Saturday, April 05, 2014

Opposing gay marriage is no longer an acceptable position

I wrote my first blog post on gay marriage over ten years ago, and I'm proud of having written back then:
There are no tenable grounds for denying equal rights to homosexuals, just as there are no (and never were any) tenable grounds for denying equal rights to blacks. This one is a complete no-brainer. Why does it have to take so long for society to figure these things out?
Today, in the shadow of the debate of Brendan Eich's ouster from Mozilla, it is time to go one step further: opposing equal rights on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity should no longer be an acceptable position in civilized society, just as opposing equal rights for people according to the color of their skin is no longer an acceptable position.  Anyone who opposes gay marriage, or who opposed it in the past and does not repent, doesn't deserve to sit at the grown-up table any more.  Gay marriage is no longer an issue where reasonable people can agree to disagree.

Why now?  Because this year is the tenth anniversary of the legalization of gay marriage in Massachusetts.  Over the staunch objections of conservatives, we did the experiment, and the results are clear: none of the horrible things that conservatives predicted would happen if gay marriage were legalized have actually happened.  Children have not been "converted" into being gay.  They are not confused over gender roles.  Reproductive rates have not plummeted (alas).  There has not been a dramatic increase in child abuse.  In fact, the most egregious source of systemic child abuse in the last ten years has been the Catholic church, one of the staunchest opponents of gay marriage!

So, enough already.  This is no longer a theoretical debate.  Unless someone can come up with some actual evidence of harm caused by allowing gays to marry (and making bigots feel queasy doesn't count) this debate should be over.

Friday, April 04, 2014

Brendan Eich was not fired for his politics, he was fired for his morals

The difference between conservative hypocrisy and liberal hypocrisy is that conservatives employ hypocrisy in service of their goals, while liberals employ it to undermine theirs.  Conor Friedersdorf at The Atlantic, in a classic fit of liberal moral relativism, argues that Brendan Eich being fired as CEO of Mozilla for having supported Proposition 8 is a violation of the liberal values of tolerance and acceptance of other people's views.  And it's not just Conor, other self-identified liberals are wringing their hands about this as well.

All of which badly misses the point.  Gay marriage is not like other political issues.  Reasonable people can disagree about economic policy, industrial regulation, campaign finance reform.  Reasonable people cannot disagree about gay marriage.  Every single non-relgious argument ever put forth against gay marriage has been definitively debunked.  Allowing gays to marry does not destroy the fabric of society.  It is not bad for kids.  It does not deter heterosexual people from marrying and forming stable families (or not, as they choose).  It does *none* of these things.  The *only* negative consequence of allowing gays to marry is that it makes bigots feel queasy.

Brendan Eich was not fired for taking a political position, he was fired because his actions provide evidence that in his heart of hearts he is a bigot, that he has a broken moral code.  And while having a broken moral code is not necessarily a show-stopper for being a CEO (alas), it is not an unreasonable qualification for a company to choose to adopt.  There is nothing illiberal or unreasonable about it.  The world would probably be a better place if more companies did it.

But again, this is not really about gay marriage.  This is about liberal self-doubt.  Why is it so hard for liberals to stand up for their convictions?  Even if gay marriage were not so morally cut-and-dried, privately discriminating against Brendan for his political views is at least as morally justified as the public discrimination against gays that he once tried to have enshrined in law.  No matter how you slice it, there is no injustice here.

Wednesday, April 02, 2014

The Supreme Court just killed American democracy

Imagine we play the following game: we each take out our wallets and place a stake on the table.  Whoever places the larger bet wins, and gets the whole pot plus half of whatever remains in the loser's wallet.  No cards, no dice, just strategy.  Would you play?  Would you play against David and Charles Koch?

In the aftermath of the latest Supreme Court decision you will have no choice.  Actually, you haven't had a choice but to play this game for a very long time now, ever since the Court gutted soft-money campaign contribution limits in the Citizens United decision.  The game is politics, and since Citizens United, politicians have been for sale to the highest bidder.  (The corruption is shockingly brazen.  I write checks that are big enough to get myself invited to personal meetings with senators and congressmen on a fairly regular basis.  These invitations literally come with price lists attached.  It's like ordering off a (very expensive) restaurant menu.)

But Citizens United still left in place an overall limit on direct contributions somewhere north of $100,000.  That is a substantial amount of money to be sure, but not entirely out of reach of small (100-1000 people) groups who really felt passionately about some issue or other.  (Such groups are sometimes pejoratively known as "special interest groups".  Note to Mitt Romney: special interest groups are people, my friend.)  This meant that non-billionaires, if they worked together, still had a shot at winning the political poker game that Citizens United has forced us all to play.

The latest decision, McCutcheon vs. FEC, removes the house limit on the stakes in the political poker game.  This magnifies the political power of those at the very top of the economic ladder, and accelerates the transformation of the united states into a fully fledged plutocracy.

Here's the really scary thing about the political poker game: to win the game, the super-wealthy don't actually have to write these enormous checks.  All they have to do to have undue influence over a politician is to make a credible threat to write an enormous check to their opponent in the next election.  Before McCutcheon, the law limited the magnitude of that threat.  Now that limit is gone.

As a result of McCutcheon, democracy is now fully dead in the United States of America, even though the show will go on for quite a while.  There will be campaigns, and there will be elections, and there will be lip service given to the will of the people.  But American politicians will henceforth have no choice but to do the bidding of the super-rich.  That will be the only way to keep their jobs.

UPDATE: Senator Bernie Sanders has proposed a Constitutional amendment to fix this problem.  I urge you to contact your senators and representatives and urge them to support this amendment.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

The Divine Right of Billionaires

When I was a young geek growing up in the back woods of Tennessee, Northern California seemed like the promised land.  It had everything: Beaches.  Redwoods.  Venture capitalists.  What made Silicon Valley more attractive than, say, Wall Street or Hollywood, was that the people who inhabited the place seemed more genuine.  New York is full of Gordon Gekko's trying to one-up each other in finding ways to game the system.  Los Angeles is full of actors who, by definition, try to make a living by pretending to be anyone other than themselves.  But Silicon Valley was just full of cool people who built cool shit and got fabulously wealthy as a result.

So I was dismayed to learn that one of the icons of Silicon Valley, Tom Perkins, co-founder of the legendary VC firm Kleiner-Perkins Caulfield and Byers, was -- how shall I put this? -- saying some things that did not fit with my vision of the Silicon Valley ethos.  His most recent rise to prominence began when he wrote a letter to the Wall Street Journal in which he compared the currently fashionable vilification of the "one percent" to the Nazi atrocities against the Jews:
...I would call attention to the parallels of fascist Nazi Germany to its war on its "one percent," namely its Jews, to the progressive war on the American one percent, namely the "rich."
From the Occupy movement to the demonization of the rich embedded in virtually every word of our local newspaper, the San Francisco Chronicle, I perceive a rising tide of hatred of the successful one percent. There is outraged public reaction to the Google buses carrying technology workers from the city to the peninsula high-tech companies which employ them. We have outrage over the rising real-estate prices which these "techno geeks" can pay. We have, for example, libelous and cruel attacks in the Chronicle on our number-one celebrity, the author Danielle Steel, alleging that she is a "snob" despite the millions she has spent on our city's homeless and mentally ill over the past decades.
This is a very dangerous drift in our American thinking. Kristallnacht was unthinkable in 1930; is its descendant "progressive" radicalism unthinkable now?
This was met with understandable condemnation from all corners, and he eventually expressed some regret for using Kristallnacht as a metaphor.  But then he doubled down on the underlying theme in an hour-long interview  [transcript] at the San Francisco Commonwealth Club:
[Quoting Harvard Professor Ruth Wisse]: "[T]here is something to be said for his comparison of the politics at work in the two situations... Are you unemployed? The Jews have your jobs. Is your family mired in poverty? The Rothchilds have your money." ... I think the parallel holds. The typical German had never met a Jew, but some of the Jews were extremely wealthy. They owned the large department stores, and so forth and so forth. They were very prominent. I think it's a very good parallel and it holds.
The interview culminated with Perkins suggesting, with no hint of irony that I could discern, that we should abandon the democratic principle of one-person-one-vote in favor of one dollar one vote.

