Saturday, August 01, 2015

Is AI a threat to humanity? No.

Three years ago I was telling y'all that there is no "singularity" that would suddenly make humanity obsolete. A couple of years after writing that article, I was alarmed to see science and engineering celebrities like Elon Musk, Bill Gates and Stephen Hawking claiming that superintelligent artificial intelligences might just murder us all if we aren't really, super careful.

I remain unphased. I find the singularity--of quicky-self-improving superintelligent AIs--as implausible today as I did three years ago. So it's nice to see this rebuttal from Edward Moore Geist ("MacArthur Nuclear Security Fellow at Stanford University's Center for International Security and Cooperation (CISAC).") And the guy has a lot more knowledge of AI history than me, so his arguments sound pretty good. FWIW.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

White House responds: go to hell, Snowden

When Obama took office, the White House set up a web site for people to petition the office of the president. The White House pledged to respond to any petition with over 25,000 signatures; in his second term, the threshold was raised to 100,000. I followed the response to several petitions, and never once did I see the White House change their position on any subject in response to a petition. Still, usually they did, actually, respond.

In June of 2013, a petition was posted demanding that Edward Snowden receive a full pardon for his leaks about the NSA and U.S. surveillance practices. Not familiar with Edward Snowden? John Oliver explains:



The petition reads:
Edward Snowden is a national hero and should be immediately issued a a full, free, and absolute pardon for any crimes he has committed or may have committed related to blowing the whistle on secret NSA surveillance programs.
It quickly passed 100,000 signatures, but the White House stayed silent on the matter for more than two years, before finally responding Tuesday morning, dumped simultaneously with responses to 19 other petitions in their "backlog". I found their response so vile and hypocritical, I don't even want to link to it (though I will). Vile, because they're using this petition's plea for mercy as an opportunity to intimidate would-be whistleblowers and convince Snowden's supporters to abandon him, and hypocritical, because they're suggesting Snowden should be punished for revealing the truth while claiming that the NSA should be allowed to engage in any number of secret, unconstitutional programs.

The flavor of the response is no surprise, though, since Obama has - for reasons that I cannot even guess - been running an unprecedented war on whistleblowers for years now. The response comes not from Obama, but from a "Lisa Monaco", counterterrorism advisor.

Slashdot readers had some insightful comments on the issue.
There is a high probably no Sunday talk show would have let him speak once they found out what he was going to say. They are all owned by giant media conglomerates you know. They wouldnt risk the wrath of the Federal government. Pretty sure Snowden went to Greenwald because he was one of the few journalists with the balls to do the story. The Guardian was hammered by the UK government for running it.

Remember when the CEO of Qwest defied the NSA plan to tap all data and phones lines after 9/11. The Federal government pulled all their contracts from Qwest, hammered their stock and then put him in prison for a phony securities rap. Qwest was a rare corporate hero among telecoms, long since swallowed up by CenturyLink who are just as bad as all the rest.
What Snowden did was technically illegal.
For the record, what every single one of the Founding Fathers of the United States did was "technically illegal", too.

Boston Tea Party? technically illegal
Rosa Parks technically illegal
Susan B Anthony? technically illegal
Martin Luther King, Jr? technically illegal

So, Ms Lisa Monaco, go jump in the motherfucking sea. You suggest that the "right way" for Mr Snowden to react to finding that his government was doing illegal shit would be to "speak out about it". Well, madame spokesperson, how the fuck do you "speak out" about something that it's illegal to disclose?
Under FISA he is not allowed to use wistleblowing as a defense...
Actually, it's worse than that. Two of the counts he's charged with are violations of the Espionage Act, which was intended to prevent US citizens from colluding with US enemies during World War I. Unfortunately, the law provides no room for affirmative defenses at all: if secrets were leaked, you're guilty, and the court isn't allowed to consider even the slightest sliver of the surrounding context. Did you uncover something illegal? Doesn't matter. Is this course of action the only one that would have turned up malfeasance by intelligence agencies? That can't be discussed.

