2009-12-29

The doghouse: GSM Association

It turns my stomach to see how antiquatedly defensive and counter-productive is the GSM Association's response to the recent cracking of GSM encryption:
Using the codebook, a "beefy gaming computer and $3,000 worth of radio equipment" would allow anyone to decrypt signals from the billions of GSM users around the world, he said.

Signals could be decrypted in "real time" with $30,000 worth of equipment, Mr Nohl added.
It looks like GSMA has a mindset stuck in 1995, completely failing to notice the evolution of security attitudes that happened in the software industry. They employ the classic approach of (1) shoot the messenger, (2) downplay the problem, (3) claim they're "working" on a solution:
The GSM Association (GSMA), which devised the algorithm and oversees development of the standard, said Mr Nohl's work would be "highly illegal" in the UK and many other countries.

[...]

[T]he GSMA dismissed the worries, saying that "reports of an imminent GSM eavesdropping capability" were "common".

It said that there had been "a number" of academic papers outlining how A5/1 could be compromised but "none to date have led to a practical attack".

The association said that it had already outlined a proposal to upgrade A5/1 to a new standard known as A5/3 which was currently being "phased in".

"All in all, we consider this research, which appears to be motivated in part by commercial considerations, to be a long way from being a practical attack on GSM," the spokeswoman said.
Security research should not be illegal anywhere, and the proper response to a vulnerability is to fix it. Immediately; not at some convenient time, far in the future.

Gravity wells

From xkcd, a very nice, easily graspable illustration of gravity wells. Click for the large version:

2009-12-26

The failed jet attack

Details here and here.

Note how all the security theater implemented after 9/11 failed to stop this attack.
  • Security processes were followed correctly, but did not detect the explosives in this man's underpants.
  • The man's name was checked against the "no fly" list; he wasn't on it.
  • In fact, the man was traveling on a valid US visa.
The real reason this attack failed?
  • The explosive device apparently malfunctioned. Instead of simply blowing up the plane, it merely caused a local fire.
  • When passengers smelled the fumes and saw the flames, they acted aggressively, perhaps preventing a worse turnout.
The response of the Obama administration: more security theater.
US President Barack Obama, on holiday in Hawaii, has ordered increased security for air travel.

The US Department of Homeland Security said "additional screening measures" had been put into effect since the incident.

"These measures are designed to be unpredictable, so passengers should not expect to see the same thing everywhere," Homeland Secretary Janet Napolitano said.
Prepare to be harrassed and inconvenienced again for a false impression of safety.

Then again - perhaps the existing security measures did help prevent a disaster, in that they forced the perpetrators to try a poorly tested design (PETN in underpants) rather than a more conventional device (which might have worked, and blown up the airliner). I just hope that the new "surprise" security measures won't again raise the frustration in air travel to a whole another level.

See also this hilarious South Park episode where Mr. Garrison invents an alternative to air travel.

2009-12-23

Please, put the patent system out of its misery

i4i. How suitable a name for a patent troll company. Another set of people who would leave the world no worse off if they were run over tomorrow by a train.

This is how it works. Register an overreaching, abstract patent that the small brains at the patent office have no chance of understanding the ramifications of. They will even let you patent the wheel, for smurf's sake.

Then hire an ethically challenged lawyer (or is that a tautology?), and possibly find a cooperative judge (it's not a bribe if they can't prove it!).

Then sue the bejezus out of a big corp, like Microsoft or Research in Motion.

The people who do this should all be dead. If they stole amounts like these in a bank robbery, they would be chased by every cop and would appear on every front page. But instead, they're doing it by abusing the legal system, and hardly anyone gives a damn.

Please put this broken patent system out of its misery.

2009-12-17

The doghouse: Predator drone does not encrypt video feed

Of all the billions that are spent on developing aircraft like the unmanned Predator drones, you would think that the designers would employ some decent encryption to protect the command channel and the video feed.

Nope.

2009-12-14

Unions destroy businesses

A fantastic example of how destructive a force workers' unions are for a business.

British Airways just recently lost 292 million GBP over a 6 month period, and its two pension schemes have a combined deficit of 3.7 billion GBP. Management is handling this by freezing pay and downsizing: 1000 employees have already left on voluntary redundancy, while 1200 more need to leave.

The union's response? An 11-day strike over the whole Christmas and New Year period, ruining the holidays of a million customers who now can't get tickets on any other airline because everything is booked out.

Edit 2009-12-17: A judge declared the strike illegal based on a technicality. Thank smurf.

2009-11-25

Obese people on-board: discrimination?

 
The Canadian Supreme Court wisely ruled that people like this should not have to pay for more than one plane ticket, because that would be discrimination:



I am pro-discrimination.

By that token, maybe the Canadian Supreme Court should extend its anti-discrimination activism to roller coaster rides? Surely, the minimum height standards discriminate against midgets.

2009-11-22

Belle de Jour: Freakonomics interview

"Belle de Jour" is the pseudonym of a woman scientist, blogger and author, known for writing about her experiences as a call girl.

Now that her identity has been revealed, an interview with her appears on Freakonomics:
In 2003, a young American woman in London studying for her PhD. ran into money trouble. To support herself while writing her thesis, she joined an escort service. Under the assumed name Belle de Jour, she started to blog her experiences. That blog led to a series of successful, jaunty memoirs beginning with 2005’s The Intimate Adventures of a London Call Girl. The books were adapted for television in the U.K. (where she is portrayed by Billie Piper) and later in the U.S. All the while, as Belle de Jour garnered more attention — and criticism, for portraying prostitution as a glamorous career choice — the woman behind Belle de Jour struggled to keep her anonymity. This month, as an ex-boyfriend threatened to blow her cover, Belle approached one of her critics, the London journalist India Knight of the Sunday Times, to reveal her identity. That resulted in an article, published Nov. 15, outing her as Dr. Brooke Magnanti, 34, a neurotoxicologist at the Bristol Initiative for Research of Child Health. This week, she agreed to answer a few questions for the Freakonomics blog, about her work as a call girl and as a scientist.
I think a lot more women should be entering this sort of career, it should be a lot more commonplace, the expected quality of service should become higher, prices of high quality service should be driven somewhat lower, and a lot of prejudice should be shed by the public.

We owe a lot of gratitude to women like Dr. Magnanti for helping especially with the latter.

Also, I just love the language she uses on her blog. A couple of quotations:
Reminded me of something we used to say, that inside most porn actresses is a failed real actress*. Inside every tabloid hackette is a not-very-bright girl who dreamed of being Kate Adie but didn't have the work ethic or talent to make it happen. Journalists my sweet Tallahassee ass. You are to historical record what my books are to fine literature.
Go on, open a Sunday supplement today. How many pages in before you encounter some polly filler by a female columnist implying men in general (or her man in particular) doesn't pull his weight at home, while she majestically juggles family, work, and the burden of having a vagina which has the audacity to bleed once a month? How many pages before you encounter some self-flagellating male columnist admitting to same?

Let me state for the record that if being a man was easy, hookers wouldn't exist. Fact.

And this:
He asked me to undress to the level of underwear (requested: bra, stockings with suspenders, knickers over the suspenders - so the stockings could stay on during sex). I did this.

Then, he asked if I would undress him.

And that was when I noticed. The odd angle of his uneven shoulders, his narrow chest, the gouge-like scars. I didn't ask, he offered nothing, and I ran my hands over his body with no hesitation. He asked me to swing his legs onto the bed, and when I did, I saw the walking sticks next to it for the first time.

That client did not reach orgasm but enjoyed the sex. We talked afterwards, he about his upbringing in Africa. His hair was thick and dark and when he said his age I could not believe it. He was much older than he looked, far older than my father! I could see in the moustache and cheekbones a man who, had his health outcome been different, might have been a dashing RAF pilot in some other world. I continued to stroke the unusual topography of his body, lightly over the lumps and odd moles, harder when I reached his (still semi-erect) penis. He, correctly, identified where I was from based on the pronunciation of a single word that came up in conversation. I can't remember if this encounter is in any the books... on the blog, he was mentioned only in passing, and not because of disability. We talked about holidays, about sunshine and the sea.

This is what comes to mind when I read people like Harriet Harman describing selling sex as "truly medieval" and "just so wrong". For her, presumably, her sex drive is constrained neither by opportunity nor the form of her body. She can and, I assume, does have sex as and when (and if) she wants it.

Other people are not in the same position. And surely denying them access the human touch is short-sighted and "truly medieval". I do not believe for a single moment, however, that these campaigners against sex work have a single ounce of compassion for the trafficked women they claim to want to help, so perhaps asking them to have compassion for people who, simply by fate, happen not to have the freedom or opportunity for a fulfilling sex life so many of us take for granted is far too large a request.

Evil in Russia prospers

CEO and co-founder of former leading foreign investor in Russia says that Russia is now a criminal state:
"When Putin first showed up and said he was going to tame the oligarchs I was the biggest fan of that particular concept. Then I realised that what he meant by taming the oligarchs was by sticking law enforcement people in their place," he says.

