Friday, December 21, 2012

A success of small-scale farming in Tanzania

The Economist tells us of an Oxfam-backed TV show that is attempting to enable women-run, small-scale farms. The author even asserts that:
It showed that small-scale agriculture is a sustainable way of feeding the country.
Not what I expect from the Economist, which normally champions large-scale, mechanized commodity agriculture.

Is Strike Debt a good idea?

The "Strike Debt" movement is promoting a "Rolling Jubilee", in which distressed debt is purchased at a discounted rate and dismissed. This keeps the debt out of the hands of vulture funds who would turn to the legal system to confiscate whatever wealth they can from the debtor.

So can this work? It sounds similar to buying the freedom of slaves: it may help the individual in front of you, but it supports the system that enslaved them in the first place. Thoughts?

tip, of all places, to Reuters.

Saturday, December 08, 2012

The workings of plutocracy: part 10^6.

Slashdot has been trumpeting copyright reform for a while. This issue was revived recently when the Republican Study Committee issues a report calling for restraints on copyright law. The report was quickly withdrawn and the author fired, apparently following pressure from the copyright cartel. This has all culminated in an article in Harvard Business Review describing how political corruption is strangling innovation.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

When politicians own the city

Back when I lived in Pittsburgh, I was kinda peeved with how the city was half-shutdown for the G20 conference. But that was nothing compared to Mumbai, where the entire city was shutdown to commemorate the life of a Hindu Nationalist politician, and anyone who complained about it was thrown in jail.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Peace between Israel and Palestine is impossible

After the recent cease-fire between Israel and Hamas, some pundits are calling for a renewed effort to establish peace between Israel and it's Palestinian/Arab/Muslim enemies. I believe that such peace is impossible. It does not take an expert to see that the barriers to peace are insurmountable without radical changes to the cultures of that region. That is not to say that there is no point in trying to contain the conflict, but I think that we should be realistic about what can be achieved with the traditional strategies, and then we should think about alternative strategies.

Below, I'll spell out the barriers to peace from each side.

1) No reasonable Israeli would be willing to live under a state that is dominated by Palestinians (or Arabs or Muslims). The political cultures of those societies are frighteningly primitive. Add to that the Jewish experience as a minority in Europe and the decades of hostility from Arabs, and Israelis could not expect to have any freedom or security in an Arab-dominated state. They will rightfully fight to preserve Israel's independence and Jewish (or Western) majority.
2) Semi-reasonable (nationalist) Israelis will go to great lengths to preserve their own security, even at the expense of the security of non-Israelis. They will occupy neighboring lands if these lands can be used as staging grounds for attacks. They will limit the mobility of the residents there, close their borders, and occasionally launch military incursions if they feel threatened. Unless terrorist attacks from the occupied territories end for a substantial period of time (a decade or two), the occupation will not end.
3) Fanatical Israelis will attempt to annex the neighboring lands and create a "greater Israel".
4) Outside fanatics (largely in the US) will support Israel under all circumstances, even when it is promoting fanatical policies.

1) No reasonable Palestinian will tolerate living under Israeli occupation, particularly when it severely infringes on security and social/economic activity or pressures them to leave their current homes.
2) Semi-reasonable Palestinians will resent the Zionist invasion of Palestine. If their family was exiled, they will demand the right to return to areas within the 1967 borders, and/or a large compensation. They will not trust Israel.
3) Fanatical Palestinians/Arabs will demand that Israel be incorporated into a Muslim-dominated polity, where Jews will at best be second-class citizens.
4) Outside fanatics will support the Palestinians regardless of what they do.

The consequences:
Even if everyone were reasonable, this would be difficult to resolve. The Israelis and Palestinians would have to find a way that each of them could live in their own community without infringing on the other. Given the intermixing of their settlements (particularly in and around Jerusalem) and the differences in their political cultures, and the duration and intimacy of their conflict, this would be a challenge.
However, most people are not reasonable, in that they are strongly biased towards members of their own group (I call this "semi-reasonable", because they can still empathize with the suffering of outgroup members, but they discount it by a substantial factor). Combine this fact with the existential threat felt by each side, and peace is nearly impossible.
But it's worse than that, because fanatics are influential on each side (these people take no consideration of outsiders), and these fanatics are egged on by outside support and their ranks are swelled by each flare-up in the conflict.

The traditional strategy:
One strategy is to address the outside actors. The Neocons place their focus here: they hope to eliminate the outside support for the Palestinians, thereby weakening the fanatics and their military capacity. They hope that this would create an absolutely one-sided military situation on the ground. I think that such ideas are pure fantasy. It would essentially require that the USA occupy the entire middle east, and Israel establish a totalitarian regime over the Palestinians (which would inevitably have cracks).
Another strategy is to establish cease-fires that will allow trust to develop (allowing the semi-reasonable people on each side to come into alignment). This has worked in other conflicts, but as described above, I don't think it would be nearly sufficient here.
A more radical strategy is to develop compassion between the warring sides by building friendships between Israelis and Palestinians (essentially, making people reasonable). While this is a noble endeavor, I don't think that it can make sufficient inroads to have a strong political impact on its own.

An alternative strategy:
I can hardly say that I have a strategy. Maintaining cease-fires and building cross-group connections will probably be helpful under any circumstance, even if they cannot create lasting peace. The only peaceful outcome that I can envision is a radical change to the Israeli and Palestinian group identity. For instance, this could arise from a threat from an outside enemy that they each view as especially foreign and threatening, but I cannot provide any realistic prediction of what that enemy might be (robots? aliens? zombies?). The best that I can think of is for them to be absorbed into some sort of post-national cosmopolitan society. To the extent that such a society is developing, the Israelis have a decent connection to it. The issue is more how to entice the Arabs to refocus their attention to this society and give up their ancient obsessions. Even after the fundamental political and economic changes occur, it will probably take a generation or two for the old group identity to weaken sufficiently to allow peace to be established between Israel and Palestine.

Thursday, November 08, 2012

Schedule I toys

If the Consumer Product Safety Commission ranked toys the same way that the Feds rank drugs, Buckeyballs would be Schedule I. They are now effectively prohibited.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Open WiFi

The EFF is encouraging everyone to open up their wireless network. I think this could be great... I used to leave my network open, but was eventually cowed into putting a password on it. IIRC, this was due to the combination of my ISPs prohibition on sharing, and concerns about network security and being held responsible for other people's abuse of my connection.

I hope that their information page can address my concerns; it would be so nice to be able to do this.

One commenter on Slashdot advocates the use of parallel "guest" and private WiFi networks from your own router, which should allow you to maintain network security and limit the bandwidth available to the public (both to discourage leaching and perhaps make it harder for guests to do illegal things like download movies).

A community-driven network may be ideal... but until then.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Food patents

I've been closely "Proposition 37" (GMO labeling) in California. For what it's worth, I'm strongly opposed to anti-GMO legislation such as this. To be brief, I think that the labeling mandate would be burdensome and non-informative.

While I do sympathize with much of the criticism of the modern food industry, I think that focusing on GMOs completely misses the point. One of the points is the abuse of patents. In this case, it seems that patents are being used to stifle independent testing of novel GM goods. As I've written repeatedly, I think it's important that we severely reduce the scope of patents and copyrights, and I'd be comfortable with completely eliminating them. However, I don't think that's going to happen until the constrains of intellectual property affect issues that people really care about.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Minnisota bans free education?

I find this hard to believe:

The state’s Office of Higher Education has informed the popular provider of massive open online courses, or MOOC’s, that Coursera is unwelcome in the state because it never got permission to operate there. 
 Supposedly this is some "consumer protection" law, but Coursera currently is neither charging for their service nor claiming any particular benefit from the service (such as offering a degree).

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Liberty in North Korea

I recently ran into some activists with "Liberty in North Korea", and was impressed by their description of the groups activities. I like that they place their main focus on helping refugees, rather than political agitation. It sounds like a charity that might be up there with the Innocence Project in terms of the benefit it provides.

