Monday, November 08, 2010

The Election Process

In an American election, you are given a choice between Coke and Pepsi, when what you really want is a glass of water: transparent with no artificial additives.

Monday, October 04, 2010

Lawrence Lessig on 'The Social Network'

You will see this movie, and you should. As a film, visually and rhythmically, and as a story, dramatically, the work earns its place in the history of the field.

But as a story about Facebook, it is deeply, deeply flawed.
Do you understand why the internet is so different from technologies of the past, and why it is in danger of losing its greatness? Lawrence Lessig explains in this review of "The Social Network" on The New Republic.

Update: Ezra Klein makes another interesting narrative based on The Social Network:
Much like a Facebook profile, "The Social Network" is made more appealing through some artful lies, well-chosen omissions and careful shading.

Co-founder Eduardo Saverin's ejection from the company, for instance, is turned from a story of inattentive financial management into a senseless betrayal of a friend. And though the movie portrays Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg as a pining loner, he has actually dated the same girl since 2003.

But it's not the details of Zuckerberg's life that mislead so much as the decision to focus on Zuckerberg at all. The movie recasts a story of inevitable technological change as the saga of a socially inept genius, two or three of his most important relationships and the social pressures of Harvard University. That makes for a better film, of course. But it misses the richer drama behind transformative innovations like Facebook, and it's part and parcel of the way we misunderstand, and thus impede, innovation.

"The idea of the lone genius who has the eureka moment where they suddenly get a great idea that changes the world is not just the exception," says Steven Johnson, author of "Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation," "but almost nonexistent."

And that's because innovation isn't really about individuals.
The article reinforces my view that software patents are bad both for society and for innovative software developers, because a patent grants a monopoly to just one individual or company at a time when multiple other individuals are developing the very same idea.

Monday, September 06, 2010

Spanish quick reference

Update: please use the new version!

When I went to Mexico recently, it would have been useful to have a Spanish quick reference. I looked online and didn't find one. Then a friend went to Cuba, and I decided to make one myself. My reference requires only one sheet of paper (two-sided), but it goes well beyond the usual pleasantries like "buenos dias" and "¿Donde está el baño?", and will hopefully allow you to express almost any thought in "pidgeon Spanish".

The reference has been updated since this blog entry was posted (last update: Sept 25, 2010). I rearranged it so the English words are first rather than second and sorted by the English word, as my friend wanted. I have also added various new words and phrases and replaced "world" with "money", thinking the latter to be a more important noun for a tourist. I also noticed that a lot of Spanish common verbs conjugate irregularly, so I now provide the irregular first person present form beside every verb, e.g. tener (tengo). Probably the gerund form (teniendo) would be more useful, but the verb table is really full and wouldn't have room for those extra letters. Unlike English, Spanish gerunds may have irregular conjugations too.

Before using this reference, I recommend that you take some Spanish lessons first. Here are some essential points to know about Spanish.
  • Spanish is phonetic, but you must learn and practice the Spanish pronunciation rules. No one will understand you if you use English spelling rules to pronounce Spanish. There is a pronunciation section in the quick reference, but you need a few hours of careful practice to get the hang of it.

  • The basic word order of Spanish is SVO (subject-verb-object), like English. However, occasionally the pronoun will come before the verb and other word orders often occur in Spanish that are invalid in English.

  • All Spanish nouns are masculine or feminine, including inanimate objects and concepts. "The" and "a" translate as "el" and "un" when used with masculine nouns, but "la" and "una" when used with feminine nouns. Nouns ending in "o" (but not "ó") are usually masculine; nouns ending in "a" are usually feminine. Nouns not ending in "a" or "o" do not reveal their gender, but such words are more likely to be masculine than feminine.

  • Usually, Spanish adjectives come after the noun, and must match the gender and number of the noun that they are attached to: mesa roja = red table, ojo rojo = red eye, mesas rojas = red tables, ojos rojos = red eyes.

  • As for any foreign language, Spanish does not translate word-for-word from/to English. To say something in pidgeon Spanish, try to boil your idea down to simple, independent components. Don't try to translate "I have just eaten the whole thing" word-for-word, instead identify the concepts and translate them: I, eat (recent past), all-of-this => yo, comer, hace poco, todo de esto. Conjugate if you can: yo, comí, todo de esto. Your Spanish grammar will probably be wrong, but there is a greater chance that it will be understood than a word-for-word translation like "Yo tener comido el todo cosa" (I can probably think of a better example).

  • If you can't find a translation with my quick reference sheet, look for a different way to say the same thing. If you use Google Translate, give it a whole sentence at once to get its best translation.

