Saturday, April 20, 2013

Libertarianism ends with a bang

If any good can come of a tragedy like the explosion in the town ofd West, Texas it is that it might help drive the zombie notion that all government regulation is bad back to the intellectual graveyard from whence it came.  This is the fundamental problem with libertarianism: it's the externalities, stupid.  In the absence of government regulation, nothing prevents people from imposing risks on other people without their consent.  I love freedom as much as anyone, but how any reasonable person can fail to understand this is beyond me.

How's that "profiling people who could conceivably be Muslim" thing working out for ya?

Rhetorical question for the day: how many of these terrorists might have been caught if we'd followed Sam Harris's recommendation of "profil[ing] Muslims, or anyone who looks like he or she could conceivably be Muslim"? (Hint: at least two of them actually are Muslims. Can you tell which by looking at them?)


Thursday, April 18, 2013

This is what implementing Sam Harris's plan looks like

Sam Harris's recommendation to improve security by "profil[ing] Muslims, or anyone who looks like he or she could conceivably be Muslim" has been implemented in France:
Black and North African railway workers were banned from working at Paris's Gare du Nord when the President of Israel visited France over fears they might be Muslim...
Unless and until Harris actually explains what he means by "anyone who looks like he or she could conceivably be Muslim" we have to assume that he means what is commonly meant: dark-skinned people, or people who wear non-western attire.  I'm sorry, but that is the very definition of racist.

Once again: I am completely on board with singling out Muslims, if by "Muslim" one means people who adhere to a certain set of virulent beliefs (and not "people who self-identify as Muslim").  The problem is that there is no way to tell who these people are by looking at them.  This is a complete no-brainer.  And Sam Harris is a neuroscientist.  He of all people should know this.

Monday, April 08, 2013

For the record, re: Sam Harris

Sam Harris has published a response to some of the recent criticism leveled at him as a result of his public spat with Glen Greenwald.  He writes:
Because I consider Islam to be especially belligerent and inimical to the norms of civil discourse, my views are often described as “racist” by my critics.
For the record, and on the off chance that Sam ever reads my blog, this is not the reason I labelled him a racist. The reason I labelled him a racist is because he implied that one could tell who is and who is not a Muslim by their physical appearance.  I mostly agree with the rest of what he says. In particular, I agree that "Islam [is] especially belligerent and inimical to the norms of civil discourse."

But there is another subtlety that Harris misses, apart from the bigoted claim that a person's beliefs can be inferred from how they look: just because Islam is especially belligerent and inimical to the norms of civil discourse, it does not necessarily follow that Muslims are especially belligerent and inimical to the norms of civil discourse.  It depends on how you define "Muslim."  Of course, if you define a Muslim as someone who follows all of the tenets of Islam, including the belligerent and inimical ones, then it does follow.  But this is not the only possible definition of the word "Muslim."  Another perfectly reasonable definition of the word is someone who self-identifies as a Muslim.  And not all people who self-identify as Muslims adhere to all of the tenets of Islam (even if they think that they do).

I am personally acquainted with several self-identified Muslims who are no more belligerent or inimical to the norms of civil discourse than the next person.  I have travelled in Muslim countries and have come away with the impression that the vast majority of the people who live there are perfectly decent human beings.

Yes, it is true that the Quran says all manner of horrible things.  But so does the Bible, and somehow the vast majority of people who self-identify as Christians manage to get along without, say, stoning their disobedient children to death despite the fact that the Bible says unambiguously that they should.  People have an amazing capacity for letting crazy ideas run around in their heads without actually going crazy.

Make no mistake, there are a lot of Muslims whose adherence to Islam makes them worthy of the distrust that Harris advocates.  But it has to be a minority.  There are a billion self-identified Muslims in the world.  If even half of them were as crazy as Harris fears we world would be engulfed in a conflagration the likes of which the world has never seen.  That's not happening.

Harris is not wrong about Islam.  His mistake is failing to distinguish between Islam, (self-identified) Muslims, and crazy Muslims.  And thinking that you can tell who is who by their appearance.

Thursday, April 04, 2013

Who says there is no justice in Sharia law?

A man in Saudi Arabia convicted of repeatedly raping his teenage daughter has been sentenced to receive 2,080 lashes during his 13 year prison term.

(For the record: In case it's not obvious, the title of this post is intended to be ironic.  I am as horrified by the punishment as I am by the crime.  Sadly, this sort of thing seems to be sickeningly common in the Muslim world.)

Tuesday, April 02, 2013

Bitcoin: passing fad or the end of the world as we know it?

Bitcoin is suddenly getting a lot of attention.  As I write this, BTC is trading at $118USD, up from $30 in the last two months.  That's a nice rate of return.  But is it a bubble, or the start of a revolution?

For those of you who have been living in a cave, Bitcoin is a fully decentralized anonymous digital currency.  It is based, like so many cool things are, on an algorithm rather than government fiat.  Its anonymity makes it attractive to criminals, and its algorithmic basis makes it attractive to libertarians and people who have been screwed by central banks.

