2007-08-30

Teen cracks AU$84 million porn filter in 30 minutes

You'd think supposedly civilized nations wouldn't be blowing millions of forcefully confiscated tax-victims' money on ill-conceived projects aiming to "protect" children from imaginary threats. You would be wrong.

In Talibanland, women are taught to hide under all-covering blankets. People fear that so much as the sight of a woman's ankle in public will lead to unspeakable harm, so women are punished severely for that. In Australia and the United States, people fear that letting children see naked women online will corrupt them immeasurably, so "something needs to be done" to protect children from such awful, soul-corrupting sights.

Well, guess what. If the mere sight of something can divert a child away from what you are trying to teach them, may it be because what you're trying to teach them is an exaggeration and a lie?

Dear prudish parents of the world: is the reason you're trying to "protect" your children from their own curiosity because you know deep down inside that your teachings are fragile and that any contact with the real world will cause your children to see them for the untruths they are?

Are you trying to wrap your children in a cocoon, not just because you need to lie to your children, but because you need to lie to yourselves - to avoid confrontation with the parts of you that you've been trying to run away from, to preserve the special world of denial in which you live?

Dear prudish parents of the world - get a life!

I grew up just fine not needing a net filter, my wife grew up just fine not needing one as well, and I'm sure your kids don't need one to turn out just fine, either. Perhaps the greatest damage that can be done to them is from you and your narrow-minded, prudish worldviews.

2007-08-26

Comments vs. program structure in programming

Given that all I have is about 3 readers (I exaggerate - including you, I really have four), and given how the topics on my blog are generally dull and boring socio-political tomes, I figure I can afford to bore my readers some more and talk about programming.

Here's what I wrote recently in response to Jacob Gabrielson's post which mentioned the relative importance of comments vs. program structure in programming. Jacob wrote:
What matters most to readability is, first, comments, followed by identifier names, followed by there being as little code as possible, followed by program structure.
I seriously disagree with this statement.

I believe that what matters most are first and foremost the identifier names and program structure; good structure includes that there needs to be as little code as possible; then, to the extent that the meaning of the program is still not plainly evident, this needs to be addressed by comments.

Sticking to anecdotal support, I've seen some very thoroughly commented C++ code that had poor structure, poorly chosen identifier names, and was as difficult to understand as reading someone else's disassembly. The comments did help, but they couldn't make up for the filthy program. On the other hand, I've seen some complex C++ code that was very well written and well-structured and so was intelligible even though it had almost no comments. That doesn't mean it couldn't have used some, but my satisfaction was magnitudes greater with the uncommented, well-structured code than with the well-commented, filthy garbage.

Comments don't make up for a lack of program structure and useful identifiers. However, great program structure and great identifiers can make up for a lack of comments to a large extent.

This is why I believe that it's important for a programming language to encourage and support a good programming practice from which the meaning of the program can be understood. To the extent that the programming language cannot capture and express the meaning of the program, it fails in its task, which is to make software easier to create and its maintenance more manageable.

After all, if comments are all it takes to have readable software, you can have comments in the margin of binary-encoded machine code. The whole purpose of programming languages, starting with evocative instruction mnemonics (assembly) and continuing all the way through Fortran and C and Smalltalk and Lisp, is to make programs easier to write and understand.

I would go so far as to say that the whole extent to which a programming language is better than another can be measured in how well it expresses programmer's intent without requiring the use of comments. Comments aren't part of the structure of a programming language; they are a free-form addition that compensates for the lack of it. Comments can be written in any language.

And I could actually rephrase that to say that the extent to which a programmer is better than another can be measured in how well he or she can express the program's intent before resorting to comments. Anyone can wave around in free-form English about the meaning they are intending to express; but not anyone can express that intent concisely through their program. To the extent that the programming language does not permit the expression of your intent - i.e. to the extent that it requires you to remind future maintainers of something instead of expressing it in a way that the compiler can enforce - that is the extent to which the language sucks.