  • The system of Spanish verbs is terrifyingly complex, no doubt one of the most complex in the world. There are three types of verbs, each with their own set of conjugations: verbs that end in -ir, verbs that end in -ar and verbs that end in -er. Some, but not all, conjugations are the same between the three types.

    There is a different conjugation for each combination of tense, person and number; for example, there are separate words for "I eat", "we eat", "you eat", "you will eat", "you ate", "he/she ate", "they ate", "they would eat" and so forth. There are also special conjugations for imperative (eat this!), negative imperative (don't eat this), gerund (eating), and past participle (eaten). Finally, some verbs are irregular, meaning they have their own special conjugations.

    There are 17 verb tenses (give or take depending on how you count them), and 6 combinations of person and number; basically, a table of conjugations for one verb fills a page. A verb contains so much information that the pronoun is often dropped from the sentence.

  • Learning the pronouns is a smaller crushing burden. English has two categories of pronouns (I/she/he/they and me/her/him/them), but Spanish has about five. My reference sheet shows three of those categories. "Subject" means before the verb, "Object" means after the verb, and "Prepositional" means after a preposition (in a prepositional phrase, e.g. para mi = for me, fuera de ti = outside of you). Tip: all pronouns that start with "t" mean "you".

  • There are a ton of words that mean "is", plus the "va" family of words that mean "is going". "is" is the most complex verb in English, too, but in English it has only seven forms.

  • As in English, words can have many synonyms; usually I did not list them on the quick reference unless there was unused space. I can only hope that a Spanish person doesn't have to continue learning new words into adulthood like an English person (as the English language contains around a million words).
Here are some patterns I've noticed for all three verb types:
  • When you want to use a verb pair like "I can say", "I want to eat", "He learns to swim", etc., the first verb gets the tense information and the second verb is simply the infinitive, e.g. "Puedo decir hola"(I can say hello), "Quiero comer" (I want to eat), "He learns to swim" (Él aprende a nadar). Roughly like English, some verbs require the "to" (Spanish "a") after the first verb while others do not.

    On the plus side, Spanish doesn't seem to have the helping verbs that make English grammar more complex (except for the many forms of "have"--haya, hubiere, etc.--which I counted as part of the 17 verb tenses, but which my quick reference does not cover at all).

  • "er" and "ir" verbs conjugate similarly, so on my quick reference I only show conjugations for an "er" verb, not an "ir" verb.

  • For most verbs, a simple "-o" ending means "I" + present tense, e.g. como = I eat

  • Verbs that end in "s" usually mean "you" or "we", e.g. comes = You eat, comemos = We eat, comías = you used to eat, comimos = we ate. Some "you/we" conjugations do not end in "s", but if it does end in "s" then you know that the verb includes the concept of "you" or "we". The "we" verbs usually end in "mos" so you can tell them apart from the "you" verbs.

  • "you" plural familiar (vosotros) and its many conjugations are only required in Spain. Latin America uses "ustedes", which conjugates the same way as third-person plurals like ellas/ellos.

  • "-a" and "-e"verb endings (habla = speak, come = eat, vive = live) are the closest thing Spanish has to "generic" present-tense verbs. If you want present tense but do not know what conjugation to use, I hypothesize that you will be understood if you just drop the "r" from -ar and -er verbs, or replace -ir with -e. You could also try the Spanish equivalent of "ing", which is "iendo" or "ando": está comiendo = is eating, está hablando = is speaking.

  • If you need past, future or some other tense, I hypothesize that you will be understood if you just use the infinitive form (hablar, comer, vivir) plus a time phrase (en el pasado, en el futuro, hace poco, pronto). When possible, use "va a" (El va a comer = He is-going to eat) or "voy" (I am going) so that you do not need to conjugate the verb.

    By the way, "va" or "voy" themselves can be used like a verb that means "going" (Voy ahora = I am going now).

  • There are two different verb groups for be (is/am/are): estar (estoy, está, ...) and ser (soy, es, ...). I haven't figured out all the details, but as a rule of thumb, I you should use estar with "ing" verbs and prepositional phrases (él está comiendo = he is eating, él está en el tren = he is in the train), and use ser with adjectives (él es alto = he is tall, ella es bonita = she is pretty).
There are, of course, thousands of nouns to learn. The ones I selected for the quick reference are optimized for the needs of a tourist.

I'm a beginner at Spanish so there may be some mistakes. Let me know if you see any. If you use this quick reference, let the Spanish person see you use it--maybe they will be more patient with you.

Saturday, June 05, 2010

OKCupid's fascinating blog

While I continue to wonder where I am going to find a date, I will definitely be following the best free dating site's blog. Lots of good stuff on there with mathematical analysis, from politics vs. age to what profile picture will make people interested in you.

