Saturday, August 29, 2009

Why we assume we are immortal

David Friedman has a post on why we assume that after we die we will continue to exist, in a way, say as a ghost or disembodied soul. He thinks it has to do with our perception of the world in terms of individuated things and our perception of the preservation and perpetuation of individuated things (think the Theseus' Ship Problem). It's a very interesting discussion and worth reading.

I have a different theory. I think, first of all, it connects with our tendency to think that we've been visited by deceased loved ones, either in dreams or in hallucinations. For example, after Jesus dies, two of his disciples meet and talk with a person who says something insightful, then afterwards they both convince themselves that it was Jesus visiting them in another form (cf Luke 24:13-32 & Mark 16:12), or in Tennysons Poem In Memorium he has a vision in a dream of his deceased young friend A. H. Hallam, which leads him to believe that Hallam is in heaven. Hallucinations and dreams of the recently deceased are not uncommon. In fact, technologically primitive people tend to believe that the land of the dead is not far away, maybe a few days journey from them. The dead are close enough that they can drop by for a visit every once in a while. in Homer, the land of the dead is presumably somewhere on the other side of the Mediterranean.

Second of all, I think our believe in immortality is also the result of introspection. It's really hard to imagine, and in fact quite terrifying to think that I will be sense/experience/think/feel. I don't think of myself as just this body, but as something else in addition, an immaterial thing that looks out through my body's eyes and sees the world. It's easy to imagine my body ceaseing to be, but how do I imagine that immaterial part of me eliminated? How do I imagine what it would be like to feel/see/sense nothing? or to experience the absence of experience--for all eternity? How do I think about what it would be not to think, and until the end of time? Such thoughts are so mind-bending and terrifying that it's easier just to imagine that I'll continue on as some disembodied soul or ghost or be resurrected or something, anything rather than to just cease to be.

I'm young, I admit, so I have a long time to think about these things (I hope). I will eventually (unless I discover I'm an immortal or get bitten by a vampire or something) see how it comes out on the other side. But unfortunately I won't be able to tell anybody what it's like over there, which is quite frustrating.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Why do we live longer than we can procreate?

It's always been a puzzle why it is that people live longer than they can possibly produce offspring. Women usually have menopause at around age 50, so we'd expect that people would pretty much expect people to die around 50, since after that age they can't reproduce, and thus there would be no selective pressure for longer life.

One recent study suggests that longevity past 50 can be explained by male procreation with younger women (ht Robin Hanson). As explained in the abstract:
We analyze a general two-sex model to show that selection favors survival for as long as men reproduce. Male fertility can only result from matings with fertile females, and we present a range of data showing that males much older than 50 yrs have substantial realized fertility through matings with younger females, a pattern that was likely typical among early humans.
In other words, the longer a man lives the more children he'll end up having: younger men with a woman around their age, older men with younger women, and really, really old men with much, much younger women. So, since men who live longer would have more children, their genes would tend to dominate and would be selected for. Furthermore, these genes for longevity wouldn't just apply to men since they would be passed on to both the women and the men.

Personally, I've always though the explanation for longevity was due to some sort of group selection. Humans really aren't just competing with other individuals, but groups of humans are also competing with other groups. The groups sometimes completely wipe out the other so that the survivor group would be the only ones to pass on their genes. Think of the two competing groups of proto-humans in 2001: A Space Odyssey. The group that discovered tools, chased the other group from the watering hole, ensuring the survival of the tool-using group, and probably leading to the death of the non-tool-using group. Thus, the genes of this tool-using group would be passed on.

I've always thought this was a good explanation of how morality developed. Groups of humans that followed certain morals would be more united, and thus would be able to hunt/gather/farm better and succeed more in wars against non-moral groups which would be more disunited (especially think about how we usually have a sort of "us vs them" morality, where it is a sin to do things to one of our own that are perfectly acceptable to do to our enemies).

Similarly, this is how I'd explain longevity past the age of procreation. Old people are an asset to a community. They bear valuable knowledge and experience and are the best teachers. Especially in times before writing, old people are your best receptacles of knowledge. Most people would die before reaching their 30s due to disease, warfare, starvation or the dangers of hunting and childbirth, but a very small few would carry on, and probably carry on as long as our oldest members. These few old persons, though not as productive, would be a great asset because of their knowledge. Thus, groups with some old people would tend to outcompete other groups, and so genes for longevity would be selected for.

