Thursday, 28 June 2012

Streaking and Peeking: A Paradox of Privacy

     Here's something that always used to puzzle me. If I get a ladder and climb up to peer in your second-floor bedroom window to watch you changing your clothes, I commit an offense against you. Yet if I'm walking down the sidewalk, and you appear there nude, you commit a offense against me. In each case, the same thing happens: I see you naked. Yet in the first instance, I'm the bad guy, and in the second, you are.

     I don't deny the moral intuitions here. I do feel that intruding on someone's privacy is wrong, and so peering through someone's bedroom window ought to be condemned. I am less comfortable treating public nudity as a criminal offence, but there is some logic to things. In our culture, at least, there is embarrassment all around when one person sees another person nude in all but a few contexts. The difference between these two cases is whose wilful act instigates the embarrassing incident.

     But I think it's worth paying some attention to how privacy seems to work in things like this, and why we are usually embarrassed when it's violated. Rationally speaking, there really ought not to be anything embarrassing about using a toilet. It's not as if it's a secret; as the title of the book says, everybody poops. Similarly, everyone has a nude body under their clothes. Almost everyone has some kind of sexuality, as well. So the privacy interest can't really be about preventing other people from knowing these shocking truths. And yet, it would undeniably be a violation of my privacy for you to walk into my bathroom while I'm taking a perfectly ordinary shower. And likely you would feel embarrassed as well, inadvertently walking in like that.
     It seems to me that the realm of privacy is not exactly one of secrecy as such, but of polite ignorance, so to speak. You know I poop, and I know you poop. But unless we are very intimate with each other, it's very awkward for both of us to have concrete images of each other engaged in that perfectly normal biological exercise. We don't need to know the details, and it's unseemly and undignified to be interested in them. That's why I'd be embarrassed to walk in on you in the bathroom. I don't wish to appear as if I am interested in such things.

     I found myself reflecting on this while reading the Supreme Court's decision in R. v. Butler. In that case, the Court articulated that the test for obscenity is "concerned not with what Canadians would not tolerate being exposed to themselves, but what they would not tolerate other Canadians being exposed to."


     Ah, so close, I thought! There's one little distinction that I feel they missed. Is it that I wouldn't tolerate someone else being exposed to something, or is it that I wouldn't tolerate knowing that someone else is exposed to it? I don't have a problem with you going to the bathroom; I just don't want to know the details. I would prefer to remain politely ignorant of it, because it is none of my business, and ought not to be made such. Likewise, I don't really care what your sexual fetishes are or what kind of pornography you may be interested in, but I'd really rather not know what turns you on (unless we're very intimate). 
     And so here's the paradox. If we treat obscenity as something we won't tolerate other people being exposed to, then it becomes the state's business to inquire into what they're being exposed to. But the thing that makes me object to what other people look at is precisely that I don't think it's my business and I don't want to know. So investigating and prosecuting obscenity simply exacerbates the problem for me. There's no dignified way for me (whether directly myself or collectively through the state) to concern myself with your private matters. I feel that to intrude on your privacy through obscenity legislation is just as degrading to me as it would be were I to be caught hiding a closed-circuit camera in your bedroom.


     So, I feel ashamed for the moralizing prudes who go on crusades against pornography. I felt ashamed for, well, pretty much the whole of the U.S. Congress when they became so profoundly interested in President Clinton's privately sleazy behaviour. I feel ashamed for those who are expressing outrage that a Manitoba Queen's Bench Justice has a sex life. And I feel ashamed when I see gossip magazines in the checkout line, boasting about the intimate details of celebrity's lives revealed within. These are things are none of our business, and not only should we not be interested in them; we should be studiously, politely ignorant of them when they are revealed to us.


     Last week, an image was being circulated on Facebook, ostensibly by some honourable fellow who had rebuffed some woman's indiscreet advances to him while her brave husband was off at war. "Make her famous" said the caption. And some people joined in, in righteous indignation, forwarded it to help the shameless disloyal slut get her richly deserved public embarrassment. Yet I felt immediately ashamed for those forwarding it, not because it turned out to be a hoax, but because they were showing a disgraceful and inappropriate interest in someone else's private life, just as if they'd climbed up a ladder to peer in a window.


     Decorum, people, decorum.

Monday, 25 June 2012

Rodney King, Karen Klein and the Global Village

     Like most people, I was appalled and disappointed at the video of a group of junior high school students taunting bus monitor Karen Klein this past week. To be sure, I wasn't exactly shocked; there's nothing new about such cruelty, and it's been with us for as long as we've had feelings to hurt. At least, I wasn't surprised by the cruelty; I was amazed at something else, the unseen upside to this story: that it's even a story.
     Not so long ago, cameras were expensive, both to buy and to operate, what with all that film and processing stuff. Things that happened in your daily life were thus ephemeral and, for the most part, had an illusion of privacy. Things you did in public places went mostly unnoticed, and if they were noticed, they were often politely ignored and generally remained anonymous. Vicious acts of cruelty like the taunting of Ms. Klein happened all the time, but they were mostly invisible to us, often by our own choice through our amazing ability not to see or "get involved" in something that makes us uncomfortable.
     But now, cameras are everywhere, and they are changing things. This past week also saw the passing of Rodney King, whose beating at the hands of LAPD officers was (unbeknownst to those officers) videotaped by one of those video cameras that were just beginning to become inexpensive enough to be in the hands of random passersby. Although the aftermath of the video included a disastrous riot, the longer term consequences have had a positive side, which grows as private cameras become ever more ubiquitous: wrongdoers (including police) can no longer rely on the public at large not to notice something. An eyewitness, present on the scene, may feel vulnerable and be trusted to just look the other way, but a camera, especially one no one else knows is there, changes all that.
     The students who tormented Ms. Klein may have known they were being taped; apparently bullies like to record their victims. But like the officers who beat Rodney King, they clearly didn't expect the public to notice. But we did, and we were outraged, possibly even a little disproportionately so because the boys involved are now facing a great deal of harassment themselves. (Also, the fund set up to take donations for Ms. Klein has taken in more than half a million dollars. Arguably both the punishment and the compensation are way beyond the magnitude of the incident itself, but maybe that's one of the lessons here.)

