Myhrvold’s Terrorism Paper

Nathan Myrhvold released a lengthy paper analyzing the technological nature of terrorism and critiquing the American strategy of counterterrorism thus far. I particularly liked his Richter-scale for ranking potential threats. In his paper, Myrvhold suggests a far more proactive policy of investment in counterterrorism R&D. He concludes by stating that, in the likely event that his advice isn’t followed, it’s more likely than not that we will see an attack within the next decade that kills 100,000 – 1,000,000 Americans.

I think he’s correct about the nature of the threat, and I think he’s correct in his prediction. More worryingly, I think he’s right about the political constraints that make proactive measures very unlikely. However, I’m concerned that his prescriptions focus too much on the technology angle, to the exclusion of the domestic policy angle.

Joe Studwell’s “How Asia Works” is one of the best economics history books I’ve read. It’s as if Studwell sets out to prescribe the cure for the disease described in “Confessions of an Economic Hitman“, and succeeds brilliantly. The cure he prescribes dates back to Meiji-era Japan and German economist Friedrich List. The antidote explicated by List was applied successfully by Japan, South Korea, and modern-day China. Ironically, the antidote was forcibly administered by Americans, in the first two successful instances — in the case of Japan, by General MacArthur.

The first rung of the development ladder prescribed by List (and successfully implemented in Japan, South Korea, and China) is “land-tenure policies that support smallholder farmers”. Studwell compellingly argues that, without this first rung, no country has ever reached the higher rungs of development. Ever since the dawn of agriculture, the inexorable trend is for rent-seekers to capture an increasing share of the value, and eventually enslave 90% of the population in serfdom. This is the topic of Perkins’ book (and the genesis of what we call “bullshit jobs” — a topic for another post). But in the case of MacArthur (and List), the antidote was clear: land-tenure polices that redistributed land from rent-seekers to smallholders, resulting in full employment and skin-in-the-game for everybody. Overall profit drops, but individual productivity skyrockets.

When we fail to follow List’s (and MacArthur’s) advice, we see exactly the situation that Perkins predicted. Studwell holds up the Philippines as an example of a country that did a particularly poor job of agrarian reform (echoing the often-hilarious accounts in “Sons of the Yellow Emperor“). The rent-seekers capture government, and the fringes fall away and become sympathetic to “terrorist” groups like Abu Sayyaf.

The necessary reforms are unlikely to come from within, and simply forcing countries to become “democratic” isn’t the answer. But imposing these policies from the outside has been successful in the past, and would be a better use of our influence.

A Typical Dream

This is how my dreams go.

In the dream, I discovered some public information about myself that I previously believed to be private. The information appeared to have been deliberately stolen and disclosed, and was selectively presented in a way that portrayed me negatively. I felt confident in my ability to handle blackmailers and those who might otherwise discredit me, and had even invested efforts over the years to set honey traps and alarms for such people. But such matters require a clear, calm head, and I didn’t want to assume that this was a garden-variety blackmailer. So I began to investigate. As I investigated, I found a number of other scattered disclosures of the same sort. I concluded that the effort was likely backed by a sophisticated spying effort, targeted me personally, and probably driven by a single individual working through many proxies.

My first priority was to discern the nature and motives of this newly discovered adversary, without tipping him off. I surreptitiously conducted a number of covert and overt test activities, and monitored for reactive leaks to discern his intent.

Was the adversary motivated by blackmail? Almost certainly not. The leaks were done in such a way as to avoid attention. It seemed that the adversary didn’t expect me to discover the damage until it was irreversible.

Was his motivation to destroy my reputation publicly? Again, this seemed implausible. Though the disclosures were sometimes of the sort that required me to do damage control, the reputation damage seemed to be a side-effect rather than a primary goal. This adversary surely had far more information about me that he could have selectively disclosed in a maximally damaging way, but he chose not to.

Was the adversary trying to cast doubt on the whole idea that one could maintain divergent public and private narratives (see below)? Was he trying to make me see some fatal flaw in the whole public/private strategy that I hadn’t seen before? Again, not likely. He seemed to be operating under the assumption of a public/private split and playing by the rules of that game, but with the caveat that he could override my choices about what stays private versus public. He assumed a public/private split, but he also assumed that he could play on both sides of that equation.

