Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Study: US Is an Oligarchy, Not a Democracy

Due to the similarity between the two parties in the U.S. and enormous barriers facing any would-be third party, I have mused that the U.S. is almost a one-party state. I mean, okay, there are two parties, but the U.S. just doesn't feel like a democracy.

A new study applies some numeric analysis to the decisions that are made in Washington. I haven't actually read the study yet, but apparently it finds that Washington's behavior is strongly correlated with what the most elite want, not the common people. Apparently it doesn't directly say the U.S. is an oligarchy, but an oligarchy is a form of power structure in which power effectively rests with a small number of people--and you don't have to run a study to get the feeling that this is true, given some matching definition of "small".

Lawrence Lessig, formerly my favorite copyright activist, has turned himself into my favorite campaign finance reform activist. He points out that all members of congress (remember, that dysfunctional bunch of people that makes most decisions about federal law?) are completely dependent on campaign contributions in order to be re-elected, and therefore spend up to 70% of their time on fundraising. Isn't it logical to expect, then, that the behavior of lawmakers depends on what the funders want? Well, I ask you: how many funders are there?
  • 0.26% gave $200 or more
  • 0.05% gave the maximum amount to a single candidate ($2,600)
  • 0.01% $10,000 or more to (multiple) federal candidates
  • 0.000042% (132 Americans) gave 60% of all SuperPAC money spent in the last election
Lawrence Lessig suggests that 0.05% is the most relevant number in his TED talk about "The Republic We Must Reclaim":
And the question we need to ask is what does it do to them, these humans, as they spend their time behind the telephone calling people they've never met, but calling the tiniest slice of the 1 percent? As anyone would, as they do this, they develop a sixth sense, a constant awareness about how what they do might affect their ability to raise money. The become, in the words of "The X-files," shapeshifters, as they constantly adjust their views in light of what they know will help them to raise money, not on issues 1 to 10, but on issues 11 to 1,000. OK, now every single one of you know this. Yet, you ignore it. You ignore it. This is an impossible problem. You focus on the possible problems, like eradicating polio from the world or taking an image of every single street across the globe or building a fusion factory in your garage. These are the manageable problems...
Of course, this only works within limits: following the "money election", the masses ultimately do get to vote in the general election. But remember, there are only two choices, and both can be bought--not always, but the majority of the time. Moreover, in recent years we have seen remarkably effective tricks by elites in the media to alter public opinion. For instance, whenever the copyright debate reaches television, it is filtered through the lens of each giant media company on which the debate is presented, companies that have a vested interest in the excesses of the current system. And then of course there's the conservative media, which has made excellent use of language to frame the debate in such a way that poor people may actually feel good about lowering taxes on the "job creators" and removing social services as a natural consequence (my own parents are suckered by these lines of reasoning.) In fairness, the liberal media too have had some success promoting their false truths, for example equating sex with love and framing opposition to gay marriage as "bigotry" and equating it with racism (despite the fact that many opposed to gay marriage are not opposed to the right to have gay sex, at least for those not of their faith, and often have gay friends). Counterpoint: you may love your best friend, but if you're straight and don't have sex with him, you can't marry him. Ergo, sex is the heart of the issue, not love. That's why it's "gay marriage", not "love marriage", "civil union" or "personal partnership".

Anyway, looking into history, it is impressive how well the elites can capture the hearts and minds of the masses:
Percentage-wise very few Americans actually owned slaves, yet it's estimated that somewhere between half a million and 1.5 million men served in the Confederate Army. That's a large number of people willing to die to protect the rights of the rich to own another human being. I have little doubt that if there were some kind of mythical Civil War today in the US that millions would willingly lay down their lives to protect the money of the rich and receive absolutely nothing in return for their willingness to fight and possibly die for somebody else's money. - random guy
Whatever your opinion on these issues, you'd be foolish to claim that the media does not influence you, or to claim the media is not biased. Even if you don't watch TV, you can be influenced by your peers who do, who were in turn influenced by the media. If you're American and not convinced, take it from me, as someone living in Canada: Americans believe different things than the rest of the world because American media focuses on different issues and emphasizes different claims than media in the rest of the world. In Canada we have a lousy electoral system, nearly as bad as the U.S., yet our parties and media rely on different rhetoric and biases than your media, even though we're neighbors, speak the same language (er, apologies to Quebec) and share similar interests. Or listen to this guy:
I'm from Europe. I know what it is like if you actually DO have parties with diverging world views. There are countries where you actually have everything from far left to far right to choose from. When you have such a variety, you tend to not even notice the, from an Euro point of view, rather subtle difference between Republicans and Democrats. Every time I watch a debate between two of your candidates, it feels like the host is trying very, very hard to come up with questions that would not get the same answer from them. You get to hear the most outlandish topics being discussed because those are simply the ONLY petty rubbish they don't agree on. - random guy
The wealthy funders, it seems to me, can directly influence politicians on "issues 11 to 1,000" as Lessig says: but in order to influence politicians on "issues 1 to 10", issues that the public watches, they must influence the public too. And so they do.

