2016-02-05

Limited empathy and large out-groups

I'm a reluctant and somewhat hypocritical meat eater. I hate the abhorrent way in which our society produces meat. However, I don't hate it enough to deprive myself of the experience. If lab-grown meat comes to the grocery store one day soon, I will be an enthusiastic customer. Until then, however, I post about the need for change, and grumble while I buy chicken.

I've made posts, here and there, about our cruelty to animals on Reddit. I find that:
  • Just pointing out that the way we treat animals is horrendous – is tolerated. Saying this alone can be upvoted.
  • However: comparing the suffering we inflict on animals; to any type suffering we inflict on fellow humans; is a one-way ticket for the downvote train. No type of animal suffering, no matter how horrendous, may be compared to human suffering. Ever.
It seems most folks will empathize that animals ought to be treated better. However, if this comes at any cost to humans; almost any cost at all; then people think the suffering by animals is justified, because they are different species.

It is unpopular to point out that this type of morality is compromised, and fundamentally no better than allowing suffering by foreigners because they're foreigners; or suffering by another race, because they are another race; or suffering by the other sex, because they are the other sex.

It's an arbitrary line where everyone outside is treated as part of an "out group", and has the moral standing of an object.

You don't even have to go as far as animal suffering to see this moral compromise in action. A large proportion of people actually act and believe as though suffering by foreigners is okay because they're foreigners.

You can see that right now in Europe, in the positions people take against refugees. Theoretically, everyone agrees it would be nice if war-stricken people did not suffer. However, half the population is actively against helping, if this would mean accepting any cost.

It can be seen similarly starkly in the media treatment of deaths resulting from US invasions. The ratio of US deaths to Arab deaths has been something like 1:20, but foreigner deaths only ever matter if there are no American deaths at all. Theoretically, everyone agrees it would be nice if there weren't as many civilian casualties among foreigners. However, half the population is completely fine with 90% civilian casualties being routine, as long as it seems safer for Americans.

Half the people, generally speaking, seem to have no empathy beyond their closest in-group. There seems to be little understanding that this is how Hell-on-Earth comes about.

2016-02-02

Crappy gaming laptops recap

Jana and I have been through a number of gaming laptops over the years. Just recently, Jana got a new MSI GT-80 TITAN SLI-253. Only 4 months later, it's already showing signs of a hardware issue. After the laptop has been off for a while, the NVIDIA driver will keep crashing and recovering. After it's "warmed up", a Windows reboot fixes it. Whatever the issue might be, if it's hardware, it is hard to fix in Costa Rica.

This seems to be as good a time as any to recap our experience with the various laptop brands so far:
  • Toshiba Qosmio #1 - purchased August 2009, for denis: Worked well for 2 years. At the end of its useful life, started freezing when graphics are in use. The rest of it continues to work even today, after abuse from our 2-year old son. Screen remains uncracked after he has walked on it.
  • Toshiba Qosmio #2 - purchased March 2010, for Jana: Worked well for 3.5 years, then began having occasional issues. We would buy this again, but it now seems to be hard to get.
  • Alienware #1 - purchased December 2011, for denis: Worked well for 1 year and 9 months; then motherboard died, apparently. Would no longer wake up.
  • MSI GT70 - purchased September 2013, for denis: Problems from day of delivery. Would only ever boot 50% of the time. Worked fine when it did boot.
  • Alienware #2 - purchased September 2013, for Jana: Worked well for 2 years, then screen cracked spontaneously from normal use. The rest of it works, and the screen could be replaced, but a repair is hard to arrange in Costa Rica.
  • Alienware #3 - purchased July 2014, for denis: Obtained to replace the MSI GT70 and its continuous booting problem. Shipped with non-functional battery, which had to be replaced at significant cost. Since then, it continues to work well at the time of this writing. (Here's to hoping!)
  • MSI GT80 - purchased September 2015, for Jana: Worked well for 4 months, then repeated problems with graphics began – graphics driver crashing and restarting.
Overall:
  • Toshiba was great, but hard to get now. We'd keep buying Qosmios if they were available.
  • Alienware has issues, but when it runs, it runs well. Time between issues could be better.
  • MSI seems prone to issues where the laptop kinda runs, but not dependably.