Ultimately, I became convinced that his motives were far more sinister. His goal was to selectively expose portions of my (ostensibly) private history in such a way as to be maximally prejudicial to an impartial judge reviewing all of the evidence at some point in the future. In other words, he didn’t care about swaying members of the general public (though that might be a side-effect), but he cared very much about prejudicing the opinions of a hypothetical unbiased person who had access to all of my public and private history at some day of judgment in the future. In short, he was meticulously and systematically preparing a case against me!

This was a cause for serious alarm. Even if you don’t believe in a judgment day, you care about how an impartial person would judge your character if given access to all of your private history. Experiment after experiment shows that we make choices in a way that allows us to preserve the belief that we are basically good people. We refuse to take actions that we would consider to be inconsistent with the self-image of ourselves being mostly good. Regardless of whether we have a religion or not, we all have an internal measuring stick of a “basically good person” which is independent of our selfish desires. We all have a moral standard that is bigger than ourselves, and we care about how we measure up to that standard. My shadowy adversary was attacking the very foundation of my self-image. He was systematically corroding my identity; using the very narrative that I believed would prove me a “basically good person”, and exposing that narrative in a way that everyone, including me, would perceive to be corrupt. In short, his entire aim was to make it impossible for me to see myself as a “basically good person”.

In normal life, the public/private split is how we defend ourselves from the flawed judgments of others. We each have a public narrative, which is what everyone else believes about us, and a private narrative, which is what we tell ourselves actually happened. Most people will readily assent to the existence of this split, but will postulate that the private history of the average person is considerably more treacherous and sordid than the public history. In other words, we assume that other people are telling us only the good things about themselves and hiding the bad things. But this assumption is exactly wrong.

If you’re like most people, you believe that an impartial judge would be more likely to deem you a “good person” if he had absolute access to your private history. How could he not? You never acted in a way that was inconsistent with that self-image, after all. Granted, you might hide things that other people “wouldn’t understand”, but any self-serving lack of transparency is always backed by an even more compelling private reason why it is morally defensible to hide those things. The typical person, when faced with critics, tells herself, “If only they knew everything I was going through, they wouldn’t judge me so harshly!

It’s a surprising contrast, but it is totally consistent to believe that your unabridged private history will vindicate you, while believing that everyone else’s private histories would condemn them. This is because we trust our own moral judgment more than we trust others’. At the very least, you trust yourself to be fairer in assessing your own faults than others would be. Not only must you protect yourself from others’ poor judgment caused by lack of information, you must consider the possibility that others will actively seek to destroy your external reputation or (like my shadowy adversary) destroy your self-image.

Of course, private things will sometimes leak, and you always run the risk of blackmail or shame. But you tell yourself that you could tolerate these outcomes, because you would still know that your entire sum of actions would vindicate you if disclosed. In contrast, my adversary was a new kind of adversary; he had full access to my private narrative, and was using it in a way that undermined my very identity.

The obvious way I could defend against such an adversary would be to create a third narrative that is private even from my private narrative – a narrative that nobody but I and my supposedly impartial third party judge could possibly know. I needed to go underground, so to speak, and drop the game a meta-level. Once I obtained control of an impenetrable layer of narrative, I could selectively choose experiences that would fill that narrative in a way that would vindicate everything in the other narratives. As long as I could create a truly private narrative I was confident that I could take actions that would fill that narrative in such a way as to inoculate myself from any corruption.

To implement this defense, I needed to figure out how to hide a narrative from this adversary, and he had proven remarkably adept at discovering things I was hiding.

Assuming that my adversary had full control over the physical world, my first strategy was to create a split between physical events and purely mental events. Even if the adversary was omniscient and omnipotent in the physical world, he couldn’t access my mental world (this works, with minor tweaks, even if physicalism is true). And the mental narrative of intentions and motives is just as important as the physical facts when you’re being judged. So my strategy was to construct a vindication narrative where the innermost layer was populated with only mental events. This seemed promising, but I soon found that the adversary could predict the content of the mental events with enough accuracy to be dangerous. I was eventually able to guess how he was doing it, and concluded that this entire strategy would always be vulnerable to this attack, and thus unworkable.

My second strategy was to hide specific actions behind “torn decisions”.