Naive humanitarianism: compassion not linked to common sense

I think James Robertson expresses the gist of a problem pervasive in Euro-America when he summarizes this about the declining standards in education:
The problem seems to be an excess of compassion that is not linked to common sense. It is no favor to pass a kid through school when they continually fail basic subjects, and it continues to be no favor to them to send them to a college where they are certain to fail. Without basic standards being enforced, all this compassion yields is tragedy. Better to fail kids early, when there's a chance they'll learn something from it, than to feed a sense of entitlement.
Compassion not linked to common sense is a problem pervasive not just in education, but in all Euro-American policy. It is a problem I like to call naive humanitarianism. In schools, in social policies, in taxation, we disadvantage and discourage those with more potential, at the same time as we coddle those without. Within our countries, we encourage people to develop a sense of entitlement that is not correlated with what they produce; we encourage people to think they have rights which require other people to come up with payment, such as food and health care and help in disaster recovery and per-child kickbacks. Then we look outside our countries and we see all these people suffering hunger and illness, and we want to save them as well - not taking into account that it is these same people who brought their troubles onto themselves, and that only they can eventually, through generations, alleviate them.

We have these enormous surpluses of compassion, and these preposterous deficits of understanding for the consequences of our actions - these awful deficits of common sense.

2007-08-25

Slovenia is world's first...

I was surprised to find out today that, at least in one small, yet not quite irrelevant way, my mother nation of Slovenia is first in something.

It is the world's most taxed country! Leading Belgium, Denmark and Sweden, according to this article from May 2007 by Forbes.

The figures in the slides tell you how much an executive earning a certain amount gets to take home. In Slovenia, an executive earning €50,000 per year gets to keep €27,627, and an executive earning €1,000,000 gets to keep €398,503. Everything else goes to taxes.

If anyone is still wondering why I moved to St. Kitts & Nevis, I hope that this will now help clarify that complicated and subtle question once and for all. :-)

2007-08-23

Purveyors of distorted perception

In one of my recent posts, I linked to an excellent article (via Schneier) which discusses how the media distorts the public's perception of risks.

In another of his excellent essays, Schneier lists five general patologies in people's perception of risk:
  • People exaggerate spectacular but rare risks and downplay common risks.
  • People have trouble estimating risks for anything not exactly like their normal situation.
  • Personified risks are perceived to be greater than anonymous risks.
  • People underestimate risks they willingly take and overestimate risks in situations they can't control.
  • Last, people overestimate risks that are being talked about and remain an object of public scrutiny.
As a contemporary example, here is a recent article on BBC News titled Shot boy's parents speak of loss. Besides the obviously inane headline (well, duh - what else are the kid's parents expected to do? Celebrate?), it is striking how many other articles the BBC devoted to this topic. It's also all over other UK media outlets.

The impression all this coverage gives us is that there's a serious problem with children getting shot in the streets of the UK. Yet, looking at the UK National Statistics, the number of children aged 1-14 that died in 2005 was 1,210. The majority of those, 991, died of various disease-related causes. Only the remainder, 219, died of external causes. Of those, 183 died in accidents; of those, the largest group, 103, was transport accidents; of those, 48 were injured as pedestrians. In other categories, 10 died as a result of falling, 21 drowned, 1 died as a result of being "bitten or struck by dog" (should we ban dogs?). 1 was struck by lightning. 8 died as a result of being assaulted, none of them (this is 2005) by firearm discharge.

So, now we have this one occurence in 2007 which causes the statistics to log '1' in row "X95: Assault by other and unspecified firearm discharge". Those chances are the same as being struck by lightning.

As a result of this incident, we have non-stop media coverage of the shooting and the mourning parents; and yet, there is virtually no coverage of the 991 cases that died of disease-related causes (how many of those could have been prevented?), no coverage of the 183 that died in accidents. Maybe the news outlets would cover the one that was struck by lightning - but even that would be a minor article, not a series of 10 articles. And how about the other 8 children and 35 teenagers that died as a result of assault? They weren't shot, but does that mean their parents aren't going through grief?

What does that tell you about the media?

What does that tell you about their value in helping you understand the world in which you live?

New Orleans plumbers: Democracy at work

Under another recent post on this blog, me and my one reader have been having a debate about whether the problem of democracy is that there are no protections against a majority oppressing minorities (my view), or that special interest groups promote their interests at the expense of the majority (his view).