2016-01-21

No true study

In 1979, Lord, Ross, and Lepper conducted a study into how different people - in this case, 48 undergraduates - interpret the results of the same studies based on their different initial beliefs.

This post does a great job at summarizing the findings.

In a nutshell: people who agreed with the study's findings beforehand will consider the study sensible; trustworthy; methodologically sound. But people who disagreed will consider it worthless and flawed.

I've noticed myself doing the same thing. For example: when I was heavily drinking diet soda; before I ran headlong into insulin resistance; I was distrustful of studies showing the association between diabetes and artificial sweeteners. I didn't want zero-calorie sweeteners to be bad, so I wasn't reading studies honestly. I preferred not to read them at all – but if I did, it was only to be able to find some flaw.

I see people doing this all the time. You might be one of the people invested in denying that the concept of IQ has any meaning. Others are denying the effectiveness of vaccines. Denying climate change. And so on.

This is why we can't have good things.

So far, the only way to counter this seems to be to have less ego, and not identify with particular beliefs.

You may think of George Soros various things, but perhaps the most valuable lesson I read in one of his books was that a good investor should always be able to change their mind after receiving new information. It doesn't matter if you made an investment just yesterday. If today you learn convincing information that the investment is doomed, you must be able to turn on a heel, and abandon immediately. There must be no ego in this. The critical error is not having made the investment not knowing better; it is holding on to it, now that you do.

This is a mindset we ought to pursue with respect to our convictions. To the extent we do not do this, the only other way to learn is when reality hits us upon the head.

The title is an allusion to No true Scotsman, a similar fallacy. When a study conflicts with our closely held beliefs, we interpret it as a "no true study".

2016-01-17

Scott Adams' Trump argument, and improving democracy

Scott Adams – the author of Dilbert – has written a series of astute blog posts explaining Trump's "seemingly inexplicable" popularity, which keeps catching analysts struggling to explain it. The series starts with Clown Genius, and follows with nearly each post since then. So far I have read one month's worth, though I have been reading two days.

I must say, Scott has me convinced. If Trump gets the Republican nomination, he is likely to win the US presidency. If not, he has promised to split the Republican vote, in which case the Democrats win.

You can read Scott's argument for yourself. It is an amusing read. If I were to summarize it, I would put it this way: Scott thinks Trump is the only person in the race who truly understands the mentality of the average voter, and possesses the skills to influence it. He has failed in his presidential attempts twice, but has improved each time. This time, no one else has his skill, and the chessboard is as laid out for him.

Scott thinks a majority of voters can be divided in roughly two blocs:
  1. One large bloc are rational voters. They vote for politicians based on their policies. They think it's the duty of each voter to educate themselves about political issues, and vote sensibly based on that. These voters don't understand how others won't educate themselves.
  2. Another large bloc are emotional voters. They vote for a politician based on how they make them feel. Many of us who pride ourselves on being rational actually also vote emotionally.
Based on his own supposed experience as a hypnotist, Scott's observation is that Trump is a master persuader who knows exactly how to capture the emotional votes on both sides, with effectiveness such that he's going to cash in a landslide win.

Scott is placing a high confidence on this claim, but is betting no money on it. His is a prophet's bet. If Trump wins, against the forecasts of other "experts", Scott gets the spotlight as one who confidently predicted it. Maybe he writes a bestseller or two. And if he's wrong – what did you expect? He's just an entertainer, and he puts a big disclaimer on everything.

But I think Scott's reasoning is correct. Trump is likely to win. At the very least, he has the skill to capture and rally a large proportion of emotional voters. Maybe you are an emotional voter, and are currently passionately against him. But that's just because he isn't yet rallying you. Currently, he's busy capturing the right. When he comes around to the center, chances are he will persuade you as well. It's his skill.