A great many of our decisions are obvious and predictable, and thus are not very interesting for measuring character. “Should I murder this person who annoyed me, or count to ten and walk away?” Making the right decision here doesn’t say much about who you are, it simply says that you’re a prototypical human. To truly define the essence of who you are, we need to look at your “torn decisions”: situations where you were torn between two contradictory choices, with absolutely equal reason for making either choice, yet you committed to one choice or the other. These are the decisions that define you.

Torn decisions are ideal for someone looking to hide his motivations from others. In a torn decision, you have equal motivation for making either choice. By definition, your ultimate choice should appear to be indeterminate to an impartial third party. In fact, it’s this appearance of indeterminacy that most tightly binds the decision to your identity, because the things that were determined are considered to be externalities.

It doesn’t take much reflection to see the flaw in this strategy. You can carefully plot a narrative where you are forced into a torn decision, and where you magically (and for all intents and purposes indeterminately, even to your supposed third-party judge) make the “right” decision. But your plotting prior to the torn decision is bound to be detected. You need to set the wheels in motion before your adversary is participating in the game, or else your torn decision will be seen to be fraudulent, and your plan will be foiled. I needed to find a time when my adversary was asleep, so that I could set the torn decision scheme in motion. Unfortunately, my adversary didn’t sleep, and I was unable to find any opportunities to hide myself.

I finally concluded that I had to move backwards, to a time before the adversary existed. The only way to win at this game is to lay the groundwork before the existence of anyone who could possibly judge you unfairly. In a world of torn decisions, pre-existence is indistinguishable from winning. At this point, some of the urgency faded, because I knew that the battle was already over (regardless of outcome). If I were to win this battle, it wouldn’t be because of any future actions of mine, but would be because of actions that had already been taken. While this applies to events placed in temporal order, it could also work for all of material, formal, and efficient; so it could alternately be framed to work within present time. For example, if I existed as an entity outside the material realm, in a space where my adversary had no access, I could easily cloak my actions in the physical world behind a veil of indeterminacy in real-time.

For my new plan to work, I had to abandon hope of staging my torn decisions and go with torn decisions that were truly torn – where the outcome was entirely indeterminate even to myself. Of course, such torn decisions could simply be random, in which case the exercise would be moot. But I could see two other possibilities in addition to randomness:

First, if it were true that some essential part of my identity had existed before the adversary, it is possible that this essential part previously staged all subsequent torn decisions to appear wholly indeterminate to myself. Obviously, this scenario would require some concept of personal identity (essence, soul, etc.) with a lifespan greater than my physical life. I couldn’t assume such a thing, but if such a thing were true, it would be reasonable to imagine that “essence” operating freely and openly at first, and then strategically dropping behind a veil of indeterminacy right before the advent of the adversary. The threat I was currently facing was very serious, and if I had been able to conceive of the threat (which was obviously possible, since I was having this dream), then it seems only prudent that I would have mitigated the threat.

Second, even if I came into existence after the adversary, the scheme would still work if I had assistance from a third entity who existed before the adversary. If you postulate that there is or was an entity who existed before the adversary, it is plausible to hope that this entity had your best interests at heart (if not, he would be no different from the adversary and it would be moot). So you can hope that you are being hidden behind a veil of indeterminacy put in place by that entity. This entity might even be the same as the entity you visualize as your internal “impartial judge”.



That’s the gist of the dream. The whole thing took less than 5 minutes, and was more like an intense wrestling match than a detailed analysis. I was being attacked, and I tried to defend myself. Since I was experiencing these things directly, my understanding of the mental parts at each new progression was instantaneous, and it was only dreaming the actual physical acts portrayed that took time. The beliefs I adopted in the dream are not necessarily beliefs I agree with. It is typical for my dreams to take some very extreme philosophical positions and see how they play out, rather than stay within one set of beliefs. These dreams often give me new ways of looking at old problems, and can accomplish more in 5 minutes than I could achieve in weeks of conscious effort. This dream left me with quite a bit to think about:

  • The storyline of this dream gives me a new way to think about suggestions, by Mark Balaguer and John Searle among others, that free will can only be explained through indeterminacy. Such suggestions had always seemed strained to me, and I felt they were motivated mainly by a desire to cling to folk-theory concepts of free will. However, it now seems that some combination of an impartial judge and an adversary would strongly motivate a drive to indeterminacy.
  • Attempts to give a naturalistic explanation for the existence of religion have sometimes focused on the theory that evolution endowed us with an oversensitive agent-detection mechanism. It’s better to wrongly infer a teleological agent behind the sound of a twig snapping that it is to wrongly assume no teleological agency and get eaten by a predator. I do believe that hyperactive agency detection plays a role in the formation of religion, but it is very unsatisfying on its own. Surely people would have learned to filter out the erroneous detection events. Instead, they took these erroneous events, rationally analyzed them, and became persuaded that there was something worth preserving in them. With this dream, I can see the outlines of potential new approaches to explanation of agency-detection’s role. For example, it might be the case that the “imaginary impartial judge” is a stable feature of intelligent life. Start with the knowledge that your own choices are prone to errors of judgment, and imagine a standard of conduct by which you can monitor your own judgments to detect and correct errors (since we are biased against error). This standard would be distinct from your immediate “self”, so it’s natural to want to apply agency detection to it. And maybe, you decide that your behavior would be exactly the same whether that standard represented a real or imaginary entity. Just as we dismiss solipsism by saying that we act as if there are other people regardless, we might decide that we act as if this third party exists, whether he really does or not. In both cases, we don’t have much choice anyway, but the point is that it might be no less rational to act as if the third party exists than to act as if other real people exist. Or perhaps this is not enough on its own, but maybe the addition of multiple independent agents with potentially conflicting wills and competition, would lead to this belief.
  • Assuming, for the sake of argument, that “imaginary impartial judge” is a basic feature of any universe that supports sentient life, what are the variable features? For example, if someone decides that there is an impartial judge, does it also follow that he would be wise to imagine an imaginary adversary who is almost as powerful as the judge? Does the fact that such an adversary is conceivable create any urgency to mitigate this potential threat, by acting as if? What about order of existence – does the de facto crown always go the first entity who is lucky enough to spawn into existence and thrive (the conceivability of suicide would be a counterexample)? What are the competitive advantages that any competent “first born” would figure out before anyone else could exploit them? (Creation of servants, masking behind indeterminacy?) How much consideration should be given to alternate configurations – adversary created before judge, for example?
  • If you were able to confirm that the “impartial judge” and “adversary” were basic features of any universe that supported sentient life, would this knowledge justify you to stop acting as if these were real? Would you still be bound to keep defending your own integrity, or might you instead be obligated to transcend this condition? The entire framework of this dream was based on the assumption that we can, and do, ensure by our own actions that we are “basically good people”. It presupposes that the responsibility is all ours, and as long as we are “righteous in our own eyes”, we only need help in our legal defense. But this is quite an assumption, and it might be worth challenging.
  • In a wildly different tangent, this could suggest ways of understanding the intentions behind the “bornless ritual“, the opening invocation of Ars Goetia. Like the invocations of Crowley which came later, these golden dawn invocations often seemed like crude perversions of selected orthodoxy. In the case of the bornless ritual, an obvious gratuitous perversions would be the use of “unbegotten” contra “begotten not created”. But it’s easy to read this as simply a difference of terminology, and the theme could be consistent with “He who comes after me has surpassed me because he was before me.” And whatever the case, the author seemed to have been familiar with the idea of affiliating oneself with the right portion of the precedence chain. “Bornless” is about as high in the precedence chain as the human mind can conceive.
  • This could provide a different perspective on the symbolic function of Melchizedek in Midrash and Pentateuch. Melchizedek’s name basically means “impartial judge”, and Melchizedek is portrayed as blessing Avram and giving him the name Abraham. Perhaps to postulate an Abraham, your religion must also postulate an independent third party “impartial judge” who existed before Abraham, in order to give him authority. Based on the events of this dream, I think that’s a very neat feature of any religion, and perhaps an essential feature of any religion worth taking seriously.

And many other angles.

This is the first time I’ve dreamed about this specific topic, but I’ve written down hundreds of similarly wacky dreams, spanning topics from “my life with a fragmented body” to “the fascination of the fractal semi-human”. Most of them could be turned into entertaining science fiction stories, I’m sure, and they have provided some fun food for thought.

Arnoldo Talisman and Shockin’ Nigerian Hip-Hop

Dave Winer is lamenting that it’s not too easy to find cheap/free firewood nearby.  He makes some great points.  Eric Schmidt of Google says it right; we are still in the infancy of this technology.