See also: Move to amend

Monday, April 14, 2014

Nuclear reactors and airplanes

It's interesting to watch the different arguments from pro-nuclear and anti-nuclear forces. The pro-nuclear forces point out that building all new power plants as 100% renewable in the near future is not practical but a mixture of renewables and nuclear is. They go on to point out the relatively high rate of deaths from coal power (such as direct deaths in coal mines, and indirect deaths from air pollution) per unit of power generated, compared to the few deaths from nuclear. They may even then point out that petroleum power in general has a poor safety record compared to nuclear worldwide.

The anti-nuclear crowd, meanwhile, focuses on a tiny number of accidents like Chernobyl and a few problematic, but non-lethal, old reactor designs, like this pebble-bed reactor design from the 60s--as if costly problems are unique to the nuclear industry. As if the industry has learned nothing in the last 40 years. As if today's engineers cannot be trusted because previous generations occasionally made mistakes. After all, why pay any attention to accidents, deaths or cost overruns (or air pollution) in fossil-fuel power, when we can simply make every single new power plant a renewable power plant? Never mind that not every place in the world has plentiful sunlight or wind, or that the sun and wind rarely provide consistent and predictable power. They may argue that nuclear power produces too much toxic waste, or that it lasts too long--even though the amount of waste is very small for the amount of energy generated, and even though there are new designs on the horizon which can get 100 times more energy from the same amount of fuel, while simultaneously producing waste that is toxic for just 300 years rather than 3000 years for older reactors. (okay, you can see which side of the argument I'm on.) They may point out that nuclear reactors can produce material fit for nuclear bombs--but this happens intentionally; there are numerous reactor designs that cannot be used to produce enriched uranium for bombs.

They then move on to the argument about nuclear that is actually fair: that it often costs more than renewables.

Nuclear faces political and popular opposition, often due to outdated opinions based on a few unsafe reactors from the 60s and 70s (did you know that Fukushima reactor 1 was built before Chernobyl? Or that there is another nearby reactor run by a more safety-conscious company that survived the tsunami?). This opposition and regulatory uncertainty increases costs, plus reactors are traditionally built with the "craftsman" approach where every reactor is large, somewhat unique, and built on-site. It seems to me that costs could be reduced greatly if nuclear reactors were mass-produced like trucks (small reactors seem to work great for nuclear subs!) and distributed around the country from factories, and if they used passive failsafes to make uncontrolled meltdowns "impossible" so that outer containment chambers could be less costly.

But the public opposition is no small barrier to overcome. Remember how a Tesla car makes nationwide news whenever a single battery pack is damaged and catches fire, even though there are 150,000 vehicle fires reported every year in the U.S.? You can expect the same thing with small modular reactors--barring some terrible disaster, all sorts of problems with petroleum power plants will be scarcely noticed, while a single minor nuclear incident will make nationwide headlines. Similarly, despite the many casualties and massive damage inflicted by the enormous earthquake and tsunami in Japan, my news sources have delivered vastly more news about Fukushima (the power plant, not the prefecture) than the rest of the disaster, even though the power plant is a relatively small part of it. Such reporting biases surely make potential nuclear investors nervous.

I think if the aviation industry were maligned the way the nuclear industry is, it would never have gotten off the ground, so to speak. While the raw data would say flying is as safe as driving, if not safer, people would actually believe that flying is more dangerous, so not many people would want to fly. But think about the other effects of negative public opinion: countries would enact laws to prevent flying near cities on the basis that they might crash into a community at any moment. Airports would have be built far from populated areas to keep the flying menaces away, which would decrease even further the number of customers, since they would have to drive a substantial distance to get to the airport in the first place. Due to the low number of customers, flights would cost three or four times as much, and much fewer flights would be available because for some paths there would not be enough customers to run flights weekly, let alone daily.