Admittedly, the story of older men procreating with younger women is more interesting. Then again, these two explanations aren't really mutually exclusive. Maybe it's both.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

How Intellectual Property Harms the Consumer

Daniel Krawisz, makes an interesting case against intellectual property, talking about the fallacy of intellectual property being considered as part of essential property rights. he talks about the practical side (that a government is necessary to enforce it) and the moral side, (the moral value of rights and whether intellectual property rights fit among them). He makes some worthwhile points to which I want to add. I think if we imagine what it would be like without intellectual property, I think we will see that it will leads to consequences that are probably more desirable (accounting for inevitable trade-offs) to consumers. The consequences of the absence of patents, trademarks and copyrights would all be different, and I'll focus on copyrights (and to be honest, I'm not sure whether a strong case can be make against trademarks on practical grounds).

The consequence to the arts and entertainment industries being unable to copyright musical recordings and books will be that the record companies and publishers who capitalize on their artists' talent and celebrity will be hurt, but the artists themselves will be unaffected. As Adam Gurri writes, the pirating of music may harm recording companies:
But at the end of the day there will be very little difference for the musicians themselves. Before digital technology and the internet, most musicians made next to nothing and a few made an enormous amount. After the transition...most will make next to nothing, and a few will make an enormous amount.
Gurri quotes Chris Anderson who notes that
music creates celebrity. There are worse problems than the challenge of turning fame into fortune.

Successful production of art and entertainment would still produce fame, which the artists could always capitalize on, making it still very economically profitable to produce art and entertainment even in the absence of copyrights. For musicians, they would simply focus more on performance than studio recording, and still make lucrative incomes from their talent. Authors could focus on making money from lecture tours, teaching classes on writing, selling exclusive signed copies of their books, and other things.

The result for consumers thus would be more access to their favorite artists, via live appearances and classroom instruction. It can hardly be to the detriment of the wider populace that popular performers would tour more or that they could take classes with popular authors.

Movie studios would definitely be hurt in dvd/blu-ray sales, but since they already control distribution of their movies through theaters, profits via the sale of movie tickets would be unaffected. The results would be similar with tv shows.

Absence of copyright might be said to reduce production of new material, though: musicians writing less new music, authors writing fewer new books, studios producing fewer movies and so on. But we might actually expect the opposite trend, especially among prominent and successful artists. Successful artists can now sit upon the fruits of long past success and continue making a living off of past successes because of almost endless copyrights. This unproductivity of successful and popular authors can hardly be the best for consumers, who are especially interested in new work from precisely these artists who are the most talented.

The most extreme example of this habit is be J. D. Salinger, who still lives off the continued success of his 1951 Catcher in the Rye, despite having been only mildly productive in its wake, and not producing any new fiction after 1965. In the absence of copyrights, J. D. Salinger would be forced to produce or to teach or lecture, or any of a number of other things which would have considerably more direct benefit on his fans than doing nothing.

In fact, J. D. Salinger has been actively trying to prevent books inspired by his work from being published. Last June he filed a lawsuit to block the publication of a semi-sequel 60 Years Later: Coming Through the Rye of Catcher in the Rye by pseudonymous author J. D. California.

Here we have another way in which copyright can actually reduce artistic productivity. Fan-fiction, production of remix films and music (using clips from copyrighted films tv shows and songs to produce new songs or movies), translations into other languages, and various adaptations and reinterpretations of copyrighted material are restricted by copyright. Does it really benefit consumers that there's only one translation of each of the books of popular foreign authors like Umberto Eco and Jean-Paul Sartre, or that there is only one film adaptation of popular books like the Harry Potter or Twilight series or that people can't create works based on the characters and places of popular fictional universes such as Star Trek and Star Wars?

For consumers of arts and entertainment, the absence of copyrights would benefit them. There would be both more artistic productivity and greater access to their favorite celebrities. I imagine consumers would be more pleased with this arrangement, and that more people would thereby be in favor of the absence of copyrights if they knew the full consequences.

Monday, August 24, 2009

John Yoo and Academic Freedom

Interesting debate over at the NY Times about whether John Yoo should be fired from his post at Berkeley for his memos giving the Bush administration legal cover for torture. Two of the commentators they solicited think he should be fired, the other three are against it.

I side with the minority on this one, believing that he should be fired, though agreeing with them that the prudent course of action would be to conduct an official inquiry and only fire him if the inquiry concludes that professional misconduct had been committed.

In fact, this is the type of system I see as a much better alternative to tenure: colleges being able to fire faculty, but only after after official inquiry. This would make it difficult to fire professors for controversial ideas, but would open the door to firing them for incompetence or for grave ethics violations.