It seems to me the real questions are:
  1. Is the Republican party going to nominate him? They have a choice in it. They could self-destruct, just so that Trump doesn't win. By promising to run independent if he doesn't get the nomination, Trump is playing the dictator game. It may seem self-harming to not cooperate. But long-term, refusing to reward extortion is the only way to disincentivize it.
  2. Is the emotional voting bloc large enough? My intuition says it is. But on the other hand, Sanders is the anti-thesis of Trump, and has also had surging support behind him.
If it comes down to Sanders vs. Trump, it will be an interesting test of worldviews. Based on all I have heard about him, Sanders represents everything sensible. More than any other politician in the race, he is an honest person, not in the pocket of any special interests, and on the reasonable side about everything. As far as a rational candidate goes, he seems ideal. But, he does not have The Donald's showmanship.

If it comes down to Mr. Rationality vs. Mr. Showmanship, we may find out what the verdict for democracy is. If Sanders wins, it will be clear that the average voter is more sensible than I give them credit. It would bolster my faith in humanity. But if Trump wins that fight – at least some of the folks that are currently in denial might agree that democracy needs an update.

Graph-based democracy

In my opinion, we need to redesign democracy to not only count everyone's vote; but to do so in a way that accounts for each individual's (non-) expertise. I currently know of only one design capable of this.

In graph-based democracy, instead of voting on issues directly, everyone makes a list of people who's judgment they trust. These lists make a graph, and this graph can be analyzed with an algorithm such as PageRank. Out of this graph, we extract 1% of the most central nodes, representing people who's judgment is most trusted by others. In the US, this might be around 2 million people. This would probably include most celebrities, but those would be a small part of the whole.

It is these people, then, who would vote about actual issues. In this way, no one is disenfranchised – everyone's list of people they trust contributes to making the graph. But the average person's shortcomings are kept out of the political process, and the system is not easily gamed.

I've been trying to convince folks this is needed for the last 15 years. Unfortunately, few seem to understand the need. Folks do not seem to agree how hopeless the average voter is.

Perhaps I will be proven wrong about the average. Perhaps rationality ends up trumping showmanship. But if not – I hope awareness of the need to improve democracy will greatly expand if Trump wins.

Unless, of course, you think it's okay for a master of persuasion to just play everyone for a fool, and win the presidency.

Common questions and concerns

#1: "The people who I see as the most likely to end up in the top 1% are TV pundits, radio hosts, various con artists like motivational speakers and pastors of megachurches, existing politicians, and of course - people like Trump."

Yes, of course. All of them might be in there. But it doesn't matter, because there aren't 2 million of them. These self-promoters would now be 1% out of the 2 million most competent people that get to actually vote, and this is a group that's much harder to fool.

#2: "What makes you think that people who don't care to learn about politics and instead vote based on emotions would select someone informed and rational to cast the vote for them?"

The Dunning-Kruger effect tells us we can't know how much better people are than us, but we can tell who is worse. If we rate voters' informedness on a scale of 1-10, a voter at rank 1 will have a hard time distinguishing between 2 and 9, but he will be able to make a list of people that are at least 1-2+, as far as he knows. Those people, in turn, will make a list that is at least 2-3+, and so on. Note also that most voters are rank 5, not rank 1. They will recommend 5-6+.

We are all idiots of some rank; but we can recognize an idiot bigger than ourselves. People won't include on their lists people that they know are bigger idiots, so the lists will be biased towards competence.

Follow these links long enough, rank them with an algorithm, and you discover the most competent people that should be top rank, or close. Better than rank 5 average, which is how flat democracy votes.

Flat democracy relies on us selecting out of our midst someone competent. The Dunning-Kruger effect tells us this cannot be done. What we can do, however, is know who's stupider than us. Graph-based democracy is how we harness this knowledge.

#3: But how do we ensure a fair graph analysis?

The graph dataset would be public, and so would the algorithm. The algorithm would be agreed in advance, based on e.g. PageRank. Everyone could download the dataset, and check the results.

#4: How do we protect privacy?

There may be ways that the graph can be cryptographically anonymized, so that a boss cannot tell whether you've listed them; while still allowing each individual to verify that their contribution to the dataset has been counted. Intuitively, this seems doable.

#5: What if people just list everyone they know?

That is useful. If everyone maintains a list of everyone they know and respect; but excluding people they deem incompetent; then the lists will be biased toward competence. Following the lists long enough should find the close-to-most competent people.

