Monday, December 16, 2013

Santa is white, but he doesn't have to be

Santa is a fictional being. As such, he is whatever we say he is. I imagine most people will say that he is white, therefore, he is white. Done.

Of course this also means that he doesn't have to be white. If we think he has some other assortment of visible genetic traits that we might classify as race, then he is that other race. Or maybe he's any race.

I imagine that I'm going to continue to think of Santa as white for a long time. Maybe the rest of my life. Anyone can think he's not white. I'll find that strange, but that doesn't mean that they are wrong, or that I'm right. In fact, I might be wrong to find that strange. I may be the strange one for thinking that he is white.

We could dig around for historical facts to back up one side or another. I could point to the European origins of Santa Clause-like beings, such as St. Nicholas. Of course the actual St. Nicholas was Greek, so he was probably not as pale as the Santa I'm picturing. This leaves me to point to American tradition, which has a pale Santa Claus. Of course tradition is not as traditional as we think, tending to change over time, sometimes even very quickly.

A white Santa, regardless of the demographics of the US, isn't wrong. But it isn't right either.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Ceilings are Stupid

Gravity is a confirmed phenomenon and has been for centuries. Ceilings will inevitably be pulled downward, thereby removing their ability to be above our heads. In other words, ceilings are self-destructive, their very nature of being above us being what causes them to be pulled down.

Some have suggested using vertical supports to hold up the ceiling. Even if we could imagine such a structure maintaining itself, it only worsens the underlying problems. Regardless of the structures you design, gravity will pull them downward and adding vertical supports to maintain a floating ceiling will only increase the downward force. Any objective physicist can see the data: more mass, regardless of how well-placed, always results in more downward force.

Ceilings, for all their theoretical usefulness, are merely a pipe dream of those who would waste resources by attempting to subvert the natural laws of the universe.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Necessary Evil isn't always necessary or evil

Lately I've come to dislike this term. I understand what it is trying to convey, that we need something, despite disliking it.

Let's start with evil. Evil. Focus on that bit for a moment. Evil is what we use for people like Hitler and Satan. It doesn't mean "mean" or "inconvenient".

Pair this with the necessary bit and it becomes somewhat horrifying. Evil is necessary? What sort of horrifying situation are we dealing with? Are we throwing an infant overboard because we need to take a water filter on a life raft? Or is this the normal functioning of society, in which case we're living in a twisted dystopia.

Maybe I should relax. Clearly the "evil" in question is generally just some sort of inconvenience or something that we mildly dislike. In that case, we're dealing with something that we don't like much, but which keeps things working.

Now this just sounds like whining. Can you imagine designing a building and using this term to describe the need for vertical supports? Ugh, the stupid floor can't just fly and we need to waste all this metal to hold it up. That's so evil! And necessary!

And thus we get to government, that perennial "necessary evil." Ask yourself this, if you regard government as evil, yet necessary, what is wrong with you? Are you personally so horrible that you need something to keep you in check? Or is government to deal with those other dangerous people, in which case, you have a really sad view of human nature. Rather than confront either their worldview or their actions, people decry the "necessary evil". Call it evil to preserve your sense of moral direction, then call it necessary to excuse your active or passive support for it.

Alternatively, maybe these "necessary evils" are not evil, and at times not necessary, but are instead slightly annoying aspects of society and economics that keep things functioning, but rather than attempting changes that would render them unnecessary. For example, hiring people is the most effective way to remove them from the welfare state, pulling them out of Medicaid and unemployment checks. But instead 'job-creators' prefer to demand subsidies for hiring and training, then not hire anyway and decry the burdensome welfare state.

So next time you're tempted to use the term "necessary evil", ask yourself, is it? Is it evil? Is it necessary? And if it is both, can you do anything about this terrible arrangement? Sometimes you cannot, at least not alone.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Unemployment insurance isn't a poverty program

This is in response to Unemployment Benefits Decrease Poverty? Really?!