Some people think the recent price run up is a bubble, and that the whole bitcoin thing is a passing fad.  Others think it's the beginning of a revolution and lifting the Rothschilds boot from the neck of the People once and for all.

I think it could go either way.

On the one hand, Bitcoin really is new and revolutionary.  There has never been anything like it in the history of the world.  It is a tradable commodity whose supply is limited by mathematics, and is therefore guaranteed to remain scarce.  On the other hand, its intrinsic value is zero, so its actual value depends entirely on whether or not people choose to use it.

Right now, they're choosing to use it.  And the problem with that is that it poses an existential threat to the current social order, but very few people have realized it yet.  I think even Bitcoin's advocates don't fully appreciate the genie that they have unleashed.

Here's the problem: life is a prisoner's dilemma, a game in which mutual cooperation is an evolutionarily stable strategy, but only under the condition that the game is iterated.  Only if you play multiple rounds with the same players is it rational to cooperate.  Otherwise, the rational strategy is to defect, and civilization collapses.

Bitcoin, by providing anonymity, undermines the iterative aspect of most social interactions.  The social fabric is held together by the possibility that if you try to screw someone, they (or people acting on their behalf) can screw you back.  But that only works if they know who you are.

Bitcoin replaces the social impediments to defection with technological ones.  There is, essentially, no possible punishment for stealing bitcoins, since all bitcoin transactions are anonymous.  Instead, stealing coins is simply hard to do.  That difficulty is enforced by cryptographic algorithms.  These algorithms work very well, but -- and this is a big, big BUT -- only if they are used properly.  And using cryptographic algorithms properly is really, really hard, particularly in the face of active attack.  The more Bitcoin is adopted, the more lucrative, and hence the more likely, such attacks become.

Case in point: I just downloaded the latest bitcoin client from sourceforge.  Those files are served over an HTTP link.  So how can I know that the file I got is really an honest bitcoin client and not some backdoored version served to me by a Bulgarian hacker?  The answer is: I can't know.

I'm sure the Bitcoin community will eventually batten down the hatches and close such obvious security holes as the non-secure client downloads, but the point is that unless you write your own client from scratch (and your own compiler and your own operating system, and maybe even your own BIOS and CPU) you can't be sure if the client you're using is trustworthy.  And if you're not sure, you could wake up one day and find that all your bitcoins are gone.

When that day comes, you will have no recourse.  Zero.  None.

Worse, you don't even have to be the victim of malice, or even technical incompetence to irretrievably lose bitcoins.  Simple carelessness will suffice.  Today I lost some bitcoins because I accidentally entered the wrong account number into a transaction.  I was trying to transfer some bitcoins that someone had given me on Reddit into my main account (which in bitcoin parlance is called a "wallet").  Instead of cutting-and-pasting my own wallet identifier, I accidentally pasted in someone else's.  I have no idea how that happened (or even if -- it's possible that Reddit screwed this up, though I think that's unlikely).  But my bitcoins are gone.  I don't even have any idea who I sent them to.  Whoever you are, use them in good health.

I think that what will ultimately doom bitcoin is that people will come to realize that civilization does actually offer some benefits that they are loath to give up once they realize what the price of freedom really is.  The amount I lost today was trivial, but bitcoin doesn't care about that.  It will just as happily dispense with a large amount as a small one.  The lack of recourse will be the same either way.  I think people will ultimately decide that the risk of losing your life savings to a typographical error is too big a price to pay for anonymity.

Or maybe they won't.  Maybe a generation will grow up on bitcoin, fully aware of its risks and potential benefits, and will have devised ways to mitigate the risks to the point where they are willing to accept them.  But (and this is really my point) if this happens, it will be a big, big change.  It will be a fundamental change to the way humans have organized themselves since the dawn of civilization.  Bitcoin could very easily be the end of the world as we know it.  But (and here's another important caveat) that might not be a bad thing if it's a choice that humanity makes with its eyes open.

It's not a slam-dunk either way.

In the meantime, I have never tried to monetize Rondam Ramblings in any way, but I've decided to start accepting bitcoin tips just so I can have a few more to play around with now that the ones I had are gone.  My wallet ID (and let's hope I get it right this time) is 13Yz6GvDGKVfYp21xK6p9xcGFBKQc5VJU9.

@samharris: how does someone "look Muslim"?

Glen Greenwald and Sam Haris are having a a spat over an Al Jazeera article that Glen tweeted about.  The article calls Sam out for being racist and Islamophobic.  Sam, of course, is aghast.  How can it possibly be "racist" to state the simple truth that Muslims engage in terrorism and other unsavory behaviors more than non-Muslims?

