Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Put A Little Love in Our Hearts

When Dennis Kucinich announced his Champions for Change were Elizabeth Warren, Sherrod Brown, and Alan Grayson, I had no idea who Sherrod Brown and Alan Grayson were (while Elizabeth Warren is a very sensible and likeable repeat guest on The Daily Show), but I trusted Dennis enough to donate something to each of their campaigns. Since then I've been getting a series of rather unpleasant-sounding emails in which he complains loudly about certain Republican candidates such as "David Rivera of Miami" about whom, he says, "I do think that the taxpayers should be paying for David Rivera's room and board. But I don't think that the federal institution at which Rivera serves should be the U.S. Congress." (*cough*prison.)

Well frankly it was getting annoying, because I don't know anything whatsoever about the guys on Grayson's hit list and I hate to make judgments about politicians based solely on attacks from ... other politicians. Bias just doesn't get more obvious than that! Especially since he sounded so much like a typical politician, mixed with a bit of Rush Limbaugh. And in today's "make up you own facts" political climate, I tend notice when an article lacks citations.

But I have to like his latest email. After declaring Obama the winner in the recent foreign policy debate, he said something I can agree with with all my heart*. Oddly his letter doesn't have a home page so I'll repeat it here:
The bad news is that the entire debate, questions and answers, seemed premised on the false assumption that virtually everyone else on this planet wants to kill us.

Here is a list of the topics last night: (1) Libya embassy attack. (2) War in Syria. (3) Why we shouldn't cut military spending. (4) Israel or the U.S. attacking Iran. (5) The war in Afghanistan. (6) "Divorcing" Pakistan. (7) What is the greatest future threat to our security?

In other words, seven variations on the same theme: xenophobia. Fear of foreigners.

Let's go over the basic facts. There are two large oceans that separate us from 191 of the 193 other countries in the world. Our northern border has been peaceful since 1812. Our southern border has been peaceful, more or less, since 1848. In the 229 years since the Treaty of Paris, establishing our independence, foreign military forces have attacked American territory only twice - in both cases, on the outermost periphery.

So how is it that a "foreign policy" debate can be devoted entirely to the single, narrow subject of who is going to kill whom? It appears that the military-industrial complex has not only occupied huge chunks of the federal budget, but also huge chunks of our political discourse, and even our thinking.

Why is it that every candidate for public office keeps pressing that big, red PANIC button? Isn't there anyone out there who will try to put a little love in our hearts?

Here are some questions that should have been asked last night, but weren't:

(1) What should we do about the 10+ million undocumented people in this country, more than half of whom came here from Mexico? (2) Speaking of Mexico, the drug war in Mexico was the most deadly armed conflict in the world last year, killing more people than the war in Afghanistan and the civil war in Syria combined. What should we do about it? (3) We have run the largest trade deficit in the world every year for roughly the past 20 years. This year, it's half a trillion dollars, again. Other developed countries like Japan and Germany run consistent trade surpluses. What should we do about this? (4) The United States is the only industrialized country without universal healthcare, paid vacations and paid sick leave. Why is this? What should we do about it? (5) Climate change obviously is a worldwide issue. Should the United States participate in efforts to mitigate it? If so, how? (6) There is tremendous suffering now in both Greece and Spain, with unemployment of 25%+. Should we do anything to help people in those countries? (7) In poor countries, three million people die each year of respiratory infections, 2.5 million die each year of diarrhea, and two million die of AIDS. Virtually all of these deaths are avoidable. Should we avoid them?

As Charles P. Pierce of Esquire put it, before the debate last night:

Trade is foreign policy. The environment is foreign policy. Energy policy is foreign policy. Human rights are foreign policy. Drought is foreign policy. Starvation is foreign policy. War is generally only foreign policy when one of those other things I mentioned get[s] completely out of control. However, as I suspect we will see argued enthusiastically from both sides tonight, war, and not its historic causes, has come to define foreign policy. Increasingly, it has come to define us as a nation as well. This is a problem that, I predict, will not be addressed at all this evening . . . .

He was right. It wasn't addressed at all.

Look - the world is a beautiful place. I know; I've seen it. This planet is full of people just like us. It's not full of monsters and demons and ogres and beasts. And there are solutions to problems other than "shoot it," "bomb it," "burn it," and "kill it."

Let me make this as simple as possible: The Earth - love it or leave it.


Alan Grayson

Think of your fellow man,
Lend him a helping hand,
Put a little love in your heart . . . .

Another day goes by,
And still the children cry.
Put a little love in your heart.

If you want the world to know,
We won't let hatred grow,
Put a little love in your heart.

And the world will be a better place.
And the world will be a better place.
For you and me --
You just wait and see.

Put a little love in your heart.
* (except for point #4. I'm all for universal healthcare--but how is it a foreign policy question?)

I predict that the U.S. election winner...

...will not make a big difference to the country!

So vote 3rd party... and support electoral reform! If the people you would approve of aren't running for office, don't you think that could have something to do with our voting system?

First-past-the-post favors a two-party system and incumbents in particular. Right now, most rational independents wouldn't consider running for office, knowing they can't really win. That means that the independents that actually do run for office are few in number and either (1) know they can't win and just want a bit of spotlight for themselves or their message, or (2) are insane. It's no great surprise if you don't approve of any of them.

And if you're gonna support a new voting system, let me suggest that you support anything except IRV (instant runoff voting). Well, support IRV if it's the only choice, because anything is better than first-past-the-post. However, the other single-seat systems (where many candidates compete for a single-seat), such as Approval, Range voting (where you just give each candidate a rating from 0 to 5 or something), Ranked Pairs, are better.

Mind you, all these single-seat election systems are very flawed: they always reject (N-1)/N of the candidates running, which means everyone that runs (apart from the forerunner) must be willing to burn lots of cash with low chances of success, which tends to favor rich people (and a few others who have either strong stomachs for failure, or delusions that they have a shot).

Another major flaw with FPTP, IRV, Approval and so forth is that they assume that I want to vote for someone local. Where I live has nothing to do with who I want in the federal government! Why can't I choose among candidates across the country, or at least across the state? Give me Direct Representation!

Friday, September 28, 2012

Hey wait, isn't that the same...

I read an article in the local Metro newspaper today stating that police were "cleared of wrongdoing" in the shooting death of a mentally-ill man holding an axe. The article only contained "positive" quotes from police officials, and I thought to myself--wait, isn't this the same story I read about last year, in which the man's family called police for help to get the man under control, and were extremely upset that he ended up dead?

So I checked another newspaper and indeed this is the case. From the Sun:
“The family is pretty angry at how cops dealt with it,” Ryan Smith said last year following the shooting.

“They were yelling at cops to stop shooting while Peter was already on the ground.

“He wasn’t a maniac wielding an axe. He was no threat to anybody and made no intention to go towards the officer.

“He was surrounded by family, how threatening are you when you have your whole family standing beside you?”
Curiously, none of the papers give a new statement from the family about the result of the inquiry. Sometimes I am bothered by how cops use tasers--but in this case, it seems like a taser really would have been the right tool for the job.

Still, it all happened very fast, they say: no time to reflect on what you're doing. So perhaps if there's any blame here, maybe it's something wrong with police training.

When authorities do have time to reflect, though, you'd expect them to make better decisions. For example, a man meant to send a sexual text message to his girlfriend, but accidentally sent it to his entire address book. In my books this might warrant a smack upside the head for idiocy. But no, he was sentenced to 18 months in prison instead.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Living with attack drones

Can you imagine living in a place where armed flying drones roam the skies, ready to attack without warning at any moment? If not, how about spending some time in Pakistan.

A new report says that in the past several years, U.S. drone strikes have "killed 2,562-3,325 people in Pakistan, of whom 474-881 were civilians, including 176 children.[3] TBIJ reports that these strikes also injured an additional 1,228-1,362 individuals." I doubt that drone strikes are anywhere near a leading cause of death in Pakistan, but it must have a similar effect on the human psyche as old-fashioned terrorism:
US drone strike policies cause considerable and under-accounted-for harm to the daily lives of ordinary civilians, beyond death and physical injury. Drones hover twenty-four hours a day over communities in northwest Pakistan, striking homes, vehicles, and public spaces without warning. Their presence terrorizes men, women, and children, giving rise to anxiety and psychological trauma among civilian communities. Those living under drones have to face the constant worry that a deadly strike may be fired at any moment, and the knowledge that they are powerless to protect themselves. These fears have affected behavior. The US practice of striking one area multiple times, and evidence that it has killed rescuers, makes both community members and humanitarian workers afraid or unwilling to assist injured victims. Some community members shy away from gathering in groups, including important tribal dispute-resolution bodies, out of fear that they may attract the attention of drone operators. Some parents choose to keep their children home, and children injured or traumatized by strikes have dropped out of school. Waziris told our researchers that the strikes have undermined cultural and religious practices related to burial, and made family members afraid to attend funerals. In addition, families who lost loved ones or their homes in drone strikes now struggle to support themselves.
The abstract also says 'The number of “high-level” targets killed [] estimated at just 2%. [...] As the New York Times has reported, “drones have replaced Guantánamo as the recruiting tool of choice for militants.” [...] One major study shows that 74% of Pakistanis now consider the US an enemy.'