"Now you have a bunch of law enforcement people who are essentially organised criminals with unlimited power to ruin lives take property and do whatever they like and that's far worse than I have ever seen in Russia before. Russia is essentially a criminal state now."

2009-11-21

Values across the world

Fascinating - a map based on research of how people's values differ across the globe:


2009-11-20

Israel should move to West Australia

I've said it before: Israel is a historic mistake, and their religious zealotry is no better than the zealotry of the Muslims.

Israel should get a taste of their own medicine, and be moved to West Australia. They've built a country out of the desert once before; they can do it once again. Except this time, the land should be properly purchased; the borders should be well defined; and there will be no "holy" land to fight about, and no angry, disenfranchised neighbors.

Then everyone, whether Jewish, Christian or Muslim, can get on with their lives, let this mess be over with, and continue to live in peace.

But that would be no "fun" then, would it?

2009-11-12

The subconscious: The tail that wags the dog

I had an interesting dream today. Not long before my alarm went off, I dreamt being in a house that I know, and for some reason, Vladimir Putin was there. We exchanged a few sentences, I'm not sure about what exactly. Then he went into another room to meet some other people, and then he was about to leave. I felt that an important concern of mine wasn't addressed, so I caught up with him at the front door. "Hey Mr. Putin," I said, and he looked at me expectantly. I said, "Don't start a world war." The look on his face was one of confusion and bewilderment. I repeated, "Please don't start a world war. I mean... don't start another world war." He understood now. For a few moments there, he was at a loss for words, with an open mouth, more than apparently dismayed - as if to say, that's what you think about me? That I would do something like that? Quickly though, he found his wits, and his expression changed completely. "Ha!" he said, in a tone that suggested, you won't trick me like that! "Not everyone gets a look up my leg named Gari Barov." I didn't understand. "What?" He repeated: "Not everyone gets a look up my leg named Gari Barov." I was obviously confused. I didn't mean to trick anyone in the first place, and now I had no idea who this Gari Barov person is, and what he's doing looking up anyone's leg. I still don't think I even caught the name correctly. Putin picked up on my confusion, and explained: "Gari Barov? The short guy." He gestured a height a few feet above the floor. "Not everyone gets a look up my leg named Gari Barov." He felt that his explanation was done, and promptly left, while I was still contemplating his response, bewildered.

More than a few seconds thereafter, it dawned on me. In this encounter, Putin was wearing shorts. A really short person could look up his pant leg and see what kind of underwear Putin was wearing, if any. Gari Barov, who is apparently a short person, could do it. But most other people, even if they're also named Gari Barov, aren't short. They can't tell whether Putin is wearing underwear.

What he said was, then: Russia must be able to make a believable threat. If I tell you I'm not going to blow up the world, that would be tantamount to admitting I'm bluffing.

I have no psychic link to anyone, let alone Vladimir Putin, obviously. But I find this dream fascinating because of the apparent ability of the subconscious to communicate meaningful messages which it takes a while for the conscious mind to understand.

It is sometimes said that, if a person is like an iceberg, then the conscious mind is the tip that's visible, and the subconscious is the 90% that lies hidden underneath. I've tended to think that the subconscious is like a tanker - a largely passive, reactive object with huge inertia that the conscious mind must make a great and persistent effort to steer. Experiences like this, though, suggest that the subconscious could be more; that its role could be more active. How much more active?

2009-11-11

Catholic water fonts

I was raised as a Catholic - or at least, my mom attempted to do so. I attended church at the time, and I had suspicions about some of the traditions there that seemed a wee bit gross.

Two habits, in particular, seem to give excellent opportunity for the spreading of microbes. The communion is one. It is conducted during every Catholic mass, and it involves the priest handing out small, very thin, blandly tasting slices of bread to everyone in the audience who queues to receive one. While some people take the communion into their hands, many open their mouths and accept it on their tongue. The priest might try to avoid touching people's mouths and tongues, but this is hard to achieve, so he most likely spreads microbes onto bread which ends up with other people.

The other questionable practice I recall is the font with the holy water. Whenever a believer enters or exits a Catholic church, they are expected to dip their fingers into an open bowl of water that might be changed now and then, but looks and smells fairly stale. The believer then ought to make the sign of the cross with their wet fingers, which - depending on how the person chooses to do it - involves touching the holy water on their forehead as well as possibly the lips.

The Catholic church used to have more questionable rituals yet. Nowadays, there is a part of the mass where members of the audience shake hands and extend peaceful wishes to the other random attendees around them. Centuries ago, this ritual used to involve kissing on the lips. (Genders were separated, so you would kiss people of the same sex.)

The reason I'm writing about this today, though, is not about the unhygienic rituals themselves. It's about what people's participation in, or avoidance of, these rituals, suggests about the depth of their beliefs. See this:
Catholic churches in Italy are installing automatic holy water dispensers to help reduce the risk of spreading swine flu.

The outbreak of the H1N1 virus has led many churches to suspend the tradition of having holy water in open fonts into which people dip their hands.

The new machine works like an automatic soap dispenser, squirting water when a hand is passed under the tap.

[...]

Churchgoer Marta Caimmi agreed.

"It's great," she said. "Thanks to this we are not worried about catching swine flu. It is the right thing for the times."

[...]

"Some people had stopped dipping their hand into the holy water font as they were afraid of infections," he told Reuters.

"Some people even pretended to touch the water but they just touched the marble edge of the font. I think that it is a pity to lose our traditions."
I'm pointing this out because I think it demonstrates the underlying rationality of people whose ostensible faith ought to be irrational.

The holy water in church is supposed to be part of a purification ritual. It is supposed to be holy. Blessed. Pure. Believers are supposed to spread it on their skin (or lips) to purify themselves with it.

And yet: the believers' very behavior, their very comments above, demonstrate that they are aware of how microbes can spread in stale holy water. They very much suspect that the holy water doesn't have the purification powers needed to cleanse it of microbes. They want to create the appearance of following tradition, however. It is nice to have a ritual to signal their faith, to show that they fit in.

With traditional holy water fonts, they face a dilemma. They either have to pretend to touch the water, but not touch it, and risk that people will see this. Or, they have to actually dip their fingers in, and swallow a small risk to their health in order to convincingly signal faith. This makes the situation awkward, and the arrival of hygienic dispensers makes everyone relieved. Now everyone can signal their faith without worrying.

The very presence of this new invention in a church is evidence that hardly anyone there has misconceptions about the true extent of the holy water's powers of purification.

Combine this with the casual attitude to Catholic dogma that believers in Europe tend to have, and it seems that people either go to church for main reasons other than faith - perhaps they go to see others and to be seen; or else, they compartmentalize effectively in such a way that they have strong faith where it can't obviously hurt, but they switch to evidence and reason where it matters.

Since priests are the ones buying and installing the new holy water dispensers, it seems that they are at least as pragmatic as anyone else. If they truly believed, they could just bless the holy water and say that this makes all the microbes go away. Unless they doubt their powers of blessing.

And this is all a good thing. Religion can coexist with the rational world as long as it doesn't conflict it. Religion as practiced in Europe has already adapted to a large extent. Various fundamentalisms and religiously oppressive states, however, show how things become where this hasn't happened.

2009-11-10

Rejection massively reduces IQ

Wow (link):
Baumeister's team used two separate procedures to investigate the effects of rejection. In the first, a group of strangers met, got to know each other, and then separated. Each individual was asked to list which two other people they would like to work with on a task. They were then told they had been chosen by none or all of the others.

In the second, people taking a personality test were given false feedback, telling them they would end up alone in life or surrounded by friends and family.

Aggression scores increased in the rejected groups. But the IQ scores also immediately dropped by about 25 per cent, and their analytical reasoning scores dropped by 30 per cent.

"These are very big effects - the biggest I've got in 25 years of research," says Baumeister. "This tells us a lot about human nature. People really seem designed to get along with others, and when you're excluded, this has significant effects."

Baumeister thinks rejection interferes with a person's self-control. "To live in society, people have to have an inner mechanism that regulates their behaviour. Rejection defeats the purpose of this, and people become impulsive and self-destructive. You have to use self-control to analyse a problem in an IQ test, for example - and instead, you behave impulsively."

2009-11-08

The consequences of early life stress

Wow (link):
"We separated the pups from their mothers for three hours each day for ten days," Dr Murgatroyd explained.

"It was a very mild stress and the animals were not affected at a nutritional level, but they would [have felt] abandoned."

The team found that mice that had been "abandoned" during their early lives were then less able to cope with stressful situations throughout their lives.

The stressed mice also had poorer memories.

Dr Murgatroyd explained that these effects were caused by "epigenetic changes", where the early stressful experience actually changed the DNA of some of the animals' genes.

"This is a two-step mechanism," Dr Murgatroyd explained.

When the baby mice were stressed, they produced high levels of stress hormones.