Here's how:
We should profile Muslims, or anyone who looks like he or she could conceivably be Muslim...
How exactly do you propose we do that, Sam? What exactly does it mean to "look like" someone who "could conceivably be Muslim?" More to the point, what does it mean for someone to not look like they could "conceivably be Muslim"?  Isn't Islam a belief system?  Exactly what outwardly visible physical traits make it inconceivable that a person might harbor that belief system?
Every moment spent frisking the Mormon Tabernacle Choir subtracts from the scrutiny paid to more likely threats. Who could fail to understand this?
That is not at all the same thing.  Being a member of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and looking like you are a member are two completely different things.  If you judge someone to be a member of the Choir because they present you with, say, a document that shows they are a member, that is one thing.  But judging them to be a member of the choir because of how they look, (and let's not kid ourselves, because they are white), that is racist, even if being white actually does make a good predictor of Mormonism!  Who could fail to understand this?

The only thing that frustrates me more than conservative bigots is liberal bigots because they really ought to know better.  Alas, even liberals have blind spots.

Conservatives are wrong about everything

The dominoes continue to fall: a second Republican senator has come out in favor of gay marriage.

It occurred to me that conservatives have a virtually unblemished record going back hundreds of years of being wrong about social issues: slavery, segregationreproductive rights, interracial marriage, the right to privacy, prohibition, pornography... the list goes on and on and on.  The liberal position on social issues has been vindicated again and again and again and again.  In fact, I can't think of a single social issue on which conservatives have been on the right side of history.  Can you?

You'd think that people would start to catch on after 300 years without a win.

(Conservatives are wrong about most economic issues too, but that's a harder case to make because there's not a consensus on the quality metric.  Conservatives think that oligopolies are fine and dandy, but dare I say that reasonable people might disagree.)

Monday, April 01, 2013

Enough with the "it's not natural" nonsense already

The more I think about this, the more it steams my clams.  Georgia GOP Chairwoman Sue Everhart was quoted by the Marietta Daily Journal giving voice to a common sentiment among opponents of same-sex marriage:
[I]t is not natural for two women or two men to be married,” Everhart said. “If it was natural, they would have the equipment to have a sexual relationship."
I have news for you, Ms. Everhart: gays can (and do) have sexual relationships.  (I always thought that was the problem people had with gays to begin with, that they had sex.  Meh, what do I know?)

But Ms. Everahart is right about one thing: it is in fact not natural for to women or two men to be married.  But it is also not natural for one man and one woman to be married.  The natural (and Biblical, by the way) state of affairs is polygamy.  This is because females maximize their reproductive fitness by mating with the highest status male, while males maximize their reproductive fitness by mating with as many females as possible.  Yes, beer googles can be explained in Darwinian terms.

So what exactly is it that makes being "unnatural" so bad?  Lots of things are unnatural.  Cities, for example.  Sanitation.  Cars.  Movies.  Laws.  Democracy.  Capitalism.  Scotch.  Cell phones.  The internet.  Deep-fried Twinkies.

Religion.  Churches.  Science.

Wearing clothes.

All of these things are unnatural.

Unnatural is a good thing, or at least it can be.  Unnatural is what sets humanity apart from the animals.  The ability to transcend and rise above nature is what makes it possible for us to be noble, artistic, technological, the masters of our fates.

Fair warning: the next person who says in my presence that gays should not be allowed to marry because it's unnatural will get dope-smacked.

You can't make this shit up

Well, at least I can't.  The Marietta Daily Journal writes the following, which I will simply reproduce here without comment because, well, it just leaves me at a loss for words.  (BTW, if you decide to follow the link to the original article, the Journal has a really annoying paywall, which you can circumvent by disabling Javascript in your browser.)

One woman who has not [decided to support same-sex marriage] is Georgia GOP Chairwoman Sue Everhart of east Cobb, although she’s aware of the movement. 
“Lord, I’m going to get in trouble over this, but it is not natural for two women or two men to be married,” Everhart said. “If it was natural, they would have the equipment to have a sexual relationship.”
Everhart said while she respects all people, if same sex marriage is legalized across the country, there will be fraud.
“You may be as straight as an arrow, and you may have a friend that is as straight as an arrow,” Everhart said. “Say you had a great job with the government where you had this wonderful health plan. I mean, what would prohibit you from saying that you’re gay, and y’all get married and still live as separate, but you get all the benefits? I just see so much abuse in this it’s unreal. I believe a husband and a wife should be a man and a woman, the benefits should be for a man and a woman. There is no way that this is about equality. To me, it’s all about a free ride.”
Everhart said if she had a young child, she wouldn’t want them to have gay parents who would influence that child’s sexual orientation.
“You’re creating with this child that it’s a lifestyle, don’t go out and marry someone else of a different sex because this is natural,” Everhart said. “But if I had a next door neighbor who was in a gay relationship, I could be just as friendly to them as I could be to you and your wife or anybody else. I’m not saying that we ostracize them or anything like that. I’m just saying I’m against marriage because once you get the gay marriage you get everything else.”