Thursday, 20 December 2012

Little Joys of Discovery #2: A Theorem for Divisibility Tests

You may be familiar with the very simple divisibility test for nines and threes. If you add up the digits of a number, and the sum is a multiple of 9, then the number itself is a multiple of 9. For example, 1+8=9, so both 18 and 81 are divisible by 9. So, too, are 108, 1080, 10000008 and so on. And if the number is so long that the sum of its digits isn't immediately obviously divisible by 9, well, just add up the sum's digits, and there you go.

This is also true of multiples of 3; if the sum of the digits is divisible by 3, then so is the original number.

When I first learned this, I found it interesting, but kind of mysterious. What was so special about the numbers 9 and 3 that they should have this property, and no other numbers should have it? I spent a fair bit of time puzzling over this, and eventually came up with an even more delightful theorem. Again, as with my previous posting on Mersenne primes, I'm likely to be revealing my ignorance of math here to anyone who's actually educated in the subject, but what I'm really trying to share here is how much fun I had figuring this out for myself.

 Here's the insight I had that made it all come together. Whenever you add 9 to something, that's essentially the same as adding 1 to the tens column and subtracting 1 from the units column. So, in principle, since you're adding and subtracting 1, you're not affecting the total.

So let's start with zero. Add 10, subtract 1, you get 9. Do that again, you get 18. And so on, up to 90, which is where it gets a little bit complicated, because you have some digits ticking over and ticking back with the carrying-the-one thing, but ultimately it all works out to the same thing: You're adding 1 to the tens column (turning 90 into 100) and then subtracting 1 from the units column (turning 100 back into 99). Now, the digits add up to 18 instead of 9. But this whole divisibility test is recursive, and you can add 1 and 8 to get 9 again, and there you go.

What happens if you start with one instead of zero? Well, 1+9=10, and 1+0=1, so the sum of the digits remains 1. Add another 9, you get 19, whose digits add up to 10, whose digits again add up to 1. No matter how many times you add 9 (or add 10 and subtract 1), this property will be preserved. More generally, take any number, add up the digits until you're left with just one digit, and whatever that digit is is the remainder when the original number is divided by 9. (Er, sort of. If the remaining digit is 9, then the remainder is zero, but that's because it's impossible to add up any non-zero digits to get a result of zero.)

That's also why the test works for multiples of 3. Any multiple of 9 is, of course, also a multiple of 3, so it's trivially true that if its digits add up to a multiple of 9, it's also a multiple of 3. And if you add 3 to a multiple of 3, the result is also a multiple of 3, so a remainder of 3 (or 6) when a number is divided by 9 indicates divisibility by 3.

When I figured this out, I realized that it's actually part of a more general theorem that works in any base, not just base 10. I'll state it this way:

In any base n, the sum of the digits of any multiple of a factor of (n-1) 
will itself be divisible by that factor of (n-1).

So, for example, in hexadecimal (base 16), any multiple of 3, 5 or 15 will have digits that add up to a multiple of 3, 5 or 15 respectively. 25 in hexadecimal is 19. 1 + 9 = 10 (or in hexadecimal, A) which is divisible by 5. So there. 

This is, of course, well-known to mathematicians and has been for ages. But golly was it satisfying to figure it out for myself!

Monday, 17 December 2012

Gun Idolatry

Back in August I blogged about an argument against gun control that I thought was particularly silly. Unfortunately, I used up the title that I really wanted to use for this post, a critique of the old NRA slogan "Guns don't kill people; people kill people."

It's a brilliant piece of rhetoric, because on a moral level, it's absolutely true. People are blameworthy for the good or the evil they do, and guns only do evil as instruments at the direction of people. Of course we shouldn't blame guns, but the people who point them at other people.

(That's a little loaded in itself, appealing to our sense of justice in asking us not to blame the poor innocent guns for what people do with them. But by that very same token, guns don't have any rights to justice, and we don't need to care about treating them unfairly if we do blame them for violence. Even if their availability contributes just a little bit to elevated rates of violence, we could be justified in destroying them all, and we wouldn't have to apologize to the poor innocent guns at all. Their owners might have a moral claim, but guns themselves are just inanimate objects with no right not to be scapegoated for our sins.)

From a moral perspective, placing responsibility on human beings is absolutely appropriate, so it's hard to take issue with the slogan there. Indeed, I think this is a very important point often overlooked in the wake of tragedies like last week's horrific school shooting, as we make a deliberate effort to forget the shooter and remember the victims. Well-meaning as that is, and as repugnant as it seems to "reward" the pathetic loser by paying him the attention we presume he wanted, we should remember that our moral obligation is watch out to make sure we don't do bad things, and so we should always be alert to catch in ourselves the kind of error or psychosis or whatever it is that leads people to do bad things. To that end, alas, we really ought to try to understand how the shooter went astray, so we can better avoid taking the same path. Our moral obligations have to do with our role as potential villains, not as potential victims, and so it is the potential villain inside us we must be ever vigilant to identify.

I cannot fault the slogan for reminding us of this. As people, we need to remember that it's not our guns but ourselves we must blame. Guns don't kill people; WE kill people. And if that were the whole of the slogan's meaning, I'd be fine with it. But it's not.

See, there's another reading of the slogan, one that comes out if we read it not from the perspective of a potential villain, but as a potential victim. If you read it this way, it's much more terrifying, insidious, and destructive: Guns won't kill us; people will kill us. Those people, they're dangerous, be afraid of them. Arm yourself; you may need to shoot them.

That fear-soaked message is, I think, central to the gun psychosis of American society. I don't have a problem with people owning guns because they use them for hunting or they enjoy target shooting or they collect them or study them or just think guns are cool. It doesn't bother me that guns are designed to kill people; so are swords, and I have no problem keeping a sword in my house. No, I have a problem with people owning guns because they are afraid. Fear is the problem; frightened people are dangerous.

Why are people afraid, and what are they afraid of? Well, they think they're afraid of criminals or the government or the New World Order coming and imposing its will by force. And sure, these are things against which we should be on guard, of course. But underneath it all is an excessive, irrational and almost mystical terror of violence. Nothing is quite so terrifying, it seems, as the threat of violence. Dying in car accident? Well, yeah, it could happen, but everyone still drives. Lung cancer? Meh. If you gotta go, you gotta go, but don't take away my cigarettes. But somehow, if someone puts a gun to your head, you have to do what he says?

People talk about violence being glorified, but I'm not sure that's the right word. It's mystified, and thus made somehow supernaturally powerful. And so naturally, people who are afraid want to possess this power for themselves, perhaps thinking it will make them less afraid, though it doesn't really, since they know that other people also have guns. Frightened people are dangerous, but frightened people with guns even more so.

Okay, okay, maybe we can blame the occasional (well, appallingly frequent) gun death of an innocent on the twitchy trigger fingers of paranoids, but surely the losers responsible for mass public shootings aren't acting out of fear, are they? No, of course not. But they do often seem to be people who feel powerless in their daily lives, and in a society where guns represent power, what do you expect?

So I don't think the problem is, exactly, that Americans have too many guns. It's that they think they need them, and the very unwillingness to even discuss the possibility of putting stronger regulations in place is symptomatic of that profoundly unhealthy fear. Paradoxically, if they were able to talk about gun control, they wouldn't need to talk about gun control. 

Tuesday, 11 December 2012

Reflecting on December 6, 1989

     I confess to having, despite my best efforts, a bit of a chauvinist streak. Perhaps that's putting it too strongly, but it manifests itself this way: my visceral sense of horror at the idea of violence is greater when the victim is female. I don't know why I should feel this way. It could be cultural (the stigma attached to a boy who hits a girl is significant, or at least it was when I was growing up), but I don't think so, because I've been able to consider and reject other such indoctrination. More likely, I'm just hardwired to view the loss of a potential mate as less desirable than the loss of a potential rival for mates.
     Whatever the reason, I recognize that from a philosophical moral perspective, it's an irrelevant consideration, a personal preference that should play no role in reasoned discussion about public policy. So while I may personally feel especially horrified at the Polytechnique massacre (whose 23rd anniversary was this past week), I have to remind myself that it would have been every bit as wrong and horrible if Marc Lepine had singled out and killed just the men in the class instead of just the women. The sex of the victims should make no difference in our evaluation of tragedy, and my gut reaction (that it's somehow worse that women were killed) is actually a part of the patriarchal world view that got us into this mess.