Thursday, October 04, 2012

When currencies collapse (conflicted feelings)

Steve Hanke has charted the collapse of the Iranian rial:

I have conflicted feelings about this:

1) Sadness: this must be causing great hardship for the Iranian people
2) Comfort: this must be weakening the regime, particularly their ability to buy foreign weapons.
3) Discomfort: this collapse (following an embargo) was orchestrated by a regime with a history of dominating and exploiting foreign countries. In some sense, this is just another battle in the wars among various ruling classes.
4) Satisfaction: while any community would suffer from economic isolation, I think that the Iranian state has largely brought this on themselves, and this type of collapse is essentially inevitable. Better to get it done sooner than  later (assuming that the regime is replaced with a more humane one). The Iranian state has suppressed the creativity and initiative of the Iranian people, and their economy consequently is weak. This "black-market" deviation from state-sanctioned exchange rates indicates that the Iranian state is being sidelined within the Iranian  economy. Every black-market exchange is a tiny revolution (a la Agorism).

tip Marginal Revolution

Wednesday, October 03, 2012

California's middle-class car culture

Until I moved to California, I did not appreciate how pervasive and deeply ingrained their car culture is. I used to have the impression that CA was at the forefront of developing a post-car culture, with extensive public transportation and accommodations for bicycles on roads. However, once I saw this with my own eyes, I realized that relative to east-coast cities, California's urban areas are intrinsically unfriendly to pedestrian and bicycle commuting. Maybe this comparison is unfair, since I've mainly lived in declining cities, and their lower population density may facilitate biking; but my impression is that even Boston is intrinsically more bike-friendly than California cities. The only way that non-car transportation is possible in California is if cities really go out of their way to promote it.

As we all know, the dominance of cars in America's transportation system has been promoted by decades of state decisions to facilitate car transportation, often at the expense of other modes. I don't think there was any particular conspiracy -- it just made sense* given the socio-economic conditions after WWII. The problems with our car-centric culture started to become apparent in the 1970's, but by then powerful vested interests (both the car industry and car-commuters) made it hard to change course.

Anyway, we've reached the point where access to a car is practically considered a civil right -- at least for the middle class (as always, the lower classes get to bear the costs without reaping the benefits). So with this perspective, I was interested in proposition 33 on CA's ballot this fall. This proposition changes the rules regarding auto-insurance fees, by allowing companies to consider a new customer's history of coverage when setting rates. My libertarian impulse says "sure, let the markets decide", and when I look at the arguments against the measure I see that they are based on the idea that the right to drive is too important to be left to market forces. However, this initiative does not seem to simplify regulations in any general manner, so it gets no libertarian points, and I'll have to vote against it on the grounds that I am opposed to micromanagement of government by referenda.

Still, I wanted to check if this proposition might actually amount to an abandonment of car culture by the state of California. Since it is supposedly being promoted by the car insurance industry, it would not make sense for it to be designed in a way that discouraged new drivers from getting behind the wheel. When I looked at the details, I saw that it has an explicit clause to assure that middle-class spawn develop into the next generation of drivers:

(4) Children residing with a parent shall be provided a discount for continuous coverage based upon the parent’s eligibility for a continuous coverage discount.

So yeah, this is just a way to milk adults who temporarily give up driving for one reason or another.

I'm especially bothered by this notion that children gain legally enshrined economic rights based on the economic status of their parents. First it was Obama's health insurance coverage up to 26, and then this. It seems like this should be unconstitutional. As always, the state says "screw the poor".

*Clarification: it made sense to the ruling class...

"Cult of Personality"

Tonight's debates have brought the song "Cult of Personality" back to my mind. While poking around YouTube, I found this interview with Vernon Reid, Living Colour's basist. He describes how the song developed, then gives a lesson in playing the music.

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Patents as Tribbles

Via Slashdot, I hear that some economists at the St. Louis Fed are making an argument that a patent system will inevitably grow beyond it's original intent, such that it becomes destructive. I haven't had a chance to read this yet, but it sounds like the basic libertarian critique of the state. As a PR tool, it will be nice to have a solid written critique from an establishment source. Maybe this can get people to start thinking about this phenomenon more generally.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Oh the irony; open source hardware

Joshua Pearce at Michigan Technical University wrote an encouraging article about the progress in Open Source Hardware development. Unfortunately, it's published in Science, which is not an open-access publication, so probably all you can see is the summary.

At least his website lists several open access publications, though I can't tell if any would give the same information as his article is Science.

One item of interest: we are supposedly 50% of the way towards making a general purpose manufacturing machine that can produce its own components for hand-assembly.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Flag desecration; Mohammad defamation

As we hear (once again) of lunatic riots in Muslim communities being sparked by the defamation of Mohammad, we are treated to another installment of election campaign lunacy, as candidates use every opportunity to criticize and vilify their opposition. In this case, Republicans (getting their talking points directly from Romney, I think) are up in arms over the Obama administration's supposed apology to rioters. While the conciliatory statements never indicated that the US government should have done anything to limit the distribution of "The Innocence of Muslims", but Obama's critics are bemoaning his refusal to defend free speech.

Funny thing... I seem to remember this same crowd calling for the prohibition of desecration of the American flag.

If blasphemy laws come to the US, they will not come from Islamists, but from our homegrown state-worshipers.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Printing a gun at home?

While I don't expect 3-D printers to supplant mass-production, they could provide people with a lot of flexibility that is unavailable on the mass market. One aspect of this flexibility is the ability to circumvent various restrictions on the production and sale of assorted goods. Could guns be one such item? Slashdot discusses...

Saturday, September 08, 2012

Find me a real "state's rights" Republican

I read a trite little essay over at "American Thinker" about whether it is best to refer to the USA as singular or plural. The author seemed to think that it was meaningful (and good) that Romney and Rubio had referred to "these" united states rather than "the" United States.

As the author writes:
There is nothing in either the Declaration or the Constitution to suggest that our forefathers fought to free themselves from the bonds of one central government merely to surrender their newly won sovereignty to another.
The late historian Shelby Foote noted that before the Civil War, Americans used to say, "The United States are...," and after the War, the phrase transmogrified to "The United States is..."  In the past, I thought of that as a good thing, but today, I have to wonder -- for in the years since, and especially since the rise of liberalism that began in the early twentieth century, the transition in phrasing, from "are" to "is" and from "these" to "the," has come increasingly to transform, in Americans' minds, a transforming of the nation, from a federation of fifty independent states, into a collective -- and, increasingly, collectivist -- single state, with the formerly independent states reduced to the status of mere satraps.
And that, I would submit, and with all due respect to Paul Ryan, is the real debate the nation needs to have, and the one that conservatives need to win.  Whether America is to return to its roots and experience a rebirth as an individualistic nation or succumb to slow decline as a European-style collectivist welfare state is infinitely more important to our future than how we deal with this or that government program.
Without saying as much, the author seems to be a proponent of state's rights, and is projecting these opinions onto Rubio and Ryan based on their use of old-fashioned vocabulary. As readers here are probably aware, there are some major problems with the concept of state's rights, and it should not be thought of as a synonym for localism or decentralization. However, for those in high office who claim to support the idea, there are a number of unambiguous policies that they could enact to clearly demonstrate what they think about the relationship between the state and federal governments:

1) Don't treat state flags as subordinate to the federal flag. Fly them alongside or above the federal flag. Congressmen should propose to eliminate federal supremacy from the Flag Code.

2) Abolish or radically rewrite the Pledge of Allegiance. At least, eliminate the clause "One nation... indivisible", though the entire notion of the pledge implies supremacy of the USA over the states.

3) Revoke the "Freedom to Display the American Flag Act ", since the Federal government has no place in regulating the agreements between landlords and tenants (right?)

As described in the essay, the supremacy of the USA over the states was solidified after the Civil War. The above laws were established in the 1920's, 1940's and 2005, respectively.

Will "state's rights" republicans repudiate these assertions of federal supremacy? I'm not holding my breath.

Tuesday, September 04, 2012

Why I don't discuss my atheism

I generally don't discuss religion on this blog because I don't consider it to be intrinsically political, despite the frequent interaction of religion and politics. Furthermore, I rarely discuss religious beliefs in face-to-face conversations; but there are different reasons for my silence in those situations. Part of the reason that I don't engage in personal religious conversations is that I don't know what to say, so I'm going to use this blog as a format for getting my thoughts straight, even though this topic is tangential to the focus of this blog.

