Ming the Mechanic - Category:

The NewsLog of Flemming Funch

Thursday, November 24, 2011day link 

 Blind and Automatic Punishment
picture I got my first HADOPI warning in an e-mail today. If you didn't know, HADOPI is the French three-strikes law that bans people from using the Internet if they 3 times have been caught downloading something that somebody has a copyright claim to. Not caught by the police, mind you, not verified by anybody. It just means that a few multi-national media companies have been given the power to just send an IP address and a date/time to a certain government agency, and whoever happens to have been using the IP address at that time will be punished. They don't have to even mention what I possibly might have downloaded.

This is one example of a dangerous and growing trend: For people in power to use automated means of catching and punishing people who don't follow their rules.

Politicians are notoriously bad at making rules. As are lawyers, and most anybody who appears to have the job of making rules for everybody. To make good rules that actually would work for everybody would require some kind of basic understanding of abstraction and the limitations of words. If not, it becomes simply a string of thinking fallacies. And, if connected with automated enforcement, very destructive things happen.

The rules (laws) in most countries are considered absolute, unless they clearly can be shown to have been ambiguous or conflicting with other laws. Per definition, a law is something that is just supposed to be exactly as it says, or somebody will be punished. The trouble is that most laws are based on something that makes sense in a very specific context, but they're applied generally, at all times, in all contexts. The law maker might really just have tried to make a statement, to communicate the importance of an idea, but he unfortunately used the medium of law.

If there are humans involved, such as police officers, or judges, or juries, or public opinion, there's a chance that an unfair application of a law gets corrected. If you have a good enough reason, the police officer might let you go. If you explain yourself to the judge, he might see that you did the right thing, despite what the law said. If everybody can see that it is a silly law, it might just be ignored. Humans process complexity, they can take all sorts of things into consideration at the same time, at many levels, consciously as well as sub-consciously. If the law says one can't spit on the sidewalk, any reasonable person would grant an exception to somebody who's choking on a piece of food. The law assumes a situation where there's no real reason to spit, and somebody does so for some kind of malicious or careless reason, but the law isn't likely to say so. It says that you will be punished if you spit on the sidewalk. Most laws are much too specific in the wrong way.

Most bodies of law are a mishmash of missing context, self-contradictions and exceptions. The practice of law is a mishmash of argumentation and reasoning and decisions that might go in one direction or another. If asked to actually look at it, most anybody would recognize that the words of the law itself aren't enough. At least anybody but the guys who get the clever idea of automatically enforcing laws.

Most people are now familiar with automated speed radars that measure your car's speed, take a picture of your license plate, and send you a ticket in the mail. No humans are involved. If you were measured as driving 91 and the sign said 90, you'll have to pay. Even if you weren't in your car at all, even if there was a reason for doing so, even if the speed limit isn't reasonable. In the town where I live, the 90km/h limit on the Periphérique circling town was chosen not for safety or traffic flow reasons, but because somebody calculated that gas would be saved if everybody had to drive max 90.

The current examples you see are fairly harmless. But that's only while technology is catching up, and while simple-minded politicians catch up to the idea of what one can do with technology.

Automated drones are increasingly being used in warfare. Actually, most of them are still mostly remote controlled unmanned aircraft. But that will change as the technology becomes better. Imagine high definition cameras with face recognition, reading of license plates, interpretation of body language, combined with offensive weapons, mounted on small flying drones. The military will use the first. But police forces will very happily use stuff like that as soon as they're allowed to. Just imagine how much easier their work would be in, say, policing the current Occupy protests. Automatic tear gassing of people who walk on the street when they've been told not to. It isn't particularly far fetched.

Again, the problem is that most rules are much, much too over-simplified and specific for a complex world. If somebody makes a law that says you're not allowed to talk on a telephone in your car, they'll probably be quite self-satisfied with the reasonableness of such a law. Lots of people will agree and think it is a great law, as they think of lots of people who're distracted, while driving, and therefore not driving as well. But the law says nothing about that. It doesn't define what is considered a phone, and it doesn't define the actual target, driving as safely as possible. Imagine that it was enforced automatically, that some device in the car automatically would kill any cell phone signal, if a call is attempted. Because, again, the law maker thought about how much better it would be if drivers weren't distracted. But it would also kill potentially live saving calls. It might also stop somebody from inventing a service that you could talk to that would help you drive better. It would stop a lot of things that the law maker just failed to imagine. If he were presented with the potential exception, he'll of course admit that, yes, of course it isn't meant to stop that. But his law didn't say so. And if we take the humans out of the equation, nobody else will be there to say so.