This blog will also help me set my expectations. I didn't realize to what degree I was "expected" to send messages to women: now I know that men send nearly 4 times as many first messages as women. Now I need to figure out what to say in my messages, and get over my aversion to messaging people when I can't tell if I like them from their profile alone.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

How The U.S. Government Killed The Safest Car Ever Built

Click the title for something fascinating.

Rethinking copyright

What if there were "replicators" with which you could make any object at minimal expense? Someone responding to a Slashdot article seemed to think this would be a bad thing:
And once everyone had a replicator - everyone would replicate the newest, coolest, best car. [...] And all of the advancement and innovation that we've seen since the first car and now would grind to a halt.
Others pointed out how flawed this is:
Since you can duplicate everything, including food and shelter, the whole idea of working to survive goes out the window. If such a device existed, you would be free to do whatever you please with your time. For many, this would be designing amazing cars. For others it would be building amazing cars. Everyone has a hobby, and a replicator would enable everyone to pursue their hobbies; hobbies that are often out of reach of the average person today.
But really the topic of the article was copyright, so I made the following argument.

Reality disagrees with you. Almost everybody now has a replicator--of bits and bytes. Yet somehow the companies that make brand new songs, software, movies and TV shows stay in business while continuing to make major profits. The biggest stars still make millions of dollars per year, and Big Content spends as much on blockbuster films as ever. The cable companies manage to get upwards of $600 per year from typical customers, and for all that money you still have to put up with 15 minutes of ads per hour and you still don't get to watch shows on-demand.

Somehow, people are still willing to pay for things they could copy for free. Partly this is because of Big Content's success in lobbying for powerful laws in their favor, and in using those laws to shut down networks and individuals that share files. Partly it may be that sheeple actually do believe ads that compare copying a song to stealing a car (it's frustrating how many people think this way!) For me, it is sense that those who make the best movies and music deserve to get paid, and I pay for those works that I like (provided that the price is reasonable and the DRM is not excessive).

Our society greatly benefits from the fact that people do not steal from a supermarket just because they can avoid getting caught. Recently I read about an incident where the staff of a grocery store were missing, but customers generally left money to pay for their purchases. That people are generally good means less resources must be wasted on security and prisons (which themselves produce nothing useful), people are less afraid of other people, and people less often have the unpleasant experience of being robbed.

Because people are generally good, they are willing to pay for copyrighted works even though copying them (unlike stealing physical objects) technically does not hurt anyone. Generally good people (GGP) know that these things must be paid for or they will not be produced in the first place. It's a principle we all understand, except perhaps Big Content, who assume their customers are criminals. And so, we the GGP have some willingness to do our part by paying for copyrighted works, just as we are willing to pay taxes and do occasional volunteer work and give a bit to charity and not steal from the supermarket.

Big Content, however, does not want merely to have enough money to pay for a healthy music and film market--they always want to increase profits if possible, regardless of what they get now. Consider how much smaller the market for films was in 1960: the world population was only 3 billion and American films would probably have had a very small market beyond North America. Did the movie companies ever complain then that there were not enough humans available to buy copies? Today the potential market is nearly 7 billion and the actual market is probably several times larger than it was in 1960, yet film companies complain very loudly if, say, 1/6 of that market (China) is not paying them enough. Do they really need the money? Of course not: if money was tight they would simply scale back movie budgets, just as budgets were necessarily small in 1960. Certainly low-income pirates in no way prevent them from making movies, and the actual movie budgets of today prove that they are doing very well for themselves. Even if you took away the entire third world market, the would still have a good billion potential customers left.

But in copyright markets, the cost of "buying" a work has almost nothing to do with covering the cost of production: a movie DVD that costs $10 may be for something expected to take a heavy loss like Waterworld, or for something that has already made billions of dollars in profit like Star Wars, and certainly doesn't "need" more. Likewise, their rhetoric about people losing their livelihoods from "piracy" does not necessarily bear any resemblance to their actual financial health. Maybe copying is a serious threat, maybe not, but their rhetoric is always the same regardless of the truth.

Big Content, unlike generally good people, have no sense of fairness. While sometimes they take losses, the potential for "jackpots" like Star Wars means they would surely oppose anything to make copyright more fair, like limiting copyright to 28 years, or that takes advantage of humans' natural goodness (like removing DRM and repealing the DMCA, or my personal favorite, a more radical rethinking of copyright that would let citizens buy the right to copy works for free, paying some minimum amount yearly for this privilege based on income level).