Finally, although this hypothetical world might have fewer airplane accidents than our world does in absolute terms (because there would be so many fewer planes), flying in this world would actually be more dangerous, because that world hasn't had the opportunity to make tragic mistakes and learn from them. Although at some point they encounter diminishing returns, plane crash investigations generally lead to safer planes. Since air travel is commonplace in our world, we have had enough plane crashes to learn how to make planes that are very safe--not just "on par" with cars, but thousands of times safer. In other words, if people hysterically avoid planes because they believe they are unsafe, in the long run this actually keeps them less safe. Ironically, when you put two different facts together...
  • That people are afraid of flying despite the safety record
  • That people are willing to fly despite their fears
...this probably explains why flying is so safe. If the media treated fatal plane crashes as "ordinary" events like fatal car crashes are, people wouldn't be as afraid of flying, and then the plane builders would have a much smaller incentive to make planes safer. So to reach the maximum safety level, we as a society have to be irrationally afraid of flying, but not so afraid that we stop flying.

So it is in the nuclear industry: if we build very few reactors because there is a tiny chance of disaster, then each reactor we do build will be very expensive and it'll be hard to learn how to make them perfectly safe, because we won't have the benefits of experience. But if we build small reactors in large numbers, we can learn to build them cheaply, and their safety, cost, longevity and efficiency will improve over time (even though, like airplanes, nuclear reactors are already safer than many common alternatives.)

So if we'd like nuclear power that is cheap and safe, it is clear what we must do: build more reactors!

Monday, December 09, 2013

Three Felonies a Day (.com)

One legal expert argues the average person likely commits three felonies a day without realizing it. Here's a page of horror stories for you (I'm surprised "sharing a music album online" isn't on the list--in the U.S., the minimum penalty for sharing 10 songs is $7500, but since it's not a felony I guess it doesn't count). They say a federal grand jury could indict a ham sandwich*, which is just one of several reasons why the U.S. should not have the power to maintain surveillance on everyone in the world. Although some of these cases did not lead to convictions, you do not under any circumstances want federal prosecutors to come after you for any reason.

* choice quote:
Our criminal justice system, as presently practiced, is basically a plea bargain system with actual trials of guilt or innocence a bit of showy froth floating on top.
Oh and for those who are merely planning to visit the U.S., you should read this and pray that whatever government program led to that situation does not expand further.

On the other hand, if you support the U.S. no-fly list (you're too suspicious to be on a plane, but not suspicious enough to charge with any crime?), are you aware of how it affects real people? Consider this case. For every woman who's willing to launch a lawsuit against the U.S. government, I have to wonder how many have simply accepted their fate.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

U of C pretends buildings=education

I got an email from U of C recently that said:
"Paving the Path for Tomorrow's Engineers: A major announcement that will transform engineering education at the University of Calgary." .... "Please join us to celebrate this transformative announcement."
What grand plan could they have to finally, belatedly, improve engineering education at the U of C, you ask? Oct. 9 the answer came in my inbox:
"Thank you to everyone who attended our event, “Paving the Path for Tomorrow’s Engineers.”

"Today’s announcement of $142.5 million by the Government of Alberta for the Schulich School of Engineering (SSE) Expansion and Renovation Project is a turning point for SSE and a major milestone for the University of Calgary in its Eyes High goal of becoming a top five research university in Canada. It also transforms engineering education in the province, creates capacity to graduate more highly-skilled engineers to meet industry demand and drives innovation in Alberta and beyond.

"The project will provide more than 18,000 gross square metres of additional space and more than 11,000 gross square metres of renovated space in the engineering complex, enabling SSE to increase its capacity by at least 400 additional undergraduate and graduate students. New and renovated teaching, learning and research spaces will enhance student experience and create exciting research opportunities. Construction will begin immediately and the building will open in 2016, a major milestone to celebrate the university’s 50th anniversary."
That's right. They actually claim that building a few new buildings (thanks Government!) will "transform engineering education".

Yeah, um, I lived through one of those transformations already, when they built the ICT building. It was built between some other buildings and had an enormous construction site, so students had to walk, like, half a kilometer between classes. Then when the building was completed, it was a nicer building than Engineering, sure, but it had not a single drinking fountain, the elevators were slow (albeit cool), and the educational experience was pretty much the same, albeit with more desk space. The university still sucked.

I cynically predicted this when I got the first email. "transform engineering education," huh? "aha," I thought, "so you're building some buildings then?"

Friday, September 13, 2013

Syria: Hmm

I was skeptical about the Afghanistan war, and outright opposed to the Iraq war, but now there's this Syria question. And this time I'm not 100% sure.

Some people are comparing Syria to Iraq, saying it's the same situation again. But it clearly is not.