2016-01-14

Barva kože in karibska idila: najine izkušnje iz St. Kittsa

The following is in Slovenian because it was originally written as part of a conversation on Facebook.

Naslednje sem napisal v odgovor osebi, ki je zastopala dve sorti prepričanj - da ni kapitalizem nič drugega kot izkoriščanje (kar je deloma res, deloma pa ni); in da med barvo kože in inteligenco ni omembe vrednih korelacij. Pred spodnjim odgovorom sem že pisal o tem, zakaj mislim, da korelacije so, in da so pomembne. V naslednjem pa pišem o najinih osebnih izkušnjah:

"Z ženo imava, razen branja literature, tudi osebno izkušnjo življenja na karibskem otoku, kjer je populacija pretežno afriškega porekla.

Če naju kdo vpraša, kako tam je, jim razloživa, da naj si predstavljajo en kraj nekje na vasi, kjer ni dosti ekonomskih priložnosti, in iz katerega vsak uide, če lahko. Populacija, ki ostane, ali ni sposobna iti drugam, ali pa je za to prelena.

Ampak v resnici ni čisto tako. Na St. Kittsu je dosti ekonomskih priložnosti. Denar tja dobesedno teče. Problem je vsaj deloma v tem, da je folk tam pretežno iz Afrike. In njihova inteligenca je bistveno, bistveno nižja, kot ti zgornji opis da misliti. To ni tako, kot en kraj s podobno populacijo in dinamiko v Sloveniji. Ne moreš si predstavljati, kako tam je, dokler tam ne živiš.

To je otok, kjer se težko najde odvetnika, ker se tam pretaka toliko denarja, in so odvetniki dragi. Odvetnik, ki ga najdeš, je pa en lokalec ali lokalka, ki ne zna izračunati 1% od 1 milijon brez kalkulatorja (trajalo je kakšno minuto, da je to izračunala). Prav tako odvetnica počasi govori, in počasi posluša; in se ne drži dogovorov (se zmenimo za naslednji sestanek in je ni, ker je šla na pogreb).

Ker to na naju ni naredilo dobrega vtisa, sva našla drugega odvetnika, ki je računal še bistveno več, ampak je bil inteligentnejši. Izkazalo se je, da je ta bil ravno dovolj bister, da je mislil, da lahko goljufa. Denar, ki naj bi ga držal v varstvu, je tvegano investiral, in več ljudem izgubil več deset milijonov USD.

To ni samo en primer. Cel otok je tak. Pridejo ti inštalirat pomivalni stroj, ga rinejo v luknjo pod pultom, pa ne gre noter. Trdijo, da je stroj prevelik za luknjo - da je pult premalo globok. V resnici delavec nima prostorske predstave in je napeljal odtok na tak način, da cev preprečuje stroju, da bi šel noter. Treba je večkrat izmeriti pomivalni stroj in pult, da se mu dokaže, da je pult že dovolj globok, pač pa da je treba prestaviti napeljavo za odtok. On to potem pokaže svojim sodelavcem kot veliko odkritje.

Pridejo delavci pleskat steno v tvoji lepi, novi, uvoženi kuhinji, ki ima še plastično folijo čez omarice. PREDEN začne pleskat, začne kar sam od sebe odstranjevat plastično folijo. Ko ga vprašaš, zakaj zaboga to počne, ti reče, da zato, ker ja vendar lepše zgleda brez folije.

To je pleskar. Pred PLESKANJEM.

Ko greš v trgovino in plačuješ na blagajni, nimaš problema, da bi blagajničarka tekmovala s tabo. Blagajničarka je bistveno počasnejša, kot pospravljanje. Njeno tipkanje je počasno. Njeno razmišljanje je počasno. Ko je na koncu za plačat npr. znesek 9230, ji ti daš 10230, pričakujoč, da ti bo vrnila 1000. Ona ne razume, zakaj si ji dal neokroglo količino denarja. V roke mora vzeti kalkulator, in traja par minut, da preračuna, da ti mora res vrniti 1000.