      So that's what I find remarkable about this story, the way it's part of a trend where otherwise unremarkable acts of cruelty (and of kindness) now find their ways to our collective consciousness in ways that they never did before. Marshall McLuhan's Global Village is here, though not necessarily exactly in the way he expected it to manifest. We all live in the same little village now, where if you act like a jerk in public, someone will tell your parents and you'll be shamed and learn your lesson and behave better next time. That's one of the most basic parts of growing up; we do things as kids we end up being ashamed of, because we just hadn't learned to think about other people yet. I'm pretty sure the kids who taunted Ms. Klein have had that epiphany, which is great, and it's nice that so many people have chipped in to give her a bit of compensation, but to me the bigger picture is that there must be thousands of kids out there who saw this whole thing and suddenly understood their own behaviour in a new light, and who have become a lot nicer to their classmates, teachers, lunch ladies and bus monitors as a result.

     In a very few small but encouraging ways, I really think the world is becoming a better place.

Saturday, 23 June 2012

Alan Turing

     Today is the 100th birthday of Alan Turing, and a lot of my friends are circulating graphics on Facebook honouring the great computer scientist. Many of these graphics also mention the grave injustice committed against Turing (and against many others whose names are largely unknown, other than Oscar Wilde) when he was prosecuted for homosexuality. As a computer user, of course, I am in debt to Alan Turing for his contributions to the foundations of this technology. But when I think of Alan Turing, what comes to mind for me most often is the Turing Test.

     Early in the emergence of computers, people spoke of them as "electric brains", and excitedly speculated about how one day soon, computers would be able to think like humans. Well, that's not materialized quite yet, as it turns out human brains work quite differently from binary computers. But it may yet happen, and so the question they asked back then is still worth asking: How could we tell?

     Turing suggested a fairly simple way to answer, which became known as the Turing Test, and works like this. You put the computer in one room, and a human in another, and you allow them to communicate via a teletype machine. (Nowadays, we'd just say to use a chat client or something like that, but it's pretty much the same thing.) The human is not told who or what is on the other end of the machine, but asked to form an opinion as to whether or not it's a human based on the conversation they have over the teletype. If, after a sufficiently lengthy conversation, the human is unable to tell if she's talking to a computer or a human, the computer has passed the Turing Test, and may be considered an actual thinking being.

     Turns out this is a lot harder than it seemed at first. Writing a program just to understand natural language is an amazingly complex task, let alone a program that can formulate an intelligible and relevant response. But it's actually relatively easy to make something that superficially looks like it's doing both. You may have heard of ELIZA, a program written in the mid 1960s which took input in the form of typed English sentences and generated an output (also usually a complete English sentence) that appeared to be an appropriate response to the input. For example, if you typed in something like, "I feel like nobody understands me," ELIZA might respond, "Why do you feel like nobody understands you?"
     Of course, that's not really an intelligent response. All you have to do is strip out every instance of "I" and "me" and replace them with "you", and put "Why do " in front of the resulting string, replacing the final period with a question mark. You'd be surprised how often that works for sentences beginning with the word "I". And ELIZA was programmed with a few similar, simple transformational rules that allowed it to produce surprisingly natural-sounding responses.
     Yet you never got any kind of spontaneous independent thinking from ELIZA. True, there were a couple of tricks built-in to simulate a couple of semi-spontaneous observations. For example, if there were no mentions of any of a list of keywords ("mother", "father", etc.) for some length of time, ELIZA would say something like, "I notice you are avoiding the subject of your family." But even with this, something was always missing. It wouldn't take very long for a most people to decide ELIZA was not actually human, assuming they were aware of the possibility it wasn't. It'd be even faster today, with the variety of chatterbots out there on the web.

     I have on occasion had the very great privilege to teach philosophy at the university level, and every time I've doe so, I've used the Turing Test to explain what it is I want from my students when they write essays. Some students think that the ticket to a good grade is to agree with whatever the professor's opinion seems to be, and I suppose that's actually the case with some professors, but that's not what I wanted from my students. A computer program like ELIZA could repeat or paraphrase what was copied down in notes from lectures, or parsed from the readings. I didn't want that. I told my students I wanted them to pass a Turing Test, to convince me that the papers I was going to grade were written by intelligent, independent thinkers. And I'm pleased to say that most of the time, they were.

Friday, 22 June 2012

I Find Your Lack Of Faith Disturbing: Musing on the Invisible Hand

     A few months ago, a friend of mine told me of a question on an exam he took in an economics course. I'm paraphrasing, but it was something like "Government  intervention can only harm the efficiency of the market: True or false?"  The "correct" answer was "true". Well, I found this troubling for a couple of reasons, most obviously because the underlying ideology (that government is bad for the economy) is so absurdly false.
     It's obviously false if you stop to think about it in any detail because there are forms of government interference without which most of our modern economy would be completely impossible. We have laws, police and courts not only to enforce the property rights that libertarians value so much, but also to enforce the contracts that make up the economy in the first place. Government also flagantly intervenes in the market by creating artificial forms of rights, such as intellectual property, that dramatically transform the economic landscape. And perhaps most pervasively, there is money. Money, a system of currency that enormously facilitates transactions by providing a simple, uniform unit of value, is a service created and provided by government, and it is almost impossible to describe how much that single piece of government intervention enhances the efficiency of the market.

     Okay, so maybe those kinds of government interventions in the economy are necessary, the laissez-faire ideologue might concede. But they're just to ensure the basic requirements of free trade. OTHER kinds of intervention, like taxes and regulations on who can do what with their property, those are always bad. Free markets have to be free, and any time you interfere with that freedom, you lose the benefit of the free market which always axiomatically produces the most efficient possible allocation of resources.

