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.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Jimmy Carter: The U.S. has no functioning democracy

As reported in Der Spiegel, attributed to a CNN interview.  Why am I linking to the German story instead of the original CNN story in English?  Because I can't find the original.

Here's a translation, courtesy of Google Translate and lightly edited by me:

Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, in the wake of the NSA wiretap scandal, criticized the American political system. "America has no functioning democracy," Carter said Tuesday at a meeting of the "Atlantic Bridge" in Atlanta. 
Previously, the Democrat had been very critical of the practices of U.S. intelligence. "I think the invasion of privacy has gone too far," Carter told CNN. "And I think that is why the secrecy was excessive." Regarding the NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, Carter said Snowden's revelations were "likely to be useful because they inform the public." 
Carter has repeatedly warned that the United States has surrendered its moral authority due to excessive restriction of civil rights. Last year Carter wrote in an article in the "New York Times" that new U.S. laws result in "never before seen breaches of our privacy by the government."
I'm not sure which is more worrisome, the NSA scandal, or the fact that no U.S. news organization is covering this statement about it by a former United States president, not even the one that supposedly conducted the interview.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Open season

The not-guilty verdict in George Zimmerman's trial has confirmed what many rightly suspected: no black man is safe in Florida.  Oh, I know, Zimmerman's apologists insist this wasn't about race, but come on, does anyone seriously believe that a black man who pursued and shot a white kid would get off by pleading self defense?  In Florida?  I suppose it's possible, but I'll believe it when I see it.

In the meantime, the white supremacists are cheering.  Finally they are unshackled to deal swiftly and efficiently with that societal menace known as the young black male.  No more need to wait for the system, with its annoying checks and balances, its technicalities and appeals, its presumption of innocence (and yes, I am fully aware of the irony here).  Because we all know that young black men -- ah hell, why mince words? -- we all know those damn niggers are up to no good.  Gettin' too uppity.  Pokin' their little black noses in places they oughtn't to be.  Trayvon Martin should a knowed better than to be in a respectable neighborhood wearin' a gang uniform (a.k.a. a hoodie).  He deserved what he got.  George Zimmerman is a hero.  Streets aren't safe without good old boys like Zimmerman.  And bonus, he's not even white!  That proves we're not racists!

But you, boy, you better watch yoself.  Because, finally, the tables are turned.  Now we long-oppressed white folk are the ones you don't want to meet in a dark alley because we could be packin'.  What's that you say?  You could be carrying a gun too?  But here's the difference: you see, our skin is white, and we're not wearing hoodies.  What's that?  Mark Zuckerberg wears a hoodie?  You still don't get it, do you boy.  Zuck is rich and famous so he gets to wear whatever the fuck he wants.  You are poor and anonymous and black.  Justice is something that is done to you, not for you.

So you better watch yourself, boy.  Justice has finally come to the state of Florida.  It's open season.


UPDATE: George Zimmerman's brother is apparently with me on this one.

Friday, July 12, 2013

An open letter to president Obama

Dear Mr. President,

I write as one who supported you with my vote and my campaign contributions in 2008 and 2012.  I read in the papers that you are considering ending the NSA surveillance program revealed by Edward Snowden.  I welcome this news, but I worry that you seem to have missed a much more basic and more important point.  The real issue is not the wiretaps, but rather your duplicity.  You ran your campaign specifically on being unlike George Bush and Dick Cheney, saying in 2007:
That means no more illegal wiretapping of American citizens. No more national security letters to spy on citizens who are not suspected of a crime. No more tracking citizens who do nothing but protest a misguided war. No more ignoring the law when it is inconvenient.
Now, I understand that you have not technically broken this promise.  Now that I understand better how to parse what you say, I see that your comments were very carefully crafted.  You didn't promise "no more wiretapping of American citizens", you promised "no more illegal wiretapping of American citizens."  You didn't promise "no more national security letters", you promised "no more national security letters to spy on citizens who are not suspected of a crime."  You didn't promise "no more tracking of citizens who do nothing but protest," you promised, "no more tracking of citizens who do nothing but protest a misguided war."  And you didn't promise "no more ignoring the law," you promised, "no more ignoring the law when it is inconvenient."

