Saturday, October 27, 2012

"Ignorance of the law is no excuse" as constitutional amendment.

The principle that ignorance of the law is no excuse is seen as a limit on ordinary people. This was not unreasonable back in the days of common law. The nanny state has made it into a joke. What if we reframed it as a limit on government?

The legislature would need to produce a brief and clear set of laws. The executive would need to give some lawbreakers a warning on their first offense. Judges could throw out cases based on incomprehensible laws. And good citizens could actually be expected to know the rules of the game.

I'm not sure it relates directly, but I want to toss this in: Reserve violent punishment for violent offenses. Let the punishment fit the crime.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

comment on UPB page 44-45 universality

In mid page 44, Molyneux begins discussing universality. A moral theory "must be applicable to all people." So no one can be exempt. He makes no mention of different circumstances. Can a "universal" moral principle specify circumstances where different sorts of behaviour are required or prohibited?

Molyneux often uses physical metaphors. He makes analogies with "all rocks must fall down." But what about the behaviour or state of water, which is a solid at low temperatures, a gas at high temperatures, and a liquid in between? A complete physical theory would explain all these phenomena in combination, and in some sense be universal. But the theory must predict/explain different sorts of results for experiments  regarding water performed at different temperatures and air pressures. Can a moral theory include descriptions of different prescriptions and proscriptions that depend on the circumstances of the persons involved?

If I used logic to derive a moral rule, and nothing in the derivation referred to circumstances or specifics other than that the rule applied to a human, we could generalize it to all humans. Actually, a moral rule would need to refer to the moral agency of the subject, since moral rules cannot apply to babies or incapacitated persons.

What sorts of circumstances might change the application of a moral rule? Ownership? Can I use deadly violence to defend someone else who is in danger from an aggressor? In another part of the book, Molyneux states that moral rules should apply to persons in a coma, yet not to persons with diminished intellectual capacity.

Is there some transformation that we can perform on my imperftect, circumstance driven rules, to turn them into universal rules, in the way that we might consider a universal theory of water to include information about ice and steam?

what happened to the cypherpunks?

I hope they all went underground on a darknet, or something. Kinda boring if they just quit.

EFF is still plugging away.

The TOR project is trying to make it possible to browse the web without getting tracked.

In Europe you may be able to vote for one of the pirate parties. We need one in the US - does the LP count?

The crypto project seems to want to pick up the cypherpunk torch.

I2P is an anonymizing network.

News from Bruce Schneier. has an irc channel for discussion of crypto/privacy.

Bitcoin may realize David Chaum's dream of digital cash, but that phenomenon deserves its own post.

Second Realm is an online mini book PDF inspired by TAZ, crypto-anarchy, and agorism, but trying hard to be more practical.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

"Workers of the world, Avakian!"

I finally had a chance to listen to Cornell West's interview with Bob Avakian. ( I enjoyed it much more than I expected I would. I suppose that is because Avakian stuck to complaining about actual problems, only briefly pretended to care anything about science, and avoided explaining what he thinks the cause and cure of the problems might be, other than "put Bob in charge". If you put the word 'crony' in front of 'capitalism' every time he said it, I could agree with nearly everything he said. I am curious how many police home invasions per day and nonviolent people in prison would be enough to convince him that fascism has arrived.

I suspect that power would corrupt him instantly. He clearly thinks Stalin and Mao got it mostly right, and if he had a chance he would improve on their examples in a way that would never allow those pesky artists, democracy advocates, or entrepreneurs to disrupt his prison world. He has no credible cure for the ills he diagnoses. He worships equality and sees markets as sacrilege, and anyone who opposes him is in for some trouble. I wonder what he thinks of the Scandinavian social democracies?

One thing I should learn from his negative example - don't stick to the same old strategies for 40 years, if they don't work. Of course, maybe they *are* working for him, and he's actually quite happy with the status of his revolution - not enough partisans to start building barricades, but a sufficient number to pay for his lifestyle.

comment on UPB page 125 appendix A

This is UPB in a nutshell. It should probably have been put somewhere earlier in the book. It doesn't really help me. There are 12 points, which summarize Molyneux's definitions and arguments. Except the conclusion is left out?

At this point, I can almost make an argument that I think restates Molyneux's ideas. I'm frustrated because I'm still not really sure that I am even close.