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Why do we keep using Helium balloons?

The world supply of Helium is running out, and it is being argued that Helium should be made more expensive so that it won't be used so much for party balloons and won't run out in the next 50 years, so that it will still be readily available for scientific and medical applications.

I tend to agree, since we really don't need them for balloons: we could just use hydrogen instead; we can never run out of hydrogen. sqr(twg) on Slashdot says:
This is indeed a good idea. A balloon filled with hydrogen is not much more dangerous than one filled with air. If you hold it over a flame, it will make about the same pop as an air-filled balloon. The 0.3 g of hydrogen in a balloon is not enough to produce any serious amount heat as it burns. (We did this back in high-school chemistry class. We had an awesome teacher.) Hydrogen is cheaper than helium, and does not diffuse as easily through the balloon surface, so balloons would last longer.

There is some danger in the handling of cylinders. If hydrogen leaks out in a room with poor ventilation, there is a risk of explosion. However, the same is true for propane/butane gas which is used in kitchen stoves, and most people seem to be able to handle that.

Another danger is when stupid people inhale balloon gas and asphyxiate. With helium, this problem is commonly solved by adding some oxygen to the mix. Hydrogen cannot be safely mixed with oxygen, so you'd either have to tell the stupid people not to do that, or accept a slight decline in the stupid population as they figure it out for themselves.
Actually, the entire danger of hydrogen cylinders might be avoidable. It can be produced directly from water and electricity; you just have to figure out how to separate it from the oxygen.

Now, helium is often mixed with air to make it cheaper. Similarly, perhaps hydrogen could be mixed with nitrogen to make it safer. (Larger helium balloons can still float with about 50% air content, although small balloons cannot, since the skin of the balloon, plus the string, will weigh it down too much.)

Of course, the nanny-state mentality will create some resistance to this idea. Too bad I'm not a chemist, or maybe I could suggest some other gas that is lighter than air, more plentiful than helium and safer than hydrogen. I know I'd rather give my child a hydrogen balloon than deprive him or her of such a wonderful childhood delight... but I might be concerned about filling a whole room with them.
  • More on hydrogen safety - note that this page assumes large amounts of hydrogen; it is not concerned with tiny amounts of hydrogen like what a balloon would contain.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Money doesn't grow on trees

After my last post I remembered that lots of Americans are still falling for the conservative narrative about rich people and job creation. Ever since Bush sold the Iraq War, conservatives have been using the simple strategy of repetition to sell their message. It's disgusting how simple and effective it is. How it works is:
  1. Pick something that you want everyone to believe
  2. Repeat it.

    A lot.

    That is, make up some stuff that supports this belief, or find a small amount of shaky evidence that seems to support it, and mention it to as many people as possible, as many times as possible.
Another word for this is propaganda. Propaganda is shockingly effective. It sold the war on Iraq; it sells Chinese people on every message from their government; and it sells Americans on every belief of Rupert Murdoch. Oh, how I wish people would not fall for it, but they do and they always will; being human has many curses. Sadly, only the rich and powerful can use this technique, since it requires tremendous resources to send a single message repeatedly to everybody. True, less powerful organizations can send messages and convince some people, but not as efficiently as the rich and powerful can, and so the rich and powerful message tends to win (as long as it isn't too implausible.)

One message that has been going around for the past few years goes something like "rich people are the job creators, so anything that hurts rich people will destroy jobs." Several other messages circle around it for protection, messages to demonize those who support increased taxes for the wealthy, claims that raising taxes is socialism, claims that raising taxes on the rich doesn't increase government revenue due to the "Laffer curve", and so on (note: the Laffer Curve is a legitimate concept, but it probably peaks somewhere above 70%, whereas some of the richest people have tax rates below 20%). There's too much BS going around for me to address it all, but I'd like to push back against this mindless worship of rich people a bit today.

When it comes to wealth, perhaps people don't understand the obvious: that gambling money is a zero-sum game. If you get ten million dollars, that money came from somewhere! Somebody, somewhere, had to lose ten million dollars in order for you to gain it. Usually it's spread out over lots of people; maybe a million people lost an average of $10 and they lost it without even realizing it. Finances can be extremely complicated and it may be nearly impossible to understand where the money came from, but it did come from somewhere!

A couple days ago, a friend in Colombia (a much poorer person than myself) asked me "is this offer for real?" A website was offering to give anyone a free iPod in exchange for credit card details, if you agreed to sign up for one month of another popular service like Netflix or eMusic (e.g. $8 for one month of Netflix). Then she showed me another website offering a free iPhone 5 (which costs $700 retail).

Now, apologies to my friend, but that's a dumb question. Of course it's a scam! Would you believe it if a website offered to give you a "free $700" just for handing over your credit card details? I think people fall for it because they only think of what they will get out of it, not what someone else will lose. I would love to give all of you a "free" laptop. So why don't I? Because I would lose tens of thousands of dollars, stupid! Even if you could somehow verify that this is for real, and that you'll really get an iPod or iPhone, it would still be foolish to sign up without asking: where does the money for this iPoop come from? Who benefits and who loses? What are the motives of the people involved?

Regardless of whether someone "won" a lot of money, "earned" a lot of money on Wall Street, or "got a free iPhone", you should be asking yourself where the money came from. Some adults need to be taught a lesson that children already know: "money doesn't grow on trees". When I hear that a Wall Street exec--who does not produce any actual physical products or anything useful at all--gets a $5 million salary every year and a $5 million "bonus", I am not angry because he has a lot of money. No, that's fine, how nice for him! Nor am I angry because he got far more in one year than I will ever have in my entire lifetime: I am not an envious person. No, I am angry because other people, much poorer people, lost $10 million at the same time. That money came from somewhere! That's why I'm pissed off! And you should be too!

Many people lost thousands or tens of thousands of dollars (for some, paper losses, for others, real losses) when the stock market crashed in 2008*. The money didn't simply "vanish"--it went to the rich clowns that caused the crisis*.

Mind you, it's not always obvious that money is a zero-sum game. After all, money is debt, and money can be created from thin air, but it's still effectively a zero-sum game; creating new money eventually devalues the existing money, so it is not a magic way to create wealth, it merely transfers wealth from everyone else evenly.

Outside the money-making game itself, it should be noted that the real world is not a zero-sum game. For example, some new technologies can revolutionize the world and enhance everyone's quality of living: so technological innovation can be a positive-sum game, one that really does improve society. Thus, you might argue that Bill Gates really did earn his fortune by creating technology that improved the world. You'd be wrong though, because many people at Microsoft deserve as much credit as Gates himself but did not walk away with billions of dollars, and because any number of people and companies outside Microsoft would have been ready and willing (if circumstances had been slightly different) to create the same technology or better, at a much lower cost. For heaven's sake, the Linux ecosystem was created by volunteers, for free! Given a little money, the open-source approach to software development could have produced higher quality software than Microsoft did, much more efficiently. (It is often complained that open-source software has lower quality, but I would argue that this is because it was produced for free; if somehow these same volunteers could be paid, they could work full-time and produce high-quality free software very efficiently.) I could make other arguments, too, like: surely Bill Gates is not one million times better than the rest of us, so surely he didn't deserve one million times as much money. Or: to make his fortune several elements of luck had to happen that were outside his control. And you know, it wouldn't surprise me much if, following our deaths, our creator informs us that our souls are actually all identical and that the only difference between us was our bodies, talents and circumstances, so that all our talk of certain people "deserving" this or that was baloney the whole time, in a way.

While new technology often has a "positive sum" effect on the world, other things commonly have a "negative sum" effect. The financial crisis is a perfect example of the negative-sum effect: yes, some Wall Street folks got rich by causing the crisis, but if we could somehow measure their negative effects on society as a dollar amount, this negative dollar amount would be much higher than the amount of money they pocketed. Why? Well, millions of people lost their jobs, and job losses are a negative-sum effect. Someone with a job is producing stuff, probably creating value for society, while someone without a job is producing nothing (but still consuming some resources, albeit less resources than someone with a job would consume). Thus, destroying jobs is a negative-sum game, while creating jobs is a positive-sum game.

But even when someone is involved with a positive-sum game, that doesn't automatically mean they "deserve" their $10 million paycheck, and it doesn't even mean they have a net positive effect on society.