     And so I have always felt very uncomfortable with the way this tragedy has become an emblem for raising awareness of Violence Against Women. One the one hand, I accept that violence against women really is a specific problem we need to raise awareness of. And yes it was violence, yes it was against women, and yes they were specifically targeted as women. Yet something still feels wrong. How can violence against women not be violence against women?

     Let me back up a bit. Why do we need to raise awareness in the first place? What is it about violence against women that differs from violence against men or indeed any hate crime against any identifiable demographic? Why do we not need to raise awareness of violence against mimes or Norwegians or agnostics? Isn't violence against anyone equally bad?
     Of course it is. It's not that violence against women is worse than other kinds of violence, but rather that there's a particular kind of pathology involved that doesn't apply to most other sorts of violence, and doesn't even apply in every case where the victim happens to be female, either. (My fencing coach happens to be a woman, and though I rarely manage to hit her, I do try.)
     Let's start with domestic violence, which is typically (though not exclusively) carried out by men against women. Historically, we've studiously ignored this as a "private matter." It was assumed that a man had a right and obligation to discipline his wife, and how he chose to do it was nobody else's business. Police and the courts were loath to interfere. But to ignore such violence is to tolerate it, to tacitly endorse it.
     To most of us, that rationale sounds kind of old-fashioned, and likely to many abusive men as well. There is another sort of wife-beater, after all, the passionate guy who just loves her so much that he can't help himself when he gets angry baby don't you understand. It's not like these guys think it's okay, exactly, to react violently, but they and the mates who take them back make excuses, treat each incident as an exception rather than part of a pattern, and again, ultimately ignore the pattern, thus permitting it to continue.
     It's not limited to domestic violence, of course. The deep-seated attitude underlying all of this is the presumption that women are, in some sense, property of men, resources to be exploited rather than people to be respected as equals. That attitude leads to rape and related subjugations, and our habit of ignoring or excusing domestic assaults leaks over somewhat when it comes to rape. We're still kind of inclined to blame the woman for leading him on or dressing provocatively or making up the whole thing, perhaps because it's just so much easier to ignore the problem and hope it goes away.
     THAT is why we have to raise awareness. It's our ingrained habit of turning away, of acting like it's no big deal or just a private matter or that it doesn't really happen, that perpetuates the presumption that women aren't fully persons, and the violence it spawns.

     Now, it's probably the case that Marc Lepine had that same insidious attitude about the proper role of women when he blamed feminists for "ruining his life". I remember reading at the time that his application to attend l'Ecole Polytechnique had been rejected, and he most likely thought that he'd have gotten in if only it hadn't been for those darned women taking "his" spot. Why couldn't they stay at home, barefoot and pregnant like they're supposed to? Perhaps that was his rationale, and so it is connected to the very problem of which we need to raise awareness.
     But the connection is long and tangled, and not immediately obvious. It's easy to imagine, after all, some troubled loser blaming immigrants, or natives, or wealthy white guys, or virtually any other demographic, for his problems and carrying out a similar rampage, and in fact that does happens from time to time. So one can look at the Polytechnique massacre as just another hatecrime, where the targeted group happened to be "women taking positions in engineering classes", without recognizing Violence Against Women as being fundamentally different from, say, Violence Against Orthodontists in this context.
     So even if the massacre was a culmination of the problem we're trying to raise awareness of, the people we most need to reach are not going to make the connection. The rapist (or rapist sympathizer) will look at that and not see himself, because he's not taking a gun into a public place and shooting women and then taking his own life; indeed, he may well condemn the crime himself (even if only lamenting it as a waste of young women for whom he has better uses). The man who loses control and beats his girlfriend or wife won't see himself; he'd never hurt a stranger, after all. And the cops and judges who look the other way when a man "disciplines" his wife aren't going to see this shooting as a private matter into which they should not intervene.

     That's why I feel so uncomfortable treating this tragedy as symbolic of violence against women. It troubles me that using it this way tends to emphasize the gender of the victims, rather than the pathology of thought that we need to fix. That pathology is the idea that women aren't fully persons in some sense, that they are valuable property to be cherished and protected, or that it would be a violation of some other man's property rights to damage them. We don't address that pathology by saying that violence against women is wrong, because that's perfectly compatible with the view of women-as-objects. We address it by reinforcing the idea that violence against people is wrong, and raising awareness of the fact that yes, in fact, women are people, dammit!

Friday, 7 December 2012

Traffic Rules: It's not about you.

     People often complain about traffic regulations, particularly speed limits (and rules against following-too-close, one of my pet peeves), on the basis that they don't improve safety. "I'm a good driver," they say. "I'm alert and I pay attention, and I can judge my stopping distance and control my vehicle at much higher speeds that the posted limit."

     That may well be true, although it probably isn't, considering how many people consider themselves to be above-average drivers. But even if it is, it is based on a narrow and unreflective conception of why we have traffic laws. They aren't just about preventing accidents; they're also about maintaining an efficient and orderly flow of traffic so people can actually get where they're going.

     Let's start with a very simple example. You might feel more comfortable driving down the middle of the road, with more room to spare in avoiding parked cars or other obstacles at the side of the road, but we have a convention of driving just on the right side of the street (or left if you happen to live in England or Japan). This isn't really about preventing collisions, because presumably if we had no rules about what side of the road to drive on, people would be alert to the possibility of oncoming traffic and usually be able to stop in time. Rather, it's a way of sharing the road so that traffic can move in both directions, smoothly and efficiently. Instead of stopping to get into arguments about who was there first and who should get out of the way, we just instinctively move over to the right and drive past each other without incident, arriving at our destination sooner than we would otherwise

     We rarely get people demanding the right to drive on the left if they should choose, and complaining about the The Man telling us what side of the road to use. But the safety rationale for speed limits seems fuzzier; while there is a very clearly marked line down the middle of the road that we all recognize we should not cross if we don't want a head-on collision, it's a lot easier to rationalize that driving a mere 20 klicks over the posted limit isn't all that much more dangerous than 5 or 10 klicks.
     Even if that were true (which it isn't), it doesn't matter. The speed limit isn't there because The Man thinks you're not a good enough driver to handle your vehicle at higher speeds. Like driving on the right side, it's a way of sharing the road so that we can all get where we're going with minimal delay.
     Consider: You're at a stop sign, waiting for a break in traffic to cross the street or merge into traffic. How big a gap do you need? Well, obviously that depends on how fast traffic is moving, and how fast you can accelerate. The faster traffic is moving, the bigger a gap you need, and consequently, the longer you'll have to wait. The longer you have to wait, the less your total travel time benefits from higher speed limits, and there is a point at increasing the speed limit actually decreases total average speed.
     The same principle applies to lane changes. If you find yourself stuck behind someone going slower than you'd like, it's reasonable to want to pass them by moving into another lane. But if traffic in that lane is going very much faster than you are, it will be much harder to find a safe opportunity to do so. So you are delayed longer, driving slower than you'd like to, because people in the other lane are allowed to drive as fast as they want. Again, a lower speed limit in this situation is to your benefit, because it gives you more chances to actually drive at that speed, rather than being delayed by the difficulty of merging into the higher speed lane.

     So, counterintuitive though it seems, speed limits are actually intended to speed you up, to get you and everyone else where you're going as fast as possible by sharing the road. The road is a scarce resource, and traffic laws are as much about fairly distributing that resource as they are about saving lives.

Tuesday, 4 December 2012

Too Short; Didn't Think

     I just visited a discussion forum, and saw a thread that was 15 pages long, but I only looked at the last posting to it and noticed that it was more than a whole screen of text. Since I hadn't read any of the prior posts, I had no idea what the context was, but why should I spend my valuable time reading?
     I also didn't pay any attention to simple clues about the discussion. Since I didn't skim any of the previous posts, I didn't noticed that there had been a lot of dialogue in the days leading up to that final posting, and that several days had passed since the final post, suggesting either that the final post had put to rest much of the argument, or that it was so stupid as to make everyone else give up and abandon the thread. If this had occurred to me, I might have resolved the question by noticing that the final post had a respectable number of up-votes from readers, suggesting that this one final post had probably been a satisfactory wrap up to the thread to that point.
     I just didn't want to read so much text. It would take too much of my time. It never crossed my mind that it must have taken the author at least as much time to write as it takes me to read. I just thought it was inconsiderate of the author to put a big pile of text on the screen and not just tell me in a simple sentence or two what it meant. Of course, since I hadn't read the entire thread, I had no way of knowing that the author and others had done just that, many times, in the previous posts, and that the short versions had been unsuccessful in persuading the other participants to the debate. I didn't realize that the big long post I saw was an attempt to explain in minute detail exactly why those shorter versions were to be accepted.
     It's possible that, had I read the entire thread, I would have understood these things. But that would have involved taking the time to read and think, and I've got better things to do. So I'll just helpfully post as a comment, "TL;DR". Everyone needs to know that I can't be bothered to read.

Monday, 3 December 2012

What Do Patents Encourage?

     A month ago, I posted complaining about how copyright law has imposed costs on the rest of us, prompted by my frustration in trying to legitimately copy some files from a CD-ROM to an iPad. This morning I had an experience that added to my frustration with intellectual property law, this time in the form of patents.
     The whole reason for having patent law is to encourage innovation, but at least sometimes I suspect  it does the opposite. I was driving my son to school in an older car a cassette deck where the CD player ought to be, when it occurred to me that, given how small MP3 players are now, shouldn't it be possible to build one into a device that emulated a tape cassette? You just make a little induction coil or some such gadget to interface with the tape head of the cassette player, and use that as an output. Have sensors in the reel sockets to detect when the cassette thinks it's playing, rewinding or fast-forwarding, maybe even have them draw some power from them for recharging, and there you go. All the technology to do this exists; it should be fairly simple to build such a device.
     As I thought about this, I realized that there were various hurdles to overcome besides the technical. The first one, I thought, from a business perspective would be market: how much demand would there actually be for this thing? I mean, there are still cassette players around, but for how much longer, and is it cost-effective for anyone to buy this gadget instead of just getting something up-to-date? But perhaps, if it were cheap enough, for people who just like their old stereo systems.
     The thing that really gave me pause, though, was patent law. Surely, I thought, someone else would have thought of this invention before I did. And that meant that if I were to go out and create this device and try to sell it, I'd probably get sued by whoever registered the patent on it. Even if nobody else had patented it and I didn't want to apply for a patent myself, I'd still need to search through patents to ensure that I wouldn't be running afoul of someone else's rights by creating such a device.

     This is all academic, of course, because I'm not at all technically adept enough to design and build this thing, and I'm not actually all that interested in marketing it either. (Also, I was right that someone else probably had thought of it, and built it. Turns out there are several on the market already.) But what I found striking was that of all the obstacles to turning an idea into a reality, the one that discouraged me the most was the whole business of patents. I just didn't want to have anything to do with the kind of research that would involve, and I've been to law school!

     That's not to say that patent law always discourages innovation. For people and companies who have ideas with solid economic potential, it is certainly worthwhile to invest the time and resources in developing the invention and applying for the patent. But for borderline case? For things that might be useful? Here is where things get iffy.
     Laws are generally intended to promote some sort of behaviour and discourage others, but it often turns out that the behaviour a law actually  promotes is not the behaviour it's intended to promote. Cynically, some people (wrongly) say "it's only illegal if you get caught." More accurately, you're only punished if you get caught, but the point here is that people often consider it more cost-effective to modify their behaviour around the practical consequences more than the actual intention of the law.
     Patent law is no different. As much as we might want patent law to encourage innovation, it isn't actually innovation that is encouraged, but the use of patent law itself. You aren't rewarded for coming up with and marketing a good idea so much as you're rewarded for applying for and asserting patent rights. Suppose two identical twins separated at birth independently come up with a brilliant idea, and both go through all the steps needed to develop it for market, but one of them applies for a patent and the other doesn't. Which one will reap the rewards? Clearly, all other things being equal (and here we've postulated that they are), it's the act of going to the patent office that's rewarded, not the innovation itself.

     Again, I don't have a solution for this. I don't have an alternative to patents to propose here, anymore than I was able to suggest an alternative to copyright. But I do think we should be aware of how sometimes our policies work against themselves.

Friday, 23 November 2012

Who needs laws?

     There is quote going around, attributed to Plato, that reads as follows: "Good people don't need laws to tell them to act responsibly, and bad people will find a way around the laws." It's an attractive sentiment, and one I'm inclined to agree with.... sort of. But I can't seem to find the passage in the works of Plato himself, and in hindsight that's not terribly surprising, because for all his talk about the ideal world of forms, Plato wasn't exactly an idealistic anarchist.

     The closest to this quote I've been able to find by googling Project Gutenberg has been this, from (not surprisingly) The Laws
For if a man were born so divinely gifted that he could naturally apprehend the truth, he would have no need of laws to rule over him; for there is no law or order which is above knowledge, nor can mind, without impiety, be deemed the subject or slave of any man, but rather the lord of all. I speak of mind, true and free, and in harmony with nature. But then there is no such mind anywhere, or at least not much; and therefore we must choose law and order, which are second best. 
     So here, the idea is that if people were smart enough to know what's right and wrong, we wouldn't need laws, but few people are that wise. Law is an imperfect compromise, then, says Plato, but a necessary one.
     The problem we have, of course, is that lawmakers are themselves human and rarely much if any wiser than the people to be governed by those laws, so agreeing to follow the laws doesn't seem to get us any closer to doing the right thing than if we were to simply choose on our own.

     But I think it's a mistake to think the law is there to tell us what's right. We need laws because we don't all agree on what's right. If we all agreed (even if we were all wrong) that a person ought to do X in situation Y, then we wouldn't need law, because everyone would do X in situation Y and no one would have a problem with it, regardless of whether it was objectively right or wrong, and there would be no need for law. So I prefer to think of the law as the weapon with which we finally resolve our disputes in civilized societies, when we cannot resolve them by more amicable means.

     I mean that in more than just a figurative sense, because I believe the law really is a weapon. Consider what distinguishes use as a weapon from other sorts of tool use: weapons are used to reduce the capabilities of the target in some way. A knife can be a tool for separating bits of flesh from each other in surgery or in combat; in surgery the intent is to effect some sort of repair that ultimately enhances the capabilities of the patient, while in combat the intent is to reduce (or eliminate) the target's ability to fight.
     The law is purely a weapon in this sense. Law cannot create freedoms; it can only reduce them. But, by pruning away certain freedoms (such as, for instance, the freedom to commit murder), we can allow other freedoms to flourish that otherwise would have been suppressed (such as the freedom to do things that you can't do when you've been murdered).
     It may not look like the criminal law is about dispute resolution, but taken as a whole I think it is. It's illegal to kill people not so much because we all (or most of us, anyway) agree that murder is immoral, but because murder violates the rights of the victim to exercise autonomy. So does any sort of violence. Theft and other property crimes are extensions of property law, which is how we resolve disputes over who gets to make decisions involving scarce resources. Contract law allows us to artificially and voluntarily reduce our freedom to break promises, enabling us to rely more on agreements and on the whole, enhancing our range of choices. And so on generally: the ultimate role of law is to resolve disputes.

     And that's why we need laws. Not to tell us right from wrong, but to allow each of us to seek after what seems to be right, whatever that may turn out to be.

Wednesday, 31 October 2012


     Last week, I spent several hours trying to help my mother perform what ought to be a fairly simple function: transferring files from a CD-ROM to her iPad. This turns out to be surprisingly difficult, thanks to the Digital Rights Management paradigm around which the iPad and, increasingly, computers generally are built. A device like an iPad is presumed to be tied to a particular computer, and so the songs and other things you've bought on your laptop are conveniently and automatically shared with your iPad. But to prevent piracy, there are barriers to sharing files with someone else's computer.
     So, all I wanted to do was use the CD drive on my laptop to move the files from the CD to my mother's iPad, but a dialogue box warned me that the syncing process would delete photos on my mother's device that weren't present on my laptop. We were eventually able to move the files over, but it took a long time and was ridiculously inconvenient.

     Okay, I understand intellectual property law, and the rationale for copyright, and why it's important to provide a means for creators to earn a living from their works. I get that, I really do. I don't agree with the calculations of how much the music and film industries lose to piracy every year, which are absurdly inflated and self-serving, but I'm sympathetic to the plight of the starving artist. I really am. 
     But really, is copyright law the best we can come up with? Are these barriers to copying really justified? Because those barriers impose costs on people, and not just the people who ought to be paying. 

     If you've taken economics, you're probably familiar with the term "externality", which just refers to any cost (or benefit) that doesn't show up on the balance sheet of the economic actor in question. The classic textbook example of an externality is the pollution from a factory. The factory owner's costs of production are the cost of the land and the factory itself, the raw materials used, the machinery, and the labour to run it, but the cost of pollution (quantifiable as reduced property values, additional health care costs, diminished agricultural yields, etc.) is imposed on someone else. 
     Factories may be necessary, but the exclusion of externalities from their accounting greatly distorts the appraisal of their economic value. You can't argue that a factory is efficient because it's profitable if it's being subsidized by everyone who has to put up with the pollution it emits; you have to take into account all the costs (and benefits; there are positive externalities as well) of an activity before you can trust in the validity of the Invisible Hand's market results.

     Now, I'm not arguing here that intellectual property rights should be abolished. (I feel sure there must be a better solution, but at the moment I'm at a loss to provide one.) But I am arguing that the copyright as it is currently applied imposes significant externalities on people who aren't pirating anything. The files on that CD-ROM my mother wanted to look at were sent to her by their creators for her to review; there was no violation of copyright at all involved. And yet, to protect the rights of a relatively small subset of copyright holders (i.e. those represented by traditional publishing and media companies), the iPad was built to make it difficult to transfer any files outside of the commercial paradigm. 
     The inconvenience of copying perfectly legitimate files is only one of the costs we pay to protect the interests of copyright holders. There are countless others, from the trivial (why can't I skip past watching that same FBI anti-piracy warning on a DVD? How many person-seconds has that wasted?) to the absurd (why can't I watch the original WKRP in Cincinnati episodes with the original music? Is anyone seriously going to use that show to listen to snippets of popular songs without paying for them?) to the genuine stifling of creative contributions to the world's cultures (Was anyone going to read The Wind Done Gone and decide they didn't need to read Gone With The Wind or see the movie now that they knew how it ended?)
     All of these costs are imposed upon you and me and the rest of the world. There may be good reasons for imposing them, but we still end up paying them, and paying them involuntarily. That basic fact undermines the media industries' attempts to claim the moral high ground. They are trying very hard to make us all accept the idea that unauthorized copying of things is stealing, and there's some moral validity to that. But I just had three hours of my time "stolen" trying to copy something the owner actually wanted me to copy. If the recording industry wants people to recognize and sympathize with their losses to unauthorized copying, this is probably the wrong way to go about it.

Friday, 19 October 2012

Two 14-year-old Girls

     Not long after I wrote my last post on insulting the prophet, I heard a debate on the radio that raised my free-speech hackles a bit. One participant took the position that people should be criminally liable for speech or symbolic acts that they know are likely to result in violence, such as burning a copy of the Koran. She articulated the principle in terms of causality, which is what I found troubling, because it seems to me that to assign moral blame to the speaker for how an audience reacts is to deny (or at the very least dilute) the responsibility of audiences to react appropriately. Even if an inappropriate response is predictable, I am reluctant to blame the speaker, except in cases of fraud or deception.
     As if to make that point clear, last week the Taliban attempted to assassinate a fourteen year old girl, Malala Yousufzai, for her audacious and heretical suggestion that girls should be educated. The Taliban have made it very clear that they intend to respond with violence to such advocacy; it was therefore reasonable to anticipate that if Malala were to continue speaking out in favour of girls' education, she would be targeted. And yet we view her (rightly in my mind) as blameless in this, and in fact we praise her for her courage. The blame, all of the blame, falls squarely on the shoulders of the ignorant zealots who tried to kill her. They did wrong, not she. 
     The same week, a successful attempt on the life of a different fourteen year old girl was made, unfortunately by someone less inept than the Taliban: Amanda Todd committed suicide after ruthless bullying. 

     The juxtaposition of these two girls and their circumstances leaves me greatly conflicted. On the one hand, I feel very strongly that Malala did nothing wrong, and that nothing she said justified any act of violence whatsoever. At the same time, though, I have great sadness and sympathy for Amanda, and anger at her abusers. And there's the conflict, because ultimately she was the one who decided to kill herself, in response to abuse which at its core was speech. (I know she had been punched and blackmailed, but I will go out on a limb and speculate that it was the insistent display of hatred and moral condemnation more than anything else that drove her to such misery.) Did I not just conclude, before being confronted with this case, that speakers are not to be held morally responsible for the inappropriate reactions of their audiences, even if they are predictable? If Malala was blameless for the attempt on her life, even though it was predictable that Taliban zealots would react with inappropriate violence, how do I still feel anger at Amanda's bullies, for her inappropriate reaction of self-directed violence?

     I've struggled with this, and for a while I thought I could explain it this way: The bullies are not to blame for her death, but for something very nearly as evil. They are to blame for treating her with such devastating cruelty as to make her miserable enough to want to die, and that's plenty blameworthy enough.

     But I'm not sure that rationalization really does the trick, either. After all, Malala's speech clearly caused great distress to the poor sensitive Taliban, hurting their delicate feelings or their religious sensibilities or whatever badly enough to provoke them to violence, and yet I have almost no sympathy whatsoever for them and their reaction, whereas I do have sympathy for Amanda.

     The real answer, I think, is uglier. I said above that only in the case of fraud or deception can we blame speakers for the actions of their audience, and I think we have all deceived Amanda and each other. Malala spoke truthfully and frankly; she said she believed girls deserve to be educated, and the Taliban assassins could have tried to reason with her and her audience, to explain why she was wrong and to convince us all that no, after all, girls ought not to be educated. But they didn't do that. They surrendered the moral high ground and shot her instead.

     In contrast, Amanda's bullies told her, through their words and actions, that she was worthless and bad and deserved to die. Some creep manipulated her into showing her bare chest to him online, but we told her, collectively, that was something for her to be ashamed of. We empowered him to blackmail and humiliate her, by making a federal case out of "wardrobe malfunctions", by making it a big deal, a grave moral concern. In short, we told her a lie that she believed, and on that basis killed herself. We've got to stop telling that lie, and I suppose the first step there is to stop believing it ourselves. 

Wednesday, 10 October 2012

Explaining is not Excusing

     I was talking with a friend a few weeks ago who expressed a certain dissatisfaction with my earlier post on the Man-Cold. It's not that she thought it was necessarily false, she said. She just didn't like my giving men an excuse to be such wimps. Well, I don't think I did that. I gave an account for why it might actually have been a survival trait for men in our evolutionary past to be laid low by a simple cold, but I never said anything about whether or not it was morally appropriate. Indeed, while it might once have been sensible, most of us don't hunt mastodons anymore, so being unable to wash the dishes or take out the garbage just because you have a cold is just silly. We no longer live in an environment where being a wimp about a simple cold has any practical justification. We can understand why men might be wired this way without committing ourselves to saying it's perfectly all right for them to lie incapacitated on the couch if they get the sniffles.

     But the tendency to equate explanation with excuse is powerful and widespread. In The Blank Slate, Steven Pinker discusses at some length the surprising levels of anger faced by scientists who make any pronouncement about, say, the reproductive advantage that a tendency to rape might offer. Now, I should think it would be uncontroversial that, all other things being equal, a male of some species who was willing and able to force his attentions upon an unwilling female would have more reproductive opportunities than one who wasn't, and that it therefore shouldn't surprise us to find that some males carry such an urge. (Unless, of course, there really were some sort of magical shut-down system in the case of "legitimate rape", as a certain woefully ignorant politician recently claimed.) Yet, thanks to this instinct we have to confuse explanation with excuse, the very suggestion that some men might have an instinctive desire to rape is tantamount to declaring open season on women.

     It's not, of course. Recognizing that people have desires or instincts that may be inherited says nothing about the morality of acting upon those desires. No one would suggest that hunger is a culturally learned behaviour, that we only eat because we've been taught to. Hunger is a perfectly natural and hardwired instinct, but that doesn't mean we excuse all acts of eating as appropriate. (And we almost never justify cannibalism, an act of eating with a human victim. When we do, it's always in survival situations: "But I was really, REALLY hungry" is not the defense; "But I was going to die otherwise" is.) So what if we have a hardwired instinct to get horny? Unless it's possible to actually die of lust (I should be dead if it were, and I say this as someone who's been through cancer and chemotherapy), there can be no excuse for rape.

     In fact, I think those who object to explanations of bad behaviour as "excusing" it are promoting a very dangerous idea. The argument that a hardwired biological urge absolves us of moral responsibility is absolutely poisonous, because if it turns out that as a matter of scientific fact we do have hardwired biological urges, then we can no longer object morally to anything. Far better, and far more realistic, would be to acknowledge the plainly obvious fact that people do have instincts and desires, sometimes very powerful ones, that push them in the direction of doing evil things, and to say that we ought to cultivate the self-discipline to overcome these urges. Denying the reality of these feelings helps no one to resist them.

     There's another aspect to this that I feel is also morally dangerous. I had a conversation with another friend last week who said that she would rather not understand some things, because she never wants to understand how some people can do the evil they do. I can sympathize with that sentiment, but I think it's dangerous because it encourages us to think of evil as something other people do, and thus something we don't really have to worry about.
     That isn't how it works. People don't do evil because they are privy to some sort of secret knowledge that authorizes them to do things the rest of us find abhorrent. They generally do evil because they lack some belief or understanding or value that the rest of us consider important, or because they have managed to convince themselves that what they do is necessary and right. Or, I should say, that is why we do evil. We are unaware of mistakes we have made in our moral reasoning.
     That's the important point I want to make. Our moral responsibility is for what we do, and to ensure that we have made the best choice of action available to us. To do that, we need to be alert to the kinds of errors we might make, and to take seriously the idea that we might be wrong. The greatest evil is done by those who refuse to consider that they could be wrong, and the refusal to try to understand evil-doers is no protection against becoming an evil-doer oneself. It only makes it likelier.

Sunday, 23 September 2012

Insulting the Prophet

What does it mean to insult someone?

We're all familiar with the basic schoolyard approach to insults.  They usually involve making some outrageous unflattering claim, often about the target's dietary or sexual practices, as a result of which presumably we are to hold the target in lower esteem. Personally, I was never much offended by the content of this sort of insult, nor much impressed by those who uttered them, perhaps because I have a tendency to interpret and analyze things literally. If someone alleges that I mate with iguanas, I'm more likely to be puzzled than offended: such a preposterous claim should reflect more on his credibility than my respectability.

Even in those instances where what was revealed about someone happened to be true, ("Billy's wearing green underwear!") it never made much sense to me that this should embarrass Billy. After all, we probably assumed he was wearing underwear, and it had to be some colour. I'd have thought it more embarrassing to be seen as having any interest in knowing the colour of Billy's underwear, and thus I always felt it was the insulter who should be embarrassed rather than the insulted. And I always felt just a little bit insulted as a member of the audience to such games, because the insulter who gleefully tells me the colour of Billy's underwear is implying through that speech act that I am expected to care.

That's the sort of thing that insults me. Not words, not statements of belief that I am unworthy, but clear demonstrations of that belief. You may say that you believe I am an idiot, and that's fine; you've presented a proposition which may be true or false, and put your own credibility on the line if I prove to be otherwise. But when you act in such a way that shows you fully expect me to behave like an idiot, when you tell me something obviously false and expect me to believe it or expect to convince me with a ridiculously flawed argument, that is something I can't help taking as an insult to my intelligence. When a grandmother's knitting needles are confiscated by airport security to protect me, it's an insult to my courage. When women are expected to dress modestly for fear their beauty will incite me to rape them, it's an insult to either my virility or my self-restraint or both. 

(Of course, if I am an idiot or a coward or an untrustworthy dangerous animal, it may be perfectly appropriate to treat me as such.)

And so what does it mean to insult Islam or its prophet or indeed any religion? Who or what should feel insulted, when someone makes a satirical film or a cartoon depicting the Prophet in an unflattering way? If what is said is false, well, does this not reflect poorly on the speaker more than it does upon the Prophet, and call for no more punishment than being revealed for a fool or a liar? And if what is said should be true, then it is either irrelevant and nobody's business (as in the case of Billy's underwear) or it is a relevant and legitimate criticism, in which case it is perfectly appropriate to act in accordance with it.

Actions speak louder than words. When, claiming to act on behalf of Islam, you storm an embassy and murder people because someone else thousands of miles away made a fool of himself, you demonstrate that you believe Mohammed to be an arrogant, vindictive and thin-skinned bully who resorts to violence rather than reason. If that belief is false, then it is you who insults the Prophet with your actions. And if it is true, then it is a perfectly legitimate basis upon which to criticize the religion.

Friday, 7 September 2012

That's not my house!

One day, when I was in kindergarten, we were all asked to draw pictures of our houses. And so we picked up our crayons and got to work. After a while, as my crude representation was beginning to take shape (I took great pains to get the chimney placement just right, struggling with how a vertical chimney could still be perpendicular to a sloped roof), the kid sitting next to me looked over and said indignantly, "That's not my house!"

Okay, so it was a French immersion kindergarten, and maybe the kid was still trying to sort out how pronouns worked, and thought the assignment for everyone was to draw his house. Kind of a cute mistake in a kindergarten kid, but it's somewhat more frustrating when this kind of subjectivity takes over in adults. Lately I've encountered it in two examples I'd like to discuss.

The first was in the context of a Facebook status thread argument about abortion, in which I reprised a little bit of my argument from this posting. Mainly I wanted to make the point that it may not always be a good thing to view the fetus as a person from the moment of conception, because while that may be a great way to behave as an expectant parent, forming a healthy social bond with the person-to-be, it also can create a great deal of unnecessary suffering in the case of a miscarriage. Miscarriages being rather common, after all, is it really better to think of oneself as the grieving parent of a dead child, or a (temporarily) disappointed would-be parent?

This comment drew considerable ire from one commenter who inferred immediately that I must not know what I'm talking about, or I could never say anything so heartless. Obviously I'd never been through a miscarriage myself. Obviously I wasn't a parent. Well.... as it happens, I have a fifteen year old son whom I love dearly, and my wife and I have been through somewhere between 4 and 6 miscarriages after he was born. (It's hard to know the exact number, because in at least one instance it was never fully established that she was actually pregnant. She sure had all the symptoms, but it's uncertain if anything remotely viable was actually starting to develop in there.)

Now, we were deeply disappointed each time, because we really did want a sibling for our son and another son or daughter for ourselves. We also had started to develop hopes for and bonds with the potentiality that was starting to grow, and it was sad to lose them. But did we feel like parents who had lost an actual child? No, no indeed. Our first pregnancy produced a healthy son, and now that he was born, the disappointment of losing a pregnancy was utterly inconsequential compared to the absolute horror with which we thought of losing him. We are the proud parents of a wonderful son; we are not at all the grieving parents of 4-6 dead children and one survivor.

My point here is not the commenter on that thread was wrong to think of a fetus as a person. I don't think she is wrong to think that way, or at least, not very  wrong; on a personal level I think it's quite desirable for individuals to bond with their unborn children that way because it is a part of good parenting. But I think she was wrong to think everyone must think that way, and to assume that her experience of pregnancy and miscarriage was privileged over any other experience that doesn't mesh with it. We are not wrong to be merely disappointed by miscarriage, either. The error she made, and the error I'm musing about in this post, is in thinking that her experience was the experience. Just as my kindergarten classmate mistook his house for the house we were all supposed to draw.

The other example that's been weighing on my mind lately is that of a frequent anonymous commenter to this very blog. He or she regularly exhorts me to accept a particular religious view, assuring me that if I just ask God to reveal Himself to me, I'll come to know Him and cease with all these silly doubts and philosophizing. Now, I don't doubt that I'll feel that way if I just swallow the blue pill (or is it the red one), that I'll be thoroughly and comfortably convinced of my place in the universe and my relation to the divine. But I can't get past the concern that feeling that way won't make it true.

Now, looking at it from the perspective of the commenter, I can certainly see his or her subjective position. I know that believing one has a personal knowledge of the divine feels exactly like knowing, and more, it feels like a private kind of knowing that no one else can truly understand if they don't feel it too. I understand how privileged that sense of knowledge can feel. I feel it too, but I recognize that it really only applies to things that I, by definition, must know, such as how I feel, how I perceive something, how sincerely I am open to God's revealing Himself to me. I know these things better than anyone else can, but I recognize that my subjective privilege doesn't go beyond the borders of my skull. It's not for me to know, better than you do, how you relate to God, whether or not you love your children, what your house looks like.

What I want to assert to my commenter here is that it's not for you to know, better than I do, how I relate to God, how much I love my son, or whether or not I'm drawing an accurate picture of my own house. It's not supposed to be your house.

Monday, 20 August 2012

Nobody Cares What You Think

     "Nobody cares what you think" is something they drill into you in law school, but sometimes I find myself wishing that it was taught to everyone, aspiring lawyer or not. Of course, much of the time it's used to correct the speech habits of students preparing for their first year moot, when prefacing any statement with "I think..." is just a bad idea anyway. But the true significance of this idea is subtle, and may take several years to sink in.

     It doesn't mean that no one wants to hear what you have to say. It means that whether or not you believe what you are saying, and how strongly you believe it, is of no relevance. What your audience cares about is whether or not there are good reasons for them to believe it. In the practice of law, especially, your actual opinion doesn't matter, because you might well believe your client is probably guilty, but your job is not to decide that, but to advise the court as to the best arguments available for why there's a reasonable doubt.

     I've had the opportunity to judge some junior high school debates, and find students very often falling into a similar trap. A speaker would stand up and deliver an impassioned speech starting out with "We strongly believe that the proposition must stand!" This is silly, because we know very well that in the next round, the very same speaker will be emphatically stating how strongly they believe the very same proposition must fall. And so the point here is the same as the one in law school: nobody cares what the speaker believes; we want to hear the arguments for why we should believe, preferable arguments we haven't considered before.

     I was recently reminded of this lesson on a message forum I frequent. We had been discussing some topic or other, the death penalty, I believe, and had gone on for some five or six pages of posts arguing about whether or not capital punishment is cheaper than life imprisonment (it's not, when you take into account the appeals process necessary to make sure we don't execute someone innocent). And then, of course, after all this lengthy and thorough discussion, someone joins in posting his opinion that we shouldn't waste money on keeping these monsters alive in prison, and should just shoot them.
     Obviously the poster hadn't read any of the thread, and was unaware or just didn't care that his arguments had already been presented and dissected in fine detail. No, he just wanted to tell us what he thought, sparking a new round of debunking the same old arguments. But why would anyone care to know that he, this anonymous person on the internet out there, happens to hold a particular and demonstrably common opinion? We aren't voting on it. We don't know him, we don't have any reason to be affected in any way by the fact that he holds or does not old that view. What we want to know is if there are good reasons why we should share that view. And if he'd taken the time to peruse the thread rather than boldly announcing his not-at-all unusual perspective, he'd know that the arguments he brought to bear were old news to the participants.

     Now, it's not necessarily true that no one cares what you think. Some people probably do, and of course when we're voting on something, what each person thinks is aggregated together to give a result. And when you're planning a dinner party, it's good to know what each guest's culinary preferences are. But most of the time, it's a good guiding principle to bear in mind that the mere fact of your preferring A over B is of no value to anyone but you.

Sunday, 12 August 2012

Guns Don't, People Do.

     There are all sorts of arguments for and against legal restrictions on gun ownership, but one of the more disturbing arguments I hear from time to time is the one that certain Americans raise: that an armed populace is the best defence against a tyrannical government.

     Now, I don't mean to reject that entirely, because certainly there have been many tyrannical governments overthrown by force of arms throughout history. And there are instances where armed citizenry have made it difficult or even impossible for foreign powers to invade and occupy a country. A realist must recognize that there is a role for weapons and violence in this world, if only because others give them a role. I certainly understand the sentiment (misattributed to Thomas Jefferson) that it is better for government to fear the people than for people to fear the government, though I disagree very much: it is fearful governments that are the most dangerous to their people. (More on that in a later post, I expect; I've been meditating again on the nature of fear quite a bit since this Officer Wawra story broke.)

     But this whole approach to combatting government tyranny is doomed, because it buys into Mao's famous dictum that political power grows out of the barrel of a gun, and that view of power is at the core of tyranny. One can imagine (or at least fantasize about) a benevolent tyranny where those with a monopoly on lethal force wield it with benign restraint and only for our own good, but tyranny is tyranny is tyranny.

     No, the answer to tyranny is not force. The truly revolutionary development that has lead to the spread of liberty was not the idea of arming the populace. There was nothing at all new about that; weapons have existed in private hands far longer than we've even had governments. The really important change has been the growth of the rule of law, the idea that people have rights and that disputes should be settled according to generally accepted universal principles rather than the personal preferences of any individual.
     This is much more than simply an idea that people hear about; there's probably no society without at least the idea of rules. What matters for the rule of law to take root is for enough people to genuinely embrace the concept, and to agree to abide by rules even when it is not in their immediate interest to do so. And of particular importance is that the people with the guns firmly adhere to this principle. That's why the militaries of developed countries are ultimately under lawful civilian control, and have such strict disciplinary systems in place.

     It's a subtle idea, and while it's well-established here, its grip is always a bit tenuous. Sometimes it's counterintuitive, as when we extend legal protections and due process to the nastiest of criminals. Sometimes it's just inconvenient, like when we stop for a red light at 3:00 a.m. and there's no one else on the road. But the fact that most of us usually obey the law for no other reason than that it is the law is the core of what protects us against tyranny. A tyrant can only become a tyrant if people obey him, and in a rule-of-law society, unlawful commands tend not to be obeyed.

     So the thing to do is to be ever vigilant against attempts to shape the law to the purposes of the tyrant. That means engaging in the political process, arguing and advocating and talking and listening, and steadfastly rejecting coercion. In other words, guns don't protect us against tyranny; people protect us against tyranny.

Sunday, 5 August 2012

The Good News about Bad News

     Marshall McLuhan famously remarked that while we don't know who discovered water, it probably wasn't the fish. I want to say something about the good news that we don't notice in the background of horrible events such as the shooting in Aurora last week, because we are so deeply immersed in the good news that we don't even recognize it as significant.
     The good news is that these shootings are news at all. We are shocked and horrified and saddened by these events, and rightly so, for they are shocking and horrifying and sad, but we are also shocked because they are, for the most part, unusual. True, they happen much more often than we'd like; every few months some pathetic loser thinks he can bring meaning to his life through some spectacular orgy of violence. But that's not really so often, when you think about it on a global scale. It's rare enough that it makes the news if it happens anywhere in the developed world.

     Think what things were like a thousand years ago. Whole villages were massacred in Viking raids, but the news spread slowly, and even if there had been a global satellite network to share information instantly around the world, it wouldn't have been broadcast anyway, because no one cared. It wasn't news, anymore than a fatal car accident in Toronto attracts the attention of strangers in Buenos Aires; they have their own fatal car accidents to be worried about. "A village 20 miles away was slaughtered in a raid? Oh, yeah, that happened to my cousin six years ago." And compared to the level of violence that was commonplace in those days, for 12 people to die in one incident would have been quite unremarkable, except perhaps to those who actually knew any of the victims.

     Even a hundred years ago, violence was far more common than it is today. Less than that, even; I happened to catch a snippet of an old Flintstones episode where Fred was trying to bully Barney into going along with some scheme or other, menacing him with a fist. I was actually a little shocked; our cultural sensitivities towards casual violence have changed so much.
     We no longer accept violence as an appropriate way to resolve our differences. Well, that's not completely true; we still glorify it in TV and movies, and people talk about how they'd love to punch or shoot some person or other, but for the most part, we reject it as a dispute resolution mechanism. If you have a problem with someone today, you are expected to talk it out, resolve it peacefully, and if that fails, sue. In the past, however, violence was viewed as a perfectly natural and even appropriate way of getting what you wanted. Not getting enough from farming, fishing and hunting? Well, raid a neighbouring village or tribe.

     To be sure, there are still lots of people who resort to violence. But the spectacular shootings that make the news every so often have a different kind of motive. These are not people robbing banks or trains, trying to take economic resources by force. These are typically dissatisfied and unfulfilled losers looking for fame and notoriety. They want to be able to think of themselves as important and powerful, and I suppose they want our help and that of the press to reinforce that. But the point here is that shocking acts of violence get them that attention, and why? Because violence is no longer commonplace; it is rare enough today that it actually does shock us.
     That is the good news. This kind of violence happens in part because other kinds of violence don't happen so much anymore. In a way, it's a symptom of success. Human society may always have some level of violence, and if we're getting to the point where some of that violence is due to the very fact that we find violence unusual, I think that in the big picture, that's something to be thankful for.