I'd propose an indirect mechanism, which can therefore explain how the correlation can fail to emerge. Unemployment insurance acts as a stabilizing force, allowing families to maintain their lives despite unemployment. Under normal circumstances this would be a temporary effect, tiding them over until they find a new job and begin paying back into the system. In this way, unemployment would have a slight impact on poverty by means of giving people money, but the larger effect would be on maintaining demand, thereby keeping the economy growing. It would therefore have the effect of smoothing out some problems so that free markets can reduce poverty.

This falls apart in a sustained recession. If there are too few jobs to find, then the insurance will no longer be stabilizing the economy. It will instead be propping up people's lives, without being of much benefit to economic growth. In summary, unemployment insurance is a brilliant idea if we're in a short downturn, but not in a long-term economic malaise. It may still be morally justified to help people, but it is not a recovery program.

Of course merely bashing a program isn't of much help. From that we'd conclude that the correct decision is to simply end it. That would crash the economy and ruin many lives. Or end them. It is always good to remember that people can starve to death or die of exposure. Lack of proper nutrition will have a life-long impact on a child.

What are the alternatives then? Or what are the supplements that can be used to improve the program?

First, it is always good to have people in the same place as jobs. Government could offer increased benefits to people who move to areas with lower unemployment or pay some moving expenses. The housing problems don't help, since they may make people feel or actually be stuck in their present locations. Increasing the mobility of labor would decrease unemployment. Economic improvements tend to compound. Lower unemployment will cost fewer resources at all levels of government, while also bringing in greater tax revenues. Even with the buffer of unemployment insurance, we can expect some rise in demand from a family with income than one without, boosting the economy further.

Eliminating rules such as the minimum wage, protections for unions, and workplace safety would make employees less expensive and therefore would encourage hiring. However, in a weak job market and without collective bargaining, there is no guarantee that workers will be paid enough to survive on.

Encouraging hiring would help as well. This could come on the demand side, so that employers see greater benefits from hiring. However, demand-side boosting requires a massive expenditure and we've not yet seen the political will for a sufficiently large stimulus. Alternatively, giving everyone a bunch of currency, using inflation to cause a redistribution of wealth from rich to poor, as opposed to the poor to rich movement we see with most monetary policy, would provoke a backlash from the politically-influential group known as "rich people".

Employers could receive tax benefits for hiring, such as from a pass on payroll taxes. However these tend to be deficit-increasing as the economic growth and resulting revenues don't offset the tax expenditure. The employment boost may end when the tax subsidy ends, and such subsidies tend to encourage hiring for low-wage jobs to game the system. If done at the state level, then it is merely part of the pirating of jobs with no actual economic benefit, an absurd practice known as "tax competition."

Rather than making hiring more profitable, government could use policy to make firing less profitable. A tax on layoffs would add an incentive to retain workers, though the retention would be proportional to the size of the tax, and would reduce business flexibility. It is good, after all, to be able to get rid of workers who don't produce as much as they are paid. Furthermore, if the tax were too high, then we could expect hiring to be reduced due to uncertainty about the need for labor.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Reworking the money supply for explosive economic growth

Make uranium the currency. It sounds crazy, and it comes from an imaginary physicist, so it just might be. But it also might be true, as things in physics often are. Let's set aside the problem of deflation, since the half-life is so long, or the inherent stupidity of making our currency based on a physical substance. Let's instead focus on the positive aspects.

While we might not expect people to trust banks, we can expect them to use banks. No one wants a lot of uranium sitting around their houses, not even terrorists. On the trust front, we can expect that banks would be more highly-regulated. While its easy to wave away responsible regulation on the grounds of "economic freedom", something that they made up on the spot, there is also the issue of terrorism. While the scale of the threat was also made up, it is scary and explodey and both of those are strong motivators. Therefore we can expect that people will use banks and will trust them to not explode.

In the event that the banks do explode, making big explosions, with the usual destruction of property and killing people, is illegal. This means that in the event that bankers blow up the economy again it will likely be accompanied by an actual explosion. Those are much easier to prosecute, since people have more of a tendency to admit that they exist. Fewer people would be claiming that the Federal Reserve or Elders of Zion caused the explosion. That's a good thing.

