2006-06-22

We need to invest way more in space

Finally, a recognized figure speaks out about something I wrote about on my previous blog, years ago: the dire need for colonies in space to improve the chances of human survival.

The CNN article contains a comment about how science won't be up to the challenge in 50 years. But that misses the point. The science won't be up to it because countries spend ridiculously little on space research compared to how much they spend for social transfers, armies, and pork.

Here's a snippet from the estimated US federal spending for 2005:
  • Total federal budget: $2,479 billion
  • Military spending: $466 billion
  • Income security transfers: $313 billion
  • Social security transfers: $456 billion
  • Farmers' subsidies (a complete waste of money): $31 billion
  • General science and basic research: $7 billion
  • NASA: $15 billion
Have you ever wondered why so much technology (like the Internet? GPS? airplanes?) is developed for the military first, and then seeps out to find use in the public?

Just take a look at the spending above.

Humanity is spending just about zero on research that would help us establish a colony on the Moon, let alone other planets. That NASA budget of $15 billion? $3 billion of that is pork - wasted on pet projects of various congressmen.

It took September 11 for people to start taking radical Islam seriously. I guess it's going to take a catastrophe that wipes out half the human population before people get to the wise thought that, hmm, perhaps indeed we should start working on a backup plan in space.

2006-06-21

The struggle of fixing net crime

Originally published as a comment to Eric Sink's article, Thirteen Guitars.

The net is an anarchy - much like a city without any police. Where there is no functional real-life police, everyone has to allocate a good portion of time and resources to protect against crime, and woe to the gullible one. The net is much like that right now.

The primary reason hackers, fraudsters and spammers can elude detection is because (1) they have access to millions of zombie machines, and (2) they can log on to the internet anonymously through things like Wi-Fi hot spots.

Removing these people's ability to (1) command armies of zombies, and (2) log on to the net in anonymity would go a long way towards eliminating net crime.

The only way to solve #1 is to fix the way software is written.

1. It must be written in a language created with security in mind, so that no buffer overruns or integer overflows are possible. Java and .NET are a good step in this direction, and it is a good thing that Windows Vista is moving the focus of programming to managed code with .NET.

2. Software security must be capability-based. The platform must allow you to run your browser with only the capability to display graphics and play sound, not the ability to read or change files that are outside of its cache and settings directories. There is no mainstream platform right now that has this. There is some, but I think not enough, work going on to deal with this problem, including the Singularity project at Microsoft Research (which employs some 30 researchers, but really should employ the company as whole), as well as Combex's now less well-funded (and possibly abandoned) efforts with CapDesk, a capability-based desktop.

Without this shift in how we write software, zombies will always be readily available for exploitation.

If we are successful in drastically changing and improving programming techniques worldwide and taking other related steps to eliminate zombie machines on the net, we will reduce net evil but of course not completely eliminate it. Still, at that stage life on the net should generally be much better and safer and the risks easier to manage.

About spam - I used to receive up to 400 spam messages per day, which I had to eliminate manually. Now I bought myself an email server so that I can manage the usernames for my own domain. I create usernames for any new entities I communicate with, and I remove usernames when they start to receive spam. This eliminates near 100% of spam and has no false positive problem in the sense that even if people write to an inactivated address, they get a normal bounce message instead of their mail disappearing in a black hole.

2006-06-20

The illusions of narcissistic leaders

From a recent article in New Scientist:
Overconfident people are more likely to wage war but fare worse in the ensuing battles, a new study suggests. The research on how people approach a computer war game backs up a theory that “positive illusions” may contribute to costly conflicts.
... then:
Those who launched unprovoked attacks also exhibited more narcissism, scoring 13 out of 15 on a standard psychological test. More peaceful types scored 11 on average on the same test. The trend applied to both men and women. “So it's not maleness per se but narcissism that makes some people overly optimistic and aggressive,” suggests Bertram Malle at the University of Oregon in Eugene, US.
... and:
Malle agrees that the study raises worrying questions about real-world political leaders. "Perhaps most disconcerting is that today's leaders are above-average in narcissism,” he notes, referring to an analysis of 377 leaders published in King of the Mountain: The nature of political leadership by Arnold Ludwig.

2006-06-18

Inheritance and education: the real injustice

The one inequality I think is really unjust is inheritance. Or rather: the inequality between a child born to rich parents and an equivalent child born to parents who are poor.

In this respect, our laws and mentality seem feudal. Isn't a person, any person, who is born into this world, a human being? Doesn't each person deserve the opportunity to learn, to prove herself, to try and be successful? (I ask this here rhetorically because I think most would agree. However, there may be a future article in store in which I'll challenge this premise.)

How come, then, that we tolerate such inequality when it comes to education? In the USA as well as in Slovenia - two countries I'm reasonably acquainted with - the only schools that give you a valuable education are private. Poor parents cannot afford private schools, even if their children are smart. (Universities in Slovenia are free but produce people who are unemployable. For most careers, the way to get a decent education is to attend a foreign university and pay for it, which the majority cannot afford - or even know of; requires rare traits such as openness to foreign culture and working knowledge of a foreign language.)

