2015-12-22

Transaction ethics as root of social/libertarian disagreement

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

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

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

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

2015-12-21

Janez Janša

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

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

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

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

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

Imagine the leader he could be, in that case.

Update

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

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

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

And guess what the campaign was called?

"For children."

2015-12-09

Survey of SSL/TLS use in SMTP mail exchangers

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

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


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

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

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

2015-12-01

Republicanism is fascism

US Republicanism is not just "like" fascism. It is fascism. It fits criteria of Umberto Eco's 1995 definition.

Based on Wikipedia:
  • The Cult of Tradition, combining cultural syncretism with a rejection of modernism.
  • The Cult of Action for Action's Sake, which dictates that action is of value in itself, and should be taken without intellectual reflection. This, says Eco, is connected with anti-intellectualism and irrationalism, and often manifests in attacks on modern culture and science.
  • Disagreement Is Treason - fascism devalues intellectual discourse and critical reasoning as barriers to action.
  • Fear of Difference, which fascism seeks to exploit and exacerbate, often in the form of racism or an appeal against foreigners and immigrants.
  • Appeal to a Frustrated Middle Class, fearing economic pressure from the demands and aspirations of lower social groups.
  • Obsession with a Plot and the hyping-up of an enemy threat; this often involves an appeal to xenophobia with an identification of there being an internal security threat; Eco cites Pat Robertson's book The New World Order as a prominent example of a plot obsession.
  • Pacifism is Trafficking with the Enemy - because "Life is Permanent Warfare", there must always be an enemy to fight. This leads to a fundamental contradiction within fascism: the incompatibility of ultimate triumph with perpetual war.
  • Contempt for the Weak - there is not much empathy for the poor, the mentally ill, the disabled.
  • Selective Populism - the people have a common will, which is not delegated; this casts doubt upon democratic institutions, where leaders and government are seen to "no longer represent the will of the people".
  • Newspeak - fascism employs an impoverished vocabulary in order to limit critical reasoning.
  • Non-truths - lying and spreading of propaganda.