In the event that the banks do not explode, then the bankers will get to learn the other meaning of liquidator: those who worked on cleaning up the debris from Chernobyl and who suffered tremendously from the resulting radiation poisoning. This may seem to petty spite, and it is. Since when does policy have to be based on being nice to people?

Then a few decades later people will claim that The Wizard of Oz is about expanding the money supply to include strontium-90. Obviously that's stupid, because the half-life is far too short for it to be a sound foundation for the money supply.

Friday, August 30, 2013

States are not people

It seems that we cannot go a day without someone, somewhere, talking about sending a message or punishment to some country. They talk about it as if the country is a person. Even if you pretend that punishment is an effective way to guide the behavior of individuals, does that translate to punishment affecting states?

In the case of a representative government it is conceivable that a punishment actually hits the wrongdoers. If the majority voted fora  particular policy or representative, then the punishment, usually in the form of bombing, would then seem to be hitting those responsible: the people themselves. In other words, a representative state may not truly have civilians, because the civilians are the ones who decide to commit the crimes.

This is obviously ridiculous. Even in a perfectly ideal representative system there will be dissenters, yet bombs do not distinguish. Therefore the punishment is harming the innocent.

If the system is imperfectly representative, perhaps with some members holding more power than others, then the problem of innocents being harmed is increased further. Then there is the issue of the unknowable. While representatives can be elected or voted out, they have a great deal of freedom of action. Some actions may not be noticed, or even actively covered up (such as the time-capsuled tax recommendations). Representatives may act in ways that we not expected. For example, even those who opposed the selection of President Bush wouldn't have known that the US would be attacked on such a larger scale that a large war became inevitable. No one voted for his war or human rights record, yet as a representative of the people, he was allowed to do so.

Moving along this continuum of representation, we eventually get to the dictator. He dictates, as the name implies. While he may have some support, it would be absurd to suggest that his actions are sanctioned by even a plurality of citizens. In this context, punishment that does not directly target the dictator, or rogue elements (as I suspect are part of the cause of the brutality in the Syrian crisis), will be targeted.

There is no state to punish. There are instead individuals. Yet we somehow never manage to go after them. We instead cling to the notion that leaders are to be revered, held above the masses, even as those masses are slaughtered in their name. This isn't to suggest that something like the Syrian crisis could be resolved by killing Assad & Co. There are wider forces at play and a few deaths won't fix that. Yet killing even more people, civilians or military, won't fix it either.

It often feels as if we're living in some sort of awful Bond parody, where the villain is displeased with a subordinate and expresses it by glaring at him until he quakes in fear, and then kills someone else. Terrifying...

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Men apparently like being told what to do

Lately I've been trying to try inverted perspectives. "What if the person asking for directions were white rather than black?" The idea is to directly confront the possibility of a bias. If detected, it will also dictate how I'd act without the bias.

So there I am, reading a bit of Slate when I get to this. Note that I tend to skip over writer names when I start an article and only check back if something seems particularly odd. So no bias checking to do on that bit. But on the article itself, I tried some flipping. Here's a bit from the original:
My husband even says, “Men like it when women tell them what to wear, because we don’t know.” Telling your man to shave, in other words, is not so far off from telling him that dishes left by the side of the sink eventually have to make their way under the water, etc. Listen to the outtake from the commercial, where Kate, Hannah and Genesis discuss what they were up to. “We have to help guide you along,” Kate says. Not much threat there.
Nothing bad there, right? I was a little bit annoyed though. Here's the re-write that I'm picturing:
My wife even says, “Women like it when men tell them what to wear, because we don’t know.” Telling your wife to shave, in other words, is not so far off from telling her that dishes left by the side of the sink eventually have to make their way under the water, etc. Listen to the outtake from the commercial, where Kyle, Harry, and Joseph discuss what they were up to. “We have to help guide you along,” Kyle says. Not much threat there.
Stupid women! Don't you know how to shave? You're gross! Just look at all that... woman hair! In places! Here honey, let me help you out there: The dishes go in the sink, not to the side. Ha, you women aren't so great at this housework thing, are you? Dumb bitch.