Overall, it is one of the prime insanities of humankind. The idea that you can take some words, put together into some sentences, and somehow they'll remain true and appropriate in all possible situations, forever. Forgetting that those words were in the first place merely abstractions of something more real. Maybe the author of the words clearly could see the picture of what he felt that those words applied to. But those words don't mean exactly the same thing to everybody else. And if we go ahead and apply those words to all sorts of other situations, very different from what their author was thinking of, they might not fit very well. Which is not such a big deal if we can notice and talk about it. But if the words have been put on automatic, crazy things can happen. There's a consciousness of abstraction that's largely unknown to the ruling class in most areas.

One of the most central ways that humanity is likely to shoot itself in the foot, or even collectively commit suicide is by ignoring, denying, or removing complexity. You see it in many fields of human activity: government, religion, even science. One size fits all solutions tend to kill life. One moral code for everybody. One crop to grow for miles and miles. Volumes and volumes of laws that tell everybody how they always must do under all circumstances. While totally overlooking what it is that makes the world work. Life is a continuum, multi-dimensional, multi-level. There is somebody home. Something is aware, something evolves, changes based on circumstances. Humans have found themselves able to create stuff that doesn't change based on the circumstances. There are some advantages to that, and a whole bunch of potentially world-killing dangers.
[ | 2011-11-24 00:54 | 14 comments | PermaLink ]  More >

Saturday, November 19, 2011day link 

picture I think it is the first and most important target and focal point for a public uprising against the 1%, The Man, the Ruling Class, or whatever we call the predatory elite that somehow has ended up owning most of everything and violently policing their property. Corruption. That's largely how they got there and how they stay in control. It isn't democracy, it isn't business success in a free market. It isn't the will of The People that got them there, it is them successfully subverting the public interest by bribing people in key positions with money and power, and installing their people and their institutions and their laws in place of what would have best served most of us. All oriented towards privatizing profits into the hands of those few people, protected by government armies and police forces, and leaving everybody else stuck with the bill for it, including the real costs for the damage caused.

Corruption: The use of a public position of power for private gain and counter to common public interests.

That's my definition. Most official definitions are somewhat fuzzy. Most talk about corruption focuses on the particular act of somebody paying off a government official to give them special consideration. But it really doesn't matter whether money is involved. And it doesn't matter who's private gain we're talking about. The money flow is often hard to prove, and it is likely to be shifted in time in relation to the favors it pays for. A Treasury Secretary might have worked for a particular investment bank in the past, or he will do so after he resigns. Makes no difference. It is a lot more expedient to look at what people do, rather than starting backwards with how they might have been rewarded for doing it. The motive in a crime is maybe interesting, but it is more important to recognize the crime, and secondly to catch the criminal and get them out of the way. And in case of corruption, it is usually glaringly obvious to anybody who even pays half attention.

If a bunch of politicians are campaigning to pass a "piracy" law that increases the income stream of large media conglomerates, despite their failing business model, and that law is against the interests of 99.99% of the population, subjecting them to huge arbitrary fines and being kicked off of the Internet, there's no great reason to have to find the smoking gun where money changed hands, even though that's quite easily found in the form of large campaign donations from those companies to those particular politicians. But the mere fact that they, while being trusted to act as our government, will work on enacting such laws is a clear sign of corruption. It should be reason enough for a prison sentence, even if their specific payoff was never located.

It doesn't matter what branch of government they're in, or whether we even are talking government. The point is that somebody who's trusted to act in the common interest of the people they serve deliberately acts very counter to that interest, in order to serve particular private interests.

A police force that terrorizes certain types of people in certain places and looks the other way when other people do similar things in other places, we're obviously talking about some kind of corruption. The cops on the street, beating people up, it usually isn't them who came up with the plan, but a bit further up the line you'll quickly find somebody who's playing special interests. And who belongs on the other side of prison bars.

