Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Contractual government or Liberty Union

What services and benefits could citizens of a contractual government gain, while excluding non-citizens?
Contractual government = Citizen signs an agreement which specifies a) what authority is granted to the government and b) how to break the agreement.

Or perhaps we should name it the liberty union. And charge dues.

Non-citizens could be excluded from some benefits. Would such an organization ever deliver a non-excludable good, delivering it also to cheapskate crackpots free-riders?

What can we do about free riders when coercion is not an option?

Opposite of Privacy

What is the opposite of "privacy"? "Publicity" should inherit that legacy, but has been disinherited. Many people use "transparency" or "openness" for this purpose, but then the opposite of those is "secrecy", which is not the same as "privacy".

I doubt I am the first to notice this intransitivity. Please put hints in the comments if you know whose words can help.

I suspect that in the future we will feast on transparency, nosh on secrecy, but suffer a famine of privacy. David Brin convinced me, in his book The Transparent Society, that nothing can stop the powerful from using ever cheaper, smaller, more mobile cameras and microphones to spy. We can only ask, will the weak spy on the powerful as well?

What separates privacy from secrecy? Secrecy carries a cognitive and spiritual burden and warps reality, requiring the secret keeper to sacrifice authenticity. If I have a secret, I may have to lie to my friend to keep that secret. If it was a private matter, my friend would not insist on being informed, or if it accidentally came up, he would allow me to refuse to expose a private matter. Technology recruits us all into espionage - for spies there are only secrets; social convention or friendship do not constrain them. They have no private matters.

The website "Photography is not a Crime" shows how much the police hate to be spied upon. They rightly fear that their human imperfections will disappoint the audience.

And we all have imperfections. Perhaps the death of privacy will force us to find another, more constructive method for sheltering our egos from our imperfectness. Better to deal with it than deny it. How can we ease this transition?

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Crypto Party tidbits

Today I attended a crypto party.

I2P is a darknet built on top of but separate from the Internet.

TAILS is a live cd Linux distro like paranoidlinux, intended to help you keep your communications private.

We discussed TOR (anonymous browsing), cjdns (not clear to me what this is), hyperboria (uses cjdns to create secure net on top of Internet), freenet (peer-to-peer secure communication), openmoko (open source cell phone O/S), openbts (let cell phones hook into a different system, better for rural or low income areas?), and redphone by whisper systems (secure VOIP).

I mentioned Phil Zimmerman and incorrectly claimed that he had been prosecuted for exporting munitions as the writer of PGP. Actually, no charges were ever filed against him, though there was a vigorous and visible FBI investigation. 

Friday, February 22, 2013

Life of Game

Why do we love games? Can we achieve beneficial social change by thinking of life as a game?

I've already discussed my idea for a game that teaches computer security called hackerville. As you play, you would learn real techniques for securing your PC, your home network, your cloud data, your communications, etc.

I've read a couple of science fiction novels (the excellent "Daemon" and "Freedom(TM)" by Daniel Suarez, and the adequate "Ready Player One" by Ernest Cline) with plots that use the idea of game play infiltrating "real life".

I've seen 2 TED talks (one disappointing one by Seth Priebatsch and a couple of interesting ones by Jane McGonigal) that suggest ways of improving real life through game design techniques. I can't quite decide why Priebatsch disappointed me so much. He made the idea seem trivial and manipulative at the same time. He made one good point, that school is a badly designed game (compete for 'A's and valedictory speeches). But will improving the extrinsic motivation really strike the root of the problem of school failure? I can't criticize his idea fairly, since he didn't really project his vision for an alternative game-ized education experience. But I hate the current school paradigm's tendency to frustrate the curiosity and autonomy of the students. I don't see game dynamics addressing that flaw directly. The problem with 'A's is not just that they are boring, but that they apply to subjects that may have no relevance to the present or future life of the student. If there ever was such a thing, certainly now there is no such thing as a static curriculum that a young person can learn and then feel fully prepared for a career. A child needs to learn how to learn generally, both because of the value of that skill, and because of the fragility of the value of any specific knowledge or skill.