Now, you might be tempted (as I was) to say that this proposal doesn't even deserve the dignity of a response, that it is so outrageous that even taking it seriously enough to debunk it gives Perkins more credit than he deserves.  I think this is dangerous complacency.  His idea has garnered a lot of attention, not all of it negative, and the sad fact of the matter is that in the world we live in, all manner of crazy ideas require debunking.  So let us suspend disbelief for a moment and take Perkins at face value and assess the merits of his proposal on his own terms.

The core of Perkins's argument (as best I can make it out) is that the rich contribute more to society, and are therefore either more entitled or more able (or both) to decide how society is to be run.
I don't think anybody has any idea what the one percent is actually contributing to America. ... I'd like to take the Koch brothers. There are three of them. I know one of them, Bill, who has nothing to do with the other two that are highly political. They're all big contributors to charities and so forth. David Koch was on the board of New York Presbyterian Hospital. The hospital was going bankrupt, so David gave $100 million to the hospital.
So rich people give a lot of money to charity (but not as much as Tom Perkins would like to think).  And then:
The top one percent of taxpayers pays a greater share of the income tax burden than the bottom 90 percent combined, which totals more than 120 million taxpayers. In 2010, the top one percent of taxpayers, which totals roughly 1.4 million taxpayers, paid about 37 percent of all income taxes. This is a big jump from 1985, when the top one percent paid a quarter of all income taxes. Indeed, the income tax burden on the bottom 90 percent has dropped. The bottom 50 percent pays only 2.4 percent of the total taxes. The top 10 percent of taxpayers, the top 10 percent, pays 70.6 percent.
And that's it.  That is the sum total of his argument: The 1% give to charity, and pay a lot in taxes.  The tax burden on the 1% seems particularly to bother him.  He brings it up again and again:
I think that taxation, I wouldn't say it's a form of persecution, but the extreme progressivity of the tax rate is a form of persecution. 
[G]overnment is a giant beast that has to be fed and the only way to feed it is with taxes. Taxes will just go up, and up, and up.
Inevitably, the taxes will just rise, and rise, and rise, which I don't think does anybody any good, 99 percent, or 1 percent or whatever. 
I voted for Jerry Brown, which then he raised my taxes 30 percent. 
The fear is wealth tax, higher taxes, higher death taxes, just more taxes, until there is no more one percent.
There's more, but you get the idea.  So what, specifically, is the problem?
Let's just start with simple arithmetic. Let's say you're a successful author. Your income is taxed at a little over 50 percent if you live in California. On your death will be another roughly 50 percent tax. Out of the dollar you originally made, you kept 25 percent, 25 cents. You gave 75 percent of your lifetime's work in the form of taxes, not including property and other taxes.
My goodness, those poor rich people. It's amazing they have two nickels to rub together after all those taxes. But Perkins leaves out two very important facts:

1. Most rich people don't make their money from ordinary income.  Most of them (and Tom Perkins in particular) make their money from investments, and investments (at least long-term capital gains) are not taxed at 50%, they are taxed at 15%.  [UPDATE: Thanks to Wesley Darlington for pointing out that with the expiration of the Bush tax cuts in 2013 the top capital gains rate is now 20% rather than 15.  And if you live in California you pay 11% income tax on top of that.  But that still adds up to a lot less than 50%.  And anyone who finds the 11% California state income tax too burdensome is free to move to, say, Alaska, where the rate is only 7%.]

2.  The estate tax, obviously, doesn't kick in until after you die.  So it is not you who gives "75 percent of your lifetime's work in the form of taxes", you only give (at most) 50% (and if you're Tom Perkins its almost certainly less than 30%).  Your heirs give the rest.  (And the estate tax is not 50% either, but let's not quibble over details.)

Why does this matter?  Because Perkins believes that:
Silicon Valley is a meritocracy. It is simply a meritocracy.
And for the most part, he's right, which is one of the things that makes Silicon Valley such a great place to be.  But if Perkins has his way, Silicon Valley, along with the rest of the country, would cease to be a meritocracy and become instead a nation of dynastic wealth passed on from one generation to the next.

This is still a defensible position.  Passing wealth to your children is an old and venerable tradition in human civilization.  But this begins to undermine Perkins's position that the rich deserve a greater say in how society is run because they contribute more.  In a world of inherited wealth, the rich are not contributors, they are, more and more as time goes by, the descendants of contributors.

Aside from high taxes, Perkins has another theory about what is wrong with the U.S.:
Fifty years ago, Lyndon Johnson did two major things. He did the Civil Rights Act, which is marvelous, magnificent, and I think without criticism. He also did the war on poverty, which had wonderful aspirations, but which has been an absolute and total failure. It has caused all kinds of problems.
What kinds of problems?
First of all, there's more poverty more now than there ever has been.
Well, no, that's not true.  The poverty rate today is about 15%, which is considerably lower than it was in 1959 (21%).  At worst, the war on poverty has been a no-op.  The poverty rate today is a little lower than it was back when the Economic Opportunity Act was initiated, but not by much.

But Perkins, who cannot be bothered to look up even the most basic facts, is absolutely convinced that the EOA is the root of all evil.  Like taxes, he brings it up repeatedly:
There's 77 million Americans on food stamps. I think the biggest problem that Johnson unknowingly created was the destruction of the lower end of families in America. 
I'm drawing a straight line between the failed war on poverty and the increase of poverty, yes.
I think Johnson had absolutely no idea that what he was doing was wrong. It looked good and everybody approved it, but it had the result of destroying families. It just did. Then that destroyed the education of the children in those families and so forth, so it had a cascading effect. 
The rate of poverty is higher now than it ever has been in history. There are 77 million Americans on food stamps.
Finally, someone in the audience asked Perkins the obvious question:
Audience member: You cited Johnson's war on poverty as a disaster that led to more poverty and increased the number of children born out of wedlock. What should have been done back then that would have had a different outcome? 
Perkins: I think the answer to that is very, very long, and I'm not sure I have all those answers. We certainly did the wrong thing. What the right thing would have been, I'm not so sure.
Again, it's perfectly defensible not to want to second-guess Lyndon Johnson, but it is just a wee bit hypocritical to abdicate the responsibility to say what you would do differently in the same interview where you argue that you should be given a greater say in future policy decisions.

Towards the end of the interview Perkins runs completely off the rails. Having already argued that 1) taxes are too high, 2) the deficit is one of our most serious problems and that therefore 3) entitlements must be cut, he then goes on to say, "I think Medicare is great. Great. ... It's just underfunded."

Medicare is, of course, the single biggest entitlement program in the U.S. budget.  And according to Perkins it is underfunded.

So it is in the context of this completely incoherent set of positions that Perkins advocates handing even more control of our nation's affairs to people like him.

There was once a widespread political theory known as the divine right of kings which held that a monarch's right to rule came directly from God.  Today Tom Perkins, and others on the political right, seem to be advancing the divine right of billionaires.  On the merits, both theories deserve equal respect.

Nonetheless, there is an important lesson to be learned here:

When I was working on my Ph.D. one of my advisors told me that it's often instructive to examine incorrect arguments, especially when those arguments are advanced by smart people.  And make no mistake, Tom Perkins is no idiot.  He is a self-made man.  You don't get to where he got by being stupid.