These hormones "tweak" the DNA of a gene that codes for a specific stress hormone - vasopressin.

"This leaves a permanent mark at the vasopressin gene," said Dr Murgatroyd. "It is then programmed to produce high levels [of the hormone] later on in life."

The researchers were able to show that vasopressin was behind the behavioural and memory problems. When the adult mice were given a drug that blocked the effects of the hormone, their behaviour returned to normal.

2009-11-06

Give organ donors free health care!

Robin Hanson quotes research which finds that blood donors aren't really put off by the prospect of being paid for their donation, they just don't want cash. Vouchers would work just fine, though.

Commenter Michael Keennan then comes up with this ingenious idea: instead of refusing to compensate organ donors at all due to ethical concerns, why not pay them back in kind? How about, for example, giving kidney donors free health insurance for the remainder of their lives? That would surely cause more people to consider donating their kidneys, which may save plenty lives; and I don't see how it raises any ethical dilemmas. Doesn't it seem fair and just for people who have donated an organ to receive free health care in return? Doesn't it seem more unjust if they do not?

2009-11-04

Education as demonstration of willingness to suffer

This exchange summarizes my opinion of much - though not all - university-level education:
Doug S: Remember: the job of a university professor is to do research and bring in grant money for said research, not to teach! Teaching is incidental.

redired urologist: So why do the parents pay $40,000+ annually for this type of service?

Doug S: In most cases, it’s not the education that’s worth $40,000+. It’s the diploma. Earning a diploma demonstrates that you are willing to suffer in exchange for vague promises of future reward, which is a trait that employers value.
So Dilbertesque... but - like Dilbert - generally true.

2009-10-24

The countability of real numbers

Natural numbers (symbol N) are positive whole integers starting with either 0 or 1. It is obvious that there are an infinite number of natural numbers, and that they are countable. By starting with the lowest natural number and counting long enough, you will eventually reach any other chosen natural number.

Integers (symbol Z) are countable as well. The set of integers contains zero and all natural numbers as well as their negatives. To count them all, just start with 0, then 1 and -1, then 2 and -2, etc.

Rational numbers (symbol Q) are those numbers that are expressible as fractions, e.g. 1/2. Rational numbers are also countable. For an idea of how to count them, imagine a two-dimensional grid that has integers on each axis, and contains infinitely many horizontal and vertical lines, one for each integer on the respective axis. To count all rational numbers, start at (0,0). Then, count all intersections on the border of the square between (-1,-1) and (1,1). Then, count all intersections on the border of the larger square between (-2,-2) and (2,2). And so on.

Algebraic numbers are those numbers that are roots of a polynomial. Algebraic numbers include e.g. the square root of 2, which is the root if (x^2 - 2 = 0). Algebraic numbers aren't necessarily rational, but they are also countable. They are countable because their quantity is limited by the quantity of polynomials, and polynomials are countable. (A polynomial is determined by its coefficients, and the coefficients can be written down as a number.)

Finally, we arrive at real numbers. Real numbers (symbol R) are an expansion of rational (and algebraic) numbers that is intended to address a certain deficiency. The deficiency is that there exist convergent series of rational/algebraic numbers which appear to converge to something, but that something is not a rational (or algebraic) number. A classic example of such a convergence is Pi.

The idea behind real numbers is to have a set which, in addition to rational numbers, also contains the converging points of all converging series that can be constructed within the set. This makes the set "complete".

The traditional idea is to envision a real number as an infinitely long series of zeroes and ones (i.e. the number itself expressed in binary, with a decimal point some place).

If one imagines a real number like that, then it intuitively follows that a set of all-real-numbers is the set of all such infinite-series-of-0-and-1.

Cantor's diagonal argument can then be used to show that a set defined that way is uncountable. If you have an infinite set of unique infinite-series-of-0-and-1, such that each series in the set is marked with an index; then you can construct another infinite-series-of-0-and-1 which differs from all the other series that have an index. So therefore, the indexing is not complete. The set contains more series than can be counted.

Well yes, but: if we are constructing the set of real numbers as the set of rational numbers + the converging points of all converging series, then aren't the converging series countable? Every converging series must be the result of some algorithm. But algorithms are expressible as code, and code is expressible as numbers. So the number of possible algorithms is countable. So the number of all converging series must also be countable. If we construct the set of real numbers this way, then, it is a union of two countable sets - so it must itself be countable.

Does it not follow, then, that the standard envisioning of real numbers as infinite-series-of-0-and-1 must include an infinite number of them that are neither rational, nor the result of any limit? If so, what is the use of all these extra, unidentifiable "real numbers"?

It sure seems that, all those real numbers that we can actually express, or use in any way - are countable.

Or is the number of converging series uncountable? If so - how?

2009-10-19

Somali pirates, Italian mafia, and radioactive waste

Looks like the story about Somali pirates has some twists and turns. Johann Hari:
As soon as the government was gone, mysterious European ships started appearing off the coast of Somalia, dumping vast barrels into the ocean. The coastal population began to sicken. At first they suffered strange rashes, nausea and malformed babies. Then, after the 2005 tsunami, hundreds of the dumped and leaking barrels washed up on shore. People began to suffer from radiation sickness, and more than 300 died. Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah, the UN envoy to Somalia, tells me: "Somebody is dumping nuclear material here. There is also lead, and heavy metals such as cadmium and mercury - you name it." Much of it can be traced back to European hospitals and factories, who seem to be passing it on to the Italian mafia to "dispose" of cheaply.
In other news, the Italian mafia is reported to have sunk as many as 30 ships of toxic waste off the coast of Italy.

Johann Hari makes perverse conclusions - his perspective is classically ridden with misplaced Western guilt. But this makes for an interesting twist in the story. It's not just that a failed state breeds criminality; it breeds a muddled state of affairs where criminality is intertwined with vigilantism. A failed state is not one where well-minded people are absent; it is a state where well-minded people are disorganized, unable to enforce laws and counter criminals. It is a state where it is hard to maintain your principles because, in the absence of law, there are no clear guidelines on what's acceptable. One day, you use violence to chase off waste-dumping mobsters and invading fishermen. Not that long thereafter, your friends are engaging in outright piracy.

Obviously, toxic waste requires better controls. You can't just outsource its disposal to any mob-run company. They're gonna dump it either in your backyard, or someone else's backyard, or in the middle of the Atlantic. It's not that hard to manufacture papers which "prove" that the ship and its cargo were "sold" to someone in Nigeria...

2009-10-15

Gay rights worldwide

In a time when the civilized world is slowly progressing towards equal rights for gays and lesbians, it is interesting to look at this map and see what world regions have the harshest penalties for homosexuality.


Source: Wikipedia


It's striking to see how many countries have penalties as harsh as death, or life in prison. In much of the Caribbean, the penalty is 10 years. In Jamaica, it is "10 years of hard labor".

Fascinatingly, the South African Republic is an exception - same-sex civil marriage has been legal there since 2005.

2009-10-10

Jaw bone created from stem cells

 
Fantastic!

In a couple of decades, it may be standard practice to replace older people's worn out joints by growing new joints from the patients' stem cells.

Let's hope for similar breakthroughs that will allow the growing and replacement of people's organs, as well.

Now consider IBM's efforts to develop techniques for quickly and cheaply sequencing a person's DNA.

These types of breakthroughs may allow a person's DNA to be sequenced when young, and reproduced when the person is older.

The DNA in your cells gets damaged as you age, but a digital copy of your DNA takes a snapshot at the age at which it was sequenced.

Live another 50 years, and the breakthroughs that will be achieved during this time may allow us to continue living much, much longer!

2009-10-08

Religious zealotry vs. child molestation

In March 2008, an 11-year old died from undiagnosed but treatable diabetes as her parents prayed by her side without even considering taking her to a doctor.

Now, the parents have been sentenced leniently by a judge who sympathized with them.

Quotes from the article:
During the sentencing hearing, Leilani Neumann, 41, told the judge her family is loving and forgiving and has wrongly been portrayed as religious zealots.

"I do not regret trusting truly in the Lord for my daughter's health," she said. "Did we know she had a fatal illness? No. Did we act to the best of our knowledge? Yes."

Dale Neumann, 47, read from the Bible and told the judge that he loved his daughter.

"I am guilty of trusting my Lord's wisdom completely. ... Guilty of asking for heavenly intervention. Guilty of following Jesus Christ when the whole world does not understand. Guilty of obeying my God," he said.
Compare this to child molestation.

If the parents were mad in a sexual way, and believed that it's okay for them to molest their children, they would be sent away for a long, long time, and would never see their kids again.

But the parents are mad in a religious way. Religious madness is apparently much more acceptable. Even when it results in death, it does not warrant taking the children away.

The parents get a slap on the wrist, and they get to keep their kids so they can continue exposing them to religious abuse in the future.

Progress in tiny nuclear batteries

 
BBC article with a photo of the battery.

PhysOrg article with comments.