Game detractors accuse games of providing escapist entertainment for lazy losers. While that goes too far, games do succeed by exploiting aspects of human psychology: imagination, flow state, endorphin release, etc. (Okay, I am waving my hands here, maybe someone can help me out in the comments?) I want to know how this works, so that I can avoid being manipulated by someone else, and maybe so I can deliberately manipulate myself. But games are not the only arena where these aspects of human psychology take control, this just points back to the basic idea of motivation.

Life is already a game. Capitalism keeps score with dollars, politics with power, religion with followers, science with prestige. The government churns out rules and punishments, and we play along. People love to play status games with fashion, conspicuous consumption, one-upmanship of various kinds. Advertisers and marketers use whatever tricks they can find to manipulate buying habits and public opinion. Human psychology makes us vulnerable to biases, scams, misdirections. We can struggle to gain self-knowledge and freedom, but that struggle will never end. What is unique to games? They have an imaginary back-story (could it be real?), pre-defined goals, power-ups, point winners and losers, and win conditions.

A pluralistic society will have many games, with many different ways to achieve an epic win. In a good society, a businessman will shoot for happy customers, a politician will aim for social order, a scientist will struggle for true insight, all intrinsically motivated to achieve goals that provide both individual rewards and social benefits. Thinking of life as a game may or may not help make that happen.

I have a better idea - make life like the Internet. Keep basic universal protocols simple and few. Let persons with different needs use different software, building upon the basics. Rule by consensus and always allow people to opt out or pitch in. If your app doesn't scale, it is a fail. Enable DIY infrastructure. When I figure out what the hell that means, I will make a post about it.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Blogs are better than Books

Book should make a definite contribution. That's great, but writing one involves a lot of effort and excludes (usually and preferably) the process that generated the ideas. Blogs are active conversations, and ideally could lead to books. That assumes that someone is reading the blog and giving feedback to the author, which is also a problem.

Friday, February 15, 2013

evil corporations

People oppose corporations for various reasons.

The left condemn them by equating "profit" with "greed". But everyone who makes an income either makes a profit or a loss, and no one can maintain losses indefinitely.

Some libertarians condemn them as "creatures of the state" and claim that they could not exist in a free society. The concept of "limited liability" particularly seems to annoy these critics.

Like all potentially large, bureaucratic forms of organization, corporations can go wrong. There's no reason to believe that people stop facing temptation once they gain employment. The question is, do employees of a corporation face more temptation than employees of sole proprietorships, or coops, or nonprofits, or government? Or perhaps the corporate critics also condemn the very idea of employment, in which case they should stop complaining about limited liability and attack the more general problem.

I'm not a lawyer, so maybe I am wrong about this, but I understand limited liability to mean that stockholders can lose their investment, but can't be sued for further damages if the corporation fails to pay its debts or other legal liabilities, including damage awards for lawsuits (torts). If a corporation goes bankrupt, the stockholders stand at the end of the line of people with a claim on the remaining assets. If employees of a corporation commit crimes, the employees themselves are criminally liable. If a boss directly orders an employee to commit a crime, the boss is guilty of the crime as well. If the employees cause damage without breaking criminal laws, the corporation is liable.

Can we achieve limited liability by using pure contract and common law? I think so, but maybe I am putting too much confidence in the enforceability and flexibility of contracts. To me, equity looks a lot like debt plus a default contract. Neither debt holders nor counterparties to contracts are automatically liable for the torts of their debtors or counterparties, so if someone can use a debt contract to simulate stock shares, that is the same as limited liability. So, instead of buying stock, I make a loan to the firm and specify a bunch of restrictions in the debt contract, creating shares, allowing me to trade the shares to other people, giving shareholders various powers. Voila.

Why do the critics object to limited liability? They fear that investors will choose to invest in dangerous schemes and hide from the consequences of their choices. In the extreme, a person might transfer all his/her assets to a corporation created specifically to make that person "judgement-proof," so that the court could not seize any assets belonging to that person.

What does this extreme case have to do with the ordinary corporation and its possible vices and virtues? Not much. What are the real dangers? A corporation can declare bankruptcy due to inability to pay its debts. In this case, the corporation's creditors will split up the corporation's assets and may take a loss compared to what would have happened if the corporation remained solvent. But the creditors took a risk knowingly. The most serious possibility involves a case where corporate employees cause some major disaster, like the BP oil spill, and the assets of the now-bankrupt corporation come nowhere near repaying the damaged parties.