In Iraq there was a question of whether Saddam had WMDs (and it was known that he didn't have nukes, with only the flimsiest of evidence that he wanted to produce them someday). In this case it's a known fact that Assad has chemical weapons (which is in the WMD category, although it seems like the title Weapons of Mass Murder seems more appropriate, given its lack of effect on infrastructure) and that a chemical weapon attack occurred; the only dispute seems to be whether Assad personally ordered the attack.

In Iraq there was peace (although the country was, for some, a bad place to live). In Syria there is an ongoing civil war that has already killed over 100,000 people and displaced a third of the population. America's invasion crippled the Iraqi government and some critical infrastructure (and opened the floodgates for terrorism); but Syria is already unstable.

So some arguments that would have made sense against the Iraq war don't make sense against a strike against Syria. On the other hand, there are clearly still various arguments we can make against even targeted strikes on Syria (let alone full-scale war):
  • Syria has powerful allies, especially Russia but also Iran and China (read about the reasons for this). Without evidence to the contrary, I'd assume military action in Syria could lead to broader hostility with these allies. Who can promise we won't have a World War 3?
  • Assad, not unlike Saddam Hussein, may be a douchbag. But as with Iraq, we might not like the alternative. Removing Hussein led to terrorism in vast quantities in Iraq (and even the good guys behaved badly); the confirmed death toll has exceeded 100,000 people. Similarly, besides Assad there are multiple factions in Syria that are basically enemies, and no reason to expect stability once Assad is gone. There is no way to control who takes his place, and it is not clear that the West should be allied with any one of the opposition groups.
  • The U.S. is not the world's policeman, and its past behavior (as well as ongoing developments like the NSA mass spying programs) has not earned the U.S. the respect it would need to successfully take that role. If anything, the U.S. is known for consistently not taking the moral high ground, but for just pretending to.
So while "another Iraq" arguments don't make sense, other arguments do. Given more sensible arguments based on the actual situation inside and outside Syria, it appears that intervention is very risky at best, and foolhardy at worst.

I appreciate Obama's argument that a chemical weapon attack--which breaks the international "taboo" on the use of WMDs--could be a slippery slope that leads to further use of chemical weapons in the future, if the international community does not respond with some sort of force to show that this behavior is unacceptable (even during a war). But if the U.S. responds alone or with only a few allies, it will not send the right message--it'll just look like another episode of "Team America, World Police" instead of the chorus of international condemnation against chemical weapons that we should be seeing.

Partly, that's why I'm supporting Avaaz's petition for diplomatic solutions in Syria. And partly, I'm supporting the petition because war is always, always, always risky, messy business that we shouldn't rush into.

The Post-Lecture Classroom

When I wrote about my lack of satisfaction at Calgary's univerity, I mentioned that I hate it when lectures--and nothing else--are used as a teaching method. Here's a better plan:
The study had students watch lecture videos at home, then use class time to work on activities. After three years of trials, the researchers found both a student preference for the new method and a 5% increase in exam scores. 'In 2012, that flipped model looked like this: At home, before class, students watched brief lecture modules, which introduced them to the day's content. They also read a textbook — the same, introductory-level book as in 2011 — before they arrived. When they got to class, Mumper would begin by asking them "audience response" questions. He'd put a multiple-choice question about the previous night's lectures on a PowerPoint slide and ask all the students to respond via small, cheap clickers. He'd then look at their response, live, as they answered, and address any inconsistencies or incorrect beliefs revealed. Maybe 50 percent of the class got the wrong answer to one of these questions: This gave him an opportunity to lecture just enough so that students could understand what they got wrong. Then, the class would split up into pairs, and Mumper would ask them a question which required them to apply the previous night's content... The pairs would discuss an answer, then share their findings with the class. At the end of that section, Mumper would go over any points relevant to the question which he felt the class failed to bring up.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Good luck, Mr. Snowden

According to the EFF,
The US government, with assistance from major telecommunications carriers including AT&T, has engaged in a massive program of illegal dragnet surveillance of domestic communications and communications records of millions of ordinary Americans since at least 2001.
In 2003, AT&T whistleblower Mark Klein (a now-former telecommunications technician) said:
"While on the January 2003 tour, I saw a new room being built....The new room was near completion. I saw a workman apparently working on the door lock for the room. I later learned that this new room being built was referred to in AT&T documents as the "SG3 Secure Room." The SG3 Secure Room was room number 641A, and measures approximately 24x48 feet."
As EFF's timeline of (public knowledge of) the warrantless wiretapping program explains, In January 2005, the EFF launched a lawsuit against AT&T on behalf of AT&T's customers (Hepting vs AT&T) for violating privacy law by collaborating with the NSA's illegal domestic spying program. Evidence in the case included undisputed evidence provided by Mark Klein showing AT&T routes copies of Internet traffic to a secret room in San Francisco controlled by the NSA.