I mean, let's say you made $10 million this year and you helped create 100 jobs salaried at $50K each. First of all, are you daft enough to think you singlehandedly created these 100 jobs all by yourself? Most likely hundreds of people helped with this effort, and most of them still make $50K per year and little or no bonus. Second, the net effect on society of 100 new jobs may be well under $50K per person, much less than half of the money you made--and remember, that money came from somewhere. So even if you created 100 jobs of value (you didn't, but let's pretend you did), you still drained more than that from elsewhere to line your pockets. Eventually you'll spend that money and some of it will 'trickle back down', but the mansions and yachts you bought with the gold-plated toilets are purely a drain on society; they are not even really good for you yourself, since super-rich people are, statistically, not much happier than people that are only "fairly" rich. That is, if you find yourself making 10 times as much money, chances are you are only slightly happier: so if you try to buy happiness with money, the price is obscene. You could have easily made hundreds of people very happy with your $10 million, but instead you chose to buy a f***ing yacht. Idiot!

Third, the skills that you needed and used to create jobs are learnable. There are probably millions of people out there who could replace you and do your job just as well if they had the proper training (and the social connections you are lucky enough to have received--"it's not what you know, it's who you know"). So there is no need for anyone to make $10 million dollars, and the rest of us would be better off (richer) if someone else, someone willing to work for $200,000 or $300,000 per year, would do your job instead. We'd be better off because we wouldn't be silently losing the money that pays your salary: if you make $10 million per year on Wall Street, the rest of us would have more profitable mutual funds if you were gone (since you wouldn't be draining the stock market with all those fancy accounting tricks, or destabilizing the banks by paying your bonus with loans that your company might never repay.) If you make $10 million per year in telecomms, the rest of us would have lower phone/internet bills if you were gone. If you make $10 million per year on TV, we'd have lower cable bills or box-office prices if someone "lesser", but no less talented, replaced you (or better yet, perhaps the money could be spent on better investigative journalism or something... Lord knows ignorance is increasing these days).

Your $10 million had to come from somewhere, and I can guarantee that virtually all of it came from people that are dirt-poor compared to you. To make matters worse, you are probably spending some of that money to lobby Congress for laws favorable to you and your bottom line, and you probably feel little or no obligation to help society with your wealth, apart from some token amount to massage your conscience.

Some (only some) of the 1% create jobs, but surely these jobs could have been created at a lower price, and more importantly these "job creators" are obviously not that good at creating jobs, otherwise America wouldn't still have an unemployment crisis four years after the bust. Obama gave in, he let the rich keep their tax cuts (in exchange for a higher deficit and national debt), yet somehow these job creators have not fixed the economy. Because rich people are just rich people, not magic job fairies. Duh.

Sadly, since my message is not simple and I am not rich and powerful, I cannot simply repeat my simple message on Cable News 10 times a day. Instead, almost no one will read it, and those that do read it will not change their opinion. So the rich and powerful will win again... for now. But eventually, I suspect we will all lose, when the unsustainable policies supported by the rich finally cause a more serious implosion of the world economy.

Romney's Greed

As much as I have been disappointed with Obama's presidency, it still looks to me like voting Republican would be an even worse choice.

Since the financial crisis, the U.S. has really needed politicians willing to
  • put in regulations to prevent similar meltdowns of the financial systems in the future,
  • to get rid of the corrupt individuals that caused the crisis instead of delivering them more big bonuses on the taxpayer dime, and
  • to stabilize the debt, not by cutting important services, but by raising taxes (especially on the rich) back to 1990s levels, and by quickly reducing war spending.
Sadly, it turns out that Obama wasn't willing to do "change I can believe in". But Romney? Gah. The stuff I'm reading says Romney lived his life as a greedy, amoral, unapologetic Wall Street profiteer. If this article in Rolling Stone is correct, all his talk of debt control is pure hypocrisy, and Romney just wants to be president because he enjoys having power. Having always been rich and surrounded by rich people, he is unlikely to impose any changes that are incompatible with the way he made his fortunes, or that his buddies wouldn't approve of--that is, anything that would put people back to work or reduce the deficit, but risk "hurting" the 1% at the same time. Seriously, read that article. It's horrifying.

I think the U.S. really needs serious reforms, but I have a sense that the citizens are too complacent, and the megacorporations and superrich are too powerful, to allow major reforms of any kind at this point.

Perhaps a big part of the problem, as evidenced by the internal squabbles inside Occupy Wall Street, is that people can't agree on what, exactly, the problem is. Clearly something is seriously wrong in U.S. politics, but what's the problem? Where does the gridlock come from, and what is the nature of the corruption? How can politicians lie more than ever before, stall congress more than ever before, and care less than ever before about the future of the nation? Why does the U.S. media seem to focus on more superficial issues than in other nations? Are Americans not concerned about their absolutely monstrous debt? If they are concerned, how can so many of them be convinced to oppose simple and easy changes like restoring taxes on the rich to 1990s levels? Perhaps most importantly, we can't agree on how to fix these problems. And I'm not sure, but it feels like some substantial percentage of the population ignores the corruption and can't be convinced to give a damn.

I don't have the answers. But if nothing changes, perhaps the only wakeup call to America will come when the economy collapses.

P.S. you know, it still seems like a lot of people are still buying this "rich people are job creators" nonsense. More on that in my next post.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Balls of Steel Journalist Award

This year's winner: Rick Falkvinge.

Internet freedom, privacy, free-speech and copyright activists are well aware that special-interest groups and politicians often use child porn as the pretext to introduce computerized wiretaps and internet filtering schemes (which can, once created, be used to do legal and illegal wiretapping, enforce copyright claims, secretly block websites for political reasons, and so forth.)

But usually activists combat the child-porn arguments by simply pointing out that child porn is not the real motivation behind such technological measures, or, going out on a limb, that they are unlikely to reduce child abuse. Until now I haven't seen anyone directly and openly reject the underlying assumption that we must have laws against possession of child porn. Not only does he reject that idea, he's got the flaming liberal stones to suggest that a pair of 17-year-olds making love can be "one of the most beautiful things in the world" and adds that "I started watching porn at age ten".

Well, that's TMI for me, but I gotta say, he's right. How can an action be perfectly legal to actually do but a crime to record? Or worse, how can something that is merely sexually suggestive be less legal than sex itself? And why don't police put more resources into catching child molesters instead of porn viewers?

The problem, of course, is that most people are not willing to stand up and argue with those who say we need to step up enforcements and punishments against porn possession. It is just like the phenomenon where politicians increase prison sentences (and impose minimums) for specific crimes--the opposition can point out that the higher sentence would be unfair in some cases, sure. They could point out that it's illogical to have a higher sentence for this crime than this other, lesser crime, to double the sentence for having one evil motive instead of another evil motive, or for attacking someone with weapon X instead of weapon Y or Z. But it's risky, since the retort is so simple and effective in our stupid sound-bite world: "you're soft on crime!" "you're in favor of revolving-door prisons!!" "damn bleeding-heart liberals!!!"

So kudos to this Rick guy for actually standing up and opening a rare debate.

Personally I am annoyed by the "conviction by public outrage" in these cases. The instant the police claim that somebody has child porn, it's all over. The accused can say it's not child porn, but the public cannot judge for themselves since they cannot legally see the images, so of course they just take the police's word for it. Long before the hard-fought acquittal, the accused loses his job, his friends, his money and his dignity... of course, it's a fair bet he'd lose his dignity even if the images could be made public, because although the images may not be child porn, somebody must have found them offensive or it wouldn't be in court.

Mind you, if there is an acquittal, it is sometimes possible to obtain the evidence. Which brings us to Rick's follow-up article, which actually contains an image that was ruled to be child porn all the way up until the Supreme Court ruled that it actually isn't.
"If you’re a somewhat typical person, you’re now reacting with a OMG I’ve looked at child porn, omg omg I’m a horrible horrible person! That’s normal. We’ve been trained to think and feel that way."
Trained. That's the perfect word for it. Because the picture isn't really sexual if you have a well-adjusted mind. You know, there are still cultures in the world, though they may be disappearing, where children or (more rarely) adults spend a lot of their time partly or fully naked and it's perfectly normal for them. I recall hearing that in the past they were more common, but Christian missionaries went around the world teaching their particular interpretation of the Bible, that the naked should be ashamed of themselves. With nudity now gone from North American society, most people can no longer imagine living without these strict limits on our natural state of being. And yet, despite the complete absence of nudity from television and public view, you remain human, your sex drive is the same, and your sexual experiences still tend to involve nudity. Thus we are trained to associate nudity and sexuality, making us repulsed or "weirded out" by images that, in another lifetime, we could have found pleasant and natural.

Am I really saying this out loud? I must be a ballsy journalist too.