Where are the real-world examples of this abuse of the corporate form of business? In Bhopal, Union Carbide paid a settlement and did not go bankrupt. The Indian government charged various persons with manslaughter. Exxon paid settlements for the Valdez, BP shelled out for Deepwater Horizon. These cases may demonstrate various problems with existing legal systems, but in none of these cases did investors hide behind limited liability. If these businesses had been sole proprietorships with unlimited liability, nothing about the outcome necessarily would have changed.

These notorious corporation-caused disasters came immediately to my mind. Perhaps I failed to notice the actual cases where someone abused limited liability, in which case I'd appreciate some links to the specifics.

Let me emphasize again, I am not a lawyer. Please comment if you think I've made a mistake.

No one wants to deal with large, faceless, corrupt, indifferent, bureaucratic corporations, either as an employee, a customer, or even as a bystander. But we gain nothing by turning such corporations into sole proprietorships, or nonprofits, or coops, or branches of some government. If we want to strike the root, we need something that cures faceless indifference, corruption, and bureaucracy, but eliminating limited liability won't do the trick.

Monday, February 11, 2013

DIY self-Knowledge

Therapy does not scale and is hard to automate. Can it be done? One on one therapy would be hard, but maybe a good group can run itself. Like AA.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Self Improvement

I am a sucker for self-improvement. Sometimes I waste time and money, other times I succeeded in improving some aspect of my life seeking self knowledge, self-discipline, and organization.

* GTD Getting Things Done: borrow the book by David Allen from the library and read. If you feel like you need to, buy a copy. Cheap either way. GTD helped me a lot at work, where I need to keep some fairly random stuff under control.

GTD had nothing to do with this, but I also try to recognize when I screw up, admit it, and step back to try to think of a change in my routine that could prevent similar errors in the future. Hope your co-workers will forgive you when you screw up, and help them when they screw up.

* Inbox Zero: Check email as infrequently as you reasonably can, but process all the email in your inbox, until the inbox is empty. To get things going, "process" can mean move all the old crud to a new folder named "crud". This allows me to see new email as it arrives, and has some other benefits. The inbox is for stuff I haven't looked at yet. I have other folders for stuff I need to keep thinking about. I want to say that I am not a fanatic, but in a way I am. I do cheat sometimes, and leave an email in the inbox to jog my memory when I check email. My boss tried this, but hated it. So your mileage may vary. Even the guy who popularized the idea has become a bit skeptical. But I like it.

* 7 Habits of Highly Successful People: I got really excited about this book, but nevermanaged to apply any of the ideas to my life. A waste of time, I think.

* 4 Hour Work-Week: Entertaining but ultimately not useful to me. I think my problem is I love to read about ideas and problems and solutions, but I rarely am willing to put out the effort to really apply the ideas.

* Lifehacker

* Becoming who you are: http://www.becomingwhoyouare.net/about/the-bwya-minifesto/

* zen habits

* freedomainradio.com

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Ron Paul

I rate Ron Paul highest among living politicians, maybe among all politicians. But this just shows the limits we face in achieving social change using politics.

Ron Paul supported ideas that I mostly supported. He convinced people to donate money to get him elected, and he showed a lot of integrity in opposing bad ideas even when he could get some political benefit from compromising. He got a few things done, but mostly spent his time crying in the wilderness.

No one would find it easy to imitate Ron Paul. Even if he was not about to retire from politics, would we want him to continue as he has? If we could find a perfect replacement, would we want him to run for the US house? Ron Paul managed to get a lot of young people interested in the ideas of liberty during his campaigns of '08 and '12. Should those folks now try to find a replacement for him, someone to continue the approach of Ron Paul, or should they try to find a different way to make progress?

The Internet is the modern agora, and place where traders trade and talkers talk. Popular ideas have always enslaved politics. Change attitudes on the net and politics will follow. Maybe in the past the political stage hosted the debate among ideas that determined policy. Maybe. In the future, I doubt it.