Apparently, both views are true. The latest Fortune (vol. 156, no. 4, 2007-08-20) explains part of the problem of reconstruction in New Orleans (p. 71):
One unusual problem: a severe shortage of plumbers. KB learned after it arrived that state law requires plumbers to complete more than four years of training before obtaining a license, and that Louisiana follows different plumbing codes than most other states. That means KB effectively can't bring plumbers from Houston, where it has an extensive contractor network. The company promoted a bill in the Louisiana legislature to loosen the requirements. The state's Plumbing-Heating-Cooling Contractors Association saw that the bill was killed.
Yay! :) Hip hip hooray for Louisiana plumbers! :)

2007-08-22

The panicking majority

If only we could hammer this into people's heads (by way of Schneier):
Worse, because many reporters are statistically illiterate, personal-injury lawyers get us to hype risks that barely threaten people, like secondhand smoke, or getting cancer from trace amounts of chemicals. Sometimes they even con us into scaring you about risks that don't exist at all, like contracting anti-immune disease from breast implants.
There's a lot more interesting stuff in the article.

The problem is, people who understand this are exceptional. You and me who read this, we're exceptional. To a much greater extent than you or me, the world is populated by moms who panic at the sight of a paedophile discovery on TV, and they react by prohibiting their kids from playing outside, because they perceive that someone will kidnap them.

The only way to fix this would be to recognize that most people are sheep, and treat them that way. Feed them news in a format that won't cause country-wide panic. Regulate the most appealing presentation forms in which information is presented to the masses: the most visual, most graphic and least intellectually challenging forms in which information is presented, and which the majority consume. Filter content "for your benefit" - essentially the way communist nations do. But simultaneously, permit perfect freedom in the forms of publishing that are more intellectually demanding. Science writing - publish all. Six o'clock news - filter for sheep content.

But on the other hand - the only real reason why panicking sheep are problematic is because they have the same voting rights as you and me. Because of the panicking sheep, we have unwelcome public policy ramifications. But if we adopt an improvement on democracy that:
  1. ensures that the majority cannot oppress minorities, and
  2. ensures that the most well-thought-out opinions get the most influence in public policy,
then there's no need to regulate as strictly on what it is that the masses watch. If the qualified few are the ones who make the decisions anyway, this solves most of the public policy ramifications of media-induced country-wide panics. The qualified few can decide to what extent and with what means to prevent such panics from escalating.

Controversial? You bet. "We are all created equal" - the original fallacy on which most of the idiocy in today's politics is based. But it is possible to construct an alternative that takes into account people's nature, and yet avoids the pitfalls of totalitarianism, communism, anarchy and monarchy.

2007-08-21

A system better than democracy

In my previous post, I wrote about the deficiencies of democracy as usually practiced. A commenter asked in jest whether I think other systems like fascism, communism or anarchy were better. My original response was in Slovene, but I think it's well-expressed enough that it warrants its own post, so I'm translating it to English.

Anarchy does not exist, or to the extent that it exists, we already live in it. Democracy, communism, feudalism and other systems are phenomena that spotaneously arise within an absolute anarchy.

We know that fascism and communism do not have major advantages on democracy. The problem in fascism and communism is, they permit (or even encourage) oppression of the majority on behalf of a minority. Democracy is good to the extent that it prevents a minority from oppressing the majority.

But on the other hand, democracy fails to the extent that it allows oppression of minorities on behalf of a majority.

In the developed democratic economies of present time, a major issue I see is that the less capable majority is enforcing a socialism-like discrimination against the more capable, which in the long term inhibits economic progress and decreases the long-term well-being of everyone, including the oppressing majority.

In general, there is a trend of ever greater curtailing of an individual's freedom in the name of social good. The majority is using the democratic process to move itself towards socialism. Eventually perhaps even towards totalitarianism.

The fundamental problem of democracy is that most people vote in line with values they learned in school. Most people do not form their own values, they inherit them from their environment when growing up. As a result, the trends that compete in the voting booth are usually not well-thought-out ideas, but largely irrational fixations that spread as memes.

If we want to be successful in the formation of truly beneficial policies, we need to ensure that the most influential voices are those who are the best informed about those policies and have dedicated to them the most thought. Such voices will always be a minority. In a democracy, these voices are ignored, drowned by the voices of populism and the less well-informed majority. The opinions of those who understand are drowned by opinions based on prejudice acquired in school.