The reason the Obama administration's insistence that Snowden come back to the US to "face a fair trial" is so flagrantly disingenuous is that the act that he's charged under, by virtue of its complete lack of defenses, is explicitly and intentionally designed to result in anything but a fair trial. They're inviting him home for a railroading, and it doesn't matter whether it's done in private or public: he's fucked.


From the petition:
If he felt his actions were consistent with civil disobedience, then he should do what those who have taken issue with their own government do: Challenge it, speak out, engage in a constructive act of protest, and—importantly—accept the consequences of his actions.
He IS dealing with the consequences. That's why he left.

What Lisa Monaco is pushing for is martyrdom.

We are supposed to be a country of laws. We should not have officials demanding martyrdom of those who oppose their policies.

More importantly, the message here is that being right doesn't matter; being good and obedient preserves you, while being right only makes you a martyr. If you expose the corruption of those in power, that's well and good, and a great civil duty; however, you must understand that you will be punished.

The implication is that, civil duty or not, you should think long and hard about pitching your own skin into the cause, because we sure as hell aren't going to reward you just for doing a great service to humanity. Read carefully and you'll notice the government said he'd even have to accept the consequences of speaking out and engaging in constructive protest: they decree you can dissent against their rule, and that's well and good, as long as they can punish you for your dissent--which is precisely the situation in North Korea, where you may speak out against Kim Jong-Un, and, importantly, accept the consequences of speaking out against him.
Correcting false ideas:
he made no effort to be a whistleblower
False. There are e-mails that have been more or less corroborate that indicate he DID raise the issue up the chain of command. He was basically told not to worry his pretty little head about it and get back to work.
Selling IC secrets to the highest bidder is hardly whistleblowing
Are you aware of any evidence he every sold any secrets? I am not.
Why do people think he's not going to get an open trial? OR a fair one?
It doesn't matter whether he gets an open trial or not. The trial quite simply will not be fair. That is more or less a foregone conclusion. The laws he is charged under basically allow for no context to be considered even if what he did was morally correct and justified. He quite simply cannot get a fair trial.
The outcome may be obvious, but that doesn't make the trial unfair....
A ludicrous argument because it presumes the laws are just. Laws frequently are wildly unfair and you cannot have a fair trial when you are being judged under unfair laws.
Jury Nullification is Snowden's only hope if he returns to face the music.
In most of the US, its borderline illegal to even MENTION JN in court. judges will kick you out, lock you up, threaten you, try to scare you. voire dire does all it can to try to reject jurors that even KNOW what JN is. and if you tell them during VD that you don't know what JN is and then later, they find out you do, you are in contempt.

its all neatly stacked up so that your CONSTITUTIONAL RIGHTS are not vocalized or listed or communicated to you.

"nice liberty you got there; would be a shame if something were to happen to it"
Mr. Snowden's dangerous decision to steal and disclose classified information had severe consequences for the security of our country...
Here it is, put up or shut up: name one single way that I personally am less "secure" due to Snowden's actions.

That's it. One single example.

Either that, or quit pushing this bullshit.
Right now, he's running away from the consequences of his actions.
Unlike James Clapper who enjoys no consequences for his actions - lying under oath to Congress.

Obama's administration is going to go down in history as the one that best highlights how politically well connected players are "too big to jail"...
And here's a random comment that vocalizes what I thought the first time I heard the term "Department of Homeland Security":
What do you expect from a country that has a Department of Homeland Security? It sounds like something from Nazi Germany or Soviet Russia. (Fatherland, motherland, homeland ...)
Finally, a reminder from Edward Snowden himself:
I don't want public attention because I don't want the story to be about me. I want it to be about what the US government is doing.
P.S. Hi, Sweet Sher!

Big Money Breaks Democracy

The 100 biggest campaign donors gave $323 million in 2014 — almost as much as the $356 million given by the estimated 4.75 million people who gave $200 or less, a POLITICO analysis of campaign finance filings found.
If you're an American, statistically, it's a safe bet that you don't personally donate anything to any political candidate. Only 2% of Americans do. But if you did donate, you'd be overshadowed by the big donors. Only one single candidate in the U.S. congress gets the majority of his funding from small donors giving $200 or less (that's Alan Grayson, (D) Florida).