The first reason that I don't engage in discussions of religious beliefs is that I don't see any benefit in it. I don't expect to learn anything, and I don't expect my opinions to be persuasive to my conversation partner (more on that later), so I just don't have any motivation to participate. To make it worse, I doubt that it matters whether I believe in God or not.

The second reason that I avoid these conversations is that there is always a risk that the other person will be upset by what I say, either getting insulted, or defensive, or possibly even having their faith shaken. It's hard to politely tell someone that they appear to have built their life on wishful thinking, and that I have no interest in joining them in their delusions.

Still, this is one of those topics that is often worth broaching just as a "get to know you" type of thing, so I should figure out how to talk about it... and I'm gonna have to review how I got to where I am.

I used to be interested in religion. I grew up nominally Christian, though mainly I was a fairly passive theist. Really, all I wanted from God was some signs as to what I should do with my life. When I realized that I wasn't going to get these signs (around age 16) I had my major break with theism. I continued to explore theism for several years, with books and friends, but by my mid-twenties was pretty much done with it.

Discussions of theism often get started with a sort of "natural theology". Of course, this is the most logical entry point for a discussion when a theist is talking with someone whose beliefs they don't understand. I regularly encounter a few basic theist arguments -- what we might call "first mover", "intelligent design", and "magnificent universe" -- that I find completely unconvincing. It's kinda hard to produce anything but a blank stare when someone dishes me these lines. It seems that I can either arrogantly point out their logical error (e.g. assuming that a powerful intelligence is behind anything of interest) or just play stupid and say "I don't understand what you mean" until they give up in frustration. Neither is appealing.

The times that I have tried to engage with the above ideas, I have completely failed to connect with the monotheists whom I am speaking with. When I follow those lines of thoughts, I end up at some sort of pantheism, and with an exasperated conversation partner. The other problem is that I have only encountered one phenomenon that suggested intelligent design, and that is the interaction of the human brain with the compounds within psilocybin mushrooms. There are a variety of reasons that I refrain from bringing up that experience, depending on whom I'm speaking with.

If we get out of natural theology and deal instead with revelations, then I am forced to confront the credibility of whatever religious tradition inspires my partner. This is just asking for trouble. Once I get around the general problems with revelation, then we have to deal with the well documented history of lies and threats that separates us from the supposed revelation. I really don't want to go there.

The final problem that I have when discussing religion is that I don't have a nice label for my beliefs, and I don't belong to any organized school of thought. Others are content to identify as a "Christian" or a "Jew", despite the great variety of beliefs that fall under those labels. I could point to a variety of philosophical traditions, of which I only have passing knowledge. So I could say that I've liked what I've read about Epicurus' philosophy. I like Zen Buddhism, if you drop the mythology. I like the ideas of Christian Unitarianism and Universalism, but that's more about aesthetics than conviction. If we get into philosophy, I find myself to be really the odd-man out, and without any champion that I can defer to. I'm a solipsist of sorts, though I'm told that no serious philosopher is a solipsist (maybe we're using different definitions). The term "subjective idealist" seems to fit my ideas, but I don't think that I'd agree with George Berkeley.

So here I am, left without much to say when my friends talk about their deepest thoughts. Oh well.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Voter ID and the futility of mass democracy

Republicans and Democrats are once again squabbling over the rules of the election -- each side making principled claims to hide what is surely nothing more than partisan opportunism. Despite their many disagreements, the two sides in this debate agree on one thing: that there is an ideal electoral system that would produce a legitimate government.

However, each side does a pretty good job poking holes in the other's arguments. They make it clear that we can't really know anything about our mass elections -- who the voters are, if there is any fraud, and ultimately, who is the legitimate government.

We never had this problem in my college fraternity, because each of us knew each of the others by sight. Yet the "democratic" state hopes that it can create a community among essentially anonymous individuals. Weird.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Who's the Party Elite? (at the Monkey Cage)

I just want to point you to a post at the Monkey Cage, discussing the role of media institutions in defining political parties: Who's the Party Elite?

The author David Karol bemoans the lack of public appreciation for how political parties are shaped by what we might call "allied institutions". This ignorance is pervasive, and I believe it underlies the idea that campaign finance regulations will act as some sort of rescue from plutocracy and elitism in government. After all, what does it matter if some rich guy can buy a political advertisement in the newspaper if he can just buy (or build) an entire newspaper for use as a propaganda tool?

Monday, August 20, 2012

Blackmail Inc.

There's another interesting overview at Philosophical Disquisitions, this time focusing on blackmail. The basic question is why should blackmail be prohibited if it is composed of acts that are individually permissible. Anyone who is wedded to absolute free speech as a general principle of social organization (as I am), should be familiar with these arguments.

In this case, Danaher is focusing on Epstein's Blackmail Inc.,described as...

Such a corporation would spend all its time hunting down salacious and upsetting information about people, carefully gaining monopoly control over that information, and demanding money for its non-disclosure.

Would such a world be a pleasant one? Would it be one we ought to welcome? Epstein thinks not, and his reasons for thinking not form the basis of his argument in favour of the continuing criminalisation of blackmail.

 I have some thoughts on this, but should wait for Danaher to finish describing the established work. Mainly, I would object to the models of society that are implied with these arguments (e.g. that society would not adjust to the existence of Blackmail Inc., and that criminalization is an effective way to reduce deceit and fraud in society).

Thursday, August 16, 2012

No more trophies

Elitists often complain about the development of a culture where "everyone is special", and kids get trophies just for participating. I agree that it is silly to give a trophy to everyone regardless of whether they won or lost (as happened when I played tee-ball).

But you know what? It's silly to give out trophies at all: especially trophies that are as big as the kids. Winning a little league tournament is not an accomplishment worth commemorating. I had amassed a large collection of sports trophies by the time I was in high school, but in my late teens it dawned on me that they were just a pile of plastic BS. Some of them served their purpose as mementos, but a team picture and a gold sticker would have been just as good. Nowadays we can just stick that stuff online. If anything, that default trophy during my first year of baseball only whetted my appetite for gaining additional pieces of shiny plastic.

As others have explained, we shouldn't be competing for trinkets denoting status. We compete in sports because it provides structure to our activities, and maybe even trains us for living a good life. We should walk away from the field having enjoyed the challenge and shaking hands with our opponents. We need to note the score, but commemorating such events indicates that we have lost sight of what matters in life.

Sunday, August 05, 2012

Failure of government: election tampering

One of the interesting things about democracy is that we all want it, but we don't agree on what it is. This isn't simply a matter of disagreeing about the ideal election system while acknowledging that all of the variants are essentially democratic. Instead, the most common disputes over the conduct of elections turn out to be power plays as various factions try to change the rules in their own favor. Today it's the manufactured hysteria over voter-fraud, yesterday it was a battle over gerrymandered districts, and then there's the incessant jiggering of the rules over payments for political communications.

It's bad enough that politicians are constantly campaigning for re-election, but it seems that even when they are passing legislation, they're just thinking of how they can retain power. When do they find the time to actually do the people's business? My impression is that they don't.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Does politics matter?

I gave up on elections a while ago. More recently, I've increasingly been discouraged by the prospects of effecting change via engagement with the political culture (e.g. ideological debate). Both of those seem to be ineffective ways to shape the future of our society. Increasingly, I get the feeling that the future is held by small groups who invent new technologies that will be embraced for their short-term benefits.

Case in point, a proposed "chemputer" that will allow at-home synthesis of various drugs. As suggested by Tyler Cowen, this type of device would upend the enforcement of drug prohibition. If the basic materials for these devices are widely available for "legitimate" uses, then drug laws would become irrelevant. There are assorted other technologies that could have similar disruptive effects on systems of domination. At the moment, my favorite (being the most inclusive and having the most direct benefits alongside profound social cosequences) is the Diaspora project.

If you want to change the world, don't become a cog in the electoral system.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Patriotism is for scoundrels

Aggressive nationalist demagoguery has found a new outlet in America -- in a vapid "debate" over the Olympic Committee's purchase of ceremonial uniforms that were made in China. Of course, there was no debate because the only people with real skin in this issue (USOC and Ralph Lauren) rationally rolled over before the rabble-rousing display of pride and protectionism from Congress. Among high-profile politicians, Mitt Romney had the most reasonable response to all this, dismissing it as a non-issue and a distraction. It seems that the athletes, being close to all this on a day-to-day level, were likely to see it as no big deal... no different than buying any other imported good or training alongside a foreign athlete or under a foreign coach.