Stipends can help here. However, any reasonable stipend can only ever be given to those who show top promise. How about those low-income children who aren't in the top few percent? Yes, they require more investment; and yes, their expected lifetime output is low. But is it fair to be cutting off their chances from the very beginning?

It is true for most countries that they need to invest more and better in children's education. But there's more to maximizing a child's potential than just school. In material terms, there's medicine; if the child needs it and her parents cannot afford it, the child isn't going to do well, however good the school. There are books, which many parents cannot afford; there's tutoring - even more expensive; there's whether or not the child even has the space and quiet needed to study and do homework. It takes more than a stipend to address all that; and currently, the poor just don't. Only a kid with more than average talent can break out of that. The rest are in bad shape.

What happens to these kids who aren't given sufficient opportunity and a good enough learning environment? Many of them become a burden to everyone else. They often have no choice but take up dead-end, low-paying jobs, from which point many eventually end up relying on social security and Medicaid. Or, in a vain hope of "succeeding", they seek out "careers" in crimes like burglary, swindling, car theft or trafficking.

In 2001, the average American elementary or secondary school spent some $10,000 in today's dollars per enrolled child per year. This is not enough. Suppose that, in order to get a decent quality education, at minimum some $15,000 per child must be spent on tuition. Let's suppose also that the child needs at least an extra $15,000 annually for other material needs that are most necessary for the child to do well in education.

What I propose is this. On the day a child is born, the government would put into a dedicated child's account an amount large enough to finance 12 years of education. Let's say this would be some $350,000. This money could be drawn on by the parents, but could be used only for expenses that are genuine investments in the child, such as school tuition; the child's medical expenses; books and equipment required for education; clothing. All expenses would be monitored and abuses sanctioned heavily, because abuse would essentially be robbing the child's future.

Parents would be free to invest the money in the child's education as they wish. The number of private schools would increase and the quality of tuition would improve because of the additional resources available. Everybody would attend a private school of their desired type; public schools would not be necessary. Private schools could afford better facilities and teachers because more funds would be available.

But obviously, this would cost a lot. In the USA alone, some 4 million children are born every year. Giving each of them $350,000 would cost some $1.4 trillion. So where would the money come from?

Easy - if you dare. $1.5 trillion is about the amount that the American federal government nowadays spends on social security ($520m), income security ($350m), health ($260m), Medicare ($300m) and education ($100m).

It is my opinion that the government has no business managing these things. The per-child endowment I suggest would replace all these in one neat package, and dispose of a lot of rules, complexity, distortions, expenses and red tape.

Introducing a per-child endowment to replace all the other ways the government tries to help would fundamentally change everyone's motivational landscape. On the one hand, it would remove the abuse incentive provided by all safety nets. A safety net is something an individual should maintain on their own. Even if there is an external safety net, an individual should not be aware that there is one, and certainly should not rely on its existence, because it changes his or her economic decisions for the worse. It makes it more likely that you'll try to coast through life than run a marathon to achieve something. (Imbued with socialist mentalities, I think that many if not most Slovenians underrealize their potential this way.)

On the other hand, knowing that you have a big endowment, but that it will eventually run out, gives you a motivation to do with it the most you can. Since the endowment has to be spent on education, people would invest in education more and would try harder to make the best of it. This, in turn, would make them more competent, more employable, less likely to resort to crime and less likely to require a safety net in the first place.

2006-06-14

What 'socialist' and 'capitalist' mean

Socialists won't like this entry. Please understand, although I have a pet peeve against socialism, this isn't against people who have compassion for others and want to help them. I think that's great. I'm all for helping people when the help actually makes sense and has results.

The problem is, it's really difficult to actually help. What passes as helping is all too often a soft-hearted, woossy-feely naivete that leads to the helper being carelessly exploited by the helpee, which doesn't change the person being helped and in the long run just tends to make things worse. It's really very difficult to help someone because most times when you try to help you have really just consented to a game of Victim/Rescuer (see Eric Berne's excellent Games People Play). And this is a destructive game. For an example, just look at any guy who's 30 and still living with his parents. The mother "helps" by making lunch, cleaning his room and doing all the laundry.

When I say I'm against socialism, I'm not against helping people do the best with their lives. I'm very much in favor of actually helping. What I'm very much against is dysfunctional thinking that socialism usually is, and which I can sum up as "Let's sacrifice our future to give all who are feeling needy things for free today!"

However, I won't go into a rational analysis of why this fails, now. Instead, I'd like to facilitate the right part of my brain and look at the meanings of "capitalist" and "socialist" from a word-play perspective.