These are easy promises to keep if you construe them strictly: simply make wiretapping "legal" and you have no more illegal wiretaps.  Simply suspect everyone of a crime and you have no more tracking of anyone not suspected of a crime.  And you can keep a promise not to ignore the law when it's inconvenient simply by making it convenient to ignore the law.  Which appears to be exactly what you have done.

I don't know whether the NSA wiretaps were technically legal or not.  It is, in fact, impossible for me to know because the law is being kept secret, and, it is being kept secret at your behest.  If you think this is about quibbling over what is and isn't legal, or whether "technically" you fulfilled your promise, then you have missed the point rather badly.

The point is this: implicit in your words was a promise to be different from George Bush and Dick Cheney.  But in this, at least, you have proven to be no different.  You used the FISA court to do an end-run around the Constitution, and you did it in secret.  The real issue here is that you are endorsing the maintenance and expansion of a secret body of law.  The wiretaps themselves are almost a red herring.

The greatest evils in history have been done under the color of the law.  The Stasi was an evil organization, but it was not an illegal organization.  The concentration camps in North Korea are evil, but they are not illegal.  Killing innocent civilians is evil, but it is not illegal, at least not when the government does it.  If you still want to quibble over whether or not the wiretaps were legal, or if you think saying you will end them solves the problem, then you have still badly missed the point.

The point is this: a secret body of law is evil.  It is anathema to everything the United States of America is supposed to stand for.  It is anathema to democracy.  It is anathema to freedom.  It is anathema to government of the people, by the people and for the people.  Secret law is the express route to tyranny.

All this should be self evident to anyone who calls themselves an American.  Of course, we always knew that there were people like George Bush and Dick Cheney (and John McCain and Mitt Romney) who didn't get it.  That is why we voted for you.

But, apparently, you don't get it either.

That is the problem.  You promised us change.  You promised us hope.  You promised us a return to the core values that made this country great.  What you gave us was more wiretaps, more secret government, more doublespeak.  More of the same.

If you really want to make this right, Mr. President, saying you will stop the wiretaps is not enough.  For starters, how can we even trust you any more?  If not for the courage of Edward Snowden We the People would not have known of your current duplicity.  And with you bringing down the full might of the United States of America to hunt Snowden down, who knows if we will have such a savior in the future?

The problem, Mr. President, is that we cannot in good conscience trust you any more.  Worse, how can we trust the next politician who offers us hope and change and a return to the core values that made this country great?  The next time a politician tells us "yes we can" how will we believe them?  I don't know whether you couldn't or you wouldn't.  But I do know that you didn't.

And apparently you still don't.

If you really want to make this right, the first thing you have to do is call off the manhunt for Edward Snowden.  He has been offered and accepted formal political asylum.  The nation's interests are not well served by thumbing our noses at international law.

The next thing you have to do is come clean. Admit you were wrong.  Apologize.  Seek forgiveness.  Repudiate the concept of secret laws as anathema to the spirit of America.  Embrace the individual freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution, particularly the fourth and the too-often-neglected ninth amendment.  Embrace the idea that we are stronger, not weaker, when we trust the people, when we assume they are innocent until proven guilty, and when we are once again a place where people seek asylum rather than one against whose power asylum is sought.

Ron Garret
Redwood City, California

Are Korean airlines unsafe? Ask a Korean

The "ethnic theory of plane crashes" was first advanced by Malcolm Gladwell in his book "Outliers."  Gladwell's analysis is ably deconstructed by TK, the author of a blog called "Ask a Korean."  The piece is long, but it can be succinctly summarized as: Gladwell is full of shit.  And I mostly agree.

So does that mean that I am retracting yesterday's advice to not fly on Korean airlines?  No, I am not.  It is a fallacy to conclude that because someone advances a bogus argument for a position that the position is therefore wrong, even if the person advancing the bogus argument is a famous best-selling author.  In my judgement as both a pilot and someone with scientific training, Korean airlines are less safe than other airlines.  The relationship is causal.  It is cultural (not ethnic!).  It is a result of systemic flaws in Korea's training regimen for pilots.  I base these conclusions not on Gladwell's analysis, which is indeed deeply flawed, but on my own analysis of primary sources, specifically, the historic track record of Korea's airlines, the information currently available about Asiana 214, and the anonymous piece written by someone claiming to have first hand knowledge of the current situation in Korea's training program.