2009-10-03

Half the human population is evil

A study performed at the Faculty of Economics and Management in Magdeburg confirms my intuition that nearly half of all humans are inherently unempathic, even downright evil, but simply hide their psychopathy most of the time, because civilization expects that from them:
The Pleasure of Being Nasty

We introduce the joy-of-destruction game. Two players each receive an endowment and simultaneously decide on how much of the other player's endowment to destroy. In a treatment without fear of retaliation, money is destroyed in almost 40% of all decisions.
See Figure 1 - Destruction frequency over time. At least 25% of people will cause gratuitous harm to a random stranger if they can do so at no cost, while up to 50% will do so if they can also deny it.

2009-09-25

Poland silences paedophilia dissent

This is alarming. New Polish legislation not only prescribes chemical treatment for paedophiles to lower their sex drives (OK - that could be justified, depending on side effects) - but also...
criminalises any attempt to justify paedophilia. Anyone propagating such a view is subject to a prison term of up to two years.
Incredible. What is this - the middle ages?

The majority is not content punishing those who violate its norms - it must punish dissent as well?

2009-09-13

Free accomodation in Frigate Bay, St. Kitts

For students of Ross University and others who might be interested in a "free" place to stay in Frigate Bay, St. Kitts:

We - that is, me and my wife - are looking for a female student (or anyone else our age, e.g. in their twenties or thirties) who would take care of our condo and our kitties when we travel, but also help with the household and generally be good company while we are here.

We are offering rent-free use of a furnished bedroom and a bathroom, preferably for a long stay. Our place is at St. Christopher Club, close to the Marriott hotel, right next to the Atlantic and near the Caribbean beach. There is a common swimming pool and tennis area on property.

Conditions:
  • Dependable yet easy-going character.
  • You like cats - we have two.
  • No pets of your own - they might not get along with ours.
  • Will help with household chores when we are here.
  • Will take care of our two cats, and the whole unit, for months at a time when we're away.
  • Can bring occasional guests, but no additional live-ins.
  • No parties in our place.
If you think we might be a match, write to my email, as published here.

Update: We have a roommate. :-)

2009-08-14

UK imposes direct rule over Turks & Caicos

Having been in Turks & Caicos twice, and dealt with them to some extent, I can confirm Britain's findings:
Britain has imposed direct rule on the Turks and Caicos Islands after an inquiry found evidence of government corruption and incompetence.

...

Politicians are accused of selling crown land for personal gain.

...

[The British government] examined the actions of the Turks' Cabinet and Assembly and found "information in abundance pointing to a high probability of systematic corruption or serious dishonesty".

It also concluded there were "clear signs of political amorality and immaturity and of a general administrative incompetence".
In my experience, this is exactly how it was.

The Turks & Caicos are fortunate. They have a foreign power to watch over them. This same amorality, immaturity, and incompetence takes place all over the Caribbean. Except that, in most places, there's no one to intervene. So it just goes on, and on, and on.

The British are intent on holding elections for a new government in TC in two years or sooner. My forecast is that the next democratic government is not going to fare much better than the last, and that a new intervention will be necessary within a number of decades.

Before the previous such intervention, in 1985, the then Chief Minister of TC and two others were arrested in Miami for transporting cocaine.

2009-08-11

Empathy out of control

To feel joy when others feel joy; to feel pain when others suffer. Every day, our own empathy enriches our experience. It allows us to feel not only for the events that affect ourselves, but also for the many more that affect others. It allows us to immerse ourselves into a story and not only understand it, but feel it - whether we are listening to a friend, watching the news, reading a book, or enjoying a movie.

Empathy connects us. Lacking it, we would be - at best - rational agents acting according to game theory, in a game of repeated Prisoner's Dilemma. We would be alone in a world in which no one feels for us, and we don't feel for anyone; a world inhabited by grayness and indifference.

Many people already live in a world like that. Many people don't have empathy. This doesn't make them broken - only different. Rest assured though, if a creature doesn't feel any empathy for you, you should not feel any empathy for it either.

But this is not an article for them. It is for those who wince at the thought of a grayless, unempathic existence. For people who might consider a life without empathy a life not worth living.

Do not led this feeling mislead you. The reason you feel that way, or I for that matter, is because it's how we're built. The capacity for empathy, it seems, does not come without strings attached. The owner has to use it to be happy. This does not mean, in and of itself, that empathy is objectively good; nor does it mean that creatures who lack it, cannot be happy. It means, however, that when you wince at the thought of a non-empathic life, you wince because you're built to require empathy to be happy.

Well-reasoned arguments could be made that empathy is essential for civilization. It could very well be that, without it, the threat we pose to each other would overwhelm the benefits that cooperation might bring. Without having empathy and knowing that the other does, trust becomes nearly impossible to establish. Rationality itself is hard to reach without people cooperating to share insights.

It would therefore be possible to say that empathy, to the extent that most of us share it, is a blessing. This blessing, however, comes with problems of its own.

The problem is that the pain we feel when we see other creatures suffer causes in us an emotional impulse for immediate action, even when the proper solution is unreachable without a tremendous amount of planning and rational thought.

One day, we may be able to eliminate suffering for all humanity. One day, we may even be able to bio-engineer animals so that they don't inflict pain on each other as well. One day, even, our empathetic descendants may fly to other stars - as many as we can reach, anyway - and heal any suffering that they may find there.

But today is not the day when we can do that. Today, we can only begin the work that may eliminate suffering later. This means that, no matter the amount of work we do - when we tune into the news and see the suffering worldwide, our empathic pain persists. This pain often causes anger. In anger, we lose the ability to even begin to understand what is likely a highly complex situation, and we seek short-term relief that likely only creates new problems on top of the existing ones.

All things considered, the problem is that our empathic circuits weren't designed for a world larger than our ancestral environment. We are built to help each other in a small group, but we are helpless and inept when it comes to understanding and building systems that can successfully avoid suffering in million-strong societies. We demand instant solutions, as if someone is in control. But we neglect to notice that, in societies that number millions, no person or group actually has control. To alleviate suffering on this scale, we must first understand the principles that govern large systems, and then design and implement a system that is resistant to failure, and which does not have major flaws.

Of necessity, the only feasible approach to solving suffering is a top-down approach; an approach that is founded in numbers, concepts, principles, and laws, much more so than immediate actions and emotions. The one approach that offers hope for our empathic pain is abstract and decidedly un-empathic.

The tragedy is that, having been built for the ancestral environment, there are many who don't recognize this. Not only do they not consider that solving large scale problems requires careful, abstract thought; frequently, one who speaks from this perspective is branded as inhuman and cold-hearted. It is perplexing how, of all professions, this is how economists get branded - people who are most concerned with human welfare and the common good.

Unfortunately, this doesn't get us any closer to solving our real problems.

2009-08-05

Tales of the Caribbean, #1

 
Monday

Employee: Boss, I'm in dire need, I'm all out of money. Can I borrow 200 EC dollars?
Boss: Well, I dunno. Your salary is on Friday...
Employee: But I really need the money. I don't have any left.
Boss: Well, that's not how it works. Where's your salary from last Friday? You'll get a new salary on Friday.

Employee: Dear boss's wife! I'm in dire need. Can you lend me 200 EC?
Boss's wife: Well, didn't you get your salary on Friday?
Employee: I did. But I have nothing left.
Boss's wife: Is that so. What you need the money for?
Employee: Well it's urgent. I really need it. I can't buy anything. I need just 200 EC. Can you lend it to me?
Boss's wife: I dunno. Let me talk to my husband.

Boss's wife: Well he says he really needs the money.
Boss: This isn't gonna work out. He spent all last week's salary on booze. Now he's gonna spend more money on booze. What do you think is gonna happen after you lend him the money?
Boss's wife: Well he sounds like he's in real need. I think we should lend it to him.

Boss: So, you want me to lend you 200 EC. How are you gonna pay it back?
Employee: Well, I guess, you could take it from my pay check. How about I pay you back 100 EC from each of my next two pay checks.
Boss: Okay. Deal. Here's the money.


Friday

Boss: Here's your paycheck, 300 EC.
Employee: Well... that's not enough! My salary is 400 EC!
Boss: Yes, indeed, but you see, I lent you money on Monday. We agreed that you would pay back 100 EC on each pay check. So you get 300 EC today.
Employee: What... You expect me to give you back that money?
Boss: Well, we made a deal. I lent you 200 EC. You said that you would pay me back.
Employee: But you gave me that money!
Boss: No, I lent it to you. That was the agreement.
Employee: But you didn't need it! You had extra money! I had no money, that's why I needed it. But you had extra money. If you didn't have the extra money, why would you have given it to me?
Boss: Well, that's not how it works. We agreed that you would pay back 100 EC from next two paychecks. So your pay check today is 300 EC.
Employee: *grudge*


Following Monday

Boss: Hey, could you take a broom and sweep that area?
Employee: Well, that's not my job! I'm not here to sweep the floor.


Employee then continues to operate at 40% performance until two weeks later, after he has begrugingly paid back the money, and forgotten about the grudge.