     Hey, I'm totally into that Invisible Hand thing. Free markets are, generally, the best way of finding prices for things, and they tend to produce efficient solutions to allocation problems. Markets adapt to changes in costs of production, availability of substitute goods, and all those unpredictable vicissitudes of  the real world. Price of oil goes up? Well, watch as ripples through the markets spread, and prices of everything else adjust to an optimum distribution given the new cost of energy. Oh look, the rising price of oil has made it economical to invest in that new form of solar energy! Solar electricity becomes cheaper, ripples spread through the market, and a new equilibrium forms.

    So when free market ideologues complain about how the government shouldn't interfere with the free market by imposing taxes on this vice or subsidizing that public good, for fear that it will distort the pure functioning of the Invisible Hand, I am baffled. The Invisible Hand isn't some fickle faerie who will only work its magic if we leave out the right kind of milk and cookies, and will run away and leave us helpless if we offend it. It's a powerful statistical principle, almost on the order of a Law Of Nature. Markets will be free, regardless of how hard we might try to constrain them, because markets are made up of independent individuals, some of whom exercise a great deal of creativity to find a way to exploit them. The Invisible Hand is far, far more powerful than conservatives give it credit for.

     Now, you can argue about whether or not a particular government policy is a good idea. If the government decides to impose a tax on pollution, for example, to try to internalize that externality (to use economist-speak), you can argue about whether or not the tax is the right amount or the best way to address the problem or even whether there's a problem at all. There's lots of valid reasons to favour or oppose any given government policy. But whenever someone starts talking about how it will interfere with the efficiency of the market, I wanna reach out and force-choke them.

Wednesday, 20 June 2012

Open Letter to Losers, or People Who Fear They May Be Losers

     It's happened twice in recent weeks, but it's not really anything new. We hear in the news of some shocking act of violence or depravity, and as the facts emerge we learn that the culprit had Tweeted or posted on Facebook about how soon everyone would be talking about them, or some other such nonsense. It's a little hard for me to fathom, but there are apparently people out there who think that being famous would be some kind of a good thing. Not being famous myself, and thus not having been able to compare fame to non-fame first hand, I may not be an authority, but I can't say I've ever really seen the appeal of fame for its own sake.
     But you may differ. Maybe you do want to be famous. Maybe you want strangers to know your name, to pay attention to you, to turn some portion of their consciousness and memory into a monument to you. In other words, you care what these people think. And so maybe you think they will be impressed if you carry out some notorious crime.

     Well, actually, no. First of all, no one will be impressed if you don't get away with it. And getting away with serious crimes, at least, crimes serious enough to make you famous, is considerably harder than you may think. Take armed robbery, for example. If all you're looking for is fame, this'll likely get you into the headlines for a while, but don't get into it for the money. You see, if you want the money, you have to get away with it, and it takes either a whole lot of brains or a whole lot of luck to do that.

      Now, you may think you're smart enough. But here's a handy test: Can you think of other, easier and safer ways to make more money and fame? If your answer is no, then sorry, you're not smart enough to plan an execute a successful armed robbery.

     Okay, so maybe you think you're lucky enough. But there's also a handy test for that. Have you been lucky enough to possess all the fame and wealth you want? No? Then you're not lucky enough to get away with it. (Also, if you think you can rely on being due for some luck, then you're definitely not smart enough to get away with it.)

     So if that's your plan, to go do an armed robbery or some other wanton act of violence to get famous, well, you're gonna fail. Sooner or later, and probably sooner, you'll get caught because you did something stupid. Chances are, it'll be something you thought was clever and would help you escape, like putting your mother's license plate on your truck to outwit those poor befuddled police. And then, yeah, you'll be famous for a while. You'll make the news.
     But people won't be impressed. They'll be gaping in awe at how incredibly stupid you were. Or they'll be morally outraged at your senseless acts of violence. In any event, they will not be thinking very highly of you.

     Okay, okay, maybe you don't care what they think, so long as it's about you in some way. Maybe you don't mind if they're thinking your an evil monster, if they're hating you and wishing you dead, just so long as they're acknowledging you exist somehow. Maybe you're just so desperate for attention that you're willing to be an object of hatred, if only they'd just please please please pay some attention to you. In other words, maybe you're just that much of a loser.
     Well, that's a harsh word. Unfortunately, it's kind of apt. I don't mean you're a loser just because you want people to pay attention. Everyone needs a little attention once in a while. But someone so desperate for acknowledgment that they're willing to debase themselves with depraved acts of violence and cruelty, just to get people to look at them? That is a loser. Your value as a human being is worth more than that, and throwing it away for fifteen minutes of fame is to lose. And doing something stupid to be famous doesn't make you stop being a loser. It just advertises to the world that you are, in fact, a loser and now you're just famous for being a loser.

     See, here's the other thing. That fifteen minutes of fame? That's pretty much all you're getting. Sure, you may dominate a few news cycles. You may try to milk it for more at your trial. But we're going to get bored of you, and forget, and move on to other things more worthy of our immediate or lasting attention. The families of your victims will remember you, vaguely, with anger and resentment, but mainly they'll remember the loved ones you took from them. Maybe they'll harbour a lasting hatred, but that's just the hatred of a few individuals, and that's not fame. You can get the lasting contempt of a few individuals much more cheaply than spending your life in prison.

     But the masses? Here's how we'll think of you, a few weeks after you fade from the media spotlight. We won't. Once in a while, someone might mention your crime ("Remember a couple of years ago, when that guy shot those people?"), probably without mentioning or even remembering your name. Chances are he'll confuse it with some other crime. ("No, no no, he was that cannibal guy! No, the other one, the guy they caught barking like a dog.")  But as a person, you will be mostly forgotten within your own lifetime. 25 years from now, your parole board will probably never have heard of you before reading the file, but don't think that means they'll let you out.

    Want to be known? Know yourself, and be worth knowing.

Sunday, 17 June 2012

The Man-Cold: Why are Men Such Wimps?

     Having spend the last couple of days largely incapacitated on the couch by a simple common rhinovirus (which may have affected the quality of my last two posts), I've been wondering about the phenomenon of the man-cold, which seems to be more than just an advertising trope. The evidence I have is anecdotal, but it does seem like colds hit men harder than they hit women, and I've been wondering why this would be the case.
     The first thing that occurred to me was that women probably do have somewhat more robust immune systems than men, and that makes a certain amount of evolutionary sense on several levels, mostly having to do with reproduction and child-rearing. Also, let's face it, men are a bit more expendable than women in the gene-propagating game; biologically, dad can check out right after conception and baby can survive and even prosper, while mom needs to stick around for a couple of years after that at least for a decent chance at grandchildren.
     But I don't think that really answers the question. I don't think the symptoms I suffer when I have a cold are really all that much worse than those affecting my wife when she gets it. No, I think it really does come down to men being wimps, at least with respect to things like colds. And I think there's actually a plausible evolutionary reason for that.
     Here's what I mean, first of all, by "wimp": someone with a low tolerance for discomfort. I don't mean pain threshhold, although that's a related concept, because men pride themselves in their ability to press on despite terribly painful injuries. Not that women can't also do this, but rather that we don't see the same kind of gender-linked phenomenon as we do with the man-cold. We don't have "man-sprains" or "man-sunburns". What I'm talking about, at least in the context of men-with-cold-being-wimps, is the kind of discomfort that is not a result of physical trauma gloriously won in battle, but of feeling sick from disease or poison. And I'm suggesting that a low tolerance for that kind of suffering, a propensity to lie in bed and moan from a relatively small degree of discomfort, might actually have served an evolutionary purpose.
     Consider our ancestral environment, and in particular the different social/economic roles filled in hunter/gatherer societies. By and large, hunting (and warfare) have historically and prehistorically been primarily male areas, while gathering has been more open to both genders (if perhaps tending to be dominated by females). Hunting and fighting are kind of a high-performance activities, with rather high stakes for failure. If you go to gather roots and berries with a head cold, well, you may come back with fewer roots and berries than if you were in peak health, but the risks of not coming back at all are not substantially higher; it's still worth it to go ahead and collect food. However, going off to raid another tribe's village, or trying to bring down a giraffe or mammoth, a head cold can put you at substantially greater risk of failure and possibly death. In other words, having a cold can make the odds of a successful hunt so low as to be not worth the trouble.
     Now, nature doesn't generally rely on our cool rational intellect to make these calculations for us. It doesn't lead us to carefully assess how many calories we've consumed recently, and decide how much more we should or shouldn't eat. Rather, it equips us with animal appetites and instincts; we eat because we FEEL hungry, not because we've made a rational calculation that we ought to do so. Likewise, rather than trusting our ancestors to coolly assess the odds of an ill-timed sneeze spoiling an ambush, nature has given us threshholds for various forms of discomfort that make us feel more or less horrible, and more or less enthusiastic about going out and hunting or gathering or whatever it is we normally do.
     And that, I think, is why men are such wimps when it comes to colds. In our ancestral environment, the better decision when you had a cold was not to go hunting, so men are laid low by relatively mild illness, while women will still go out gathering while suffering the very same symptoms. Of course, men aren't wimps in battle, and can ignore pain and fight on despite grievous injuries. But there, the evolutionary payoff is different; it's too late to stay home once you're fighting an angry auroch, so your best chance is to go all-out physically and either kill it or run like hell.
   

Saturday, 16 June 2012

Taxpayers' Money: an Idea Whose Time Should End

     Several years ago, I was involved in an argument on usenet (remember usenet?) with some fellow who was outraged that he was being forced to pay an "illegal religious tax". It seems he'd discovered that many food producers take steps to ensure their food is kosher, which involves having it certified by a rabbi, for which a fee changes hands. Never mind that the fee is tiny, and spread out over thousands upon thousands of bottles of ketchup or pickles or whatever the product happens to be, amounting to a fraction of a cent per unit. Never mind that, by making the food saleable to a larger market, it enables greater economies of scale and might even lower the ultimate retail price of the bottle. This fellow was upset that some of his hard-earned money was going to Jews.
     Now, try as I might, I couldn't persuade him of the difference between a tax (one feature of which is that it's usually imposed by the government, for a start) and a cost of production or marketing. To be sure, I don't think he was interested in rational argument; he just want to vent his antisemitism. But the argument stuck with me over the years as a particularly stupid one, and one I see in a disguised and less obviously stupid form quite commonly. That's why I bristle whenever I hear someone talk about spending "taxpayers' money".

     It's such a common expression, and so apparently uncontroversial, you might be wondering why it should bother me at all. After all, tax money comes from taxpayers, so it makes some intuitive sense to call it taxpayers' money. And people use the expression as a way of emphasizing who that money comes from and why the government has a duty to spend it wisely on their behalf. What's wrong with talking this way, then?
     What's wrong is that it's simply inaccurate. Taxpayers' money no longer belongs to the taxpayers, just like the money you spend on a bottle of ketchup no longer belongs to you. My antisemitic adversary seemed to think that he was entitled to a say as to how Heinz or Kraft spent its revenue, but he was wrong. Of course, if he happened to be a shareholder in a ketchup company, he might have some say in how the company allocated resources, but in his capacity as a customer, no. He got his bottle of ketchup, and that's that. What Heinz spends its money on is none of his business.
     In the same way, as a taxpayer, your money stops being your money when you pay it over to the revenue agency. You have no further claim to it, at least not in your capacity as a taxpayer. You are, in a sense, a shareholder in the collective enterprise of the State, and so yes, in your capacity as a citizen you do have some claim as to how it spends its revenue. But that's as a citizen, not as a taxpayer.

     It may seem like I'm making a big thing out of a minor quibble here, but it is important, because it distorts public discourse in a couple of ways. In large part, this is because we're mistaken on the nature of the tax transaction. We tend to think of it as being forced to pay for roads, schools, hospitals, courts, police, the military and so forth; in other words, we fall into the trap of thinking we're buying these things as taxpayers. We're not. We should not think of the act of paying taxes as a kind of purchase, where we get something in exchange. That imports all sorts of thinking about getting value for your money, which is just inappropriate in the context of taxation, especially since we're used to being able to pick and choose the things we want to buy, and it feels wrong to have to pay for services you never use.
     Well, taxes are not a purchase, at least not in that sense. If they're a purchase of anything, they're a purchase of the privilege of living in a democratic society under the rule of law, and sure, we might not all pay the same dollar cost for that privilege, but we're all subject to the obligation to contribute via taxes in some way. And that is the end of it. You pay your taxes, and the money you pay is no longer yours. It belongs to all of us collectively, and you have one vote as to how we collectively ought to spend it.
      It's perfectly valid to opine, as a citizen, that we ought not to spend so much on this, and we ought to spend more on that, but the arguments to use there should be limited to whether a given expenditure represents a cost-effective allocation of society's scarce resources. Citizens are equal shareholders, and that is how our discourse should proceed. Taxpayers' contributions are not equal, and we should not allow our democratic values to be eroded further in the direction of one dollar, one vote. I'd like to see the word "taxpayer" removed entirely from democratic discourse.

     The "taxpayers' money" argument is simply invalid wherever it appears. Should a pacifist be forced to pay taxes to support the military? Should a vegetarian be forced to pay taxes to support beef inspection? Should stupid people be forced to pay taxes to support schools and libraries? Should criminals be forced to pay taxes to support police? Absolutely any expense that government pays will have someone who opposes it. So what? Opposition is valid, but it should be democratic in nature, not rooted in property claims to money that isn't yours anymore. Don't complain to me about how your money is being spent; persuade me instead that I should be upset about how our money is being spent.

Friday, 15 June 2012

Loyalty vs. Obedience

     A recurring theme on this blog might be distinctions between easily confused concepts. I started out with a post about the difference between faith and belief and I've also written on the difference between theory and fact. Yesterday the CBC reported on a letter sent to Parks Canada employees warning them not to criticize the government and "reminding them of their duty of loyalty". The author of the letter is confusing loyalty with obedience.

     This isn't a new confusion. Shakespeare addressed it very well in King Lear, where the aging king rewarded his daughters Goneril and Regan for their fawning and empty praise, and condemned as disloyal his daughter Cordelia who alone was willing to tell him that his actions would lead to his downfall. It is soon revealed, of course, that Cordelia was the only genuinely loyal daughter Lear had.

     King Lear illustrates very well the difference between loyalty and obedience. Loyalty, whether to a person or an institution, involves more than simply doing what the object of loyalty might desire or demand; it is a genuine concern for the welfare of that person or institution, a commitment to act in their best interests, including providing needed (but perhaps unwanted) counsel. Obedience, in contrast, is simply carrying out instructions.
   
     So what the government is demanding from its employees is not loyalty but obedience. It orders them not to criticize its policies, and expects them to obey. It doesn't care about the reasons for criticism; like King Lear, it just wants to hear what it wants to hear. (We see this also with the Conservatives' systematic removal of any sort of non-partisan information-gathering or expert advisors from the federal budget. They know what they want to do, and have no interest in anyone suggesting what they ought to do.)
     Demanding obedience of public servants is entirely appropriate. The elected government must be able to implement policy by directing public employees to carry it out. That's not controversial at all, and in fact is central to all employment relationships; within the scope of one's employment, one is obliged to obey one's employer's directions. But only within the scope of that employment.

     It's not always a clear line, of course. If you're employed as a commercial airline pilot, your job is flying planes and what you do or say on your own time is generally your own business so long as it doesn't impact on your ability to fly planes safely and on time, but if you publicly badmouth your airline and negatively affect ticket sales, even on your own time, you can expect to be fired.
     That's the argument that the Conservative government is trying to use in justifying its attempts to exert greater control over the speech of public servants, and superficially it seems reasonable. But there's a crucial difference. Government is not a business, at least not in the sense of a competitive market enterprise pursuing profit. An airline can lose market share and thus profits if its reputation suffers. Government cannot. Government is government, regardless of who happens to form it. A political party can certainly be harmed by damage to its reputation, but so what? No civil servant is obliged to help a party get or stay elected.

     Civil servants owe a limited duty of obedience to whatever political party happens to form the government, but if they owe a duty of loyalty it is to the nation and its citizens, not to the political party. Loyalty to the nation demands providing honest counsel, engaging in the democratic process, and saying what one thinks needs to be said. Sometimes that will be at odds with what the party in power wants us to hear. Too bad. We the people don't always have access to all the information we need to make informed decisions around election time, and so it's vital that we hear from everyone who might know something relevant. IT IS NOT for government to control that dialogue!

Thursday, 14 June 2012

After Images: Amateur Adventures in Neuroscience

     Many years ago (perhaps as early as the 1980s?), I remember reading in a book about artificial intelligence something about attempts to develop vision systems where researchers were surprised to find the processed image essentially going blank after a few seconds, if the camera were left pointed at a static scene. I don't remember the details of the book or the experiment, but it's something I've found myself thinking about from time to time, and of course it makes a certain amount of sense when you think about how neural networks work. After all, visual processing isn't just a matter of detecting the intensity of each pixel, but involves picking out patterns: edges, lines, movement, and so on. Layer upon layer of neurons perform this task, each responding to a particular, relatively simple combination of inputs from several neighbouring neurons to decide things like whether or not its tiny area of the visual field includes a boundary between different regions.

     It has recently occurred to me that I may have observed this very same phenomenon with the visual system in my own brain. I had tried to duplicate the result by staring very intently at a single point long enough for things to fade, but that never worked; even in a very calm environment where nothing appears to be moving, the semi-random saccadic eye movements force your field of vision to twitch just enough to keep things dynamic for your neural net.
     But there is a way to imprint a static image directly onto your retina, without any possibility of its moving around. I noticed this one morning as I woke up, and the high contrast image of the daylight through my window against the darkness of the rest of my room left an afterimage when I closed my eyes again. At first the image was a very sharp outline of my window, with every slat of the Viennese blind distinctly visible. But soon it began to blur and fade.
     Afterimages are caused by the retinal cells in your eye being fatigued. The cells fire when exposed to light, sending a signal through the optic nerve to the brain, but it uses metabolic resources to fire, and it takes time to regenerate those resources. Now, I thought the fading of the afterimage, after I closed my eyes again, was simply a matter of my retinal cells recovering from the effort. But then I found I could restore the afterimage for a short time by opening my eyes without looking in the direction of the window. That is, I controlled for the possibility of simply re-burning a similar after image, by looking at my darkened room rather than the window. And the image came back, though as before, only for a few seconds before it faded. I was able to make this happen again and again, for several minutes. Evidently it can take quite a while for retinal cells to rest fully.

     So here's what I think is happening here. The after image on my retina is very static, because it's fixed to actual retinal cells. The layers in my neural net quickly cease to recognize it as a pattern, and stop reporting it, precisely because it is so static. In other words, the brain automatically filters out these artifacts of the optic system itself, compensating for the fact that one retinal cell might be giving less than its normal response and another nearby one is giving its full signal, and reconstructing what the scene "really" looks like without the local variations of sensitivity.
     And when you think about it, it makes perfect sense that our visual system would adapt this way, since it's supposed to tell us what's happening in the world around us, not irrelevant administrative details about how each retinal cell is performing.

Thursday, 7 June 2012

LARP Ethics and Why Linda Gibbons' Case Isn't Inflaming the Passions of Civil Liberty Groups

     The other day, a friend called my attention to the case of Linda Gibbons, who has spent a great deal of time in jail in connection with picketing abortion clinics. My friend was concerned about what he sees as hypocrisy among civil liberty groups who have not rallied to defend Ms. Gibbon's free speech, apparently because it's speech that goes against the right to have an abortion which civil liberty groups support.

     I was troubled by this as well at first, and still am to some extent. My own view is that freedom of speech is the most basic, most fundamental, most indispensable right in any society that aspires to being in any way just. I've long held that the proper approach to things like hate speech is to counter it forcefully with intelligent and persuasive criticism, rather than to attempt to silence it through censorship. So my gut feeling is that people ought to be permitted to peacefully express their opinions anywhere and at any time, and my instinct is that injunctions against peaceful protest had better have very, very good reasons or they shouldn't be granted.
     The problem for me is that I don't really know if the injunctions in this case were really warranted. On the one hand, there's the freedom of speech point, which militates very strongly against any such injunction. Yet at the same time, we have to remember the situation on the ground in the access to abortion issue; it's not always easy to draw the line between legitimate, peaceful demonstration and intimidation which has no place in a free society.
     Intimidation, real menacing intimidation, can be quite subtle, and depends very much upon context. Let's consider the circumstances. First, genuine violence has been carried out against abortion clinics, their staffs and patients. Moreover, not all involvement in violence is direct; there have been (and for all I know still are) websites that publish the names and home addresses of abortion providers with the implied intention of facilitating harming them. So the act of peacefully standing by an abortion clinic, expressing your disapproval, isn't necessarily going to be interpreted that way; there's also the unavoidable unspoken message: "I see you, I know what you're doing, and I think you're a murderer."
     Second, consider the demographics of the targets of protests: women with unwanted pregnancies. A significant number are likely alone, feeling especially vulnerable and struggling with a very difficult life choice, and especially in need of privacy. Some may have parents or friends or family from whom they wish to keep this decision. In that context, even a genuinely peaceful protest can be especially intimidating.

     I think what made me sensitive to this issue was thinking about a question in LARP ethics, of all things, several years ago. The question arose: is it ever okay to roleplay a rape scene? (I am assuming that the roleplayed scene would be described rather than physically acted out.) In general, I see LARP (when it's done well, that is) as an expressive medium, a legitimate form of theater in which no subject matter should be off-limits. However, one always needs to be sensitive to one's audience, and especially so in LARP where one's audience may be just one person. If I and a female player are off in the woods ostensibly seeking the lair of some ogre, and then when no one else is around I suddenly turn on my partner and roleplay an assault, I had better be very sure she knows and trusts me very well, and understands the artistic legitimacy of what my character is doing and why, because otherwise the unintended message she receives could be "Oh look. We're along in the woods, I'm bigger than you, and the thought of raping you just crossed my mind. Of course, it doesn't have to be rape..." That is absolutely not a message you want to send, and so I reluctantly concluded that, in some contexts, it's legitimate to limit certain kinds of speech, even when the intent is perfectly innocent.
     I'm not entirely comfortable with that, but I can live with it, in part because other contexts exist where it is safe to discuss the same themes without realistic fear of being misunderstood. (Some people will misunderstand you no matter what, of course, but that can't be helped.) If one can't responsibly address issues of rape in a LARP, one can still write novels, essays, and discuss the topic in safe environments where no threat can reasonably be inferred.

     And so the same seems to me to be true of the injunctions Ms. Gibbons violated. It does seem extreme, on the face of it, to prevent all protesting within a certain distance of the abortion clinic, and so I'm not fully comfortable with that. At the same time, I can see arguments for why such an injunction might well be reasonable, and of course she is still free to express her views anywhere else.

      (I feel a need to contrast this with other so-called "free speech zones", by the way, where authorities prohibit any demonstration or expression of certain views within a certain distance of a motorcade route or conference site. I am steadfastly against those sorts of limits, and the difference there is about who has the power, and who gets to control the message. A lone young woman going to terminate a pregnancy has virtually no power, and is very vulnerable. The President of the United States giving a speech to campaign contributors doesn't fall into that category, and his purpose in clearing the streets of signs and t-shirts of contrary messages isn't to be shielded from intimidation, but to control the image: he looks better on TV when he appears in front of crowds of enthusiastic supporters than if there are signs of dissent.)

     But as I said, I'm not really sure where I stand on this one, because I'm not fully convinced the original injunctions were fully reasonable. I can see reasons why they might be, but I'm uncomfortable about any limits on free speech. And that, at least, I think explains why there hasn't been as much of an outcry from civil liberty groups about Ms. Gibbons' case. Two important civil liberties are in conflict here, the right to seek lawful medical intervention without being intimidated, against the right to free speech. The case is nuanced, and it's not immediately clear which side someone who values both liberties should take.

Tuesday, 5 June 2012

Why I'm Against the Death Penalty

     The other day, I mentioned parenthetically that I would get to me reasons for opposing capital punishment in another post. Ere I forget, I'm writing that another post now. I have two main reasons for my position. One is moral/philosophical, and I might get to that in another post. The other is legal, and that's what I'm going to talk about in this article.

     There are two kinds of rights we have in our legal system, substantive and procedural. Substantive rights include what we usually think of as basic human rights (rights not to be tortured, to worship or believe what one will, to vote in elections, and so forth) but also can include special rights such as those gained under a contract or by statute; under a contract, if you do your part, you have a right to what the other party promised. Substantive rights can be disputed at times, and won or lost under various circumstances.
     This is where procedural rights come into play. Procedural rights are rights to a fair process (hence the name) by which substantive rights can be determined. So, for example, you have a procedural right to a fair trial to decide whether or not you lose your substantive right not to be imprisoned.
     Procedural rights are interesting because although we usually speak of them as belonging to the accused (in criminal matters) or to the litigants themselves in civil matters, they are actually more diffusely owned by society as a whole. That is, we all have an interest in procedural fairness, and we all lose if our procedures become unfair (even if some of us happen to benefit from the unfairness). It's just that the parties to the dispute are the ones most immediately concerned with the process, and thus most likely to zealously assert those procedural rights. Besides, if one party should choose to waive those rights in a given case, no one else is in a position to complain about unfairness.
     Now, while substantive rights can be won or lost, procedural rights ought to be absolute, in part because they don't just belong to the accused. There is no crime so heinous that we would want to say you lose your right to a fair trial; no matter what you're accused of, you have a right to insist that the state prove its case against you before it can mete out punishment. And society also has a right to insist this as well, because (1) none of the rest of us want the state to be able to punish us without proof, and (2) society has an interest in making sure that we've got the right guy; it wouldn't do to convict you while the real culprit goes free.
     My legal problem with capital punishment, then, is not that it takes away substantive rights, but that it extinguishes all rights, substantive and procedural, absolutely and irrevocably. Once someone is executed, there is no possibility that new evidence can exonerate them, or that the law on sentencing could be changed, or that the Crown might grant a pardon. While I have considerable trust in the legal system in principle, part of that trust derives from the fact that it includes so many error-correction mechanisms, such as appeals, Acts of Parliament, and Crown prerogatives. Capital punishment deprives society of the opportunity to correct its errors.

Sunday, 3 June 2012

Little Joys of Discovery #1

     Every so often I learn something new in the most delightful way. Today I was out weeding the garden, turning soil to prepare for planting some vegetables, when I was surprised to come across this:


     As you can see, it's part of a wasp nest. The top image shows what surprised me: instead of hanging from the bottom of a branch somewhere, it's attached to the roots of the grass I was removing from the vegetable garden. That is, the paper nest had be constructed completely underground. I'm used to seeing wasp nests above ground, in trees or under the eaves of my garage, like this one, which I excised from our apple tree one autumn a few years ago and have been keeping in a sealed plastic box because it was just such a fabulous specimen:


    Now, you may have known this all along, but it simply never occurred to me that wasps might go to all the trouble to excavate an underground chamber and then go ahead and make this elaborate paper structure as well. I suppose I just assumed that what with the paper and the stings, wasps wouldn't bother to dig like this. And yet they do, and I feel richer for having found that out first-hand, rather than from a book or a blog, as much as I like books and blogs.

     I recall the same sort of experience a few years ago, lying on the grass and happening to notice a bee landing nearby carrying a piece of a leaf, before it disappeared into a tiny burrow in the ground. I was astonished. I had, of course, heard all about leafcutter ants, and their marvellous underground fungus farms, but somehow I had never heard of leafcutter bees. So I promptly went and looked them up, and it turns out they're very important pollinators for many crops. A few years later, I was replacing some rotten boards on our deck, and found tunnels lined with leaves, and packed with yellow powdery deposits I assume was pollen, stored for the bee's young. (Yes, singular possessive "bee's"; apparently leafcutter bees are a solitary species.) I wish I had taken a picture.

     While I had the camera out for the wasp nest, I also took a couple of other shots of delightful discoveries I happened upon today, though neither quite so surprising to me as learning that wasps built paper nests underground. After all, I knew that robins ate worms, though I was puzzled at why this one seemed to be just idly sitting there on the wire for so long without either eating its prey or taking it home to feed its chicks.

      I also knew that chives spread like weeds, but I was still pleased to find this one, almost as it if had been posing for a photo. Usually I find it disguised as tall grass, hiding from the lawnmower behind the raspberry bushes.


     So much for today's self-indulgent photo essay.

Saturday, 2 June 2012

You'd feel differently if...

     Yesterday I wrote about the idea of using convicted criminals for medical experiments, prompted by a Facebook status/share/chainletter thingy. Reading through the comments in support of this barbaric idea, I saw a few people who spoke out against it on basically humanitarian grounds, and the responses to these typically took the form of this argument: "You wouldn't say that if you or someone you loved were a victim of these monsters!"