In Yoo's case, the issue is not about incompetence, but about doing something unethical. For those who think Yoo should be fired, this issue really isn't that he holds the wrong opinion, but that his actions represent professional misconduct. We expect doctors to uphold standards of conduct when lives are on the line (though quite excessively sometimes). Shouldn't lawyers be held accountable for malpractice when lives are on the line?

Insofar as Yoo is supposed to provide legal counsel, he must interpret the law to the best of his judgment, and there will be a lot of disagreement on interpretations. But that's not the problem. As Brad Wendel (who thinks Yoo shouldn't be fired) summarizes:
The memos purporting to justify the harsh treatment of detainees could do so only by twisting the law beyond all recognition, and doing so in secret so that the flawed legal advice would not be challenged. When the memos were disclosed publicly, virtually no one could be found to defend them on the merits.
Yoo is not simply offering opinion, he is offering legal cover, and in a cagey way. If he had published such opinions in a scholarly journal, people might disagree with him adamantly, but there wouldn't be serious consideration of firing him. Even if Bush and his administration co-opted published articles to give them legal cover, the weight of moral responsibility would lie with the Bush administration, not the articles' author.

An inquiry into Yoo's conduct would not have the effect of inhibiting scholars' ability to express controversial opinions openly, though it would, one would hope, discourage them from giving legal cover to actions of a dubious moral standing.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Higher ed costs

Mark Perry at Carpe Diem posted several days ago a series of posts about rising tuition and disinvestment in faculty.

There has been rapid increases in college tuition, at an average 7.74% annual rate (twice that of inflation) since 1978. Tuition has increased significantly faster than the increase in the cost of health care, which has only increased at an average rate of 6% annually. As I noted earlier, what makes this unsettling is that clearly the quality of health care has improved as costs have gone up, with the advent of many new technologies, drugs and procedures, but its difficult to say whether there has been any improvement in higher education.

What we see from trends of employment and salary levels is that schools are not spending the additional money they're charging for education on providing education.
Between 1997 and 2007 enrollment increased by 25.8%, but tenured/tenure track faculty only increased by 8.6%. I'm generally against the tenure system, and would prefer that colleges shift more towards long-term full-time faculty. But the colleges are instead maintaining class sizes by turning more to cheap disposable faculty, like adjuncts and graduate students. They are forced to do this because colleges have increased the number of non-teaching staff much more rapidly than increases in enrollment: increasing executive/managerial staff by 42.4% over the same period and increasing professional staff by 54%. Also, the faculty aren't getting paid more, since pay has almost been flat in real dollars since 1978.

The overall trend is that students are getting no better education for their money, but only a lot more bureaucracy and administration.

I think the proximate cause of this is that colleges are not for profit, eliminating the incentive for them to maximum profits by cutting cots. Additionally, the increasing costs are permitted since schools don't have many students who immediately pay for their education, meaning there's limited demand from consumers to lower tuition.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Slippery Slopes and Gay Marriage

I was just reading some commentary on the legalization of same-sex marriage in Massachusetts, Connecticut, Iowa, Vermont, Maine, and New Hampshire. And Steve Capman notes
Opponents of same-sex marriage reject it on religious and moral grounds but also on practical ones. If we let homosexuals marry, they believe, a parade of horribles will follow—the weakening of marriage as an institution, children at increased risk of broken homes, the eventual legalization of polygamy, and who knows what all.
In other words, some opponents to same-sex marriage make the slippery slope argument, that it will lead to progressively more indecent and immoral forms of marriage and more divorce.

Admittedly, I have no objection to slippery slope arguments in general. They're certainly not logically rigorous, but they are meant to be predictive and are based on an accurate understanding of human psychology. People become accustomed to something and then can become more willing to accept even greater extremes. In retrospect it seems reasonable that when the the US Supreme Court in 1937 changed their opposition to Roosevelt's New Deal after Roosevelt's court-packing threat, that this has led to a continual erosion of the perceived constitutional limits on the executive branch and has been partially responsible for the semi-regal office of president we have today. One could've objected in 1937 that permitting a little bit of extra power to the president in a time of emergency, could lead to the president ultimately having quite excessive and unchecked power. This argument would be correct.

The most common mistake of the slippery slope argument is to assume some sort of inevitability to it. It may seem inevitable in retrospect, but this is misleading.