One thing has become very clear. Molyneux regards someone who uses language in the ordinary way, especially to argue for or against general propositions, to have affirmed some additional propositions simply by engaging in this activity. His best example of this depicts someone trying to argue that he himself, the person arguing, does not exist.

For me to argue that I do not exist, I must argue. To argue, I must exist. So however brilliant my argument for my own non-existence may be, it entails a contradiction, which indicates that at least one of my assumptions is wrong and my conclusion cannot follow from my argument. Since the contradiction arises from what I am doing rather than what I am saying, it is called a 'performative contradiction.'

Molyneux seems to believe that he has discovered a number of additional propositions implied by the activity of arguing, and he bases his argument largely on these.

Molyneux writes:
"Moral theories that are supported by logic and evidence are true. All other moral theories are false."

Is this the heart of UPB? Is this all he wants to say? Then, armed with his battery of performative contradictions, he can set about confirming or contradicting various moral theories.

I should review some of his critiques of various theories, to try to understand what sort of performative contradictions he is using and what it is about the defective theories  that he finds illogical or contrary to evidence.

One approach I remember, was that in his discussion of murder he took the approach that the only two rules that UPB would allow on ground of universality were "always kill" or "never kill," and he eliminated "always kill" by pointing out that it was impractical, failed the coma test, etc. What I still don't understand is why he expects us to be willing to consider only those 2 options.  He further confuses me by using "murder" instead of "kill", but this is begging the question, since the definition of 'murder' is "wrongful killing." (I saw this point on the internet, I wish I had a link to the original.)

proportional budgeting

What if we switched to a form of proportional representation that put a portion of the budget under the control of each party? When I fill out my income taxes each year, I also register my political party, and the taxes I pay go into a separate budget under the control of my party? People could be entitled to government benefits (or not entitled) depending on their party membership. So the Democrats could produce whatever handouts they liked, and Republicans could build fences. If I'm a centrist, maybe I could start a centrist party, or just split my taxes between R & D.

Other government revenue would be split proportionately among the parties.

Hayek described something vaguely similar in his "Constitution of Liberty" if I recall correctly. I think he had a separate body determining the amount of the budget, and then a parliament could wrangle over how to spend the budget.

Government debts? Okay, I need to think about this a while. Any suggestions?

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Individualist Collectivism

If people need to belong to a group, they will group together. Are there instances where someone or something will prevent them? False consciousness? Free rider? Stupidity?

Manipulators can use group dynamics to control others. A knee-jerk individualist responds to this idea by seeking an end to group dynamics, denouncing collectivism, fighting it head on. Perhaps a wiser tactician would use judo, turn the force of the opponent to a different purpose. That is, the individualist should seek a way to use group loyalty and feelings of belonging to resist manipulation and strengthen the status of individual rights.

What would a human superorganism look like, a family, a club, a corporation,  a labor union, the boy scouts, AA, a cult, a tribe?

Can capitalism itself be seen as a superorganism? If so, its immune system stinks.

"Pure" collectivism focuses on the state because it's big and powerful. But the scale is all wrong. People do not find it easy to group together to control cheaters, in fact the cheaters tend to rise. Oppression emerges.

"Pure" individualism also fails to control cheaters and satisfy our groupish instincts.

We can't escape our dual nature, part chimp, part bee (to steal from Haidt). So we need to embrace it somehow. How?

No one embraces the straw man version of the atomistic individualist. Is the straw man collectivist any more real? In my version of the straw man, a collectivist sacrifices the rights of individuals for the benefit of the collective. Whoever gets to define the collective good gains power at the expense of others, by disregarding the rights or opinions of others. But this is arbitrary. To harm a part of the superorganism is to harm the whole, isn't it? No human scale surgeon knows how to treat the diseased tissues of the superorganism. So a real collectivist must take care in disregarding individuals, and we can believe that pure individualism provides one possible answer to the question of what benefits the collective most.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Comment on UPB page 38 and 39

The guts of this page contain 3 principles Molyneux wishes to establish.
1) Morality is a valid concept.
2) Moral rules must be consistent for all mankind.
3) The validity of a moral theory is judged by its consistency.

1 seems vague to me. Valid by what criteria? What does it mean for a concept to be valid or invalid? I know generally what the difference between a valid drivers license and an invalid one.

2 is clear. 3 seems to imply 1, and clarify it. What does 1 add that is not provided by 3? Perhaps I have not read enough Ayn Rand.