Clearly, the domestic spying program is at least ten years old and probably dates back to September 2001, when terrorism gave the NSA the excuse it needed to expand its mandate. Again from the timeline,
Ex-NSA Analyst J. Kirk Wiebe recalls: "everything changed at the NSA after the attacks on September 11. The prior approach focused on complying with the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act ("FISA"). The post-September 11 approach was that NSA could circumvent federal statutes and the Constitution as long as there was some visceral connection to looking for terrorists." While another ex-NSA analyst also remembers: "The individual liberties preserved in the US Constitution were no longer a consideration [at the NSA]."
Of course, congress never actually voted to put a warrantless wiretapping program in place. They did, however, vote to block the EFF's lawsuit against AT&T, whose discovery phase might have revealed details of what exactly AT&T and the NSA were doing together--perhaps (gasp!) allowing a court to decide whether the program was constitutional. As Snuggly the Security Bear explains, the "FISA Amendments Act" gave telecom companies immunity from liability for helping the NSA; then-senator Obama voted in favor of the bill after claiming to be opposed to immunity.

To those of us who have been paying attention the last ten years, the revelations by Edward Snowden, such as the fact that NSA folks can get "metadata" on any and all domestic phone calls in the US, is not the slightest bit surprising. When you've got secret rooms for intercepting all internet traffic, merely getting "metadata" seems like small potatoes, although the metadata is, in many ways, the most important data. As Kirk Weibe explains:
A common misconception is that an analyst must review the content of communications between people in order to establish a link between them. In fact, an NSA analyst would regard a person's association and the persistence of that association with other persons of being of greater relevance to a determination of whether the person is a member of a community of interest than the actual words used in a series of communications.
For instance, if you want to discover traitors to the British Empire like Paul Revere, metadata alone may suffice.

To get all that metadata on millions of Americans, the NSA apparently got themselves a piece of paper that says it was a warrant. I'm not a cop or a lawyer, but don't actual warrants have to be somehow limited in scope and related to some kind of crime? But don't worry, perhaps it's not even really necessary to have a piece of paper that calls itself a warrant:
The National Security Agency has acknowledged in a new classified briefing that it does not need court authorization to listen to domestic phone calls, a participant in the briefing said.

Rep. Jerrold Nadler, a New York Democrat, disclosed on Thursday that during a secret briefing to members of Congress, he was told that the contents of a phone call could be accessed "simply based on an analyst deciding that."

If the NSA wants "to listen to the phone," an analyst's decision is sufficient, without any other legal authorization required, Nadler said he learned. "I was rather startled," said Nadler, an attorney and congressman who serves on the House Judiciary committee.
What with this being entirely unconstitutional, you can see why President Obama and the NSA feel it so important to capture and prosecute Edward Snowden--the man who gave up a job that paid $200,000 per year, just to tell Americans the truth about what their government is doing--to make sure all the other NSA analysts don't develop any funny ideas about morality.

Of course, those that think terrorism is a vastly bigger problem than ordinary murder, or that the fourth amendment was a mistake, have come out in force to denounce the traitor. I can only assume this is why the tide seems to be turning, why more Americans are turning sour on Snowden:
...Public support for the former U.S. spy agency contractor who leaked details of secret American surveillance programs has fallen during the past week, according to a Reuters/Ipsos poll released on Wednesday.

More than one-quarter of respondents said that Snowden should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law, up 3 percentage points from a week earlier.

Just over one-third said he should not be prosecuted for revealing the National Security Agency's collection of Internet and phone data from billions of communications. That was down from a peak of more than 40 percent last week.

The percentage of Americans calling Snowden a "patriot" dipped from 36 to 32 during the last week, while nearly one-quarter of respondents said Snowden was a traitor, up slightly from 21 percent.
Well, America, if you don't demand to know what your own government is doing with the massive security apparatus you paid for with your tax dollars, don't be surprised if you don't find out.

As an American living in Canada, I must say, I am completely at a loss to understand America's mixed-up priorities and bizarre values these days. Enjoy your health care system America, the Democrat (ACA) and Republican ("let's do nothing!") plans are both substantially worse than the systems of any other industrialized nation. Enjoy your guns, you have 80% of the world's Gun murders (ignoring wars, I assume). Enjoy your so-called capitalism, which privatizes profit and socializes losses ("too big to fail"). Enjoy your racism, keep fighting the good fight against those wetbacks! Enjoy your democracy, in which two slightly distinguishable parties work feverishly to distance themselves from each other after passing laws to make sure no third parties are viable. Enjoy your media, which focuses on celebrities and tiny scandals while barely noticing the bigger things going on in America and the world. Enjoy your freedoms, just don't exercise them too much, because you are probably breaking any number of asinine laws right now and the feds have the freedom to indict you if it suits them.