Of course it won't be perfectly mirrored, so the inverted perspective will yield odd results. Men don't have a history of being chained to housework or being treated like barely-sentient dopes who need to be told how to carry out basic functions. Women, as well as many racial and ethnic minorities, have had that history, and so recently that it is only forgotten to the extent that we forget all sorts of stuff, individually.

Nevertheless, I don't particularly like her claim earlier that: "These Gillette ads feel harmless and funny. No one really thinks that Kate and Hannah and Genesis are doing these men any damage." To that I say, fuck you! That's precisely the problem with this sort of damage: no one thinks they're doing any damage; it's all so very harmless. Except of course when it adds up and feeds into a larger trend. Thankfully, we're not yet at the point where it has all added up into harm, but why start?

Monday, August 12, 2013

Fraud is not a first amendment right

Lance Armstrong lied in his memoirs about his use of performance-enhancing drug. Some buyers in California are suing for fraud, claiming that they'd not have purchased the book had they known it was fictional (or not purely non-fiction / not clearly indicating what was and what not true). Somewhat predictably, the publishers are pretending that this is a first amendment issue.

They are, of course, full of it. The right to make a false claim is not in dispute. Fiction is constitutionally protected. So is non-fiction. Fraud, however, is not. If I offer to sell you X and deliver Y, then I am committing fraud; that is illegal. I do get to claim that my lie was protected speech, and in fact it is protected speech in the sense that I get to say it, but that does not mean that I am magically immune to the consequences of committing fraud.

Lance Armstrong has every right to lie about what he has done. He does not, however, have the right to sell those stories with the claim that they are true, no more than you can market a product as containing a particular ingredient when it in fact does not. The Bill of Rights is not a license to throw integrity out the window.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Openly- as an indicator of societal tolerance

Anytime I see an article about someone being the new highest-ranking gay general/CEO/politician/sports star there is always that prefix: openly.  We only know that they're the highest-ranking openly-gay.  There may be others of even higher rank, still in the closet.

Some are hiding from others.  Some are hiding from themselves.  All are hiding.  They shouldn't have to.  Someday, I hope that we'll see headlines that don't need the qualifier of "openly" because no one will need to hide.

Maybe even better would be when such headlines don't even happen at all because no one will care if someone is gay.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Arbitrary mercy is still arbitrary justice

I think Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden both did the right thing.  Maybe the execution was imperfect, but the general notion of disclosing illegal or unethical activity is good.  I think we should hold them up as models of behavior.

I also think the government should put them on trial.  I know Manning already is, but the phrasing gets awkward.  They both broke the law.  I'm open to being convinced otherwise, and perhaps I will be, but for now, I believe that the laws they broke were not unjust.  Certainly if you break an unjust law then the law should be changed and the person pardoned.

In the meantime, why the contradiction?  Because there is none.  Rule of law matters.  The idea that we create laws and enforce them, evenly and fairly, is critical to a functioning society and government.  Letting people go because we decided that they had good intentions is dangerous.  It sets a precedent that can easily go the wrong way.

Good intentions are unlimited in scope and variety, running the gamut from stealing a loaf of bread for a hungry family to killing a person because you thought they were dishonorable.  To give greater weight to good intentions than to the law is to give greater weight to chaos.  Worse, it opens the door to arbitrary punishment or lack thereof, in which one person is judged to have had good intentions and another not.  But what means would we measure them?

Enforcing the law also acts as a safety mechanism.  While I think people should defy the system if they think it is unjust, it should not be costless.  The threat of imprisonment forces would-be rule breakers to be more careful in their actions.  They gather more evidence and look for context, to ensure that what they may be imprisoned for is actually worth the punishment.