So what's really behind this self-immolation?  Well, here are some clues.  Recall this example from Perkins's original letter to the Wall Street Journal:
We have, for example, libelous and cruel attacks in the Chronicle on our number-one celebrity, the author Danielle Steel, alleging that she is a "snob" despite the millions she has spent on our city's homeless and mentally ill over the past decades.
Seems a bit odd, doesn't it?  Amongst demonstrations in the streets and people blockading Google busses that he should complain about the San Francisco Chronicle calling a novelist a snob?

Perkins explains in the interview:
[My] frustrations had been building up for a long time about what I see as the demonization of the rich. It was a particularly nasty attack [emphasis added] on my ex-wife, which triggered my response.
 And what was the nature of this "nasty attack", beyond calling her a snob?
Among one of the attacks is she's number-one bestseller usually on every book. "New York Times," number one. Obviously, her books are being read in San Francisco, but they're never reported in the "Chronicle," ever. Anyway, that is what started it all.

So, by his own admission, Perkins is acting on a vendetta against the San Francisco Chronicle because they don't review his ex-wife's books.

But the lesson here is not that Tom Perkins is a jerk.  The lesson here is that Tom Perkins is a human being.  He may have been a very good venture capitalist.  That doesn't necessarily make him a good politician.

The reason democracy works is that it provides the best system of checks and balances to prevent any one person's foibles from being amplified too much.  This is important because we all have our foibles, even rich people.

Tom Perkins is right about one thing, and that is that there is a legitimate lesson to be drawn from the experience of the 1930s that is applicable to today's world: a mechanism that prevents any one person -- or small group of people -- from amassing too much power should not be abandoned lightly.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Kansas legalizes discrimination against interracial couples

The state of Kansas is about to pass a law that will legalize discrimination against interracial couples:

[T]he new law will allow any individual, group, or private business to refuse to serve interracial couples if “it would be contrary to their sincerely held religious beliefs.” Private employers can continue to fire black employees with white spouses on account of their skin color. Stores may deny interracial couples goods and services because they are married to someone with different skin color. Hotels can eject interracial couples or deny them entry in the first place. Businesses that provide public accommodations—movie theaters, restaurants—can turn away interracial couples at the door. And if an interracial couple sues for discrimination, they won’t just lose; they’ll be forced to pay their opponent’s attorney’s fees.
Oh, sorry, my mistake: it's not interracial couples that the law allows people to discriminate against, it's gay couples.  I guess that makes it OK.

[UPDATE] The bill has been killed, but not before it passed in the Kansas House of Representatives.

[UPDATE2] Now Arizona seem to have picked up the ball that Kansas dropped.

And as long as I'm writing an update, here's an interesting theory: the whole thing (at least the Kansas version) may have been a cynical political maneuver by Kansas's governor to gain an edge in the coming election.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Does it matter if the sum of all integers is -1/12?

In response to yesterday's post about the sum of all integers being -1/12 (or not), John Rimmer posted this comment:
"A grave disservice to numerical literacy" Good grief, do you think you could sound any more absurdly pompous if you tried? Most people's numerical literacy doesn't extend past high school mathematics, and doesn't need to. They certainly won't be harmed by having a confused understanding of infinite series. Given the amount of debate this video has generated, I'm not convinced mathematicians themselves understand infinite series.
Prompted by this comment I looked up the definition of "pompous". It means "affectedly and irritatingly grand, solemn, or self-important." But I stand by both the spirit and the letter of my original statement. I think the stakes are much higher than most people appreciate. In my opinion, this is not just a trivial geek quibble over math. This is a symptom of the general decline of critical thinking in our society.

Phil Plait, the Slate correspondent who wrote the original article that I was complaining about, posted a followup today.  It's not bad, but I still take issue with this bit:
The method used in the video to write out some series and manipulate them algebraically is actually not a great way to figure this problem out. It uses a trick that’s against the rules, so strictly speaking it doesn’t work. It’s a nice demo to show some fun things, but its utility is questionable at best.
Saying that "its utility is questionable at best" implies that manipulating non-convergent infinite series by standard algebraic rules might have some utility.  It doesn't.  It's simply wrong, full stop.  The reason that it's wrong is that it is inconsistent.  It leads to contradictory results, and from a contradiction you can conclude anything.

At the risk of stating the obvious, the whole point of reasoning is to distinguish true statements from false ones (relative to some set of assumptions of course).  But once you admit a contradiction into your thinking you can no longer make such a distinction (because you can prove anything).  Contradictions are much, much worse than simply being "of questionable utility."  They poison everything.

My real issue with the video, and Phil Plait's original uncritical endorsement, is that it endorses, and hence encourages people to accept, unsound reasoning.  The fact that the unsound reasoning in this particular case led to a conclusion that superficially resembles a conclusion that can also be arrived at by sound reasoning just makes it that much worse.  It encourages people to think: because this mode of reasoning led to a "correct" conclusion in that case, then it will probably lead to correct conclusions in other cases.

If the problem were confined to mathematics I might not make such a big deal out of it, but it's not.  The problem of people uncritically accepting conclusions drawn by unsound methods of reasoning pervades our society and causes real damage.  The best current examples are climate-change denialism and creationism, but there are many, many others.  (An example from the left side of the political spectrum: guns are bad, therefore the second amendment doesn't mean what it says.)

The real problem, as I see it, is that people put a lot more stock into the question of whether something is true than why it is true.  It doesn't so much matter that the sum of all the integers is -1/12 .  What matters is that it is possible to define the concept of an analytic continuation of a function, and under this definition (which does not lead to contradictions), the sum of all the integers is -1/12.

It is important to understand this sort of thing even if you don't understand what an analytic continuation is because it helps you detect bullshit.  Digging down through an argument to find the basic assumptions on which that argument rests is a crucial skill in today's society.  Without that skill you are an open invitation to demagoguery and flim-flammery, and it can cost you and your family dearly.

So, John Rimmer, if you don't think that concern is warranted about doing "a grave disservice to numerical literacy" I say you have not appreciated the gravity of the situation.

Friday, January 17, 2014

No, the sum of all the positive integers is not -1/12

I haven't been blogging recently because my new startup is taking up all my time, but someone needs to stand up and say the emperor has no clothes so it might as well be me.  About a week ago, two British mathematicians named Tony Padilla and Ed Copeland, who produce a video blog called Numberphile, posted a video that purports to prove that the sum of all the positive integers is -1/12.  It was making the usual geek rounds where I would have been content to let it circulate, but today the story was picked up by a naive and credulous reporter at Slate, where the story stands to do some real damage if not challenged.

(Aside for mathematicians: yes, I am aware that the claim is true under Ramanujan summation.  That is not the point.)

Let me start by recapping the argument.  Finding the flaw in the reasoning makes a nice puzzle:

Step 1: Let S1 = 1 - 1 + 1 - 1 ...

Then S1 + S1 = (1 - 1 + 1 - 1 ...) + (1 - 1 + 1 - 1 ...)

 = (1 - 1 + 1 - 1 ...) +
   (0 + 1 - 1 + 1 - 1 ...)

 = (1 + 0) + (1 - 1) + (1 - 1) ....

 = 1 + 0 + 0 ... = 1

So 2xS1 = 1.  So S1 must equal 1/2.

Step 2: Let S2 = 1 - 2 + 3 - 4 + 5 ...

So S2 + S2 = (1 - 2 + 3 - 4 + 5 ...) + (1 - 2 + 3 - 4 + 5 ...)

 = (1 - 2 + 3 - 4 + 5 ...) +
   (0 + 1 - 2 + 3 - 4 + 5 ...)

 = (1 + 0) + (1 - 2) + (3 - 2) + (3 - 4) + (5 - 4) + ...
 = 1 - 1 + 1 - 1 + 1...
 = S1 = 1/2

So S2=1/4.

