Friday, May 22, 2015

Equality of Justice for All


In this country it has long been held that a person's beliefs are unassailable; however, he is responsible for his actions. No more. We all now know that in progressively liberal America the distinction between thought and deed is disappearing. Bad thought is punishable and good thought is rewarded.

There are serious problems with this. Once you allow that you can legislate thought, then it's a trivial matter to ignore that major mistake and instead focus on which thoughts should be regulated.  This isn't a slippery slope fallacy; it's reality. The Right already wants to mandate particular religious expressions. The Left already wants to mandate particular social expressions. The nature of their mistakes is identical; it's only the implementation that differs... and that, only slightly. Both extremes advocate legislation that is identical in nature to sharia law, while simultaneously denying that it's anything like that. This inability to see the similarities is a peculiar mental aberration, but far too common.

But let's face it: sharia law is not merely the application of religious laws of behavior, but of belief and intent. Were it just a matter of behavior, the application of one set of standards vs. another is arguable. Relativists would say that there is nothing to prefer one standard over another. In fact, fundamentalist Christians often hold up the Ten Commandments and other Old Testament law as being a justification for legislation, but such justification must be summarily discarded due to the First Amendment; otherwise there could be no logical reason for not using sharia law as well.

In practice, nobody's really a relativist. We in the West have historically preferred classically liberal laws that preserve the autonomy of individual thought. So we denounce slavery and promote religious freedom, including the freedom not to practice religion at all. Without true freedom OF religion we wind up with a kind of secular tyranny that prevents everyone from practicing equally.

You might see where that line of thought goes, as we actually have that sort of tyrannical pressure today from folks who would impose legislation that is based on a principle of "freedom from religion". These people, even when not required to participate in a religious practice, claim that they are "offended" by the sight of such practices, and pretend that their "offense" is more important than someone else's liberty. They could, in actual fact, just sit back and watch someone else practice a ritual or pray with whatever level of interest or disinterest as they prefer. This is just as a Christian might watch a Jew lighting a menorah without being inclined to convert to Judaism. But they don't. They'd rather control others and impose their own practices on others. "Secular sharia" is a disturbingly accurate label for this.

Militant Muslims want universal Islam; fundamentalist Christians want a Christian government; Activist atheists want not just a secular State, but a purely secular Commons. All of these... every single one... is unconstitutional. We can constitutionally pass no law that either establishes a religion or prohibits its exercise. Of course, there will always be those who "interpret" the Constitution differently, but this has thus far proven always to be motivated by frustration that this clear provision is pretty damned inconvenient for those who want to do the controlling. And that's exactly what it's intended to be. That's not a "flaw" of the Constitution: it's a feature.

So why this discussion of religion? Because religion is a pure matter of belief and is thus easily illustrated. But the same principle holds true for other systems of belief:

For example:

Three men -- Al, Bob, and Joe -- are separately walking the paths of Central Park. All three are attacked by muggers. All three are beaten equally severely. All three receive similar medical treatment. All three of the attackers are caught and successfully prosecuted. Bob and Joe's attackers each receive sentences of 7 years; Al's attacker receives a sentence of 25 years. 

Why the difference? Because the prosecutor points out that Al's attacker is anti-homosexual, and Al is gay. Al's attack, therefore, is prosecuted as a hate crime. Though Bob and Joe were as equally damaged as Al, in New York they will not receive equality of treatment under the law.

But wait! Joe is also gay!  The offenses against him and Al were identical and their injuries were identical. Why doesn't Joe deserve the same justice as Al? Answer: because Joe's attacker is also homosexual. Thus, not only does Joe not get equality of justice, but his attacker avoids the harsher penalty under the law. It is emotion and belief and nothing else that raised Al's attack to a first class felony.

If this sounds like unconstitutional violation of the 14th Amendment's equal protection clause, that's because it is.

Until recently if you asked any lawyer what is the purpose and importance of determining motive in a case, he would tell you that it is to establish the desire of the suspect to accomplish the crime: the "mens rea". It's extremely difficult to eliminate reasonable doubt if your suspect had no demonstrable desire to commit a crime. But once you demonstrate desire, means, and opportunity sufficient to gain a conviction, the sentencing would be based on the actual criminal act. But with the advent of hate crimes, that's no longer true.

We have hate crime laws not for redress of the acts that are perpetrated, but for the thoughts that motivated those acts. If we were punishing the act, then those laws would never have been considered, much less passed. We already have laws against assault, battery, libel, slander, etc. We have always had them. They have always covered the acts in question. It has always been possible to prosecute under those laws.

Hate crimes punish thought

Again, we already know that given the opportunity to punish dissenting thought, people grab at it. This is another case. No slippery slope. Fact. Past tense. Been there, done that. And those that support and pass such laws are in the same conceptual category as those that commit the offenses! Yes, would be Thought Police, you make a place for yourself in the company of the Loony Left, the Radical Right, the fundie Christians, the militant Muslims and all the other would-be tyrants who want to control how you think. You do this because you've been taught that it's OK to control thought. You validate their practices. The only argument is over who gets to pull the strings. You do what they do and bitch about them wanting to do it.

It's terrible when someone beats you up because you're whatever it is you are: Black or Jewish or Gay or Hispanic or a woman or Irish or Polish or Native American or short or rich or poor or weak or shy or homeless or any of the other things that people can and have gotten beat up over. It's just as terrible when someone beats you up for no particular reason other than you were there. It's positively chilling when someone beats you up not because he hates you, but because he just enjoys it. I can justify no reason whatsoever to prefer one of these over the other, or to punish one more strongly than the other. 

Hate crime legislation serves no purpose but thought control, which is itself abhorrent and unconstitutional. When it comes to the law, equality should mean Justice for all, not Justice for "just us". This is why "hate crimes" are every bit as abhorrent to a classical liberal as sharia is to an atheist. They invoke images of George Orwell's 1984... which is where we get the term "thought police".