Ko greš v restavracijo, so natakarji, če so lokalni, sila počasni, in se obnašajo, kot da ti delajo uslugo, če se po pol ure sploh posvetijo tvoji mizi. Ko pride do računa, gre njihovo razmišljanje podobno hitro, kot zgornji blagajničarki.

Ko se pogovarjaš z lastniki lokalov, pravijo, da je težko najti lokalne ljudi, ki bi znali pisati in računati.

To ni zato, ker na otoku ni šol. Šole na otoku so, in naj bi bile dobre...

Na otoku so luksuzni hoteli, ki seveda zaposlujejo črnce, ker je to pač del karibske fantazije in bi izgledalo čudno, da bi bili zaposleni belci. Ampak ljudje, ki delajo v boljših hotelih, so vsi uvoženi iz drugih otokov, ker dovolj kvalitetne lokalne delovne sile ni.

Sploh še nisem začel!

Da ne govorimo o nadlegovanju. Če gre ženska sama na plažo, bo v eni minuti slonel na njeni brisači en lokalec, ki ji bo ponujal, da jo zmasira. Ni pomembno, če rečeš ne. On bo kar začel z masažo in se čudil, če ga hočeš stran nagnat. Ti si tisti, ki je nevljuden. On argumentira, da je plaža javna, in da ima pravico biti tam.

Slišala sva za ameriško študentko, ki je bila na plaži posiljena. Bile so lokalne priče. Ampak ko je bilo to prijavljeno policiji, ni noben nič videl in nič slišal.

Jana ni mogla it nikamor ven, brez da bi jo spolno nadlegovali. Dobesedno vsakič ko je šla na fitnes se je ob njej ustavil razklampan avto z lokalnim junakom, ki jo je poskušal nahecat, da bi prisedla. "Ne" seveda ni zadostoval. Folk je tam vztrajen.

Da ne govorimo o taksistih. Zadnjič, ko sva bila tam, sem ugotovil, da nimam v eni valuti dovolj drobiža, taksist pa tudi ni imel drobiža. Poskušal sem mu razložiti, da mu lahko plačam deloma v USD in deloma v XCD. Tip se je razburil, ker ni razumel tega koncepta in je menil, da ga hočem ogoljufati. Ženi je poskušal spuliti iz roke torbico, in ker je ni spustila, jo je zgrabil za roko in jo držal tako močno, da je dobila podpludbe. Ko je žena rekla, da bova klicala policijo, se je smejal, češ da kaj pa misliva, da bodo storili. Dobesedno smo se skoraj stepli, dokler ni poštekal, da bo delno plačilo v USD in delno v XCD tudi šlo.

Tega dreka je še pa još! Zares nisem še niti začel.

V Sloveniji imaš eno tako izkušnjo vsake toliko časa, in se čudiš, kako so lahko ljudje neumni. Verjetno boš zdaj pomislil, kako si tudi sam imel v Evropi kakšno tako izkušnjo, in da je to primerljivo s Karibi. Ampak ni! Ni primerljivo; ker je razlika med tem, ali imaš eno tako izkušnjo na leto, ali pa čisto vsakič in pri čisto vsaki stvari, kjer imaš opravka z ljudmi.

Predstavljaj si, da imaš najslabšo možno izkušnjo; in najslabšo možno kvaliteto storitve; čisto vsakič. Tako je na Karibih.

Ni tako samo na tem otoku. Pred tem sva večkrat obiskala en drug otok, kjer so še temnejši. Tam sem se pogovarjal z Američanko, ki je odprla knjigarno. Povedala mi je o svojih izkušnjah z lokalno pošto. Revije, je rekla, pridejo s 4 in več meseci zamude. Enkrat je naročila eno veliko pošiljko knjig z Amazona, in je več mesecev zapored hodila na pošto spraševat, če je pošiljka prispela. Vsakič so ji rekli ne. Po pol leta se je izkazalo, da je bila to velika škatla, na katero so dali blazino, in so na njej ves čas sedeli.

Tvoje življenjske izkušnje so enostranske, in tvoja izobrazba tudi. Že samo iz tega, kar si napisal o kapitalizmu, lahko sklepam, da imaš povsem enostransko znanje tudi o ekonomiji.