Do moral rules exist? He answers 'no'? By which he means that they can be violated, they do not limit behavior generally, but limit the behavior of those committed to pursuit of certain goals.

What is Molyneux's purpose in including these 3 principles? What attack does he forsee that calls for this defense? "Moral rules must be consistent for all mankind" seems to say it all, but could benefit from some support.

At the bottom of page 39: "Thus any valid scientific theory must be (a) universal, (b) logical, (c) empirically verifiable, (d) reproducible and (e) as simple as possible.
"The methodology for judging and proving a moral theory is exactly the same as the methodology for judging and proving any other  theory."

Has Molyneux established either of these statements? It seems that the latter statement is what he cares about, so he means to say moral theories should be (a) universal, (b) logical, etc. This approach makes sense if we consider moral theory as an instance of the broader class of scientific theories. Perhaps he has tried to establish that somewhere in here or previously?

Quantum theory was not always logical. Some cosmology is not yet empirically verifiable, though it might develop in that direction. These are quibbles, but they should probably be dealt with.

Comment on UPB page 37

I still do not know what "universally preferable" means. I am starving for a concrete example, rather than an analogy.

When someone argues, someone "exhibits UPB." "The very act of debating requires an acceptance of universally preferable behaviour (UPB)." If only I knew what UPB meant. I can't help thinking that there is a logical argument that Molyneux should make here, that would make this conclusion clear by proceeding step by step. This page leaps to the conclusion, with hardly a hint how we poor plodders might follow.

One point that might apply directly to the investigation, hidden in among the digressions on this page, is the idea that when arguing, a blank stare does not suffice to replace an argument or a concession. Here we're idealizing debate a bit - my impression is that many debaters never do actually concede a point, but rather change the subject, and written debates often employ ignoring (the equivalent in ink of a blank stare) as a tactic. But I am also digressing, as in ideal debate, a point is pursued until there is agreement between the debaters. Perhaps this forms the basis of the claim that debate implies acceptance of something. But what? How?

Sunday, October 7, 2012


In my ideal internet, I would have my own server and provide email and web hosting services to my family and pals. This server would be connected to the net with a fast connection. I could use my server to encrypt and proxy my access so my ISP can't spy on me.  None of my traffic would be in the clear, with an obvious destination, and even traffic analysis would be difficult. Every person would control her/his own data. My identity would be associated with my home server, to assist in authentication. Lots of other nerds could do the same thing, and share expertise.

So what's stopping me? Cost. Cowardice. Distractions. Priorities.

web of trust instead of lastpass

Why can't/don't we use public key crypto for authenticating on google, facebook, etc., all the web 2.0 services? Instead of all the usual jazz, why don't I just hand out my public key to the various services? It would provide better authentication more securely.

It is inconvenient to have a separate username and password for every service I use. There are various security issues.

One strong implication of using public key crypto: I'd better never lose my private key.

What happened to the cipherpunks and their web of trust idea?
I could make it  so my wife can also unlock my stuff with her private key, or my lawyer, in case of my death.

It would be best if the services themselves accepted public keys for authentication. But we could create a web app or software like lastpass. It would maintain a database of my usernames and passwords with the URLs of the services they match, encrypted with my public key. It could automatically update/randomize my passwords. This sounds so simple, does it exist somewhere already and I don't know?


If the popularity of the ideas of liberty and the unpopularity of the government was sufficient that violent revolution could possibly succeed, nonviolent change would be even more possible and desirable. 

Comment on UPB page 33-36

I think I understand the top half of the page, though I don't yet see much relevance. Perhaps I will need to revisit this later.

Bottom half of 33 and top of 34, section "Preferences and Universality": Molyneux asks himself "can some preferences be objective, i.e. universal?" This confuses me. Is universality supposed to be identical to objectivity here, or does one imply the other, or what?

The author then proceeds to clarify what it would mean for a preference to be objective (universal?), by giving some analogies. Or are they examples? It's not clear. If these are not examples, then he never answers his question before moving on to a new topic. If they are examples, then he could have concluded the section by saying something like "I've shown an example of an objective preference, therefore objective preferences exist."

In his example, Molyneux claims it is universally preferable for a sick person to treat themselves with antibiotics. For the moment, let's not quibble about cases where some other reasonable treatment might be as good or even better than antibiotics, assume that antibiotics are clearly indicated. The sick person has a goal, which is to return to good health, and by assumption we all know that antibiotic treatment is his best option.