Then he hits up the boss for more money.

2009-08-03

Outlawing lying and deception

I get the impression that a whole lot of bad things that happen in the world are a consequence of, and perpetuated by, lying and deception.

It is curious that neither our legal systems, nor even our religions, have adopted such a prohibition categorically. Even the Ten commandments do not prohibit lying categorically - just testifying falsely against a person.

In the past century, developed countries have started punishing lying and deception when done for profit, to some extent. Scams are frowned upon and eventually might be prosecuted. Companies are beginning to be punished for misrepresentations in their ad campaigns.

In other areas of private and public life, however, lies and deception are not merely permitted, but routine. Politicians are expected to deceive the public and lie to it. Organizations, for profit and otherwise, fund studies which seek not truth, but rather a biased distortion of truth that aligns with their interests. People cherry-pick studies and refer to only those with favorable results. Car salesmen lie about their goods. People deceive their partners and their families.

These practices create harm both direct and indirect. They create distortions which serve to cast doubt, create uncertainty and deny access to truth about topics of interest, to anyone but the sharpest minds who specialize in that topic. The expectation that you will be deceived or lied to, and must constantly be on the lookout for it, is as detrimental economically as having to constantly be wary of pickpockets and others who would rob you, kidnap you or even kill you for minor benefit. Lies and deceptions create a hostile environment where the mind has to spend most of its time to defend itself, rather than to work towards desired goals. This is unpleasant, stressful, and a waste of our most valuable, fleeting resource: our thought.

So why, then, do we not do more to punish lying and deception? Why do such transgressions result only in moral backlash, and perhaps a resignation - if that, at all? Why are liars and deceivers, professional and hobbyist alike, not treated just like criminals and thieves? Even when the lies are small, but especially when they are large?

When a drug addict breaks your car window to steal your camera, he might be causing $1,500 in damage for what is a $100 benefit to him. Lies are similarly detrimental. When someone spreads misinformation, it is generally for a small personal benefit. But the damage caused by the misinformation is often many magnitudes larger. Damage can be caused both directly, when other people suffer from the deception or lie; but even greater damage may be caused indirectly, through a loss of public trust, and therefore transactions that fail to occur as a result. For example, one act of insurance fraud harms the insurance company; but rampant fraud causes everyone's premiums to rise.

The extent of damage caused by lies is sometimes straightforward to estimate, but more often hard. And yet, if one sticks to either being honest or keeping quiet, this is generally constructive, builds trust, and has beneficial or benign results.

So why do we not make honesty standard? Not just because our parents taught us not to lie; but because a widespread expectation of honesty is essential to the proper functioning of our society, to our prosperity as a civilization, and eventually, perhaps, to our survival as a species?

Why do we tolerate a force as destructive as lies?

2009-07-30

Standards of beauty

Some people go around saying that the media propagate unrealistic standards of beauty, especially to girls. According to such criticisms, it is the fault of publications such as Vogue and toys such as Barbie that "totally healthy", well-rounded women get the idea that they're unattractive, and fall victim to self-pity, anorexia, or depression.

There are multiple ways to tackle this argument. Here's a humorous one:

Bratz Dolls May Give Young Girls Unrealistic Expectations of Head Size

The controversy begs the question, though. If a taut, flat tummy, and a slightly chubby one, yet not quite overweight, are similar in terms of health results; then why are more of us attracted to the taut one?

Not all of us prefer the flat tummy, of course. A significant proportion of men are attracted to women who have something to grab. Still, however, it's fair to say that most men are attracted to the flat tummy. So the question remains.

It used to be that, centuries ago, fat and well-rounded was the standard of beauty. An overweight female was a symbol of fertility. What changed to make us prefer slim figures now?

Is it that we hear about all the problems that come with obesity? A person who is chubby initially may very well be overweight in 20 years. That doesn't seem quite like a promising life partner. But then again: people don't necessarily have marriage on their mind when sexually attracted. Furthermore, a man can remain attracted to a slim woman even after seeing her smoke. Is that because he can forget her smoking when she has disposed of her cigarette, but weight is a constant reminder of a possible unhealthiness?

That seems a plausible theory.

Another theory I have, though, is this. A taut, fit tummy signals status. Centuries ago, it used to be that food was scarce; an overweight person would be someone who had resources to eat more than most. Weight indicated a certain level of relative fitness. Not everyone could be like that; a person who was overweight could probably take care of themselves, and possibly people around them.

Today, it takes genetic fitness to keep your weight down. Food is in abundance, so it is easy to get fat. Sporting a taut tummy therefore indicates either a person with self-restraint, or with the luxury and willpower to attend a gym. It confers a certain level of relative fitness. Not everyone can be like that; a slim person can probably take care of themselves, and possibly people around them.

This reminds me of a similar transition in skin tone preferences, from the aristocratic white of centuries ago, to the tanned ideal of today. It used to be that only aristocrats could stay inside, well hidden from the Sun; most people had to be out, working in the fields. Nowadays, though, jobs require most people to stay in, and tanning is a luxury.

The Chinese still prefer a pale white. Incidentally, more than half of them still live in agricultural areas.

2009-07-24

The Onion, now run by the Chinese

The Onion newspaper and news network have been "purchased" by Yu Wan Mei, a Chinese fisheries and plastics company. Take a look at their new homepage. Highlights:
  • Yao Ming! - The entire world population confirmed Friday that Houston Rockets center Yao Ming is the greatest athlete in the history of sports and a glowing symbol of what citizens may become if they remain loyal to their government.
  • China’s Andy Rooney Has Some Funny Opinions About How Great The Chinese Government Is
Hilarious.

2009-06-23

Occam's Razor

 
The simplest explanation is that which is most simply expressed in our language. But language is arbitrary.

2009-06-22

2009-06-21

Miami's tent city for sex offenders

Isaias, a Latino and a former US Marine, is 35. He is a husband and a father of two.

In his twenties, he was convicted of the crime of having had sex with a 16-year old. After serving 5 years in prison, he has now spent 2 years living in Miami's tent city for sex offenders, which is located under a bridge.

Local law prohibits people like him from living within 2,500 feet of anywhere where children congregate - be it schools, libraries, or parks. This prevents him from living with his wife and family. The only place in Miami where he can live is in a tent, under a bridge, in a community of people with similar or worse backgrounds.

BBC has the disturbing story.

The right to arm bears #2

 
It is important to be able to defend yourself against a government.

2009-06-19

A lover's plight

 
Hope Randall won't mind

2009-06-15

xkcd

After browsing through about a quarter of the episodes, now I know why they call it everyone's favorite comic.



You have to know some Unix to understand this one. But there are others. :)

Windows Installer sucks

While I'm waiting for the umpteenth time for the installation of Windows SDK - one of the more poorly written installers recently to come out of Microsoft - I'd like to carp a bit about Windows Installer.

Ever since Microsoft started forcing MSI installation down everyone's throats, program installation has just begun to take... forever.

The bad thing about Windows Installer is that installation programs written for it... are not programs.

They are databases.

It used to be that installation would consist of a program executing and taking a few simple steps to install your software, then do the reverse on uninstallation.

That's not how Windows Installer works. Instead of running a program to simply install and let it be done with, it examines the state of your system, then examines the state of the database that is the program's installer, then does a series of overcomplicated calculations about how to reconcile the two.

It seems that, instead of running an installation script, it goes about solving a traveling salesman problem. Which is why it runs so slow. Or at least, that's my impression.

Microsoft apparently thinks that Windows Installer is some immense improvement on the state of the world. Apparently, all kinds of idiot programmers were writing bad installers before MSI - programs that didn't properly take everything into account, botched the installation, botched the uninstallation... it was a nightmare. Windows Installer was supposed to solve this.

Except, it didn't. Writing an installation database for Windows Installer is no less tricky than writing an independent program that performs the installation right. In fact - it's trickier. In your own installation program, you can fix things. When Windows Installer does something wrong, on some platform, somewhere - that's much harder. Windows Installer is a more inconsistent, less reliable, less flexible platform, than Windows itself.

So we used to have unreliable installers, but now, thanks to Windows Installer, we have unreliable and god damn slow installers.

Yayyyy!

Poking fun at religion

 
The best atheist song I've heard:




And from Edward Current - God only seems nonexistent:

2009-06-14

Seasteading

Well, well, well. Seasteading:
Why seastead?

We believe that current political systems are outdated and work poorly, for two reasons. One is the lack of a frontier - a place to go try out new forms of government (like the crazy new "democracy" which sprung up in far-off America). The other is the lack of mobility on land that happens because people are tied to buildings and buildings are fixed in place, which makes it hard to change states or countries, let alone pioneer. Seasteading fixes both of these.

It opens the oceans as a new frontier for pioneering, a frontier with a fundamentally different quality - fluidity - that lets entire cities be rearranged and reshaped constantly. If you don't like your government, you can literally "Vote with your house" by detaching your seastead and sailing off to another city. In the long run, this will turn the oceans into a laboratory for innovation in social and political systems. No specific ideology is necessary: Seasteads will empower people with a wide variety of beliefs to self-govern and serve as examples (good and bad) for other societies.
Highly agreed.