That's why I just gave $100 to MayDay.US, the SuperPAC to end all SuperPACs. They have a plan to change who buys congress. Instead of the ultra-rich, ordinary Americans will choose who gets campaign funds. Proposals include (R) letting taxpayers earmark the first $200 of their tax dollars to political candidates, to (D) the government matching donations up to 9:1 to candidates who only accept small-dollar donations. Any of the five proposals supported by Mayday.US and Rootstrikers will fundamentally change American politics, and restore Congress to the functioning entity it used to be.


Thursday, June 11, 2015

Oxfam: by 2016, 1% of the people will have 50% of all the wealth in the world

"It is time our leaders took on the powerful vested interests that stand in the way of a fairer and more prosperous world.

"Business as usual for the elite isn’t a cost-free option – failure to tackle inequality will set the fight against poverty back decades. The poor are hurt twice by rising inequality – they get a smaller share of the economic pie and because extreme inequality hurts growth, there is less pie to be shared around." - Oxfam executive director Winnie Byanyima
An even more striking figure is that 85 individual billionaires have the same wealth as the bottom half of the world’s population.

And now, a few words from some random billionaire that I happen to agree with. Speaking at the "Business of Luxury" Summit in Monaco, billionaire Johann Rupert reportedly said that tension between the rich and poor will increase as robots and artificial intelligence fuel mass unemployment:
We cannot have 0.1 percent of 0.1% taking all the spoils. It’s unfair and it is not sustainable.

How is society going to cope with structural unemployment and the envy, hatred and the social warfare? We are destroying the middle classes at this stage and it will affect us. It’s unfair. So that’s what keeps me awake at night.

We're in for a huge change in society. Get used to it. And be prepared.

Friday, June 05, 2015

PSA: The Citizens United era of money in politics

The amount of money it takes to get elected to get elected to congress has skyrocketed, with over 3.6 billion dollars spent in the last election cycle on congressional races alone.

Think about it: how much money is spent, on average, for each member of the 468 members elected to Congress? Answer: 7.8 million dollars—and that's just an average. "Safe seats" where the winner is almost assured will probably cost less, while tight races and senate races will cost extra. Since the U.S. is a two-party system, that means about half of the money is spent on Republicans and half on Democrats. You might think that a Congressman making $174,000 per year, plus benefits, has a cushy job, but the need to raise more than ten times your own salary in "donations" from the rich, just to keep your job, must be kind of stressful. But it's not that bad; they don't have to raise all that money themselves—in fact, after Citizens United they may not be legally allowed to "coordinate" with some of their their top funders at all! And I'm dead serious about "donations from the rich": out of 435 members of congress, only one (Alan Grayson) got the majority of his campaign funding from "small donations" ($200 or less). So don't feel too sorry for these guys; congressmen that leave to become lobbyists receive a 1452% raise (on average).

To learn more on the new "Citizens United Era" of money in politics, here's a handy interactive infographic.

Support Corruption Reform (a.k.a. Campain Finance Reform)!

Cybersecurity and the Tylenol Murders

When a criminal started lacing Tylenol capsules with cyanide in 1982, Johnson & Johnson quickly sprang into action to ensure consumer safety. It increased its internal production controls, recalled the capsules, offered an exchange for tablets, and within two months started using triple-seal tamper-resistant packaging. The company focused on fixing weak points in their supply chain so that users could be sure that no one had interfered with the product before they purchased it.

This story is taught in business schools as an example of how a company chose to be proactive to protect its users. The FDA also passed regulations requiring increased security and Congress ultimately passed an anti-tampering law. But the focus of the response from both the private and the public sector was on ensuring that consumers remained safe and secure, rather than on catching the perpetrator. Indeed, the person who did the tampering was never caught.

This story springs to mind today as Congress considers the latest cybersecurity and data breach bills. To folks who understand computer security and networks, it's plain that the key problem are our vulnerable infrastructure and weak computer security, much like the vulnerabilities in Johnson & Johnson’s supply chain in the 1980s. As then, the failure to secure our networks, the services we rely upon, and our individual computers makes it easy for bad actors to step in and “poison” our information.