Which really shows what this is about. It is pure symbolism with no practical impact. It is about feeding the flames of competitive nationalism. It is about drawing a line at the border, and saying that the people on the other side are "outside" and that the people inside have special moral claims on the wealth created by others inside the borders -- mediated by the state, of course. This is about the nation-state desparately reasserting its relevance in our post-national world.

Nationality is not quite obsolete; tt would be foolish to ignore that there are differences among communities around the world, and a relatively small set of those communities would make appropriate homes for each of us. But it is likewise foolish to pretend that these communities are intrinsically in competition with each other and that the borders are not permeable and in flux. History has shown us that the later is not only foolish, but dangerous.

Yet this is the attitude that Harry Reid, John Boehner and their type are encouraging.

Gun control: the failure of government

With the recent movie-theater massacre in Aurora, Colorado, we are once again hearing discussion about America's gun control laws, along with a bunch of hand-wringing by pragmatists about the failure of government to establish "sensible" gun laws. They point their fingers at the NRA, but overlook the more fundamental problem: how can a fairly small group of single-issue fanatics completely dominate this aspect of our political discourse.

The answer is that all aspects of government are dominated by small groups with a strong interest in establishing a specific (often extreme) policy. Government is incapable of achieving any middle ground, or securing the general welfare. In the gun control battle, "sensible" policies never have a chance. Instead, policy oscillates between being fully pro-gun and fully anti-gun; either guns are prohibited or everyone is packing heat.

Both sides of this argument (at least, those with any motivation) are driven more by symbolism than by rational policy design. They are seeking a victory in the culture war, not seeking to build safe public spaces. This has nothing to do with the influence of libertarianism or any anti-government sentiment-- pro-gun conservatives are fully pro-government.

So before signing up with the anti-gun crowd and wasting our efforts on a massive ideological and electoral battle over guns, those of us who want safe communities should step back and consider this: maybe government isn't the solution.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Barter-based schools

A group called "Trade School" is encouraging people to organize classroom instruction as part of a barter system. They are providing organizational advice and software to enable such schools. Based on this interview at Shareable, it looks like it is driven by an ideology of inclusiveness that is somewhat (but not completely) hostile to markets.

Based on my quick evaluation of the system, it seems like it could be a good set-up for hobbyists, but not for high-productivity education. The potential to teach high value skills is limited both by the complexity of organizing payment by barter, and particularly the difficulty of getting instructors to make substantial time commitments when their only compensation is barter (e.g. I'm not going to pay the rent through barter). Still, I think it will be a nice addition to a community's culture, and this will help introduce/maintain some diversity of educational systems, allowing for the possibility to develop into something larger.

via Slashdot.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Can we choose to stay human?

Does the presentation of martial arts training in movies provide an illustration of fundamental attitudes towards human nature? Michah Watson ponders this question at Public Discourse, where he examines "Neo vs. the Karate kid". This is an interesting, contemplative essay -- the best side of Public Discourse.  Watson uses the instant-learning in The Matrix as an illustration of the "Baconian" ideal of mastery over nature, and contrasts that with the "Aristotelian" model of apprenticeship illustrated in The Karate Kid, where character and relationships are given priority over power.

Watson clearly prefers the "Aristotelian" vision over the "Baconian" one, which isn't surprising for an essay at the communitarian Christian Public Discourse. This essay triggered my sentimentality, but before long I was drawn back to the real world. An item in the news illustrated the futility of Watson's wistfulness: the relentless advance of military neuroscience. Watson admitted that Bacon's desire for mastery over nature was in many ways reasonable, give the high mortality rate of Bacon's time. However, Watson tries to argue that this consideration is no longer relevant in modern society where natural ills have been controlled to the point that the drive for enhancing our powers is somewhat frivolous, and we can afford to take our foot off the pedal (so to speak).

Watson's oversight is that the drive for enhancement does not originate from natural threats, but from competition. Human competition (whether military or economic) can consign a person to misery and death just as surely as natural threats can. Therefore, there is no point at which we can relax -- we will always be driven to further self enhancement.

People like Watson may assert that we can still choose to live as a human, and place limits on how much we are willing to change ourselves in order to increase our powers, but perhaps a more accurate description is that we can still choose to die as a human. Life will be defined by those who survive, and given the human traits of innovation and competition, I don't think that any sort of stability is possible for human nature, short of developing some communist utopia.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Software assitance for teaching statistics

Further progress in propagating expertise without tying up existing expertise (i.e. increasing the supply while decreasing the demand): 

Report: Robots stack up to human professors in teaching Intro Stats | Inside Higher Ed

Without diminishing learning outcomes, automated teaching software can reduce the amount of time professors spend with students and could substantially reduce the cost of instruction, according to new research.
In experiments at six public universities, students assigned randomly to statistics courses that relied heavily on “machine-guided learning” software -- with reduced face time with instructors -- did just as well, in less time, as their counterparts in traditional, instructor-centric versions of the courses. This largely held true regardless of the race, gender, age, enrollment status and family background of the students.
The study comes at a time when “smart” teaching software is being increasingly included in conversations about redrawing the economics of higher education. Recent investments by high-profile universities in “massively open online courses,” or MOOCs, has elevated the notion that technology has reached a tipping point: with the right design, an online education platform, under the direction of a single professor, might be capable of delivering meaningful education to hundreds of thousands of students at once.
The new research from the nonprofit organization Ithaka was seeking to prove the viability of a less expansive application of “machine-guided learning” than the new MOOCs are attempting -- though one that nevertheless could have real implications for the costs of higher education.
The study, called “Interactive Learning Online at Public Universities,” involved students taking introductory statistics courses at six (unnamed) public universities. A total of 605 students were randomly assigned to take the course in a “hybrid” format: they met in person with their instructors for one hour a week; otherwise, they worked through lessons and exercises using an artificially intelligent learning platform developed by learning scientists at Carnegie Mellon University’s Open Learning Initiative.
Researchers compared these students against their peers in the traditional-format courses, for which students met with a live instructor for three hours per week, using several measuring sticks: whether they passed the course, their performance on a standardized test (the Comprehensive Assessment of Statistics), and the final exam for the course, which was the same for both sections of the course at each of the universities.
 via Monkey Cage

Thursday, May 17, 2012

A dystopian scenario

Resistance to totalitarian societies is a popular theme of adventure stories (e.g. Wicked, the Matrix, the Hunger Games, Harry Potter, a Scanner Darkly), and I always appreciate it when a writer can concoct a new yet believable totalitarian system. Given the pace of change in our society, there should be no shortage of fodder for imagining new totalitarian systems for literature. While I'm no writer of fiction, I may have come across a particularly gripping scenario for the rise of a totalitarian system, so I want to toss it out there for others to consider.

The strength (or perhaps the weakness) is that it is linked to real world events happening right next door...

The drug war seems to be incubating a police state in Mexico. In some respects, this doesn't make Mexico any different from the US or many other Western countries where new technologies are being combined with old crusades to threaten our freedom. The interesting aspect of Mexico's system is that even as the state is grabbing these powers in the name of combating the drug cartels, those same cartels are infiltrating the state. The end result could very well be a nacro-police state. The culture of such a society would be scary in its own fascinating way. I feel like it could be much more totalitarian than other prospective narco-states such as Afghanistan, or Panama under Noriega. It would be a larger state, with a more urbanized population. To top it off, it would be right on the border with the US... it seems like the US-Mexico border would be a great focus for a story.

Yeah, just a thought...

The difference between wealth and freedom

Caleb Stegall at Front Porch Republic pulls up a good quote from Ivan Illich illustrating how consumer wealth is no substitute for freedom:

People need not only to obtain things, they need above all the freedom to make things among which they can live, to give shape to them according to their own tastes, and to put them to use in caring for and about others. Prisoners in rich countries often have access to more things and services than members of their families, but they have no say in how things are to be made and cannot decide what to do with them. Their punishment consists in being deprived of what I shall call “conviviality.” They are degraded to the status of mere consumers.