    This is a very common argument, although I rarely see it in any context outside of crime and punishment. I happen to be opposed to the death penalty (for reasons I'll get to in another post), and nearly every time I get into a debate with someone who's in favour, they bring it up. It's easy to understand why: it's a very emotionally powerful argument, and what's more, it appears to be very effective at bringing out a contradiction in the position of the one arguing against capital punishment. How hypocritical, you might say, that I would oppose the death penalty in general but favour it for someone who had killed one of my loved ones. How hypocritical that I might oppose torture for molesters of other people's children while calling for the torture of anyone who molested my own.

     But there's a reason why we don't see this form of argument in other contexts: it's because it's actually a pretty stupid argument, when you stop to think about it carefully. Yes, it's true that I'd probably strongly desire the death of someone who murdered someone I loved. So what? Since when does powerful emotional trauma make someone a better judge of what is to be done? Is it not widely accepted in most other contexts that a strong emotional investment in an issue usually disqualifies one from making rational, objective decisions? We require judges to recuse themselves from hearing cases where they have close connections to one or both parties, and it's generally better if your surgeon isn't also your lover. Likewise, decisions concerning penal policy probably ought not to be made by those with an overwhelming personal agenda.

     It goes farther than that, though. Let's suppose we accepted the idea that overwhelming emotional desires made people better qualified to make policy decisions. It'd be hard to argue against a policy whereby the government provided free heroin to everyone on demand; after all, you'd feel differently if you were addicted to heroin and going through withdrawals!
     Indeed, this is where the argument finally becomes self-defeating. After all, it relies in large part on our shared sense of moral outrage against pedophiles and violent criminals; we want to say that we are entitled to judge these people's actions as wrong. Yet much of the time, probably most of the time, what they do is driven by overwhelming emotional desires. "Don't tell me not to molest children," one might tell us, "You'd feel differently if you were subject to powerful pedophiliac urges!" Well, yeah, I would feel differently. But I'm entitled to say I'd still be wrong to act on those urges, even if I had them.

     And so, by the same reasoning, I can say that while I might desperately want the state to execute someone who'd murdered someone I loved, it'd still be bad policy and bad for society at large to indulge that desire. It's natural, and perhaps even healthy, to want things that are ultimately bad for us. It's also right and proper to refuse to satisfy those wants.

Friday, 1 June 2012

On Using Prisoners for Medical Experiments

     This morning, one of my friends on Facebook shared an image which was basically just the following text: "Why test on Animals when we have Prisons full of Pedophiles?"

     It's an attractive idea. The the posting from which it was shared has, as of this moment, 44,463 shares and 3,169 likes. Of the hundred or so comments I skimmed through, a significant majority were enthusiastic approval, and only a tiny handful expressed reservations. Of those, all of them were based on a vague notion that cruelty and revenge are barbaric, and those were invariably criticized with almost as much venom as that directed against the pedophiles themselves.
     But as viscerally appealing as it might be to try to extract some positive benefit to society from people who do so much harm, it's a terribly dangerous idea, and so much more so because the danger is so subtle. I mean, on the face of it, what's not to like? Evil people suffer, good people benefit with medical cures.

     What's not to like is the insidious corrupting effect this idea will inevitably have on the administration of justice. The only consideration in finding someone guilty or not guilty of a crime should be whether or not the evidence points beyond a reasonable doubt towards guilt. A person should never be found guilty for reasons other than actually being guilty, and the danger of turning convicted criminals into any kind of valuable resource, whether it be labour, medical test subjects, or organ donors, is that someone will have an interest in seeing people convicted in order to realize the benefits of that resource.

     Imagine, for instance, that you are a judge or juror in a system where those convicted of serious crimes are executed and harvested for organ transplants. Imagine also that you have a child who will die without a liver transplant in the next month or so. The case before you is a man accused of a particularly nasty violent crime, and the evidence suggests that he's the most likely suspect. How much doubt is reasonable, when that doubt potentially costs your child a liver?

     That sounds like an extreme case, and we don't (yet) harvest criminals for organs in North America. (In Canada, we don't even execute them, so it's less likely to be a problem here unless we reinstate the death penalty.) And sure, the potential benefit from a cure found by experimentation on a single accused is so remote that it shouldn't influence the decision making in a single case, right?
     Well, not necessarily. The beneficiaries of a policy that made convicted pedophiles into test subjects wouldn't immediately be the patients whose diseases might one day be cured, but the pharmaceutical (or cosmetics?) companies looking for test subjects. There's value in that, monetary value. Profit. And where there's profit as an incentive, it'll find a way to grow.
     Consider the case of Mark Ciavarella, a judge in Pennsylvania recently convicted of receiving around a million dollars in "finders fees" from a for-profit detention center. This organization receives a fee from the state for every person committed to its care, which is how it earns its revenue and hence profits. Evidently they considered it a worthwhile investment to provide Mr. Ciavarella with a financial incentive to find juveniles guilty and sentence them to terms in its facility; more teens in care meant more profits, so up the conviction rate.

     Oh, but that's outrageous corruption, you might say. Obviously, judges who do that sort of thing should be charged and convicted, and just because someone does something illegal doesn't mean the system is bad when it's run by people who obey the law, right?
     Well, no, but there are lots of ways money can influence the system when it has an incentive to do so. And if it's in the financial interests of anyone, whether they be pharmaceutical companies or private prison operators, to increase the conviction rate then they will do so by whatever means is most cost effective, including lobbying for "tougher" laws to make it easier to find an accused guilty, relaxing the evidentiary standards for guilt, removing funding for things like Legal Aid intended to give the accused adequate legal representation, and so on. All of these things we see happening, in the U.S. and also, perhaps, in Canada. (The Conservatives haven't made public any plans for privately operated prisons so far, but they haven't really been very forthcoming about much of anything, and the way they've sold their crime omnibus bill certainly is consistent with such an agenda.)

     Crime is bad. That's something I think we can all agree on, and it's something we all ought to agree on. It follows from crime being bad that we'd all want to reduce it, so there's as little crime as possible. Who could possibly say it would be good to have more crime?
     I'll tell you who. Anyone who profits from it. And turning criminals into a resource for anyone's benefit creates people who profit from it.