It isn't just the people who are bought off that are culpable. If somebody pays an assassin to kill somebody, sure, that assassin will be guilty of murder. But the more important people to catch are the ones that paid for it. Strangely, in some countries it isn't even illegal to pay off government officials. The United States comes to mind, where most politicians receive large contributions from corporations, while being continuously lobbied in order to do what they want. Presidential candidates receive hundreds of millions in the same way. Congress members are not subject to insider trading laws. A more sane system would make them instantly be disqualified for receiving pay-offs or from profiting privately from the inside knowledge they're exposed to. As to the corporations, being closed down when found to be paying politicians would be a perfectly reasonable consequence. Yes, the whole company, whatever its size.

In case it isn't clear, I'm not talking about some isolated case of the Mafia paying off local cops. I'm talking about something that all but a handful of members of U.S. Congress are guilty of, and which most Fortune 500 companies are guilty of. And it isn't just an American thing. I live in France. The current government has enacted a horrendous "three-strikes" copyright law, HADOPI, which is in the interest of nobody in France, other than a few lawyers and media company executives. The corruption obviously reaches high, as President Sarkozy personally championed that law. I don't know what his payoff is, but shame on him for having sold out.

A big obstacle in dealing with all this in the normal ways available to us is that the system has already been rigged so that most of it is perfectly "legal". Corporate personhood is legal. Lobbying is legal. Campaign contributions are legal. It is perfectly normal that banking executives responsible for huge frauds in the financial system go straight on to government positions where they draft the regulations, or the lack of same, for their industry. Goldman Sachs employees are now the heads of state in two European countries, Italy and Greece. It is usually pharmaceutical companies that write the laws that would regulate their industry, particularly on Federal, EU and international levels. Which strangely turns out to be mainly in their own interest, outlawing any competition from smaller players, and completely counter to what most people would need or want. It is all legal. But it is corruption, nevertheless.

So, what to do? Call it when you see it. That it is "legal" shouldn't stop you. So, don't buy into the complexity of why it is legal, or why nobody can prove anything. Look at the actions taken and the results. If the police is beating up and shooting unarmed peaceful Occupy protesters, but heavily armed and angry Tea Party groups can hold rallies without there ever being any police in sight, then clearly there's corruption in the police force. You don't have to know how come, or who paid for it. Just locate who is in charge, who gave the order, and the corruption is surely close by or further up.

There are other things very, very wrong in society, like the foundation of the whole interest-bearing debt-as-money system. Or multi-national corporate personhood. But the key leverage point that most people can understand is corruption. Get commercial interests as far away from government as possible. Don't let them get away with it. People should be going to jail. Presidents, ministers, CEOs, bankers, police chiefs, judges. Unfortunately, these are the very same people we have entrusted to be responsible for such things, so that makes it tricky. The weapons on our side is open communication, and the fact that there are many, many more of us. But it is necessary to stay focused, to not flinch, to not be dispersed and confused. A big part of the system that governs our society is corrupt. But not all of it. Most people are good people who can recognize the truth when they see it, if they can stand still for long enough.
[ | 2011-11-19 22:50 | 4 comments | PermaLink ]  More >

Friday, March 16, 2007day link 

 Logic and the Autobahn
picture A minor news item. The EU would like Germany to establish a speed limit on the Autobahn, in order to save gas and limit global warming. And the German's don't like it much, as "free driving for free citizens" is a popular type of slogan, and the absence of a speed limit is a powerful symbol.

And actually they're right about that, and it shouldn't be underestimated. For that matter, the mere existence of the Autobahn is the cause of a certain delight in people all over the world, whether they're ever going to drive on it or not. I'd seen met quite a few Americans who at the mere mention of German freeways would lighten up and exlaim something like "Ah! The Autobahn - the orgasm of freeways!". So, don't discount the value of symbols of freedom. Makes people happy to know that somewhere in the world one can drive as fast as one feels like.

But, actually, the point I wanted to make wasn't that, but rather I wanted to comment on the logic behind a policy decision like that, to limit speed in order to burn less gas.

It can easily be demonstrated that a car uses less gas at a lower speed. Like, CNN sent a guy out in a BMW to drive fast. And, yes, when he was going 220km/h, and then slowed down to 130km/h, the car's fuel consumption indicator showed that he used half as much gas per 100km distance at the lower speed.

And, clearly, if you got everybody to drive slower, some gas would be saved, and there'd be less polution. Not very much less, actually only about 0.6% according to the calculations, as most people really aren't driving 220km/h all the time.