But it’s getting better every day.  For years, I have been trying to locate information on UGO, a Nigerian rapper who made waves in Detroit around the same time that Eminem was coming up.  Now, he’s on the Internets!  The song I remember is “Earthquakin’ Afrikan MC”, but all of them are good.  He’s kind of like a mix between X-Clan and Will Smith — sort of like Hieroglyphics but way better.

UGO reminds me of Dare’s old rap partner, Big Lo.  It’s great when we can see music videos from all around the world.  Kimberly at Bix says, “you can do a music video in like, 3 minutes”.  The barriers come crashing down.

But we have a long way to go.  The other day, I was at a party where the VJ played some videos from Cuba.  One very cool one, “Ay, Juana!” by Arnoldo Talisman struck me.  Good luck finding it on the Internets.  If you find it, please let me know 🙂



Walk the Line

The Levi’s commercial covering ‘Walk the Line’ is presumably a light piece about young love, but it’s got an undercurrent of ‘suffocated love‘ that’s undeniable.  The phrase, “because you’re mine” has always been jarring to me.  I remember one woman I knew many years ago, who explained to me “I want to have a baby, because then I will have something that I know is all mine.”  I’ve known others since who felt the same way — something I never understood, since I see a parent’s role being to train a child to be independent.

It’s a romanticization of possessive codependency, and disturbing on many levels.  But it’s gripping, and appeals to a large swath of their audience.  There are no doubt large numbers of people who see it and think, “how sweet!”; who would wonder how I could possibly see anything wrong with it.

Judgment that relies on saying, “those poor people are stupid” is no judgment at all.  So rather than attempt to defend my own alien perspective, I’ll try to understand the person who says “how sweet!”

My best defense of the “possessive codependency is sweet” comes from C. S. Lewis, in “The Four Loves”.  He quotes Chesterton, who quotes Kipling:

“If England was what England seems
‘Ow quick we’d drop ‘er.  But she ain’t!”

Lewis explains, “Love never spoke that way.  It’s like loving your children only ‘if they’re good’, your wife only while she keeps her looks, your husband only so long as he is famous and successful.  ‘No man’, said one of the Greeks, ‘loves his city because it is great, but because it is his.'”

Despite the fact that we live in an age that is suspicious of patriotism, we can see the essence of Lewis’s argument.  He is very persuasive.  He argues that a love which is conditional on particular attributes of the beloved is no love at all. 

We can understand this; and there is no more certain way to make your lover insecure than to blame your love on some fallible asset she possesses (and will most certainly lose).  This is even more deadly than blaming your love on an asset which is non-unique and shared by many others.  Tell a woman, “I love you because you are young, and youth is beauty”, and see how stable a pairing it produces.

From this, he jumps to “ownership” as the only truthful measure of love.  I get it.  But for a good liar, many other things will do.  Length of shared history, commonality of interests, and so on.  Does a father “own” a son, or for that matter a son “own” a father.  I am my father’s son, and he is his son’s father — in both cases, the possessive phrase is used, but it doesn’t necessarily connote possession.

But then, “walking the line” because you’re “mine” could simple mean “mine” in the (healthy) sense of a father and son.  At last, I’m at peace with Johnny Cash.


And what would happen to the human race if we all were logical?  Romantic relationships progress with both sides moving forward on unrealistic expectations.  When we’re lucky, we have built something worth keeping when the mutual delusions subside.  Who’s to judge the youngsters moving forth on possessive codependency?  Perhaps we all owe our own existence to hundreds of generation of our ancestors doing the same.

Don’t Erase

So, I recently finished Dunbar’s “Grooming, Gossip, and the Evolution of Language”.  Although I am not convinced about Nostratic, Dunbar gave more than enough material to convince me I was right about past/future tenses in Chinese and English.  I think it is pretty obvious, and was probably common sense to people with access to Alexandria library.

I think it was Meister Eckert who once said “Only the hand that erases can write the true thing”.  And Saint-Exupery said “Perfection is achieved, not when enough has been added, but when there is nothing more to remove”.

These philosophies of willful filing of gear teeth lead to a “snaggle-toothed thought machine” that “clicks and whirs with the imprecision of a cuckoo clock in hell.” (Vonnegut).

The proponents of “document deletion^H^H^H retention policies” argue that e-mail takes up too much space.  Let’s examine that claim.