     But it can be better. I think that if we were to recognize violence not as something evil, scary and mysterious, but perfectly mundane and distasteful, we could remove some of the reason for this kind of shooting. Decent people will handle feces if they must (changing diapers, cleaning up after a pet, maintenance of plumbing, etc.) but there's nothing mysterious or heroic about it, and we all try to avoid it as much as possible. Someone who runs into a movie theatre and flings poo at the audience is not viewed with awe as a supervillain, but with contempt. If we could somehow replace our fear of violence with contempt, then maybe these attention-cravers will find a more constructive way to get their fifteen minutes.

Saturday, 28 July 2012

Little Joys of Discovery #1A

     This post is just a followup of the one in which I mentioned leafcutter bees, as now I've had the chance to capture a couple of photographs of some.

      On occasion you might notice the signs of leafcutter bee activity before you see the bees themselves. This is a picture of some leaves on flowers in our garden, where you can see a few neatly cut-out sections. I'd seen this sort of thing many times before I learned of leafctter bees, and assumed some caterpillar was at work, but I was puzzled as to why it seemed to have eaten in such regular patterns and left, rather than just devouring the whole leaf.

     I didn't get a picture of any bees actually harvesting these leaves, so maybe these were done by fickle caterpillars after all, but my money's on the bees.

     When I first went outside with camera in hand, hoping to stake out a nesting site where I'd seen a bee the day before, I first crouched down to look around the porch steps to see if I could find the entrance to the nest. Then, I happened to notice that sitting right there on the step was a resting bee, complete with a piece of leaf, almost as if waiting for me to come take her picture.

     And as soon as I took this shot, she flew away.

     Unlike honeybees, leafcutters are not eusocial; all the females lay their own eggs, rather than tending to the eggs of their mother the queen. According to this site, all leafcutter species are solitary, but  alfalfa leafcutter bees (Megachile rotunda) are happy to build nests in close proximity to each other, which is why I think the ones in my backyard are of that species. Each of the drainage holes in the base of these flowerpots is the front door to a leafcutter's burrow; I saw bees come and go from all of them, but they're pretty quick, and it was hard to catch good still photos of any of them. I did manage to catch a little video of some, which I've put on my YouTube channel. Boy, nature photography takes patience!


Wednesday, 25 July 2012

Why do Persons Have Rights? A reader asks...

A reader emailed me with the following question: Why does a person have rights?

First of all, it's not clear they do, in the absolute cosmic sense. But if rights exist at all, then persons are the things that will have them, by definition.

Persons I define as moral agents, beings who are capable of having interests, acting upon them, and who may be said to have moral obligations in some sort. Rights are a form of moral obligation; if you have a right to life, I have a moral obligation not to kill you. If I have a moral obligation to treat you with respect, you may be said to have a right to be treated with respect. And so on.

(I'm distinguishing moral obligation from prudential reasons to do something, here. It might be in MY best interests to treat you with respect or not to kill you, but the fact that I'm better off by doing something is not what creates moral obligation.)

Now, this doesn't answer the question as to why persons have rights, or why non-persons don't have rights. I may have a moral obligation not to burn the Mona Lisa; doesn't that translate into the Mona Lisa having a right not to be burned? Well, no; I'd rather say that everyone else has a right to keep the Mona Lisa in existence, and it's that right I'd be violating, not any right the painting itself has.

So why do persons have rights? I think it goes hand in hand with the notion of personhood and moral agency, or the exercise of autonomy. We make choices base on what we feel to be right, whatever that means, and while we may not know what right is in all cases, we still have to choose. And it's autonomous agents, PERSONS who much choose. So in a practical sense, it's persons who determine what matters and what doesn't.

Your choice between chocolate or vanilla is an exercise of your will and your determination that one or the other flavour will better satisfy your interests. I presume that the satisfaction of interests is ultimately what we're interested in as choosing beings, and since persons are the seat of interests, I believe it follows that we have an obligation to defer to others with respect to their own determination of their interests. Hence it's not for me to decide whether you should have chocolate or vanilla, when it's you who are better situated to identify your interests.

It gets complicated with interests clash, and that's where rights come in. I may actually have an interest in your eating chocolate and abstaining from vanilla for some reason. (For something like this, it's probably an irrational reason, but who cares? I don't want to beg any questions about what constitutes a valid or an invalid interest. Maybe I think God hates vanilla or something, or maybe I'm deathly allergic to the presence of vanilla byproducts in the sweat of people I might shake hands with.) Rights are the way we try to balance conflicting interests, by identifying a systematic priority of interests. So there's core interests we all have in common, which we agree to treat as paramount. My right to believe God is pleased that you don't eat vanilla is, presumably, less central to the protection of my autonomy than my right to choose what flavour I eat myself, and so I must recognize that YOUR autonomous right to eat what you want trumps my pleasing-God interest. But if I'm deathly allergic to vanilla byproducts, my right to remain alive might well trump your choice of ice cream in contexts where it might make a difference.

Tuesday, 24 July 2012

The Greatest Trick the Devil Ever Pulled

     I just received an email from a friend of my parents with a political joke in it. Apologies for abridging it and spoiling the punchline, but the gist of it is this: A little girl calls her newborn kittens, whose eyes haven't opened yet, "Liberals", and later, when their eyes have opened, she calls them "Conservatives".

     Ha ha. Cute.

     Yet I found it troubling, because it is part of perpetuating the myth that conservatives are somehow the hard-headed realists who know how the world really works, and everyone else is a naive idealist. And that's simply false.

     The source of the confusion, of course, is the word "conservative". By itself, it's a fine word, and it's conveys an admirable sense of caution and thrift. To be conservative is to avoid unnecessary risk and expense, and these are both things that we'd want in our leaders. It's natural to hope that this kind of conservatism (cautious and thrifty) is rooted in an understanding of how very wrong things can go if we're not careful, and it's natural to import this idea that conservatives' eyes are open to the harsh realities of the world.

     But there's a danger in that assumption, and all the more so because it's so seductively reasonable. If you buy into the idea that you are wise to the ways of the world, while others are naive and gullible, you become especially naive and gullible yourself. You become smug and complacent, and feel that you don't need to listen to the ideas of those naive and gullible idealists who have no idea what the real world is like. Their eyes are closed, and yours are open, so you can't be fooled. Heck, you know how things really are, so you don't even need to look anymore...

     And that, I fear, is exactly what's happened, as evidenced by the joke I referred to at the beginning of this post. Conservatives have become so confident in their superior expertise (and the utter worthlessness of any opinion that doesn't bear the label "conservative") that they are willing to barge on ahead with policies based entirely on idealistic visions of how the economy is supposed to work, or "common sense" ideas of how the criminal justice system is supposed to work, or how foreign governments ought to respond to our clearly superior morality.

     (Our own federal Conservatives have been systematically closing their eyes by slashing funding to Statistics Canada and a host of other government agencies and research programs intended to give government and Canadians the objective information needed to make sound decisions. Republicans in the United States have been doing much the same with not just budget cuts but also legislation like the Data Quality Act.)

     The scorn I sense from conservatives in expressing their opinions about things is palpable. They talk about how obvious it is that this or that policy is the right one, and how stupid anyone would have to be not to see it. Well, if everything true was obvious, and everything obvious were true, this would be a very different world. There are things which seem obvious but are in fact false, and truths which are very subtle and profoundly counterintuitive. You cannot hope to understand these things if you think you already do.

     I love the quote from The Usual Suspects: "The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn't exist." There is no surer way to keep your eyes closed than to convince yourself they're wide open.

Saturday, 21 July 2012

Was the Apollo Mission a Waste of Money?

You are probably familiar with this photograph.

This very famous image of Earth was taken by the astronauts of Apollo 17. It has been seen by pretty much everybody, and has been used so much as to have become a cliché. And yet, it's still an amazingly beautiful and inspiring shot.

But was it worth all the money spent to go to the Moon? There were many people at the time who thought it was a waste, and people today still make that argument. Advocates of space exploration point out that the technologies developed as part of the Apollo program played an invaluable role in advancing our standard of living here on Earth, and there's truth to that, certainly. We have a lot of neat gadgets that we probably never would have developed had it not been for Apollo.

But I want to talk about something else. Look at that image again, and think of how often you've seen it before. It's appeared in books and magazines, T-shirts and posters, advertising campaigns... you name it. It's such a compelling image, it's used everywhere.

Now, copyright and piracy are very much on people's minds these days, and the RIAA in particular is complaining about losing staggering amounts of money to unauthorized copying. Whether their claims are accurate or not, we can agree that images like this photo have commercial value. So I'd like you to consider for a moment just how rich you'd expect to be from royalty payments if you owned the copyright to that iconic photo of the Earth.