First They Came for the Horses | Front Porch Republic

Note: This is not meant to imply that the main loss of freedom for prisoners is in how they relate to objects. This is only secondary to their isolation from their community and the regimentation of their times. And of course, that is only considering the "official" hardships of prison life, not the threat of violence from other prisoners and guards.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Conservatives hate liberty

I'm in a bit of a mood, so when I read Carson Holloway's vapid ramblings at Public Discourse, I had to respond...

Libertarianism, Conservatism, and Egalitarianism

His basic assertion is that conservatism includes intrinsic constraints on the role of the state, whereas liberalism lacks those constraints (and may even positively seek increased intervention), therefore conservatives are the natural allies of libertarians.

His arguments are completely empty, as you will see.

1) He says that since conservatives base their legislative preferences in ideas of stasis (whether "tradition" or "natural law"), they cannot prefer an ever-increasing role for government. In contrast, he says, liberals seek progress so there is no limit on what they want.

I don't even know where to start with pointing out the nonsense of this statement. For one thing, society changes, and as it changes it comes into conflict with tradition. Therefore, it doesn't matter if "tradition" changes, the reach of conservative legislation will expand to include all aspects of life that deviate from the "traditional" ideal. Another problem is that even if conservatives convince themselves that their ideas are static, they are not. Notions of "tradition" change, as do ideas like "natural law" (or whatever ideology tomorrow's conservatives embrace). What's more, many supposedly "traditional" ideas are not. The self-proclaimed traditionalists ignore the diversity that has always existed in American society (and all societies) -- they claim precedence for their own way solely as an excuse to dismiss everyone else's lifestyle and belief. Their "tradition" is not my tradition.

2) He says: "For example, the conservative defense of traditional marriage does nothing to limit individual freedom, since it would merely deny governmental recognition to same-sex unions while leaving homosexuals free to live however they wish."

Not too long ago, the conservatives were trying to punish sodomy and miscegenation. Forget them. If liberals hadn't defeated them, these activities would still be illegal. I can concede that the absence of state recognition for homosexual marriage is far from the worst injustice in the world, but it is still a restriction of liberty for the state to give preference to one group or one lifestyle over another. If a conservative cannot recognize this, he is an idiot.

3) The  next issue he addresses is the contrasting ideas about human failings -- for conservatives it is original sin, for liberals it is faulty social institutions.

Well, here the his argument is backwards. If men are born as sinners, yet rescued by worshiping zombie-Jesus, then there is a clear basis for one group (Christians) to dominate another (e.g. heathens, atheists, heretics). However, if our institutions are faulty, then there is also a clear basis for eradicating the state.

Conservatives must hate liberty.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

We are always at war

Ol' B Psycho points us to another idiotic writer at an influential news organization who wants to use the "we're at war" excuse for a state crackdown on basic civil liberties.

Anytime I hear that argument, I have to ask, "If we are at war today, then when were we not at war?" The "if" clause is needed because there is currently no declaration of war by the US Congress, so the speaker is clearly not using the legal definition of "war". Instead, he's using his judgement based on the current level of military activity. The trouble is that the US military is always involved in some sort of activity. The extent of engagement fluctuates, but it is always there.

Off the top of my head, here are our current active wars...
1) The Taliban in Afghanistan
2) The Taliban (and associates) in Pakistan
3) Random terrorists in Yemen
4) Islamists in Somalia

On top of these, we have numerous places where the military is poised to get involved in case the President gets uncomfortable with local political developments (e.g. Libya, Syria, Iraq). We also have the wars of our allies -- Israel vs. her enemies, Taiwan vs China, Georgia vs Russia, South and North Korea, various Middle Eastern countries against their own people, and probably many more. Finally, we have our chronic conflicts with Cuba and Iran, which definitely included covert acts of war, and probably still involve covert actions. And then there's just the general policy of aiding coups in the various banana republics.

So we're involved in a lot of "wars" -- many of which stretch back decades. So when was the last time we weren't at war? More specifically, when was the last time that someone couldn't use "we're at war" for justifying some heavy-handed state action? By that criterion, the Cold War definitely counted as a war. This was immediately followed by first Gulf War, which continued with the siege, invasion, and occupation of Iraq. With just the Cold War and Iraq, we've been constantly at war since WWII. If the siege of Iraq doesn't cut it for you, we also have been targeted by Islamist terrorists since at least 1993 (the first WTC attack).

So if anyone uses this argument to claim that "today is different", all I can say is "STFU tyrant."

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Never talk to a cop?

Over at the Agitator blog, the comments are full of advice to think twice before calling the cops. The idea is that by doing so you are inviting trouble, as the cops are prone to over-reacting and may even turn against the person who summoned their help.

This sentiment is reinforced by an article in the WSJ, describing how many people found themselves being prosecuted for uttering small untruths to cops or other law-enforcement officials. Maybe it's best to just not talk to these people until Congress decides to limit the legal liabilities that can arise from doing so. As if...

Here's the WSJ article: For Feds, 'Lying' Is a Handy Charge

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Is it illegal to disobey your employer?

I am not a lawyer, but it sounds like there is serious legal disagreement over whether it is a federal crime for an employee to use his work computer in a way that violates the employer's policies. If this goes in the wrong direction, it could be a cornerstone for totalitarianism by employment contract.

I am absolutely fine with violation of policies being grounds for termination of employment and even liability for damages, but making it criminal is just creepy. These fraud laws are ripe for abuse, as illustrated by the prosecution of Ferrell and Kurtz. We cannot count on the restraint of prosecutors ensure that these laws are applied reasonably -- a prosecutor can hound a sick old man and and widower for years without cause, and the scumbag will still get promoted. The corporations already own Congress; they don't need to have prosecutors at their beck and call.

Sunday, April 08, 2012

The choice between two illusions (Obama v. Romney: The philosopher candidates)

At, Linda Hirshman contrasts the ideologies of Obama and Romney, rejoicing in the fact that this election finally gives the American people a clear ideological choice. Unfortunately, this is a choice between two illusions.

On the Democratic side, there is the illusion that the state can act as a guarantor of an inclusive, caring political economy. Yet among all of our institutions, the state is among the most exclusive, hierarchical, and violent. If you want to see cut-throat competition driven by a winner-take-all outcome, look no further than our elections.

On the Republican side, there is the illusion that the American system allows space for anyone and everyone to thrive. Reality quickly casts doubt on this faith, and the arguments marshaled by conservatives are blatant bullshit.

Blinded by partisan rhetoric, Hirshman fails to identify the important aspects of a truly fair society where widespread prosperity and freedom are possible. By interperting "competition" as winner-take-all competition, she says that we either accept it (and the human wreckage of the losers) or we reject it in favor of an ever expansive welfare state. She ignores the mundane role of low-scale competition in aligning economic incentives across individuals and preventing monopolists from gaining outsized rewards for their efforts. This omission is bizarre, given the central role of this "perfect market" model in economics. It's time to drop our obsession with political illusions and power struggles, and get real about the day-to-day forces that drive our behavior.

p.s. The Salon comment system is a pain to use. I blew 20 minutes trying to leave a comment.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

This is interesting...

Glenn Greenwald claims that many prominent persons in national politics have openly conducted business with (and essentially become lobbyists for) a Federally designated terrorist organization -- a crime that is punishable by up to 15 years imprisonment. Many other people have been prosecuted for simply advocating on behalf of such organizations after speaking with representatives on the organization (without taking any money).

In other words, Greenwald claims that these people are above the law. If they are above the law, then there is no law.

As Lee Adama said:
if you are telling me we are throwing out the law, then I am not a captain, you are not a commander, and you are not the president. And I don't owe either of you a damned explanation for anything.

Here's the original report from the CSM. I may just have to subscribe again.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Quote of the day

"Obama is not serving Bush's third term, but Nixon's tenth term."
-Jim Davidson, commenting at Liberal Law

For what it's worth, if you want a clever take on what Nixon's 4th term might have been like, take a gander at the movie "Watchmen"  -- it's not just for comic-book graphic novel geeks.

Tuesday, March 06, 2012

The conservative case against attacking Iran

Public Discourse is a conservative blog that publishes academic-ish essays on various topics. I've sometimes considered taking it off of my blogroll because they do not acknowledge reader responses in any way (neither comments nor trackbacks) and I've found some of their arguments to be just absurd. However, every once in a while they have a gem, and now is one of those times. Here the author applies "Just War" theory to the proposed attacks against Iran. Using this framework, he manages to clearly state the various reasons why attacking Iran is not justified.