The way forward is clear: We need better incentives for companies who store our data to keep it secure.

Yet none of the proposals now in Congress are aimed at actually increasing the safety of our data. Instead, the focus is on “information sharing,” a euphemism for more surveillance of users and networks. These bills are not only wrongheaded, they seem to be a cynical ploy to use the very real problems of cybersecurity to advance a surveillance agenda, rather than to actually take steps to make people safer. EFF has long opposed these bills and we will continue to do so.

Congress could step in on any one of these topic to encourage real security for users—by creating incentives for greater security, a greater downside for companies that fail to do so and by rewarding those companies who make the effort to develop stronger security. It can also shine a light on security failures by requiring public reporting for big companies.

Yet none of these options are even part of the legislative debate; they often aren't even mentioned. Instead the proposed laws go the other way—giving companies immunity if they create more risk with your data by “sharing” it with the government, where it could still be hacked. "Information sharing" is focused on forensics—finding who did it and how after the fact—rather than on protecting computer users in the first place.

It's as if the answer for Americans after the Tylenol incident was not to put on tamper-evident seals, or increase the security of the supply chain, but only to require Tylenol to "share" its customer lists with the government and with the folks over at Bayer aspirin. We wouldn't have stood for such a wrongheaded response in 1982, and we shouldn't do so now."
- Cindy Cohn at EFF (lightly abbreviated)

Wednesday, June 03, 2015

Professional Russian Trolls

There's a new reason not to believe everything you read on the internet—especially if it has something to do with Russia or the Ukraine.
Every day at the Internet Research Agency was essentially the same, Savchuk told me. The first thing employees did upon arriving at their desks was to switch on an Internet proxy service, which hid their I.P. addresses from the places they posted; those digital addresses can sometimes be used to reveal the real identity of the poster. Savchuk would be given a list of the opinions she was responsible for promulgating that day. Workers received a constant stream of “technical tasks” — point-by-point exegeses of the themes they were to address, all pegged to the latest news. Ukraine was always a major topic, because of the civil war there between Russian-backed separatists and the Ukrainian Army; Savchuk and her co-workers would post comments that disparaged the Ukrainian president, Petro Poroshenko, and highlighted Ukrainian Army atrocities. Russian domestic affairs were also a major topic. Last year, after a financial crisis hit Russia and the ruble collapsed, the professional trolls left optimistic posts about the pace of recovery. Savchuk also says that in March, after the opposition leader Boris Nemtsov was murdered, she and her entire team were moved to the department that left comments on the websites of Russian news outlets and ordered to suggest that the opposition itself had set up the murder.
- The Agency, NyTimes.com And then there's this key ingredient that is completely missing from my own blog:
[...] the Internet Research Agency had industrialized the art of trolling. Management was obsessed with statistics — page views, number of posts, a blog’s place on LiveJournal’s traffic charts — and team leaders compelled hard work through a system of bonuses and fines.
And why would people work as trolls? High rates of pay. Apparently 41,000 rubles/mo ($777 USD) is a big deal in Russia.

And what's in it for the powerful officials and businessmen who are paying the trolls, when so many of the trolls' messages are of poor quality?
“The point is to spoil it, to create the atmosphere of hate, to make it so stinky that normal people won’t want to touch it,” Volkov said, when we met in the office of Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation. “You have to remember the Internet population of Russia is just over 50 percent. The rest are yet to join, and when they join it’s very important what is their first impression.” The Internet still remains the one medium where the opposition can reliably get its message out. But their message is now surrounded by so much garbage from trolls that readers can become resistant before the message even gets to them. [...] Russia’s information war might be thought of as the biggest trolling operation in history, and its target is nothing less than the utility of the Internet as a democratic space.
Which is worse? An internet where truth is actively censored, as in China, or one where the truth is censored by glut—simply by being drowned out by louder liars, as in Russia? (note: Russia also uses various techniques to keep independent traditional media quiet, and ranked 148th out of 179 countries in the Press Freedom Index from Reporters Without Borders. The U.S. ranks 46th, and Canada ranks 18th.)