Of course, if NASA charged royalties for the use of that photo, it probably wouldn't have been used by nearly so many people, and they almost certainly would have had the same problem that RIAA complains of when it comes to collecting from everyone who uses it. But that isn't really the point. What I want to argue is that if you were to sit down and put a dollar value on the intellectual property of that one, single photograph, taking into account how many people have used it for how many different purposes, the amount of value generated would be staggering. Now, think about these images:

NASA doesn't charge us royalties on using these images. They are part of our culture, and belong to all of us. We are richer for having them. I don't know what dollar value to put on them, but it's got to be pretty large, especially if we listen to RIAA and the film industry.

So forget about all the fancy technology we enjoy as a result of the Moon landings. I think we may even have turned a profit just on the intellectual property assets alone.

Tuesday, 17 July 2012

Addicted to the War on Drugs

How did we get addicted? The same way all addictions start.

We started out with a kind of moralistic malaise; there was something vaguely irksome about those people using that recreational drug. It just didn't seem wholesome. We thought we should do something about it. And so, we passed a law trying to constrain it. And ooooh, that's a good feeling. We've done something! We've taken a stand for righteousness!

Of course, that high didn't last, and after a while we begin to notice that people were still using the drug, despite the reasonable measures we took to curtail it. Sure, some stopped using it, but those who didn't were a somewhat more unsavory sort of person, not just dabbling in a recreational drug, but also defying the law. That just can't be tolerated. So we had to crack down! Enact a tougher law! Yeah, that's the stuff! Moral righteousness, there's no high like it.

And when that high wore off, we noticed that people were still using the drug, except that they'd gone underground, and a decidedly criminal element had become involved. What's more, since the ban made it hard to ship the stuff in its natural form, they started refining out and concentrating the active ingredient and smuggling that more compact product instead. Of course, that just makes the drug itself more potent and more dangerous. So we definitely needed to implement stronger enforcement measures, because good heavens, just  look at how horrible that drug is and the lives it ruins!

And before we knew it, we couldn't quit. We can't bring ourselves to face the terrifying process of easing up on our enforcement measures. These drugs are just so horrible, so bad for people, and the people involved in producing and selling them are such dangerous criminals, how could we possibly stop? No, we need stronger measures to combat these ever stronger drugs on our streets and....

Stop. That isn't going to help. Yeah, I know, we probably can't just go cold turkey. Quitting's going to be a long, difficult and painful process. But we do need to get off the stuff. We need to ease ourselves off the habit of thinking of drugs as a criminal problem, and recognize that at root, it's a health problem.

And recognizing the nature of the problem is the first step towards overcoming it.

Thursday, 12 July 2012

Making Sense of the First Three Commandments

     When I was in the fifth grade, the Gideons came to my school and handed out New Testaments. I still have mine, a tiny red volume with a the Ten Commandments prominently laid out near the beginning. It was reading the third, in particular, that planted a seed of doubt in my young mind. After, all, the commandments about killing and stealing, well, those were pretty straightforward unassailable moral doctrines. I wasn't entirely sure about all of the others; I didn't understand why God would care which day of the week we took off, and as a fifth-grader I simply figured I'd defer questions on the morality of adultery until I knew what it was.
     But the second and third commandments troubled me. For one thing, "graven images" couldn't possibly mean any likeness at all, as the King James version seemed to say. Not only was I raised in an artistic household (although, to be fair, my father's paintings are kind of abstract), but the church had stained glass windows depicting apostles and saints, and there were mosaics and statues all over the place. If the people whose job it was to preach this stuff thought it was okay to make likenesses of these things, then there must be some special meaning to the word "graven" I didn't understand yet.
     The third one is what really got me angry, because unlike the "graven images" thing, everyone around me seemed to have a pretty clear idea of what it meant. It was even explained to me thusly: Don't use the name of God in a disrespectful manner. And I'd seen people scolded for saying things like "God damn it!" or "Jesus CHRIST!" as an expletive.

     Okay, I'll accept that this is a rude thing to do, I thought. But come on. Commandment #6 is "Thou shalt not kill." The ten commandments are supposed to be the ten biggies, right, the really serious important rules? How does using a mere word come anywhere close to making the list, much less coming well before murder as a no-no? I couldn't imagine that God would be so petty, so vain as to be offended by such an ordinary and commonplace utterance, much less condemn someone to eternal damnation for what he might have said after hitting his thumb with a hammer.

     Thus the seeds of doubt were planted, and eventually I found myself simply abandoning any assumption that the authors of the Bible had any more clue what they were talking about than any other mortal of the time.

     Oddly enough, it was only after becoming a de facto atheist that I began to appreciate a subtler and more important interpretation of the commandments that troubled me so, the first three. In fact, I now believe they are the three most important, for believer and non-believer alike, because they are aimed at fostering a proper sense of humility and piety (and yes, I think an atheist can be pious).

     Let's look at the first. "Thou shalt have no other gods before me." Trivially, this is no problem for the atheist to obey, because atheists have no gods at all. But more seriously, notice that it doesn't say "Thou shalt place me before other gods." It just says no other gods before God. God is frequently kind of evasive about putting into words exactly what or who He is; "I am that I am" is kind of vague. And yet, even as an atheist, perhaps even because I am an atheist, I'd insist that there is some kind of absolute, objective reality about the universe, something which for lack of a better term I'd be willing to name "God" simply because it's supreme and not subject to anything else. Or call it "Truth", if "God" is too laden with smiting and silliness. And if we put all the mythological baggage of "God" aside, then it turns out that the commandment to have no other gods before Truth becomes one that preaches a genuine piety.

     The second commandment, in my little Gideon New Testament, was explained to me as meaning not that one should never draw a picture of a flower, but that one should never make artifacts into idols. The paradigm case was right there in Exodus, where some of the Israelites made a golden calf and started worshipping it. Now, this is in a sense a violation of the first commandment, since worshipping an artifact is to have another god before God, but it's an especially tricky case, because it's so much easier to think that by genuflecting before a depiction of something, you're worshipping the thing it depicts and not the mere artifact. Yet the God of the Israelites, like the abstract Truth I mentioned in the paragraph above, is not a physical thing, and cannot be depicted at all. So it does make some sense to make it a separate commandment, which I'll restate as follows: "Never mistake a depiction of the Truth for the Truth itself." Or, to use my favourite Zen saying, "Words are a finger pointing at the moon: look at the moon, not the finger."

     Finally, the third commandment deals with a closely related impiety. It has nothing to do with speaking disrespectfully about the Big Guy, but with having the vanity to think you speak for Him. The commandments doesn't say "Thou shalt not speak the Lord's name in vain"; it says "take". What can it mean to take anyone's name, but to assume to act as an agent for them in some way? And is that not an extremely vain thing to assume, especially if it's God you claim to be speaking for?  The vitally important point here is that you do not get to speak for God, no matter what you think it is you're saying. Everything you think you know is just that: what you think you know. None of it has any divine authority, and every thing you ever say about God (especially, but anything else for that matter) should always be attended by the tacit qualifier "I think that..." or "I believe...."   You don't get to say "God hates fags"; you get to say that you believe God hates fags. You don't get to blame anything you say or think or do on the vain pretence that God told you to. For, as the second half of the commandment goes, "the Lord will not hold him guiltless that taketh His name in vain."
     That's significant, I think. None of the other commandments tack that on, that the Lord won't hold you guiltless if you steal or murder or covet. It's only taking the Lord's name in vain that gets this addendum, and I think it's because the thing that makes taking His name in vain so bad is that it makes you think you're guiltless, that you're playing it safe and just doing what God says. That's kind of the whole point of taking His name; you think you're just following orders.
     Remember Harold Camping, who predicted the world would end last year? I happened to download his PDF explaining his reasoning, which was subtitled "ANOTHER INFALLIBLE PROOF THAT GOD GIVES THAT ASSURES THE RAPTURE WILL OCCUR MAY 21, 2011".  It would have been fine for him to say, "I'm convinced the Rapture will occur, and here are my reasons," but no, he said it was GOD'S infallible proof. What vanity! What arrogance! What a grave intellectual sin, regardless of whether or not you believe there even is a God. 

     You don't need to believe God exists to see this is a sin. But you kind of need to believe God exists to be capable of committing it.