The universality aspect comes from our ability to place any person in that situation and get the same answer, right? Not that all persons should have some preference with regard to the specific person's action, but that any person in those circumstances should prefer the proper treatment, given that she/he is ill and wants to recover.

Does the objectivity of the preference derive from universality, or from our assumption regarding the cause and effect relationship between the malady and the cure? Will no subjective factors creep in, such as the sick person's attitude toward risk? Some people are allergic to antibiotics, does that break universality?

If we could predict the future perfectly, the sick person could just choose a preferred outcome. Presumably in this perfect information case all persons would agree and make the same choice. So with perfect information, objectivity implies universality.

But what if we step back from this assumption of perfect omniscience and instead give persons a more realistic but still well-informed choice, such as, given your diagnosis, there's such a chance of full recovery with antibiotic treatment, such a chance of failure of the treatment, and such a chance of complications like allergic reaction. Different persons will have different attitudes toward risks associated with different actions, how do we save objectivity and universality? Perhaps the cases that UPB deals with are less ambiguous?

An actual example of a universal preference would illustrate the idea in a helpful way. This example didn't help me much.

Page 34, Section "Arguments and Universality": This begins a long list of premises Molyneux believes derive from the act of arguing, so that anyone who makes an argument implicitly accepts their truth. This will allow him to accuse certain arguments of being self-defeating. The list goes on for a few pages. I'm not sure about the relevance of these premises, I'm skipping most of them for now.

Page 35, Premise 5: Molyneux states in the section title that "an objective methodology exists for separating truth from falsehood." But what he claims within the section is "truth is more than a matter of opinion." I suppose it is possible for the author to consider these statements to mean the same thing.

Further, I'm not sure it follows that engaging in argument implies what Molyneux claims. He could have made a stronger claim, that argument implies a belief that argument itself or some other process known to the arguer can objectively separate truth from falsehood. Why hold back? Perhaps because argument fails in many cases to fulfill this ideal, so Molyneux instead makes a weaker claim. Is he merely claiming that participants in an argument must implicitly accept that the separation of truth and falsehood is at least possible? His claim entails the idea that arguers must concede that such an objective method exists, but falls short of claiming that they have knowledge of it in the sense of being able to use it. That seems odd.

Another odd thing. Molyneux writes, "The moment I provide some sort of objective criterion for determining truth from falsehood, I am accepting [etc.]" Is it the case that all persons engaged in argument must "provide some objective criterion?" Perhaps I simply don't understand what he means by that, but it seems to me that most persons I argue with fail to provide a criterion of any kind. Perhaps I am quibbling again, what can I guess he really means, if not the idea my brain keeps tripping over?

Page 35, Premise 6: Some quibbles. I believe that when Molyneux titled the section "Truth is better than Falsehood", he was using an imprecise readable shorthand for saying something like "Believing and acting on the truth is preferable to believing and acting on a falsehood." Does falsehood exist objectively?

Perhaps what Molyneux really intends is something like this: someone who uses facts to try to win an argument, by admitting that true facts outrank falsehoods in such a context, admits that true facts outrank falsehoods in all arguments generally and also admits that the idea of truth has a meaning and is relevant and when we argue we universally prefer the truth. Well, I'm still not very satisfied I know what's going on, but I'm impatient so I'm going to move on.

fact checking the presidential election

A friend of mine emailed me:
> Whenever I'm confused about what politicians say, I go to the nonpartisan site
Perhaps I am too cynical, but I no longer believe anything a politician says about what she/he will do in the future. In 2008, Obama was all about hope, change, closing gitmo, healthcare for the uninsured while not disrupting everyone else, hands off the states experimenting with medical marijuana, transparency, yes we can. I've forgotten, did he promise to do something about "too big to fail?" I admit, some of these goals would be difficult to achieve, and we could perhaps forgive him for trying and failing. But he did not even achieve the ones he could have accomplished with an executive order. Healthcare is the only area where there is any possibility that things may have improved, and only a partisan could feel comfortable with either the process or the product in that case. 

