Sunday, April 26, 2015

Harper's Copyright Givaway

I was horrified to learn today that the Conservatives are going to retroactively extend copyrights from "entire life of the author plus 50 years" to "entire life of the author plus 70 years". Since most valuable copyrights are owned by corporations (and any human authors are deceased by definition) this is a corporate giveaway designed to make a few extra bucks for the oldest media companies that own a few rare copyrights on music and films that have been selling copies for more than 50 years.

Meanwhile, thousands of works that are not commercially valuable will be locked up by this copyright extension--so many movies and songs and books that weren't in print, that aren't selling copies, could have entered the public domain, but now it will be illegal to copy them. Harper, you are such an asshole.

Copyright in the early 1800s (in Canada, the U.S. and Britain) lasted 14 years with an optional extension to 28 years. We're not talking "life of the author plus 14", we're talking "14 years in total". Since then, every increase to copyright term lengths has been retroactive, demonstrating that lengthy copyright terms are not designed to encourage authors and artists to create new works, but merely to make even more money for the most successful works, to pad the pockets of the rich with payments from the poor, to limit the ability of authors to "remix" old and obscure works from the past, and to limit the public's ability to enjoy older works freely.

It's interesting to wonder what the world would be like if we still had 28-year copyrights. Every hard drive would probably be shipped with a library of thousands of older books and songs (Why not? It would only require 1-10% of the disk space on a 1TB drive); YouTube would let you watch any movie or hear any song made before 1987, for free; Google would search all older books and screenplays whenever you search the internet; filmmakers could create new films on a lower budget because they would be allowed to put any song published before 1987 in the soundtrack, and they could re-use art from older sources too; anyone would be allowed to write translations of older foreign-language works; bloggers could link directly to any paragraph of any old book (because the full text of all old books & movies would be on the internet) and low-budget academic researchers could do large-scale analysis of, let's say, every book written between 1885 and 1985 (or whatever).

Such a world cannot be observed, though, since wealthy interests have made sure that every country in the world adopts a minimum copyright term of "life of the author plus 50 years". This is called the Berne Convention, and almost every country in the world has been forced to adopt it, which means we will probably never find out what life would be like under a 28-year copyright term. Since 1887, powerful organizations like the WTO have forced all poor countries to adopt not only the Berne Convention, but other onerous "Intellectual Property" treaties, notably TRIPS. Now, the U.S. and many other countries are negotiating The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a new so-called trade agreement whose text is a secret. The TPP is rumored to contain even more corporate power givaways in the name of intellectual property, and a lot of other garbage that has led to all kinds of opposition across the political spectrum:
Pretty much every identifiable progressive-aligned organization is against it, including human rights groups, environmental groups, faith groups, legal scholars, consumer groups, food-safety groups, LGBT groups and many, many others. ... Polls show that the public is overwhelmingly against it. (Even conservatives are opposed.)

Monday, April 20, 2015

Normal People

I haven't had a lot of success in romance. I met a woman who seemed like a really good match for me; so we had a date, walking downtown, and I thought everything was going fine. After 50 minutes she said it was just too cold and she wanted to end the date. I suggested she warm up in my car; she said no. Back online, days later, she let me know that "I don't think we have enough in common. We approach life differently." I asked what she didn't like about me. Eventually she responded that she had an overwhelming sense that I "lacked an appreciation for the inexplicable or ephemeral". I was too "literal" and tried to "quantify everything". I asked her, not impolitely, if she could be more specific, or tell me what I failed to appreciate. She did not respond... which is very typical.

Sometimes I wonder if I was born on the wrong planet. I don't get it... everything about me seems so human, I have all the emotions and the body parts, but it often feels like everybody around me cares about and thinks about such different things. Like sports, or fashion, or manners... normal people care, I do not.

Normal people are more afraid of flying than driving, because statistics? Whatever. Normal people want better government services but lower taxes. Normal people are afraid of nuclear power, but coal power, the greatest cause of global warming, is four times more popular and kills roughly 15 thousand times as many people. Normal people claim to care about democracy, but don't know anything about electoral reform. Normal people say violence and poverty are bad, but they don't look for solutions because these are things that happen to other people—you know, the same people who can't solve anything because they are uneducated because they spend their lives trying to make the rent, or obtain food. Normal people say a methadone clinic is fine, as long as it's not in my neighborhood. Normal people are swayed by "small-potatoes" politics, like the cost of running the Senate or the the cost of a weird government-funded study about sexuality, because "million" and "billion" are only one letter apart. Normal people are glad they make twice as much money as the people across town, so they can spend twice as much on themselves. So normal women look at me, I think, and see someone who is too "intimidating" to love, someone who is undesirable because he doesn't pick up on social cues properly, and hasn't learned to dance yet, and doesn't appreciate the outdoors enough. Yeah, because those are the things that really matter. Right.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Live a Good Life

Live a good life.