It is SO easy... so very, very easy... to live and let live. To be tolerant of the differences that exist between others and yourself. And yet you, America, can't bring yourself to do that very simple, very adult thing. You're a nation of spoiled brats who all want your own petty way and can't stand it if someone else hurts your widdle feewings by not agreeing with you. PLEASE grow up. Or at least have children who will go beyond the limited maturity of your own pathetic, pitiful arrested development.

It is a sad state of affairs when we live in a country that has abolished slavery of the body only to promote slavery of the mind. But here we are, in the good old USA in exactly that predicament.


Monday, May 18, 2015

Poe's Law

This:
This Girl Just Trolled The Entire Internet By Acting Like A Stupid Liberal [PODCAST]
-- The Libertarian Republic

Lead to this:



Lead to this:

It seems to me that Poe's Law provides a very useful method of gauging one's own sanity, as measured against the public norm. Otherwise, you could be a loon and never know it.

So if your most serious pronouncements are met with the Fry Face as people try to figure out whether you're being serious, consider that at the very least you appear to be a loon to those people around you. Adjust yourself accordingly:


Sunday, May 17, 2015

An Open Letter to Web Designers

WEB DESIGNERS:

When you pop up a giant "LOVE ME!" box on top of an article to which I've been linked, then I'm instantly and completely uninterested in whatever's under it. Time to close the browser tab.

If your article is worth liking, then I will click the LIKE link at the bottom of it. If it's not worth liking... as in, you put a giant freakin' fence in front of it... then I won't.

If you post a LOT of really good articles, then I'm very much inclined to subscribe to your feed. If you put a giant freaking fence in front of the first thing I see, I guarantee I will NEVER subscribe to you.

That's how it works. I'm pretty sure I'm not alone, either. The Internet's a big place, and nobody really has time to indulge your self-absorbed fantasy of being the sole-source-of-really-cool-shit.


Look, I get it... I really do. Your website is a business, and more "likes" means more clicks, and that means more views, and that means more revenue from advertisers. You don't use banner ads anymore because people say they don't like them, and because people Adblock the hell out of them. But you've replaced them with something a thousand times worse. Instead of displaying something ugly, you've decided to actively chase off readers by acting in equal parts desperate and pushy.

Instead of Adblock, their response will be a new blocker -- a tease blocker -- which will warn them of sites that do exactly what yours does. I can say with confidence that you will lose this escalation of arms.

Perhaps you should look at the examples of people who don't piss off their audience. Randy Cassingham is a pioneer in the commercialization of the Internet with his newsletter, This is True. Every issue of This is True is delivered with an ad, not separately linked or embedded, but within the body of the text. It's boxed in its own paragraph, and the box is labeled "Advertisement". I read those.

Going back further to TV and radio, shows like Burns and Allen found ways of earnestly thanking their sponsors, and working a small testimonial into the body of their show. People didn't mind because back then, audiences were composed of adults who knew that what they were watching on the stage was a play, and not reality. Here's a playlist of 99 Burn and Allen episodes. At the 14 minute mark in episode 1 you'll see what I mean. That's the setup. Four minutes later you get the payoff for that joke.


Your audience don't mind a bit when you acknowledge sponsors in your content. And we love it when you post genuinely interesting things that people will want to re-post and link. We will work to bring you traffic willingly if you're worth it. But this in-your-face nonsense just tells us you're not.

Friday, May 15, 2015

The X Commandments


Here's a graphic I saw today reposted from Political Insider's Facebook page.

What we're talking about.
This is one way they're commonly represented.
(reproduced under Fair Use for the purpose of education and political commentary)

This hits my commentary button because it opens up a lot of room for discussion... probably more room than Political Insider intended. And certainly, with conclusions that they probably don't intend.

My first response is, of course; which ten? Those who have read through the books of Moses (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, aka the Pentateuch or Torah) know that if you count up the commandments in those books you get a number more like 613. There's also a bit of disagreement on how to number the particular ten that are paraphrased in the graphic, or whether it's even ten. Might be eleven. Here's another common way of splitting them up, quoted in more detail:

Here's one way of splitting them up. Click to embiggen.
via Wikimedia Commons

So what's the Fifth Commandment? Is it "Thou Shalt Not Kill"? Or is it "Honor Thy Father and Mother"? It doesn't really matter; Exodus doesn't number them, and both are sound advice.

My second response is to go back to that number 613. Six hundred and thirteen. That's a lot of commandments. It raises the obvious question of what's different about these ten that inspires drum-thumping among Christians, many of whom are only casually acquainted with their own religion. Why these ten? Why not ten others? Why are these sacrosanct while the prohibition against pork is calmly and quietly forgotten? If one insists that these must be kept, isn't it hypocritical to ignore all of the others that appear in the very same books since all of them were commanded by God?

Why don't more Christians ask these questions?
Why don't more know the answers?

I've touched on some of these before [in "Skeptical about Skeptic Bias"], but it's probably worth just stating it plainly: God gave these commandments to the Jews to be kept by the Jews. The Bible states it in no uncertain terms: "And Moses summoned all Israel and said to them, “Hear, O Israel, the statutes and the rules that I speak in your hearing today, and you shall learn them and be careful to do them. The Lord our God made a covenant with us in Horeb. Not with our fathers did the Lord make this covenant, but with us, who are all of us here alive today." (Deuteronomy 5:1-3)
(In other words, the Law was literally for those people within earshot and their direct descendents. The rest of humanity... Gentiles, including Muslims... is held to a different standard, that of the seven Noahide laws. Muslims may disagree. Heck, a good many Christians disagree; but I'm presenting my perspective here, and that's heavily weighted in favor of what's actually written in the book.)
As to why these ten are commonly singled out even though all are commanded by God, the reason is pretty clear. These commandments are actually recorded in two places (Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5), but they're commonly quoted from Exodus 20. When we look at the chapter just prior to that, chapter 19, we see that God told Moses that he had three days to get the people ready; that God Himself would come down in fire and cloud so that everybody could see and hear Him. After they witness the thunder and lightning and fire, cloud and smoke, these particular commandments are the ones that Moses relayed. They're the ones for which everyone was present. 

