Tuesday, November 03, 2015

Oh, there's work.


Just look around: A housing shortage, crime, pollution; we need better schools and parks. Whatever our needs, they all require work. And as long as we have unsatisfied needs,


So ask yourself, what kind of world has work but no jobs? It’s a world where work is not related to satisfying our needs, a world where work is only related to satisfying the profit needs of business.

This country was not built by the huge corporations or government bureaucracies. It was built by people who work. And, it is working people who should control the work to be done. Yet, as long as employment is tied to somebody else’s profits, the work won’t get done.
- An old poster from the New American Movement

Monday, November 02, 2015

DNC changes rules to block Lessig from debates

In case you still haven't learned about Lawrence Lessig and how U.S. political corruption works, I urge you to see Lessig's TED talk from two years ago - well before Lessig ever considered running for president.

Recently I offered to be part of the volunteer tech team that would help Larry Lessig in his campaign for president - his campaign to fix corruption in Washington, having earlier donated to his campaign, and before that to his MAYDAY SuperPAC. But Lessig has faced opposition from the democratic party itself, which included Martin O'Malley, Jim Webb, and Lincoln Chafee in the first debate but excluded Lessig despite his strong fundraising base:
Webb raised $697,000, while Chafee raised a paltry $15,457 (including $4,121 from himself). Lessig’s numbers put him in the same league as fellow Democrat Martin O’Malley, who raised $1,283,000, though they’re both well behind Hillary Clinton at $30 million and Bernie Sanders at $26 million.
Of course, there's a limit to how much money you can raise when no one knows your name. Lessig knew that getting in the debates was the key to changing the game. To get in the debates, you have to make at least 1% in multiple national polls - which is a big problem when some pollsters wouldn't include Lessig on the list of candidates. Even so, he recently managed to get enough exposure to qualify for the next debate. Clearly, however, certain powerful individuals had a trick up their sleeve. I was saddened to receive this message from Larry today:
I am writing with sad news that has forced me to end my campaign for the Democratic nomination for president. The Democrats have now changed the rules for the debates, making it impossible for my campaign to continue.

As you know, the critical step in this improbable campaign has been to get into the debates. Though we raised more money than almost half of the field, and with you, built a vibrant campaign for reform, the party was slow to welcome us to this race. The polls have been slow to include me on the list of candidates.

But last week, we were making progress. A national poll by Monmouth found me at 1%. Three days ago, an NBC poll found the same. HuffPost Pollster now lists three polls at 1%. Since the Monmouth poll, no poll that included my name found me with less than 1%.

Under the rules for the debate announced by the DNC in August — and upon which we relied when we launched our campaign — the standard was 3 polls “in the six weeks prior to the debate.” Depending on which polls CBS counted, we either have qualified or could be just one poll away from qualifying for the debate.

But at the end of last week, I learned from my team that the DNC has now changed the rules. The standard is no longer the rule announced by the DNC Chair — 3 polls “in the six weeks prior to the debate.” The standard is now 3 polls “at least six weeks before the debate.” That means, for me to qualify, I had to have had 3 polls at 1% before October 10! You can read the @full and sad story as described by the leader of my campaign, Steve Jarding. The consequence of this change is that it is now impossible for me to get into the second debate.
I recently started writing predictions for the future in my phone. Last week I wrote:

If serious reforms do not happen in the 2016-2020 time frame, some parts of the US government will collapse soon afterward, creating a large poverty crisis when some public services halt abruptly. Due to media manipulation by the wealthy, many U.S. citizens like my Mom and Dad will simply blame the Democrats again, but in reality the Democrats are merely ineffectual, pacified to inaction by wealthy donors, while the Republicans—funded by a fraction of the top 5% of the top 1%—will have been the true destructive force. Some states will remain largely functional, due to responsible management, but the long-term future is unpredictable. Edit: perhaps the disaster will occur earlier, but the current economic situation is unprecedented so I am not prepared to estimate exactly when things will fall apart.

I know that many, many people agree with me about this: corporations and billionaires may thrive in the coming depression, but the U.S. federal government and the U.S. economy is on the brink of disaster. And the DNC is killing one of the best chances to avert this disaster. So, what more can I say? Good night, and good luck.
I have been a Democrat my entire life. I have proudly helped elect many of the leaders of our party including Tom Daschle, Bob Kerrey, Mark Warner, Jim Webb, and Tim Johnson to high office and I have served nearly four years at the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee as Communications Director and Senior Advisor. But I am sad to say that I have never experienced this kind of game playing and deception from party leaders in nearly 38 years of political activism. - Steve Jarding (campaign consultant for Lessig)
Say... who are these gatekeepers anyway? Who are these people that essentially get a sort of "veto" power to block grassroots candidates from running for president?

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Reversing inflated health care costs: a free market approach

The Atlantic has a good analysis and a solid proposal for affordable health care in the U.S., which pays twice as much for health care as the average for industrialized countries. Although it was written 6 years ago, the inflated costs it talks about have only become worse since then.

It's very long, but IMO well worth reading. The techniques by which his proposal will reduce costs should excite Democrats and its focus on free markets should excite Republicans, but I fear that Democrats won't support it because it's tantamount to admitting Obamacare sucks, and Republicans won't support it because reducing health care costs would eat into the profits of hospitals and insurance providers.

Thus, those who want intelligent reforms will have to reform Congress first. Fix democracy first: vote Lessig in the primaries, and don't vote for anyone that doesn't support campaign finance reform.

Hello again, Deepak Obhrai

VoteTogether.ca asked its supporters to express their top priorities to their new MP, but my new MP is the old conservative MP (who clung to his seat with 48% of the vote). I wrote him anyway.
To be honest, I'm not a conservative, but I do think there are merits to common conservative beliefs, such as low taxes with minimal public services, a hands-off approach to governance (I mean, Calgary zoning regulations really tick me off sometimes!), a reluctance to support abortions, and so forth. I'm even sympathetic to the Conservative reaction against the niqab - hey, it creeps me out, too.

However, the Harper conservatives adopted bad policies that are not core elements of conservatism, such as the "war on data" (killing the long form census, sending libraries to landfills even if they contain the only remaining copies of certain publications, muzzling scientists), or C-23, a bill to reduce minority voter turnout, among other things. Plus, the conservatives maintained the long tradition that all parties in power enjoy, of rejecting election reforms (Direct Representation and Proportional Representation) that would make the power of people in Parliament reflect voters' wishes accurately.

So I would just urge the conservatives not to get in the way of electoral reform, and to favor small-c conservative values over big-R Republican ones.

The Needless Complexity of Academic Writing

When I was in my last year of university, trying to get my degree in Computer Engineering, one of the courses I took required me to choose a goal and write a program to fulfill that goal. My goal was to add unit inference to a programming language. This would detect, for example, that in "dist + 2 km", dist must be a quantity of kilometres; and if dist seems to have a different unit elsewhere in the same program, the program must have a bug in it.

One requirement of the course was to find and read five academic papers related to my goal, and I was indeed able to locate 5 academic papers about unit checking and unit inference. I remember there were multiple papers about unit checking that I was able to follow, but they weren't really useful because I wanted to go beyond unit checking and do the more complex task of unit inference (I won't bore you by explaining the difference between unit checking and unit inference; the essential difference is that unit inference is easier for a programmer to use, but harder for the programming language to perform. In other words, it shifts effort from the programmer to the computer.)

As I recall, the academic paper that ultimately seemed most relevant to my work was also the most incomprehensible. I'm unable to locate the paper now, 9 years later, but I remember being stuck on its use of obscure terminology such as "abelian groups" and other jargon, its reliance on an obscure programming language like ML or Lambda Calculus, and/or its use of notation that looked something like this:

(For non-programmers reading this, just let me clarify that most programmers, and perhaps most computer scientists, have never seen anything like this.)

Look, there are literally millions of professional programmers in the world. So here was a paper about concepts that all engineers know about (unit checking) that is relevant to most programmers (we all make bugs involving units at some point), for a goal that could benefit all programmers (unit inference), yet no matter how hard I tried, I could not comprehend that paper or any other paper that had useful information about the subject. In the end, the papers were worthless; I ignored them and figured out how to perform unit inference by myself.

Since that time I have tried hard to write in ways that my audience would be able to understand, and to use other communication techniques not used by those damn worthless papers (such as using good examples). Today I'd like to thank The Atlantic for reminding me about the importance of comprehensible writing, and for reminding academics that they're still doing a crappy job.

See also:

Monday, October 19, 2015

Yahoo News supports climate change denier

A few years ago I began receiving unsolicited Yahoo News emails from Yahoo. Since I didn't already have a source of news in my email, I accepted and often read the articles it suggested.

I was a little surprised recently when Yahoo sent me to a "news" article with the headline "Perth electrical engineer’s discovery will change climate change debate":
A former climate modeller for the Government’s Australian Greenhouse Office, with six degrees in applied mathematics, Dr Evans has unpacked the architecture of the basic climate model which underpins all climate science.

He has found that, while the underlying physics of the model is correct, it had been applied incorrectly.

He has fixed two errors and the new corrected model finds the climate’s sensitivity to carbon dioxide (CO2) is much lower than was thought.

It turns out the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has over-estimated future global warming by as much as 10 times, he says. “Yes, CO2 has an effect, but it’s about a fifth or tenth of what the IPCC says it is. CO2 is not driving the climate; it caused less than 20 per cent of the global warming in the last few decades”.

Dr Evans says his discovery “ought to change the world”.

“But the political obstacles are massive,” he said.
Since this article flatly contradicts my own knowledge, I had to dig deeper.

To put it simply, 97% of climate scientists agree that humans are causing global warming, and I have the impression that there is a consensus not just on the cause but also on the magnitude of the problem. It's a fairly strong consensus, and overturning that consensus will take more than one guy publishing a blog series that one newspaper calls a "discovery". For that reason alone, I would caution you not to take David Evans at his word. Wait for him to publish a properly peer-reviewed paper in a scientific journal, then see how other scientists respond to it.

But of course, at least one scientific group has already published a rebuttal. This rebuttal isn't to the "news" story, but rather to an article that David Evans himself published in the Financial Times. Have a look:
The main error Evans makes here is to claim that climate sensitivity is simply a number churned out by climate models. In reality, climate scientists have used many different lines of evidence to create numerous independent estimates of the planet's climate sensitivity. These include not just climate models, but also empirical observational data (Figure 1 and Figure 2).
And here is another article (blog post) from someone who himself debated David Evans on the topic of climate change.

Vote Together, Canada!

It's federal election day in Canada. It's important to defeat Harper, but with our broken voting system, that won't happen by simply voting for your favorite candidate. That's why Vote Together was set up, to help you choose which candidate in your riding has the best chance of defeating the Harper Conservative.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

The Final Leaked TPP Text is All That We Feared

Citizen groups in North America and elsewhere are concerned about the TPP for a variety of reasons. Among geeks, the biggest concern tends to be the copyright provisions, which the Electronic Frontier Foundation describes as "all that we feared".
If you dig deeper, you'll notice that all of the provisions that recognize the rights of the public are non-binding, whereas almost everything that benefits rightsholders is binding. That paragraph on the public domain, for example, used to be much stronger in the first leaked draft, with specific obligations to identify, preserve and promote access to public domain material. All of that has now been lost in favor of a feeble, feel-good platitude that imposes no concrete obligations on the TPP parties whatsoever.
Despite being finalized, the text of the TPP is being kept secret and the text reviewed here was leaked by Wikileaks. A note for voters: Stephen Harper is a strong supporter of the TPP. Visit https://www.votetogether.ca/ to learn about how to defeat the conservatives. If you are still unsure who to vote for, vote for the parties that support electoral reform: NDP or Green.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Esperanto quick reference

The Esperanto Quick Reference 1.0 is a list of essential words that all Esperanto speakers should learn, together with English translations, packed onto four pages. Please let me know if you feel that a common Esperanto word is missing from the quick reference.

Windows users: looking for a way to type the letters ĉĝĥĵŝŭ with the hats on them? Download my Esperanto/Spanish/English keyboard layout for Windows. It mostly acts the same as normal English keyboard, but you can hold down the right Alt key and press cghjsw to get the Esperanto letters ĉĝĥĵŝŭ (and you can hold down the right Alt key and press aeioun to get the Spanish letters áéíóúñ). Shift+Right Alt gives capital accented letters, kompreneble.

Wednesday, September 09, 2015

Larry Lessig Announces Presidential Bid

A study by political scientists Martin Gilens of Princeton and Benjamin Page of Northwestern produced the most terrifying graph about American democracy ever produced.

The graph shows the extent to which the average citizens' support for a policy predicts that the government will implement that policy. It is a straight horizontal line, which means simply that the opinion of average citizens doesn't matter.

That's why Larry Lessig is running for president. He intends to pass one law, that changes the way elections are funded and the way elections work. That's it. One bill, one law, and then he will resign and allow the Vice President to take his place.

I've donated hundreds to Lessig's work in the past, and I'm proud to give $100 more as his campaign begins. Ask yourself: how much is democracy in America worth to you? Put a dollar amount on it, and give it to Lawrence Lessig's campaign.

Today's politicians are bought. Tell your friends: it's time to buy them back.

Saturday, August 01, 2015

Is AI a threat to humanity? No.

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

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

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

White House responds: go to hell, Snowden

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What Lisa Monaco is pushing for is martyrdom.

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

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

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

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

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

That's it. One single example.

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

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

Big Money Breaks Democracy

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

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

Thursday, June 11, 2015

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

In other words, unless something changes very quickly, the top 1% will soon have more stuff than the bottom 99%, more than everyone else combined.
"It is time our leaders took on the powerful vested interests that stand in the way of a fairer and more prosperous world.

"Business as usual for the elite isn’t a cost-free option – failure to tackle inequality will set the fight against poverty back decades. The poor are hurt twice by rising inequality – they get a smaller share of the economic pie and because extreme inequality hurts growth, there is less pie to be shared around." - Oxfam executive director Winnie Byanyima
An equally striking figure is that 85 individual billionaires have the same wealth as the bottom 50% of the world’s population. The wealth of 85 people equals the wealth of roughly 3,688,005,000 others living here.

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

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

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

Friday, June 05, 2015

PSA: The Citizens United era of money in politics

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

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

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

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

Cybersecurity and the Tylenol Murders

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, June 03, 2015

Professional Russian Trolls

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

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

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

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

My hopes for Alberta

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Enjoy True Democracy with SDR

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

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

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

Introducing Simple Direct Representation

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

So today I'll sketch out a proposal I call Simple Direct Representation (SDR). It consists of six simple rules:
  1. No Geographic Restriction: During an election, you can vote for anyone who is running for the legislature in your state/province. Obviously, some thought will have to be put into how the polling station can gather votes efficiently when there are so many choices available.
  2. Proportional Power: your vote always counts! The voting power of your representative will depend on the amount of "poll votes" they have (votes from the official election polls). A representative that got 10,006 votes will have twice as much power as the one that got 5,003 votes; whenever a legislator votes for or against a bill, that single vote is multiplied by the number of poll votes that he or she got during the election. A simple computer program would be used to tally up votes; in case of power loss or computer trouble, the legislature could agree to allow approximations (e.g. by rounding off each member's power to the nearest thousand poll votes instead of counting individual poll votes).
  3. Two Choices: On the ballot you can write one or two names: a first choice and an optional second choice. The second choice will be given your vote if your first choice doesn't get enough votes to win a seat in the legislature. Your first choice should be your favorite candidate, and your second choice should be someone you are sure will win a seat. (Note: perhaps voters often won't be sure who is likely to get a seat and who isn't. In that case, the system could allow three or four choices so that you can safely write your favorite candidate as your first choice, and still have enough "extra" picks to avoid the risk of wasting your vote, which would happen if none of your picks has enough votes to get a seat.)
  4. Fixed Number of Winners: The legislature physically has a fixed number of seats, and those seats are filled with the people who got the most "first choice" votes. For example if there are 100 seats total, the 100 most popular candidates (measured by first-choice votes) get those seats. Then, for every voter whose first choice did not win a seat, their second choice is given an additional vote (provided that the second choice won a seat). If the first and second choice both lost, the vote doesn't count, but a voter can easily avoid this problem by choosing someone they know is popular as their second choice. In case the election concentrates power in the hands of only a few legislators, there will be some legislators that win without getting a large amount of votes; I think this is a good thing, as it can give "the little guy" a voice in the legislature without giving him serious voting power.
  5. Power Sharing Required: Often, people will simply vote for the leader of a party (or the person they think should be the leader). Excessively unbalanced power in the legislature is potentially a bad thing, since a politician may not behave the way voters expected; therefore, there is a fixed upper limit on the amount of voting power that one legislator can wield, for example, 3% (or N%) of all votes cast. This limit is calculated on election day and fixed until the next election. For example, if 5,000,000 votes were cast in the election, 3% is 150,000 votes. If 500,000 people voted for candidate Smith, then Smith still officially "owns" 500,000 votes but is only allowed to use 150,000 of them when he votes on a bill. Normally, Smith will use the next rule to transfer his excess votes to his friends or allies in the legislature (otherwise he would be wasting his votes).
  6. Vote Transfer: A legislator who is above the N% power limit can transfer excess votes (i.e. voting power) to another member of the legislature. The legislator should only transfer votes to someone he or she trusts, because the giver cannot change his mind and take the votes back. That's because revocation power could be used to get around the N% limit by giving one legislator leverage over other legislators; the legislator with 20% of all votes could say "vote the way I tell you, or I'll transfer your votes to someone who will!". All transfers will be a matter of public record, so the voters can judge in the next election whether the transfer itself, and the use of transferred votes, was appropriate.
That's it. Enjoy True Democracy. We could add a couple of minor extra rules, such as one that allows a legislator to designate an "heir" who will get their seat if he or she quits or dies or resigns. But extra rules are optional, and can be added as needed.

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

Likewise, the electoral system itself will change the flavor of politicians who choose to run for office. FPTP is a cutthroat system—it's all or nothing, you win big or you lose big, and if there are four people running per district, 75% of them are guaranteed to lose. What kind of people would enjoy running for office in a system like that? I wouldn't. On the other hand, in an SDR system, if there are 100 seats, it's likely that (to avoid wasting time and money), less than 200 people will decide to make serious runs (with door-knocking, ad-buys and the works), so less than half of the serious candidates will lose. Minor parties who don't expect to win a lot of votes don't have to run a lot of candidates either, so they won't be scouring college campuses for kids to run "symbolically" in "unwinnable" districts. Among the "heavyweight" contenders there is a lot less drama, since there is no particular "enemy candidate" that you have to "defeat". "Going negative" won't work well, because if you convince people not to vote for an opponent, that doesn't mean they will vote for you instead. Also, an individual candidate no longer has to convince half the voters in a tiny region to vote for him, but instead can pander to a small percentage of voters in a huge region.

All these factors will change which kinds of people choose to run for office. I, for one, expect that the legislature will enjoy increased diversity of opinion and expertise. For one thing, single-issue candidates may be common--they'll run on a platform of "let's fix this one thing that's wrong with our government". If candidate McFoo wants to, let's say, change the way hospital fees work, or start a municipal broadband network, or improve privacy rights, there's no way to convince half the voters in any specific "district" to care enough about one particular issue to vote for McFoo. However, McFoo could very likely convince 0.5% of all the voters in the entire state/province to vote for him on that issue. Once in the legislature, McFoo can't directly pass any laws with his 0.5%, but he could dedicate his time to lobbying on his issue.

Another difference with SDR is that candidates can probably have a thinner skin and lower income than typical winners in FPTP. FPTP candidates often have to be prepared to spend a lot of money campaigning and accept the risk of being attacked by the "opponent", as well as the risk of losing. Winning a seat under SDR should be a more predictable affair; the amount you spend and your chances of winning are no longer tied to whoever happens to run "against" you, and a person can have a chance of winning whenever they have a fan base of some kind—any large group of people, no matter how geographically dispersed, who like that person. It's important that the fan base need not have anything to do with politics; a popular author, or actor, or university professor, could more easily run for office and win under SDR because they don't need a lot of "campaign skills", they don't need to struggle to figure out how to get a large percentage of votes in a small geographic area and they don't have to run "against" anyone, they can simply ask their (geographically dispersed) fans to vote for them. This may mean that we'll end up with fewer "career politicians" in office.

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

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Harper's Copyright Givaway

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, April 20, 2015

Normal People

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

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

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

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Live a Good Life

Live a good life.

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

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

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

Friday, March 06, 2015

The Democratization of Cyberattack

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

Saturday, January 31, 2015

Police shoot man talking on cell phone

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

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

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

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

Saturday, January 24, 2015

The Beagle

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

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

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

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

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

I'll just add a couple of thoughts.

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

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

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

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

Sunday, January 11, 2015

It's Not as Bad as You Think

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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