Check it out:
Just War and the Iran Crisis « Public Discourse

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Global Warming libertarians

Peter Gleick, a prominent climate researcher and scientific popularizer, was recently disgraced due to his use of a false pretense to acquire internal Heartland Institute documents. This whole story (starting with the publication of the Heartland documents) is reviving the idea that there is something "libertarian" about denying the science of global warming. For instance, if you look at the story that I linked to, you'll see Heartland described as a "libertarian" think thank.

I cringe at that association, but I regretfully cannot argue that Heartland is just a tag-along in the libertarian movement -- their roots go back to the origins of the "think-tank" component of the libertarian movement.

Since I cannot disown them from the libertarian movement, I can only discredit their approach to climate change, and point out how they discredit the libertarian movement by politicizing science.

With that, I suggest the following blog articles, the first being by Kevin Carson at the Center for a Stateless Society, and the rest being my own thoughts as published at the (defunct) Freedom Democrats blog:
Unfortunately, these writings do not address all relevant issues, but should make the point that global warming denial is not a libertarian position. We all need to come to grips with the fact that human activity can change the climate, and this will only become more true in the future as our technologies advance. Libertarianism can handle this reality as well as any other ideology can.

Activism: looking in, looking out (libertarians and climate science)

Originally published at Freedom Democrats in 2009

The main goal of ideological advocacy is expand the influence of a particular ideology among the general public. I define an ideological movement as a group of advocates for an overlapping set of ideologies, who recognize their shared interests. These advocates will frequently look to each other for intellectual and material resources, which aid them in their primary task of expanding the influence of their ideologies. While most of their attention will focus on contrasting their own ideology against others that influence the general public, some of their attention will be focused inwards--evaluating disagreements within the movement.

While there are definitely benefits to some degree of introspection within the movement, I've noticed a tendency for people to go overboard and focus on internal squabbles to the detriment of the original goal of advocacy. There are probably many reasons for such navel-gazing, ranging form a concern with one's own social circle to finding more satisfaction to debating with others who share at least a few common assumptions, but I don't want to get too deep into that speculation. What I want to focus on here is an example of productive introspection, and how a lot of people seemed to miss the point.

Over at the Center for a Stateless Society, Kevin Carson wrote an essay called "Libertarians for Junk Science". I thought it was a very well focused and relevant essay. He starts with the premise that there is a scientifically valid risk of man-made climate change, that will cause major harm in at least a few ways. This has long been the mainstream opinion among scientists, and it has finally become the mainstream opinion among the public. Carson takes a faction of libertarians to task for obsessively denying the science here, accusing them of providing a disservice both to science and libertarianism.

Carson's essay is primarily focused inwards, but it can also provide an outsider with greater respect for libertarianism. Carson asserts that climate-change denialism is driven by the fear that the reality of man-made climate change would invalidate libertarianism, then argues that there is no reason for this fear. This point is of immense importance because if the public believes that climate change invalidates libertarianism, then libertarianism is dead. Even if the greenhouse gas effect turns out to be benign, our ability to modify the climate will only increase in the future and we will eventually have to deal with these sorts of issues. Carson provides an explanation for non-libertarians, and asks libertarians to stop framing the issue in a way that discredits liberty.

Unfortunately, his audience (as represented by the comments) seemed to miss the point. One commenter (Schulman) immediately turns to navel-gazing, debating whether Carson is a real libertarian. Another (Kinsella) ignores Carson's critical introspection, apparently interpreting it as an attack on libertarianism and insisting that statists are much more prone to ideology driven pseudoscience than libertarians are. While this is an interesting issue, it is beyond tangential and it wasn't clear that the commenter recognized it.

A final note on the comment thread, is that it was full of standard denialist rhetoric (I've become familiar with it from the evolution/creation debates). The core of this rhetoric was misrepresentation of scientific opinion. Understandably, it is hard for a layman to get a good grasp of the issues, since they don't have the time that a professional has and they are often getting their information second-hand from reporters and activists who don't have a great understanding themselves. One consequence of this misunderstanding is the "magic bullet" refutation -- acting as though one inconsistency is sufficient to demolish a body of theory that has been built by hundreds if not thousands of research projects (and often, that apparent inconsistency has already been addressed). I also got the impression that some commentators have spent more time reading fringe opinions (both for and against climate change legislation) than they have spent reading the opinions of mainstream scientists or policymakers.  They seem unable to distinguish between the ideas of opposing ideological advocates, such as radical environmentalists, and those of the mainstream scientists and technocrats whose ideas form the solid foundation of public debate.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

The conservative fallacy: "someone -> anyone -> everyone"

Back in my days of Swords Crossed debates, I read an argument that Americans are in control of their own economic success. This argument was built upon the observation that several people from low-income backgrounds had managed to earn high incomes during their working lives. This belief is a cornerstone of economic conservatism, since it dismisses the need for economic reform and supports the idea that differences in wealth are the result of personal choices.

However, this argument is based on some pretty sloppy logic, which is commonly employed by conservatives without much thought. I just encountered it again coming from Bryan Caplan (via Anagory) and figure I should put my criticism up for critique. Caplan's basic argument is that high income people have achieved their success in part by "being meek", and that many low income (i.e. working class) people are held back by their lack of meekness. He concludes by implying that if only the working class would me more meek, America could be saved from the emergence of the permanent underclass that Charles Murray harps about.

So let me break down the argument:
  • Some people have achieved success by being meek.
  • Anyone else can also achieve success by likewise being meek.
  • Everyone can achieve success by following this strategy.
Let me first enter the caveat that Caplan does not explicitly follow this entire chain of logic; he seems to be equivocal on the second point, and perhaps completely deviates from the third point (I'll discuss this at the end). However, he puts this in the context of Charles Murray's campaign to teach the lower classes how to be upper class, so that implies that this could be a strategy by which everyone could achieve prosperity and status.

So here's my criticism. First, the fact that someone achieved success by following a particular strategy does not mean that everyone can achieve success by the same strategy, even leaving aside the issue of variation in talents. There is randomness in the world, and one strategy will produce both winners and losers. That's not to say that some strategies aren't better than others, just that we can't attribute all differences in outcome to different choices.

Second, even if the strategy could work for anyone, that does not mean that it could work for everyone simultaneously. This is evident from some pretty basic and well established economic models relating to the growth of competitive industries -- that large profits in an industry attract new suppliers to enter the trade, resulting in lower prices and smaller profits. In other words, while one person could get rich by entering this particular market, if everyone tried to do the same thing, no-one would get rich (but they would get normal wages, and the customers would be happy with the low prices).

Another scenario where anyone does not imply everyone is illustrated by elections: even if anyone could be President, there can still only be one President. While politics may be a special case of hyper-competition (as opposed to the regular competition described above), I think that a lot of the success stories trotted out by conservatives (e.g. Oprah Winfrey and Michael Jordon) involve the same dynamics, where individuals made their fortune by attaining a prominent position in society, and providing a service that by the nature of being a society-wide service necessarily was limited to only a few providers. In other words, there can only be a limited number of celebrities whom "everyone is talking about".

Finally, to be fair to Caplan, his argument does not precisely fit this chain of logic. First, he points out that some people can benefit from being overly assertive, but they are the people who are already at the top of the hierarchy or otherwise have a major bargaining chip, and the "meekness" prescription only applies to the rest of us slobs. Second, he seems to frame the benefit of "meekness" as a competitive tool for climbing up the professional ladder, not as a way for low income people to generally increase their productivity and wages. As such, he doesn't really imply that this strategy would "work" for everyone. However, in this case he deviates from the philanthropic motivation behind Murray's campaign, and is basically just telling the lower classes to know their place.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Elections are not worth our attention

"Conventional wisdom" holds that citizens of democratic states have an obligation to cast an informed vote for the leaders of the states (or referenda, if applicable). This idea forms the ideological foundation of a news culture where the actions of politicians are examined in excruciating detail, both while in office and while on the campaign trail. While I'm sick of hearing about the election horse-race and political theater, I am still sympathetic to the principle that voting is important, but I have not heard a convincing justification for this position. Without a good justification, I have no basis on which to approach the details of this decision -- just what am I trying to achieve by voting?