If there are gods and they are just, then they will not care how devout you have been, but will welcome you based on the virtues you have lived by.

If there are gods, but unjust, then you should not want to worship them.

If there are no gods, then you will be gone, but will have lived a noble life that will live on in the memories of your loved ones. - author unclear
I really liked the passage above, but there is one problem with it. It assumes that if there is a God, that there is an afterlife, and that if there is no God, then there is no afterlife. Neither assumption is necessarily true. See also: It's not as bad as you think

Friday, March 06, 2015

The Democratization of Cyberattack

A short piece be well-known security professional Bruce Schneier:
We can't choose a world where the US gets to spy but China doesn't, or even a world where governments get to spy and criminals don't. We need to choose, as a matter of policy, communications systems that are secure for all users, or ones that are vulnerable to all attackers. It's security or surveillance.

Saturday, January 31, 2015

Police shoot man talking on cell phone

Considering that cops in America can shoot people with impunity (especially black people), I think it's important that we see and review every police killing and not let this issue die.

Here's a story I heard today (via DailyKos): a man named John Crawford was shot and killed in a Walmart, as he talked on his cell phone, holding a toy gun in the toy section of the store. It's not a new story, but it's new to me, and it is shocking.

I don't have to tell you what color his skin was.

Addendum: How often are unarmed black men gunned down by police? Across the U.S., the government doesn't care enough to count "unjustified killings", and not many independent studies exist.


Saturday, January 24, 2015

The Beagle

As a lifelong Christian and Mormon, I experienced various difficulties: guilt about my sinful nature, sadness that God wouldn't communicate with me, and the many intellectual questions that the church couldn't answer. I don't talk much about that on my blog; it has often been difficult to focus my thoughts on these issues, and besides, I like to talk about solutions rather than problems. After my long journey, I have found that Christianity offers a lot of problems, but not many reliable, trustworthy solutions.

I can always be thankful that Mormonism (together with the teachings of my father, perhaps just as importantly) gave me my belief system. Even if it turns out there is no God, I still learned many good principles from the Church. I have good reasons, however, to say that I will probably never return. I don't feel like talking about it right now, but I found someone who does...
You said you’re worried that you might discover your mother is intellectually dishonest. I suppose she might be, but it’s more likely that she is just fearful. Fundamentalists believe that life without God has no purpose, that they would have no reason to be good, and no reason to care about anything. Add the threat of eternal torment if you give up your faith, and the Bible passages that say apostates can never come back, and you have a huge load of fear. I don’t think conservative Christians as a group realize how much they are oppressed by fear. It is so woven into the doctrinal clothes they wear every day that they don’t even notice it. They think that if they were to give up their faith their whole world would fall apart and they could never put it back together. This is a powerful disincentive to question honestly and thoroughly. What I observe is that they question just enough that they can assure themselves that they have exercised critical thinking, but not so much that they get to the bottom of things. They accept pat answers that, objectively, are totally inadequate. I’m sure they don’t realize they’re doing this, or that it comes from fear.

Also, cognitive biases, such as confirmation bias, are part of the human condition. Your mother has them, you have them, and I have them. That doesn’t make your mother a bad person.

- Snippet of a comment from The Beagle
I'd like to thank a new friend of mine for pointing me to this blog, The Path of the Beagle. While the Beagle's path away from Evangelical Christianity is not the same as my path away from the LDS Church, and I haven't completely rejected my church the way he has, it explains the path and the reasons better than I have time or inclination to.

There are a few reasons I left, one of which is the seeming evil of the God of the Old Testament. The Beagle featured this satirical YouTube video which explains the problem pretty well, complete with many biblical references that you can read for yourself.

I'll just add a couple of thoughts.