They didn't actually hear the words; that much is plain in Exodus 20, but they heard God's voice in the rumblings and the thunder. Nor are these the only commandments given at that time; Moses was also instructed to make animal sacrifice and in the proper building of an altar, and many others followed. But these ten are in a convenient group in a very dramatic passage. Other than that, they're of the same importance as all the others. As Jesus spoke to his Jewish followers:
“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven." (Matthew 5:17-19)
Hmm. It seems pretty clear to me that if we were held to the Old Testament commandments, then picking out ten and ignoring the rest would earn one a well-deserved charge of hypocrisy. Predictably, that's exactly what happens. And just as predictably, atheists and other non-Christians start throwing back verses about pigs and shellfish and stoning and all manner of things.

Oy veh.

But again, these are commandments given to Jews. Jesus had a broader message, applicable to both Jews and Gentiles, and it was basically in two parts, with a corollary.
Part 1: Love God. 
If you love God then surely you're not going to put others before Him; you're not going to use his name as a curse, and you'll set aside some time to honor Him.
Part 2: Love your neighbor. 
If you do this, then surely you wouldn't do any of those things that would do him harm.

When Jesus says "on these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets" in Matthew 22:36-40, you'd think it would be obvious why. The corollary is found in Matthew 7:12. We call this the Golden Rule. You know, the one about doing unto others as you'd have them do unto you. It's a fantastic rule; a great rule; it's how you treat people you love. It's immediately obvious that it covers every bit of ground in the secular portions of the Ten Commandments. Who wants to be disrespected, murdered, cuckolded, robbed, lied about, etc.? Nobody. So nobody should do those things.

So... back to Political Insider's question: "Should the Ten Commandments be posted in public places?"

Well, as an American who values freedom of religion as guaranteed by the First Amendment, I recognize that some people have a problem with the first three (or is it four?) of those commandments, and can understand their unease at being judged by people who insist upon them. They feel that they may face the Christian analog of sharia law; and in some cases they may very well be right.

As a conscientious Christian, of Jewish descent, it doesn't bother me in the slightest if they're not posted, because they fully represent neither the inclusiveness nor the comprehensive nature of my religion. They are intended for a specific People and they list specific offenses which represent only the tip of the iceberg, whether we're talking about Old Testament Law or the kinds of offenses humans may perpetrate on one another. Given my druthers, I'd post something that far better represents both my religious faith and my secular convictions, the Golden Rule:
Whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them.
Whereas the Ten Commandments were intended for a People, these words of Jesus were intended for all people, to be spread as part of the Great Commission. The statement is thoroughly Christian; yet thoroughly every-other-religion-on-Earth. It eloquently defines fair treatment under the law. It leaves not a single offense behind, and not even the most die-hard atheist could reasonably object to it.



About the title: "X" is the Roman numeral ten. However, in algebra, "X" is used to denote a variable quantity. Since the un-numbered commandments in Exodus 20 might be counted as ten or eleven, I think this double-duty title is most appropriate.

Super-powers and Sociology

If you're reading this, the chances are that you have a superpower. You might not think it's much, but anyone who's color-blind marvels at your ability to simply look at a banana or apple from a distance and tell if it's ripe.

Realization of this got me thinking about superpowers in general, and the way they're depicted in comics, television, and the movies. Superman, for instance, is often involved in storylines where he loses his powers for one reason or another. It's as if they think that Superman has a bag of powers that he might accidentally leave at the bus stop.

Try this experiment. I want you to peer at a bunch of apples and use your "scarletvision" to find the ripe ones. Easy-peezy. Now shut off your scarletvision. No?

In modern fiction, Superman's powers can be turned on or off, and this just seems totally illogical to me. Why should Superman need to "turn on" his X-ray vision? X-rays are part of a continuous spectrum that includes visible light. In these enlightened times we surely realize that X-ray vision must work the same as any other vision: by detecting the ambient X-radiation in the environment.

Some suggest that Superman can simply ignore his X-ray vision. OK, try it yourself. Just ignore your scarletvision and see the world as your color-blind friends see it.

Didn't work? Imagine that.

When Superman was first introduced his powers were part of who he was. Today they're not; they're something that he has. He was super-strong; now he has super-strength. He was invulnerable; now he has invulnerability. He was super-fast; now he has super-speed, etc. And what he has can be taken from him. That just doesn't make a lot of sense. If, as in the Golden Age, Krypton were a heavy gravity world, then it accounts for both Superman's strength and remarkable resilience. But those things really can't be taken away, can they? This is no mere weakness; rather, an instant and temporary change the molecular structure of his muscular fibers. Sounds unlikely to me. If Superman sees through objects via the normal method of having some equivalent to rods or cones that are sensitive to X-rays, then what could make those temporarily disappear? It's sort of amazing that in many respects  the depiction of Superman was more plausible in the 1930s than it is now in the more "scientifically advanced" 21st century. Vision is an exception, really, as in early depictions Superman was known to ruin film with the X-rays coming from his eyes. So it wasn't perfect, but on the whole it was more rational. Comic-book science has never been exemplary, but this makes me wonder if this is a merely ignorance, or is something else at work?