Wake up America. This is corruption. It is more evil than revealing secrets, for evil flourishes in secret; it is more dangerous to America's future than a thousand terrorists, for evil from outside our borders brings us closer together, while evil inside our borders pushes us farther apart. Terrorists will never be able to destroy America's freedom, democracy, finances or constitution; only Americans can do that.

Since Ed Snowden has given up his freedom in order to speak to us, and is likely to spend the rest of his life in prison (whether it be a prison with bars, an airport terminal or an Ecuadorian embassy), we should at least hear what he has to say. I have been unable to find an unedited statement from Mr. Snowden, but here are some quotes from The Guardian's interview with him:
"I have no intention of hiding who I am because I know I have done nothing wrong,"

"I understand that I will be made to suffer for my actions, [but] I will be satisfied if the federation of secret law, unequal pardon and irresistible executive powers that rule the world that I love are revealed even for an instant."

"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."

"I know the media likes to personalise political debates, and I know the government will demonise me."

"I really want the focus to be on these documents and the debate which I hope this will trigger among citizens around the globe about what kind of world we want to live in.... My sole motive is to inform the public as to that which is done in their name and that which is done against them."

"Much of what I saw in Geneva really disillusioned me about how my government functions and what its impact is in the world," he says. "I realised that I was part of something that was doing far more harm than good."

"you can't wait around for someone else to act. I had been looking for leaders, but I realised that leadership is about being the first to act."

"I don't see myself as a hero," he said, "because what I'm doing is self-interested: I don't want to live in a world where there's no privacy and therefore no room for intellectual exploration and creativity."

"What they're doing [poses] an existential threat to democracy"

"There are more important things than money. If I were motivated by money, I could have sold these documents to any number of countries and gotten very rich."

"The government has granted itself power it is not entitled to. There is no public oversight. The result is people like myself have the latitude to go further than they are allowed to,"

"I carefully evaluated every single document I disclosed to ensure that each was legitimately in the public interest," he said. "There are all sorts of documents that would have made a big impact that I didn't turn over, because harming people isn't my goal. Transparency is."

Thursday, May 23, 2013

The Conservatives' War on Science

I've heard occasional stories over the past few years about the Harper Government's reduction in funding for science, muzzling of government scientists, and weakening of environmental regulation. But these policy changes are impressive when you see the shockingly long list compiled by John Dupuis:
You have to wonder what else the Conservatives will manage to "accomplish" before the next election in two years or so.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

And they're patenting food!

As a computer engineer, I've been a longtime opponent of software patents, but there are other areas where patents are not beneficial to society either, such as Monsanto's patenting of seeds. They're famous for suing farmers and for generally using intellectual property law to throw their weight around in the physical world of living organisms. And it isn't just Monsanto--other companies have collectively patented the human genome in the U.S..

So Avaaz has a petition going right now against Monsanto's moves in Europe. Please sign it!

And don't forget, the popular idea that patents benefit small inventors is a myth. In reality, patent litigation is very expensive and vastly easier for large companies to use than small ones or individuals; also, as you'll see at the link, individual patents are sometimes easy to circumvent, depending on how they're written; but large companies have large patent portfolios to increase the chances of having some patents that are hard to circumvent, and patents that, while easily circumvented, the defendants were unaware of, so that lawsuits can be launched against accidental perpetrators (the latter case is more common).

And here's a paper from two economists arguing that patents should be abolished entirely. I haven't read it yet, but I know I'd be more receptive to that idea than Mr. Baylis's proposal that people should be jailed and given a criminal record for infringing a patent.

I have never patented any of the programming ideas I've come up with, and hopefully I never will. I want my ideas to be used to benefit the world, not as obstacles for other programmers to "find a way around". And there are lots of computer scientists in academia who also publish papers for the good of mankind--not as a tool for personal profit (which the patent system rarely provides anyway, see above). Certainly it would be nice if there were monetary awards for inventing and innovating--but these rewards should be given for ideas that are freely shared, that actually enter widespread use in society, not for ideas that are locked away in some patent written in legalese, ideas that people can be punished for using even accidentally.

Tuesday, April 09, 2013

Canadians support electoral cooperation

That's what this poll says, anyway.

