Thursday, April 30, 2009

Jon Stewart vs. Cliff May

Continuing our ongoing series on torture, Jon Stewart's extended interview/debate with Cliff May on Torture is pretty interesting, the three parts are up here.

I thought the most philosophically interesting part of the conversation hit in the third clip. Cliff May points out the incongruity of claiming that torture is impermissible, while shooting suspected terrorists in Pakistan with Predator missles is. Stewart responds that different rules apply when people are "on the battlefield."

I think the distinction Jon is trying to make is that captured agents are "defanged," and that it's less humane to mistreat people who cannot harm you.

Where I disagree is when high level terrorists have direct knowledge of impending attacks. By withholding this information they are threatening specific harm, the harm of those attacks going unaverted.

One possible response might be that the harm threatened is through an omission, "not telling," rather than an act, like "shooting at you." But the act/omission distinction doesn't hold very much meaning in this situation. The person in custody is the very same person who set the harmful course into effect (through planning and encouraging future terrorist attacks). It's like at the end of Dark Knight, where Batman says "I can't kill you, but I don't have to save you," after Batman has basically completely engineered Ra's al Ghul's demise. The moral distinction between acts and omissions is sometimes meaningful, but becomes silly when the omission is "preventing a harm I already caused."

But even if we agree there's a gap between training camps and prisons, and that a captured individual is simply off-limits by virtue of his capture. When our intuitions tell us that to prevent an attack it's ok to drop a bomb on 20 "suspects" rather than torture one confirmed high level terrorist, our intuitions are telling us something at least somewhat puzzling.

Condi Rice vs. The Student

Condoleezza Rice struggles at civility responding to a student's question about torture. I get the feeling Bush Administration officials could have used more practice responding to challenging questions. via FP Passport.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Bush Administration: Torture Not Actually Helpful, Just Really Fun

I can understand why some people would oppose torture no matter its effectiveness. I can understand those who believe torture would be acceptable if preventing some greater harm, but unacceptable if ineffective. I cannot begin to understand why anyone would lie to suggest torture was effective when they knew that it was not.

Torture for the sake of torture? That's like supervillain evil.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

PEP 8: Hard Coding Poor Style?

PEP 8, the style guide for Python, contains a great deal of sensible advice for writing readable code. The discussion of comments, explanatory prose sprinkled throughout a program, insisted upon some interesting conventions.

1. "You should use two spaces after a sentence-ending period."

The two space rule is no longer standard practice. In fact, the vast majority of contemporary style guides recommend one space.

2. "When writing English, Strunk and White apply."

The linguists at Language Log blame the Elements of Style for Fifty Years of Stupid Grammar Advice. The style advice is at times vacuous (e.g. "Omit needless words", "Be clear"), at other times simply incorrect (avoid adjectives and adverbs, 'none' takes the singular, never begin a sentence with 'However', etc.).

The recommendations on the readability of code in PEP 8 reflect that they were compiled by experts at that craft. The above recommendations drift into the readability of prose, and appear decidedly less authoritative. To be fair, I doubt these conventions are carefully followed. I was mostly struck by the hubris of providing a rule in a programming guide about an authoritative source for English grammar or style.

Commercial Radio's Swan Song

Dan Lybarger has a piece on how local radio (and maybe conglomerated journalism more widely) has failed us all, with some memorable examples.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

rc3 on the Dilemmas of Environmentalism

rc3 has a neat post on some dilemmas in environmentalism.

The closer:

Higher commodity prices create incentives to limit waste, but also make increasingly invasive extraction methods economically feasible. There was a recent article in National Geographic about mining for gold in the face of rising gold prices that exemplifies this problem. Rising commodity prices lead directly to habitat loss, which is the primary cause of species extinction.

The linked article from Mother Jones is not bad either. Industry primarily controls our rate of waste, waste is costly, and industry is highly sensitive to cost. Perhaps not the intention of the author, but it certainly appears by the end of the piece that markets reduce waste far more effectively than environmentalists.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Contra Hard IP (styled after Kevin Murphy)

France made me consider stating my concerns with hard IP protections in another way. Here's a tentative sketch of an argument, inspired by Kevin Murphy's analysis of the stimulus earlier this year.

Kevin Murphy developed an equation including all the meaningful variables he could imagine to evaluate the social utility of any stimulus. I'm going to attempt a similar approach to determine the social utility of hard IP. (Note: I have no reason to suspect Kevin Murphy would endorse the following argument, he simply inspired it.)

By "hard IP," I mean any regime which confers monopolistic control upon IP creators.