As the NYT article demonstrates, too, Russia is quite interested in spreading Russian propaganda in English-speaking countries. Know your trolls, people.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

My hopes for Alberta

leadnow.ca asked its members to send letters to Rachel Notley, the new premier of Alberta. Here's mine.

Hi, my name is David. I have two things I want to say to the new NDP leadership.

First, please consider adding electoral reform to the agenda. It's always been difficult being a small party in a first-past-the-post electoral system. It's an unstable system that gave Wildrose more than double the amount of seats as PC (21-10) with fewer votes (24%-28%). It's a system that unjustly rewards largeness and unjustly penalizes smallness. And it's a system that makes many people (especially me!) feel as if their vote doesn't really matter. Now that you're suddenly the big party, you have a chance to set this right.

The federal NDP has come out in favor of a mixed-member proportional electoral system. While this is not my favorite system, it's a lot better than FPTP and I would support it gladly and eagerly. Now, I don't know if anyone cares what I think, but this blog post describes the voting system I would propose. It's simple, it makes sure every vote counts, and it gives voters a range of real, meaningful choices:

http://qism.blogspot.ca/2015/04/enjoy-true-democracy-with-sdr.html

At the very least, you should simply remove one sentence from the ballot instructions. That's the sentence that says something like "Mark one box only, or your ballot will be spoiled." Remove this sentence, and we will have a (somewhat) superior electoral system called Approval Voting.

My second hope is that the NDP will move forward to combat climate change by supporting alternative forms of energy: wind and, more controversially, but still very important, molten salt nuclear reactors. Old-fashioned boiling water reactors are expensive and although they are statistically safer than oil and coal, they have a bad reputation.

I like to use an analogy with airplanes. Like nuclear energy, people have a fear of flying that is wildly out of proportion with the actual danger (or lack thereof). Yet somehow, people still decide to fly. And more importantly, from the perspective of cost, people don't go out to protest building airports near cities based on "safety concerns". When a plane crashes, people don't say "we need to stop building new and improved planes immediately! Let's just keep using the oldest, least safe ones! Maybe someday we'll stop using airplanes completely!" Yet somehow this is exactly what happens in the nuclear sector.

There are some fantastic nuclear reactor concepts out there, such as the Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactor (LFTR). Designs like this are potentially both much cheaper, and much safer, than traditional reactors. And if Alberta is going to stop being a leading cause of climate change, it's going to need to replace the tar sands with something clean. The science is clear: much of the oil (to say nothing of the coal) must be left in the ground. By taking the lead in pursuing LFTR and other new reactor designs, perhaps Alberta can do that without destroying its own economy.

I know this is a hard problem for politicians to tackle. It'll be hard to blame you if you take the easy route and do nothing, or implement a half-hearted policy that steadfastly avoids using the "N" word. But please, this matter has been urgent for years, and only gets worse the longer we wait. I urge you to look for opportunities to lead a shift to cleaner energy.

LFTR in 5 minutes: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uK367T7h6ZY

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Enjoy True Democracy with SDR

Suppose the government announced that we could choose between only two breakfast cereals: Sugar Jolts and Bran Bombs. Every two years, we would choose by election between a two-year supply of each type. If you and 499,998 others in your district preferred Sugar Jolts, but the other 500,001 preferred Bran Bombs, you would all be stuck with Bran Bombs every morning until the next election.
It's kind of important how we choose our leaders.

Yet, somehow, most people give little or no thought to the election process. Most people don't seem concerned that our current system is awful, and they certainly don't lobby for change. It's certainly not that no one has thought of a better system; many people have thought of many better systems. I for one enjoy reading about them, but amazingly, normal people don't seem to find the topic quite as fascinating.