A system that were to improve on democracy would:
  1. build on the basis of democracy, in the sense that it would ensure that a minority cannot oppress a majority; but it would also
  2. ensure that a majority cannot oppress a minority; and it would
  3. ensure that when a policy is being debated, the opinions with the most influence are those that are best informed - i.e., those that bring the most added value.
Such an improved system could be:
  • SD-2 (Structural Deep Democracy), which identifies the better qualified voters using the PageRank algorithm; or
  • my idea about wiki laws, which proposes a direct democracy, but where every new law must be met with a high threshold of agreement in the population; or
  • an enlightened absolutism, where a wise ruler protects the rules of engagement until his or her death or abdication, while a congress of psychologists and teachers keeps in readiness a multitude of young and exceptional candidates for succession, one of whom is randomly selected to become the new ruler when a transfer of power occurs.
Finally, an optimal system could perhaps also be found by the enactment of a universal constitution which would guarantee everyone the right to move wherever he or she is accepted, as well as the ability to take their money and capital with them; and that everyone posessing a territory larger than x000 square kilometres is free to form an independent state. However, in enacting such a system, it would be most important to prevent a reoccurence of the tragedy of the United States, where the federal government is now the source of tyranny from which it was originally supposed to protect its people.

2007-08-14

Demokracija, šolstvo in mediji

Most of my posts are in English. This one is in Slovenian because it is a response I originally posted on Libertarec, a Slovenian blog.

Demokracija ni trg, demokracija je socializem. Demokracija je sistem, v katerem 51% kratkovidnih preglasuje 49% modrih. Demokracija sta dva volka in ena ovca, ki glasujejo o tem, kaj bo za večerjo.

Velika večina volilcev se zelo omejeno in poenostavljeno zaveda političnih in ekonomskih realnosti. Velika večina volilcev ni sposobnih razumeti, kakšna je funkcija centralne banke in čemu služijo obrestne mere, ki jih postavlja centralna banka. Velika večina volilcev teh principov ne bo nikoli razumela. Lahko se jih samo nauči; naučila pa se bo tega, kar več sliši. Če bo več slišala o socializmu, bo verjela v socializem. Če bo več slišala o libertarizmu, bo verjela v libertarizem. V obeh primerih bo velika večina volilcev le verjela, ne pa razumela, ker večina ni sposobna dovolj globokega kritičnega razmisleka.

Večina ljudi zna sklepati le površinsko, medtem ko so fenomeni, o katerih se glasuje na volišču, globoki, subtilni in kompleksni in daleč presegajo sposobnosti razumevanja povprečnega volilca.

Zato bo v demokraciji vedno zmagal tisti, ki ima nadzor nad šolstvom in nad mediji.

Cerkev že 2000 let ve, da je večina ljudi kot trop ovac, ki potrebuje usmerjanje in pastirja. Zato cerkev že 2000 let uspeva. Ker poskrbi, da se ljudi indoktrinira, že ko so majhni (šolstvo) in ker potem to vero vsak teden vzdržuje (medij).

Če nimaš šolstva in medijev, nimaš vpliva. Demokracija je zgolj glasovanje o tem, kdo ima bolj vplivno šolstvo in bolj vpliven medij.

2007-08-11

Don't use Nocster or Burst.Net

I've used a number of web hosting services in the past several years. First there was XO, who are reliable but overcharged incredibly for their shared hosting service. Then there were Nocster (Burst.Net), Saving Hosting (Cooplabs), and Cari.Net. Of these, I had a good experience with Saving Hosting, and my best experience so far was with Cari.Net.

But I would never any more recommend anyone to use Nocster (or Burst.Net). This service has had by far the most frequent and by far the most lengthy occurences of downtime out of all the services I used. Right now, my company's email server, which is hosted by Burst.Net, has been offline for nearly 30 hours. I've still got no response to a customer support ticket I posted 20 hours ago, and I cannot reach them by telephone. Meanwhile, my own company's ability to communicate with customers is crippled, as I am left with no information about whether our email server died (worked fine before), or whether Burst.net's UPS systems are failing (like two times before), or whether their network is down (like another time before). I don't know whether I should be waiting for our existing server to come back online, or whether I should be setting up a new mail server somewhere else.