So let's lay out a few relevant variables!

u2 = social utility conferred by the consumption of all IP produced under hard IP controls, and that
u1 = social utility of all IP produced without hard IP

There's an argument that u1 > u2, because it has cheaper inputs. Lawrence Lessig argues [1, 2, 3] that culture would be improved if we encouraged this type of cultural sampling and remixing. Bossearts et al. demonstrate in a recent Science article how collaborative IP models can encourage an even greater number of scientific discoveries than the hard IP of patents. Softer IP allows many more interested consumers to access the most useful intellectual properties. It increases utility by, and this may be a misuse of this term, reducing producer surplus. The utility of intellectual products would not be limited to those willing to pay.

Let's set these arguments aside for now and assume u2 > u1, as hard IP advocates insist. Let's suppose that higher quality products are incented by hard IP, and these products are of such higher quality that this quality increase outstrips any other gains u1 might confer upon society. The difference here, (u2 - u1), will measure the relative increase in utility flowing from intellectual products when moving from a soft IP society to a hard IP society. This increase is disputed, but let's assume it exists.

Let us also take...
c = total cost of all protected goods sold
g = deadweight loss of government resources used to police the property controls

We should prefer hard IP iff:
u2 - u1 > c + g

It may be tempting to exclude c from our analysis (and I'd actually like an economist to weigh in on its consideration). You might say, "well, that money is going to IP creators, so that cost is not really 'lost' from the system." I worry that objection is just a form of the broken window fallacy. Costs are costs, you can't wipe them out by following the money to see what later good it does. The purchasers of IP in a hard IP regime spent those dollars on IP rather than diverting those dollars to some other productive activity, so they suffered a cost due to the hard IP regime.

We know that c > u2, because IP provides monopolistic protections. Monopolistic rents inevitably exploit consumer surplus, resulting in a deadweight loss. So if these monopolistic inefficiencies are "m", then c = (u2 + m).

So, back to the math, we should prefer hard IP when:
u2 - u1 > u2 + m + g, or:
-u1 > m + g

Some who attack a soft IP solution might insist that the quality of created content under any alternative system would descend so as to be nonexistant. So let's set u1 at 0, to humor this camp completely.

Under that assumption, we should prefer hard IP so long as:
0 > m + g

The only way we would want to prefer hard IP is if the government cost of such a regime was negative, or that the benevolent individuals owning these properties never extracted any monopolistic rents, but instead provided sub-profitable discounts on their products.

I especially worry about the role of "g" in small territories who are required to implement hard IP regimes before joining the WTO.

This gives a rough sketch of my skepticism of our current "strong" IP regime. This argument is a bit of a work in progress, so I welcome anyone to suggests variables I may have left out, or inappropriately assessed. It's a radical conclusion, suggesting we'd be better off with no IP than IP protected by government enforced monopolies, so please help me refine the analysis if you can.

UPDATE 4/16: edited for consistency in terminology

France's Assembly Rejects Sarkozy's Plan to Kick Copyright Violators Off the Internet

The NY Times provides the details.

Apparently the political tactics involved were pretty animated. The Assembly is a 577 member panel. The measure failed by a vote of 21 to 15. The conservative proponents sat alone waiting for the vote, expecting it to pass without opposition. The socialist party rushed in a small coup at the last minute to catch Sarkozy's group off guard.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Some Highlights from TIME's 25 Best Blogs of 2009

Because I know you are all too busy to click through a list of 25 that TIME refuses to put on one page.

  • Generacion Y: a blog written about harsh political realities in Cuba, written from within Cuba. The prose alone merits a read. On the normalization of relations between Obama's US and Cuba: "What will the party militants think if they’re ordered to accept those whom, until recently, they hated? How can David look good in the photos if, instead of the stone and the slingshot, he sits down to talk to Goliath?"
  • Bad Astronomy: a blog on astronomy. Check out this piece on a picture of the Shuttle docking with the ISS that an amateur astronomer took from the ground.
  • Detention Slip: A collection of completely sensational stories about schools. Shootings here, teachers assaulting kids there, drug use everywhere, it all runs together fairly quick.
  • /Film: A welcome alternative to the smarmy, conflict of interest ridden cesspool that is "Ain't it Cool News."
  • Pop culture blog Bleat didn't blow my mind, but it did link to this excellent free movie creation site, Xtranormal. Xtranormal provides a series of tools for you to direct a movie using pregenerated character animations, and utilizing text to speech for the voices. The results are, well...

  • "Moon" Trailer

    Sam Rockwell as a lunar miner, Kevin Spacey as a crazy robot, what's not to love?