If you need further proof that lawmakers may be going too far: "Outlaw possession of written accounts of child abuse" says MP - "Sir Paul said he had long been aware of a correlation 'between those who possess or distribute indecent printed material of children and those who commit horrific contact offences against children'." Oh yes, yes... and there is a strong correlation between drunk driving and drunk-driving fatalities; let us therefore prohibit all car owners from drinking under any circumstances, and give it the same prison sentence as manslaughter. Also, I have surprising news for overweight men out there: it turns out that a large belly is correlated with advanced pregnancy. It's time to schedule an ultrasound!

Monday, July 30, 2012

+1 for Algebra Education

Often there are arguments about whether Algebra should be taught in school. After all, so many people don't use it in real life. But I think a well-rounded education is important, including Algebra, History, Physical Education, English Literature, and other subjects that people might not use in real life. But why do I believe that? Is there a good reason?

Well, humbug, I can't prove it. But people that lack breadth of education are not really able to understand the world, and so they may be deceived more easily by their government, their news media, their companies or their churches, and they may make large numbers of poor decisions, all the while being unaware of it. At best, this annoys those of us who are more competent; at worst, when such people are placed in positions of power, they can do a lot of damage. I'm reminded of Hugo Chavez here, about whom I saw an interesting documentary: he is apparently well-meaning but arrogant, believing himself to be a far better leader than he really is and certainly better than his appointed ministers; though I guess in a place like Venezuela, where average education levels are low, Chavez is relatively smart.

A comment on Slashdot gives another example of such a person. This person probably knew algebra, but he didn't know all those other subjects whose merits we seldom argue about:
"You shouldn't have to study Shakespeare to get a physics degree."

I disagree.

I spent a fair amount of time once with a man who was educated in the fashion you seem to think is appropriate. In his case, he'd started out working on the factory floor at an IBM manufacturing facility in Texas (30 years ago when they still made stuff in the US), and had qualified for and taken a technical math and computer science education culminating in a master's degree. IBM's "school" was accredited and his degree was a real one, but it included only technical subjects; no liberal ed at all. Prior to his IBM education he had barely graduated from high school -- and I'm not sure how he did, frankly.

He was a highly intelligent man, very articulate and perceptive. However, as soon as the discussion left technology his utter lack of education became instantly apparent. He was even ignorant of basic principles of physics -- he knew a fair amount about electronics, but in mechanics he understood less than most high school dropouts I've known. His ability to understand politics was nonexistent because he didn't know any history, or even understand basic civics. And don't even attempt to talk about literature, philosophy, etc.

Now, obviously, a big part of his ignorance was due to his own utter lack of interest in anything outside of computer science. You can't obtain a MSCS without being able to read, and anyone who can read can educate themselves. But the point was that the difference between him and the typical college graduate -- even though he was almost certainly smarter than said typical graduate -- was stark and obvious, and it wasn't in his favor. His lack of general knowledge wasn't just a problem when socializing, either, it often caused him to make dumb decisions that affected the business, and you simply could not put him in front of customers, because unless the discussion was laser-focused, he'd eventually say something that made him look like an idiot.

After my experience working with him, I decided I wholeheartedly agree with the liberal education philosophy. The worst part about it was that his deep, narrow knowledge and utter lack of knowledge outside of a single field made him believe, quite firmly, that there really wasn't much to know outside of his field. It's often said that that the primary purpose of a BA/BS is to teach the student the breadth of his own ignorance. Well, this guy never learned that.

We don't all need deep knowledge in every area, but an introductory course in each of the major areas of human knowledge really does add significant value. It makes us more rounded, teaches us some much-needed humility and, well, educates us. That education is what differentiates a university degree from a vocational certificate, and the former is more valuable than the latter.
I can see how most people might not use algebra. The thing is, basic algebra isn't really hard to learn, so learning it shouldn't really be a big deal. I do suspect, therefore, that there is something wrong with the way it is taught. Certainly I remembered that I didn't really understand it at first, back in grade 8 or 9, but now that I understand it seems fairly simple.

And I actually do use algebra at work, occasionally, and even basic calculus, in my programming job. Yet I have heard multiple programmers who are not very good at algebra say that they never use it, and never saw a use for it. Well, that makes sense. In life there are often several roads to a destination. Sometimes there is a short road that uses algebra and a long, winding road that does not. I will use the short road and those that can't do algebra will take the long road, probably never even realizing that the short road existed.

I have to admit though, there are some things that people really must know that were not taught in my school: how bank accounts and mutual funds work and the terminology involved; what a mortgage is and how it works; how the university/college education systems work; the basics of the legal system; principles of ethics; and so forth. Maybe there is an argument to be made that all these things should be given higher priority than Algebra. But if we do education right, we could teach all of this stuff. How to do it right, though, I can't say.

A response to the above comment offers a plausible counterargument, though:
I agree with both of you and the GP. I agree with the GP that such classes are annoying and largely useless to the specific discipline that the person chooses. I agree with the parent that you need to look beyond your discipline. A little background: I'm currently a college student (becoming a sophomore) at a big-name university, studying robotics. At this university, we have general education requirements of the following: Humanities, Social Science, Language, Natural Science. We also have a mandatory writing class and "Intro to the humanities". The goal, obviously, of these requirements is to make students well-rounded. This sounds good in principle, but in reality it fails.

Before I explain why, I must note that there are different types of students who respond differently to attempts to make them well-rounded. The first type, I call "robots." Robots essentially drag themselves through a fixed course in life - birth, elementary school, middle school, high school, college, career, marriage, kids, retirement, death. What kind of robot you get depends on the school you attend, but essentially they are all the same person. You get people who are insanely good at some subject (chemistry, biology, etc.) but not so good at everything else. Or so you'd think. What you actually get are people who have no intrinsic motivation, but are good at anything they have to do. That means they'll learn what they need for their career and they'll do well in these sort of general education classes if they have to get a degree. But, there's a problem: they'll never apply that knowledge to anything else. For example, if you have a robot who studies neuroscience and takes a required philosophy class, they won't consider the impact of neuroscience upon moral philosophy. Basically, requiring these students to take these sorts of classes is like programming an industrial welding robot to play a violin. While it might seem like you've done something, all you've really done is make a weird demonstration that doesn't really do much after it quits.

The second type of student here is the party animal. These students just party through college - they're not here for academics really, they're here for the connections. They are here for a variety of reasons - legacy, decent test scores, athletics, etc. As you might expect, they take a "C's get degrees" attitude to required courses. They don't gain anything from such courses but at least they push down to curve for the rest of us. Or you might assume. Actually, they take up valuable resources including TA and professor time, ask basic and banal questions and worst of all annoy the course staff and make them angry at the student body as a whole.

Lastly, there are some students who are truly intellectual. They actually integrate the ideas from the various disciplines together and create better ideas as a result. These students don't actually need much help being well-rounded. They'll read articles and get ideas from other fields on their own because that's part of there personality. They may take non-major related classes out of interest (I'm doing this with physics, chemistry, and maybe biology) for entertainment. The only benefit they may receive from these classes is a little push on the envelope (which they may hit anyway). The disadvantage is that they take required classes, which are bad because forced education is an inherently bad process. Students who don't want to learn are a pain to teach. This annoys professors that take that anger out on the student body. They also force professors to dumb down the course, in turn causing students who are actually engaged to be bored out of their minds. This bordem in turn causes them to become disinterested. Essentially, the entire thing fails for everyone at the same time.

So, to recap, required courses fail for each group of students for different reasons. Robots learn the material and then fail to apply it. Party animals flunk the classes. Intellectual students become disinterested in the basic classes and disconnected teachers. Solving the problem of making "robots" intellectual is not going to be done by dragging them through a few GE's. I don't know what the answer is, but I know we need to find it before the flesh-and-blood robots are replaced with silicon-and-steel ones.
Of course, I fall into the last category, and I can't entirely agree: I learned some interesting things in university, including things outside my core interests in computers, that I probably would not have learned otherwise. Sure I study stuff in my free time, but when it's a requirement for the degree, I study it harder and longer. That said, the quality of education at the U of C was (mostly) so bad that I would have been able to learn a lot of the same stuff in less time, with less stress and spending less money, if I studied without the university's "help". As for the other two categories of people--the robots and the jocks--I can't accurately comment on them because I have a lack of experience with them, because of my lack of social skills. I must say, I would be grateful if Social Skills was a required subject. Maybe then I would be any good at it.

[Is it just me or did I just write a boring, rambling blog post? Oh well.]

One final thought, maybe the trouble with Algebra is that it is treated as an end goal--our goal is to teach you algebra!--when in fact it is just a tool. We must then use algebra to see its value. You can't truly learn physics, for example, without algebra. But maybe the same people who argue we don't need algebra might say we don't need physics, either. Perhaps in the modern world, a more useful thing than physics is probability and statistics:
I would actually say statistics is probably the *most* broadly-applicable branch of mathematics. *Everyone* - scientist, politician, gambler, civic-minded citizen, and commercial watching bumpkin would benefit from a firm grasp of at least the basics of statistics, and of those scientists are typically the only ones who have any clue at all, and even their grasp on it is often shaky, especially in the softer science. And you don't actually need much more than basic algebra to learn it either.