Many people will say that it is perfectly logical to limit speeds in order to save gas and produce less polution. But I say that it is perfectly illogical. What you do there is that you pick a target that as a side effect will have the result you're looking for, but which isn't it. See, you're perfectly free to buy an SUV that goes 2km on a liter, and which would use much more gas and pollute much more at 130km/h than more efficient cars would at 220km/h. I'm free to burn as much gas as I want, really, driving alone in my SUV.

Point being, if you want to set a rule about using less gas, you should make a rule about using less gas. You know, like, you can't use more than 5 liters of gas per person per 100km.

I know many people will not understand what I'm saying, and will say that it is just splitting hairs needlessly, and of course driving more slowly will save gas. But the reason it is worth attention is that it is the same thinking that drives a great many policies and laws that governments make.

It is in a similar vein as "We want to protect the children, so therefore we'll monitor everybody's computers". In order to exert an effort towards your aim, you do something entirely different, which amongst its many side effects has one that is deemed related to the stated target. I.e. maybe you'll catch some child molester if you monitor everybody's computers, but you'll also add a lot of new evils into the world.

An old comic pops into my mind here. This one guy is stabbing this other guy with a big knife. "Why are you killing me?", he says, "I haven't done anything against you". "Oh, no", the perpetrator says, "no offense, it isn't you, it's the guy underneath you I'm trying to get!".

In most places one lives in a society where a lot of laws and rules are there because somebody thought they might have a side effect that is desirable, and the decision was maybe backed by some statistic that showed that indeed it had that side effect. Often lots of other side effects were completely ignored. And most often, the original intent is forgotten too, and it becomes simply laws that somebody else is in charge of enforcing.

Like most other drivers, I spend a considerable portion of my mind power worrying about cops and radar traps. Does that make me a better and safer driver? No, that makes me a more nervous and unsafe driver, using my free attention on something that doesn't contribute to better driving in any way. It is perfectly legal to be a lousy and dangerous driver, as long as you have a driver's license. Because the law doesn't enforce safe driving, it enforces things like speed limits, which statistically have been found to have desirable side benefits, but which produce negative side effects for many of the individuals who need to worry about them.

Policy makers are often very bad at understanding systems. They will often traffic in fragmented campaigns that will demonstrate that they take a certain issue seriously. Sort of, "We have to at least try to ...". Try to limit polution, lower crime rates, protect children, or whatever. And if they can present a study that says that their new law produced a 5% drop in whatever it was, it would be considered a success. Even though the whole system isn't working any better, and possibly might be working a lot worse in many other ways.
[ | 2007-03-16 01:50 | 6 comments | PermaLink ]  More >

Monday, January 22, 2007day link 

 The Century of the Self
picture I just watched The Century of the Self, a BBC documentary by Adam Curtis. Curtis' documentaries usually present a fairly clear, but somewhat unexpected and controversial, opinion, which I usually seem to agree with. And he has a certain style, where most of the documentary is put together of footage he has dug out of BBC's archives, and he narrates them himself. I've previously seen The Power of Nightmares, which essentially outlined how the US NeoCons and certain radical militant muslim factions in the Middle East have a whole lot in common.

The Century of the Self, on the other hand, is about how the masses are manipulated through the use of various tools and theories from psychology and the social sciences, as applied to PR and politics.
"This series is about how those in power have used Freud's theories to try and control the dangerous crowd in an age of mass democracy."
See, he particularly tracks the legacy of Sigmund Freud, as championed by his daughter Anna and his nephew, Edward Bernays.

Bernays is considered the father of the whole subject of public relations. More directly, he became a master of mass manipulation, showing first large companies and then politicians how to effectively influence the masses.
"If we understand the mechanism and motives of the group mind, is it not possible to control and regiment the masses according to our will without their knowing about it? The recent practice of propaganda has proved that it is possible, at least up to a certain point and within certain limits."
Before Bernays, one would sell products mostly based on their qualities. "It is really durable", "Your curtains will be more clean", etc. But he invented the whole idea of appealing to people's subconscious drives instead.