    Hopefully the movie won't be scuttled by heavy handed political commentary about energy companies.

    Traveling Through Time? A few things to remember...

    Also, a handy guide to a few of our most useful and profound inventions so far.

    Saturday, April 11, 2009

    Terminator Ends, Probably For Good

    Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles wraps up the season. The numbers suggest it was the series finale.

    The show consistently exceeded my expectations. The writers constantly included little moments to prove they were one step ahead of the audience. A character might say something odd, or make a mistake, another character would inevitably call them on it just as the snarky comment was coming out of your mouth. In this final season, the writers did an excellent job of building to a few surprises, and making you feel like you should have put it all together long ago.

    While there were some action sequences, the most notable thing about the show is how grimly it painted the life of John Connor. It stayed near the tone of the first film, not the latter two. In one episode, a psychologist compares John Connor's behavior to that of a combat vet, someone with PTSD. In another, John gets in a fight with another kid and nearly snaps his neck, to the horror of all onlookers. John Connor is not a Christ figure, he is this side of an anti-hero built to fight a coming terror, and you never forget how awful his life is.

    The dream episode and the UFO bit were a bit of fluff, but it all tied together rather nicely; at the end of the show, everything fit. Compare with Battlestar Galactica, hailed as a triumph even while so many plotlines (Lee's prostitute, the little kid following Starbuck around in season one) were simply dropped as soon as they got in the way.

    The finale of Battlestar Galactica swung 2.364 million viewers. The Terminator numbers for the final episode: 3.6 million. I understand that our expectations for network and cable are different, but it's a sad world where we consider the former a smash success and the latter a failure.

    Of course, every time I read the Nielsen blogs, I get depressed. The Wire will never be seen by as many people as NCIS. Moreover, almost all television pales next to the unstoppable power of WWE RAW.

    Tuesday, April 07, 2009

    Death of Blockbuster, Ascent of Netflix

    Is this related to this?

    Has Cringely Sold Out or Just Lost His Mind?

    A few months ago, Robert X. Cringely shook off the editorial chains of PBS to operate independently. Since that time, he has insistently pushed a number of new sites or technologies:

    * Home Account, a mortgage management site Cringely personally helped create (described by one commenter as "a huge dissapointment")
    * Parrot Secrets, a $70 book for parrot owners (described by many commenters as an outright scam)
    * Neokast, a media distribution service that sounded revolutionary, but never got off the ground.

    Cringely can't be expected to get everything right, and sometimes his claims are unpopular at one time but appear brilliant years later, so I might be willing to forgive these three endorsements.

    It's in his latest column where he reaches the apex of absurdity. He claims that Antek Metal Foil Drives could give Google an 85% gain in power efficiency, and that they know this, but that they are choosing not to pursue the technology because they secretly hate him. It started out as a really well informed, rational column, but somewhere towards the end it simply slips off the moorings.

    Please, Cringely, go back to PBS, or just hire someone to tell you to rewrite a third of your columns. We really need your perspective, but you really need an editor.

    Experimental Gaming

    The Guardian lists the hottest Experimental Games in a recent article. Interesting list. Many focus on letting the player interact with the very sequence of events, like changing the course of time, or becoming the storyteller.

    So far, gaming has occasionally tried to emulate the storytelling power of films and novels. This level of empowerment might provide a storytelling direction gaming can explore that no other media can follow.

    Sunday, April 05, 2009

    Alternatives to Patents

    Intellectual property law involves extending monopolies to individuals to reward them for creative effort. Monopolies are notoriously inefficient, but they are considered a Hobson's Choice for the development of new pharamaceuticals: you can get results with monopolies or not at all. (Patent monopolies sometimes lead to startling ethical results, like when genetic researchers shut down cancer-screening nonprofits).

    Finally, however, economists have tested an old model for incenting solutions to complex problems without patents.

    Indeed, in the market setting more people solved the problem on average [than in a patent based system]. There are two possible explanations. First, the winner-take-all nature of the patent system may have deterred some of the weaker participants from exerting effort. Second, and more interesting, is that the prices in the market system did in fact incorporate information about the optimal solution - thus market prices may have given people hints about the optimal solution, much like seeing a partial solution to a jigsaw puzzle.
    -Bossaerts et al. via Marginal Revolution Click through to see how it all worked.

    My worry is how the WTO is exporting IP regimes by tying IP protections to development opportunities for poor nations. These nations have to develop complex IP protection infrastructures that often besiege their local foundling judicial systems, pushing ordinary justice to the side to protect the desires of multinational corporations. This global assumption that strong IP is the only way forward prevents different countries from even experimenting with other medical research systems. Even if the patent system proves to be the best system there is, it's unfortunate that we must completely trample any experimentation in this area.