Man, I hope this works. So far, Peter Thiel contributed $500,000. But this is where I would want Bill Gates and Warren Buffett to be spending their billions. Last I heard, their foundation was having trouble finding enough worthwhile projects to fund. It's sad they don't see the value in this.

The Gateses seem to be focusing on investments that directly improve the human condition, but forgoing investments that will improve our ability to improve. We are in dire need of investment in these areas.

Wal-Mart's Weight Effect

Forbes has an article about research apparently showing that large discount stores have a net beneficial health effect, especially for the poor.

The primary mechanism they identify is that lower prices make it possible for poorer people to afford more. This raises their effective income, so they are able to buy healthier foods than in the absence of large discount retailers.

2009-06-12

Traditional morality and sex health research

Traditional religion-based morality would not have survived if it didn't offer some evolutionary advantage to people who espouse it. More radically, a gene or meme that compels you to "kill everyone who doesn't have this gene or meme" may cause itself to become more prevalent. Less radically, a gene or meme that instructs you to behave in ways that help survival will also cause itself to become more prevalent, even if the reasons the meme uses to convince you make no sense.

The reasons for traditional morality, indeed, do not make any sense. For the most part, we aren't even given any reasons. We're told to abstain from promiscuity because that's moral. The reason it is moral is because it's moral. We don't question the Book. The Book says so.

Now it's one thing to want one heterosexual partner for your entire life; that's a legitimate preference that there's nothing wrong with. But it's a whole other thing to judge people and try to prevent them from making different choices, as many voters around the world seem keen to do.

Traditional morality puts the cart ahead of the horse. There are valid reasons why heterosexual monogamy is better for your genes' inclusive fitness than promiscuity. The reasons, however, are technical. They have their limits. They can be defeated, and if they were defeated, there would remain no reason why people should not be promiscuous, unless they simply don't want it.

If we had full control over disease, and could stop it in its tracks; if we had full control over fertility, with no ill side effects; then promiscuity would not be an issue. That would be a good thing. Your opinion might differ, but the way I see it, monogamy is not very interesting, nor very rewarding. Promiscuity is both more interesting, more rewarding, and more challenging. It's just that... it is slightly worse for your reproductive fitness, for reasons that are unfortunate but quite avoidable. If only people would stop objecting to it on grounds that make no sense.

At this point, you might think I'm going to start talking about HIV. Or syphilis. Or chlamydia.

I'm not.

Those are all solved issues. As long as it's detected, bacterial disease such as syphilis, gonorrhea or chlamydia can be cured with a pill. If it's detected, it is less of a health issue than the flu.

HIV is still a burden, but it spreads much less readily than other disease. If we wanted to, we could defeat it with testing. Even if not using condoms, HIV can take more than a year's worth of vaginal intercourse to spread to another person (though it might also spread fast). For the purpose of stopping it as an epidemic, it would be sufficient to test the entire population a few years in a row, at least once per year. The tests would be cheaper per person than a year's supply of birth control. We wouldn't even have to draw blood, an oral swab would be enough. It would eliminate the risk largely completely.

The Human Papilloma Virus, HPV, is an unsolved problem.

HPV comes in multiple strains, many of which are very common. Some are innocuous. Some cause genital warts, but no other problems. Some can lead to cancer.

Recent research has shown that certain strains of HPV are responsible for an increased incidence of various types of cancer in people who have had more than a few sexual partners. Before widespread PAP testing was introduced, cervical cancer is said to have been a leading cause of death in women. Virtually all cervical cancer has been shown to be caused by HPV.

Not only that, but a history of more than a few oral sex partners increases your chance of oral cancer multiple-fold. This is caused by HPV. Having had receptive anal sex increases your chance of anal cancer by a factor of seven. That is caused by HPV as well.

You don't have to be especially promiscuous to expose yourself to this. You don't have to have had hundreds of sexual partners. It is enough to have engaged in serial monogamy. It is enough to have had one partner who had others before you. It is enough to have had departed from traditional monogamous morality in the most minor way.

What we should be doing about this is supporting research and taking steps to eliminate disease. Imagine that there were no STDs, or that they would not pose a problem. Imagine that all birth control is reliable and has no side effects. It would be safe to have sex with anyone, anyhow, anywhere. That would be a good thing. There would be no support for jealousy. If your partner had sex with someone else, she wouldn't be exposing you to anything. So why should you be complaining?

Since people are being promiscuous already, and aren't going to stop being so due to health risks, solving these health risks would be a good thing.

But then we have all these people who put the cart in front of the horse. People who read it in a Book that we were created to serve morality, instead of moral guidance having been invented to serve us. People who think that monogamy is a value in and of itself, regardless of circumstance. People who think that others should be punished for their promiscuity, whether or not it causes ill. People who want to actively impede progress in solving of sexual health risks, for fear that lifting barriers to promiscuity will... cause more promiscuity! People who don't want girls vaccinated against HPV because that might lead to them having more sex. (It doesn't - and if it did, it isn't even a bad thing.) People who don't want others to use condoms to protect from HIV, because they feel that's giving people an excuse to be promiscuous. People who think that the promiscuous deserve to die, because monogamy is all-important.

These people are nutcases. They are insane. They don't mean to be evil, but due to what they say and do, they are.

We need research. We need action. People were, are, and will remain promiscuous. That's not bad, in and of itself. What's bad is that it has ill side effects. We need to solve them.

2009-06-08

Boneheads in charge of H1B legislation

The U.S. elects senators so they can bury the U.S. economy, eliminating its global advantage. From BBC:
Indian workers are calling for comprehensive immigration reforms in America, including changes in work visa rules.

But American lawmakers are having none of it.

Senators Dick Durbin from Illinois and Charles Grassley from Iowa have reintroduced a bill on the H1B visa programme.

It calls for increased oversight and enforcement and discourages the use of H1B visa holders.

It also requires all employers to pledge that the H1B visa-holder will not displace an American worker.
If the U.S. doesn't want to adopt India's most capable workers, that is the U.S.'s loss, not India's.

This is just one sort of policy that will result in the U.S. waking up to find itself as only one economic power among many, not the superpower that it used to be.

2009-06-07

Slovenians no longer need visas to St. Kitts

Excellent news: as of May 28, 2009, a visa-free travel agreement was signed between the European Union and St. Kitts & Nevis. Slovenian citizens no longer need a visa in order to travel to St. Kitts, and Kittitians and Nevisians no longer need visas for travel in the Schengen area. :-)

2009-05-17

Way to go, South Point

We just arrived at our (totally standard) room at South Point in Vegas, and we are pleased.

This room is the best deal we have found so far in Vegas - or anywhere, at all. The room is actually as lovely as on their pictures. It's spacy enough, comfortable, and nicely appointed. The room has a safe that actually fits my 17" laptop, and the wireless internet has so far been blazingly fast. Internet still costs an additional $13 per day, as in most places in Vegas; but at other places, for that price, it hardly works or not at all. Here, pictures load faster than at our DSL at home. It's wonderful. And all that for an average of $62 per night!

The second best deal we found so far in Vegas has been Bally's. The rate we paid there was slightly higher than South Point. The room was nicely appointed, though definitely not as nice as here. The location on the Strip is fancier, but the internet access was really crappy - wireless didn't work and even wired access was slow and frustratingly unreliable, much like in other Harrah's places we've been to. The crepes in Paris, however, were delicious.

By far the worst deal we experienced in Vegas recently was Alexis Park. We only stayed there because we had to, in order to attend an event that took over the whole place. The hotel is nice on the outside, but the rooms are horrendous. It is something you'd expect from a $50 motel. What they charged us, instead, was $150 per night for a "suite" that had no air conditioning, with a decades old fridge that was so loud we had to turn it off, with a frayed carpet in front of the bathroom where we kept stepping on a nail, with a small and inconvenient bathroom, with a "king-size bed" room where the single bed was actually queen-sized, with a TV so inconveniently mounted that we had to physically rotate the armoir so we could watch it from the bed. At night, we had to sleep with windows open so that the heat would be bearable, and there was no internet access in rooms; we were told they were in the process of changing their internet provider. A total disaster of a hotel, at a price 3x as high as what we're paying for a tremendously comfortable room here at South Point.cobep lc1 1cobep lc1 2cobep lc1 3cobep lc1 4cobep lc1 5cobep lc1 6cobep lc1 7cobep lc1 8cobep lc1 9cobep lc1 10cobep lc1 11

2009-04-30

Women not finding partners

I noticed a certain phenomenon among female friends about my age - in their late twenties.

The phenomenon is, many of them are single. Several of those recently had relationships with rather horrid guys. Of the few who are in relationships, some are still in relationships with horrid guys.

And the thing that strikes me?