Above all, the most important issue is whether or not Christianity is true. If it is true, does it really matter that much if God is unreasonable, has committed genocide repeatedly, doesn't answer our prayers, or makes us feel guilty all the time? After all, we are imperfect. Maybe we deserve all that. After my brother left the church, he told me it was because he was tired of feeling guilty all the time. This argument was not persuasive to me, since the really important thing isn't whether you like the church or its doctrines, but whether they are true. I still believed it was true, so I kept going to church, kept reading scriptures, kept praying—and not without guilt!

I think the issue that affected me the most was not evidence that God didn't exist, but rather evidence that he wasn't Good. If God wasn't good, it makes perfect sense that he would still say that he was good in the Bible. If God existed, but was not good, and not trustworthy, and did not keep his promises, should we really follow him? I wouldn't say I started to believe God was evil. But the mere possibility seemed inescapable. How could we know that God is good? Well, we can't. All we have is his Word, and how can we be sure that his Word is trustworthy? Well, there is little more I could do than assume.

I must admit that I haven't sought out information that calls into question the many testimonies of miracles heard within the church--information that would question the very existence of God. But whether there is a God or not, my trust in a loving God is gone, and that is sufficient. If God exists, and is good, he should prove it. If he is unwilling to prove it, then it would be fundamentally unjust for him to send unbelievers to hell. To elaborate, if the Christian God exists, there are two possibilities:
  1. He is Good, and follows some rational ethical system that mortals could understand, even if that system hasn't been clearly stated in the Bible (and even if the conclusions of that system are not predictable by mere mortals). In that case he will not send earnest unbelievers to hell simply for incorrectly concluding, after careful thought, that he does not exist, for it would be unjust to do so. Therefore, since I am sincere and committed to high ethical standards, I need not fear God merely because I am an agnostic — and there is simply no need to try to "save my soul" by bringing me back to church.
  2. He is not good. In that case, nothing stated in the Bible is trustworthy, and his nature is fundamentally unknowable. In this case it makes little sense to worry about angering him, regardless of what we believe or disbelieve, because we don't really know him, because a God that isn't good isn't obliged to tell the truth, even if he says he is. So we can't know how he will treat us after death or even in this life (although if history is any indication, he will not do anything for us or against us in this life). Why would you follow a God who is fundamentally unjust, even if he exists? In this case the ethical thing is not to follow him, even though he exists.
I still hope for life after death, and I wish there were a loving creator, I just don't expect to meet one. I am an agnostic now. But I still know that I have a soul.

Philosophy is therefore no idle pastime, but a serious business, fundamental to our lives. It should be our first if not our only religion: a religion wherein worship is replaced with curiosity, devotion with diligence, holiness with sincerity, ritual with study, scripture with the whole world of human learning. The philosopher regards it as tantamount to a religious duty to question all things, and to ground her faith in what is well-investigated and well-proved, rather than what is merely asserted or well-liked. … Above all, she commits herself to the constant study of language, logic, and method, and seeks always to perfect, by testing and correcting, her total view of all things. - Sense and Goodness without God, pg 25-26, as quoted by The Beagle

Sunday, January 11, 2015

It's Not as Bad as You Think

There are many cognitive tasks Human beings are not very good at... one of which is discerning the differences between eras. We don't appreciate that life today is a lot different from previous epochs from which we got The Bible, the works of Shakespeare or even The Wealth of Nations.

The church I used to attend likes to look for signs of the second coming of Christ (other churches apparently believe in the Rapture instead), which is said to be preceded by great wickedness, wars, and suffering.
And at that time shall Michael stand up, the great prince which standeth for the children of thy people: and there shall be a time of trouble, such as never was since there was a nation even to that same time: and at that time thy people shall be delivered, every one that shall be found written in the book. - Daniel 12:1
And ye shall hear of wars and rumours of wars: see that ye be not troubled: for all these things must come to pass, but the end is not yet. For nation shall rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom: and there shall be famines, and pestilences, and earthquakes, in diverse places. - Matthew 24:6–7
I heard people at church saying things like "we don't know when the second coming will be--it could be tomorrow!" But they know the signs — how can they think we're having sufficient famines and wars, let alone earthquakes, for the second coming?