30 hours into the blackout, I'm still waiting. Do yourself a favor. Don't use Nocster or Burst.Net.

2007-08-08

TIME Magazine publishes socialist hate speech

TIME magazine, that bastion of socialism and the welfare state, just recently published some amazingly hateful commentary by Michael Kinsley about "private equity pigs". The pigs he is talking about are people who make their living by investing into companies, improving their structure and management and eventually selling them on, benefitting the economy, the shareholders and themselves in the process.

The reason Kinsley is bashing these people is because they are lobbying the U.S. Congress to preserve a tax-code provision that allows them to pay a 15% income tax instead of 35%, because most of their income comes from capital gains.

The reason the private equity people are lobbying to preserve that tax-code provision is because it makes sense. Capital is a necessity for the development of any economy, and it flees very easily. If it is taxed too high in one corner of the world, it will simply flow elsewhere where it is not punished as harshly for doing what it does - which is, making the economy more efficient and more productive.

But that's not how Kinsley sees it. Instead, he refuses to believe that there may be any other motivation for their lobbying other than greed - such as, that they might actually believe in their cause and are trying to prevent the U.S. economy from getting even worse:
But they surely know that their case is not obvious or airtight, and it looks just awful. To be specific, they look like pigs. Worse, they look like unpatriotic ingrates who won't share with their country even a fraction of the blessings that it has bestowed so spectacularly on them.
He insults their contributions that they made to society voluntarily:
They plaster their real names on the walls of institutions dedicated to culture, health and other noble things, all in efforts to sanitize their money.
Who cares how many cultural centers these guys may have financed? Screw them.
Then he calls for them to patriotically pay as much tax as they humanly can:
Like Warren Buffett or Bill Gates Sr., he could be the rich man who speaks the truth to other rich folks about the need to pay their taxes.
Apparently, the reasonable tax rate in Kinsley's world is 100%:
They are trading away something they crave for (respectability) for something they have no conceivable use for (more money).
Maybe Peterson has found a better use for his billions than securing his reputation for vision and honesty. What that could be, I cannot imagine.
Let me rephrase that.

Suppose you donate millions for cultural centers and educational facilities that other people can use. In Kinsley's world, that might be nice, mildly, and it might bring you some half-hearted credit. However, any good deeds you made out of your own free will fade spectacularly if you show any disagreement with the government taking your money away from you forcibly. Because, you know, it isn't you who made your money. No, it's the country that gave it to you:
Worse, they look like unpatriotic ingrates who won't share with their country even a fraction of the blessings that it has bestowed so spectacularly on them.
And by the same token, because the country gave the money to you, it can take it away. At any time. And you cannot resist. In fact, it is unpatriotic to resist. Because it isn't your money. It is the country's money. Get that?

This is communist propaganda at its worst. Why Michael Kinsley is not fired for writing this article, and why the editor of TIME magazine is not fired for allowing it to be published, I cannot tell. But one thing is clear: these "objective" and "respectable" media outlets are being run by morons.

2007-08-07

Your tax dollars at work!

Yet another instance of your tax dollars at work: immigration sends home a European security researcher attempting to teach a two-day course at Black Hat 2007 in Las Vegas.

On a similar note, a guy I know just recently tried to enter Poland with a visa that allowed transit through Poland, and he was denied entry because his intention was just to enter for an hour to meet some people for lunch. Apparently, it would have been okay if he spent a week "transiting" through the country, but just popping in and out for lunch is a no-no.

Meanwhile, other people were walking past the border without even having their identification checked or being stopped.

The accuracy of media reporting

Here's a great comment by Leo Davidson on Raymond Chen's blog:
Remember that the media is stone-cold wrong whenever they report on a subject you know about in detail. Ask other people about subjects they know about and it seems easy to extrapolate that the media is wrong most of the time about just about everything and, while interesting and a good starting point to discover what's going on in the world, not particularly trustworthy or reliable when it comes to explaining things. (Whether it be because of laziness, bias, agenda, worrying about ratings rather than facts, or taking things from other sources at face value when things may be different in reality. I think it's a mixture of all of those things.)
There are few media outlets that actually do what I would consider worthwhile reporting. One of the few is The Economist. I would be hard pressed to name any others that aren't routinely full of falsehoods, naivety, misinterpretations and hyperbole.