I am tired of this stubborn belief that restricting our civil liberties (specifically, the personal right to copy) is the only way to ensure new works are created. I am also tired of the argument that Big Content "deserves" every penny it makes and that people don't "deserve" the freedom to copy. "Deserves" is a moral judgement. Big Content doesn't use morality to make business decisions or to decide what laws they will lobby for. Big Content doesn't use morality to select prices. Big Content doesn't use morality to select DRM schemes. Why should the rest of us, therefore, make a moral judgment that they "deserve" the profit they get from us?

...That was what I posted. But let me add something.

Copyright is not a right

The most common and annoying perceptual error people make with copyright is that they consider it a "right" - like the right to life, the right of free speech, or the right to move freely throughout the country. Copyright, however, is the exact opposite of these important rights. Normal rights prevent certain parties (especially the government) from doing bad things to you--no matter who "you" are. Normal rights limit the amount of control others have over you. For the most part, they allow you to be left alone. Copyright, however, is not a right to copy; rather, it is the right for an "owner" to prevent other people from copying. To prevent you from copying. In an age where copying is as natural as eating or sleeping, it prevents you, the commoner, from being left alone.

Some authors will claim they have the "right" to make money from their work and that this justifies ever-expanding copyright law. Wrong. You only have the right to try to make money. Laws that help you make money are provided by the government, and they should not be considered rights, any more than subsidies on corn or government science grants. And if you ask me, the 300-year-old copyright model is just plain wrong for the modern age. Copyright itself doesn't grant you the "right" to make money, only the power (if you have the lawyers for it!) to restrict copying, and this only helps you make money in a roundabout way: typically, you prevent all copies except the ones you make, then charge money for those. This system sucks because it denies money to authors of some of the most valuable works society produces: open source software.

Open source software provides tons of value to society precisely because it is copied so freely, yet copyright provides no money whatsoever to authors of said software. While free software refutes the claim that "no one would make music/video/software if they weren't paid", the fact is that without monetary benefit, the free software ecosystem usually produces software of lower quality than commercial rivals (with a few exceptions such as Firefox, or cases where commercial software is of low quality due to niche status or a monopoly market). Open source is a better model of software development, but because there is usually no funding for extensive testing or documentation and, since free software authors must have a "day job" to make money, free software gets much less time put into it than it needs. If the government provided some way for these authors to be paid for their work, open source might well explode in quantity and quality. I, for one, would give up my $44K-a-year job doing closed source, if I could do open source software of my choosing at minimum wage.

Intellectual property is imaginary property. I wish I could persuade society that copyright is neither the only nor the best system to pay authors for their work. But the ones who benefit most from copyright are the same people involved in writing copyright and related laws, evangelizing it (you've seen the anti-piracy ads), and thrusting it upon the world through international treaties. Supporters of true freedom--real rights--have no such financial or political clout, and so our ideas are censored by glut.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Dreams as simulations

Now that I drive to work, sometimes I wonder: what if an emergency happens? A car hits me from behind, or someone changes into my lane... this never happens, so how can I be prepared for it? Are my dreams helping out?

For centuries people people have wondered about the meaning of dreams. Some time ago I decided that the likely primary purpose of dreaming is to train us for potential future situations: a sort of virtual reality where the brain creates a random situation, we react to it in the dream state, and then the brain attempts to predict the outcome. By doing this every night, we learn, while asleep, how to react to waking situations before they ever happen.

This article I just found lends credence to my pet theory. Of course, it is widely reported that we learn better if we sleep after studying. So perhaps dreams also exist to give the brain a chance to examine what has recently happened, and make better sense of it.

Sunday, May 02, 2010

Peter Watts

Several months ago, sci-fi writer Peter Watts was assaulted by US border patrol guards. He was then charged with assaulting a federal officer, who claimed that Peter choked him. Apparently there was a video of the event that (along with a witness) proved the choking claim was false.

Peter Watts' blog is kind of a mess and so far I haven't been able to find the information I was looking for (such as: was the whole thing captured on video or was the car out-of-frame? did he give the guards his keys at some point before the altercation?), but the jist of the story is: while attempting to return to Canada, US border guards began to search his car without telling him. Upon noticing that they were doing something, he got out of his car and asked what they were doing. The guard didn't answer, but instead told him to get back in the car. He made the mistake of repeating his question, at which point one or more border guards punched him in the face and sprayed mace in his nose. Apparently he was outside his car for just 10-12 seconds, but nevertheless was convicted with a felony for failing to obey the instruction.

Like the Iraq story I wrote about in my last post, what we have here is a clear case of abuse of power. And like the last story, the most shocking thing to me is not so much that somebody abused their power (a common failing among people with power), but rather what the consequences were for that abuse. Instead of the guards being fired, fined, or reprimanded for their behavior, the government not only protected the perpetrators, but formally charged the victim with a felony for being a few seconds too slow. Just as amazing, the jury found that the law was on the government's side, and they had to convict (see "DVD Extras" link below).