No other field I can think of is as broadly used with as little understanding (how many times have you seen a % today?), which makes it ripe for exploitation. There's a reason for the phrase "there's lies, damned lies, and statistics" - statistics is (mostly) actually pretty simple from a "solve this equation" perspective, the difficulty is that there's a whole lot of counter-intuitive aspects to probability so it can be tricky to answer the question you think you're answering - which makes it ridiculously simple for someone to make a rock-solid sounding statistical argument that's completely spurious.
To me this ties back into the ability to understand the world and not be deceived. Statistics are easy to misuse, both accidentally (incompetence) and deliberately to deceive. More competence in statistics gives people a better chance to detect the liars and the idiots and to refute or ignore them.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Rich dude: poor people are entitled brats

I read an interesting comment today by GameboyRMH:
I was just thinking this morning about an incident many years ago when a rich old dude who owned MS stock lost his sh** at me when I talked about the practical necessity of pirating a copy of Windows as a broke 3rd-world teenager, calling me an entitled brat who didn't deserve to have it because I couldn't pay for it (keep in mind that in those days there was really no other practical desktop OS). I should simply have refrained from using any computers to stay within the rules, he argued in effect.

I thought to myself, that is one of the most ridiculous and silly things that I have ever experienced. This rich old man blasting a poor kid for subverting the rules of the silly game that made him rich, in a way that harmed exactly no one. But it shouldn't be funny, his worldview was monstrous, horrible, a level of hyper-selfishness that transcends physical wealth and extends to symbolism.

To think that I had enough respect for that guy that I didn't respond...I should have told that disgusting man to go f*** himself immediately.
Comment copied without notice or permission.

The rich dude's worldview is also very common, and we must contest it vigorously. This comment was part of a discussion about a new anti-piracy law in New Zealand. Another interesting comment:
It stretches honesty when one is hungry and sees his neighbor's apple tree, knowing the trunk of the apple tree is his neighbor's property, yet the fruit is hanging in his yard, even dropping on his lawn, and only some law, passed by some senators lobbied by the tree owner, says he can't pick the apple off his lawn and eat it, or even take a picture of it.

There are some things which are are very difficult to enforce... and tend to function not as a deterrent, but as a starting place for learning to disrespect obedience of law. I see this kind of law as a prime example of this.

Like prohibition, trying to enforce law like this does more harm than good, as it gets people started at a very early age to have no inner respect for law, obeying it not for the common good, but only for fear of punishment if caught. It does not foster respect for law, instead it fosters a sense of accomplishment for finding creative ways of disrespecting the law.
tftp says "respect for the law" is already completely dead in the U.S.; and here I thought it was just on Wall Street: the USA respect for the law is not even a theoretical concept anymore. Widespread violations cannot be detected and the law enforced; this leads to loss of fear of punishment. You do not need to go too far to see proof of that. Everyone drives faster than the speed limit allows and the police does not even bother stopping anyone unless they are way over the limit. People jaywalk with no care in the world; robbers rob 24/7 stores as if it is their personal ATM; people park under signs "no parking", have sex in public parks, set up camps in public places, use drugs, and take dumps on police cars. What rule of law are you talking about? It's pure anarchy, with occasional firefighting done by few LEOs [Law Enforcement Officers].

There is no law to respect either. Over the years new laws accumulated up to a whole library of books - some with laws and other with their interpretations. Most people quite reasonably think that the law is not protecting them. And how it can be, with laws against "disorderly conduct" and with people arrested for "resisting arrest" or for filming police or for taking photos of cities? On the other hand, real criminals (petty or not) are in and out of jail faster than you can keep track of them. The police is most certainly not your friend; LEOs are not interested in helping you and they have no duty to help you. They might kill you, though, if you give them half of an excuse, because safety of one officer is more important than ten dead bodies of the rabble.

With this whole train wreck continuing downhill with ever accelerating speed we will see more anarchy and fewer places where an nonest person can safely walk around. Downloads of music are just a minor blip on the radar of widespread lawlessness.
But do megacorporations really need laws, when they can get their way by making deals with each other?
Earlier this month ISPs came to an agreement with the recording/movie industry to enact a "6 strikes" policy to punish copyright infringement. (see ArsTechnica article, as previously discussed on /.)

The very next day after the article was published, I noticed something interesting when I was using BitTorrent--aside from request overhead, I was uploading zero data. I'm currently watching a 3.1GB torrent--1.79 GB downloaded and 0.0 uploaded. And no, it isn't my client settings. I have checked them several times, nor did I change them any from when I was uploading normally. Seeding a completed torrent does nothing--it just sits there with no activity.

To put it in simple terms, Comcast (my ISP) is throttling uploads by 100% but not touching download rates (at least mine). Are they, in essence, protecting their customers from the "6 strikes" policy they agreed to enforce? If so, I assume they are doing this to prevent losing customers that continue using P2P software.

I can't imagine the MPAA/RIAA will be very happy about this.

Saturday, June 30, 2012

Legal copying now illegal in Canada

In case you missed it, Canada's conservatives recently passed the new copyright reform bill. Micheal Geist, Canada's foremost copyright blogger, says it has one of the most restrictive approaches to digital locks in the world, since you aren't allowed to break digital locks without authorization even if it's for a reasonable or legitimate purpose, and even if copyright is not involved. For example, copying a small video clip from any commercial DVD is now illegal in Canada (just as it is in the U.S., by the way), even though it would otherwise be legal under "fair dealing". Likewise, using an unauthorized DVD player that can skip start-of-disc commercials or ignore region coding (the number on the disc that only authorizes playback in "Mexico/South America", for example) is illegal. An example that is not copyright-related would be hacking a digital device to give it more abilities than it comes with; this could become illegal if the manufacturer makes any attempt, however feeble, to prevent such usage with a digital lock.

The digital lock parts of the bill were widely condemned by almost everyone outside music and film industry circles, but on the plus side, Micheal says that the government didn't completely ignore citizen voices, except perhaps on the digital lock issue (which, however, has always been the most important issue). Also on the plus side, citizen's groups delayed the DRM (digital lock) law by as much as 10 years. That's good, because it means Canadians became accustomed to having freedom, which will make it a little harder for the government to successfully take it away.

Beware the TPP

The Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement appears to be the latest means by which big business conglomerates hope to bypass local democracies to have their desired laws passed. While various citizen's groups are concerned about many different aspects of the TPP, the issue most dear to my heart is what effect it will have on the internet. I recommend everyone reading this, all three of you, to sign OpenMedia's TPP petition:
I oppose any provisions in the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement that would expand the power of conglomerates, including by criminalizing or otherwise restricting the use of the Internet. I oppose an online environment that lets big media conglomerates invade my privacy, remove online content on demand, saddle me with heavy fines, or terminate my access to the Internet.

I call on the governments involved in the TPP to make the process transparent, accountable, and open to public participation and to all interested stakeholders.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

There is no singularity

To all those of you who are waiting for "the singularity", whether it be a Skynet-like hellscape or a Star Trek utopia. I'm sorry to burst your bubble. There ain't gonna be one.

I've been hearing about this for awhile now. "The technological singularity is the hypothetical future emergence of greater-than-human intelligence through technological means." - leading to ever greater intelligences, based on the idea that if humans can create an intelligence greater than ourselves, then that intelligence will create an intelligence greater than itself, and so forth, with the level of intelligence increasing exponentially in an unpredictable "intelligence explosion."

Not only will there be no singularity in the 21st century, I'm confident we will not even be able to create AIs that are as smart as us, in any time frame we can imagine. While it seems premature to talk about the 22nd century, I doubt we'll create machines that exceed our intelligence within the next thousand years--if such a thing is even possible.

I've been programming since I was 11, and I have never seen anything remotely comparable to human intelligence in a computer, or even animal intelligence. Virtually all the clever things our computers do are merely things that their creators designed them to do. And everything I've heard about the human brain leads me to believe that we cannot replicate it in the forseeable future.

A lot of people are misinformed about the brain. Some people still seem to believe in the 19th-century notion that the brain starts at birth as a blank slate into which, through the magic of "intelligence", it is filled with stuff. In reality the brain has a particular and intricate structure, much like a modern computer chip. There are dozens of parts, each with numerous subsystems designed to do particular tasks. All of these parts are in place at birth and are required for us to do what we do. We really have no clue how to replicate what the brain does; in fact for the most part we have very little idea what each of the parts do.