Suppose that the average human can spew forth language at 200 words per minute, rarely listens, and spews language for 8 hours a day (speech, typing, or otherwise).

200 wpm
* 2 bytes
* 60 min
* 10 hours
* 365 days
* 80 years
/ 1024 bytes/kb
/ 1024 bytes/mb
/ 1024 bytes/gb

Every bit of language you emit over your entire lifetime would fit on less than 7GB of space.  This is basically uncompressed.  Add modest compression, some timestamping and geocoding, and your whole life still fits in less than 10GB.  There is no excuse for EVER deleting anything that any human being ever says.

Imagine if linguists 1,000 years from today have access to a corpus containing every word spoken/written by every human for the previous millennium.  Imagine how much easier it would be to track dialect migrations (ala Brothers Grimm), repetition of memes, and so on.  Imagine if a person asking questions on Yahoo answers can have instant access to every answer given for the same question in the past 1,000 years, and the personal histories and outcomes of every one.

It would be a lot harder for Chomskyans to bluff and bluster and shout “IT IS ALL AN ACCIDENT; LANGUAGE MEANS NOTHING!”

Is Your Car Spying on You? Is Your Car Spying on Me?

Another nail in the coffin of Doctorow’s “metacrap” arguments.  I never want to see anyone citing that inanity again.  Doctorow said that metadata would fail because “people are lazy”, and “people lie”.  The fact is, privacy is dead, because people are too lazy to STOP their metadata from leaking, and too lazy to lie/cover their tracks.  And powerless to stop other people from collecting metadata about them anyway.

For the past 5 years, I’ve been writing things like, “I want my car to gossip with your car”.

Now Nissan is testing a system where cars can gossip with one another, so you know (for example) when you are in the vicinity of a dangerous driver.  I pinged my friend Craig, who works on systems like this, and he assures me that all of the manufacturers are exploring different variations of the theme.  It’s just a matter of time.

One example scenario I’ve often used is the “Amber Alert” in the U.S.  The authorities send out an alert with an automobile description, and it gets displayed on freeways in the area of search.  The alert is something like “Blue jeep cherokee with plates 555XY”.  Good citizens on the road are expected to peer about and call 911 immediately if they see the wanted vehicle.

Now, imagine if your car had sensors to read the license plate of any car that it passes.  That’s cheap technology.  Now imagine receiving the amber alert automatically.  Perhaps from the current freeway sign, using talking signs technology.  Or over cellular network.  Your car could beep and alert you “you passed the wanted car 20 minutes ago”.

The privacy implications are profound.  If it’s completely legal for a neighbor to watch you going into a strip club and tell everyone at your church, and it’s legal for citizens to spy on one another for purposes of law enforcement, why would it be illegal to automate that process?  If my car remembers every car that I’ve passed, that seems like a feature; especially if I have to opt-in to share that data with others.  Do we tolerate citizen spying only because citizens have limited memories?  Should we outlaw people with photgraphic memories?

In fact, your license plate number is a public identifier.  We now have case law saying that anyone can key off of that identifier without “probable cause” or permission.  I could outfit my car to automatically take the GPS position, timestamp, and license plate of every car I pass; and upload it to Google base.  When enough people do that, it’s going to be pretty difficult to claim that we were somewhere we weren’t.


Tantek asks how we can kill bad ideas before we end up killing people.

While it’s useful to look at ideas through the lens of biology (“memes”), epidemiology, or systems theory; this is also the biggest error. 

Human “ideas” are unique in all of nature.  Humans (like apes or dogs) are capable of making a choice between equally powerful animal instincts at any moment.  But humans are also aware that other humans have this same power, and are aware that other humans are aware that they have that power — and so on.  Apes cannot think or communicate in four orders of intensionality, yet humans regularly go beyond four orders of intensionality in our calculations.  The ability to communicate in four orders is the bare minimum for science, religion, and “ideologies” to form.

What this means, is that any system of ideas that humans create, can eventually be gamed and exploited.  Some dictatorships lead to harmony, others lead to enslavement of the people.  Free markets can lead to equal opportunity, or to massive wealth disparity and indentured servitude.  When a critical mass of people learn how to exploit a system to gain advantage at the disadvantage of another group, things start to break down.