As one maybe could expect, if it is based on Freud's work, the idea was that people's subconscious minds were just a chaotic mishmash of crazy, dangerous drives, and the thing to do is to exploit them, but to keep them at bay, and to tell people what to do. He said it rather clearly in his book "Propaganda":
The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country. ... We are governed, our minds are molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of. This is a logical result of the way in which our democratic society is organized. Vast numbers of human beings must cooperate in this manner if they are to live together as a smoothly functioning society. ... In almost every act of our daily lives, whether in the sphere of politics or business, in our social conduct or our ethical thinking, we are dominated by the relatively small number of persons ... who understand the mental processes and social patterns of the masses. It is they who pull the wires which control the public mind.
He obviously didn't really believe in democracy.

Curtis also outlines a gradual change in views of how we deal with the subconscious stuff people have inside. Particularly he picks out Wilhelm Reich to represent the other pole. The other pole being the view that what is inside human beings will only appear crazy to the degree by it is repressed, by the individual and by society, and rather than repressing it further, it needs to come out and find healthy expression. So, for example, as opposed to Freud's idea of evil, out of control sexual urges that needed to be controlled, Reich preached healthy sexuality, better orgasms, expressing your real emotions, and that kind of thing.

Freud's view initially won out, but later, after Reich's death, it became his angle that became one of the components of the human potential movement in the 60s. Then, suddenly we have Esalen and Werner Erhard, and lots of people who suggest that what one needs to do is to express what one really feels, and that one can take charge of one's own life, and live it on one's own terms. Not just put up with what society pushes on you.

But big companies and politicians learned to adjust to that, through tools such as market research, focus groups, etc. Find out what people want, and appear to give it to them. Then, not only do you sell products, or people vote for you, but the people will think they did it of their own free choice, expressing their own individuality.

The result became that it didn't really matter whether people were trying to conform and repress their inner urges, or whether they wanted to be self-actualized individuals. If you gauge what they want, and you give it to them, they will not even know how they're manipulated.

A key point is that it is not really about what people really want. It is democracy based not on open dialogue about what really is important, but based on guessing which factors will make the most people feel satisfied, and giving them that. You know, read the inner desires of individuals, and fill them with products and campaign promises.

What we live in is essentially societies that on the surface appear to be based on democracy and free markets, where everybody has a chance of making a difference, but where the reality is anything but. The people in power just apply different techniques for manipulating us, in whatever way is necessary to buy their products and keep them in power.

The 20th century was maybe the century of Self, where the desires of the individual suddenly were studied and highlighted, where they weren't before. But, regrettably, it didn't change much in terms of the power structures

Makes it all sound sort of gloomy, I guess. Nothing stops us from coming up with some anti-dotes, of course. But we haven't yet.

You can find the videos on Google Video here: part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4.

[ | 2007-01-22 21:14 | 30 comments | PermaLink ]  More >

Tuesday, December 12, 2006day link 

 Le Web 3
picture I hadn't paid good attention, but yesterday and today has been the Le Web 3 conference in Paris. I see many people I know and normally enjoy to listen to in the speaker list, and it sounded like the kind of tech conference I would enjoy going to. ... But, reading some of what people are saying in their blogs, it sounds like something went awfully wrong. The program was changed in the last moment, some people were bumped and replaced with several politicians who delivered political speeches. Most notably Nikolas Sarkozy. Ha, yes, everybody in France knows who he is. The top cop, tough interior minister, candidate for the presidency, and one of the most hated figures in France. Allowing him to speak at a cool tech conference is an obvious disaster asking to happen. Read an overview of commentary on the conference, and links to more, from Tom Morris. Sounds like my friend Loic LeMeur screwed up there. He was the main organizer, and, well, I would normally have expected him to be more savvy than that. Looking around at the various blog comments on the conference, it sounds like pretty much everybody hated Sarkozy, and they're pissed about having the conference they paid for highjacked for political purposes.