This post is not about religion; it's just a convenient way to illustrate that many people still seem to think the world is filled with wickedness, war, and suffering. Wickedness, conservatives would say, due to phenomena like gay marriage, apathy and atheism — but don't we live in a time with less hatred than ever before? I do think apathy is a serious problem, but it's been a problem throughout all of history. Isn't war and murder far worse than premarital sex? We have much less of the former. Hatred is worse than apathy, and we have less of that. As far as I'm aware, the largest group of hateful people on earth are Muslim extremists, and they are a tiny minority of the world's population. As for war and suffering, it can be shown objectively that there is less war and less suffering today — dramatically less — than during most of human history.

When you read this, does it seem remarkable merely that you can read it? I'm not just talking about the fact that you got it from a fantastic technological medium called the internet, or that I was able to publish it worldwide without having to pay anyone a dime. More basic than that, your brain is able to decode a complicated sequence of glyphs into human thought! The remarkable thing about the modern era is that this ability of yours is so commonplace. It is remarkable, not only that you can stare at a bunch of writing and have an intellectually stimulating experience, but that most of the adults in your country can do the same thing.

Don't take my word for it. Slate has a fantastic article on the subject entitled Why The World Is Not Falling Apart.
It’s a good time to be a pessimist. ISIS, Crimea, Donetsk, Gaza, Burma, Ebola, school shootings, campus rapes, wife-beating athletes, lethal cops—who can avoid the feeling that things fall apart, the center cannot hold? Last year Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, testified before a Senate committee that the world is “more dangerous than it has ever been.” This past fall, Michael Ignatieff wrote of “the tectonic plates of a world order that are being pushed apart by the volcanic upward pressure of violence and hatred.” Two months ago, the New York Times columnist Roger Cohen lamented, “Many people I talk to, and not only over dinner, have never previously felt so uneasy about the state of the world.... The search is on for someone to dispel foreboding and embody, again, the hope of the world.”
This must-read article systematically dismantles the idea that the world is falling apart, mostly with graphs dating from 1945. Before 1945, of course, we had two world wars, in which tens of millions of people were killed, and the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic, in which 50 to 100 million people were killed.

If you look at statistics before 1900 (what few are available) you'll see numbers even worse than during most of the 20th century. Before 1900 there was no penicillin, virtually no blood transfusions, and few reliable surgical procedures. There were no radios, virtually no automobiles, no airplanes, no television, and no computers. Now you can read this article on the internet--from almost any location on Earth! Do you really understand what life was like before 1900, let alone 1800? Before 1800 there were no anaesthetics (and not much in the way of analgesics), almost no vaccines, and doctors didn't know (and had false beliefs about) how diseases were transmitted, which led to many deaths. Before 1800 there was no such thing as refrigeration, no telegraphs, no telephones, no electricity, and no tall buildings except Pyramids and cathedral spires. Forget indoor plumbing; even underground sewers were rare. Since 1800, life expectancy has more than doubled worldwide, and since 1800, rates of literacy and education have skyrocketed around the world (references: medical, inventions, life expectancy, literacy, etc).

In New York in 1915, even an idea as basic as being kind to your infant was revolutionary in some circles:
Though infant mortality had plummeted in the slums thanks to the bureau’s efforts, it hadn’t budged in wealthier neighborhoods.... At the time, medical opinion held that mothers should train their babies early to be independent by feeding them at regular intervals and ignoring their cries and babbles. Doing otherwise was thought to damage them psychologically. We now know the opposite is true. - The Doctor Who Made a Revolution
To sum up, I bet that even a cat has a much higher chance of surviving to age 5 today than a human child did in 1800.

The world could, of course, be a much better place than it is, but it could also be so much worse. The one constant is change, and the price of liberty is eternal vigilance; we must keep fighting for a better world if we are to maintain our quality of life and avoid slipping back to old patterns of war, suffering and ignorance. Thanks to nuclear and biological weapons, another world war could be incomparably disastrous. Thanks to today's severe income inequality, and the shrinkage of the job market, it's possible that average living standards may slip backward soon in some countries. But as we listen to the news and fight for a better world, let us give thanks, and not forget that we are, in fact, living in the most prosperous time in all of human history.

Friday, December 05, 2014

Demand that your vote count!

In past elections, both Liberals and Conservatives in Canada have won over 50% of the seats with less than 40% of the seats, and this difference is caused by our first-past-the-post (FPTP) electoral system, which is one of the first voting systems ever invented, and is still the law of the land today.