However, I would not apply this to whistle-blowers, as defined by law.  If someone is legally forbidden from reporting illegal behavior, then that law in unjust and therefore there should be no prosecution.  And of course, if someone reports illegal behavior and broke no laws in the process, they should face no penalty.  Disclosing illegal activities should be encouraged at every opportunity.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Misleading Graphics or The Context is the Content

Context matters as much as content.  After all, what does the content mean in isolation?  Frequently, nothing.  The context of a message can make it a lie just as much as inaccurate content.

I like maps.  Some maps are neutral, such as maps that show where in the US people say pop, soda, soda pop, and coke.

What about a map of hateful tweets?  Let's set aside the issues of defining hateful as well as false positives and negatives.  The map itself, even with fully accurate information, can be misleading.  How?  Population, density, and access.  A hateful tweet in an area of low population and/or low connectivity is a larger proportion of the overall population, and may therefore be considered more representative, than a single hateful tweet in an area of high population.  Frequency maps tend to look like population maps.

This can be corrected a few ways.  One would be to give a ratio, such as hateful to neutral or positive tweets.  Another would be to divide by the population of an area, so that it becomes tweets per person, though that will give lower weight to tweets in areas of lowered connectivity.

I also like graphs.  They can say so much.  They can give levels, trends, and context to what is happening.  But that Y-axis is a trouble-maker.  Maybe you're dealing with numbers in the millions, where the differences are significant, but if you have to stretch all the way down to zero, they'll get shrunk to visible insignificance.  Rescaling can help, but if the differences are small relative to the overall size, then they'll still vanish.  Starting somewhere other than zero, or using a broken axis can fix this.  Yet it creates its own problems.  Anything can appear big, or small, if you pick the right axis.  Going from $1,000,000 to $1,000,001 is surely insignificant, but if you start the axis at $999,999 then it will look huge; visually the one dollar change looks like it is double.

Even the numbers themselves can be tricky.  Keeping the million to million and one dollar scenario, what can we call that?  Maybe last year the relevant number was nine-hundred ninety-nine dollars and it had been so for decades before.  In that case, hasn't the gap between last year's number and the historical trend been doubled?  Alternatively, it's a 000.1% increase from the year before (I hope I counted my zeros correctly).  And look, over there is two million, so we're at half that!  Whatever that is.

These are not all cut and dry.  Maybe the change does matter despite the seemingly small magnitude and needs to be magnified.  Sometimes space is an issue.  Yet the question should always remain: Does the narrative exist outside of this graphic or is it created entirely from the display?

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

How arming the rebels may win the war for Assad

It's a common refrain, to hear how we should arm the right rebels in Syria.  These are apparently the rebels who do not commit war crimes, are not Islamic terrorists, are not criminals, are not going to set up their own dictatorship, and are not sectarian extremists.  They're not only well-intentioned, but also capable of implementing their good intentions.  So we're down to about ten people that we can safely give weapons.

See the problem yet?

There is already in-fighting among the rebels.  Some groups are just trying to seize territory for themselves rather than actually free their country from Assad.  They'll attack others, even other opponents of the regime.  As with any civil war or resistance movement, there is the war against the regime and the war to be the faction that wins.  Look at China where even the Japanese invasion and occupation caused the civil war to be given ever so slightly lower priority.

What happens when we give arms to particular groups?  They may be stolen or sold off, since even if the group overall or its leaders are good people, they are not filled with perfect people.  The groups that we arm may be attacked more heavily by the regime, thereby making the less savory groups relatively safer and more powerful.  They may be attacked by other factions that seek to steal their weapons.  They may be more desirable for infiltration by extremists.

The overall result is that giving arms to the right rebels is not a guarantee that the Assad regime will fall or that its replacement will be significantly better.  If the new government isn't going to be any better than the old, then what's the point?  Assad may as well have been allowed to win if that's the case.  We shouldn't be so quick to forget what happened in Afghanistan.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

The Problem with Stress

The problem with stress is that it tends to compound itself.  A bad situation wouldn't be so bad if it was just itself.  Yet it never is.  It creates stress and that sticks around.  I worry more and that makes me think worse, which does not help.  I worry more and that makes it harder to sleep, which does not help.

