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society

Why Information Matters

If you look at the history of any major problem, the solution has involved the freeing of information in some manner. For diseases it involved understanding the transmission, immunity patterns, and eventually understanding the actual bacteria and viruses. World War II was largely an information war, with mathematical feats used to free information and hide it, to gain the upper hand in the conflict.

Is hiding information okay? It depends on the information being hidden. For example, for a military campaign in the aforementioned war, a certain amount of hiding was necessary. But that sort of information has a short half-life (the time until the sensitivity of the information is halved).

Other information is private. That means the information may be necessary to the person’s well-being. It’s up to the person (or organization) to determine when and if to share that information, and who to share it with.

But, all things being equal, the more information that is known about a problem, the easier it is to solve the problem. That means systems that try to tie up what is really public information, like scientific and artistic works that have been published (from the same general origin as public) are failures from their inception. They are confusing control with revenue.

It makes sense for people that create works have a decent quality of life. But that’s different than what’s being done. What’s being done is you have people afraid to share their works because they don’t want someone else stealing their works. You have people who are doing everything in their power to lock down a perpetual copyright law enforced under penalty of death. You have people fighting for the right to share art and scientific knowledge with each other. And you have people missing crucial pieces of information in their endeavors to become better scientists, artists, citizens, because access is blocked.

That’s all bad enough, but the same tools being sold to the Copyright Armada are also turned against people fighting oppressive regimes the world over. You have the same information blocks leading to huge recessions because the traders are naive enough to think an information gap is their best way to make money.

Information is the critical element that makes us more than mere animals, just as when a crow picks up a piece of bent wire and uses it as a tool it is something greater than a crow with a piece of wire. Information is what allows us to do something other than forage and hunt all our days, without shelter.

It is critical that we improve our flows of information. It is information alone that can prevent our worst acts and enable our best acts.

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society

Today’s Headlines

Today I’m going to examine the current top headlines on Google News, not so much for what their covering as for why they are covered.

I’m viewing the site without a Google Account, though they still may be applying location data based on my connection’s IP address and/or other tracking being done. Let’s start with some basic numbers:

  • 34 headlines
    • Six in Top Stories
      • Three of the six related to tragedies surrounding Celebrities
      • Four related to death and sickness
      • Two related to political struggles
    • Five in World
      • All five about Leaders of factions, nations, etc.
    • Five in U.S.
      • Two related to death and sickness (one historical)
      • No leaders or celebrities directly mentioned
    • Two in Business
      • One about an investigation into corruption
      • One fluff piece about a famous/historical restaurant
    • Five in Technology
      • Of the seven companies mentioned in Technology (not including the names of the companies hosting the articles), two are mentioned eight times (three times and five times), with the rest being mentioned once each.
    • Two in Entertainment
      • Both heavy on the Celebrity, of course
    • Five in Sports
      • Two about trades/hires
      • Two on future success chances
      • One about a labor dispute
    • Two in Science
      • One on a company selling flights to the moon
    • Two in Health
      • One on fighting childhood obesity, the other on treatment for depression
  • Ten mention someone of Celebrity in the headline

Ah, the news. The soap opera of our world. Teaching us that if you want more than your immediate family to take interest when tragedy or success comes your way, it’s either got to be weird or you’ve got to be famous.

Celebrity is a problem. Whether it’s a member of some cultist royalty, a political leader, military leader, sports star, musician, or just a yokel elevated to celebrity status by a hyperactive media, it’s a problem.

It’s even a problem in the open source/free software community, when people like Linus Torvalds and Richard Stallman are given heightened attention not for what they say, but for who they are.

I don’t care where Guido van Rossum (inventor of Python) works, though I’m very happy to use the language. I hope his life is good, but no more than anyone else.

When Stallman talks about an issue (such as the recent Free Software Foundation: Blogs: Richard Stallman: 7 December 2012: Ubuntu Spyware: What to Do?), I’m not concerned about his past endeavors or opinions. I read that essay with the goal of evaluating the ideas. Now, knowing something of his background helps to charitably parse his argument. But that’s the general case of having a feel for an individual’s ideas.

The problem comes when people feel one way about the man and therefore automatically gravitate to one side of an argument. The problem comes when people confuse success with merit (eg, in admiring a political, religious, or athletic figure). If Michael Jordan is the best damn player in the history of the National Basketball Association, I’d better get his shoes.

Celebrity is toxic. It lets us look past the character flaws of a leader, for no good reason. If a leader behaves badly in one way, they aren’t necessarily unfit, but their achievements do not absolve them.