In the case of same-sex marriage, though, the mistake is in misidentifying the slippery slope. Acceptance of same-sex marriage is the result of greater tolerance of homosexuality. If we have more same-sex marriage then it could lead to a slippery slope of greater tolerance for people being open about their homosexuality, for more institutions catering to homosexuals, for openly homosexual public figures, like politicians, business leaders, celebrities and so on (which I see no problem with), but it doesn't seem like a slippery slope towards erosion of the institution of marriage. Over time people will learn more to accept the equal sanctity of both heterosexual and homosexual marriage. Same-sex couples are entering into marriage because they want to affirm the type of life-long commitment that heterosexual couples already find in marriage. Increased incidence of divorce seems to be a separate phenomenon, probably more connected to increasing independence of women, a greater emphasis on individualism and autonomy.

That same-sex marriage would lead polygamy is absurd, since that would have to come as a result of greater tolerance of polygamy or polyamory or religions that promote polygamy (like Mormonism). In fact, it seems like our increasing emphasis on women's rights would lead us away from polygamy (though possible towards acceptance of polyandry). And acceptance of incest or bestiality or pedophilia? These are also completely unrelated to acceptance of homosexuality.

If someone opposes same-sex marriage on moral or religious grounds, it's difficult to argue with them, but if they want to make the argument on practical grounds, I think that argument falls apart.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

The Devil's Dictionary

Just skimming through Ambrose Bierce’s Devil’s Dictionary, an amusing book of humor. Here are some definitions that caught my eye:

GENEALOGY, n. An account of one's descent from an ancestor who did not particularly care to trace his own.

HARBOR, n. A place where ships taking shelter from storms are exposed to the fury of the customs.

HEAVEN, n. A place where the wicked cease from troubling you with talk of their personal affairs, and the good listen with attention while you expound your own.

IMPENITENCE, n. A state of mind intermediate in point of time between sin and punishment.

INDIFFERENT, adj. Imperfectly sensible to distinctions among things.

RELIGION, n. A daughter of Hope and Fear, explaining to Ignorance the nature of the Unknowable.

TARIFF, n. A scale of taxes on imports, designed to protect the domestic producer against the greed of his consumer.

I recommend skimming through it on your own, if you have the time.

Probably every person who ever read this book has desired to make a Devil’s Diction of their own. Here’s my attempt at a few definitions. I’ve tried to imitate Bierce’s cynical tone and formal style.

BACHELOR, n.: A man who after discovering that no woman desires to marry him, decides that no woman is good enough for him to marry.

CAT, n.: a small domesticated mammal which in exchange for its owner feeding, housing and pampering it permits the owner the privilege of feeding, housing and pampering it.

CEMETERY, n: A place where one stores one’s dead until they are further needed either for the purpose of a second coming of Christ or a zombie apocalypse.

DOUGHNUT, n.: a ring-shaped pastry mostly derided for its tendency to show a person’s preference for eating tasty food over being thin.

ELECTION, n.: the process of determining by popular vote which candidate’s campaign promises are more unrealistic

FENCE, n.: an extended obstruction which one uses to signal, by means of its height, the degree to which one desires that outsiders keep on the other side of it.

FLOWER, n.: the bloom of a plant, given as gift when a person is sick, dead, or about to be married.

HOPE. n.: the pleasurable belief that the future will be dissimilar to the past

IDIOT, n.: a person not of my beliefs and assumptions

IMBECILE, n.: an idiot of even less intelligence, primarily identified by their propensity to disagree with me pointedly and openly

IMMIGRANT: a person with the indecency to flatter one’s country by trying to live there indefinitely, mostly disliked for stealing from the native residents the jobs they don’t want to do.

OPINION, n.: a non-factual statement useful to others for classifying one as either an idiot or an imbecile (see above).

POEM, n.: a literary form which is either rhymed or unrhymed in metered or unmetered lines describing an emotion, thought, story or none of those three, and which is usually (mercifully) short.

UNIVERSITY, n.: a place where one earns a certificate to prove to prospective employers that one is a worthy employee by learning about things one’s employer cares nothing about.

UNREQUITED LOVE, n.: One’s irrational desire for a person who in return has made a very rational assessment of one’s own desirability.

WATCH n.: A portable time-keeping device by which one can tell whether one is late or early to the many important appointments one wished one didn’t have

Monday, August 17, 2009

Movies that are better than their source

I just finished reading Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, and I must say that the movie is much better. Philip K. Dick has a mind-bending quality about him, a real knack for surreality and intriguing premises, but he's not a very good writers. His characters don't have much range, his descriptive ability is limited and he isn't really good at evoking emotions. He's actually quite good at the short story form (We'll Remember it for you Wholesale, Minority Report, Paycheck), but his longer works seem to overstretch the clever premise at the core. And of course the film version, Blade Runner, is a brilliant movie. The novel is interesting and worth reading, but the movie is just amazing.