The only reason I can imagine that a democrat would continue to support the president is because he is not a republican. But are we really sure about that? Can you help me think of some issues, in addition to healthcare, where we could not plausibly swap McCain for Obama? If McCain had won in 2008, what would be different today, besides no Obamacare and numerous left-wing groups lobbying to prosecute McCain for war crimes, violations of civil rights, and contempt for the constitution? Maybe McCain would not have treated the UAW quite so politely. It turns out, in this game we play for low stakes.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Belated introduction to comments on UPB

I want to understand Stefan Molyneux's UPB idea. His book defeated me on my first try. I do not yet fully understand it and so I don't know whether or not or to what degree I agree with him. I have decided to write a commentary as I go along in order to clarify things for myself, make note of problems I have, and suggest solutions. I make it my final goal to restate Molyneux's argument in a brief, simple outline form, one that Molyneux would not object to. When I can state his idea clearly, then I can decide whether or not I agree.

I am sometimes tempted to discuss peripheral issues, of which many exist, or to quibble or speculate. I will try to avoid this, or at least admit to it when I can't resist. I intend to restrict the commentary to discussion of Molyneux's central argument, what it means, whether or not it works, and what it might need added or subtracted to make it succeed.

I can't resist making one gripe at this point, since it motivates the commentary. The text of Molyneux's book confuses to me with vagaries, digressions, distractions, and irrelevancies crowding out what seem to me to be the salient points. Perhaps if I continue in a reasonably fair spirit, I will find that these complaints exaggerate the case. I am not optimistic about this. Even if I end up in agreement with Molyneux, I suspect I will continue to think that he failed to express his idea well. Perhaps his long contemplation of this idea brought him too close to it, and he may be forgiven for losing the capability to assume the perspective of a newcomer.

On my own behalf, I apologize for my use of professor-speak. Somehow I can't resist. Perhaps it would amuse the reader to assume I do it with a touch of irony and self-mockery. Probably that is too generous and I am the cartoon rather than its author.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Comment on UPB page 30

On this page (4th paragraph) Molyneux defines ethics as "any theory regarding preferable human behaviour that is universal, objective, consistent - and binding." So is his example that appears higher on the page "If I want to live, [...] I must eat" an ethical theory?

Perhaps Molyneux is ignoring the question of moral nihilism, which denies that the categories of good and evil have any significance. Hence he would be assuming that people want to know what is good and what is evil, and their goal is to gain this knowledge, and he has things to say about what sort of approach can succeed. So, what does he have to say to actual moral nihilists (see L. A. Rollins, "The Myth of Natural Rights"), or persons who think that atheism implies moral nihilism? To my mind, a defense of secular ethics needs to address the question of why anyone should care.

Paragraph 5: "preferential behaviour can only be binding if the goal is desired." Molyneux refers to this desired goal again on page 32. At some point in the text, Molyneux must reveal to us the desired goal or goals of the participants in the UPB discussion. Could it be that it is obvious that we all wish to be good, and Molyneux is just helping us figure out right from wrong? I am willing to believe something not too far from that, but the more obvious it is, the less reason there is to leave it out of the text. We argue, therefore we seek truth?

Let me take a casual whack at the idea. I shall steal from Jonathan Haidt again ("The Righteous Mind"). (Geez, can I think a thought without quoting this guy?) Actually there are two ideas struggling in my brain that both came from Haidt. One works against Molyneux by claiming that our reasoning is mostly rationalization, that we make up our minds first (quickly, intuitively) and then use reasoning to justify our behaviour. We could interpret this to mean that we do not want to know right from wrong, we want a way to justify doing what we want. But the other idea, in the same book, claims that our moral intuitions evolved to help us overcome problems of cooperation that other species have failed to overcome, hence laying the groundwork for language, technology, and human domination of the other species. So we all want to think of ourselves as good. Well, except for the pyschopaths. So the argument is less about making a logical case for the necessity of striving for the good, it's more an empirical observation and evolutionary explanation of why (nearly) everyone prefers to obey morality. 

Comment on UPB page 10

Points 7 and 9 give weight to the ethical instincts, but say nothing about the limits of such. Go to India and ethical instincts are different and much more extensive (see Jonathan Haidt "The Righteous Mind"). Point 9 contradicts itself when parsed strictly. No new counterintuitive truths can sprout from the theory without violating intuitions. Clearly Molyneux meant something like "the best theories give us good reasons to believe some of our intuitions while denying others." Or something like that. Or perhaps he would put a different meaning on "instinct" and "intuition" that allows only the most universal taboos, such as murder, rape, and theft.

commentary on UPB page 32

Here I will comment on page 32 of "Universally Preferred Behaviour - A Rational Proof of Secular Ethics" by Stefan Molyneux. I don't understand this book, and my not understanding starts (or at least, grows conscious) on page 32.