The news media (both mainstream and niche) focuses on celebrity. It does this because it’s an easy sale. If someone walks into your delicatessen and you offer to sell them some exotic meat on some exotic bread, they might try it. But you’ll do the bulk of your business with standards like the BLT and reuben on rye. Chocolate, vanilla, strawberry ice cream. Cheese pizza.

There are vegetarians and vegans, but at present there aren’t really any celebrity-free news junkies or sources. You can’t get political stories without the (R) and (D) plastering. Technology to the media means gossip about a small number of high-profile firms.

For most of the news, my answer hasn’t wavered in years: no thanks, I am not hungry (for that). I’d rather eat ideas than celebrities.

Categories
society

Barriers to Speech

In the Harry Potter universe, the ability to speak and think has extra weight. The use of speech facilitates the intentions behind that speech manifesting directly. “Wingardium Leviosa,” says a first-class citizen of that universe, pointing a magical stick (also used to direct parapsychic energy as with speech), focusing on the object, and it begins to float.

Words can even kill, with the phrase “Avada Kedavra.” But so can words in our universe.

The law recognizes several exceptions to the freedom of speech, and most of these implicate violence. The few others implicate other direct, intentional harms (such as defamation).

In the case of fighting words, the idea is not that one oughtn’t be allowed to speak, but that one ought to recognize that certain words spoken in a specific circumstance are invariably going to provoke a retaliation of violence. This is a practicality of the law, basically saying, “you get what you pay for.”

Ah, but this complicates matters entirely! Some pseudo-Islamic sects and cultures that deviate from the doctrines that purport to adhere to peace take violent offense at any speech that lessens in their eyes the glory of their prophet Muhammad (may His undergarments always fit well). One can only imagine how that doctrine developed.

Sometime Around 633…

Artist: And now I present to you, the Caliphate, the portrait you commissioned of the Prophet Muhammad, may the Blessings of Liberty be secured to Him and His Posterity.
Caliph: Excellent! You really captured His (may there never be clumps of hot chocolate powder in His hot chocolate!) eyes.
Adviser 1: Sir, His (may He always know where His towel is!) nose is too small.
Adviser 2: No, sir, it’s too big, and His (may He never have a Scrabble(tm) rack with no vowels!) jawline is off!
[A fight breaks out. The next visitor to the Caliph happened to be the knife seller. His table is overturned in the ruckus. The third visitor was a fruit seller, and his bananas were knocked from his table. Between all the slipping and all the blades covering the floor, everyone in the area died in a tragic accident that ruined the portrait in the process.]
New Caliph: I decree that no depictions of the Prophet (may He always have positive wishes said for Him in parentheses after someone mentions Him!) shall be made!

Point is, to them any insult to Mohammad (may His taco shell never break down the bottom as He takes the first bite!) is equivalent to fighting words.

But there’s a similar problem for the American Flag, where plenty of people that have no qualms with desecrating the Quran believe that flag desecration should be severely punished.

The main problem with free speech is not these peoples’ outrage. It’s the lack of any assurance of being heard. If someone in a bar insults you, your honor may be irreparably harmed. You may be labeled the village fool. You may be forced to walk the earth the rest of your days being treated poorly. All because of what this drunk guy is saying. You flash down the years of shame and suffering you will have as a result, and decide that pain belongs with your verbal attacker.

If you knew that the bar would listen to your plea that this is all a big misunderstanding, that these words are hurtful and misplaced, and that such a plea would be taken as honorable, it would defuse the situation. The problem is that often the culture sees such behavior as weak, and you’re trying to talk sense to a bunch of drunk people.

In general, intoxicated people can be hard to reason with. Sober people, for that matter.

If someone throws the equivalent of the “Avada Kedavra” killing curse at you, you’re expected to meet force with force.

But if the culture shifts. If the people are well educated, and care more about truth than a bogus sense of honor, not only does the violence decrease, but the offending speech does as well.

Categories
society

Political Distance

With the election’s temporal location quickly converging with our own, this post examines the political proximity of the two major candidates.

One way of picturing the difference is conceiving of a Cartesian plane, one which a society moves around in. It may be roughly similar to the so-called political spectrum (Wikipedia: Political Spectrum), or maybe not. Maybe instead of a plane, it’s a linear space, a motion picture, showing society’s position at each frame, which is animated over time.

In reality, that space is simply a set of nodes representing the various states of society. We have a graph. The graph interacts both with our actions and the natural world, constantly producing new states of reality. There are small decisions, like sipping water, or one human’s life (compared to the scale of society). Big decisions, like spending whatever portion of our resources on devices of war compared to devices of exploration.

In any case, what direction and distance each candidate wants society to walk in, and where they would like us to end up, is one measure of their political distance. Not that they could agree about where we are in the first place.