There are numerous problems with our "First Past The Post" (FPTP) electoral system. Here are two of the biggest:
  • The geographic restriction: this is the rule that you're only allowed to vote for someone who is officially running for office "close to you", in the same district as your house. The district boundaries themselves are chosen undemocratically, and the person running in your district might actually live somewhere else (usually near the legislature). You might love the candidate running in the north side of the city, but if you happen to live in the south side of the city you're out of luck. The geographic restriction is the main limitation on voter choice; drop this restriction and you'll suddenly have hundreds of candidates to choose from.
  • Your vote probably doesn't matter: Of course, there is a much bigger problem. In FPTP, if there are four people running in a district, one of them can win with as little as 26% of the vote, and it common in Canada for winners to have less than 40% of the popular vote. That means more than 60% of the voters basically go unrepresented in the parliament or legislature. There is a different sense in which your vote doesn't matter: many, if not most, races are won by more than 10% of the vote. That means that the winner could have had 10% fewer votes and still won. So in another sense, even if you voted for the winner, your vote didn't matter because he or she would still have won if you had stayed home. True, if many other people think the same way and stay home, it could change the election result, but if just you stays home, the chance that it will make a difference is infinitesimal. Finally there's a third sense in which your vote doesn't matter: you might not actually like (or know) any of the people running in your district, and if that's true, any vote you cast is kind of meaningless.

Introducing Simple Direct Representation

Of the dozens of proposals I've read, my favorite electoral system is called Direct Representation. This is a fantastic idea which might solve pretty much all the problems with FPTP, but most importantly it will solve the two problems I just mentioned. However, Direct Representation is a radical overhaul that questions everything you assume about how elections should work, so I think it's worth considering if we could have most of the benefits of DR, in a simple system that doesn't feel quite as radical.

So today I'll sketch out a proposal I call Simple Direct Representation (SDR). It consists of six simple rules:
  1. No Geographic Restriction: During an election, you can vote for anyone who is running for the legislature in your state/province. Obviously, some thought will have to be put into how the polling station can gather votes efficiently when there are so many choices available.
  2. Proportional Power: your vote always counts! The voting power of your representative will depend on the amount of "poll votes" they have (votes from the official election polls). A representative that got 10,006 votes will have twice as much power as the one that got 5,003 votes; whenever a legislator votes for or against a bill, that single vote is multiplied by the number of poll votes that he or she got during the election. A simple computer program would be used to tally up votes; in case of power loss or computer trouble, the legislature could agree to allow approximations (e.g. by rounding off each member's power to the nearest thousand poll votes instead of counting individual poll votes).
  3. Two Choices: On the ballot you can write one or two names: a first choice and an optional second choice. The second choice will be given your vote if your first choice doesn't get enough votes to win a seat in the legislature. Your first choice should be your favorite candidate, and your second choice should be someone you are sure will win a seat.
  4. Fixed Number of Winners: The legislature physically has a fixed number of seats, and those seats are filled with the people who got the most "first choice" votes. For example if there are 100 seats total, the 100 most popular candidates (measured by first-choice votes) get those seats. Then, for every voter whose first choice did not win a seat, their second choice is given an additional vote (provided that the second choice won a seat). If the first and second choice both lost, the vote doesn't count, but a voter can easily avoid this problem by choosing someone they know is popular as their second choice. In case the election concentrates power in the hands of only a few legislators, there will be some legislators that win without getting a large amount of votes; I think this is a good thing, as it can give "the little guy" a voice in the legislature without giving him serious voting power.
  5. Power Sharing Required: Often, people will simply vote for the leader of a party (or the person they think should be the leader). To avoid excessively unbalanced power in the legislature, there is a fixed upper limit on the amount of voting power that one legislator can wield, for example, 4% (or N%) of all votes cast. This limit is calculated on election day and fixed until the next election. For example, if 5,000,000 votes were cast in the election, 4% is 200,000 votes. If 1,000,000 people voted for candidate Smith, then Smith still officially "owns" 1,000,000 votes but is only allowed to use 200,000 of them. Normally, Smith will use the next rule to transfer his excess votes to his friends or allies in the legislature (otherwise he would be wasting his votes).
  6. Vote Transfer: A legislator who is above the N% power limit can transfer excess votes to another member of the legislature. The legislator should only transfer votes to someone he or she trusts, because the giver cannot change his mind and take the votes back. That's because revocation power could be used to get around the N% limit by giving one legislator leverage over other legislators; the legislator with 30% of all votes could say "vote the way I tell you, or I'll transfer your votes to someone who will!" A more liberal version of this rule would allow any legislator to transfer any amount of poll votes to any other legislator at any time. In that case, poll votes could be "re-gifted", and the receiver of votes could give those same votes back voluntarily. The transfer system may need a couple of extra rules spelled out, such as a rule against bribery.
That's it. Enjoy True Democracy. We could add a couple of minor extra rules, such as one that allows a legislator to designate an "heir" who will get their seat if he or she quits or dies. But extra rules are optional, and can be added as needed.