Some commentators take an emotionalist position on this topic. For instance:
Voting is a privilege and a right given to us by virtue of living in a free society — we don’t need a rational choice framework to provide a reason for participating in the process.
Of course, this doesn't answer the question at all. Why should I consider voting to be "a privilege"? Why would it matter if I didn't vote?

Other commentators have attempted to answer this question rationally, but I still find their arguments wanting. Here we focus on probabilities and expected payoffs.

The main problem to be overcome is that there is a very low chance of a voter influencing the election (about 1 in a million for the Presidential election, if the voter is in a battleground state). Sometimes people have more influence, such as pundits or multi-millionaires who can sway a substantial number of votes, or when the electorate is small. But most regular people -- no matter how smart and informed -- are not going to have substantial influence on the election.

The way to overcome this lack of influence is to focus on the scale of the benefit, should we sway the election. If we figure that one candidate is $1.5 billion more valuable than the other (i.e. $50 per American), then the one in a million chance of swaying the election seems pretty good. Based on these numbers, I figure my vote is worth $1,500;  I'd give up an hour of my time to get that lottery ticket.

My concern is that this "deal" quickly falls apart once we realize that buying that ticket is not as simple as walking to the voting booth, waiting in line, and casting my vote. There is actually a risk that I will vote for the wrong candidate, and end up costing America $1.5 billion. Yikes. In fact, a quick analysis indicates that I have about equal chances of getting it right or wrong in the Presidential election. Basically, since I'm not a partisan fanatic, I have to assume that most voters are just as smart and altruistic as I am, yet about half of them would choose the other candidate. Clearly, selecting the right candidate is not a simple decision. Ironically, the situations in which I'm most likely to affect the outcome of the election are the very situations when I would have the least confidence in my decision (i.e. when the vote is evenly split).

Having realized the responsibility that I bear as a voter, I could decide to collect more information about the candidates so that I am able to make an informed decision. Even if I cannot go into the voting booth with absolute certainty in my decision, perhaps it is enough to increase my confidence to 75%, or even 60%. Maybe it's worth voting even if I only have 51% confidence that I am choosing the right candidate (2% of $1,500 is $30).

But how can I make a reasonable choice about candidates. I can watch debates, read their ideological statements, and the policy proposals. How much will this help? Will I select a good President, or just the best con-man? Will the newspaper articles really reveal the character of these candidates, or will they just reflect which candidate has the best PR team and is the best at manipulating reporters? The final fact that I have to face is that all of these candidates are strangers to me, and I can only gain a very superficial understanding of them even if I dedicate all of my free time to investigating them. Is there anything better I could do with my free time?

On almost any criteria I can think of by which to evaluate the candidates (e.g. policies, parties), I run into the same problem -- the situation is incredibly complex and far removed from my direct experience. To top it off, and I can't really trust half of the information that I get since it is clearly being manipulated by the candidates and their supporters. I'd end up spending hundreds of hours studying just to get my confidence up by a couple of percent. There is some consolation in the fact that I'd likely do much of this studying anyway (I'm a news junkie), but I'm sure that I could spend my time more wisely than that -- I could spend time with my family, on my job, or volunteer with a charity.

After all this, I still have some hope that voting is worthwhile -- perhaps as a signal to the President that he does not decide when to leave office. But I'm not sure it matters who I vote for. Maybe if I am presented with a truly despicable candidate (e.g. Santorum), I would vote as if the election depended on it, but otherwise, I can't see the point in taking the decision too seriously. If I were to vote seriously, the best strategy that I can think of is to vote on a single issue.

Luckily, this mess clears up a little if we think about smaller elections: as things get more local, my influence increases and my information also increases, even if the stakes decrease. This reaches an extreme with my decisions in my personal life, where I confidently make plenty of low stakes decisions that cumulatively provide massive welfare benefits for myself and others.

The decision to vote or not (and how seriously to take it) is simple enough, but this attitude that voting is sacred permeates our culture and twists our institutions. This is most evident in the way that newscasters obsess over politicians: how much real news are we missing because the newscasters think that national electoral politics is the most important thing in the world? How many science and technology stories are going unreported? How many local stories are ignored? How much energy are we wasting on national politics?

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Libertarian Transhumanism

No comment, just a funny bumper sticker I found...

Monday, February 20, 2012

Heartland slimebags

Like many corporate-funded institutions, the Heartland Institute is trying to spread lies. Now, they are suing anyone who calls them out.

The Bad Astronomy blog has the original story. According to the DeSmogBlog:

It is clear from the documents that Heartland advocates against responsible climate mitigation and then uses that advocacy to raise money from oil companies and "other corporations whose interests are threatened by climate policies."

A comment on Slashdot has a good evaluation of conspiracy theories...
"Turning everything into a massive conspiracy theory is not going to help you do this."
One side promotes the idea that there has been a massive global conspiracy by scientists, across a number of disciplines and organizations, lasting over decades, to lie about a central scientific result in their field. There is no sensible organizational backing or motivation to this.
The other side promotes the idea that there is a small political conspiracy to gain by people who have previously been known to engage in political conspiracies of a a similar nature. There is a well known organizational consistency and economic motivation to this.
These legal threats are just one more link in their conspiracy to silence unfavorable opinions.

Threats to free speech

Here are two stories of companies threatening the free speech rights of their employees (and former employees). Both came to my attention via Slashdot.

First, who owns your twitter account? This is an issue of trade-secrets, non-compete contracts, and trademarks. The lawsuit is in Federal courts.

If you set it up as a company representative (e.g. using their name), does it belong to them? This is the issue that is contested in an ongoing court case, where the company "Phonedog" is suing a former employer who had amassed 17,000 twitter followers under the name "Phonedog_Noah". When Noah left Phonedog, he changed the name and continued to use the account. Now Phonedog wants $2.50 for each subscriber to the list. What a crock!

Lawsuit May Determine Who Owns a Twitter Account -

My first thought is that if the company wanted control over the account, they should have established it themselves. Either they should have set up their own server, or they should have established some sort of corporate account with Twitter (if Twitter allows such things). If Noah contracted with Twitter under his own authority, then it is his account. Noah is a free man, and can do whatever the fuck he wants with his account.

The other thing that bugs me is how they treat the subscribers an their property. Noah's subscribers are people with their own interests, and Phonedog can go fuck themselves if they think that they have the right to disrupt communications to these people. The question here is "what did the subscribers think that they were subscribing to?". If they wanted to hear Noah's opinion, then they are Noah's audience. If they wanted to hear about Phonedog, then they are Phonedog's audience. I'd think that the proper way to deal with this sort of divorce is to shut down the account in question, and give the subscribers the following non-exclusive options: if you want to hear Noah go to A, if you want to hear Phonedog go to B. I don't know how Twitter works, and whether this is plausible (I'm sure they'd loose a chunk of their subscribers), but it seems to be the only way to handle this split while respecting the audience.*

This lawsuit is in Federal courts. It shows why we need to invalidate all contractual arrangements that constrain a person's ability to make a living or their free speech rights (e.g. non-compete and non-disclosure agreements).

The next situation is that the Heartland institute is threatening lawsuits over alleged leaked/forged documents. It seems that they want to sue all their opponents for defamation or something. So far, there is no actual lawsuit, just vague threats. Fuck them. I think I'll jump in the pool just because of these threats.

*An alternative would be to clone/fork the account. On the one hand, if Twitter allowed such behavior, it might expose the audience to a bunch of spam (equivalent to selling an address list). However, if the chain of inheritance is transparent, subscribers would be empowered to punish anyone who is selling the subscription list (perhaps simultaneously unsubscribing from the original feed and all cloned feeds)

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Life as a start up

A fairly new book about the "networking economy" is getting some press -- "The Start Up of You", essentially encouraging college-educated professionals to treat their careers like a startup... which includes using a lot of professional networking to find new opportunities. Appropriately, it is written by the founder of LinkedIn. Based on the reviews at Amazon, it seems to be a little bit stuck in the Silicon Valley experience, and is probably targeted at white-collar corporate workers.

One commenter recommended "My Start Up Life" as a more "real" alternative.