I've developed the habit of doing dishes before bed.  It's boring, which can sometimes mean peaceful.  I can play some music, not too loud, but with headphones it's enough to hear over the water.  The water is nice.  The little sense of accomplishment is nice.  It's a slow, unrushed process.  In the morning I can wake up to a sink full of clean dishes.

Being out working creates a problem.  I won't fill a sink of water for just a few dishes.  So I spend my day out, being stressed, and then my end of the day stress reliever is gone.  I could still do it, but I'd feel as if it were terribly wasteful, and that would be of no use at all.

Then just to make it worse, when I'm done with something and can legitimately relax for a while, I can't.  I'm still anxious, wondering when something is going to go wrong.  Surely I made a mistake somewhere.  Surely I wrote something poorly and someone is going to catch it.  Some problem will emerge.  This means that any relaxation is at best a temporary state, an anomaly.  At worst, I forgot to do something and that's going to catch up to me.  Then I can think back on that next time I have a rest and wonder if I'm just wasting my time that I don't have.

Soon my semester will be over.  Then I can focus on worrying about being unemployed.  If I get a job, I can worry about my career and personal life.  I wonder what I could worry about after those.  Maybe I should know already, and that worries me.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Gay marriage is a a slippery slope, yet not so steep

I see two broad arguments in favor of allowing gay marriage.  One is equality.  The other is individual choice and freedom to enter contracts.

The first is tied up in all manner of moral and ethical issues.  I don't see what I can contribute to the discussion, as I see it as a personal matter.  Someone either sees gay people as people who are gay and therefore people with the accompanying rights, or they do not.  A few might be in transition, asking questions and thinking about it, but only their own thoughts and experiences can change them.

The second one, the manner of liberty, is the slippery slope.  At its heart is the notion that individuals may enter into a contract without restriction, as long as it does not harm others.  I see two potential sources of harm to others.  One would be children raised by gay couples turning out worse than those raised by straight couples.  There is no evidence to support this and there is no similar standard in straight marriages, nor is marriage even based on child-rearing.  The second potential source of harm stems from employers and taxpayers shouldering the burden of extended marriage benefits, such as pensions, healthcare, and government entitlements.  However this 'harm' stems not from gay marriage but from marriage in general and how our laws treat it.  The same harm exists in straight marriage.  There is a third category, of moral outrage or decay or decency, but those are all of little legal weight and amount to little more than imposing one's perspective on others.

Getting back to the contract, the inevitable question arises: Why only two people?  The contract perspective seems to allow polygamy as well.  That's the slippery slope: from gay marriage to polygamy.  Then what?  Given that we've gotten here on a slope of contract rights, nothing else.  Animals cannot sign contracts.  Children cannot either.  The contract perspective on gay marriage is not a slippery slope to bestiality and pedophilia, only to polygamy.

That leads to the question: What's wrong with polygamy?  In the abstract, perhaps not much (I have raised one issue in the past), though particular cases can turn out badly.  I suspect that legal and social rejection of polygamy means that the few people who engage in it are inevitably going to be unusual in some way, for better or worse.  If people think that gay marriage is the slippery slope to polygamy, fine.  If that's the case, then figure out what's wrong with polygamy.  Defeat it in society and the courts.  If polygamy is the actual problem, then fight it, not committed monogamous couples.

Monday, February 18, 2013

You're stereotyping too, hippie

I have long hair and I am male.

While waiting for a ride after getting back to Chicago I was approached by someone with long hair.  He apologized for interrupting me, apparently noticing that I was very busy staring off into space.  He said that he was looking for some money for a ride or something and I looked like I was cool.  This was followed with a brief, yet not brief enough, complaint about all these yuppies with their suits and rushing off who can't give a person a second and who judge him just because of how he looks.

In his defense, he didn't look particularly dangerous or dirty.  On the other hand, he was complaining about people stereotyping him based on appearance in the same breath that he complained about the people in their suits who are in a rush.