Paragraph 1 - no comment.

Paragraph 2: "Preferences are central to any methodology claiming to define the truth-value of propositions." "Central" is vague. The sentences that follow do not explain, but illustrate with the example of science. "If you want to determine a valid truth about the behaviour of matter and energy, it is preferable to use the scientific method." He seems to want to show that it is instrumental, we seek a goal, we choose the best method of achieving the goal. It's easy to agree with the example, but he does not show how we came to agreement, or what compels someone who wishes to disagree to give in. Is this merely circular, with "scientific method" defined more or less as "method for determining truth?"

All that may explain some of my confusion, but perhaps it is beside the point for Molyneux. I think what he is trying to say is, ethics consists of attempts to determine the truth-value of ethical propositions, and by adopting that as our goal, we must adopt certain approaches or admit certain restrictions. Presumably, he will explain later why we have adopted that goal and how we know what methods or restrictions our goal implies.

Doesn't this goal-orientation violate Molyneux's proscription of arguments from effect (page 9)?

Paragraph 3: Let me paraphrase. Preferable means required, but not inviolable. If you violate the preference, you (certainly? probably?) fail to achieve the goal (or your chances of success are reduced?). The law of gravity has no exceptions. We can violate preferences. Our goal may be to live, but we may eat arsenic and fail in our goal. Valid truths must exhibit internal consistency and must not be falsified by observations.

Is Molyneux bait and switching us here? Previously, we were justifying the use of the scientific method, or disparaging other methods, and comparing that to the need or non-need to adopt UPB in ethics. Here he is discussing a different level, the strictness of the truths that we approve with each method. Perhaps he means that we adopt UPB in ethics for similar reasons that we adopt the scientific method, but the sort of theories each produces are different. And that ethics differs from physics in important ways that require us to take a slightly different approach, though we need not, must not abandon internal consistency and empirical testing. Nothing prevents us from violating ethical truths. But if they were truths about the possibility or impossibility of certain actions, they would belong to physics, not ethics. Ethical claims are not about possibility or necessity or cause and effect. But what are they about? What distinguishes an ethical theory/truth claim from a scientific one, for Molyneux? Maybe he covered this earlier in the book and I've forgotten. I should review, I've been stuck in this section for quite a while.

Paragraph 4: Ethical theories must be internally consistent and not contradict empirical observations. This paragragh is unusually clear, but contains one weasel-word that violates Molyneux's characteristic boldness - he uses the phrase "near-universal preferences." I think I understand universal preferences, and non-universal preferences, but what the heck is a near-universal preference? Why did we need to slip that in here?

Paragraph 5: "Valid theories must be both logically consistent and empirically verifiable." At this point, I don't know what it would mean for an ethical theory to be empirically verifiable or not. An example might help. He may mean that the theory validates our moral intuitions. But what happens if some result is counterintuitive?

Paragraph 6: No comment.

Paragraph 7: "Preferences do no exist objectively within reality." I think Molyneux means that preferences exist only in the mind. I'm not sure, because in other contexts I've heard him belabor the existence of various things, e.g. the United States of America, in a way that blurs things for me. In any case, what does this imply for the preference he discussed at the top of the page, for pursuit of physical truth claims using the scientific method? Might it be the case that in spite of their non-existence, preferences tend to converge for persons with similar purposes? Could they diverge?

Paragraph 8: Makes me all quibbly. Preference consists of a relationship between consciousness and matter. I'm not sure where that is going. By the way, does consciousness exist objectively within reality?

Paragraph 9: Ordinarily, we are pretty safe assuming that a person's behaviour reveals that person's preferences. What about deception? Not relevant here?

cult of rationality

I want to join an organization that is like AA for irrationality, to try to overcome, to the degree possible, my cognitive biases. Loose organization, no membership, no leaders, few rules, based on face to face meetings. The idea would be to figure out how to live smarter, try to adapt around my biases. Sponsors? 12 steps? Merit badges?

Initiation into this cult requires the candidate for initiation to show that she/he is immune to the manipulations cults use to recruit members and so will never join a cult.

Irrationality is more like an eating disorder than alcoholism. Can one forswear all forms of irrationality, even on a "one day at a time" basis? I suppose it's more reasonable (rational?) to take a "pick the low hanging fruit (if any)" approach.