Doesn't this lack of consequences lead directly to more abuse of power? Spare the rod, spoil the adult, you might say.

And as with the Iraq incident, I fear that cases like this happen more often than we know. A relatively well-known individual with media-savvy friends like Peter Watts can make the news (even if the news doesn't care to talk to him). But for every Peter Watts there may be hundred ordinary joes seriously mistreated by people with power, who don't have enough connections to get their story heard.

While writing about the Iraq incident I read all the high-rated comments at Slashdot, some of which were very interesting, such as Mondorescue's comments about rules of engagement, and insightful quotables like "the difference between a murderer and a soldier is that a murderer wants to kill".

Likewise there are some good comments on the Peter Watts case, so I'll quote them if you don't mind.
"This law includes offenses ranging from assault and battery to simply standing too close to an officer..."

"Standing too close to an officer" is a crime? OK, that's about the walking definition of a bad law.

What was Watts' crime? He asked the officers what they were doing.

He didn't strike anyone. He didn't kick anyone. According to the record he didn't even use harsh language. Apparently our law enforcement community has become so vicious and cowardly they'll beat people bloody just for looking at them wrong.

Peter Watts is a geek scifi writer. Judging from his photos, he weighs about 160. My wife could smack him around. He's about as threatening as a tuna sandwich.

I recently took a defensive driving course (because my insurance offered me a sizeable discount for doing so) and they pointed out that in the little book given for drivers for the written test, it explicitly states that should you be pulled over, at no time should you exit your vehicle unless instructed to do so by the officer. There really is no excuse.

Then you are an idiot. You don't understand why it's in there. It was never for the protection of the police. It was for your own protection. Think about it (I know, hard for you). You pull over on the right side of the road. Your door is on the left. You open it, and you are standing out in traffic. Safety is the one and only one reason that rule was ever started. However, since then, they've asserted that to be "normal" behavior and any abnormal behavior at all is dangerous. So now, it's an issue, not because of the police's safety, but for your own for not playing in traffic, and for your own because it will be seen as unusual behavior. There's nothing aggressive about getting out of the car. There was never an issue about it being bad for cops when the recommendation was created.

[....] -AK Marc

I visited the US and drove around as a tourist once, got stopped by the police and did what folk in the UK do - I got out of the car to wait by the side of it to show the police that I wasn't going to do a runner. I didn't know that you sit inside the car until the police come to you in the USA, nobody told me this when I got my tourist visa stamped at immigration or when I picked up the hire car.

Things escalated very fast and I found myself surrounding by two or three police cars with people shouting stuff and pointing guns at me. Very scary when you're not quite sure why this is all happening. Fair play to the police officers, after a couple of minutes of me putting my hands in the air and shouting "Sorry, I am a tourist, I don't know what I've done" things calmed down to the point that we could have a chat and sort things out pleasantly (we all shook hands at the end of it and the cops pointed out where a local hotel was, my mission of the moment).

Not sure what the answer is, should foreign nationals have to read the local written driving test / read the handbooks before being allowed to drive a car in another country?
(Does an official handbook even exist that says you can't get out of the car when pulled over?)
A jury found him guilty of felony non-compliance, so he must have done more than just stepped out of his car.

Actually, from the reports, that's EXACTLY what he did, and the judge basically cut him loose for it.

he did so at border patrol, which by definition carries a higher risk for officers,

I am so sick of hearing this. Cowardice is no excuse for brutality. I grew up military. Come to one of my family dinners and let the Vietnam veterans in my family explain what a dangerous job is.

Looking at the Department of Labor statistics, being a cop is a VERY safe job. You know who gets killed on the job more often than police officers? Construction workers. Cab drivers. Fast food workers. Hotel clerks.

Hop over to the forums on "" and listen to the boys on blue in their own words for a while. They'll tell you quite openly they feel absolutely no obligation to put themselves in harm's way for the "sheeple," and they proudly proclaim "I AM GOING HOME TONIGHT" no matter how many receptionists and secretaries have to die to make that happen.

I spent some time with the State Fire Association. Seems like everyone last one of those guys is missing an eye, ear or finger, and has a quietly proud story of how they traded that part of their body for some stranger's kid. I stand in awe of their dedication, sacrifice and courage.

The institutional cowardice and crutality of law enforcement stands in stark contrast.
- jeko
(I don't entirely agree with this comment but I love the one-liner: Cowardice is no excuse for brutality! Mind you, I'm not sure it's fair to say that bullies are cowards. If somebody might be a threat so you beat them up just in case--to guarantee your own safety by hurting an innocent--that's cowardice. Hurting someone because you're a bully--that's just evil.)


Perspective anecdote: one of my personal "unknown heroes" is a highway cop who stood there calmly listening to this frustrated motorist he pulled over deliver this obscene tirade of vitriol. He just asked questions, wrote the ticket, and let the guy vent. No shouting, no arrest for disorderly conduct, no mace, no "he tripped in the car and hit his face on the steering wheel", nothing. Totally kept his cool. You could have balanced tigers on his cool. So when I read of situations like this, where a guard flies off the handle and beats the crap out of a tourist for daring to ask what the problem is, I know one bad cop doesn't mean all bad cops - I've seen the proof otherwise.

When an officer of the law resorts to the use of violence (and I mean bloody violence, not some wrestling lock or whatever) on a non-violent "offender" (regardless of any verbal aggressiveness), I consider that officer has failed in his duty. But what truly disturbs me is not that it inevitably happens - we're all human - but that it can be excused and abetted when it happens so blatantly. When the testimonies of those guards present not only don't match but contradict, when the guy laying on the ground covered in mace and his own blood gets dragged through the courts and convicted of a felony, when the officer who put him there does not even get an official reprimand let alone arrested himself... it has gone way past one officer losing his temper and making a mistake.
- Sabriel



The fault with the statements above is that they equate police officers with DHS guards. Despite having been on the wrong side of the law many times, I do believe that the vast majority of police officers are honest folks who foster good relations with their citizens and have honest intent(the only bad publicity seems to come from Los Angeles, with its officers up against crotch-grabbers [] and coked-up madmen using babies for human shields []). I also agree that they're not out to cause trouble because they want to go home to their families without any bullshit.

However - DHS guards are not police officers. They are glorified security guards gone mad with the power they attained in the wake of 9/11. The vast majority of them face no danger, and the last one to be shot to death(since the '80's) passed under mysterious circumstances with his gun stolen, an obvious cover-up. [....]

- Ethanol-fueled

but what trained officers are supposed to do is expect the subject to do the worst possible thing...

No. Not even soldiers are trained to do that. Civilian law enforcement is trained to use good judgement. It is more important to know when NOT to shoot than it is to know when TO shoot. Keep running Mad Max fantasies through your head like anyone who COULD pull a gun WILL pull a gun, and you end up shooting a kid for no good reason like one ex-officer I personally know.

If you haven't been in a situation where a person wants to argue with cops and then for some unknown reason pulls out a gun,

Here's another nonsense argument I'm sick of. Since you're pressing the point, yes, I have been shot at. No, it's not pleasant at all. No, the fear that someone MIGHT take a shot at you is no excuse for beating civilians bloody. -jeko

All this reminds me of this interesting 40-minute educational video: 10 Rules for Dealing with Police. Stay safe out there!

Thursday, April 08, 2010

It's Hard To Watch

A collage of thoughts.

On my cruise in March, I met a friend, Tom, who believes the U.S. will fall like Rome of old, because corruption will rot its core until, finally, everything falls apart.

We'll see. But whatever happens, it's painful to watch. U.S. politics seems to have become utterly nuts. I had hoped Barack Obama would help bring people together, but to my astonishment the polarization that the Bush administration seemed to revel in only seemed to get worse under Obama, despite the new president's attempts to establish bipartisanship. It seems these days like straw men are a thousand feet high.

Listening to the right--now the majority, if the ratings of Fox News mean anything--the policies of the great Ronald Reagan (or was that George W. Bush? who's can remember, it was so long ago) have been swept aside by the tyrant Barack Hussein Obama, who will bring socialism (or has already done so) and take the unprecedented step of drowning the country in debt.

From where I sit, the new boss looks too much like the old boss. The Bush Administration started a warrantless wiretapping program and passed a bill (with Obama's vote) to give immunity to cooperating telecomms; Obama is continuing to prevent information about the program from leaking. Bush passed a stimulus package for megacorporations worth hundreds of billions; Obama passed another one. Neither bailout had conditions to prevent excessive executive compensation. Bush started two wars; Obama is continuing them. Bush raised the debt over $4 trillion; Obama ambitiously continues the trend. Bush catered to big business interests; so does Obama.

How is Obama different? Well, he passed a health care bill. Or as Dennis Kucinich called it, "insurance care": a plan only barely better than the status quo, that takes care to protect big insurance company profits. Oh, and he's more intelligent... but less experienced. His skin color is slightly different... that's gotta be worth something. He's pledged government transparency... but half the country will find reasons ("talking points") why this and every single thing he ever does is A Bad Thing.