....[Later:] Loic has a long post responding to the criticism and giving his take on it. I think I agree with him. It is worth the risk to open up a conference like that to the outside world, including politicians. Like, Shimon Perez also attended and apparently gave an inspiring speech, and good things came out of that. As Loic said, the main mistake was maybe to not ask for feedback from the audience before changing the program. Most people would probably have said "Go ahead". Bloggers hate not being part of the process.
[ | 2006-12-12 21:43 | 3 comments | PermaLink ]  More >

Monday, December 11, 2006day link 

 Software and Community in the Early 21st Century

This is Eben Moglen's keynote speech from the 2006 Plone Conference. Plone is a content management system based on Zope, but it is not really about that. Eben Moglen is the General Counsel for the Free Software Foundation, and the Chairman of Software Freedom Law Center. And a very inspiring speaker. This is very subversive stuff, really.
If we know that what we are trying to accomplish is the spread of justice and social equality through the universalization of access to knowledge; If we know that what we are trying to do is build an economy of sharing which will rival the economies of ownership at every point where they directly compete; If we know that we are doing this as an alternative to coercive redistribution, that we have a third way in our hands for dealing with long and deep problems of human injustice; If we are conscious of what we have and know what we are trying to accomplish, when this is the moment for the first time in lifetimes, we can get it done.

[ | 2006-12-11 00:14 | 4 comments | PermaLink ]  More >

Monday, December 4, 2006day link 

 Troubadours and the Singable Earth Charter
picture If you're planning to write something like a constitution, you might want to adopt the guideline that it needs to be singable. Singable? Yeah, why not? Good songs have certain inherent qualities which we intuitively recognize. Like good stories, they sometimes succeed in making complexity easily understandable. Tony Judge makes the point in A Singable Earth Charter, EU Constitution or Global Ethic. Here are some guidelines for songs as applied to writing a constitution:
  1. Needs to be short -- but able to embody a complex pattern of information (in the light of advances in auditory display and sonification)
  2. Needs to be memorable -- especially in the sense of its function of "re-membering" a divided society
  3. Needs to offer reminders of significant relationships between matters that may otherwise be treated as dangerously unrelated -- vital feedback loops from a systemic control perspective
  4. Needs to be attractive in the context of a complex social system -- especially according to the new understanding of "strange attractors" in the complexity sciences
  5. Needs to strike a balance between the dysfunctional symbolic extremes of:
    • the Ode to Joy, adopted as the anthem of Europe -- appealing primarily to the older generation, if only because of its classical quality, exemplifying the democratic challenge that admiration does not necessarily enable participation
    • the overwhelming popular winner of the Eurovision Song Contest in 2007 (Hard Rock Hallelujah) -- a heavy metal band in monstrous demonic guise, appealing significantly to the younger generation [video]
    • the 300-pages of the legal text of the proposed European Constitution [more] -- unreadable, and therefore incomprehensible, to most EU citizens (and perhaps deliberately so)
  6. Capable of being refreshed periodically, if not annually, in the light of new insights, challenges and opportunities -- and if only in recognition of the limitations of any previous version
  7. Inviting participation, if not entraining it -- as a contrast to the apathy-reinforcement characteristic of modern political discourse
  8. Inherently imaginative -- reframing the past, offering new significance to the present, and pointing to new ways of thinking about the future
  9. Challenging to cognition -- an element of puzzle and mystery to be "solved", as with many computer and other games in which there is a gestalt to be recognized (possibly even at several levels)
  10. Imminently practical in its elaboration -- as with the procedures for open competition for major architectural or other design projects
  11. Susceptible to animated accompaniment -- with possibilities of exemplification through multi-media techniques and gaming simulations
  12. Embodying systemic understandings valuable to governance at all levels -- and consonant with experience at those levels
It is a brilliant connection to make. And so simple, really. If it doesn't make a good song, it probably doesn't make a good constitution. Yeah, nobody could understand that 300 page EU constitution, so they didn't like it. If it would have been in a format that played well on the radio, and if people actually liked it, no sweat, of course they would have voted for it.

Cognitive engagement with complexity. Yeah, we need more of that. And you don't make complex things palatable just by over-simplifying them and leaving things out. But you can make them available by representing them in formats that more naturally convey complexity. You know, like a picture is worth a thousand words. And like a song or an orchestral piece can convey something very complex, which one actually might "get" and remember, more or less, afterwards. What's efficient in terms of communication in a picture is not the large number of pixels. Rather it is that you can see how it all fits together. You don't remember 2 million pixels and their color values, you remember the patterns, because they make sense.

A common mnemonic trick is to remember something based on a story. Say you're asked to memorize 100 numbers or random items. Unless you're an autistic savant, you probably can't do that. But, with a little practice, you can learn to do so by constructing a story around the items or the numbers. A story is much easier to remember than a list of random stuff. The compression rate is much higher. But you can turn the story around and bring back those random items.

One idea, or one metaphor, or one photograph might bring forward large amounts of related thoughts, feelings, ideas, etc. It is like a fractal compression thing. You get the pattern that ties it all together, and then you just need to remember one thing, rather than 100.

You're constantly being bombarded with both good and bad examples of that. Advertising will often try to use your few seconds of attention to convey a whole package of meaning and feelings, to make you change your behavior and go and buy whatever they want you to buy.

And law makers and university professors will often ask you to do the impossible: making sense out of thousands of random items, without ever giving you the fractal algorithm that would wrap them into something simple and understandable. Quite possibly because they didn't think about it, or they wouldn't know what it would be. And quite possibly because what they're trying to present really just is thousands of random items.

So, instead they should think of singing it. And if they're having trouble with that, they maybe should get back to the drawing board and make something that actually is coherent.

And we can learn something from past masters of integrating different cognitive realms and modes of communication into good tunes, like ... the troubadours.
One early example is the work promoted by the Cathars through the troubadours and trouvères, highly sophisticated verse-technicians, whose music and poetry combined in the service of the courtly ideal of love:

"Modern European literature originated in Occitania in the early 12th century. It was started by hundreds of Troubadours (poet-musicians), who sang the praises of new values and in a new way. Their themes were courtly love, and concepts such as "convivencia" and "paratge" for which there is no modern counterpart in modern English or French. "convivencia" meant something more than conviviality and "paratge" meant something more than honour, courtesy, chivalry or gentility (though our concepts of honour, courtesy, chivalry and gentility all owe something to the concept of "paratge". They praised high ideals, promoting a spirit of equality based on common virtue and deprecating discrimination based on blood or wealth. They were responsible for a great flowering of creativity." (The Troubadours)
Of course Occitania is right here, south-western France. Cathar country. So, I'm always happy to hear about that. The troubadours might mostly be remembered now as simply some guys who sang songs, but, yes, it was really a lot deeper than that. Subversive communicators of new values. But, hey, that's indeed because song can be an effective vehicle for such.

So, public leaders better start singing. Or somebody else will.
[ | 2006-12-04 21:42 | 1 comment | PermaLink ]  More >

Thursday, October 26, 2006day link 

 A message from DHS
In case you didn't know how to behave. (From My Confined Space)
[ | 2006-10-26 18:11 | 2 comments | PermaLink ]  More >

Thursday, February 9, 2006day link 

 Mohammed cartoons in Egypt
picture Sandmonkey lives in Cairo. He thought those Mohammed cartoons looked kind of familiar. He looked through the old newspapers in his house, and, lo and behold, he found that they had all been published in a major Egyptial newspaper way back in October last year, during Ramadan. And, no, there were zero protests against that. The editor wasn't fired, no angry crowds on the street, and nobody put the Egyptian embassy on fire anywhere.

Great find! Nobody had said anything about that before. That ought to demonstrate a few things. But what exactly? These people don't get upset before they're told to be? It isn't really the cartoons that upset them, but what they're told that they mean? It certainly shows that the story is partially bogus.
[ | 2006-02-09 21:41 | 58 comments | PermaLink ]  More >

 Instigators of the Mohammed controversy
It is always interesting to uncover exactly who did what as part of a sequence of steps that led up to some monumental event. Pearl Harbor involving the US in WWII, the Tongking Incident getting US into the Vietnam War, the Gulf War starting after Iraq invaded Kuwait. In each of those, things weren't quite what they seemed. Somebody desired the end result, somebody wanted the war, but they needed an excuse, so they engineered things so that the other party clearly looked like the aggressor, in a sufficiently offensive way. And history easily overlooks the fine details of who said what to whom just before.

It is a simple psychological principle of how person C covertly can create a conflict between person A and person B. Quietly tell each of them a different offensive story about each other. "Hi A, B said that you're a pig", "Hi B, did you hear that A thinks you're a moron". Sometimes that's all it takes. If that little act of mingling remains hidden, A and B can't easily figure out why they don't get along, because the cause of their strife is a fabrication.

Now, here there's the current angry and violent uproar in the Muslim world against, well, some cartoons. And the bewilderment and counter-reaction that creates for everybody else. And any neutral observer might be puzzled how come a few seemingly insignificant cartoons published in a Danish newspaper can create such a reaction in populations far away who never have seen that newspaper or been anywhere close to Denmark.