The original source is usually better than the film version I think for simple reasons: a) because most movies aren't that good and b) because no one bothers to adapt a low quality material (whether a book, play, short story, video game or whatever). That most movies aren't that good is nothing against movies. Most art really isn't that good. It's hard to make good art, including good movies. With something as complex as a movie, so many things can go wrong. Thus, when you start with an already good piece of art and try to adapt it to a different medium, it's probably not going to be as good.

Nonetheless, because since it's by no means inevitable that the movie will be worse than its source, there are a number of interesting exceptions, in addition to Blade Runner. This site has a good top ten list, as does this. I'll definitely concur with Silence of the Lambs and Godfather, both of which are exceptional movies made from books that are not bad.

I'll add some others: The Talented Mr. Ripley, A History of Violence (a decent graphic novel, a really good movie), Casino Royale (the only James Bond book I've actually read. The movie is clearly better), and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Some others that are pretty close, but the movie I think wins out would be A Clockwork Orange, Road to Perdition, and American Psycho.

Some others I've heard suggested, which seem plausible, though I haven't read the book are The Shining, Slumdog Millionaire, Cronenberg's The Fly, The Prestige, The Crow, The Third Man, and The Ninth Gate.

I'll also add 2001, a book I enjoyed and would highly recommend, which is out shined by a truly exceptional movie. It doesn't really fit because it's not really an adaptation, since the book and movie were produced simultaneously in collaboration.

There probably are other good examples.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

The Forgotten Man

I was reflecting on the Health Care debate recently and thought back to something I read a few weeks back about the tax burden of different income classes. For 2007 in the U.S., the top 1% of income earners paid more in taxes than the bottom 95% (ht: Mark Perry). This really shows how much more progressive our tax system is than people, and this during a year when Bush was still president.

Whether one thinks this is for the best or for the best, it certainly has some profound implications for current health care debate. The current health care proposal being debated is estimated by the CBO to cost over 1 trillion dollars in ten years, which is almost surely an underestimate. Who is going to be paying for such an expensive program. Primarily it'll be the top few percentage points of income earners, with the highest percentage pulling the bulk of the weight and steadily decreasing burdens downward. In fact, roughly the bottom 40% of income earners pay no federal income tax at all (the Tax Policy Center estimates 43.4% for 2009) and thus will contribute nothing to this program. Surely there are people in the top few percentage points who completely support this program. But ultimately, since few Americans are in these higher tax brackets, what is being called for by most American is an expensive reform that someone else will pay for. For most Americans supporting this reform, the brunt of the financial burden will fall on them. What most Americans want is not in fact to help those who have been left behind by the current system, but to force others to help them. One could think of no better example of Sumner's "Forgotten Man" than this.

Michael F. Cannon at Cato posted a piece by his his father connecting the parable of the good Samaritan to health policy (cf Luke 10:30-35), which I think gives us a good moral example. Support for the health care policy is not comparable to being the good Samaritan. It'd be more comparable to the Priest and the Levite asking a Roman legionnaire to force the Samaritan to help the abused traveler, with the good Samaritan being the top income earners. There's nothing really morally admirable about this.

If there are probably well over a hundred millions of Americans willing to support the current health care proposal then that sounds like ample numbers of people who if they actually went out and helped the some 10 or 15 million odd Americans (or perhaps less) who can't get but need insurance, the problem could be solved. If they don't have time to help these people, then surely they could find or found charities that support the poor who are in need of health care but who aren't covered by Medicaid. Support for health care policy rather than actually helping people seems rather an avoidance of moral responsibility rather than anything actually virtuous.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Dredd Scott & the definition of property

Taney's Dred Scott vs Sanford has almost intrigued me since I read it my "Politics & Society" Seminar at St. John's College way back in 2003. It's a decision that just flat out seems wrong, but, from a legal standpoint, it's hard to tell why. Clearly slavery is morally wrong, but the supreme court isn't really supposed to judge on morals, but only on the laws. It's up to congress to pass laws that are good and just. Nonetheless, I still feel that Taney made the wrong decision, and I think it all comes down to a state's right to define what is considered to be property.

The decision impinged on states' ability to prohibit slaves from their territory. It made it so that one could only buy slaves in slave states, but one could own them anywhere. But the perception prior to the decision was that states could both prohibit ownership and sale. How did chief justice Taney do this?

Taney had been considered a very good chief justice prior to Dred Scott vs Sanford, a very conservative constitutionalist who found some good legal compromises, but with Dred Scott he really dropped the ball, and his reputation has been tarnished ever since.

Taney made a number of arguments, but I think the critical argument in his decision was that for Dred Scott to be freed would be a violation of the fifth amendment, specifically that no person "shall be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law." To free Dred Scott would be to deprive Sanford of his rightful property without due process.

The problem I have with this argument really comes down to whether states have the right to define what is and what can be considered property. In Virginia, where Dred Scott was born, as well as other slave states where he lived, like Louisiana and Missouri, he was considered to be a slave and thus property. But when he went to Illinois, according to that state, it was not possible to own a human, thus he wouldn't be considered property. Thus, the fifth amendment wouldn't apply in this case. Unfortunately, Taney didn't think that the states had the right to define independently what is property. The individual states were beholden to the original status of "slave" slapped on Dred Scott at birth, unless he had been freed according to the due process of one of the other slave states.

It raises the question of whether states have the right to determine ambiguous legal definitions. Most relevant to the current situation would be the definition of marriage. At present, states are free to deny recognition of homosexual marriages. States are free to define marriage as exclusively heterosexual. The federal government could intervene, but only by passing an amendment to the constitution.

There are other cases where this question of definition could come up. For example, do states have the right to define what is murder, such as with abortion or doctor-assisted suicide? Do states have the right to define who is a minor? Is someone a minor up until 18 or 17 or 16 or 20? Can states decide how to define a religion? Is scientology or secular humanism or freemasonry a religion? Can states define what are drugs? Are nutritional supplements or herbal remedies or homeopathic medicines drugs?

There are in fact many little cases like this. And maybe it would be better if states had more freedom of defining key legal terms.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Software Patents

There was an article last April about Microsoft being sued on the claim that Word 2007 & 2003 violated someone else's patent (ht Jeffrey Tucker):
Microsoft "unlawfully infringed" on a patent that describes how programs go about "manipulating a document's content and architecture separately."
The ruling is absurd for a number of reasons.

First of all, it's a clear case of judicial tourism. The plaintiff sought out this court specifically because they are friendly to plaintiffs.

Second of all, as a commenter suggests, this court's friendliness to plaintiffs has been attracting many cases, and is probably motivated by a desire to bring revenue to the town (since the legal teams must travel there and spend money while there).

Third of all, it makes one wonder why one should even be having patents on software to begin with. The plaintiff, i4i, Inc., is suing over a technique of writing documents using xml format. The company didn't invent xml (which is non-proprietary) nor did Microsoft steal it's method of actually writing xml documents. It just stole the idea of simultaneously editing the content and architecture of a document. Such a patent should never have even been given, and almost certainly will be thrown out by a higher court. Yet, it's a fairly typical example of a software patent.

I'm not too sympathetic to patents in general, but at least a case can be made for patents in certain areas, like pharmaceuticals and chemistry, where a lot of real research and innovation goes into developing patentable technologies. But patents on software is absurd. Software is already protected by copyright. Adding patent protection in addition is intellectual-property overkill. Patenting software is like patenting literature or fine art. It'd be like if someone took out a patent on the flashback, or the first-person narrative, or ending a chapter with a cliff-hanger. Imagine if authors had to pay a percentage of their royalties every time they ended a chapter with a cliff-hanger because some non-writer had nabbed the patent on it.

In addition, so much software is produced, that it's impossible to determine prior art. And unfortunately many software patents are granted for techniques that add very little new to existing techniques, even if they don't violate prior art.

Software patenting should be scrapped.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Stealing blog posts

Mark J Perry, author of the blog Carpe Diem just today posted a problem he's been having with another website stealing his posts. The website Death & Taxes automatically reposts articles by Mark Perry, attributing them to Perry, but not linking back to his site and thus implying that he works for Death & Taxes.

The funny part is that the post in which he complains about this, also has been automatically posted. I guess it's one thing to be too lazy to write a blog post and simply take them from someone else. It's even worse to be so lazy that you just steal it automatically without even checking what you're stealing.

Review of Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged

I just finished reading through Atlas Shrugged a few days ago. I have read a little of Ayn Rand's non-fiction works before, and she definitely has some interesting ideas. Her defense of capitalism is good, her intention of trying to transvaluate values to better favor capitalism is well-meaning but a failure since her alternative of more selfish-orientated values is both very unsophisticated and fairly unappealing to most people. And she out and out fails to understand the positive role of charity within a free market system and the long history of beneficial voluntary charity throughout economic history.

Ultimately, her main problem really is that she doesn't have that many ideas. You go reading one essay to the next and she's just saying the same thing over and over again. I should've born this more in mind before I started her 1000+ page magnum opus, since she certainly does not have enough ideas to justify such a lengthy work.

The main complaint I have is that the book is simply repetitive, both ideologically and plot-wise. The same things happen again and again: a policy is passed and the business scramble to adjust under it's burden. Her heroes are constantly eying each other admiringly while her villains keep on making backroom deals to run the whole economy. Ayn Rand's villains keep on presenting the same justifications of socialism while her heroes defend her philosophy ad nauseum, even though they're just repeating points already made. The worst of it is John Galt's speech near the end. John Galt hijacks the radio airwaves at 8 pm one evening to spread his message of Randian Objectivism. The speech goes on for 3 hours (I was listening to the audiobook, and it took 3 hrs, 18 minutes). By 11 pm when he finished, most of his audience would probably be long asleep, thankful to Galt for his pleasant soporific, but she portrays it as this electrifying clarion call. His speech is a nice consolidation of the ideas presented in the book, but it's incredibly redundant. The ideas presented have by this point (about 1000 pages into the book) already been beaten into the head of the reader with a jackhammer.

Her writing style is also weak. Her ability to describe is both limited and used excessively. And character development is very weak. Her heroes are all bold, confident, independent and very intelligent. Her villains are all cowardly, conniving, afraid of responsibility and parasitical. This can hardly describe the typical statist or bureaucrat of the real world, and makes one wonder if she'd ever read about the "fatal conceit" of central planners, via Hayek (namely, the problem with central planners is not that they're afraid of responsibility, but are way to assured that they can run things better than the vastly complex self-organization of the market).

On the other hand, the degradation of the US under socialist tendencies in her book is poignant and bears not a little resemblance to events of today: the nationalizations, the forced cartelization, the purported attempts to encourage competition or "fairness" (a fairly flexible word). Socialism has always been parasitical on the productivity of the market, and one need look no further than the Soviet Union in the late teens and early twenties (before it reintroduced individual ownership) to see how quickly socialism left on its own can implode. Rand provides many illustrative examples that extend this point.

It's unfortunate though that doesn't confine herself to describing this situation, and condense the story down to its core. Instead, she draws it out through repetition of the same scenarios over and over again. If she had managed to do a much more economical task of efficient and pointed writing, instead of this long and luxurious overblown waste I'm sure I would have been much more pleased. One can't think of a more ironic similarity to government waste, that Rand manages to do in 1200 pages, what a better writer could've easily done in 200. Nonetheless, if you've got a hankering for a long read, it can be worth your time, and its recent upsurge in popularity is understandable.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Positive & Negative Rights

Somebody I heard mentioned FDR's so-called "Second Bill of Rights" recently, something which I'd never heard of, so I decided to look into it. It was a list of rights, including right to a home, a job, medical care and others that was proposed by Roosevelt in 1944, but fortunately was never enacted. It's a rather distressing list, and a radical departure from the original Bill of Rights.

How it's such a radical departure can be summed up by the difference between "positive rights" and "negative rights." The first Bill of Rights constitutes mostly negative rights. These rights constrain the Federal Government so that it can't impinge on certain freedoms. In short, negative rights are the rights not to have something done to you.

Positive rights, on the other hand, are rights to have something. Since none of these things are things that simple fall from the sky in overabundance like manna from heaven (all of them have to be produced) this means if you lack something, then someone is obliged to provide it for you. For example, if you don't have a house, then if there is a right to a house, then somebody is forced to provide you with that house.

Sometimes there can be confusion about the positive and negative rights because it's not always clear in the way the rights are expressed whether it's positive or negative. For example, if I say that there is a right to property, I could construe it as both a positive or a negative right. As a negative right, it is a cornerstone of economic development, and simply means that if you own something, then no one can take it from you. For example, if I have a home, no one can seize the home without my consent. We could construe right to property as a positive right also if we say that if I don't have something, then someone is forced to give me something. So, if I own no home, then someone has to build me a home, or give me a home that someone already owns.

In the area of freedom of speech, there is often much confusion of the two. The Bill of Rights only guarantees a negative right to speak. This means that if I have my own venue in which to voice my views, no one can shut it down because they don't like what I say. For example, we read today that in Venezuela, Hugo Chavez has shut down 34 radio stations. These various radio operators owned the equipment and materials, the staff and the radio frequency to project their content at their own expense. Chavez decided he didn't like what they said, so he shut them down. This genuinely infringes on the negative right to speech. But people sometimes confuse freedom of speech for a positive right, as if someone is required to provide them with a venue. For example, if tv stations were required to provide every person with 5 minutes per year to express their views, then this would be a positive right. This would be a sacrifice the tv stations would be forced to make. When it is construed as simply a negative right, no one is impinged upon.

The situation can get complicated when we deal with public protests, which use as their venue public roads, sidewalks, and parks. Since these venues are supposed to be owned by everyone (or no one, depending on your perspective) then the protesters thus own them and can use them to protest, but this might conflict with what other members of the public might want to do with the roads, sidewalks or parks. In practice, the public property is owned by a government and it decides who gets to use the space. Nonetheless, this can lead to all types of controversy. For example, when in 1999 the Brooklyn Museum showed the controversial exhibition "Sensation," mayor Rudolph Giuliani tried to deny them funding, which led to charges of censorship and restricting freedom of speech because the museum is a public museum receiving public support. On the other hand, when in 1933 Rockefeller decided to remove a Mural by Diego Rivera containing the face of Vladimir Lenin, the issue is less controversial because Rockefeller owned the space and was commissioning the work from Rivera. Rockefeller was not being forced to give Rivera a venue, but the public is in a sense being forced to give some group access to public venues.

Returning to the Bill of Rights the only positive rights in the Bill of Rights, are rights to a trial, which is to say that if the government decides to bring criminal charges against you, they are required to provide you with a fair trial, and citizens are required to serve on the jury. All the other numerous rights of the Bill of Rights are negative rights.

In general, as we look at traditional law through history we'll see a similar ratio of positive to negative rights, with most legal rights restraining people from doing bad things, rather than guaranteeing that they get good things. For example, in the Ten Commandments, followers are asked to worship the one God, keep the sabbath, and respect their parents. The rest is a list of things they can't do, mostly things they can't do to their fellow humans. Similarly, the Code of Hammurabi, also lays down punishment for doing various bad things, primarily setting down restraints on the citizenry, as well as implicitly restraining the monarchs, since they must too abide by these laws. As we go further along in history, the negative rights only grow, and the restrictions on what the government can do to its citizens increase, from the Magna Carta, to The Declaration of the Rights of Man, to the US Bill of Rights.

This is all rather for the best since by restraining people from doing bad things, this brings about more good. Negative rights, restricting bad things, are thus ethically good. One is tempted to think that this similarly applies to positive rights. It's nice to see people getting all types of good things like a home, a job and medical care. But that's until you realize that, as I've said, someone is forced to give them these things. If you don't have a job, then someone is forced to provide you with work and pay your salary.

Thus, while it is clear that negative rights that restrain people from doing a bad thing are ethically good, it is not clear whether positive rights can ever be good. Even if it's quite clear cut to say that if someone doesn't have a job, it's good to give them one voluntarily out of sense of charity, it's not so clear cut when a person is forced to involuntarily give it to them. To broaden the question a bit more, we might ask, "can involuntary charity ever be a good?"

I'd say no. In William Graham Sumner's "Forgotten Man" parable he makes a similar point. Two persons see the sad plight of some third person, but instead of helping him, they force some fourth person to help him. This fourth person is the forgotten man. If some person crusading for home ownership notices that there are people who want to own a home but can't, why would that person petition the government to force taxpayers to give them homes. Why doesn't the crusader simply help them himself? Give them money, start a charity, raise money from others, organize groups to build cheap homes. There are many options.

Positive rights also have a tendency to clash with many critical negative rights. For example the right to a home easily clashes with property rights, if homes have to be taken from others.

Not to mention that positive rights frequently set up some perverse incentives. Why bother to work hard to earn the money for a home, if you can just work less hard, and get someone else to buy it for you.

Then there's that whole problem of force in general. Force is bad, and really can only be justified if we see some countervailing evil that it's preventing.

In short, the moral integrity of the first Bill of Rights certainly doesn't translate to the so-called Second Bill of Rights. The ethical baseness of forcing people to provide for others, exposes the baseness of the Second Bill of Rights, and is why I say it is so distressing.