What's scariest to me about American politics is not what's going on at the top, but at the bottom. The country seems saturated with extremists. People watching Fox News and MSNBC instead of CNN. People listening to Glenn Beck, O'Reilly and Limbaugh as if they were Walter Cronkite, Larry King, and 60 minutes. Shouting matches instead of debates. And above all a disregard for truth, honesty, and ethics. Too many Americans seem to be confusing "right" and "left" with "right" and "wrong", while many others would rather just watch American Idol and, when they get to the polling booth, punch a chad beside the first name they recognize. Damn sheeple everywhere.

I'm really worried that corruption is killing the United States. Not just at the top, but at the grass roots too. Why does it look like the fringes are taking over, like mold spreading across a slice of bread? If the grass roots were healthy--if the common man were ethical and did not tolerate lies--maybe they could reign-in the craziness in the federal government and the mainstream media. But without people that cherish truth, balance, love and reason... maybe American politics is the result.

WikiLeaks recently released a video from the point of view of a U.S. gunship that shows it mowing down a group of people including 2 Reuters journalists and two children in a van. They say at least 12 people died (the children survived). I wonder if the mainstream media will give it much coverage.

If you're one of those war-monger types, please do watch the video (17 or 39 minute version), lest you brush it off again as no big deal. Around 2:00 (39 min version) when the guy says "Have five to six individuals with AK-47s", I challenge you to find a single AK-47 on the screen, let alone any evidence of hostility (unless I'm mistaken, in war-torn countries it is not uncommon for individuals to be armed, so merely possessing a weapon shouldn't get you killed by our tax dollars.) For those with softer hearts, there is a transcript (now if only there was one with pictures.)

The only thing in this video for which the attackers could be forgiven is at 2:34, where they mistake a large camera for an R.P.G., probably because they only see it for a few seconds and the way the man leans against a building looks rather like taking cover or preparing to fire. Hell, maybe some RPGs do look like that.

Anyway, on the whole it's truly amazing. A group of people calmly walking around--no sign of hostility toward anyone, most of them appear unarmed, no weapons in-hand, standing on the street, none of them near cover, most of them seeming unaware of the gunship's presence--and they just "light em up".
"Keep shootin'".
"Keep shootin'".
"Keep shootin'".
The bullets take a full two seconds to reach their targets, and the helicopter may have been up to 800 metres away (source), explaining why the civvies seemed to take little notice of it at first.

Later a van comes by, which apparently had been picking up bodies or wounded, and tried to rescue one of the journalists. No sign that the van's occupants are armed or hostile, but god damn how the gunship guys chomp at the bit!
"Let me engage"
"Can I shoot?"
"Request permission to engage..."
"Picking up the wounded?"
"Yeah, we're trying to get permission to engage."
"What's goin' on, let us shoot!"
"Request permission to engage."
"This is bushmaster 7, roger, engage."
After that I'd had enough. I didn't need to watch that shit.

According to WikiLeaks,
After demands by Reuters, the incident was investigated and the U.S. military concluded that the actions of the soldiers were in accordance with the law of armed conflict and its own "Rules of Engagement".
I'm ashamed to say I have seen several short "snuff films", graphic videos of real people actually dying by accident or by murder. By the numbers this is the worst snuff film I have ever seen, but it has a low-quality black and white picture, and given what evil I have exposed myself to before, it doesn't leave quite as vivid an impression on the memory as a close up full-color death. Still. It's keeping me awake.

So what does this have to do with American politics? Since 9/11 I've seen several Americans on the internet posting filthy tirades against foreigners. Afghanistan? Bomb it! Iraqis? Bomb them! Maybe we'll hit a terrorist or two by chance and that will make it worthwhile. And I am reminded of how they--we?--treat a human life as worth so much less if it's an Iraqi, or any foreigner not from a wealthy western nation. What comfort it is that we need not even try to measure the death toll in these places. Is it 200,000 dead in Iraq or a million? Who knows, who cares. What really matters is that 4287 U.S. soldiers died and 139 journalists. Mind you, one dead Micheal Jackson gets more press than 1000 dead soldiers. Some Americans have leftover appetite for war, but maybe less appetite for news about it.

We ruined Iraq. After keeping the country poor with onerous sanctions for many years, we downgraded it from a ruthless dictatorship to a lawless cesspool of poverty, evil and death, and finally, tired of letting the suicide bombers get all the kills, we join the party, pop open a few civilians ourselves, and don't worry about it too much because the rules of engagement were followed. The bad guys kill so many civilians, what's the big deal if we get a few too?

When I saw that group of 9 civvies in the crosshairs it reminded me very much of the online video games I sometimes play. It's such a great feeling to blow up three or four other players with a single group of stickybombs in TF2, or sneak up on a group of enemies in CS and light 'em all up with a grenade. I wonder if these fucking murderers in a real gunship got the same feeling when they saw all "five to six" of their supposedly AK-armed targets, plus a few bonus points, all clumped together out in the open where they could kill them all in a matter of seconds.

It's hard to watch. So for the most part we don't watch it, and we allow the government to censor it indefinitely. But once in awhile a WikiLeak comes along, and you're forced to wonder how many other events like this have occurred. When the official word is that the U.S. killed X number of insurgents--as it was in this case--how often is it true, and how often does "insurgent" mean "unidentified civilians walking down the street"?

I must admit though, I really can't focus on the worst of it most of the time. To dwell on it too long destroys one's happiness. And yet my birth country did commit this atrocity and cover it up. They did cause the whole mess in Iraq. And I just can't believe people would think it's okay to just start a war and destabilize a country because ... because what? My mother could list a hundred reasons. Iraq had aluminum tubes for making nukes! They had secret trucks filled with chemical weapons! Even if the reasons weren't complete fabrications, we still shouldn't have been buying the war.

But the truth is, I think about Iraq very little. There's nothing anyone can do about it now; for all I know, withdrawing the troops could make the situation worse there. Dwelling on unsolvable problems is very draining, trust me, I do it a lot. But before this WikiLeaks thing, I gave no thought to Iraq for quite some time.

We have this nice little feature in our brains that lets us ignore things that we're used to. Like the dirty clothes blanketing my bedroom floor. But people seem to think this absolves them of responsibility for evil in society, family and government that they could eliminate, but don't because they're used to it. Damn it, everybody, stop being sheeple. Mind you, I have to admit, I don't change society much myself. I want to, but the evil is piling up and I feel as though it's crushing my will. What can I do? It's just little me and a few nonprofits versus the big bad world. Over time I have been shrinking from it more and more, save for a few outbursts like this one when, for once, I feel like something needs to be said.

I understand that it is easier not to try to improve the world. It's less painful. So understandably there is this group of non-political people just living out their own lives and ignoring the wider world. But I'm afraid--maybe justified, maybe not--that time is running out. While so many people concern themselves with family values and fiscal responsibility (to be accomplished by replacing Democrats with Republicans, I guess), they allow dangerous trends to go unchecked: rhetoric is getting more extreme. Lies are tolerated. Wars are tolerated. Investigative journalism is replaced with punditry. Every man can now choose facts to fit their opinion.

I'm sort of a pundit, you know. One that almost no one reads, but still. Punditry is easy: all you have to do is have an opinion and share it in an entertaining way. It helps if you know some facts but it's by no means required (just make them up or find an official-looking page on Google), and you don't have to spend much money to produce a story that grabs eyeballs. You can't blame pundits for being cheap, I mean, it costs less. But they are no substitute for more substantive news, where money has been spent to gather data, and to carefully analyze it, and editors have tried to make sure a story is fair and balanced. They say traditional news is too expensive to produce when the internet makes everything free. Can't we find a way to fund it? Or is it too late, now that so many think it is enough to take the word of their favorite pundit as gospel?

I'm committed to giving 10% of my income to good causes. I have plenty of money after all, provided I keep my job. So recently I gave 1200 or so to United Way, 500 to Red Cross Haiti Relief, 500 to the EFF, 500 or so to Avaaz, and I'm thinking of giving 500 to WikiLeaks after seeing this video and hearing about threats to this vital source of truth, such as the U.S. government. I have to get over a little mental barrier when giving to my favorite charities though, because they are not tax deductable. EFF and WikiLeaks are based in the U.S. so Canada (yeah, I'm up North) doesn't recognize them, and Avaaz wouldn't be tax-deductable anyway because it "engages in political lobbying". I'm sure the regular tax-deductable charities like United Way and Red Cross do good things, but aren't they kind of like Advil, easing the symptoms instead of curing the disease?

It's been hard to reach the full 10%. Not because I am unwilling, but because like so many other people I'm so wrapped up in my own life. Just about every night I escape the world with a video game or a TV show. All that real-life stuff is either boring or depressing. A lot of important goings-on are probably slipping by unperceived as I do this, but dammit, where's the encouragement? I don't have a lot of energy to do things on my own when no one else seems to care.

So please, if you're reading this, do something good in the world. Good people are holding the world together. Ethics, fairness and reason are keeping it together. Love for one another is binding us together. Oh, and get educated. Frontline's documentary on Hugo Chavez taught me how a people's general lack of skills and education can hinder a country's development. Do good and let others see it, so that those of us who want to do good know we are not alone, and can gain courage from you.

Oops, it's 4:17 AM. Good night.

Note: Reposting because I was originally not logged in as myself.