Step 3: Let S = 1 + 2 + 3 + 4 + 5 ...

So S - S2 = (1 + 2 + 3 + 4 + 5 ...) - (1 - 2 + 3 - 4 + 5 ...)

 = (1 + 2 + 3 + 4 + 5 ...) -
   (1 - 2 + 3 - 4 + 5 ...)

 = (1 + 2 + 3 + 4 + 5 ...) +
  (-1 + 2 - 3 + 4 - 5 ...)

 =  0 + 4 + 0 + 8 + 0 + ...

 = 4 x (1 + 2 + 3 + 4 + 5 ...)

 = 4S

So S - S2 = 4S.  But S2 = 1/4.  So:

S - 1/4 = 4S
3S = -1/4
S = -1/12

Seems like an ironclad argument, doesn't it?  Like I said, finding the flaw in the reasoning (and there most assuredly is one) makes an interesting puzzle.  Here's a clue:

Let S3 = 1 + 1 + 1 + 1 ...

So S3 - S3 = (1 + 1 + 1 + 1 ...) - (1 + 1 + 1 + 1 ...)
 = (1 + 1 + 1 + 1 ...) - (0 + 1 + 1 + 1 ...)
 = (1 - 0) + (1 - 1) + (1 - 1) + ...
 = 1 + 0 + 0 + 0 ...
 = 1

But S3 - S3 must also equal 0, so we have just proven that 0=1.

The flaw in both cases is the same: the algebraic rules that apply to regular numbers do not apply to infinity.  Actually, it's more general than that: the algebraic rules that apply to regular numbers do not apply to non-converging infinite sums.  All of the sums above are non-converging infinite sums, so regular algebraic rules do not apply.  It is no different from using regular algebra when dividing by zero.  It doesn't work.

Now, there are ways to define the sums of non-converging infinite series so that they do not lead to contradictions.  The one that leads legitimately to the conclusion that 1 + 2 + 3 + 4 ... = -1/12 is called Ramanujan summation, which in turn is based on something called an analytic continuation.  But the problem is that the Numberphile video makes no mention of this.  They present the result as if it is legitimately derivable using high school algebra, and it isn't.  Telling people that it is does a grave disservice to the cause of numerical literacy.

Friday, October 18, 2013

The coolest thing ever

Saturn.  From above.

If this doesn't blow your mind, nothing will:
[N]ote how you can faintly see the dark side of Saturn, to the left. The clouds on that side of the planet are not being lit by the Sun, but by the reflected light from the rings themselves! In the same way our own Moon can be bright enough to read by, Saturn's rings illuminate its night. Imagine: Saturn, by ringshine.
Go check out the high-resolution original.

Friday, October 04, 2013

More from the hypocrisy files

The Ramblings have been quiet lately because I'm working on a new startup which is taking up most of my time nowadays.  But I could not let the time pass without noting that Republican hypocrisy is in full flower during the government shutdown.  My three favorite examples:

North Carolina Republican Congresswoman Renee Elmers said in an interview with a local ABC television affiliate,  "I need my paycheck. That is the bottom line."

Texas Republican Congressman Randy Neugebauer told a U.S. National Park ranger that "The Park Service should be ashamed of themselves" -- not for violating the law and allowing World War II veterans into the nominally closed World War II Memorial, but for obeying the law and keeping everyone else out.

And my absolute favorite: Indiana Republican Congressman Marlin Stutzman, in a mind-boggling display of candor, said, "We’re not going to be disrespected. We have to get something out of this. And I don’t know what that even is.”  [Emphasis added.]

So the Republican position is, essentially, this: notwithstanding that Obamacare is the law of the land, duly passed by Congress, signed by the president, and ruled constitutional by the Supreme Court, the provision of health insurance to the people presents such a clear and present danger to the United States of America that it must be stopped by any means necessary.  We cannot even afford to wait for the next election to roll back this law, it has to be done right now.  They don't have the votes to repeal the law through the normal democratic process, so the only option they have at their disposal is to use their power to obstruct in order to inflict as much economic pain as possible on as many innocent people as possible for as long as possible in the hopes that the majority will capitulate to their demands.

However, Republicans are not going to share in the sacrifice.  Oh no.  While they are willing to make you go without your paycheck, Renee Chalmers isn't willing to go without hers because, well, she needs it.  The lack of empathy is staggering, bordering on sociopathy.

More than that, they are not even willing to stand up proudly and take credit for fighting the good fight.  Marlin Stutzman tries to fob off responsibility for the pain he is causing onto a park ranger for crying out loud!  (One has to wonder if he would have been so brazen about it if the ranger had been a man instead of a woman.)  No, they are slinking into the shadows and trying to blame the democrats, the park service, anyone except themselves.

And then, to top it off, they actually admit that they are wrong, that they know they're wrong, and that they've lost/  But they are going to keep tightening the screws anyway until they are allowed to salvage something from the train wreck they have caused.  What do they want to salvage?  They don't even know!  But it has to be something.

Finally, let us not lose sight of what this fight is about: it's about health care.  And it's about conducting an experiment.  The Republicans are desperate, not just to repeal Obamacare, but to repeal it right now, before the next election, before it has had a chance to go into effect.  Why the urgency?  Can fifteen months of Obamacare really cause that much more damage to the country than a government shutdown or (shudder) a debt default (because that fight is heading down the pike)?

Of course not.  The Republican nightmare scenario is not that Obamacare will fail, but that it will succeed, that people will realize that they like having affordable health insurance that can't be denied because of pre-existing conditions, that they like not having to worry about going bankrupt because of an unexpected medical contingency, like the rest of the civilized world.

So the bottom line is that Republicans are using their power to inflict as much pain as they can on innocent civilians in order to stop a law that even they think will probably make people's lives better.  Other than the fact that the pain is inflicted through laws rather than with guns and bombs, I don't see much to distinguish what the Republicans are doing from garden-variety terrorism.

Friday, September 06, 2013

Ooh, this is not good

The CSM is reporting that Russian warships are sailing toward Syria.

This could easily become a replay of the Cuban missile crisis, except this time we are the ones on the Russian's back door.  I wonder if either Obama or Kerry has a contingency plan for dislodging Putin from the moral high ground of preventing an unprovoked attack on a sovereign nation  by an imperialistic superpower.  Given how badly they have botched this game of geopolitical chess so far, I'd give long odds against.

Wednesday, September 04, 2013

Well, of course if you build a parabolic reflector in the middle of town it's going to cause problems

A new building in downtown London has a concave mirrored surface as one of its sides.  Predictably, it is causing problems:
A British property developer said Tuesday it was investigating after sun rays reflected from its half-finished London skyscraper melted parts of several cars, including a luxury Jaguar. ... Local businessman Martin Lindsay said he was distraught when he returned to his parked Jaguar XJ near the glassy tower in London's financial district to find the car's panels had warped along one side, while the wing mirror and Jaguar emblem on the front of the car had melted. ... He "could not believe" the extent of the damage...
But this bit really made me laugh:
The developers said the phenomenon was caused by "the current elevation of the sun in the sky", and that as Britain heads into autumn the problem should disappear.
These guys really should have paid more attention in high school physics class.

Tuesday, September 03, 2013

The worst possible reason to bomb Syria

Although I strongly oppose initiating any kind of military action against Syria, I do concede that there is an argument to be made for it.  But this ain't it:
A failure to take action over Syria's use of chemical weapons would damage the credibility America's pledge to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told Congress on Tuesday. 
"A refusal to act would undermine the credibility of America's other security commitments - including the president's commitment to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon," Hagel told a Senate hearing, according to prepared remarks. 
"The word of the United States must mean something."
Here's the thing: the United States never committed to any action in Syria.  The president of the United States shot his mouth off in an ill-considered comment that he clearly did not think through.  But the president of the United States is not the same thing as the United States.  Equating a nation with its chief executive is the very definition of a dictatorship, and the United States is not (yet) a dictatorship.

As long as I'm on this topic, have you noticed how Obama takes great pains never to accuse Assad of violating international law, only international "norms"?  This is because Obama knows that as long as Assad has Putin in his corner the U.N. will never approve military action against Syria.  So Obama is hanging his hat on the international "norms" peg precisely because it's not a well defined term, and so Obama can apply Humpty Dumpty's theory of semantics and make the word mean whatever he wants.  (You know, bombing sovereign nations that have not aggressed against you and pose no security risk to you is also arguably a violation of international "norms.")

But this leaves Obama with a very serious problem: our allies have (wisely IMO) abandoned him. The U.N. is paralyzed by Russia, so his only remaining option is unilateral action.  But think about this: if he orders an attack on a sovereign nation for no reason other than that its leader violated international norms (whatever that might mean), what exactly remains to distinguish Barack Obama from Osama bin Laden, other than that Obama has a better PR department and a bigger arsenal?  Here's the thing everyone tends to forget about the so-called "terrorists": they don't think of themselves as the bad guys.  They think they're fighting the good fight just as much as we do (maybe more).  The only claim we have to any moral high ground in this conflict is that we adhere to the rule of law and they don't.  If Obama bombs Syria on his own initiative, not because Assad broke the law but merely because he violated norms, then Obama alone will have to bear the terrible consequences of that decision.  And I think that in his heart of hearts Obama knows that he has screwed the pooch, and he's not willing to go further out on this limb by himself.

I think this is the reason he decided to go to Congress, to provide himself with butt cover.  He wants to be able to share the blame in case this thing goes south (which is not at all unlikely -- we have an exceptionally poor track record when we try to meddle in the Middle East).  And he doesn't want to go down in history as the man who cut down the last law to go after the devil.  Not even George Bush ever went that far.

Sunday, September 01, 2013

Against war (again)

Last Thursday I labeled Obama and Biden hypocrites for threatening war against Syria without Congressional approval, which they had both opposed when they were senators.  Yessterday, Obama announced that he is planning to seek Congressional approval, so for the  moment I withdraw my charge of hypocrisy (at least with regards to Syria -- the NSA thing is another matter).  The reason my withdrawal is tentative is that it remains to be seen what Obama will do if Congress turns him down, which seems likely given the fact that the Republicans control the House, and popular opinion seems to be running strongly against entering yet another war in the Middle East.

It probably goes without saying, particularly for anyone who reads my blog regularly, that I oppose bombing Syria. just as I opposed invading Iraq back in 2003, and for the same reason.  The parallels between then and now are truly extraordinary.  The rhetoric is almost exactly the same, only the names have changed.  Instead of Secretary of State Colin Powell saying we need to invade Iraq because Saddam Hussein gassed his own people we now have Secretary of State John Kerry saying we need to bomb Syria because Bashar al Assad gassed his own people.  Because everyone seems to be once again reading from the same script, I'll follow suit and quote what I wrote back in 2003:
Yes, Saddam Hussein is an evil man. Yes, the world will be better off without him. But Saddam is hardly unique in this regard, and solving this problem by starting a war sets a horrible precedent. What is to stop any country from launching a war against anyone that they judge to be evil?
Indeed, the horrible precedent has been set.  Someone in the world does something evil (and make no mistake, launching a Sarin attack is evil), so the U.S. bombs them.  And I get it: it's really hard to watch innocent civilians suffer while you stand by and do nothing, particularly if you like to fancy yourself as the Good Guys.  So we have to do something, but we don't have the stomach (and maybe not even the ability) to put boots on the ground.  So we send in the drones and the cruise missiles instead, because that's clean and easy (though a tad pricey) and we don't get American kids coming home in body bags.

But here's the problem: in a situation like this, cruise missiles and drones won't do any good.  Whatever infrastructure we manage to destroy, they will simply rebuild with the help of their Russian sponsors, and then we'll be right back where we started, except that we will once again have set the precedent that, when the chips are down, the world is not governed by the rule of law but by the rule of power.  It's OK for us to bomb Syria -- but, of course, not OK for Syria to return the favor -- because, well, because we can.

So we bomb Syria, and they rebuild.  Then what, Mr. President?  Then what?

Friday, August 30, 2013

I want one!

An outfit called Liberty Maniacs designed a brilliant T-shirt:

But the NSA says I can't have one.  Apparently, the folks at the NSA haven't read the First Amendment either.  (It's quite clear they never read the Fourth.)

The NSA issued this statement:
The NSA seal is protected by Public Law 86-36, which states that it is not permitted for “…any person to use the initials ‘NSA,’ the words ‘National Security Agency’ and the NSA seal without first acquiring written permission from the Director of NSA.”
Well, no, that is not actually what Public Law 86-36 says.  Here's what it does say:
Sec. 15. (a) No person may, except with the written permission of the Director of the National Security Agency, knowingly use the words 'National Security Agency', the initials 'NSA', the seal of the National Security Agency, or any colorable imitation of such words, initials, or seal in connection with any merchandise, impersonation, solicitation, or commercial activity in a manner reasonably calculated to convey the impression that such use is approved, endorsed, or authorized by the National Security Agency.  [Emphasis added.]
That this T-shirt was not approved, endorsed, or authorized by the NSA could not possibly be any clearer, so the NSA's efforts to censor this T-shirt constitute bald-faced intimidation in an effort to muzzle political dissent.  A clearer violation of the First Amendment is hard to imagine.

Seriously, NSA, fuck you.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Obama and Biden's hypocrisy comes full circle

When they were senators, both of them took the position that the president does not have the Constitutional authority to wage war without the consent of Congress.  Biden even went so far as to say it was an impeachable offense.  And so political hypocrisy will truly come full-circle if Obama bombs Syria without Congressional authority.  At that point there will not remain a single substantive policy distinction between Obama and George W. Bush.  OK, Obama is a little less hostile to reproductive rights.  But seriously, is there anything else?  In terms of rhetoric, I really can't tell them apart any more.  The Obama administration is literally reading from the same script.  "We have to bomb Saddam/Assad because he gassed his own people."  Ye gods, the two names are almost anagrams of each other!

You know, if Obama really does bomb Syria without Congressional authorization, I hope they do impeach him, not so much because I want to see him impeached, but because I want to see if watching Republicans impeach Obama for doing what George Bush did is enough to finally get the American people angry about the stampeding bald-faced hypocrisy on both sides of the aisle.  I'll give long odds against.  Either way, it will be fun to watch.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

CNN is paid by foreign and domestic Government agencies for specific content

Not that this should come as a surprise to anyone who has been paying attention, but it turns out that CNN takes money from the government in exchange for editorial control of content.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Everything you need to know about the hyperloop in 25 words or less

It won't work.

The reason it won't work is that the tube has to be 1) straight (so that a capsule can move through it safely at 700 miles per hour) 2) sealed (so that a partial vacuum can be maintained) and 3) hundreds of miles long (so that you can travel useful distances).  A tube that is is straight, sealed, and hundreds of miles long will undergo thermal expansion that will amount to hundreds of feet of movement at either end.  Until and unless this problem is solved, the hyperloop won't fly.  (This is far from the only show-stopper, but it's the easiest one to explain.)

If you aren't outraged by now you have not been paying attention

Glenn Greenwald's partner was detained by British authorities for nine hours today.
[A]ny journalist passing through London’s Heathrow has now been warned: do not take any documents with you. Britain is now a police state when it comes to journalists, just like Russia is.
Good coverage over at Slate too, with this hopeful quote from Greenwald:
They obviously had zero suspicion that David was associated with a terrorist organization or involved in any terrorist plot. Instead, they spent their time interrogating him about the NSA reporting which Laura Poitras, the Guardian and I are doing, as well the content of the electronic products he was carrying. They completely abused their own terrorism law for reasons having nothing whatsoever to do with terrorism: a potent reminder of how often governments lie when they claim that they need powers to stop "the terrorists", and how dangerous it is to vest unchecked power with political officials in its name. 
This is obviously a rather profound escalation of their attacks on the news-gathering process and journalism. It's bad enough to prosecute and imprison sources. It's worse still to imprison journalists who report the truth. But to start detaining the family members and loved ones of journalists is simply despotic. Even the Mafia had ethical rules against targeting the family members of people they feel threatened by. But the UK puppets and their owners in the US national security state obviously are unconstrained by even those minimal scruples. 
If the UK and US governments believe that tactics like this are going to deter or intimidate us in any way from continuing to report aggressively on what these documents reveal, they are beyond deluded. If anything, it will have only the opposite effect: to embolden us even further.
Or, of course, you can go straight to the source (so to speak).

Thank God for Glenn Greenwald.  If the dream of freedom dies in my lifetime (and I very much fear that it might) it won't be for want of Glenn's efforts.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Dropping like flies

There was another high-profile jet crash last week, a UPS cargo plane this time, flown by American (or at least non-Korean) pilots.  Details are very sketchy (no civilian casualties means light news coverage in today's world) but superficially the crash looks an awful lot like Asiana 214.  Both planes crashed short of the runway with (apparently) no mechanical problems.  Both times pilots received warnings of impending doom seconds before the crash.

Nonetheless, I contend (tentatively, subject to new information coming to light of course) that the crashes are not comparable.  The Asiana crash happened under ideal conditions: a visual approach in perfect weather to a nice long runway.  The Birmingham crash, by contrast, happened (apparently) in bad weather in the dark.  I say "apparently" because the reporting on this crash has been absolutely abysmal.  Whoever is writing these stories clearly doesn't have the first clue about flying.  For example, here's an excerpt from the Christian Science Monitor (normally a very good source of news):
... a combination of weather (low clouds and raining), time of day (before dawn), and a tricky visual approach [emphasis added] over hills to the airport’s shorter runway because the much longer, more familiar runway – the one that provided glide slope as well as direction information to approaching pilots – was closed for maintenance.
A visual approach by definition is one where you can see the runway.  If there were low clouds and rain then the pilots were not doing a visual approach.

Here's another example, from ABC News:
National Transportation Safety Board member Robert Sumwalt ... said the aircraft went down during its first landing attempt. Sumwalt said investigators have not found any problems with the runway's lights or navigation system, which typically provides pilots with information about their lateral position but not about their altitude, unlike those on runways where pilots can land using only instruments [emphasis added].
This reporter is confused in so many ways it's hard to know where to begin to deconstruct this.  What the reporter (almost certainly) meant to say was that the UPS plane was landing on a runway that only had a so-called non-precision instrument approach procedure, which provides no vertical guidance.  But not having vertical guidance provided as part of the approach procedure is not even remotely the same thing as not having information about the plane's altitude.  Pilots always know their altitude, at least if they're doing their job right.  The difference is that in a non-precision approach the pilot has to manually cross-reference the plane's location against the chart to figure out at what altitude the plane should be, whereas in a precision approach there's a little needle on the panel constantly telling you whether you are too high or too low.

No matter what kind of approach you are flying, at some point you must be able to see the runway in order to land (with one very rare exception called a Category III ILS, which was not available at Birmingham on any runway).  The difference between a precision and non-precision approach is not that one lets you land using only instruments, but simply that a precision approach lets you descend lower before you have to either be able to see the runway or abort the approach.

Non-precision approaches are harder to fly.  On a precision approach you just "fly the needle" (or have the autopilot do it for you).  On a non-precision approach you must constantly cross-reference your position against a chart, and manually control the plane's altitude so that it is close to -- but never lower than -- the minimum altitude allowed for the particular segment of the approach you are flying.  It is one of the most challenging operations a pilot is ever called on to perform, and it is what the pilots of the UPS plane were doing when they crashed.

The approach to runway 18 at BHM is particularly tricky because the approach procedure has unusually low margins for error.  The last waypoint on the approach has a minimum altitude of 1380 feet. The runway altitude is 650 feet.  Between the final waypoint and the runway there is a hill that is 915 feet high.  The minimum descent altitude before you must be able to see the runway is 1200 feet, less than 300 feet above the hill.  The official weather report said there were "few" (which is FAA-speak for scattered) clouds at 1100 feet.  And it was dark.

The "normal" margin of error in maintaining altitude when flying under instruments is 200 feet.  Deviating by more than that is considered a serious mistake, but it is actually not that uncommon, especially among pilots who don't fly very often (ahem).  That was obviously not the case here, but the point is that even under normal circumstances any pilot who flies this approach is one mistake away from death.  That is unusual.  Normally you have to make two or three pretty serious mistakes in a row to actually kill yourself in an airplane.  Not here.

So this accident, like Asiana 214, looks like it was very likely pilot error.  But I would say the two situations are not comparable.  Asiana was pilot error under ideal circumstances, a situation that any pilot should have been able to handle with ease.  The UPS crash was pilot error under some of the most demanding circumstances possible short of an actual emergency.  No less tragic, and no less of an error, but not nearly as indicative of a systemic failure as Asiana 214.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

We need more engineers practicing law

I learned with dismay that the Obama administration is actually on firmer legal ground than I imagined in its en-masse acquisition of phone metadata.  The government precedent is Smith v. Maryland (1979) where the Supreme Court specifically held that the warrantless installation of a pen register (a device that records what numbers are dialed on a phone line) did not violate the fourth amendment because there is no "legitimate expectation of privacy" on the numbers you dial.

But the court, like the Obama administration, was wrong.  Here's the key excerpt from the decision (at the beginning of section B in case you want to follow along):
[I]t is important to begin by specifying precisely the nature of the state activity that is challenged. The activity here took the form of installing and using a pen register. Since the pen register was installed on telephone company property at the telephone company's central offices, petitioner obviously cannot claim that his "property" was invaded or that police intruded into a "constitutionally protected area." Petitioner's claim, rather, is that, notwithstanding the absence of a trespass, the State, as did the Government in Katz, infringed a "legitimate expectation of privacy" that petitioner held. Yet a pen register differs significantly from the listening device employed in Katz, for pen registers do not acquire the contents of communications. This Court recently noted: 
"Indeed, a law enforcement official could not even determine from the use of a pen register whether a communication existed. These devices do not hear sound. They disclose only the telephone numbers that have been dialed - a means of establishing communication. Neither the purport of any communication between the caller and the recipient of the call, their identities, nor whether the call was even completed is disclosed by pen registers." United States v. New York Tel. Co., 434 U.S. 159, 167 (1977).  [All emphasis added] 
The court might be forgiven for making this mistake in 1979.  But in 2013 it should be obvious to everyone that this analysis is wrong.  Just because there is no sound doesn't mean there is no communication.  Communication just means the transmission of information from a sender to a recipient.  Whether that information is analog or digital, or whether it has anything at all to do with someone's voice, is immaterial.  When I dial my phone there is no question that I am sending information to -- and hence communicating with -- the phone company.

Now, it is still an open question whether this particular communication is subject to a reasonable expectation of privacy.  Not all communications are.  For example, if you have an old-school conversation with another human being in a public place you have no reasonable expectation of privacy because you could be overheard by anyone.  So do you have a reasonable expectation of privacy when communicating with the phone company?  I for one certainly thought so until I read Smith v. Maryland.  There is all kinds of information that I transmit to companies I do business with that I expect them to keep private.  Surely the founding fathers considered business records to be part of one's "papers and effects" regardless of whether or not they were actually kept on paper.

But leave aside the question of whether we have a constitutional right to privacy in our business dealings and ask a more fundamental question: are we even allowed to offer privacy as a contractual obligation in the U.S. any more?    Clearly if my contract with the phone company had included a clause that stipulated that they promised not to turn over my records to the government without a warrant then I would have a clear-cut reasonable expectation of privacy (because I have a reasonable expectation that the people I'm doing business with will honor their contractual obligations).  But is this even possible nowadays?

Sadly, the experiment has been done, and the answer seems to be "no".  I say "seems to be" because we don't actually know what transpired to make Lavabit shut down.  But it seems pretty clear that Ladar Levison didn't pull the plug because he got tired of running the company.

Which brings me full circle to my central complaint, which is not about surveillance, but rather about secrecy and the end-runs that are being done around the Constitution and the rule of law in the name of security.  Underlying the rule of law are some unwritten meta-rules, one of which is that you can't reasonably expect people to play by the rules if it is not possible for them to know what the rules are.  And right now it is not possible, thanks to a combination of shady deals conducted behind closed doors and a supreme court that is ignorant of technology and playing fast and loose with the meanings of English words like "communication."

The surveillance state from an evolutionary perspective

Sometimes confusion can give rise to clarity in the most astonishing ways.  Yesterday I read a tweet from Richard Dawkins:
Aliens knowledge. Same fundamental physical constants, but they may, unlike us, have worked out why they have the values they do.
In retrospect it is obvious that the antecedent for "they" is "fundamental physical constants."  But that's not how I read it.  I read it with "Aliens" as the antecedent, and hence a different meaning for the word "values."

Why did I read it this way?  Because I actually met Richard Dawkins last December on a cruise to Antarctica and had the opportunity to have some extended discussions with him, so I happened to know that he actually *is* puzzled over why humans have the values they have.  Specifically, he is puzzled over how anyone could be religious in general, and Muslim in particular, which he believes has a lot more of (choose your favorite term for whatever it is about religions that makes them bad) than other religions do.  So I thought that was the sentiment he was expressing.

It was a sentiment I have always found puzzling because I believe that we humans (well, some humans) do understand why we humans have the values (in the sociological sense) that we have, and that this understanding comes in no small measure from Dawkins's own work.  When we discussed it on the cruise I never really got a satisfactory (to me) answer out of him so I decided to ask him about it again.

Surprisingly (in retrospect) his answer was not to point out that I had misinterpreted his tweet, but rather to answer the question as I posed it, and to point me to this 2006 essay entitled "Atheists for Jesus."  (I will post his entire reply as soon as I get his permission to do so.)  In that essay, he advocates not for Jesus's theology (of course) but for his sociology
What was interesting and remarkable about Jesus was not the obvious fact that he believed in the God of his Jewish religion, but that he rebelled against many aspects of Yahweh's vengeful nastiness. At least in the teachings that are attributed to him, he publicly advocated niceness and was one of the first to do so.  [However, f]rom a rational choice point of view, or from a Darwinian point of view, human super niceness is just plain dumb. And yes, it is the kind of dumb that should be encouraged - which is the purpose of my article.
But there's a problem:
Human super niceness is a perversion of Darwinism because, in a wild population, it would be removed by natural selection.
How does he know this?  He doesn't say.  He just takes it as a self-evident fact.  And it certainly does seem intuitively plausible that super-niceness is not an evolutionarily stable strategy. But if there's one thing that the study of evolutionary biology teaches us it is that intuition is not always an effective guide.  Peacock's tails, for example, would seem intuitively like something evolution ought to have weeded out long ago.  They serve no apparent practical purpose.  They cost energy.  They make the peacock less maneuverable and hence more vulnerable to predators.  So why do they exist?

The answer is not, as I first assumed, that peacocks have no predators.  They do.  So why do peacocks have those ridiculous tails?  It's because they do serve a practical purpose, though not one that is immediately apparent (at least it wasn't to me).  They use their tails to intimidate their predators.  So whatever evolutionary disadvantage a large tail produces in terms of avoiding predators, it is (apparently, given that there are still peacocks) more than offset by the advantage they provide in scaring predators away.

But notice that this advantage depends crucially on two factors.  First, it depends on the peacock's environment.  Specifically, it depends on the peacock's predators all being dumb enough to be fooled by the ruse.  As soon as a predator evolves that is smart enough to see through the peacock's ruse and attack him despite the fact that his flared tail looks big and scary, the peacock is done for.  And second, it depends on the peacock in some sense believing in the ruse.  Not that I think peacocks are really capable of thinking these things through, but somewhere in their brains there must be a computational process that goes something like, "If I flare my tail, I am in fact no bigger and scarier than I was before.  But if I act as if I am bigger and scarier, then my predator might believe that I am bigger and scarier, and the net effect will be the same.  Therefore I will act as if I am bigger and scarier despite the fact that I am not."

Belief becomes reified.  The prophecy is self-fulfilling, and the peacock lives.

Now, suppose some human gets it into his head by some random memetic mutation that it might be a good idea to be nice.  Again, intuitively, such an idea could never survive "in the wild", that is, in an environment full of predators and other non-nice things.  But suppose this mutation arises in an environment where the number of predators have already been reduced for some other reason.  Suppose this person lives in a world where civilization has been invented in order to support an agricultural rather than a hunter-gatherer lifestyle.  Cities have been invented, along with the rule of law.  In such an environment, niceness might get an evolutionary toehold and not immediately be snuffed out.

If the niceness meme manages to get established at all, an amazing positive feedback effect can start to occur: niceness can provide a reproductive advantage in an environment that contains other nice entities.  A group of nice people can have a reproductive advantage over a group of non-nice people because the nice people will spend less of their resources on (say) building weapons and defenses and more on producing food and acquiring knowledge, which can be leveraged into other reproductive advantages.

This works as long as the nice population can remain relatively isolated from the non-nice population.  As soon as the non-nice people meet the nice ones, the nice ones lose, at least in the short term.  But in the long term, two things happen: first, the prisoner's dilemma is iterated, and in an iterated prisoner's dilemma cooperation wins.  And second, the nice genes and memes will evolve the ability to recognize other carriers of the nice genes and memes.  They will do so, obviously, because this ability also confers a reproductive advantage.  The most advantageous position in the evolutionary game is to be a member of the largest group of mutually cooperating entities that you can gain entry into.

Notice that "rationality" has almost nothing to do with this process.  If you can reliably identify other members of your mutually cooperating group by seeing them pray five times a day, then that is what will evolve.

There is one advantage that rationality offers in terms of reproductive fitness, and that is that it can help you manipulate your environment to your advantage.  If you want to be free from disease, say, antibiotics really do work better than prayer (at least for a while).  But there are two things that mitigate against the widespread proliferation of rationality in the long run.  First, you don't have to be rational yourself in order to benefit from the products of rationality.  Antibiotics work as well on fundamentalists as they do on scientists.  And second, rationality leads people to voluntarily limit their own fertility (this is just an empirical fact -- I do not mean to imply by this that having children is irrational).  So the long term Darwinian fate of rationality is far from clear.

But the long-term Darwinian fate of niceness, and even super-niceness, is much clearer.  For starters, there are actual examples in nature of super-niceness.  Ants, for example, are super-nice to other ants within their own colony.  Intra-colony niceness among ants is so extreme that it is actually a mistake to think of ants as individual living entities.  It is the ant colony that is the self-reproducing entity, with individual ants being more akin to cells or organs in our own bodies.  Indeed, our own bodies are colonies of what were once single-celled creatures who figured out that by banding together they would do better than they could on their own.  (Occasionally, one of these entities defects.  The result is cancer.)  There is no room for doubt: from an evolutionary point of view, in the long run, niceness wins.

So there is nothing in Darwinian evolution that would prevent humans from banding together into colonies of individuals that were super-nice to each other.  In fact, one might argue that families, villages, corporations and nation-states are evolutionary steps towards a long-term future in which humans are all super-nice to each other.  (Note that niceness here is measured in terms of reproductive fitness, not in terms of "individual self-actualization" or any such nonsense.  Darwin cares for one thing and one thing only, and it isn't your personal self esteem.)

On this view, the rise of the surveillance state is a natural evolutionary step.  If our long-term evolutionary destinty is to become a colony of super-nice individuals, then defectors (in the game-theoretic sense) will have to be weeded out, and in order to be weeded out they will have to be found.  What better way to find them than to build an Orwellian world.

Friday, August 09, 2013

Maybe Americans don't know how to fly airplanes either

In fairness, since I harshed on Korean pilots, I should note for the record that early indications are that the landing gear failure on Southwest flight 347 was also the result of a botched landing.  The details are still fuzzy, but it sure looks to me based on what has been publicly announced that the captain should have (and could have) initiated a go-around.

And as long as I'm judging my fellow pilots I should probably give myself a little public flogging: yesterday I went flying after dark to get night current again and my landing light failed.  A landing light isn't actually required (unless you're carrying passengers for hire), but for safety's sake I probably should have gone back and landed on the longer and better-lit runway at San Jose rather than attempt a night landing without a light at the much shorter and darker runway of my home base at Palo Alto.  But I didn't, and I bounced the landing.  I probably should have gone around too, but I didn't.  No harm done, but it could have been worse.  The runway at PAO is only 2000 feet long so there's not a lot of margin for error there.

Richard Dawkins's most baffling tweet

In the midst of yet another round of Muslim-bashing, Richard Dawkins today tweeted something truly baffling to me:
Aliens knowledge. Same fundamental physical constants, but they may, unlike us, have worked out why they have the values they do.
What perplexes me about this is that I believe we do understand why we have the values we do. Moreover, the reason we understand is largely due to Dawkins himself.  Him and Robert Axelrod (and Dawkins obviously knows about Axelrod's work because he added a chapter about it to the 1989 edition of The Selfish Gene).  We have the values we do because our values help the genes and memes that produce those values in order to help replicate themselves in a process of Darwinian evolution subject to the constraints of game theory.  (And if you don't know what that means then you should read The Selfish Gene and The Evolution of Cooperation.  And if you're feeling really ambitious, The Extended Phenotype.)

So what on earth could Dawkins have possibly meant by this?

[UPDATE: I misinterpreted Dawkins's tweet.  See the comments and this post for more info.]

Monday, August 05, 2013

Here comes the cover-up

As should come as no surprise to anyone who has been following recent events, the government is in fact using information obtained through warrantless surveillance to launch criminal investigations of Americans unrelated to any terrorism or security issue. Reuters reports:
A secretive U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration unit is funneling information from intelligence intercepts, wiretaps, informants and a massive database of telephone records to authorities across the nation to help them launch criminal investigations of Americans. 
Although these cases rarely involve national security issues, documents reviewed by Reuters show that law enforcement agents have been directed to conceal how such investigations truly begin - not only from defense lawyers but also sometimes from prosecutors and judges.
I predict that before this is all over (if it is ever over) it will be revealed that someone at the NSA used wiretap information to strongarm (which is a polite term for blackmail) some key legislators into voting against defunding the NSA.  As Hal Holbruck said, if you want the truth, follow the money.

Saturday, August 03, 2013

Told ya

Confirmed (again) that the NSA is recording everything:
[T]wo months ago, I contacted some colleagues at NSA. We had a little meeting, and the question came up, was NSA collecting everything now? Because we kind of figured that was the goal all along. And the answer came back. It was, yes, they are collecting everything, contents word for word, everything of every domestic communication in this country.
Told ya.

Friday, August 02, 2013

Um, maybe there's something wrong with the protocols then?

There is some seriously fucked up shit going on in Florida:
Florida’s Escambia County Sheriff David Morgan sees nothing wrong with the fact that officers in his patrol fired 15 shots at an unarmed, 60-year-old black man. The sheriff told CNN that his officers were, in fact, following protocol perfectly.
I wonder, does it ever even enter their heads that maybe, if the outcome is the regular shooting of unarmed civilians, that maybe the protocols need changing?

Oh, right, silly me, of course not.  All the dead people are black, so it's no problem.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

So that makes, let's see, three accidents?

Salon reported a short piece about a local news reporter who accidentally drew a penis while reporting on a local traffic tie up.  When I happened to mouse over the image, this was the result:


Monday, July 22, 2013

What is a reasonable expectation of privacy?

The Obama administration continues to insist that the NSA wiretapping programming, whose existence was recently revealed by Edward Snowden, is not only necessary to national security but also perfectly legal.  In particular:
[T]he alleged metadata program is fully consistent with the Fourth Amendment. Most fundamentally, the program does not involve "searches" of plaintiffs' persons or effects, because the collection of telephony metadata from the business records of a third-party telephone service provider, without collecting the contents of plaintiffs' communications, implicates no "legitimate expectation of privacy" that is protected by the Constitution.
I don't know about you, but if I call, say, a suicide prevention hotline from my home phone, I would certainly expect that to remain private, and I think that expectation is reasonable.

But leaving common sense aside here (as seems to happen all too often nowadays), the administration is wrong here on technical grounds.  The phone company is not a third party with respect to call metadata.  A phone call involves two separate acts of communication: the call setup, and the conversation itself.  These acts are, of course, related, but they are still two separate acts.  When I initiate a phone call, the metadata is generated as a result of a private communication between myself and the phone company.  There is no third party.

To see that this is so one just has to think back to the days when calls were connected by human operators.  In those days, both the call setup and the call itself involved talking to another human.  If the contents of my conversation with the target of my call is protected by the Constitution then surely the contents of my conversation with the operator is as well.  The fact that nowadays the operator is a machine does not change the protocol, nor the resulting expectation of privacy.

This is why we need fewer lawyers and more engineers running the country.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Court rules journalists can’t keep their sources secret

Considering the way things are going I really shouldn't be shocked by this, but I am.  A federal appeals court overturned a lower court decision and ruled that journalists do not have a constitutional right to keep their sources secret.

At the risk of stating the obvious, the balance of power between the government and the people has shifted dramatically since Barack Obama took office: the government has an absolute right to secrecy, enforceable by any means necessary.  The People, on the other hand, have no right to privacy, the Fourth Amendment notwithstanding, because the need to catch leakers and potential terrorists trumps all other considerations.

This is beginning to get truly scary.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Malcolm Gladwell responds to Ask a Korean

Malcolm Gladwell wrote a response to Ask a Korean's post about Asiana 214 and the cultural theory of airplane crashes (and AaK responded to Gladwell's response).  I note this mainly for the record because I wrote about this earlier, just in case you want to delve deeper and decide the merits for yourself.  For myself, frankly, I don't really know nor care whether it's Korean culture (whatever that word might actually mean) or something else that is the underlying cause of Koreans not knowing the basics of how to fly airplanes.  What matters is the fact, apparently not in dispute, that Koreans do not know the basics of how to fly airplanes.  And until they figure it out I stand by my advice to avoid flying on Korean airlines if you can.

Friday, July 19, 2013

The U.S. takes another step towards becoming North Korea

The NSA has implemented a new two-man rule to prevent future leaks.  In other words, NSA employees will now have minders just like they do in Pyongyang.

In fact, the NSA starting to look an awful lot like a little mini North Korea embedded inside the good old U.S. of A., complete with nukes and a funny looking leader with a tenuous grasp in reality.