At a certain point, many of these girls were with guys, or had the opportunity to be with guys, that were better than the fare that they're now putting up with.

This is not to say that those guys were perfect. But they do appear to have been better than whatever is available to them today.

I get to watch all this from a perspective of a guy who has enjoyed a nearly perfect relationship and marriage over the past 5 years - but also a guy who was previously incredibly frustrated with girls until my early twenties.

From my very limited personal observations, here's what I ponder:
  • Can most people find a partner that is better for them than being single?
  • If yes, what prevents them? Do they look in the wrong places? All first meetings are random chance, but it seems futile to me to wait for your Prince Charming to find you randomly in a stale environment that provides few or poorly aligned meeting opportunities. It seems more likely that you would meet one if you seek out a possible partner in places where there are many opportunities to meet people who are in some ways like what you think you're seeking.
  • If most people cannot find a partner who is better for them than being single, then what prevents them? I would bet that a strong factor is an irrational conception of love. Quite a number of women who I observe stay single as they age appear to be causing that by refusing to take a rational view of partnership. Instead of looking for someone they would be compatible with, they look for someone to sweep them off their feet. They put the cart in front of the horse; instead of starting with compatibility and then letting love grow over time and develop, they want to start with a fiery infatuation to begin with, and hope for compatibility later. This, of course, usually does not occur.
  • In their early twenties, they might find a reasonable match that could be good, but then they severe it because it doesn't feel like it's "the thing". Since they are looking for infatuation rather than compatibility, each following match is shorter and worse. But by the time they wise up, they are not in their prime any more. They might be looking for older guys, but the better older guys have taken younger women and are already in relationships. What now remains is the rejects, or people whose first marriages did not work out, who might already have children, or younger guys who are looking for yet younger women.
Based on my limited insight, here's the advice I'd give to young women:
  • You want to be with the guy you're going to be with by the time you're 25. By the time you're past your prime, you don't want to still be looking for your guy. The pickings will only get worse. You can delay this by aiming for younger guys as you get older, but that's stretching it.
  • You want to look for compatibility first and foremost. Yes, the guy you're with has to be attractive enough to turn you on. That's part and parcel of being compatible. He has to be someone whose company stimulates you. That's part and parcel of being compatible, too. But he doesn't have to swipe you off your feet. In fact, it's preferable that he doesn't. That way, you'll be able to make a better decision about whether you're compatible with him or not.
  • Infatuation is an illusion. Never forget that. It is passionate, and it is exciting, but it is an illusion generated by yourself. Moreover, illusions disappear. Once you have found someone you think you're truly compatible with, don't let an infatuation with someone else ruin your relationship. Infatuations are likely to not work out. They are however likely to make you single, lonely, and miserable.
  • Look for your guy purposefully and intentionally. Don't be afraid to use the internet - social networks, good dating websites. A woman I know used a dating website to schedule dates with guys every day for weeks in advance. She found her guy. If you want to find a needle in a haystack, equip yourself with magnets by all means. But you have to do your part in sifting through the haystack, or else others are going to get to the needles first.

2009-04-29

Never forget!



Egypt slaughters all pigs to avoid swine flu

Someone in Egypt sure doesn't like pigs.

I'm aware that it is standard practice to kill animals to prevent the spreading of an infection, but this is just ridiculous. Egyptian pigs have no infection. Apparently, they're just killing them because they're pigs, and the flu is named "swine flu".

Side note - if this happened to humans, it would be called "ethnic cleansing".

2009-04-28

Obama to radically increase science funding

This could be excellent news (thanks to Scott Aaronson):
I am here today to set this goal: we will devote more than three percent of our GDP to research and development ... This represents the largest commitment to scientific research and innovation in American history...
I agree with this:
The fact is, an investigation into a particular physical, chemical, or biological process might not pay off for a year, or a decade, or at all. And when it does, the rewards are often broadly shared, enjoyed by those who bore its costs but also by those who did not. That’s why the private sector under-invests in basic science – and why the public sector must invest in this kind of research. Because while the risks may be large, so are the rewards for our economy and our society...
If we start from the assumption that the government will hijack, by force, a large portion of everyone's fruits of labor, then this is probably one of the best long-run investments that can be made; and these are investments that are otherwise likely to not be made.

Is this oppression by people who are interested in science and its long-term benefits, against people who are not, yet are still forced to pay taxes for this?

Umm... I guess it is.

But if such science investments are made in the long run, then, 100 years from now, GDP may be dramatically higher, and lifespans may be longer, and people may be healthier, and it may be possible to enjoy a lot more things.

Consider now a future person who will have benefitted from the science investments over the past 100 years, and will now have several times the purchasing power and untold new possibilities than she would have had without it. Is it wrong to sap a few percent of this person's purchasing power, so as to redirect it to further investments in science, for future generations' further benefit?

Do we want a world where people are forced to invest for the future, when they wouldn't voluntarily invest?

Do we want a world where people are forced to invest this way, through taxes, even if such investment is against their beliefs; such as is the case for the fundamentalist religious?

It is easy to say yes, but are we not saying yes only because this particular oppression is in our interest?

It would be a lot easier to justify this if people could at least choose the country where they live and pay taxes. The U.S. was founded with such competition in mind - with multiple states and freedom of movement between them. But it has, since Lincoln, degenerated into a single, oppressive federal government with only superficial differences among the states. And there's no exit either: more than in most "free" countries, U.S. citizens are punished severely for leaving.

2009-04-26

Svalbard

Holy cow!

Did you know about Svalbard?

(Feel free to sneer at this point that yes, because you paid more attention to geography in school than I did. In my defense, I mostly had horrid geography teachers.)

More than 2,000 people live in this archipelago halfway between Norway and the North Pole. The capitol, Longyearbyean, is at 78 degrees north. For comparison, the Antarctic continent starts at 66 degrees south.

It is the northernmost inhabited place on Earth. According to Wikipedia, they have "the world's northernmost school, church, hospital, bank, newspaper, airport with scheduled airline service, movie theater, kebab shop, and in-door swimming pool."

In North America, the northernmost settlement is Barrow, at the northernmost end of Alaska, with a population of 4,600 living at a geographic latitude of 71 degrees north.

Edited to add:

Trivia question.

Where is the easternmost land of North America?

Is it in Newfoundland? Or perhaps Greenland?

Thereabouts, if you were looking for the rightmost point, considering the bulk of the continent to be in the center. The geographical easternmost point, however, is the Semisopochnoi Island in the western Aleutian Islands - 23 minutes west of the 180th meridian. It is part of the United States.

2009-04-25

French wine militants attack

There's just no arguing it.

The French truly are a nation of hooligans and vandals.

In another recent act, militant wine growers broke in and destroyed $830,000 worth of someone else's wine in a campaign for higher wine prices. They had previously "claimed responsibility for bomb attacks on supply trucks, supermarkets, and the ministry of agriculture".

As for my take on this, no use repeating myself. I've written about it before.

It's not my arm!

Fascinating article by Yvain on Less Wrong:
After a right-hemisphere stroke, she lost movement in her left arm but continuously denied it. When the doctor asked her to move her arm, and she observed it not moving, she claimed that it wasn't actually her arm, it was her daughter's. Why was her daughter's arm attached to her shoulder? The patient claimed her daughter had been there in the bed with her all week. Why was her wedding ring on her daughter's hand? The patient said her daughter had borrowed it. Where was the patient's arm? The patient "turned her head and searched in a bemused way over her left shoulder".
So what's Dr. Ramachandran's solution? He posits two different reasoning modules located in the two different hemispheres. The left brain tries to fit the data to the theory to preserve a coherent internal narrative and prevent a person from jumping back and forth between conclusions upon each new data point. It is primarily an apologist, there to explain why any experience is exactly what its own theory would have predicted. The right brain is the seat of the second virtue. When it's had enough of the left-brain's confabulating, it initiates a Kuhnian paradigm shift to a completely new narrative. Ramachandran describes it as "a left-wing revolutionary".

Normally these two systems work in balance. But if a stroke takes the revolutionary offline, the brain loses its ability to change its mind about anything significant. If your left arm was working before your stroke, the little voice that ought to tell you it might be time to reject the "left arm works fine" theory goes silent. The only one left is the poor apologist, who must tirelessly invent stranger and stranger excuses for why all the facts really fit the "left arm works fine" theory perfectly well.

It gets weirder. For some reason, squirting cold water into the left ear canal wakes up the revolutionary. Maybe the intense sensory input from an unexpected source makes the right hemisphere unusually aroused. Maybe distoring the balance sense causes the eyes to move rapidly, activating a latent system for inter-hemisphere co-ordination usually restricted to REM sleep3. In any case, a patient who has been denying paralysis for weeks or months will, upon having cold water placed in the ear, admit to paralysis, admit to having been paralyzed the past few weeks or months, and express bewilderment at having ever denied such an obvious fact. And then the effect wears off, and the patient not only denies the paralysis but denies ever having admitted to it.
There's more.