This bit about having powers rather than being powerful isn't limited to Superman, of course. In a recent episode of The Flash, they used the old trope of a power-inhibiting field while transporting supervillains. The X-Men comics, of all places, is the very one where you'd expect this trope to be subverted, as mutants are by very definition what they are.  But... no joy. Not only are power dampeners commonplace, not only do they work on mutants; but there's even a mutant called Leech who is a living power dampener, whose very presence will un-grow fur instantly. Get that...? Fur is a 'power' that is maintained by whatever  magic permeates the comic-book aether:

From "X-Men: The Last Stand" (2006)
Copyright by Marvel Entertainment and 20th Century Fox
Reproduced under Fair Use for the purpose of political commentary

So what gives? I haven't quite decided yet. But I expect that it has something to do with the social conditioning of the writers, combined with the onus of having to build a mythos on a topsy-turvy legacy foundation. The social aspect may be the assumption that people in positions of power got that way not through innate ability, but by the 'things' they were given. It seems to fit, at least in my initial pondering. Some supers (like Superman) have powers thrust upon them; some (like Spider-Man or The Flash) receive them through sheer luck; some (like the X-Men or Aquaman) are born into them. And some people deliberately reach for power. Typically, these are the villains, like Lex Luthor. Lex doesn't actually have any superpowers except his intellect; but he makes up for it with tech.  

In general, the less someone wants their extraordinary abilities, the more likely it is that they'll be heroic. Not even Tony Stark is an exception here. How was Iron Man born? As a life-saving portable power supply/magnet to keep the shrapnel away from Tony Stark's beating heart. To get to the tech, Stark had to undergo a Frankensteinian transformation (which is mostly forgotten in recent appearances). 

It's interesting to see the typical conditions in which heroes lose their powers and how they get them back. Typically, they're lost through selfishness, as in the movies Superman II and Spider-Man 2 (Both Clark Kent and Peter Parker wanted a normal romantic life) and The Fantastic Four (Ben Grimm wanted to regain normality). Thor lost his to hubris. How do they get them back...? Through selfless sacrifice. Always. It seems to me that the more this trope is used ("it wasn't you, it was your powers... now give something back.") then the more science and common sense must be flushed away to make it work. I personally am not fond of what I see as a trend in moral interpretation that undermines altruism (doing what's right simply because it's right) in favor of a moral imperative (serving the community because you owe society a debt). And as we see, over the years this subliminal message that "it's not yours" has escalated from those things that are clearly abstract (super powers) to those things that are clearly unalienable (even the hair follicles on a person's body!).

Certainly, heroic stories exist to communicate certain ideals of morality. Modern storytellers like to think they're weaving complex tales with multi-dimensional characters. Still, I can't help thinking that the underlying message is a lot simpler than even the authors believe.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Could private spaceflight have happened before now?

In response to an earlier post, Reflections on First Orbit, Caleb left an insightful comment. I'm  reproducing the entire thing here because it really is insightful and you should consider the whole of it:
I agree with you about the benefits of having the government step back and letting the private sector take over. Government regulations have no doubt held back space progress (much as they currently are for alternative nuclear power plant approaches). Granted, anything moving fast enough to be in orbit is moving fast enough to cause considerable destruction, so I get the reasoning behind wanting to limit that.

But for the sake of discussion, I'll raise another question (to which I don't know the answer): how much of the previous lack of private sector investment in space is due to government regulations compared to lower costs of entry? Manufacturing and engineering processes, material sciences, computer power... have all improved considerably since Apollo. Not only does a smartphone have more computing power than Apollo, but we have an improved ability to gather real time digital telemetry (not just cool videos!) from rockets, better AI control software that takes up less mass, higher fidelity computer simulations to weed out bad designs before ever building a prototype, lightweight carbon composite materials, the ability to 3D-print complex rocket nozzles (that would take who knows how long to build using traditional methods), and the accumulated wisdom of the past fifty years to draw on.

All of this has been slowly lowering the capital investment required to enter into spaceflight. Granted, the reduced government regulations are essential too, but a lot of these technology advancements are in fields only tangentially related to spaceflight (computer miniaturization, and manufacturing process, for example), and maybe this infrastructure had to be developed *before* private access to space could be made cheap enough to attract investors?

Or at least that's something I've been wondering about; I could be wrong. But it seems to me like a lot of the loosening regulations have come after the fact, as a response to the private sector finally saying "OK, this is something we're ready to do now," rather than the other way around. 
Great points, and they cover a lot of ground. You made me think.

I'm going to assume you meant to say "higher costs of entry" is what kept space investment from happening.

I'm then going to counter with the proposition that the costs of entry were not actually higher, relatively speaking. Rather, the goals were loftier.

You'll often see a tally of the expenditures for Apollo, for instance, with the message being that only government could have amassed this sum and targeted it for this purpose. On one level, I could simply accept that the massive government expenditures in spaceflight were necessary and that this was the only way to make it happen. On that level, I would point to the example of the Louisiana Purchase. Though it was a bargain, Napoleon having sold vast tracts of what was to him worthless, it was still a large expense for its day. And having purchased and secured the lands that would become 15 new states, the US Government granted tracts of land to homesteaders who settled and worked it. Whereas it was the government that acquired the land, it was private enterprise that tamed it.

But this would overlook the fact that NASA's every effort in the 1960s following Kennedy's famous speech was aimed at the immediate goal of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to Earth. It wasn't suborbital flight. It wasn't orbital flight. It wasn't a space station, orbital manufacturing, or even satellite launches, though we got some of those things. Those huge expenditures were for the purpose of zipping through those milestones and ignoring others to get to the Moon. And when that was done, we were a country whose adrenaline was spent.

I don't think that was the proper approach to tame space. In fact, I argue that it was over-reach. Kennedy wanted something dramatic; so he reached for the Moon. The Moon was reached, but not acquired. After only six manned exploratory landings, we haven't been back. Thus, my previous post focuses on the lack of progress once the political goal was achieved. That having been done, politicians lost interest in the more mundane tasks of taming Space. We kept up the momentum for a little while, but it didn't take many setbacks to reduce us to passengers to near-Earth orbit on Russian rockets.