And yet they keep making movies and video games with all these AIs in them. Usually these AIs are developed by some kind of super-genius or by means unknown from a shady government agency. TV AIs usually exhibit emotions, curiosity, music appreciation, and other things that are really human traits, and the traits inserted by the writers to make the AI seem more machine-like are either highly implausible, or mere human traits in disguise. The most implausible Hollywood AI trait is the desire to kill everyone, a popular cliché that I need not dignify by discussing further.

For instance, Data on Star Trek appeared not to have any emotions, but for instance he clearly demonstrated loyalty, curiosity, desire (for how can one make choices without some desired outcome?), and other je ne sais quoi traits that may be hard to name but seem distinctly human. One of his more implausible traits was that he would listen to several musical scores at once. Since there is no easy way to distinguish which notes belong to which piece, it's not really possible to enjoy several pieces at once even if your positronic brain contains five "music appreciation units" for some reason (or one fancy multiplexed unit.)

Well, in case you didn't know this already, Hollywood is full of totally clueless writers. In novel writing, I always hear authors say "write about what you know," because this makes your stories as plausible and genuine as possible. Hollywood, however, is full to the brim with people writing, acting and directing about topics they know nothing about*. So in the land of Hollywood and sci-fi we have these clichés and about AIs, computers, hacking, science (and so on) that are nonsensical fantasy, with virtually no connection to reality.

* I recognize the irony that I am writing an opinion piece about AI when I am not an expert in AI nor in the human brain. But hey, it's not like anyone reads my blog.

Even if we could make a computer do all the useful things a human does--walking, talking, object recognition, navigation, reliable context-sensitive voice recognition, language manipulation and problem-solving in general--we'd still be only halfway there. The computer would still just be a tool. It wouldn't really be "an intelligence", or rather it wouldn't be what we think of as an intelligence, that is, an intelligent free agent. To be an AI like we see in the movies, it would also need a suite of emotions (from joy to embarrassment to boredom), curiosity, a sense of purpose, self-awareness (note that no one seems to know what, exactly, self-awareness is anyway), and of course a generalized ability to learn (and there are many different ways that we learn). The key point is, there is no magic formula for any of this. Each of hundreds or thousands of human traits, if they can be replicated at all, must be individually analyzed and studied before they can be replicated by us, and we'll probably only do a sucky cheap knock-off of each trait at first. And once we have figured out how to replicate each of the parts, we'll still have to spend a century or two figuring out how to put the parts together.

If it's even possible.

I mean, why should it be possible? It really shouldn't be possible. Because I have a soul. Or more to the point, I am a soul. I don't know what a soul is, I just know that I am one. And surely there is no way to duplicate one. I know that the brain is a machine, and after much soul-searching I have to admit that I might be 99% machine. But isn't the 1% important? Without the soul, a machine can never really be alive.

I find the difference between humans and computers fascinating. The supposed similarity between brains and computers gets a lot of attention, but the differences deserve more attention.

Consider some of the things humans can do. We can casually recognize objects, animals and people from any angle almost instantly. We can learn language merely by hearing it (as children), we can effortlessly navigate our bodies around obstacles, and we can solve arbitrary riddles (some better than others). The smartest people in the world have toiled for decades trying to figure out how to make computers and robots do the same things, with only limited success, and some of these tasks still require supercomputers. Possibly the most impressive "human" thing a computer has ever done is to play Jeopardy, which IBM's Watson supercomputer played quite well, albeit using 2880 processors and 16 TB (that's 16,000 GB) of RAM in  90 server machines to do it. And note that Watson does not go out and study encyclopedias of its own volition; everything action it takes is chosen within a framework carefully programmed by a team of humans.

Even the human ability to do mathematics is not really something computers are any good at. Computers are good at computation. Pure mathematics, on the other hand, is a field in which computers have limited abilities. You can program them to manipulate symbols, but the things researchers do in mathematics are creative, exploratory, and essentially fascinating activities that computers don't do at all.

And yet we humans can never, ever learn to instantly add 10-digit numbers, let alone multiply them or take their square roots or do other numeric tasks that even the simplest computer chips can do instantaneously,  with perfect reliability, using almost no energy. How's that? Manipulating numbers is trivially simple, compared to the kinds of things humans are good at; indeed, it is the only thing that the earliest mechanical computers were good for. Even analog computers, used (for example) in World Wars I and II to help aim big guns, are better at arithmetic than we are.

1-bit Full Adder circuit. Chain a few together and you can add binary numbers.
It may not look simple, but there are probably protein molecules more complicated than this.

Why is this? The immediate answer is that our brains simply don't have a circuit for adding numbers. Such a circuit would be small and simple and God could have easily put it in there, but it just ain't there. Nor do we have anything well-equipped to do the task. An addition circuit can be simulated with our memories, but our memories are notoriously unreliable and very slow. Our ability to form mental habits can be exploited to perform arithmetic, but no matter how much you practice, you will always be ridiculously slow and unreliable compared to the world's simplest calculators. You may have seen the mathemagician. He can do some operations faster than the audience can type them into a calculator, but he's still far slower than the calculator itself since 98% of the calculator's time is spent doing nothing, waiting for the user to press "equals".

There are three basic things computers can do easily: computations, memorization, and running programs. Curiously, humans are bad at all three of those things.

Computers can do the same things over and over and over, perfectly and extremely fast, which enables them to run programs, and almost everything computers can do is accomplished with programs--including simulations of human traits! And yet a human cannot run any kind of program. In real life there are no "Manchurian Candidates". In our brains, the closest thing we have to programs are habits, but these are quite different from computer programs. Habits are created through training (repetitive action), and a computer has no habits except to the extent we figure how to write programs to deliberately develop them. But while we could certainly teach a computer to learn certain types of habits, humans fundamentally can't run programs, because we seem to be positively allergic to repetitive action. Have you ever tried doing a complex action repetitively? We can't do it! Every time we try to do something, it comes out a little different. In fact, the more times we try to do something in a row, the worse our performance gets!* Bowling strikes me as a sport that would seem utterly ridiculous to a robot. The whole goal is to do a simple task reliably, and it takes years of practice to even come close. A purpose-built robot would have little difficulty, I think, bowling 300. But a human cannot even walk in a straight line without a frame of reference.

* in the long run we may improve, but our performance always gets worse as we repeat many times without pausing.

Thus, most likely any impressive intelligence we do produce will not resemble us very much, owing first to our lack of understanding of ourselves, and second to the fact that computers and brains are not well suited for the same tasks. One way or another, Hollywood's ideas about AIs will be proven faulty.

So, don't titillate yourself too much about the prospect of the singularity. There isn't one.

Also, there is no spoon

Monday, May 14, 2012

Anonymous insider talks

A member of the hacker collective Anonymous did a media interview while hiding in Canada. They mention that Fox News has branded them terrorists, which of course is quite different from my impression of them because I don't watch Fox News. While sometimes I feel that their actions go too far, their most common action is temporarily taking a web site offline in protest, or hacking groups they don't like and making some of their internal emails public. Terrorism? I doubt that those who have lost a loved one to actual terrorism would appreciate that kind of rhetoric. Here's the part I found most insightful:

I think the general public is beginning to learn the value of information. To give an example, for a very long time nobody in the U.S. or the world was allowed to know the number of civilian casualties in Afghanistan or Iraq. There were wild guesses and they were all over the ballpark figures, until a young army private named Bradley Manning had the courage to steal that information from the U.S. government and release it. Now we know that despite their smart munitions and all their high-technology they have somehow managed to accidentally kill 150,000 civilians in two countries. ... As these kinds of startling facts come out, the public will begin to realize the value of the information and they will realize that the activists are risking everything for that information to be public.

Q: What do you say to people who believe Anons are just cyber-terrorists?
A: Basically I decline the semantic argument. If you want to call me a terrorist, I have no problem with that. But I would ask you, "Who is it that’s terrified?" If it’s the bad guys who are terrified, I’m really super OK with that. If it’s the average person, the people out in the world we are trying to help who are scared of us, I’d ask them to educate themselves, to do some research on what it is we do and lose that fear. We’re fighting for the people, we are fighting, as Occupy likes to say, for the 99%. It’s the 1% people who are wrecking our planet who should be quite terrified. If to them we are terrorists, then they probably got that right.

"Information terrorist" – what a funny concept. That you could terrorize someone with information. But who’s terrorized? Is it the common people reading the newspaper and learning what their government is doing in their name? They’re not terrorized – they’re perfectly satisfied with that situation. It’s the people trying to hide these secrets, who are trying to hide these crimes. The funny thing is every email database that I’ve ever been a part of stealing, from Pres. Assad to Stratfor security, every email database, every single one has had crimes in it. Not one time that I’ve broken into a corporation or a government, and found their emails and thought, "Oh my God, these people are perfectly innocent people, I made a mistake."

Friday, April 06, 2012

Mass Effect 3 Is Awesome

I'm really enjoying Mass Effect 3 in Stereoscopic 3D with enhanced FOV. If you play it, be sure to crank up the field-of-view for maximum enjoyment. (Oh, what's that, you didn't buy the PC version? Er, I think you're out of luck.)

Monday, March 12, 2012

Nothing Changed

Is the US a One-Party State?

In U.S. politics, I get an impression that most people--at least the kinds of people that leave comments all over the internet--actually believe there is a large difference between Democrats and Republicans, between Obama and Bush and whoever will run against Obama this year.

And certainly when it comes to speeches, Obama created a persona for himself that sounded a lot different from any Republican, and even different from the ordinary borderline-corrupt Democrats. That's why so many people voted for him. I gave $100 to his campaign based on his inspiring speeches and his inspiring book, but then I saw his actual bahavior, and it was quite worrying, so I pledged not to donate anything more. Of course, I hoped that it was somehow a blip, that he'd somehow just made a mistake or two. I could not have been more wrong!

Democrats and Republicans make a lot of noise about their differences, and their opposition to each other is indeed fierce, but that's a game they play. It's almost like two sports teams. They are opposed to each other, they have different players, but they use similar strategies and have the same goals, because they play within the same system. When you look at policy, the differences are only skin deep. I recently came across a website of somebody who agrees with me:

Actually, I think this guy believes what I'm saying even more strongly than I do. I mean, yes the two parties behave very similarly, but there are still differences that matter. For example, the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell" was a small, but significant, policy change that the Republicans probably would not have made. And there is a fair chance that the Republicans would have done nothing about health care.

However, because the health care problem is so serious, there is also a fair chance that they would have done something in order to improve their chances for re-election. Moreover, I expect a Republican health "care" bill would probably amount to a wholesale handout to insurance companies, just like Obamacare is. You know why I'm saying it's a wholesale handout to insurance companies? Partly it's just rumors I've heard. I haven't studied it scientifically, so I could be wrong. But one simple fact made me extremely suspicious of Obamacare: the insurance companies made no serious effort to oppose it. Health care in the U.S. costs roughly double the average for developed nations, and those who profit from this fact surely want to make sure it remains true. The fact that endless millions of corporate advertising dollars were not mobilized against Obamacare tells me all I need to know. Obamacare must be good for business. And I don't mean good for business in general, but specifically good for businesses that profit the most from the expensive mess we already had. And if Republicans made a health care bill, you can bet it would protect those fat profits equally well. I still suspect Obamacare is better than nothing (for the people). But like the 15% tax rate enjoyed by the mega-rich, the country probably can't afford it.

As for Wall Street "reform", the people would demand that either party "do something" about those crooks on Wall Street. Obama's "reform" bill is literally the least he could do. Everything I've read says that the bill had no teeth and made no major improvements to anything. That's exactly what I would expect from a Republican version of the bill. The unwavering backroom support of white-collar corruption is one of the most disturbing things that the two parties have in common. It's one thing to bail out a corporation because it's "too big to fail". It's quite another thing to bail out the crooks who caused the meltdown by letting them keep their jobs and their inflated bonuses with only one criminal indictment in a sea of fraud.

"But wait," you say, "Republicans completely opposed every major policy change by Obama! They voiced their opposition at every opportunity! Surely they would not have made similar changes themselves!"

Right, they always opposed everything Obama proposed, but that doesn't mean they wouldn't support exactly the same legislation if it had been their party's president proposing it. True, Republicans bills would probably be slightly different, and the rhetoric about the bills would be very different. And maybe they would have done nothing on the health care issue. But it would be no great surprise to me, in a parallel universe where John McCain is president, if a health insurance bill were passed there too.

Besides, there are plenty of things that the two parties (and the last two presidents) have in common that they don't much talk about.
  • The Democrats renewed Bush's tax cut for the super-rich.
  • Neither party is proposing to raise the 15% tax rate on personal income from capital gains. Many of the ultra-wealthy make most of their income not directly from working, but from investment income, which is taxed at this rate.
  • For the above two reasons and others, neither party is willing or able to eliminate the deficit. The size of the national debt is truly a crisis, not only because it's enormous, and not only because the economy is too weak to even stop borrowing more, but because the two parties are two corrupt to make the changes needed to make it possible to pay down the debt.
  • Both parties are very friendly to, and submit bills written by, big business.
  • Obama did not reduce troop deployments (not for a very long while, anyway), he just moved some troops around.
  • Neither party is willing to consider citizen-friendly changes to copyright law.
  • Both parties want to guarantee that no other parties can compete with them. Not only does neither party discuss electoral reform (which would allow more than two parties and a wider range of policy ideas), but they actually pass laws that make it harder for independents and third party candidates to run for office. (Sorry, I can't find any of the articles I've read on this subject. By the way, once in awhile someone will talk about tweaking or eliminating the electoral college, but this will not solve the problem and is not actually necessary. Want to hear a better idea? Read about Direct Representation or at least Proportional Representation.)
  • The secret domestic warrantless wiretapping program that started under Bush was vigorously supported by Obama's DOJ.
  • Obama did not close Bush's Guantanamo. Instead he chose to sign the National Defense Authorization Act, which (I hear) allows the president to jail Americans without trial, evidence, due process or habeas corpus. (Yeah, he said he'd never use those powers, which is irrelevant for whoever replaces him.)
  • Both parties support the war on drugs in its current form.
  • It's hard to be sure that there is any significant difference in foreign policy between the two parties, although at least Obama would consider talking to opposing governments.
  • Both parties believe in big government and big spending, but the Republicans prefer to cut taxes regardless of how much they spend (thus, the debt nearly doubled from $5.7 trillion in January 2001 to $10.7 trillion by December 2008, even though the economy was prosperous for most of that time.)
  • Obama continues Bush's policy of expanding executive power through the ever-increasing use of executive orders and by simply ignoring the law and the constitution (see below).
I expected that Obama, being a former constitutional law professor and having opposed bills in the past on constitutional grounds, would respect the constitution and the law. But the man has no respect for the constitution.

A clear-cut example of this is the military assault on Libya. I actually tentatively supported the military intervention itself; I don't have a problem with toppling dictators per se, and I don't have any specific reasons to object other than the general fact that "war is bad". But it looked like a civil war was going to happen with or without international intervention, and the U.S. intervention offered the possibility to end the war more quickly, with fewer lives lost.

But candidate Obama said: "The President does not have power under the Constitution to unilaterally authorize a military attack in a situation that does not involve stopping an actual or imminent threat to the nation". Yet that's exactly what Obama did in this case. Legally he had to seek the support of congress, but he never did. And while some congresspeople complained, nothing was done and Obama ultimately suffered no consequences for his unprincipled behavior.

But I digress. On the whole, my point is this:

I think people need to seriously consider whether the U.S. has, effectively, become a one-party system. Some U.S. politicians have different opinions than each other, and they may claim to be in different parties, yet for the vast majority of issues, most U.S. politicians either agree, or else they disagree with their mouths but, when it comes to the kinds of bills and amendments they support (and just as important, the kinds of bills they wouldn't propose in the first place), they are very similar. Out of 535 people in congress, I am personally aware of only two (Dennis Kucinich and Ron Paul) who hold themselves to high standards and consistently maintain views quite different from most of their party. And Dennis Kucinich is about to lose his seat due to redistricting.

I wouldn't be surprised if the differences between Chinese politicians in their one-party state are as great as the differences between American politicians in their two-party state. Of course, the differences between Chinese and American politicians are vast. All I'm saying is, Americans really do not have meaningful choices in politics.

Still, we do have our free speech. If everyone complained as much as I do, things would change in a hurry.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

The math of rear car cameras

It seems as if all media outlets, not to mention most lawmakers and laypeople, lack a grasp of basic arithmetic. Perhaps that's why so many people make absurd statements like "you can't put a price on a human life". Oh really? Then why don't we prevent every preventable death? 8.8 million children die before their fifth birthday and I'm sure most of the deaths are preventable, so why don't we stop those deaths? Obviously, it's because saving their lives costs more than we are willing to pay. It's considered just too costly to save them. The same goes for every homeless person who dies in the snow, and everyone that dies because their medical treatments cost far more than they can afford.

In most preventable deaths worldwide, I'm guessing lifesaving measures would probably cost under $100,000 per person, and probably much less for children. But instead of going after the low-hanging fruit, we prefer to find the most expensive ways to save lives. The worst example of this phenomenon is no doubt the War on Terror, which, if you count Iraq*, must have cost at least a trillion dollars by now and has caused far more deaths from terrorism than it has saved (mostly in Iraq).