Če naj stereotipiziram o "tebi in tebi podobnih", tako kot ti stereotipiziraš o "meni in meni podobnih", potem lahko rečem, da so ljudje tvojih prepričanj razlog za propad socializma, kjerkoli se je pojavil. Tvoja mnenja so 2/3 ideologija, 1/3 znanje.

Sveta ne briga za ideologije. Sveta ne brigajo naša prepričanja, naše vrednote in ideali.

Sveta ne briga, če ti misliš, da je tvoje mišljenje "napredno". Če se motiš, se pač motiš. Svet ne čuti dolžnosti, da bi ustrezal tvojim pričakovanjem, in da bi bil zaradi tebe lep.

Svet sicer je lep, ampak na drug način, kot ti misliš. V resnici ga z zavračanjem resnice pomagaš delati grdega. Imamo probleme, ki jih je treba rešiti, in uspeh pri tem ne more temeljiti na zgrešenih ideologijah in lažeh.

Samo zato, ker so naši predniki delali grozodejstva, ne pomeni, da jih niso delali na podlagi deloma pravilnih informacij. Velika napaka sedanjosti je domneva, da so bili naši predniki nekakšni zlobni demoni, in da smo mi zdaj prosvetljeni, ker VSA njihova prepričanja zanikamo.

Rešitev ni v kategoričnem zanikanju delnih resnic, na podlagi katerih so naši predniki narobe ukrepali. To je samo druga vrsta slepote. Rešitev je v integriranju teh resnic v drugačen zaključek."

2016-01-12

The Overrated Compass

Every once in a while, there will be a thread on /r/books about how amazing The Golden Compass series is. There will be a praise-filled opening post from someone who has recently discovered it, followed by thousands of comments from people extolling how deeply it affected them, both as children and adults.

I read all three books to try and learn what the fuss is about. I might have loved them when I was 10. Maybe I would appreciate them at 20. But I read them at 33, and do not share the enthusiasm of other readers.

The story is your average children's fantasy. It has some original elements – but mainly, children go around and do unlikely things, and attempt to save the world while facing unlikely challenges. Its main distinction is in how fundamentally it's centered around a ham-fisted, uninspired, black-and-white portrayal of religion as completely evil. It comes across as overwhelmingly lacking nuance.

I feel I learned nothing of value from this work. I experienced few emotions. I would go so far as to call it throwaway literature – if it wasn't for the large fan-base it attracts.

I suspect the readers who derive the most value from this work are young people who need help and encouragement to build their own spiritual reality; who need reassurance that it's okay to reject restrictive worldviews imposed on them by their families and parents. I suspect that this can be tremendously worthwhile, but you have to be at a time in your life where this is useful.

2016-01-03

Most people are no good at long-term planning

A common argument I see in favor of the cruel free-market brand of libertarianism; and against social democracy; is that people should be able to do what they want, without government interference. I sympathize with this argument, since I'm also a person who wants to do what he wants.

The problem, though, is that macro-economically, people are absolutely no good at long-term planning. And it's not even always their fault, since some changes are hard to predict.

Consider the case of coal mining. You can substitute this with any industry that was once prosperous, and has entered a decline. Eastern Kentucky is a place where miners were once prosperous, and drew substantial income. Now the coal mines are in decline; there are no more good jobs to be found; the area has become poor, increasingly full of people with no money and no options; while people in the rest of the state are upset by the increasing costs of social transfers to this area.

The same story repeats itself time and again, from the erstwhile centers of Western steel industry, to the current decline in coal mining. As Shrub74 put it: "This is kind of what my town in Australia is like. Once super prosperous from mining, then mines closed down causing a local downturn, and now everybody does meth."

This happens because masses of people can't plan. If ordinary people could predict the decline of their industry, young people would stop entering the industry before it falls; those with existing careers would have a cushion to fall back on; and have plans for alternate careers, and alternate places to move to.