One should, of course, be extremely leery of anything anonymous one finds on the internet.  However, in this case I believe that this piece is genuine, that is, it was written by someone who is what they claim to be.  Whoever wrote it is clearly a pilot, or at least intimately familiar with flying terminology and culture.  It is very hard for a non-pilot to fake being a pilot.  There are subtle uses of language that almost always give a faker away.  My favorite current example: TV reporters who call the runway that Asiana 214 landed on "twenty-eight left."  No pilot would ever say that.  It's two-eight left.  The anonymous piece throws around a lot of lingo but contains no such errors.  So if it's a fake, someone would have had to go to an awful lot of trouble to fake it.  And to what end?  I see no plausible motive for forging a piece like that, particularly since the original was deleted.  All the data is consistent with the theory that the piece is what it appears to be, a genuine first-hand description of deep systemic and current problems in the Korean airlines training system written by someone who experienced them first hand and was frustrated in their attempts to try do something about it.

However, I will temper my position with one observation: notwithstanding the problems in Korea's pilot training system, and notwithstanding that Asiana 214 crashed because (based on the currently available information) of basic pilot error under the least demanding conditions possible (visual landing, no wind, perfectly operating state-of-the-art aircraft), flying on a Korean airliner is still fairly safe relative to other risks that people routinely take (like driving to the airport).  So if you have to get somewhere and KAL or Asiana are your only options, sure, go for it.  But all else being equal, I would avoid these airlines until they get their shit together.

UPDATE: The Christian Science Monitor has published a story about this.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Do not fly Asiana or KAL

Until the actual NTSB report is issued it is premature to draw any final conclusions, but a pretty clear picture is emerging of the cause of the Asiana 777 crash at SFO.  There is no way to sugar coat this: the pilots fucked up.  Worse, this was apparently not a fluke [see update below].  It was a result of deep systemic problems in Korean culture.  It has happened many times before.  It was so bad that the Korean airlines were on the verge of being blacklisted by the international aviation community.  They thought they had the problem fixed, but apparently they don't.  As the author of this piece [see update below] rightly points out, it is not so easy to change 3000 years of culture.

Commercial air travel is absolutely the safest form of transportation.  You are safer on a commercial jet than you are in most places on the ground.  But your odds worsen dramatically on Asiana or KAL.  The Koreans build terrific cars.  I love my Hyundai Genesis Coupe.  But sadly they still don't know how to fly airplanes.

UPDATE: The original source that this post was based on has been deleted.  For the time being, a copy can be found here.

Sunday, June 30, 2013

Idea-ism: a rational basis for morality

In an earlier essay I proposed a moral principle, namely, that the interests of memes (or ideas) can form a rational basis for morality whose results coincide well with our intuitions.  In this essay, in response to some welcome prodding from occasional Ramblings contributor Don Geddis, I want to explore and expand on this idea.

Let me start by restating the problem I am trying to address: humans have a moral intuition produced by Darwinian evolution in response to the fact that life is a game in the game-theoretical sense.  Evolution optimizes for the survival of replicators.  Humans are hosts for two kinds of replicators: genes, which are encoded in DNA, and memes, which were encoded originally in human brains and then in various artifacts: clay tablets, papyrus scrolls, and now digital media.  Our genes and our memes have a mostly symbiotic relationship: our genes build brains capable of hosting memes, and our memes in turn invent things like agriculture and antibiotics, which in turn help to propagate our genes.  But occasionally the interests of genes and memes are in conflict, such as when our memes invent birth control or weapons of mass destruction.