I submit that without that massive and expensive government exercise in one-upmanship, we would, with a slower start, be far closer to the visions of 1950s speculation. The 1950 George Pal movie Destination Moon gave us an early glimpse of that vision. The first 15 minutes of the film adequately portray the mindset of America, I think, before that mindset was changed by the progressive dominance of Statists.


The idea of that time was that the government would rely on private industry to provide the technology for such travel, as it did with automobiles and air travel. While this fictional example also jumps straight to the Moon for storytelling purposes (it is called Destination Moon, after all) it's clear that the expectation was that industry would do so for economic reasons, even if they were expected rather than clearly known in advance. It was a form of prospecting. The fact that the government poured billions into the actual Moon landing is a clear indication to me that the economics were not yet right for it. A great deal of that effort was pure waste.

However, the desire was there. A 10-year-old watching Destination Moon would be a 25 year old young scientist, engineer, or mathematician in 1965, the year Intelsat I first launched. This was the first geosynchronous communications satellite as proposed by Arthur C. Clarke in 1945, and the first privately built object placed in orbit. We were going to go to space anyway. And the current work being done by SpaceX and Virgin Galactic, etc. are very much along the lines of what could have been done in the 1960s if the Moon had not eclipsed everything.

The Fog of Present Thinking.

We like to think that because we do things in a certain way that those things have to be done in that way. Usually the reason for it gets no further than "because that's how it's done." It's understandable to limit our thinking to the boundaries of our own experience. So I often encounter the argument that certain technologies are needed for spaceflight.

By 1962 we had transistor computers, disk drives, and importantly... customers for computers. The computer revolution was well under way, and NASA was just another customer. But we didn't really need anything more advanced than those computers for space travel, as demonstrated by the fact that we actually did it. Going to the moon was a mostly analog enterprise. Our parents planned the Moon shot with slide rules, and the bulk of that computational planning was necessary because of the complexity of a landing, second take-off, docking, and return to Earth well ahead of an economically feasible schedule. It takes far less effort to calculate a suborbital or orbital flight.
Links:
Motherboard: Faking the Moon Landing (not a hoax site)
Realclear.com: The Surprisingly Basic Technology of the Moon Landing
But today we think "Hey, we need computers," because we now include them in everything from toasters to greeting cards. But I'm fortunate to have been professionally active in the period when digital processing was in its ascension and the analog processing of the time in question was dominant. Much of my expertise was analog. For example,
  • Telephones are digital now. But they don't have to be. The key components of Bell's telephones (and all of them for the next century) were a battery and carbon.
  • Terminal emulators are called "emulators" because they emulate the workings of an electromechanical teletype machine. Our ASCII, EBCDIC and UNICODE are derived from the Baudot codes used by those mechanical devices.
  • Signalling was commonly transmitted, not through digital codes, but through analog pulses and frequencies (SF, FSK, DTMF, and pulsed current, for example.)
  • Photographs were transmitted by wire in 1842. Modern faxes began in imitation of an electromechanical process.
This tendency to lean on electronic computers overlooks and under-utilizes the vast potential of the organic computer carried in the cranium of every human pilot.

Likewise, 3D printers are no panacea. 3D printers allow us to construct things in one piece that traditional techniques would assemble from multiple components. Even then I argue that welding components together is not conceptually different from what a 3D printer does when it slowly builds up a model, layer upon layer. You want to count how many components are in a 3D printed object? Count the layers. Every time I critically examine a list of things that are "not possible to produce" without 3D printers, the list is effectively reduced to zero items. 3D printers make for cheaper modeling because you don't have to tool up for a single item. But the biggest result of expensive modeling is that your planning becomes so much more careful.

Higher tech isn't always an improvement. Spaceship One's rocket burns a mixture of rubber and nitrous oxide because this choice of fuel is dense, cheap and stable. Much more so than the liquid rockets of the 1960s. As a result, this tiny engine achieves suborbital altitude. But it uses no technology that couldn't have been obtained in the 1960s had not one entity been calling all the shots.

Look at any new car lot. Electronic fuel injection, ABS computer-controlled brakes, fuel and filter monitoring sensors, emission controls, GPS positioning and navigation, OnStar, satellite radio, collision detection, rear-view camera, an iPod dock, on-board wi-fi... etc. Your car is capable of astonishingly accurate telemetry and tracking to the point where some cars today are capable of driving themselves. Cars are built this way because the features sell, the manufacturers find them to be profitable, and in some cases because the government mandates them. But not one of them... not a single one... is there because it's necessary.

Ultralight Aircraft
Photo by Heather Ray.
Likewise, a cloth wing strapped to a lawn chair and small engine with a fan can get you airborne. Very little is required for air travel once the principle is known. All of the safety features and scalability naturally acrete. The economic barriers to new tech are primarily finding the principles. Once they're known, then advancement rapidly and naturally follows.

My point is that spaceflight didn't actually require any of those things that today are commonly considered to have lowered the cost of entry. Cost of entry wouldn't actually be lowered because those things wouldn't have actually been used... certainly not to the degree that they are relied upon today.

On the other hand, until the Commercial Space Launch Act of 1984, US Government policy flatly forbid anyone but NASA from launching a rocket into space; and afterwards, it remained highly regulated [pdf]. Money doesn't buy your way past that barrier.