One important thing that is often overlooked about elections is that the kind of people that run in elections depends on the rules of the election itself. For example, if election campaigns are 100% funded with private donations, different kinds of people may choose to run, compared with a system where campaigns are 100% funded from a public fund, or tax-deductible small contributions or "democracy vouchers" (Lawrence Lessig's idea to let each citizen redirect the first $50 of income tax they pay toward one or more political candidates).

Likewise, the electoral system itself will change the flavor of politicians who choose to run for office. FPTP is a cutthroat system—it's all or nothing, you win big or you lose big, and if there are four people running per district, 75% of them are guaranteed to lose. What kind of people would enjoy running for office in a system like that? I wouldn't. On the other hand, in an SDR system there may be 100 seats and only 150 people running, and only one third of those running will lose. Minor parties who don't expect to win a lot of votes don't have to run a lot of candidates either, so they won't be scouring college campuses for kids to run "symbolically" in "unwinnable" ridings. Among the "heavyweight" contenders there is a lot less drama, since there is no particular "enemy candidate" that you have to "defeat". An individual candidate no longer has to convince half the voters in a tiny region to vote for him, but instead can pander to a small percentage of voters in a huge region.

Surely all these factors will change the kinds of people who choose to run for office. I, for one, expect that the legislature will enjoy increased diversity of opinion and expertise. For one thing, single-issue candidates may be common--they'll run on a platform of "let's fix this one thing that's wrong with our government". If candidate McFoo wants to, let's say, change the way hospital fees work, or start a municipal broadband network, or improve privacy rights, there's no way to convince half the voters in any specific "district" to care enough about one particular issue to vote for McFoo. However, McFoo could very likely convince 0.5% of all the voters in the entire state/province to vote for him on that issue. Once in the legislature, McFoo can't directly pass any laws with his 0.5%, but he could dedicate his time to lobbying on his issue. Another difference with SDR is that candidates can probably have a thinner skin and lower income than typical winners in FPTP. FPTP candidates often have to be prepared to spend a lot of money campaigning and accept the risk of being attacked by the "opponent", as well as the risk of losing. Winning a seat under SDR should be a more predictable affair; the amount you spend and your chances of winning are no longer tied to whoever happens to run "against" you, and a person can have a chance of winning whenever they have a fan base of some kind—any large group of people, no matter how geographically dispersed, who like that person. It's important that the fan base need not have anything to do with politics; a popular author, or actor, or university professor, could more easily run for office and win under SDR because they don't need a lot of "campaign skills", they don't need to struggle to figure out how to get a large percentage of votes in a small geographic area and they don't have to run "against" anyone, they can simply ask their (geographically dispersed) fans to vote for them. This may mean that we'll end up with fewer "career politicians" in office.

Why don't politicians care enough to change the electoral system? In part, I've already answered this question. Legislatures are filled with career politicians, who might be threatened by a new system that allows new kinds of people to win. A bigger factor is certainly the big-party advantage of FPTP. In Canada it's common for a party that got only 40% of the popular vote (or less!) to get a majority government; big parties win more seats per vote than small parties. It's obviously unfair, and most politicians probably prefer it that way. In America it's worse; Duverger's Law has taken full effect, so that no party outside the big two ever wins a federal seat. When the system favors you or your party, of course you don't want to change the system.

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.
"Engineers have a grievance. They think we should think more like them. They are not wrong." - Malcolm Gladwell

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