One particularly interesting side-effect of the invention of brains capable of hosting memes is the development of self-awareness and consciousness.  Because we are conscious, we tend to assign a great deal of importance to consciousness, even going so far as to postulate that the fact that we are conscious is evidence of some sort of transcendent connection with the divine.  Even non-religious people put a lot of stock in consciousness.  For example, the comment that Don made that inspired this essay was:

[M]y genes want my body to die, but I choose not to adopt those same goals, on my individual level.  My intuition suggests that there should be similar conflicts with memes. Things that memes "want", which I may choose (on an individual level), not to adopt as my own personal goals.

Note the phraseology: "my individual level" and "my own personal goals" as distinct from the goals of both one's genes and memes.  This assumes that there is an entity that is distinct from one's genes and memes but is nonetheless an actor in the drama of life.  This hypothetical entity is often called the soul, but the modern fashion is to eschew dualism and call it the mind or the self.

Much ink has been spilled on the question of whether or not this entity exists, and if it does, whether it is actually a player on the universal stage.  But to talk about morality at all one must make this assumption.  The questions of moral behavior are, by definition, the questions of how to resolve conflicts between the desires of the self and the (possible) interests of other entities in the universe.  Moreover, in order to have even the prospect of resolving such a conflict one must assume that there is some sort of moral agency at work.  If we don't have free will then there is nothing to decide and hence nothing to discuss.  I am not taking a position over whether or not free will is actually metaphysically real.  All I'm saying is that in order to talk about morality at all you have to take free will as a working assumption, even if it turns out that the ultimate truth is that free will is an illusion.

The problem, then, is this: there is a part of our brain that produces the sensation of consciousness, rationality, and moral agency, and we wish to elucidate a principle by which the activities of this part of ourselves ought to be conducted.  Furthermore, we wish this principle to have the following properties: first and foremost, we want it to be useful, by which I simply mean that it should not be vacuous, not that it should score highly according to some quality metric.  Indeed, that would simply beg the question.  The whole point of this exercise is to describe a quality metric by which to measure moral decisions.  Second, the principle should be consistent with what is known about the nature of the universe.  And third, to the extent possible it should be consistent with our moral intuition.  Note that this property can never be fully met because there is a great deal of variation among people's moral intuitions (which is to be expected given that it is the product of Darwinian evolution).  Indeed, much of what I am proposing here hangs on the meaning of the word "our" in the phrase "our moral intuition."

All the moral systems that I know of fail to exhibit one or more of these properties.  For example, the ethical culture movement is based on the idea that one should live according to "ethical principles".  But this is vacuous, and hence not useful: it simply replaces the word "moral" with the word "ethical", which gets us exactly nowhere.  Moral relativism is, likewise, vacuous and hence unacceptable.  Religions based on divine revelation are not vacuous, but they fail on the second count: they are not consistent with what we know about how the universe really is.  Humanism is neither vacuous nor inconsistent with science, but it fails because it is not consistent with intuition.  It is species-ist, placing the interests of humans axiomatically above the interests of all non-human entities, which most people find unacceptable once they actually pause to reflect on what this actually entails.

It is worth digressing for a bit to talk about Sam Harris's moral premise as described in his book The Moral Landscape.  Sam's position is that, "morality is that which advances the interests of conscious beings," a premise that I actually do accept (but as a constraint, not a definition).  The problem is that Sam's elucidation shows that what he really means by "conscious beings" is "Western liberal intellectual members of academia who think like Sam Harris."  In particular, religious people somehow abdicate their claim to being conscious merely by virtue of being religious.  This is the fundamental problem with any humanistic premise: like it or not, religious people, even religious fundamentalists, are still human, still conscious beings.  There is no principled way to start with "the interests of conscious beings" as your premise and not accept the possibility that standing on the street corner screaming "God hates fags" might be moral.

So what I propose instead as a moral premise is: moral behavior is that which advances the interests of memes.