One value set to rule them all

Phil Goetz argues on Less Wrong that everyone should use the same set of values for personal decisions as well as for moral reasoning. His article has an interesting passage with which I agree:
How do you weigh rationality, and your other qualities and activities, relative to life itself? I would say that life itself has zero value; the value of a life is the sum of the values of things done and experienced during that life. But society teaches the opposite: that mere life has a tremendous value, and anything you do with your life has negligible additional value. That's why it's controversial to execute criminals, but not controversial to lock them up in a bare room for 20 years. We have a death-penalty debate in the US, which has consequences for less than 100 people per year. We have a few hundred thousand people serving sentences of 20 years and up, but no debate about it. That shows that most Americans place a huge value on life itself, and almost no value on what happens to that life.

I think this comes from believing in the soul, and binary thought in general. People want a simple moral system that classifies things as good or bad, allowable or not allowable, valuable or not valuable. We use real values in deciding what to do on Saturday, but we discretize them on Sunday. Killing people is not allowable; locking them up forever is. Killing enemy soldiers is allowable; killing enemy civilians is not. Killing enemy soldiers is allowable; torturing them is not. Losing a pilot is not acceptable; losing a $360,000,000 plane is. The results of this binarized thought include millions of lives wasted in prison; and hundreds of thousands of lives lost or ruined, and economies wrecked, because we fight wars in a way intended to avoid violating boundary constraints of a binarized value system rather than in a way intended to maximize our values.

The idea of the soul is the ultimate discretizer. Saving souls is good. Losing souls is bad. That is the sum total of Christian pragmatic morality.
This, I think, is very good reasoning.

I'm not sure whether I'm in agreement with Phil's major premise though, which is that one should "use just one logic and one set of values for all decisions", whether micro (what am I going to do tonight?) or macro (what's best for everyone?).

Even if your micro values (what should I do today?) are mostly compatible with your macro values (what's best for everyone?), there are values people have which seem immaterial in macro decisions, but apply strongly to micro decisions.

For example, consider a tragedy of the commons where people are over-exploiting a resource and thus gaining an advantage. There is no infrastructure in place to prevent over-exploitation. Should you join in and contribute to the over-exploitation, or abstain and suffer a disadvantage for it?

Note that you cannot affect the macro end result. The resource will be over-exploited and the damage will be irreversible. There is however a major difference to you: you will either share the benefits of over-exploitation with others, or you will suffer a significant disadvantage for not partaking.

What should you do?

In my opinion, everyone is rational in competing for the over-exploited resource, but everyone should at the same time be open to an agreement to impose an infrastructure to prevent over-exploitation; and should preferably act to impose such an agreement soon.

Perhaps this is in compliance with Phil's call for a single value set, if we take the value "no one should have to be the sucker" to apply both in the micro and the macro world.

The above tragedy of the commons example leads me to this paragraph from Phil's post:
Rationality is a win for the rational agent. But in many prisoners-dilemma and tragedy-of-the-commons scenarios, having rational agents is not a win for society. Religion teaches people to replace rational morality with an irrational dual-system morality under the (hidden) theory that rational morality leads to worse outcomes.
Quite so.

Religion is one of humanity's answers to the question:

"What infrastructure can we impose to discourage behavior that is individually rational but harmful when done by everyone?"

The problem with such infrastructures is that they can themselves be harmful. Religion is one of those.

2009-04-22

Stardock leaks customers' emails to spam

I rarely, if ever, use PayPal.

The other time I used it to buy a copy of Demigod (by Gas Powered Games), a fairly simple-minded but graphically rich third-person combat game.

Within days of placing that order, I started to get spam to my PayPal address, where I never received spam before.

I only used the PayPal address in the order and license process, and never used it for anything else with them.

That's a filthy, filthy, filthy business practice. Either someone at Stardock who has access to order emails is covertly selling them, or Stardock themselves are doing so.

It is illegal, too.

Why hearsay is not to be trusted

Robin Hanson summarizes a fascinating study.

2009-04-21

How things work out if government doesn't get in the way

Sudhir Venkatesh has a fascinating article about his experience with "loan sharks" - people who loan money to desperate penniless borrowers at high interest rates.
[C]ontrary to popular perception, very few cases of failed payment led to physical harm. Instead, you could be forced to pay in kind — e.g., with a television set — or with food stamps and welfare checks (which also function as collateral).
It is sad to see that regulators - well, and people in general - are so f***in stupid as to fail to realize that the setting of maximum interest rates is what prevents poor people from getting legal loans. Which, in turn, helps keep them in poverty.

Loaning people money is a form of betting. Some loans will not be returned, so if you want to make ends meet, you have to charge interest - or loan to nobody.

The riskier (the more peniless, the more desperate) the borrower, the higher the interest needs to be in order for the equation to work out. If the equation doesn't work out, the lender is out of business, and no one gets a loan.

Loan sharks are heroes who bring loans to the poor despite oppression from the government, which is so stupid as to limit interest rates at levels which have the effect of outlawing loans to the poor.

Similarly, marijuana dealers are heroes who risk their personal freedom to bring this relatively harmless substance to everyday people not much different from you and me, who simply like to use it - despite the government's braindead efforts to outlaw this.

We should portray these people more like what they are - heroes, as opposed to the jackbooted thugs with uniforms and badges, who are often sent to oppress people and take liberties away.

2009-04-19

Amazon EC2

I have long been eyeing Amazon's Elastic Compute Cloud, but now the pieces have fallen into place:
  • For a while now, it has been possible to run Windows servers, which wasn't possible earlier.
  • They now have a nifty web-based control panel in place, so you don't have to download third party software or learn command line utilities in order to manage your server instances at EC2.
  • The Elastic Block Storage (EBS) provides, in effect, flexible persistent virtual hard drives which you can attach to any server instance. These volumes are supposed to be resistant to failure of any individual hardware component.
  • With a click of a button, it is now possible to bundle a Windows server instance, which saves its state and allows it to be relaunched later in the same configuration if it crashes, or to launch multiple clones of a server.
Before Amazon EC2, I also tried GoGrid, but I have not been as impressed. I would explain what's wrong with GoGrid, but they make you agree to a "Beta Agreement" during the signup process, where they essentially prevent you from discussing anything you experienced while using their service. Convenient, eh?

So, we've long been hosting our downloads on Amazon S3, and starting from yesterday, our main web server is now on Amazon EC2. Here's to hoping things continue to go well.

Finally: given how much I've been criticizing hosting companies, it would be wrong not to mention Cari.Net - the one dedicated server hosting company where we have so far not had any problems. Minimal down time, and the one server we have had with them has been working fine for a number of years.

Let's hope I didn't just jinx it. :)

2009-04-17

Never, ever use Cooplabs

A while ago I carped about the troubles I was having with servers hosted at Burst.Net.

Well, that trouble pales in comparison to what I've been through with Cooplabs.

I'm right in the middle of having to reinstall our main web server with another provider because Cooplabs have been unable (or unwilling) to bring it back online after the power supply failed - 10 hours ago. [Edit: it eventually took 13 hours. They were trying to recover the hard drive, but did not succeed.]

In mid 2008, I had to do the same thing - we had two servers hosted with them, and the one that was the main server inexplicably failed with no feedback or response from them. I sent emails and left them voicemail, to no avail. I had to hastily reinstall at the other server and then wait a week before hearing from them.

That wasn't the end of trouble either. In October, the same server (though now not hosting our website) failed again. It took them days to bring it back online. When they did, they simply forgot to send me any sort of login info whatsoever. The server was running, but I had no access to it.

Given such abysmal performance, I asked them to cancel that server and credit the remaining time to the other one that was now running the main website. (I had prepaid for both servers in advance.) They simply ignored this request. [They did agree to it when I restated my case again recently, but that was months later.]

Note that they seemed nice, friendly and courteous at the beginning, and everything had worked fine for the first year! But then the troubles began; and when they did - they began in earnest.

It seems to me that the root of the problem is not so much that the employees themselves don't try. (Well, some maybe don't.) It's unreliable hardware, and the way they are (dis)organized.
  • Unreliable hardware: I experienced 3 server failures in two years of hosting two servers with them. The average time between failure was 14 months. In two cases it was a power supply, in one case they didn't let me know the reason. In the last case, in particular, the hard drive on our web server and database died completely, so no data could be recovered.
  • They don't even monitor their servers. If a server dies, they don't notice it. You have to notice it and keep harrassing them until they fix it. When I didn't harrass, they didn't fix.
  • Instead of having a single point of support, it is haphazard. Their hours of telephone support aren't even published; I got voicemail half the time I tried to call. By email, you can write to this guy, or that guy, or there's an actual support address, but it's different than what it was 6 months ago. When they reply back, each person replies from their own address, so when you follow up, you might reach them, or maybe they have gone home for the day, and now you don't know who, if anyone, is handling your issue.
There is a lesson for small businesses to be learned from the above: use a centralized case management system, and don't let your staff reply from individual addresses.