Like wikipedia, only for arguments, especially political ones. Wild claims, documented claims, conspiracy theories, rebuttals, etc. Ideally, when you encounter the internetwit, you could tell him (usually) "Hey, you're spouting a weak version of , which has been thoroughly rebutted at . Do you have anything to add, something I haven't heard before?" Hard part is, how to prevent it from becoming the magic land of trolls. It would need a very serious reputation mechanism, to keep serious arguments at the top, wackyness off to the side. Do we want one emergent version, or might it show different stuff to you depending on who you trust? You could choose a popular curator, or a group, or curate yourself.

Or it could be a linking protocol. This sort of link implies agreement, that sort implies rebuttal. Maybe my universal web commenting idea will solve this without a specific wiki? Tunable search for comments on this page, supporters, likes, rebuttals, dislikes. What else?


I want to play a game that sharpens my understanding of computer security attacks and defenses and helps me to pick the low-hanging fruit with regard to keeping my data secure. Of course, the internet itself is just such a game. But the action variance is too high (too boring until it is too exciting, and not in a good way). I want to play a lower stakes game that teaches me how to play the real game (on defense) as safely as is reasonable.

Why aren't people trying to sell me more software for this purpose? The antivirus companies are there, but they hardly count. I saw a crazy commercial on TV a few weeks ago, I didn't actually feel tempted to buy, but I was pleased that there's at least a market for security for home PCs. I think their deal was they have you go to some web site, and it scans and does whatever. Not sure if/how it differs from antivirus.

universal web comment protocol needed for tunable search

Email and the web triumphed by defining open decentralized protocols that in principle anyone with a computer could use, and still can. Unfortunately, they are a bit high maintenance, so most people do not run their own server with a direct connection to the internet backbone. Most use an ISP. The ISP can spy on them.
Web 2.0 enabled crowdsourcing. We contributed to the construction wikipedia.
Web 2.0 deprecates protocols. Google, facebook, twitter etc. capture our comments and wall off our/their content from the rest. Every web site wants you to get a username and password to make content for them. AOL's walled garden strikes back from the grave! Governments like China love to target the centralized data vaults. Mark Zuckerberg is the devil. He wants to own our data. Faceless... bookless.
We need a truly decentered protocol for commenting and collaborating. I should be able to publish comments on anything, and find useful comments on anything, one system everywhere. Wikipedia should be like a torrent, a truly decentralized peer-to-peer document perpetuated by usage. Similarly with Google's web index. Facebook is just training wheels for the web.
If anyone came up with a better search paradigm than Google's could they resist becoming another Google? Can the web return to its internet roots, or is there no turning back?
Diaspora*,, Friendica, tent, and the open microblogging standard are Daviding against the web Goliaths. I guess there is still some hope.

Why did delicious fail? My comments should be on my server in a peer-to-peer network, and searchable from google or any search engine. I should be able to comment on any URL or URI. Authentication based on public key crypto web of trust.

I should be able to tune my searches on google depending on who I consider an expert. If you are my only expert, stuff you like would top my search results, stuff you ignore would be in the middle, and stuff you dislike would be at the bottom. Or I could mark you as an anti-expert - stuff you dislike goes to the top. Or I have multiple experts, and their attitudes vote on my search results.

Google had the right idea - people's use of the web should self-generate the rankings of pages. But because both humans and bots inhabit the webosphere, this didn't work out. Can we fix this with pubkey crypto/web of trust and tunable search? It doesn't matter if x is human or a bot if I can make x an expert or antiexpert. Otherwise we need a turing test or captchas.

Bots may end up with even better reputations than some humans, by aggregating humans, or by evaluating mechanically. Biz model for bloggers?

Reverse reputation lookup - who rated this page highly? Who uses this page a lot?

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Things to do

Things I want to do.
Things I used to want to do.
Things I have to do to avoid things that would be even worse.
Things I have to do to avoid feeling guilty.
Things I need to do to avoid smelling bad.
Things I am curious about.
Wild ideas.
Things to do with my family or friends for fun.
Things I wish I had done already.
Things I wish I could do right now.
So many Things. What's first?

Monday, October 1, 2012

When has the government shrunk in a good way?

In the U.S., abolition of the Civil Aeronautics Board and the Second Bank of the U.S., plus deregulation of trucking and communications in the 1970s reduced the scope of government slightly. Alfred Kahn, the unsung hero. Cypherpunks defeated the idea that the government should treat cryptography as a munition and control it's use.