I was a little bored, so I figured I'd entertain myself.  I pointed out the hypocrisy of his complaint.  I joked that I had no money because I couldn't afford my suit yet.  He suggested a store that sells cheap suits.  This guy didn't seem too swift.  He said how I seemed to think through what I was saying rather than just whatever comes to mind.  I refrained from pointing out the contrast between us.

Before he went away I lectured him more on psychology. I explained how many of those supposed yuppies are people looking for jobs, putting on the clothes and playing the part, because they need money like anyone else.  In other circumstances they'd be dressed down drinking with their buddies with all the time in the world.  People in a rush are less likely to help; they are, after all, in a rush.  It's not a measure of their kindness but of their situation.

It's a shame when people cannot see themselves mirrored in others.  Maybe the mirror is colored slightly or a little distorted, but the general reflection is still there.  I can see myself as one of those yuppies, rushing to an interview or meeting, my mind occupied by other problems, and I know that in those circumstances I'd be less likely to stop.  I try to give others that benefit as well, to recognize that not everyone who ignores me is a jerk.  Similarly, when I need to be the guy asking for a favor or directions, I try to consider how they'll see me.  How am I dressed?  How am I approaching them and talking to them?

It's like Gandhi said: "Be the guy asking for change that you want to see in the world.  And also, quit stereotyping people; just because you got stereotyped doesn't mean you're innocent."

Monday, February 4, 2013

Barack Obama is a person

The White House recently released a photo of Obama skeet shooting.  Along with it was a strange-sounding bit that it could only be used for news and not manipulated.  Clearly a blatant attack on free speech!  Or is it?

I don't see what legal weight the caption has.  Perhaps copywrite, in which case, the problem is the limits of copywrite and fair use, not that a tyrannical president is running a cult of personality.

On the other hand, he is a person.  I think people have rights on how their images are used.  Of course if he put, and enforced, that limit on every image of him then that would be a problem.  But surely a person is due some amount of deference, not as president, but as a person.  It is not merely his photo in terms of intellectual property, but his image.

Of course such an appeal to human decency and respect is nowhere in the Constitution.  Were we to follow the Constitution and nothing else we'd be left with little more than the lowest of human vulgarity and anarchy.  Murder isn't even banned and surely there is a precedent in that second amendment.  My point is that the Constitution is a floor.  Maybe a foundation as well.  We should stand on it and build up from there, not sit on the floor screaming at anyone who builds anything.  I don't think the Founding Fathers intended for us to sit on the floor.

We could all get up in arms, literally or figuratively.  We could make a fuss.  Or we could ask questions.  What does that caption actually mean?  Do they plan to enforce it?  Is it even there at Obama's request?  Is it boilerplate phrasing stamped on everything?  Who cares?

My theory is that it is there, that Obama put it there personally.  On his last day in office he will repost that image, edited, with the big letters "YOU GOT TROLLED" typed over it.  The mouseover text will be "wtf is wrong with you?"

The Church cannot lose

Canon City, Colorado (CNN) -- Life begins at conception, according to the Catholic Church, but in a wrongful death suit in Colorado, a Catholic health care company has argued just the opposite. A fetus is not legally a person until it is born, the hospital's lawyers have claimed in its defense. -CNN

 At first glance this may appear hypocritical.  However we should note that this is a lawsuit and therefore dictated by law.  By law, the fetus was not a person.  Once you catch the distinction between legal and moral definitions, then the hypocrisy vanished.

In fact, I think that's what makes this so clever for the organization.  This case highlights the difference between the moral and legal definitions of a person and gives them a platform; it calls attention to the gap.

Overall, I believe it will be a propaganda victory for the Catholic Church.  If they win, then they save a lot of money.  Then they get to go out and preach about the saddening immorality of the laws and judges that try to define life, though they'd want to leave out that they were the ones arguing for the more restrictive definition.  The real win is if they lose.  They'd be out a bit of money, but that's a small price to pay for a legal precedent that puts life at 7 months, or more importantly, in the general realm of before birth.

Or they could settle, let the whole thing blow over, and everything ends up terribly uninteresting.