All of the mathematical and biological approaches ignore this simple fact.  They erase free will from the equation, and hide that fact behind several layers of abstraction.  Then someone can say, “Selfishness is human nature, and life is an iterated prisoner’s dilemma game, so it is human nature that I am rich”.  And he can say, “Game theory, statistics, and evolutionary theory predicted that Katrina victims did not plan far enough ahead, so it is their fault.  We just need MORE free markets and MORE wealth, and the problem will fix itself!”

That is, a system of ideaology which is intended to bring maximum harmony can (doesn’t have to) simply become an elaborate excuse for turning a blind eye to someone else’s problems.


In addition, humans are relatively unique in that a human baby is not born fully developed.  A human child needs a lot of intensive training, especially in the first year, to ever hope to become a happy member of society.  Our first training in ideology is embedded from our relationships with our caregivers, then from our relationships with siblings, extended family, and classmates (“village”).  Children do not learn via logic; they learn by modeling close human relationships.  The wetware to process logic evolved relatively late, and is still completely impotent to handle typical human relationship issues.  Parables and stories work much better for training/persuading people of things that have to do with ideology.

Raising a child, teaching a homeless person how to support himself, teaching a gambler to quit — these are not technology problems.  These are not systems problems.  The more we look for systems solutions to these problems, the more of a mess we make.  Until we realize, “that’s my kid”, “that’s my cousin”, “that’s my neighbor”, systems are just an excuse.  The child needs a parent, not a system.


The simplest parable of all is that of the two lovers (our spouses, or brothers) bound by mutual suspicion.  If the husband sees his job as being to correct the errors and flaws in his wife’s thinking and behavior, and the wife sees her job as being to do the same for her husband, we all know how the story ends.  At some point, one person in the relationship needs to forgive, and look for the flaws in her own behavior/thinking (’cause it’s never in his :-)) and move on.  Without this step taking place at least once, no harmony can ever exist.  No idea is perfect, and no person is perfect.

When two ideologies look for the slivers in one another’s eyes, it gives them an excuse to ignore the beams in their own.  And when the citizens of each bloc see the other bloc living in denial, it just makes both sides more entrenched.  Clearly, the main points of denial which hurt America’s credibility in the world today are the interest in oil money and the fact that our own internal systems have corroded in the last 100 years.

I wonder what would happen if America were to take the first step and acknowledge those things.  Suppose we were to say:

  1. We still believe in democracy and capitalism, but we recognize that things here at home have become a bit skewed in the past 100 years.  We’re going to do some soul-searching and figure out why Katrina happened, why 2% of our population is in prison, why social mobility is decreasing rapidly, why washington is becoming more inbred every year.
  2. We have huge amounts of money compared to the rest of the world; we don’t need foreign oil.  We’re going to reduce our consumption of foreign oil 10% per year.  The medium-term economic pain will be worth it, because it will spur new innovation in the long run.
  3. Bombing other people into “love” is not a good strategy for security.  We will withdraw our military on the same schedule that our economic interests in the region reduce (10% per year).  We believe that peaceful democracy and liberty will flourish in the region if we set a good example by fixing our own problems first.  If it doesn’t, India and China will have far more incentive to deal with the problem than they do today.

Maybe I’m crazy; but I think it’s the only way the republicans can hope to hold power.  If they don’t, and the dems do, they will sweep the entire evangelical bloc.

Talking Signs Seattle!

Congratulations to Seattle for winning the Federal DOT Grant for Remote Infrared Audio Signage!  This means that various real-world places around Seattle are going to be annotated with identifiers which can be directionally detected.

This should be interesting to Virtual Earth people, Wikimapia, and anyone interested in tacking metadata to real-world locations.

Talking signs address some scenarios which RFID, GPS, and other techniques cannot.  Being based on infrared; they work indoors and are directional (e.g. if the mens and womens bathrooms are next to one another; GPS isn’t necessarily going to tell you which is which).

Additionally, the directional (line of sight) aspect means that talking signs are useful for accessibility for people with vision impairment.  This is the underlying motivation for the project; the federal government is funding this because it’s the law — all cities will eventually be required to implement this technology.

When Privacy is Bad: In Defense of Google

As much as I love to see people questioning Google’s stewardship of “all the world’s information”, I have to defend Google on this one.  An anonymous poster claiming to be from MSFT is over on a Google blog –using the AOL data leak as a way to smear Google.  That’s just plain wrong; and in the context of the original post, bordering on unethical.