In wilderness survival, a lost person is meant to seek out running water. A stream flows to a river. A river flows to a larger river, and eventually to an ocean. Society tends to build up around water. Follow the water down, and you’ll find your salvation. Not to mention people need water anyway, and running water tends to be the best place and form to get it as clean as possible in the wild.

Maybe there is a political equivalent to streams and rivers? Maybe we could tell our leaders to follow them down? That’s maybe a topic for another day.

Today I find interest in the unexplored terrain. The fact that both major candidates agree that so much of the land is not worth visiting. And that we must stick close to familiar ridge lines.

For example, the mass incarceration of humans. For example, the laws governing copyrights and patents. Military budget. Energy production. Transportation and population densities.

So there are some differences. Or, take one where the gap is wider, the laws governing immigration. Even for the more sensible candidate on that issue, it is not a coherent idea of where we are or can go.

Economies are the aforementioned streams and rivers of this landscape. People emigrate for economic reasons. They already follow the flow. Without ending the flow caused by poor conditions at the source, and the desire for cheap labor and contraband at the destination, the dams will not hold. Improving the aqueducts will only reduce the flow so slightly.

Neither candidate will stand to eliminate the war on drugs, which is akin to using forced human labor to carry the water, at gunpoint. Increasing the contraband production locally would reduce that economic stream, but at the price of increased pollution in the local economic water supply. Reducing the vigor of the local economic waters, too, would make them less appealing to the laborers that immigrate unlawfully. But it again harms the lands here.

So, even though one candidate is quite ahead on the issue, he is equally unwilling to take the real, full path to the destination.

At best, he calls for better aqueducts, will will prove inadequate.

Still, slight progress is plausibly better than regress or stagnation. The closer we approach real solutions to our problems, the more likely we will gain a vantage of the true destination.

Categories
society

Getting Past the Reflexive Response

One of the phenomena we see in discussions of changes to society is a purely reflexive response. We see this both affirmatively and negatively, depending on the way the issue is couched. A guess is that the responses tend to be more negative, that reflexive responses in general tend to be “no.”

New York City, a city in the US state of New York, recently enacted a law against certain food establishments selling soft drinks containing more than 16 fl. ounces (approx. 0.5 liters). Many people had a reflexive response against that move. The belief that both individuals and businesses should have the right to make that sort of decision, rather than government, fired rapidly in the mind. This was followed by the section of the brain containing the term, “nanny state,” jumping up and down, yelling, “me! me! me!”

While I think a reasonable person can disagree with the implementation of the ban, it’s harder to make a case against the idea that people should drink less fizzy sugar water. But let’s set that case aside, and just focus on the reflex.

It seems like the reflex is a combination of the brain having existing wiring for the type of argument and a tendency to take a defensive posture against change. We see the same disposition in many subcultures, including political and religious ones.

In the case of soft drinks, people have encountered dietary arguments for years from vegetarian, vegan, and similar dietary movements. The anti-smoking arguments also follow similar lines. With recent studies showing correlation between social connections and things like weight gain and diet, even the second-hand smoke arguments have a home here.

People also have received reinforcement from something like sipping on a soft drink while having positive social interactions, so much that some may be able to tell you that they enjoyed a particular flavor of drink during a particular interaction (not unlike people remembering specific times with specific types of alcohol).

The notion of giving up something that seemed to add to an experience is threatening. It usually takes several nearby nodes in the network making a change in order to encourage more nodes to change.

Not In My Back Yard, or NIMBY, is another example of a mantric argument that is conjured when a reflexive response occurs. Windmills are often opposed as a reflex.

The notion of job security has paralyzed whole sectors of the economy, as we become afraid to modernize and shift economic focuses because of large blocks of employment. That is, we place employment as a higher importance than the economic functionality that would ensure it.

There are reflexive responses when someone denigrates a prophet, or when a community perceives a travesty of justice, and so on.

How do we get past these reflexes? How do we get sane arguments that don’t run into walls of no-from-the-hip?

My hunch on this is that society, or whatever group seeks to have good arguments, assigns advocates regardless of belief. Just like high school debaters, people can advocate for causes they don’t necessarily believe in. It gives an opportunity for new ideas to prosper in a way that doesn’t stigmatize initial advocates too severely (which risks blanching future dissent, leading to further totalitarianization of a group).

Likewise, increasing opportunities for interaction and shifting of social links would enable more nodes to recognize opportunities for different behaviors. Although anecdotal (in that I haven’t looked for any research that backs this up), I find it likely that part of the positive impact of World War II on the US economy stemmed from the mixing of all those young people, along with their exposure to diverse social orders across the globe.

At any rate, reflexive responses should be seen for what they are. We shouldn’t let them kill good ideas, but should allow ourselves to entertain the idea without fear that it will consume us. Society needs to learn how to do that.