Thursday, January 31, 2013

Magical criminals and anarchy

Step 1: Someone shoots a lot of people.
Step 2: Someone else calls for gun restrictions.
Step 3: Someone else says "criminals don't follow laws."
Repeat endlessly

Given the prevalence of the third step, I am getting scared.  Criminals don't follow laws.  Ever.  In fact, any attempt to restrict their activities only harms us more.  Apparently criminals are magical beings who do not merely attempt to defy laws with varying degrees of success, but are in fact entirely immune to them.

Given that criminals are magical law-immune beings and therefore laws only affect law-abiding citizens, then it is clear that there should be no laws.  Consider this: if we restrict guns, then only criminals will have guns, and all criminals will have guns, because that's what they do: break every law.

But why stop there?  I'm worried about theft.  If someone robs my apartment, how can I get my stuff back?  The police will take too long to investigate.  Instead, I should find the person I think did it and take it back.  When you criminalize taking things without permission, only criminals will take things without permission.

While we're at it, get rid of laws on bribery, since all they do is hold back us non-bribing citizens.  Apply the same logic to all forms of corruption, but of course they'd not be corruption if they were legal and considered acceptable.

Alternatively, it might be that Step 3 was stupid and in fact, criminals are not magical.  It is possible that there are links between the legal and illegal markets.  It is possible that discouraging straw purchasing will reduce the supply of illegal guns.  It is possible that fewer legal guns will reduce the potential for stolen illegal guns.  It is possible that "enforcing the existing laws" could help, and it is possible that "enforcing the existing laws" is a blatantly deceptive false argument when delivered by the same people who do everything they can to prevent the enforcement of existing laws.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Yet another problem caused by failing to define God's property rights

A North Carolina judge quoted Scripture that refers to the Lord’s 'vengeance' in sentencing three men to de facto life prison terms for a robbery [of a church service] that netted less than $3,000. The Supreme Court declined to hear the case Tuesday.
- CS Monitor

In all our nation's legal history and battles, we've somehow failed to explicitly define property rights for divine beings.  What is God's property?  We all have opinions, but there is no clear legal standard.  Some say everything.  Others say nothing.  I can see that some property has been given to God by private citizens, but it is managed by individuals, so there still needs to be some definition of powers.

It seems reasonable that the stolen property is God's.  What are the implications of that?  The judge thinks that theft from God mandates greater penalties than from others.  That's clearly not right.  Neither the Constitution nor any laws define deities as a special class of citizens, entitled to greater protection of their property or greater punishment for those who take it.

This judge gave an excessive sentence.  Worse, his justification, that God is entitled to special treatment, is entirely without legal backing.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Stray bullets are a thing

Safety devices sometimes cause people to act more recklessly.  For some people, this makes the safety device less safe overall.

I don't think this means we should ban motorcycle helmets.

But what about guns?  They're cited as everything from safety device to tyrant protection.  The latter is completely absurd (ask the Saudis about all their guns, but I suggest not questioning their local family of tyrants).  The former?  Maybe.  The statistics on crime all mixed.  Earlier I proposed running simulations on arming teachers as a way to get something more specific than generic crime.

But let's get back to the helmet.  If you drive your motorcycle recklessly because you think you're safe, am I harmed?  Well sure, I am harmed by the increase in recklessness if you cut me off and damage my bumper, but the fact that you get yourself killed is not a harm to me, ignoring psychic costs because those are potentially infinite and all-encompassing.

Now let's imagine that your recklessness is with a gun.  Shoot the bad guy?  Fine.  I'm not going to debate whether shooting someone who is stealing your wallet is okay (though if they're in your house, that's your house).  What about the misidentified person?  What about the strange thing that bullets don't hit a person and magically stop?  What about imperfect aim?

Notice how those all aren't your problem or the assailant's problem: they are the problem for everyone else.

Guns might help in a few specific situations.  They might cause harm in others.  These should be looked at altogether, rather than cherry-picking the one time when someone happened to be saved by one, or harmed by one.