Before I go into a detailed analysis, let me point out that this is still a humanistic worldview.  The difference between humanism and meme-ism (actually, I think a better name might be idea-ism) is that idea-ism is humanistic as a consequence rather than a premise.  In the current state of the world, memes can only survive in human brains and artifacts.  Accordingly, humans have value, not axiomatically, but because they provide -- and produce -- habitat for memes.  Notice that this provides a principled way to resolve some very thorny dilemmas for the axiomatic humanist.  For example, as Bertrand Russell famously lamented:
I cannot see how to refute the arguments for the subjectivity of ethical values, but I find myself incapable of believing that all that is wrong with wanton cruelty is that I don’t like it.
On the idea-istic view, wanton cruelty is wrong because it destroys habitat for memes.  Likewise, it is immoral to (say) withhold education from women because education is a prime conduit for the replication of memes.  Withholding education is tantamount to forced sterilization with respect to the interests of memes.  (So is censorship.)

So let us evaluate this proposal with respect to my three criteria.  It's pretty evident that idea-ism is non-vacuous.  The mere fact that someone could potentially disagree with it is proof of that.  Likewise, it is consistent with science.  But is it consistent with intuition?

As mentioned earlier, no moral principle can ever be consistent with everyone's moral intuition.  That's actually a feature: any principle consistent with every human's moral intuition would be tantamount to moral relativism and hence vacuous.  And most people really do want to be able to distance themselves from the more distasteful behaviors exhibited by members of their own species.  So the consequences of idea-ism are likely to conflict with the moral intuitions of fundamentalists.  That is not in and of itself a failure.

Of course, idea-ism is first and foremost consistent with my own moral intuitions, and, I believe, consistent with the moral intuitions of western liberal intellectuals, a group of which I am (not coincidentally) a member.  But I think there's an argument to be made that idea-ism is not just a thinly disguised form of bigotry in favor of my own kind.  Ideas are special in a way that national identity, skin color, and even species-identity are not.  Ideas, and more fundamentally information, is woven into the fabric of life at the very deepest levels.  Life, at root, is the process of replicating information.  That this information has been predominantly encoded in DNA is a detail.  DNA just happened to be handy given the chemical inventory of this planet. but there's no reason to believe that life based on some other chemistry would be any less worthy.  But once you've made this leap and stopped being a DNA-ist, it is not a big leap from there to the realization that there's nothing particularly special about chemistry.  We are not that far away from having purely mechanical self-replicating systems.  Artificial intelligence is a bit further off, and artificial self-awareness probably further still, but there's no indication that these things are inherently impossible.  If and when it happens why not have a set of future-proof moral principles handy?

But you don't have to delve into the realms of science fiction to find plausible intuitive justification for idea-ism.  We are, in our present states, a symbiotic collection of both genes and memes.  At the moment, neither can survive without the other.  This basic fact of our present existence manifests itself in our yearning to connect with other meme-hosting entities.  This desire goes beyond our need to gather in physical groups in order to survive.  The exchange of memes is as fundamental to our nature as eating or sex.  We tell stories.  We engage in chitchat.  We write blogs.  As children we jump up and down and shout "look at me!" in the unconscious hope that something in our brain will escape and find a home in another.

And when we die, we want to be remembered.

All of these traits are fundamental to human nature.  I will go further: these traits are what define human nature.  We are not our bodies, we are our minds.  We can lose our arms and legs, our hearts, our lungs, even our ability to biologically reproduce and no one would question that we are still human.  But if we lose our minds we are dead, even our bodies are otherwise healthy.

Idea-ism is not an arbitrary premise.  It is a recognition of our true nature.  But more than that, it is a choice to take that nature and make it (or view it as) a purpose and hence a guide for making decisions.  Beyond being useful, rational, and intuitive, it's also noble.  It is an embrace of life in the broadest possible reading.

I hope you'll help me spread the Word.

Confirmed: the NSA can listen to live conversations

The Washington Post has published more leaked slides about the NSA surveillance program.  The latest revelation is that:
The National Security Agency and the FBI are tapping directly into the central servers of nine leading U.S. Internet companies, extracting audio and video chats, photographs, e-mails, documents, and connection logs that enable analysts to track foreign targets, according to a top-secret document obtained by The Washington Post.
Why am I not surprised?

Travelogue: Galapagos geology

The Galapagos are rightly famous for their wildlife, but I found the geology to be just as fascinating as the fauna.  The islands are formed by a volcanic hotspot, much like Hawaii, but the Galapagos are generally younger, so the evidence for ongoing geological processes is easier to see.  For example:

The white "rock" is actually a piece of coral.  Unusually for coral, it's several hundred yards from the nearest water.  You might want to see if you can figure out how it got here before reading on.