In New Zealand in the mid 80's, budget and foreign exchange crises forced major reforms including privatization of public monopolies. Not sure whether it had so much lasting effect. I'm sure almost no one in New Zealand thought the crisis was a good thing. I think Canada went through a similar but milder crisis more recently.
Switzerland and Hong Kong were never that big to begin with.

Pretty underwhelming. Is government like cancer, it gets bigger until you die?

We don't want the government to collapse, because it will damage many lives as it falls. We need it to evolve. O'Reilly Press was touting the idea of "gov 2.0", the idea being that we should exploit the Internet to make government more transparent, flexible, and accountable. I guess I am looking forward to gov 3.0, which will be polycentric, contractual, and voluntary.

Hating Haidt

Well, actually Haidt is pronounced like 'height', so not such a clever title after all. Damn. And I don't really hate him, in fact I like his book and enjoyed his TED videos.

I do want to criticize Haidt's confounding moral stories. His empirical work involves telling subjects stories where someone breaks some sort of social taboo in a way that he hopes will make it really hard to find a victim that was harmed by the violation of the taboo. That way, he eliminates the care/harm basis of morality and will reveal the intuitive role of his other 'moral modules' (fairness, autonomy, sanctity, loyalty, authority... am I getting those right?).

For instance, he has a story of a brother and sister who commit incest, but it's only once, they are careful not to cause a pregnancy, and though they decide never to do it again, it makes them feel closer, in the story at least. Other stories involve the guy who had sex with a dead chicken before cooking and eating it, and the family who ate the family dog after it died accidentally. I see three problems.

1) Morality should condemn risky behavior, even when the gambler does not lose. Your moral evaluation of a decision should not change based on the outcome. When people make decisions, they must consider risk of harm. This before-the-fact aspect of moral evaluation seems at least as important as the after the fact, ex post aspect. Yet they must be the same, since it makes no sense to condemn something that hasn't happened yet, but excuse an identical choice after it has played out. Since the ex ante evaluation is more restrictive, it wins out.

Imagine this story, in Haidt style, as an example. A man goes to a bar and without initially intending to, gets drunk. He stumbles to his car, aware (and amused) that his abilities are impaired, but he gets in the car and drives home successfully, though with some weaving, etc. He flops into bed, and other than a headache in the morning, no one is worse off or knows anything about his adventure, which he barely remembers himself. What is our moral evaluation of this person's actions? Although he took a serious risk, he has not actually harmed anyone. What is the moral difference between him and a nearly identical person, making identical choices, but who was unlucky enough to kill 4 people accidentally? Risk of harm is relevant to the care/harm foundation.

2) In these stories, the protagonists break various social taboos in secret, and Haidt claims no harm is done and no one knows. But the persons involved know. I don't know about you, but I don't want to have any of these incidents show up in my personal narrative, the story I tell myself about me. I want to just say no to the chapters on incest, bestiality, and dog cuisine, even if you could guarantee secrecy and 'harmlessness'. That's part of morality for me, not just "Is someone else harmed?" but also "Will I be harmed? Is that the sort of person I want to be?" I guess you could say that if we did not have these social taboos, I would not consider myself to be harmed by experiencing them. I doubt that Haidt would accept what I say, but I don't know how he would respond. Should I impose my own decision on others, or theirs on myself? Does it make sense for me to treat myself differently?

3) Haidt asks his subjects to evaluate the morality of the actions of the persons in his stories. He avoids the question of whether these actions if morally condemned should be formally proscribed by law and hence punished formally, or perhaps legal but informally punished. I can't see how he would ignore this. To me, only violations that involve significant harm (the care module) seem worthy of being backed (and punished) by formal law. I condemn plenty of other things as wrong, but I'm not so willing to give these evaluations the force of law. Perhaps this makes sense, because only harm caused by force should be punished by force. (What about fraud?) The punishment should fit the crime.

Haidt seems to want to add a new category to the old pair of 'malum prohibitum' (evil by prohibition) and 'malum in se' (evil in itself). Unfortunately my latin stinks, so I don't know a good latin word to make the phrase 'evil because it's disgusting'.

I should probably have admitted at the beginning of this post that I had trouble processing some of his ideas/claims about 'thicker' morality in other less individualistic cultures, based on the sanctity, loyalty, and purity modules. Maybe it's not the sort of thing you can easily learn from reading a book. Haidt himself claims to have only barely intuited the outlines before visiting India, where it became much more real for him.

Saletan reviews Haidt: