands of ordinary citizens, and lawyers of the BSA (the anti-piracy organization for much of the software industry), now get top DOJ positions.

Update: I recommend the following article, which is more balanced: Influx of Big Content lawyers at DoJ: cause for concern?

Thursday, January 01, 2009


Israel sure is a depressing subject. A comment in another post recently reminded me of the curious consensus among both major U.S. parties and all major news outlets that Israel is America's greatest ally and must not be criticized. I was pointed to this document. Assuming this heavily-footnoted paper from March 2006 is accurate in its factual reporting (nearly half of it consists of "endnotes"), the facts are very disturbing. Did you know, for instance, that Israel has killed 3.4 Palestinians for every Israeli lost since 2000, including 5.7 Palestinian children killed for every Israeli child killed? The paper notes other interesting facts:
Since the October War in 1973, Washington has provided Israel with a level of support dwarfing the amounts provided to any other state. It has been the largest annual recipient of direct U.S. economic and military assistance since 1976 and the largest total recipient since World War II. Total direct U.S. aid to Israel amounts to well over $140 billion in 2003 dollars. Israel receives about $3 billion in direct foreign assistance each year, which is roughly one-fifth of America’s foreign aid budget. In per capita terms, the United States gives each Israeli a direct subsidy worth about $500 per year.
The United States has provided Israel with nearly $3 billion to develop weapons systems like the Lavi aircraft that the Pentagon did not want or need, while giving Israel access to top-drawer U.S. weaponry like Blackhawk helicopters and F-16 jets. Finally, the United States gives Israel access to intelligence that it denies its NATO allies and has turned a blind eye towards Israel’s acquisition of nuclear weapons.
In addition, Washington provides Israel with consistent diplomatic support. Since 1982, the United States has vetoed 32 United Nations Security Council resolutions that were critical of Israel, a number greater than the combined total of vetoes cast by all the other Security Council members. It also blocks Arab states’ efforts to put Israel’s nuclear arsenal on the International Atomic Energy Agency’s agenda.
Contrary to popular belief, the Zionists had larger, better-equipped, and better-led forces during the 1947-49 War of Independence and the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) won quick and easy victories against Egypt in 1956 and against Egypt, Jordan, and Syria in 1967--before large-scale U.S. aid began flowing to Israel. These victories offer eloquent evidence of Israeli patriotism, organizational ability, and military prowess, but they also reveal that Israel was far from helpless even in its earliest years.

Today, Israel is the strongest military power in the Middle East. Its conventional forces are far superior to its neighbors and it is the only state in the region with nuclear weapons.
Later on, the paper describes how it believes pro-Israel lobby groups manage to maintain a universal pro-Israel position in both major parties and in the mainstream media as well.

I have the sense, and not just from reading this paper, that those who criticize Israel's policies or government risk being called anti-semitic. This is defined on as "One who discriminates against or who is hostile toward or prejudiced against Jews"--in other words, a racist. Not that I think Jews count as a race at all--they're just white people--but racists tend to think they're a race.

How can criticizing Israel (which of course is shorthand for the govenment of Israel) make you a racist?

If one criticizes the American government, are they labeled anti-American? Actually, I do think that has happened, especially in times of turmoil such as the time following 9/11. But nowadays, luckily, that crap just doesn't stick and says more about the name-caller than the name-callee. America, after all, has always had a tradition of freedom to criticize govenment. Besides, the term "anti-American" doesn't have a strong racist connotation the way "anti-semitic" does, and considering that Americans come in all colors, how could it? But somehow, this tiny middle-eastern nation is almost immune to criticism in mainstream media, seemingly on threat of name calling.

Coincidentally as I write this, the latest news headline is that Isreael has killed a top Hamas official. Oh, and much of his family. Oh, and a bunch of other people that happened to be in the same 4-storey apartment building.
GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip – Israel dropped a one-ton bomb on the home of a Hamas strongman Thursday, killing him along with two wives and four children in the first attack on the top leadership of Gaza's rulers. As the aerial bombardment escalated, the army said it was also poised to launch a ground invasion. Israel also appeared to be sounding out a possible diplomatic exit from the 6-day-old military offensive against Hamas by demanding international monitors as a key term of any future truce.

The bombing targeted 49-year-old Nizar Rayan, ranked among Hamas' top five decision-makers in Gaza. His four-story apartment building crashed to the ground, sending a thick plume of smoke into the air and heavily damaging neighboring buildings. It killed Rayan and 11 others, including two of his four wives and four of his 12 children, Palestinian health officials said. The Muslim faith allows men to have up to four wives.
Since the official was in Hamas, we can safely assume he was a bad guy (right?), but wait, what about the eleven other deaths? What about the residents of that building, whose possessions were destroyed and who are left homeless?