* (I realize Iraq was not part of the war on terror if we are to be honest, but without the War on Terror the Bush Administration would not have been able to convince the media and the public that we needed a war, so it deserves at least some of the blame... but if my reasoning is in error, simply think about the cost of the TSA instead of Iraq.)

So it's irritating every time the media reports a story about a program that would cost a lot of money to save a few lives, without giving any hint as to how much value we would be getting for our money, and it's irritating everytime lawmakers pass a law without any real cost/benefit analysis. I heard that airbags cost $1000 per car (or was that per bag?), that the number of lives they save is apparently minimal among those like me that already use seatbelts, and that airbags can actually cause injuries and deaths of young children. But that didn't stop the Canadian government from mandating them on all new cars, which of course cost me money personally when I bought a car.

So now U.S. government regulators want to mandate rear-facing cameras in all new cars to reduce injuries and deaths from cars going backwards. The article I saw about this, like virtually every article from the mainstream media, didn't translate the numbers into a form I could immediately understand.

So here are the numbers. The estimated cost of the rule change is $2.7 billion per year or $160-$200 per vehicle, a cost that will surely be passed onto the buyers. And "regulators say that 95 to 112 deaths and as many as 8,374 injuries could be avoided each year by eliminating the wide blind spot behind a vehicle".

First of all, when I read that I am immediately curious whether the text actually means what it says: is 8,374 (A) the number of injuries that would be prevented per year, or is it actually (B) the total number of injuries? Although "as many as 8,374 injuries could be avoided" sure sounds like (A), I have seen so many news articles carelessly misrepresent statistics that I'm sure the true meaning could easy be (B), because when it comes to numbers, I have developed a sense that reporters are very, very lazy people. Yes, perhaps this particular reporter is good with numbers, but I have no way to know that.

If the meaning is actually (B), the actual number of injuries prevented might just be half of 8,374, or so, since not all drivers will become much safer just because they have a camera in addition to the three mirrors and rear window they already have. Likewise I am automatically led to wonder where number $160-$200 came from: is that cost distributed among all vehicles that don't already have a rear camera? Or is it distributed among all vehicles, even ones that are already sold with a rear camera?

So what's the cost here? Well, admittedly it's hard to decide how to explain the value proposition. What is the relative worth of saving a life compared to preventing an injury? If we assume that saving a life is worth ten (10) times as much as preventing an injury, then what we are buying for $2.7 billion dollars is as follows:
  • $286,800 to prevent each injury (times 8374 injuries)
  • $2,868,000 to prevent each death (times about 104 deaths)
Or if we assume that saving a life is worth 50 times as much as preventing an injury, the results become as follows:
  • $198,900 to prevent each injury (times 8374 injuries)
  • $9,945,000 to prevent each death (times about 104 deaths)
Anybody with basic math skills and a calculator can work this out. Admittedly it's a bit more complicated when you have to decide how much of the $2.7 billion to count toward injuries and how much to count toward deaths, but even in the simplest cases the media doesn't make any effort to communicate the costs in ways that are easy to understand. Now that you can see the cost, you might think twice about supporting this proposal.

Another way to look at this is comparing the number of lives saved to the number of cars with cameras, in order to determine the individual chance that you'll kill someone while backing up. There are 254.4 million registered cars in the U.S.. Comparing this to the expected number of injuries prevented, it seems that the chance you will, during your lifetime, not personally injure or kill someone while backing up because you have a government-mandated camera that you would not have chosen to buy yourself is close to zero. I can't actually calculate the chance, however, without knowing how many additional cars must be fitted with cameras in order to prevent the 8374 injuries (it must be less than the full 254.4 million.)

Now, maybe you think $2.9 million to $10 million dollars is a reasonable price to pay to save a single life of a middle-class person, and that $200,000 to $287,000 is reasonable to prevent a single injury. Personally, I disagree, I think the price is too high in this case, although at least there's the side benefit that we'll all have these cool display screens in our cars, and a little most peace of mind. It seems to me that in cases like this where the cost/benefit ratio is poor, the government should not be forcing everyone to spend more (or buy used).

And what about alternatives? A rear camera plus a LCD screen is not the only way to reduce injuries and deaths. It might be cheaper to use infared or radar sensors plus a warning sound (or even automated braking) to tell drivers when they are about to hit something. If an automaker wants to use this approach instead, will it be allowed to? But the humble New York Times did not consider the issue.

In any case, I wish our media would put a little more effort into their coverage and take a little time to break down the numbers for us. But you know what? They won't. So we would be wise to learn how to use a calculator ourselves.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

SOPA? We don't need no stinking SOPA

ArsTechnica reports:
Popular site JotForm doesn't host music or movies or child pornography, all of which have led US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to seize other Internet domain names without advance warning (sometimes making serious mistakes). JotForm also doesn't create content itself. Instead, it helps customers create online forms that can then be embedded in their websites for easy data collection.

But that didn't spare the site from having its entire business shuttered without warning yesterday as the site's domain name was shut down at the request of the US Secret Service. JotForm's domain name registrar, GoDaddy, redirected the site's nameservers to NS1.SUSPENDED-FOR.SPAM-AND-ABUSE.COM—and with that, became unreachable and the site's two million user-created forms all broke.

And it all may have been done without a court order.
It's pretty remarkable what the U.S. government gets away with these days. I mean, when it comes to foreign policy, I guess they've been willing and able to do any old insane act you can think of for decades now. But usually they've left their own citizens alone. The recently defeated SOPA bill would have allowed big companies to take down web sites with user-generated content, without first having to go through the hassle of a court case. But did you know that the government can already shut down your web site on a whim? At least, they can if your domain registrar is GoDaddy. JotForm is a case in point. I had never heard of JotForm before, but I have half a mind to subscribe to their service to help make up for the business they've lost over this wrongful shutdown.

Update: Now the U.S. government has taken down a foreign website, run by foreigners living outside the U.S., using a foreign registrar, for running a gambling business that violates the laws of Maryland. Read all about it! Whatever you think about gambling (I don't like it or do it myself), there is something very wrong with this picture.

Saturday, February 04, 2012

An education in occupation

Until the 1990s, Iraq had perhaps the best university system in the Middle East. Saddam Hussein's regime used oil revenues to underwrite free tuition for Iraqi university students -- churning out doctors, scientists, and engineers who joined the country's burgeoning middle class and anchored development. Although political dissent was strictly off-limits, Iraqi universities were professional, secular institutions that were open to the West, and spaces where male and female, Sunni and Shia mingled. Also the schools pushed hard to educate women, who constituted 30 percent of Iraqi university faculties by 1991. [...]

[...] As the international sanctions regime cut off journal subscriptions and equipment purchases, academic salaries fell precipitously, and 10,000 Iraqi professors left the country. [...]

In 2003, after the invasion, many Iraqi professors hoped that their university system would be revitalized under US occupation. They expected funding to buy new books, to replace equipment, and to repair the damage inflicted by the sanctions. And they hoped for new tolerance for open debate and inquiry.

In fact, the opposite happened.
Out of $90 billion appropriated for reconstruction and counterinsurgency in Iraq for 2004, less than one one-hundredth of one percent was earmarked for reconstruction of the universities.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Still don't get the fuss about SOPA?

The one video everyone should see about SOPA is this one by Clay Shirky.

And if you think SOPA is going away, think again. It will change its name and be back again. In fact, the controversial ACTA treaty, which has similar goals to SOPA, is already marching toward becoming law. ACTA stands for "Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement" but it is largely focused on policing the internet and punishing individual internet users. ACTA is arguably worse than SOPA, and was known among activists even before SOPA, although the text of the treaty has been kept secret from the public until recently. The fight between citizens and Big Copyright is one that we will have to keep fighting--right now, and for a long time to come.

Warrantless wiretapping lives on

It was over six years ago that people who care about the U.S. constitution were dismayed to learn about a secret U.S. government program to monitor phone and internet communications inside the U.S. and not just abroad, without regard for the fourth amendment which normally prevents blanket spying.

Of course, organizations that care about privacy, like the EFF, launched lawsuits against telecomms and the government in order to learn more about the program (discovery) and hopefully shut it down when it is proven unconstitutional. I had assumed that this program was a Bush or neoconservative thing, but then Obama voted "yes" on the bill that gave retroactive immunity to companies participating in the program, and when he became president he continued every tactic that made us complain about the Bush administration.

The retroactive immunity bill blocked the EFF's lawsuit against AT&T, including the discovery process, which leaves one lawsuit against the NSA which seems to have been stalled for a very long time. I think it's been a couple of years since I heard any news on the topic, but EFF now says their lawsuit can proceed once more. In the meantime, the program is presumably operating as before. I wonder what U.S. government spying algorithms think of my personal emails...
  • "The government has been using its secrecy system in absurd ways for decades, but 2011 was particularly egregious. Here are a few examples."