In other words, while the technological barriers were non-existent and the economic barriers readily overcome, the barrier of government regulation was insurmountable. And once it was lifted it left behind a climate of regulation and calcified thought processes that we're only now overcoming. And even that is happening slowly. Today... this year... the U.S. Government believes that it has the actual authority to "license" (i.e. control access and permission) the operation of individuals working on another planet. Here's a link. And they think that this is a progressive and wonderful step at de-regulation. In the 1950s they would have been laughed at for being completely deluded. And now it is we the citizens who have been deluded into thinking that we need their permission.

I maintain that if we had followed the natural path of free enterprise, we would very likely have a permanent presence on the Moon today, and that commercial space flight would be routine. Arthur C. Clarke's vision of the world of 2001: A Space Odyssey might have actually happened in 2001.


Saturday, May 09, 2015

The Hague Declaration: Not Only No...

It's not often that Creative Commons posts something on Facebook to which I take exception, then I saw an infographic from The Hague Declaration:


It's called "Big Data Can Reshape The World and Save Lives". I'm linking rather than embedding the infographic because 1. it's bloody long, and 2. I don't agree with it, just as I don't agree with the Declaration itself. Now, that may seem odd coming from me, as I'm a big proponent of Creative Commons, Free Software, and produce free software and music myself. And it may seem incomprehensible that I could oppose something with such an awesome title and has such bodacious benefits. After all, it heals lepers, calms the sea, and raises the dead. Nevertheless, this Declaration is one of the most thoughtless bits of sloppy thinking I've seen since the Occupy Wall Street crowd published their "Silly Demands".

Let's start by taking a look at the Principles of the Hague Declaration:

1. INTELLECTUAL PROPERTY WAS NOT DESIGNED TO REGULATE THE FREE FLOW OF FACTS, DATA AND IDEAS, BUT HAS AS A KEY OBJECTIVE THE PROMOTION OF RESEARCH ACTIVITY

Oh, dear, they're in trouble already. This is factually incomplete. As explained in the U.S. Constitution, copyrights and patents exist "To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries."

One aspect of science is research. But IP doesn't exist for that one aspect, nor for science alone. Rather, it is to promote science and the useful arts, aka engineering and manufacturing. Furthermore, the mechanism by which this is accomplished is, in fact, the regulation of the free flow of facts, data and ideas. In the case of patents, this regulation is intended to accomplish several things. Among them:
  1. to allow inventors to realize an uncontested profit for a limited time, so as to encourage invention.
  2. to prompt inventors to make speedy progress by limiting the time period in which this monopoly is available to them.
  3. to prompt inventors to give up the details of their inventions to the public through patent registration. In exchange for these details, the limited monopoly is granted.
  4. to take advantage of the work of others, in that the work of expired patents may be freely adapted and used by engineers, manufacturers, and other inventors. Once a patent expires the work belongs to the public. Therefore a patent is merely a delayed grant to the Public in its entirety, fully explained; in exchange for which the Public grants the inventor a time-limited opportunity to capitalize his invention.
The benefits of copyright are similar, and while copyright law is perverted and extended far past reasonable limits, the solution to that is not to throw out the good with the bad. Copyright law needs reform, but this document doesn't address it.

The Hague Declaration simply gets it wrong and the very first point. This doesn't bode well.

2. PEOPLE SHOULD HAVE THE FREEDOM TO ANALYSE AND PURSUE INTELLECTUAL CURIOSITY WITHOUT FEAR OF MONITORING OR REPERCUSSIONS

This, as we will see, is supremely ironic. Also, one-sided.

While the authors want freedom from interference from "any body", citing privacy concerns, with no regard to the privacy concerns of those who originated the data. In vernacular, they would like access to all of your stuff, and don't you dare ask what they're looking at.

The statement, "The use of facts, data and ideas must not prejudice the legitimate rights of individuals to privacy and a private life," is mere platitude, as the rest of the Declaration renders it meaningless, as we'll see.

3. LICENSES AND CONTRACT TERMS SHOULD NOT RESTRICT INDIVIDUALS FROM USING FACTS, DATA AND IDEAS

I'm calling BS on this one as well... ironically on the grounds of Natural Rights. And in this discussion, the word "speech" is a shorthand stand-in for any exchange of information.
  1. A right to free speech is not simply the freedom to speak. It is necessarily accompanied by a right to decide for yourself when and where you will speak, how your communication will be phrased, and to whom it will be directed. Unless you have every single one of these freedoms, you do not have free speech.
  2. Your freedom of assembly and speech require that you be allowed to decide for yourself the parties with whom you will associate. You have the right to keep your mouth shut unless you deem the conditions suitable for speech.
  3. You have the right to enter into collective agreements with like-minded individuals. If you can't agree as to contract terms, you don't enter into the contract. You walk away, and do without, or get what you need elsewhere.
  4. If you're not a party to a contract, it's none of your business.
I promote Free Software. This is routinely accompanied by contract terms that restrict individuals from using facts, data, and ideas in certain ways. These terms are there for the benefit of society in general, as they restrict the user from employing the software selfishly. As with any contract it is either freely accepted or rejected... if you don't like it, don't use it.

4. ETHICS AROUND THE USE OF CONTENT MINING TECHNIQUES WILL NEED TO CONTINUE TO EVOLVE IN RESPONSE TO CHANGING TECHNOLOGY

Ethics is far too fuzzy a term to be useful here. That said, the fuzzier the term, the fuzzier the rules need to be to be broadly applicable. You will find that "take only what others freely give to you" is applicable to any technology.

5. INNOVATION AND COMMERCIAL RESEARCH BASED ON THE USE OF FACTS, DATA, AND IDEAS SHOULD NOT BE RESTRICTED BY INTELLECTUAL PROPERTY LAW

This is in direct conflict with the purposes of Copyright and Patent law as authorized by the Constitution. ALL research is based on "facts and data", so these terms are totally meaningless here. However patents are ideas... and it should be immediately obvious to you that a patent is preceded by research and experimentation that is governed under the principle of "trade secret" until such time as a patent can be expressed and filed. As we've discussed, patents are granted exclusivity for a purpose, and for a limited time. So wait with patience, or find another line of work.