    For a "patents aren't so bad, at least not in pharma" counterpoint, consider this piece from Reason on The Tragedy of the Anticommons.

    Carbon Regulation Skepticism, Variations One and Two

    There are two major threads of climate change skepticism. The first argues that climate change is not real, while the second just argues that it's not worth preventing. (Considering the second thread, carbon regulation skepticism might be a more accurate label for these two positions.)

    The first thread, hard climate change skepticism, raises scientific objections which are mostly laughed at. The CATO Institute recently put out a full page ad in the New York Times, the the Los Angeles Times, and a few other papers, arguing that the science behind climate change is largely exaggerated.

    Politifact raises some problems with this argument. For starters, the ad's citations do not support the ad's claims.

    Defending the ad, we have the NRO explaining how sometimes biased minority positions are actually correct. As a post on The New Republic notes, this was not the most persuasive followup.

    Ryan Avent describes this as an existential crisis for libertarianism. Libertarians look like fundamentalists when, forced to choose between science and their beliefs, they begin attacking the science. It appears as dogmatic and absurd as, say, suggesting that condoms should not be used in the fight against AIDS.

    The soft climate change skeptics aren't necessarily committed to a rejection of global warming at all. Inspired by the Chicago-school libertarians, this group is just interested in the full cost-benefit analysis.

    These economics minded individuals realize that cheap, abundant energy is currently pulling most of the world out of poverty and despair (also recommended: Hans Rosling on how industrialization and high populations can be wonderful things). Cheap energy powers everything we aspire to do, whether it be feeding the poor, distributing life saving drugs, or even researching and developing cleaner energy sources.

    Because of these benefits to cheap energy, and because fossil fuels still have an extremely high energy return on investment (despite the warning cries from the peak oil/peak coal communities), there are real economic costs to carbon regulation. These are costs climate scientists are not accustomed to evaluating. If we want to approach climate change by changing our energy portfolio, these costs must be scrutinized, weighed against the benefits. Now, as that NRO article points out, people operating outside their discipline can sometimes get things right, but it's still nice to involve the econometricians at this stage, just as we involved the climatologists earlier.

    For instance, ask an econometrician if green energy investments might actually help the economy, and they will tell you that this is basically the broken window fallacy. They might also tell you that increasing energy costs primarily affect the poor, and they might ask how many people should we be ready to starve to keep temperatures more stable.

    If you believe climate change will lead to irreversible apocalypse, your answer should be "as many as it takes." If that's the ultimate implication of a position, one would hope it was open to a thorough debate regardless of the apparent consensus.

    This "soft skepticism" has proven persuasive. I would be surprised if CATO's tack persuaded anyone.

    Airline Safety Controls are Laughable

    "No electronics on airplanes" is a worthless reg; Tech dirt has the details.

    With all the needlessly aggressive and often ineffectual security measures, I had wondered for a long time about that ban. That article crosses off a few plausible explanations.

    I do not buy the ban as a courtesy to annoyed passengers. It's a security reg, not a reg from a customer satisfaction council. I do not buy the ban to keep people attentive during takeoffs and landings, or alcohol would be more aggressively regulated. Maybe the FAA can't ban alcohol because airlines thrive on its sales. And maybe bans phones to encourage use of the skyphones. In other words, maybe the FAA isn't completely incompetent, just subject to regulatory capture.

    That's probably too conspiratorial. Perhaps it is just historical baggage from Pan Am 103, where the terrorists utilized a radio cassette to disguise a detonator.

    I really think the cell phone ban serves a far more direct and contemporary purpose. This purpose might be shared with the aggressive security inspections and bans on innocuous items like nail clippers. Loud but useless regs are an easy way to put "drugs on the table", to crib a phrase from The Wire. It's a way to look busy. This agency has had some practice at that game, much as Kasparov has played a game or two of chess.

    Friday, April 03, 2009

    The Board Gaming Subculture (NY Times)

    The New York Times has a profile of a gaming group from out in Long Island. It mentions some staples of the Bloc, including my current favorite, Dominion.

    The Times piece is essentially fluff, but board gaming is one of those hobbies that can always use more press. All the lowest quality examples seem to have the highest popularity in the general US population (Monopoly, Sorry? Those aren't even in the same class as Klaus Teuber's worst games). The general public is basically ignorant of the value of the pastime, so any sympathetic nod is good.

    Economist Bryan Caplan knows what I'm talking about.