The reason there is coral here on dry land is that it wasn't always dry land.  This part of the island was once underwater.  It was pushed up above sea level by a volcanic uplift event.  A big pool of magma formed under the ocean floor and literally pushed the whole earth's crust up by several meters, taking several acres of ocean floor with it.

This particular uplift even happened very recently, in 1954.  The results are even more dramatic in areas that were not underwater to begin with:

That's a pahoehoe lava flow.  Before the uplift event it was solid, and more or less level.  The cracks go down about ten feet or so in places.

Friday, June 28, 2013

Travelogue: Galapagos, day 3

The most surprising thing about the Galapagos, other than the fact that they're inhabited, is that they have seasons. Being as they are at sea level on the equator I figured they'd have a tropical climate year-round, but they don't.  In fact, when we were there, it was shockingly cold, and the water was downright frigid.  We had to wear wetsuits to go snorkeling, and even then it was often uncomfortably cold.

It was worth it, though, to see things like this:

I can't take credit for that shot, it was taken by one of my fellow passengers who had an underwater camera.  But the sea lions did come out to play with us for the better part of an hour.  It was an amazing experience.

Oh, something I forgot to mention last time: when a giant tortoise gets in the way of your vehicle on a one-lane road you have to just sit there and wait for it to go away.  If you try to shoo it away, it will just retract into its shell.

Another fun tortoise fact: when they do retract, they have to exhale to make room inside their shells for their arms and head, and when they do it makes a loud hissing sound.  It's the only sound giant tortoises make.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Travelogue: Galapagos day 2

Our flight from Quito to the Galapagos left at 7AM, which doesn't sound too unreasonable except that we had to be there two hours ahead of time, and it takes an hour to get from Quito to the new airport.  So we had to get up at 3 to catch our ride to the airport at 4 to be there by 5.  We're not morning people, so by the time we boarded our flight we felt like walking zombies.

Then our flight was delayed.  Problems with the lavatory.  Great, I thought, we're about to be stuffed into a cramped, broken-down regional jet without working plumbing.  But when we actually boarded about 30 minutes later it was a brand-spanking-new Airbus A320.  There were only about 20 of us on board.  I thought that the airline was going to lose a lot of money on this flight, but we made a stop in Guayaquil where we picked up about 100 more, which filled the plane.  Still, it was a very pleasant flight.  We even got lunch!

I was surprised to learn that the Galapagos are actually inhabited.  I thought the entire archipelago was a national park, but it turns out there is a resident population of about 20,000 occupying about 3% of the land spread out over three of the islands.  The largest town is Puerto Ayora, on Santa Cruz island.  Ironically, the main airport is not on Santa Cruz, but rather on nearby Baltra island, which is not inhabited.  Baltra is separated from Santa Cruz by a narrow channel which can only be crossed by ferry.  There is a small port on Baltra, but for reasons I was never entirely clear on our boat was not docked there.  In fact, our boat wasn't docked anywhere.  It was moored in Puerto Ayora.  (As far as I can tell there are no actual docks in the Galapagos.  The only way to get back and forth is by zodiac.)  So once we landed on Baltra, we had to take a bus to the ferry, then another bus to Puerto Ayora (by way of a detour to look at giant tortoises), then a zodiac to the boat.  And our bags had to make the same odyssey of course.  It was by far the most complicated set of transfers I have ever made in a single day.

But we made it.  And so did our bags.

This was our home for the next week, the Cormorant.  By the time we got on board it was 3PM, too late to do any tours but too early for dinner, so they gave us a couple of hours to wander around Puerto Ayora.  It's a charming town.  It takes all of about 15 minutes to walk the central district from one end to the other.  Even here in the center of town it was teeming with wildlife.  There were pelicans roosting in the trees, and sea lions snoozing on the zodiac docks.

We visited an internet cafe where we checked on our email for the last time, and took in a beautiful sunset.

Then we headed back to the boat and slept like bricks.