This doesn't happen. People don't even plan for the future when the future is already here. Take China for instance. Even after the one-child policy had already been in existence for decades, people were still disproportionately aborting girls. As late as 2004, the gender ratio in rural parts of China was as bad as 140 boys per 100 girls. It's not just that people do not adapt when there's a lack of information about the future. They continue to not adapt when the information is already here. It has to actively smack them upside their heads for them to realize that, well gee: maybe aborting that girl; and having a son who now can't find a wife; wasn't so genius after all.

Masses of people will never insure themselves appropriately against large-scale, macro-economic changes. The solution, of course, is not to keep people indefinitely on welfare after the industry in their town has collapsed. However, politics must take into account that people will not, cannot adapt in advance, and of their own accord, to coming changes. Or even after. Programs have to be in place to provide incentives to people, on an individual scale, so as to cause masses to change behavior in ways that avoid disaster.

Or, you can do nothing and then be left with towns without future and full of meth and krokodil addicts.

2016-01-01

Musicians "saving" the world

In the 1980s, there was a famine in Ethiopia which resulted in high-profile cultural efforts, including Band Aid – a supergroup of musicians raising awareness and support, which overwhelmed airwaves.

Here is an insightful discussion on AskHistorians two years ago, of how these aid efforts panned out.

These were large aid efforts made with good intentions, but were fundamentally misguided and naive. They were ineffective to a large extent, and had bad unintended consequences in other ways: including, potentially, helping finance mass murder and ethnocide.

2015-12-22

Transaction ethics as root of social/libertarian disagreement

In order for two parties to enter a transaction, both have to benefit from it. However, the benefit can be distributed unequally. A potential transaction has a minimum price where it's still acceptable for the seller, and a maximum price where it's still acceptable for the buyer. The total value gained from a transaction is the spread between the maximum and the minimum.

An unfair, but still voluntary, transaction is one where the negotiated price is closest to one of the extremes, instead of closer to the middle. The result is that one party gains most of the benefit from the transaction. A transaction where one person gets 90% of the value, and the other gets 10%, is frequently seen as unethical by many people, and is described as "robbing" the other person.

You can see that people consider such transactions unethical in ultimatum games, such as the dictator game. In experiments, most people will accept a reward with a 40-60 split. But when offered a 10-90 split, a large proportion will choose 0% (no reward) just to punish the dictator.

The whole social democracy vs. brutally free markets disagreement rests on people recognizing, or not recognizing, the unfairness of unbalanced transactions. The brutal free market people argue that 10-90 transactions are voluntary, and therefore okay. Social democrats argue that it's unethical to foist such transactions on people just because you have negotiating power.

2015-12-21

Janez Janša

Those outside observers who even know about the existence of Slovenia may be wondering:
  • Why Slovenia saw it fit to hold a referendum about whether people should have equal rights, after a law had already been passed to make rights equal.
  • Why those who voted saw it fit to overwhelmingly vote against equal rights.
The reason is that there are political points to be gained from undoing a law backed by a currently unpopular government.

For decades, Slovenia has had a prominent but divisive political figure, Janez Janša, who has been Prime Minister at one point but is now in opposition. Mr. Janša builds support for himself by fomenting division. He has surmised that, if properly cultivated, Slovenia can be divided into two groups of people. On the one hand are the secularists: left-leaning – socially liberal, economically statist descendants of people who were privileged when Slovenia was part of Yugoslavia until 1990. On the other hand are the Catholics: socially conservative, economically liberal, predominantly religious descendants of people who were underdogs. Not only were the underdogs treated poorly under socialism, but tens of thousands were summarily executed when Tito came to power after WWII. This makes for a wonderful source of division.

As leader of the "underdog" group, he does whatever he can to get people to more strongly identify either with his group, or not-his-group. The stronger identification on both sides makes it more likely that those who identify with his group will feel compelled to vote for him within that group. This means:
  • Cultivating pet grievances of his group. One way is to be constantly bringing up people killed 70 years ago.
  • When in power, deliberately pissing off the secularists, e.g. by bringing Catholicism into education. This gets the secularists to identify against the Catholics. This strengthens Janša's political leadership of the Catholics, and the perceived need for this leadership.
  • When in opposition, leveraging things like popular opposition to gay marriage. It was overwhelmingly his camp that voted against.
He foments division, because without division, he has nothing. He would be a faction leader without a faction.