Capitalist is derived from capital. Capital means investment. Investment means to spend time and resources today in a way that will give benefit in the future. It's like doing work to sow seeds in the autumn in order to have a harvest in the spring. That sounds not only reasonable, but necessary, doesn't it.

On the other hand, socialist is derived from society. But what is a society? It would have to be a group of people sharing similar characteristics, values or interests. But on the level of a state, this is a fiction that simply does not exist. We are all individuals, and very different. Some bright, some slow; some capable, some incompetent; some talented in one thing, some talented in something completely different, some not talented at all. So, if we are socialists, and society is not possible, what do we do? Well, we create it! And how do we do it? Well, by making people more equal! But you can't make a slow person bright, so what do you do? Well, you make the brighter person stupid. You can't make an untalented person talented, so what do you do? You make talent irrelevant by frowning on people who use it and removing opportunities to do so. Or if you're Stalin, why not just kill the brigher and more talented?

That's socialism, in a nutshell. Creating a "society" where there wasn't any by dumbing everyone down to a lowest common denominator.

What is communism, then? It derives from community, which is a group of people having close interpersonal bonds. But for people, the Dunbar number is about 150. What this means is, we cannot handle the interpersonal bonding required to hold together a community of more than about this size. This means that a community beyond some 200 people cannot exist. And that's why communism can work pretty well for small communities, but fails miserably in a state. The closest approximation of it is socialism, but if you read the preceding paragraph, you already know what that means.

2006-06-11

Woman fired for going topless in camp

This is an example where the mental health of most Americans seriously worries me. Not the woman, mind you. The reaction! According to the article, all this woman ever did was simply go topless in a campground, in her private time and minding her own business.

Apparently, in the United States of Insanity, doing this gets you:
  • harrassed by fellow camp goers;
  • reported to a marine patrol deputy and a park ranger;
  • harrassed by both mentioned authorities;
  • reported to your employer, which in this case is the sheriff's office;
  • fired by your employer;
  • a $1000 fine and up to one year in jail.
Now this is just ridiculous. A woman shows her breasts, something no one should pay a second thought to and everyone should be accustomed to seeing, and people fire her for it? And there's a $1000 fine? And up to one year in jail? WTF?

Please tell me again, I forgot. How again are the United States different from Yemen, Iran or Saudi Arabia?

2006-06-08

Eubonicode

Eubonicode, a "language for hackin in the hood".

Sample source code :D
sup
{
a be 1 bitch
slongas(a fearin 100)
b be 2 bitch
c be 0 bitch
slongas(b fearin a)
if (a videdby b time b sameas a)
propsta c bitch
fi
propsta b bitch
nomo
if (c sameas 0)
putou a bitch
fi
propsta a bitch
nomo
}

2006-06-01

Circumcision as an adult, part 2

I just returned from my post-operative examination with dr. Stanonik. A few notes in addition to what I wrote before:
  • There are multiple circumcision styles, in particular tight (takes away more skin) vs. loose (leaves more skin), and high (cuts more regular skin, putting the scar line away from the glans) vs. low (cuts more foreskin, putting the scar line closer to the glans). Before the operation, I tried talking to dr. Stanonik about what kind of circumcision I'd get, but he didn't budge - he just said 'We're going to cut as much skin as is necessary to reveal the glans', and that was it. He didn't offer a choice, or a choice combined with a recommendation.

  • There are multiple ways to do a circumcision - with different possibilities of tools, or freehand. Some of the tools which can be used allow the cut line to be determined precisely before actually cutting. Dr. Stanonik operates freehand, and as a result, my circumcision is lopsided - the cut line is much closer to the glans on the left side than on the right side of the penis. When I asked him about this, his response was that he could do it differently, but then he could chop off part of the glans as well. This is a poor excuse - there are good tools which protect the glans penis and which would have provided a straighter and more predictable cut.

  • One other thing I didn't get a choice about is whether or not to remove the frenulum (the piece of skin under the glans that connects the glans to the shaft of the penis along the straight line under the shaft). The doctor simply informed me that he is removing it, and joked about how I should have already done the job myself through masturbation and how they're going to charge me extra for it (they didn't). I think I will like the penis without the frenulum better, but there are surgeons who give you a choice as to whether or not to remove it.

  • The swelling after the operation took longer to subside than I expected. I was expecting it would go away in 2-3 days, but it took 6 or so before substantial swelling actually started to go away. Applying ice packs at that point may have helped - or it may have been coincidental. The doctor expressed no worry over the swelling, though; it appears this is reasonably normal.

  • After the operation, there is now a spot of what looks like hard tissue, on the upper side of the shaft, and about the size of a pea. The doctor explains that this is because they had to tie a blood vessel during the operation, and that it will go away.
Overall, the penis appears to be healing well; it is very frustrating not to be able to use it. ;) It will take another week or so for the stitches and the little crust at the frenulum to fall away. I hope there will be no complications, and if so, when it heals completely, I'll make a final report of how the sensations have changed, or remained the same. :)