Since Canada has a first-past-the-post voting system, it is subject to the vote-splitting problem. I'd be shocked if you're not familiar with the problem--but not that shocked, so I'll just explain briefly.

Most politicians earn their seat with less than 50% of the popular vote, and sometimes as little as 33%, and this occurs because of vote splitting: I may strongly prefer both candidates A and B over C, but I am only allowed to approve one of them on the ballot. Often more than 50% of the people feel the same way, but candidate C will win if the vote splits between A and B.

This seems obviously undemocratic to me. I have seen dozens of proposals for voting/election systems, and FPTP is the one and only system that has the vote-splitting problem.

In order to overcome the vote-splitting problem, some NDP and Liberal folks are proposing temporary cooperation--instead each party running 20 candidates in 20 ridings, each party could run 10 candidates in different ridings (the ridings would be selected mathematically to maximize the chances of winning for each cooperating party). This avoids vote splitting, since voters are left with only two choices.

But other folks in the same parties are calling this "undemocratic" because it "reduces voter choice". This is a very disingenuous thing to say, because the current FPTP system only provides "choices" that don't matter. After all, it is well-known that most people's votes don't count in FPTP. For example, if 10% of the population votes for the Green party all across the country, it is still possible for the Green party to end up without a single seat in Parliament, because 10% is not enough to win any single riding anywhere (only regional differences can overcome this problem, which is why regional parties like the Bloc Quebecois have had a disproportionate amount of power in the past). So I ask you, what good are "choices" if our choices can't possibly win the election?

Electoral reform is the key to fixing this problem, but the party in power (the Conservatives) will fight against electoral reform as long as the status quo benefits them. We need electoral reform to bring true voter choice--to make sure that votes really count for something. And to get electoral reform the Conservatives must be reduced to a minority power in Parliament, and in order to accomplish that we will need one-time, temporary cooperation between the other parties. Don't spit on the proposal for being "anti-voter-choice", when the final result will be improved voter choice in the future!

Addendum: Leadnow.ca was encouraging people to send letters to Justin Trudeau in favor of cooperation for electoral reform. So I thought, what the hay, and sent this:
Mr. Trudeau, I was very disappointed with your statements denouncing proportional representation and trashing the idea of cooperation to pass electoral reform. I don't hold out much hope that you'll actually listen to people who have studied electoral systems and electoral reforms, but I already blogged about this so you might as well be in the loop.

I don't have to tell you what the vote-splitting problem is. I have seen dozens of proposals for voting/election systems, and our FPTP system is the one and only system that has the vote-splitting problem. To overcome it, we need electoral reform, and to get electoral reform, you'll need the support of the NDP, the support of the electorate, and most of all, to do well in the next election.

But you seem to be saying that cooperating with the NDP would be undemocratic because Canadians don't need "fewer choices". This is a very disingenuous thing to say, because the current FPTP system only provides "choices" that don't matter. After all, it is well-known that most people's votes don't count in FPTP. For example, if 10% of the population votes for the Green party all across the country, it is still possible for the Green party to end up without a single seat in Parliament, because 10% is not enough to win any single riding anywhere (only regional differences can overcome this problem, which is why regional parties like the Bloc Quebecois have had a disproportionate amount of power in the past). So I ask you, what good are "choices" if our choices can't possibly win the election?

Electoral reform is the key to fixing this problem, but the Conservatives will fight against electoral reform as long as the status quo benefits them. We need electoral reform to bring true voter choice--to make sure that votes really count for something. And in order to accomplish that we will need one-time, temporary cooperation between the other parties. Don't spit on cooperation for being "anti-voter-choice", when the final result will be improved voter choice in the future!

I would say one more thing, because you're in favor of only a very modest reform to use Alternative Vote (a.k.a. Instant Runoff Voting). I would much rather see a system that honestly attempts to assess voters' desires, such as direct representation or mixed-member proportional (MMP). I'm sure that you could sell IRV/AV to the average voter who doesn’t know any better, but no one who has studied democratic systems, and all the myriad possibilities that exist, would want to settle for IRV/AV, a riding-based system that is unstable in close races and is unjustified from a mathematical perspective.

A key problem with all single-riding systems is that they are geographically biased. To illustrate, imagine that 40% of the voters prefer party A and 30% each prefer parties B and C. Reasonably, this should produce a minority government. However, imagine you could randomly shuffle where everyone lives, so that the same 40-30-30 split exists in every single riding. In that case, the same party would win in every riding, and take every seat in the country! This occurs with every riding-based system: FPTP, IRV/AV, and even superior systems like Ranked Pairs and Range Voting. I ask you, why should winners be picked based on where the voters live instead of what they want? Of course, people are not shuffled in reality, so what this means in practice is that (1) no riding-based system is ever proportional, (2) these systems give too much power to regional parties like Bloc Quebecois, emphasizing divisions among people, and (3) they give too little power to small parties like the Greens.