There is an e-mail hoax making the rounds in India right now, purporting to explain how Google’s social networking service, Orkut, was created.  I’ve seen a few different versions going around, but they all have the same core story:

“A young software engineer travelling with his ‘girlfriend’ was in a train accident.  He survived, but could not find his girlfriend after the crash.  So, he wrote code day and night and hired a bunch of other coders to write Orkut.  In Orkut, people would type in the names of their friends, and their friends could type in the names of their friends, and so on.  After three years, he had millions of records and eventually one of her new friends entered her name in the database without her knowledge — our heartbroken lover was able to find his lost lover at last!”

Of course, the story is a complete fabrication; but were it true it would be rather creepy.

To some people this may seem “sweet”.  But you have to wonder why it wasn’t enough for this fellow to just put up a web page and let her Google for it herself.  Clearly, if he was so intent to “find out where she lives now and pay her a visit”, he was convinced that she was not going to contact him on her own.  Otherwise, the effort to build Orkut would have been senseless.  Stalkers always rationalize that their prey “want” it, so he surely had some reason why the poor girl was not going to contact him.  For example, “She is rather weak-minded, so she has probably had her heart stolen away by some evil man who has brainwashed her.  If only I go visit her at her new home, I can make her remember that she loves me instead.”  One reason that he might be so certain of this may be that she had done it in the past, before the train crash.  The poor fellow; always having to rescue his girl from manipulative men who make her unfaithful!

At first, I thought, “what a terribly unethical way to attract cyberstalkers to your social networking service!”  It’s not as if these people need any encouragement.  But then I remembered the “Committee of Gossips“.  The Internet makes it harder for people to hide from obsessive stalkers, but it also makes it harder for obsessive stalkers to operate in secret.


So a few days ago, Niniane Wang at Google discovered evidence of rape by looking through the AOL search logs.  Almost instantly, she was mobbed with (mostly anonymous and male) commenters screaming foul — “How DARE you pry into someone’s PRIVATE life; I will never trust Google again!”

These people operate on denial and self-delusion; secrecy and privacy are the oxygen that keeps their abusive behaviors alive.  The typical date-rapist or stalker will tell you that it’s just a difference of opinion, a private matter, and that it’s none of your business.  He knows that he loses if you have all of the facts and can judge for yourself.

In this case, Niniane was looking at PUBLIC logs, and the evidence is clear enough that a crime has been committed.  Not only did Niniane do nothing wrong by calling attention to this; I argue that law enforcement would be negligent to not follow up on this (if possible).  It is sad (yet common) that the victims in the examples she cites could reach out for help only by leaving private e-mails in a public place, or typing a query into a search engine with the hope that they might find some answers somewhere.

The truth is, there are probably thousands of queries like this every day, from people suffering depression, abuse, or other problems; and looking for help.  Search engines should provide a direct and smooth transition to priivate and confidential 1:1 counseling for people in these situations.  When someone asks the search engine “is it normal to cook for someone after they rape you?” (it’s not uncommon, BTW), this person clearly wants to connect with someone who understands.  When someone asks “why is it so hard to find a reason to live?”, they are reaching out.  You’re not invading their privacy by directing them to resources that can help them.

Of course, people will be discouraged from seeking help for depression, abuse, and these sorts of things if they feel like their private lives might appear on someone’s blog the next day.  But that’s not the gist of the comments objecting to Niniane’s post.  And one way to give hope to future victims is by showing them tht they’re not alone; that there are many people asking the exact same questions — people who never would have scanned the AOL logs themselves now know that they aren’t the only ones to be having the same questions; and that is nothing but good.


And if transparency is (understandably) a deterrent for victims to seek help, it’s doubly a deterrent for the abusers.  And in the case of abusers, shining the light can only do good.  The restaurant or venue owner who gets negative reviews on dianping will claim that “it’s just a difference of opinion or a misunderstanding”, and that may be the case (yes, sometimes the perp is the victim).  But you get to look at the evidence and decide for yourself.  The same should be true of heartbroken trainwreck survivors and date-rapists.  It’s only a matter of time until we have a “dianping for people”, and the committee of gossips have eyes everywhere.  This is what scares the anonymous protesters the most.