Of course, the problem with reading a book by a big-shot Silicon Valley CEO is that not all of us want that type of life, and even for those of us who want that life, we won't be able to achieve it. One of the ideas that really bothers me (based on a superficial exposure to the book) is the notion that we need to work harder and take more risks. That works fine for some people, but most of us have obligations and lives outside of our professional activities.

My other concern is that this will be another sort of "Who Moved My Cheese"-type book -- encouraging workers to take control of their jobs, even though there are a lot of very real obstacles to doing so. Kevin Carson has expounded on these issues before.

Finally, this also brings to mind what I read in Jack Welch's book "Winning" -- that workers are completely dependent upon their employer for good recommendations. Since your boss may be a jerk, it is a good strategy to cultivate several "employment" relationships and build a network that can substitute for that reference letter from your old boss. Relying on one person (or company) may appear to be the route to economic stability, but such small, narrowly focused groups can often fail in the blink of an eye.

Monday, February 13, 2012

More education resources...

Two more potential "unschooling" resources to consider:

MIT's Online Education Prototype Opens For Enrollment 

The above Slashdot title is self-explanatory.

I've also recently found another simulation system: NetLogo. I've played with a couple of the biology simulations, and they seem pretty solid. There's tons of other science simulations, both in the built-in library and in the online database of community contributions. I haven't done any programming, but it looks like it could be a rather simple (and quick feedback) system to practice the basics of computer programming.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

The real problem in our healthcare system...

Darien Worden has a good essay at C4SS describing how all this bruhaha over contraceptives coverage is just culture-war grandstanding by demagogic politicians with no interest in actually addressing the real problems of our society.

It could almost serve as a plank to the Left Libertarian platform that I'm assembling.

Wednesday, February 08, 2012

In defense of networking

I've been defending the social value of professional networking over at the anagorism blog, and wanted to make a comment here. The argument (as I understand it) is about how much of a role direct social interactions should play in the establishment of economic relationships, and how much this match-making process can be formalized.

My belief is that there are situations where formalization (e.g. credentials, match-making services) can be useful, but that such situations should be viewed as the exception rather than the rule. Rather, in my vision of a "good society", most relationships (including economic relationships) would be established by networking (e.g. recommendations from trusted sources). I view this as the contrast between a mass-society on one hand, and a personal society on the other. In one society, humans are commodities to be fit into predefined categories by managers, while in the other society, humans define their own needs and pursue these needs with their friends and trusted colleagues.

There are all types of problems with the formalized society, ranging from its inability to innovate to the problem of establishing universal trust in the managers. Granted, the network society can have its own problems -- two of them being wasteful competition and nepotism. I won't address the former, because I don't think it is really solved by formalization. While the later (nepotism) isn't solved by formalization either, the anagorist position provides a clear challenge for finding ways to minimize it in a network society.

The main way to accomplish this is to identify socially privileged networks (e.g. government, academia), and assure that they have some sort of open access point by which outsiders can gain access. In academia, there is a semi-formalized admission process for university, after which students can approach professors and try to develop relationships. I am usually up for establishing new access points, but am opposed to proposals that would formalize the entire system from top to bottom.

The thing that really bugs me about anti-networking critiques is that they build on the corporatist assumption that jobs are something that a deity-like employer creates, and then bestows upon an imbecile worker. In the world I live in, and the wold I want to live in, the worker plays an equal role in creating the job. I think this is undeniably true in an abstract sense (supply and demand together determine the quantity produced), but I also see it in the individual hiring decisions of managers. Managers do not necessarily decide to hire a person and then go seeking a person to fill that slot -- often they hire employees opportunistically; it is only after a prospective employee approaches them and says "here I am, here's what I can do" that the employer decides to take on the project that the employee can work on. There are a lot of pieces that have to come together to make a project work, and it takes efforts to bring them together. If you can bring your skills to someone who has the complementary pieces already, you can make things happen.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Dear Chinese: Don't send a person to the moon

To my Chinese friends and their countrymen:

I read with dismay a recent report that the Chinese state is thinking about sending humans to the moon. Meanwhile, our own idiot politicians are spewing a lot of hot air about the glory of space colonization. While these minor-demagogues justify these projects in the name of "national greatness", these activities should instead be viewed as sources of shame. We should not allow these thieves in government to spend our money on their silly propaganda campaigns while our neighbors are suffering from want of anything.

Lest you think that I object to China's technological advancement, I can only say that I welcome the discoveries that Chinese scientists are contributing to human knowledge, and I look forward to the immense expansion of scientific research and technological progress that will occur as Chinese prosperity increases. It is for this reason that I hope that China will not squander its resources on space colonization -- these funds should be allocated in a manner that accomplishes scientific and commercial goals; instead, we are at risk of being drawn into a space race that only benefits the egos of politicians.

Monday, January 23, 2012

American patents, Chinese slavery

Yesterday, I made the argument that copyright is slavery, yet I admitted that it is only a tiny bit of slavery. Today, B. Psycho inadvertently reminds me that I should not have made any such concession; Intellectual Property plays a central role in a system that comes quite close to total slavery -- the devil's bargain between American tech companies and the Chinese state.

The gist of this accusation is Chinese workers allow themselves to be worked like slaves only because various restrictions on commerce (such as Apple's patents) prevent them from making a living any other way. These laws undermine the traditional method by which a free man would earn a living -- by working under an established and experienced mentor, and eventually setting up his own enterprise using the skills he learned on the job and the reputation that he developed. However, in the modern world, this form of upward mobility is prohibited by the law (both here and in China), creating permanent classes of employers and employees -- masters and slaves. In the Apple/China situation, patents prevent the workers from being independent, but other legal arrangements can produce a similar effect. The most glaring in my mind are the "non-compete" clauses found in many employment contracts; it's too bad that most progressives are satisfied to reform slavery without eradicating it.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Copyright is Slavery

With the recent protests against SOPA and PIPA, the prosecution of Megaupload's staff, and the subsequent Anonymous attacks on the websites of various copyright enforcers (e.g. DoJ, RIAA, MPAA), it is time to distill this issue to its essence: copyright is slavery.

This statement may seem a bit extreme, since our own experience demonstrates that copyright is compatible with basic political and economic freedoms (more or less). Still, I stand by this blunt statement; copyright may be just a tiny slice of slavery, but it is still slavery.

Copyright is slavery because it empowers one person to prohibit another person from engaging in a fundamental human activity -- the sharing of songs and stories. The owners of copyright will argue that these songs and stories would not exist except for the efforts of the copyright owner (and perhaps the copyright system itself), and therefore the copyright owner does not deprive anyone of anything. This may be true in the narrow sense -- that a particular song or story would be unavailable -- but it ignores how these songs and stories interact with the human brain and are assembled into "a personal cultural catalog", as I'll call it. It is this catalog that is unjustly privatized by copyright, ultimately giving copyright owners a sort of ownership over other persons. Furthermore, the commercial value of copyright is largely derived from how humans relate to each other by sharing stories and songs, so copyright results in the privatization of our social lives by third parties and the centralization of cultural control.

Supporters of copyright dismiss the idea that our personal cultural catalogs are in any way relevant to the legitimacy of their copyrights. They point out that the assembly of our catalogs are our business, and that they did not force us to listen to their songs, nor did they force us to obsess over the characters of their stories. In some sense (they claim), copyright can be viewed as a contract between the producers and consumers of culture, where access to the story or song is only granted if the consumer agrees to respect the copyright of the producer; given this contract, if the consumer decides to weave the story or song into their own life, that is their own decision taken as a free person. Leaving aside the issue of whether slavery contracts are legitimate, this contract theory of copyright does not hold water. The main reason is that no such contract exists. Without an explicit contract (agreed to before any exchange takes place), a person cannot be expected to understand the implications of the restrictions that are being placed on him. Furthermore, there are only some situations in which such a contract could even be feasible -- such as when purchasing a book or entering a movie theater; the idea of a contract is absurd when copyrighted content is broadcast to our radios or televisions. Finally, the most important parts of our cultural catalogs are collected when we are children, and children cannot be expected to enter into contracts that will restrict their actions for their entire lives.

So that's my argument that copyright is a form of slavery. A quick Google search did not reveal any other arguments for this position. Still, if you want a more elaborate legalistic examination of the issue, I refer you to Stephan Kinsella.

Let's wrap up with a song (Copyright Slavery, by Der Plan [German with some English phrases])