Unfortunately, big parties tend to like this bias against small parties (and independents), so they don’t do electoral reform, and this is just plain wrong on principle.

There are other problems with riding-based systems too, e.g. if a party expects to win 10% of the seats, it must field 10 times as many candidates as it actually needs, so as to have a candidate in every riding! It also makes politics costly and stressful for the candidates, by guaranteeing that most candidates will not win a seat. These systems encourage negative ads, too, because instead of demonstrating your value as a candidate, you can instead convince the voter that "the other guy" is bad; negative ads don’t work so well if each voter has lots of choices. Finally, these systems constrain voter choice–for example I live in Calgary but I can’t vote for the Liberal in downtown Calgary, why? Just because I’m in the northeast! And neither Liberal will win anyway!

In summary, the AV/IRV proposal is literally the smallest possible improvement that could be made. AV’s better than first-past-the-post, to be sure, but it’s nothing to get excited about.

Goodbye, Aaron Swartz (and Alfred Anaya)

It's been a bit hard to get motivated to post in my blog recently, what with the lack of readers and all. But I'm getting various activist emails, and there are such important discussions going on about... stuff. It'd be a shame not to say something...

So hey! Let's talk about overzealous federal prosecutors, shall we?

First up, the case of Aaron Swartz has been on my mind a lot, because in some ways he reminds me of myself. Aaron was a former internet activist and computer genius, who, for reasons that he never disclosed, downloaded over a million academic papers from JSTOR, a repository of scholarly knowledge. Although students at MIT, including Aaron, have free access to JSTOR, they are not allowed to download files in bulk. Aaron was eventually caught and arrested for it, and lost his copied files.

Ultimately JSTOR decided they were willing to drop the matter and so were state prosecutors, but then the Feds appeared and made his life hell for the next two years, as they piled on charge after charge and restricted his freedoms. As prosecution attorney Carmen Ortiz explained, "Swartz faces up to 35 years in prison, to be followed by three years of supervised release, restitution, forfeiture and a fine of up to $1 million." I heard that 97% of federal cases result in guilty pleas, and that out of the cases that go to trial, 90% of defendants are found guilty. I hear that defending against a federal case is unbelievably expensive, and the risk of obscene jail time so dangerous, that defendants are basically forced to take a plea "bargain" regardless of the merits of their case.

But Aaron steadfastly refused to accept a plea bargain, and for reasons that are unclear, committed suicide January 11, 2013.

Many activist groups and individuals (including myself) believe that the law under which Swartz was charged, the 1986 Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, is both unreasonable and dangerous and needs to be amended. It basically makes a crime out of violating the terms of service of a web site, which is crazy since people do it all the time. Ever set up a Facebook account for someone under 13? That's against the CFAA so it's technically a Federal Crime. Some websites restrict the minimum age to 18, and there are any number of other "bad bahaviors" which are against website terms of service--none of which should actually be a crime.

So Demand Progress (with which Aaron used to be involved) and other activist organizations have been lobbying congress to pass "Aaron's law", which would limit the scope of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act and exclude "crimes" that are nothing more than a breach of contract. But other congresspeople, as if in response, instead are attempting to expand the CFAA to make it even more draconian.

In response, Demand Progress (and me!) are requesting people to call their congresspeople and have the CFAA limited, not expanded; click the picture for more information.


Besides that, if you are in science or academia, I would urge you to publish your academic papers in open-access journals. (I don't understand why you wouldn't in the first place, unless you're paid extra for preventing the general public from seeing your research.) Certainly as a non-academic, I often like to Google for the latest algorithms--but I ignore any papers that are marked "$15 to download", and sometimes I read "drafts" that are free rather than the final paper. Let me put it this way: I publish MY research freely; it's a nice club, you should join!

I would also like to draw your attention to the case of Alfred Anaya, who was found guilty and given a prison sentence similar to what you would expect for a murderer--for doing something that, although a bit fishy, is technically not a crime. Apparently, he is being punished not for what he did but what he saw and heard--which actually wasn't very much at all. Click here for the gruesome details.

Or, if you'd prefer to read a more personal perspective on what it's like to be squashed by federal prosecutors, read this account from a former girlfriend of Aaron Swartz.