Yet, consider this. Mr. Janša was himself a political prisoner, for six months, during the final years of the Yugoslav regime. His behavior seems consistent with a person who has never come to forgive his captors, and who appears to hold a grudge against everyone who inherits their position ideologically. As such, Mr. Janša cannot be a leader of Slovenia as a country. He does not represent all people. He represents one group of people against the others. Being like this, he can only ever lead a faction.

Suppose Mr. Janša forgave. Suppose that, after 25 years at the top of Slovenian politics, he came to realize he doesn't need to be cultivating that grudge, and its associated baggage.

Imagine the leader he could be, in that case.

Update

The above is, of course, not nearly all of the story. Janša's supporters argue he was again politically persecuted when he was embroiled in the Patria scandal. He was found guilty of corruption (involved in huge bribes) and sentenced to 2 years in prison. In the eyes of his supporters, this made him a martyr. After a stint behind bars, the Constitutional Court overturned the judgment, on the grounds that he did not receive a fair trial. But that's not the same as innocence.

Supporters further argue that other political leaders have not been less partisan. That's true; there hasn't been a leader most people could tolerate since probably Janez Drnovšek. But this is a tu quoque fallacy. Just because everyone else is engaging in tribalism, that doesn't mean it's ethical to score politically by organizing a referendum to take away a minority's rights.

In this vote, the worst of Slovenia came to shine. A leader who thrives on division; hate and fear-based propaganda; and homophobia in small towns and country-side.

And guess what the campaign was called?

"For children."

2015-12-09

Survey of SSL/TLS use in SMTP mail exchangers

Some eight years ago, I made a logic error. Last month, I discovered it, proceeded to slap my forehead, and fixed it. We prepared new releases containing the fix, and began the process of notifying our users.

I now, therefore, have rough statistics about the prevalence and availability of TLS/SSL when sending email. Our notifications went to tens of thousands of unique addresses, with the following rough results. Percentages are based on the number of unique addresses in each category, so large email services (Google, Outlook, Yahoo) are represented according to their size. However, the results are filtered through the self-selected lens that is our users:


16% NoTls The SMTP server did not offer STARTTLS (large majority), or TLS handshake failed due to protocol error (small fraction; errors encountered were SEC_E_INVALID_TOKEN and SEC_E_ILLEGAL_MESSAGE).
20% Tls_NoHostAuth The SMTP server offered TLS, but could not be authenticated. By far the most common reason was SEC_E_WRONG_PRINCIPAL, followed by SEC_E_UNTRUSTED_ROOT. A ten times less common reason was SEC_E_CERT_EXPIRED. A rare reason was TRUST_E_CERT_SIGNATURE.
50% Tls_AnyServer The SMTP server was authenticated as the intended MX DNS name, but the MX name itself is not part of the recipient's email domain. Security of the connection hinges on how much you trust DNS MX lookup results, which are completely unauthenticated. Most large email services (e.g. Google, Outlook, Yahoo) are in this category, but many results could be bumped into Tls_DomainMatch by applying common knowledge. For example, one could trust *.google.com servers as being representative of @gmail.com addresses, but this requires having that knowledge.
14% Tls_DomainMatch The SMTP server was authenticated as the intended MX DNS name, and the MX name itself is a subdomain of (or equals the domain of) the target email address. This provides stronger assurance that the destination SMTP server is representative of the recipient domain.

To the extent that our user base is representative (or isn't), a large majority of recipients (84%) can receive email via SMTP using opportunistic encryption, which may protect against passive eavesdropping; but only a minority (14%) employ setups resistant to man-in-the-middle attack without the benefit of additional, external knowledge.

After you have exchanged email with a particular recipient, you can add their mail exchanger to a list of known mail servers for that recipient, and trust that host more highly in future deliveries. Assuming this strategy, up to two thirds of recipients (categories Tls_AnyServer + Tls_DomainMatch) could be considered resistant to a non-pervasive man-in-the-middle attack, as long as change of destination mail server identity triggers some kind of audit or warning.