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!