FPTP works in a fairly legitimate way in Canada, unlike in the U.S. where practices like gerrymandering, voter suppression and 3rd-party suppression are rampant. Even so, while FPTP makes some limited sense in individual ridings, when you look across a region or country the results are clearly unfair. In the 1992, for example, the Progressive Conservatives got 16% of the vote across the country but won only two seats. The Quebec-only separatist party Bloc Quebecois, on the other hand, won 54 seats with just 13.5% of the vote, and Alberta's Reform party, got 52 seats with 18.7% of the vote.

Generally more flexible than old-fashioned proportional representation, MMP (Mixed-member proportional) represents the population far better than first-past-the-post.

MMP still defines single-winner electoral districts, and the electoral system for these districts could be decided somewhat independently of MMP itself. One assumes that to avoid "rocking the boat", these districts will keep using FPTP. However, MMP compensates for unfairness of the results by granting extra seats to parties that didn't get as many seats as they should given the amount of votes they got. Thus, your vote is far more likely to matter under MMP. It isn't my favorite system, but I would vote YES quite eagerly!

The NDP is backing MMP, and I would urge everyone to sign their petition about it.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Snowdenisms

This story brought to you by Congressman Alan Grayson (D-FL):
There was a filibuster in the U.S. Senate last week. Yes, I know, that’s hardly news. And a cloture vote to end that filibuster. That’s hardly news, either. And the cloture vote failed. Not news.

The vote was, among other things, to end the National Security Agency’s collection of records of every phone call that you make. Which, sadly, also is no longer news. What would be news is if someone did something about it.

Fifty-eight senators voted in favor of ending the filibuster, and the “bulk collection.” Only forty-two voted against. But we no longer live in a country where the majority rules, so every single time you make a phone call, the NSA will know to whom you spoke, and for how long.

Regarding the failed vote against the filibuster, the D.C. newspaper Roll Call opined that: “It’s probably going to take another series of revelations about NSA programs for strict legislation to get momentum again.” But I’m wondering how much of the last series of revelations has been absorbed by the body politic. So I’m offering to you excerpts from a little-noticed interview that Edward Snowden did with The Guardian a few months ago, complete with British spelling. File it under the category of “read it and weep.”

Monday, November 03, 2014

"Nonpolitical Images Evoke Neural Predictors of Political Ideology"

From my experience growing up, I know that people who feel homosexuality is a sin don't merely say so because God says so. They also feel disgust at the thought of homosexual acts. Much as I felt disgust as a young boy about the concept of kissing girls. Anyway, so an interesting study was done:
A new study shows that the way your brain responds to photos of of maggots, mutilated carcasses, and gunk in the kitchen sink gives a pretty good indication of whether you're liberal or conservative. "Remarkably, we found that the brain's response to a single disgusting image was enough to predict an individual's political ideology," Read Montague, a Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute psychology professor who led the study, said in a written statement. 83 men and women viewed a series of images while having their brains scanned in a functional MRI (fMRI) machine. The images included the disgusting photos described above, along with photos of babies and pleasant landscapes. Afterward, the participants were asked to rate how grossed out they were by each photo. They also completed a survey about their political beliefs, which included questions about their attitudes toward school prayer, gun control, immigration, and gay marriage. There was no significant difference in how liberals and conservatives rated the photos [emphasis mine]. But the researchers noted differences between the two groups in the activity of brain regions associated with disgust recognition, emotion regulation, attention and even memory. The differences were so pronounced that the researchers could analyze a scan and predict the person's political leaning with 95 percent accuracy. - Slashdot
I think you can see the role of disgust when you hear certain U.S. conservative opinion pieces and talking points. They are sometimes counting on a disgust reaction from conservatives, while liberals aren't swayed because they are not as easily disgusted.

One wonders about how this works. So are people conservative because they are easily disgusted? Are people liberal because they have learned to suppress disgust? Is there really some universal "disgust factor" that affects our reaction to both cockroaches and tax increases? Hmm, that doesn't sound right. More likely, if there is some universal "disgust factor", it affects our reaction to cockroaches, homosexuality, homeless people, drug addicts, and other issues with a potential "eww" factor. Then, because the U.S. is a two-party system, people that are against homosexuality end up being against social services and the ACA by cultural association. After all, if you were against homosexuality but in favor of higher taxes & services, you'd be terribly confused about who to vote for, and who to hang out with on Facebook.

It's only 95% accurate, though. There's still room for free will ;^) I await more studies...