When analyzing the objectivity with which an issue is reported, it helps to imagine how rhetoric and news coverage would change if an act committed by one side in a conflict were instead committed by the other side. For example, the excellent book Confessions of an Economic Hit Man says that, in Latin America, the CIA is widely suspected to have assassinated Panama's populist leader, a fundamentally good man named Omar Torrijos, as part of an effort to regain some control over the Panama canal. The next leader, Manuel Noriega, refused to give the U.S. its desired power over the canal, and eventually the U.S. launched a small invasion of Panama in order to depose Noriega. In the process, somewhere between 2000 and 5000 civilians were killed.

To detect a lack of objectivity in the media--as absurd as it may seem--I think it's worthwhile to imagine if a well-liked U.S. president such as Barack Obama were killed in a mysterious plane crash. A foreign intelligence agency is suspected in the "accident", and the same agency is suspected in a similar accident a few months ago that killed another popular leader. Would the American media pay little attention, as they did to the incident in Panama? And what if a foreign force invaded Washington, D.C., killing thousands of civilians and capturing the President? Would the American people be more aware of this than when their own country invades Panama? Would the American people tolerate having only "ballpark" civilian death estimates that range from 300 to 5000, as noted on Wikipedia? Would some Americans automatically assume that the invasion was justified, as they do when America invades another country?

I suppose it's to be expected that Americans care a lot more about the death of their own rather than the deaths of foreigners caused by their military. Still, is this not a lack of fairness and objectivity? And is there not something wrong?

Fun fact: death estimates in the Iraq conflict range from 100,000 (a bare minimum based on official reports only, see to nearly a million (an extrapolation of the 2006 figure of 655,000 put out by the John Hopkins report.) I don't really understand why, but for each and every U.S. soldier killed there (and there are a lot of those, as most Americans are no doubt aware), something like 25 Iraqis are killed. Or maybe 200, I mean who's counting? Of course, I don't mean to imply that Americans killed them; rather, the chaos caused by the horribly mismanaged invasion somehow empowered all the most evil elements of Iraq and neighboring states, other than Saddam himself of course.

Sorry, my mind wanders. Anyway, when I was a child I was taught that we are all brothers and sisters. Not all of us Americans. Not all of us North Americans. Not all of us English-speakers, but all of us human beings. We are all valuable in the sight of God, and all men are created equal. I hold fast to that ideal. I believe that an Iraqi or Panamanian hurts as much when dismembered as an American. I believe that people around the world have as much right to a livelihood as we do. Do you disagree?

Are Americans far more valuable than others? First-worlders far more valuable than third-worlders? Jews far more valuable than Palestinians? If you don't think so, then sit up and take notice, for the facts on the ground suggest otherwise.

So getting back to Israel, let's try reversing the situation. What if you heard that Hamas dropped a one-ton bomb on the 4-storey apartment building lived in by a top Israeli official, which killed him and 6 immediate family members and 5 unlucky others? I would think: "a top Israeli official lives in an apartment building?" and then: "oh dear, a lot of Palestinians will die for this".

But I think a lot of Americans simply wouldn't know the difference. I studied the history of Israel in high school, but by the time I got to university I had forgotten just about everything I knew, and I came to realize this when I got into a conversation with an Arab pizza place employee, and embarrassed myself with ignorant statements. For example, I thought that both Palestinians and Israelis killed one another in suicide bomb attacks, more or less in equal numbers. I guess I was too busy in my job (writing software for said pizza place) that I lost track of the world outside--the world on which America has a tremendous effect while its citizens aren't looking. And isn't that the story of most Americans?

Even though Israel may be the keystone of America's relationship with the world, most Americans know little about the conflict there. And according to the paper I introduced at the beginning, this is just the way the powerful lobby group AIPAC wants it, because the facts are not flattering.

I don't know the solution to this conflict, but I think reconciliation, compromise, diplomacy, and forgiveness--not proud displays of military force by Israel (or desperate acts of terrorism by Palestinian militants)--will have major roles to play. I worry that Israel always takes the latter approach because its unique relationship with the U.S. makes it invincible. I have heard there is a military culture in Israel's government--is this culture, I wonder, more prominent than the military culture in the U.S. government? In any case, I don't think that culture will ever come to an end as long as the U.S. props it up, and the U.S. will not stop propping it up until somebody starts saying "hey, maybe Israel doesn't deserve to be our greatest foreign-aid recipient" or "hey, maybe there's something morally wrong over there" or "maybe Jewish lives aren't quite worth 3.4 times as much as Arab lives".

And nobody in mainstream media and mainstream politics will say that until Americans learn enough about the situation to respond "hey, maybe he's right!" So please, learn a little more about this issue, and be ready to wonder whether decades of U.S. foreign policy is bringing this 50-year conflict to a close--or preventing a peaceful conclusion.

P.S. I know that there is plenty of blame to go around: Palestinians kill Israelis too. It's just that only one side actually has the power to end this conflict, and with great power comes great responsibility. And hey, happy new year! I have no doubt that 2009 will be an odd year. Numerically speaking.