There are a number of waffle terms though this Declaration that render it meaningless or self-contradictory, such as "content which as been obtained legally". You might agree to every term of this Declaration, and this clause would nullify it all were it not nullified itself by other terms.

It's My House

This document is written for researchers and deals with the focused area of data mining. The take-home message of it is that the authors believe that anything that can be read (by humans) should be capable of being mined (by automation). I highlight this distinction between humans and automation because the distinction is necessary, as there is exactly no impediment whatsoever to the mining of data by humans of that information they can already read. Without the distinction the Declaration has zero impact.

I view a free society as one in which Libertarian principles prevail. So you may use what you given, but this does not grant you license to take by force. And there are legitimate privacy concerns among individuals and the providers of communications and social networking platforms. These privacy concerns are addressed by Terms of Service, Usage, and Privacy contracts intended to both protect the individual and improve the profitability and sustainability of the social platform. This is a perfectly reasonable application of both contracts and intellectual property, melded with the natural rights of speech and free association in a digital society. So if an individual or group of individuals wish to withhold data from you... tough. They're acting within their own bounds of free speech, including the freedom not to speak and to choose their audience. You are free to choose more accessible sources of information.

This may cause research journals that are not machine-readable to lose their authoritative standing. Wonderful, those journals deserve it. It doesn't take a law.  

It may mean that certain tools that are restrictive are preferentially discarded by those who publish research. Marvelous, the publishers should have given you what you needed. It doesn't take a law.  

It may mean that researchers stampede toward new, open journals that will take the place of calcified stalwarts of academia. Fine, it's time for a change. It doesn't take a law.

The Hague Declaration doesn't just throw out the baby with the bathwater. It has collateral effects that are not of any concern whatsoever to the authors. In effect The Hague Declaration demands a law saying that it's legal for Peeping Toms ("researchers") to take home movies through the windows of your house because your house has windows ("human readable"), and because interesting stuff ("undiscovered data") may be going on in there. Furthermore, it demands that the law declare that such Peeping-Tomery is explicitly excluded from other laws because they wants it. Furthermore, it demands that it is illegal for the landlord to install curtains ("DRM", etc.) to prevent such Peeping-Tomery. And oh, by the way, the Peeping Toms will totally respect your privacy.

Answer: Fuck off.

You're not entitled to what someone else has just because you want it or because it will be useful to you. If you don't like the game as it's played, start a new game. Will that solve the problem? Well, ask yourself how many people play Rounders now that we have Baseball.

Saturday, May 02, 2015

A Visit to Niceland (or, "What is Money?")

I titled this piece not because I intend to give you the same old explanation that doesn't make any sense, but because I want to explain it in (hopefully) a different way... one that gives you a better understanding of what money actually is in a way that hopefully shines a light on everything else you ever read about the economy.

You've probably been taught, as I was, that money is valuable. This doesn't make a whole lot of sense because it's just pieces of paper or numbers in a computer. Perhaps you've been taught that it represents value, perhaps your share of the gold in Fort Knox. "Money doesn't grow on trees," went the adage, because it represented some amount of physical gold or silver. After all, the gold and silver certificates that were the precursors of our bills used to be printed with "Pay to the Bearer on Demand". But even when they were common, you really couldn't expect to walk out of the bank with gold in exchange for you certificate. Today that message is removed entirely.

Money used to be a convenient way of "carrying" gold
image via wikimedia commons

If you're really savvy you've been instructed that modern economics is "driven by debt". That in itself is pretty incomprehensible. Debt is debt, and it doesn't really make a lot of sense that debt should make money spring into existence, does it? Other people have explained this, but all of those explanations that I have seen (such as The American Dream film) are bigoted fear-mongering conspiracy theories applied to the American system. I'm going to explain how you arrive at a fiat monetary system through good intentions rather than Machiavellian machinations.

So what I'm going to do here is chuck the whole system aside for a bit and explore what the world looks like without money. What if capitalism had no capital?


No money, No money, No money....

In this imaginary society ("Niceland") people don't use money. Instead they just do what they choose to do. But of course, as you might expect, not everybody is very good at everything. You might want to call on your neighbors to help you out. Everybody in Niceland is... well... nice, so they haven't any problem at all helping their neighbors out.

You might immediately conclude that Niceland was a communist country, but no... Communists use money. They just don't call attention to it. Communists live by this principle: "From each according to his ability; to each according to his need." Mostly they like to keep things "fair" by demanding more from some people than from others, then spreading the money around more or less evenly. Mostly "less", since some people are going to get a lot more than they give. If that doesn't exactly sound fair, it's because Communists aren't really that nice. The illusion of altruism masks something much darker. You see, "ability" doesn't mean desire or effort, nor is it a self-assessment. Instead, they'll just take whatever it is they decide you owe, all the while informing you that it's "fair". And let's be honest... giving away someone else's stuff doesn't make you charitable. Nor can a victim of armed robbery be hailed as a philanthropist.

No, in Niceland we have no money, and we don't use force. Instead we just do favors for one another voluntarily and cheerfully. Of course, since we're all very nice in Niceland, we all hope to return the favors we receive someday.

In Niceland, we're very nice.
image via printablecolouringpages.co.uk
When you're dealing with a lot of nice people, it can get pretty complicated remembering who you want to return favors to. So we make things easy here by giving someone an IOU when they do us a favor. Sort of like, "IOU one favor". Sometimes we like to keep a little better track of it, so we'll write "small favor", "favor", "big favor", or "great big favor". Then, when someone needs something from us they can just present the IOU that we gave them, or give us one of their own. A lot of these IOUs don't exist before we receive a favor. We just write them down on a new slip of paper when we need them. But that's cool because we all accept each other's IOUs. We're that nice.

Seems legit.
When we started doing this in Niceland it was all well and good for a while, but then some of us started to feel bad because we really wanted to return favors to people, but some people didn't really need what we had to give. I might owe you a favor, but since I only make rubber widgets, you might never need what I produce. What you really need is something that Bob can give you. No problem there! I gave Bob some rubber widgets, and as a result I have one of Bob's IOUs here. I can give you that, and you can take it to Bob. I'll just give you the favor that Bob says he owes me.

Now some things become pretty clear about commerce in Niceland:
  1. Some  of us can't really return a favor in kind. And so we write IOUs that we are knowingly incapable of redeeming.
  2. The people who receive those IOUs know as well as we do that we're never going to redeem them. They plan to pass on the obligation. In fact...
  3. The best we can do is trade in other peoples' obligations. But really, those were given just like ours, by people who have no intention of ever repaying in kind.
  4. Everybody's too nice to publicly notice the fact that the IOUs don't really mean anything.

Let there be...

A "fiat" currency is one where money just springs into existence by decree. The IOU is a perfect example, because I can just write one, and it has value, backed only by my promise to repay the favor. The IOU incurs an obligation. It doesn't just act like money... it is money. Gambling "markers" are traded all the time. They're just IOUs. A marker is as good as cash until the casino calls it in... and only then are some of them revealed to be bad checks. A marker is also a good example of real-world currency that's not issued by a bank.

Far from being a money-free society, Niceland naturally[1] gravitated to capitalism, with a fiat currency called the IOU, backed by good intentions. It really and truly is "driven by debt", and it's a pretty good approximation of what we have in real life in the United States, with two significant exceptions.

The first significant exception is motivation. Nicelanders are driven by a desire to make good on their obligations, whereas Americans are driven by a desire to accumulate the obligations of others, represented by currency. They don't think of it that way, of course. Mostly, they don't think of it at all. They just know that money gets them "stuff", so... mo' money.

The other significant exception is the Bank. And not just any bank, but one particular banking system, the National Reserve Bank. It's the only entity that's legally allowed to issue "dollars", which is what we call our IOUs. It exists to solve the problem of "good intentions." You see, so long as we traded in existing IOUs that represented actual services promised, the value of each IOU was pretty solid. But some people realized that they could just write the IOU with no earnest intention of repaying, When that happens they just run around writing IOUs that are completely worthless.

Fiat money is essentially a promise. Belief = worth.
image via anoregonconservative.typepad.com
Money is whatever you exchange, even if it's promises.
image via secretsofvancouver.com

That happens in the real world, too. If people could just get whatever they want by making empty promises, they will. They won't bother to trade in currency obtained from others. Soon, IOUs are flying everywhere and they're worth nothing. It gets to a point where no amount of currency buys anything at all, and that's hyperinflation. So to prevent this, what's needed is some issuer of currency that can never go broke and can never renege. So except for some outlying examples like gambling markers (which are kept mostly honest because they'll be cashed in for currency), all of the currency in the United States is issued by the Federal Reserve Bank system. And the Federal Reserve Bank system is controlled by, and pays its profits to, the government of the United States. In theory, the People.

Note: I know that you might have been told that the "Federal Reserve Bank" is owned by shadowy foreign interests beholden to no one and that they hold the US Government in thrall. It is the central theme of the film "The American Dream". This is, to put it mildly, anti-Semitic, bigoted horseshit. It is the literal meaning of the conspiracy trope that "the Jews control everything" (the Rothschild family is Jewish)

First of all, there are twelve Federal Reserve Banks. By law, the Federal Reserve banks pay out a 6% dividend to their stockholders after expenses. Its stockholders (again by law) must consist of US commercial (not investment) banks. No Fed stock may be owned by any foreign interest or any private interest (look it up). All profits of the Federal Reserve above the statutory 6% dividend and operational reserves are paid to the Treasury of the United States of America. 

Hyperinflation. In 1923
Germany, currency was
cheaper than firewood.
Since we "pay" our currency back to "ourselves", the dollars are good so long as we never call them due. We say they're backed by "the full faith and credit" of the United States Government. In other words, by our belief alone. And "full faith and credit" means that the government will never default on a debt. If necessary it will... er... issue more debt. Sounds screwy, but yeah. It really works that way. Debt is the only legal tender.

And yes, I know that you've been taught that it's the other way around; that money is used to pay debt. But that depends on the fiction that money has actual value. In reality it always represents debt... a promise to repay. When you take out a loan the actual repayment is in the goods and labor that you give up to acquire the money used to repay the loan. That's where the value is. The dollars are just markers.

The danger is when politicians, having learned that money is simply a promise, promise everything to everybody... and not through their own efforts, but by the easy means of fiat. They make empty promises in which the debt is paid with more debt, with nothing of actual value having been produced. And that's contrary to the nature and purpose of the system, which is to be a stable and reliable keeper of promises.

When people lose confidence in this system, the money loses its value and People then look for a harder currency... in effect, "cashing in the markers". And that's when the whole thing collapses. It is we the People, through our government and our own self-discipline, that have the task of keeping our currency strong by limiting our debt to that which we intend to repay in kind. We should limit government spending not because we'll "run out of money". We won't. We should do it because otherwise the People will run to other money having lost their faith in ours. Then what we have will be worthless.


I'll come back to Niceland in a later post.


[1] I say "naturally" because it always happens. Always. Money changes hands in the People's Republic of China. In Star Trek (supposedly a money-free society), gold-pressed latinum is the de-facto currency (because it can't be created in a replicator). And where that's not available (as in Star Trek Voyager), the currency of choice was "replicator rations". Still, no one ever went hungry, did they? Truly communistic societies of greater than a handful of people are completely fictional.