It turns out that it isn't really what happened. Turns out that a group of prominent Danish Muslims travelled to a series of Muslim countries, arranged for meetings with high-ranking government officials and clergy and presented them with a 43 page dossier, meant to demonstrate how badly Muslims are treated in Denmark, and to invite support to influence the Danish government in opening up for more immigration of Muslims.

It is just that these lobbyists padded their case quite a bit. They tried to gather newspaper articles to show that Muslims and Islam are treated badly. And they included those, now famous, 12 cartoons from Jyllands Posten.

They also got the bright idea of including some material that hadn't been published anywhere, like some hate mail some of the muslim organizations in Denmark had received. You know, some racist anti-Muslim letters, and some offensive cartoons and pictures. Yes, some pictures that a Muslim maybe legitimately could find reason to be offended by, that aimed deliberately at denigrating Islam. Again, it was stuff that some anonymous individual had sent to some Muslims in the mail. A picture of a "pig person" taken from some French news service from a totally different context, where somebody had added the text "Here is the true image of Mohammad". And a picture of a praying muslim, with a dog jumping on his back, trying to copulate with him, and the text "That's why Muslims pray".

Now, most European newspapers wouldn't think of publishing anything like that, and they didn't.

But this little group of lobbyist presented to the Muslim world that this is how the Danes see them, this is what is published in the newspapers, this is how they're treated.

Which is false. It is a fabrication. If it wasn't a deliberate attempt of instigating anger against Denmark in the Muslim world, it was at least terribly dumb of them to twist the evidence.

But, as any kind of conflict that has been created through false information, it is very hard to clear up. It is usually the worst part that sticks in people's minds, and when one is far from the actual scene, one easily mixes up who's who, and one ends up generalizing things unreasonably.

Note also that often it is crusaders for one cause or another who end up perpetrating that which they're crusading against. The U.S. Government is the biggest distributor of child pornography in the world, because the FBI and the Postal Service tries to set up and catch pedophiles. So, they print and mail child pornography to people to see if some of them happen to keep it, so they can arrest them for it. Likewise, in this case, the people who have unleashed an avalanche of anti-islamic cartoons on the Muslim world is a bunch of Islamic leaders from Denmark. A few Imams from a little nordic country have succeeded in making all members of their religion look like barbaric lunatics in the eyes of most of the world. They've succeeded better at that than countless suicide bombings, terrorist attacks, etc. Well done. Maybe it wasn't exactly what you had in mind, but this was probably the only chance you'll get, so tough luck.
[ | 2006-02-09 20:46 | 27 comments | PermaLink ]  More >

Tuesday, February 7, 2006day link 

 Wikipedia on Mohammed cartoons
picture For those coming here for the Mohammed cartoon controversy, my two posts where the action is are here and here. More than 8000 people came by yesterday, and, as somebody commented, it looks a bit like WWIII, but there's also some useful dialogue going on in-between the abusive name-calling.

Wikipedia has an excellent page with lots of information, history and references on the Jyllands-Posten Muhammad cartoons controversy. Clearly being updated daily. The best place to get an overview.
[ | 2006-02-07 17:54 | 42 comments | PermaLink ]  More >

Friday, February 3, 2006day link 

 Mohammed Cartoons
So, I mentioned the controversy about a Danish newspaper having published some Mohammed cartoons, which has created a huge negative response across the Muslim world. You know, Danish people being beaten up, Red Cross workers having to return home, countries closing their embassies, terrorist groups issuing death threats, etc.

French newspaper France Soir printed the cartoons recently, in the name of freedom of expression. The Egyptian owner of the paper fired the Editor in Chief. The employees of the paper got together and are demanding that he'll reinstate him.

It seems to be a very hot issue as well here on my little blog. Several thousand people more than normal came by here in the last two days. Some of them were Muslims trying to explain their righteous anger. Some of them were folks looking for an opportunity to bash Muslims. Some of them were Danes who're puzzled about the whole thing, and explaining what really happened.

I didn't see the actual cartoons before now. And, sheesh, I'm glad I found them. No wonder the Danish people are puzzled about what all the bruhaha is about. Because one would have to be extraordinarily vigilant or imaginative to find anything offensive about them. Essentially, like you might draw Jesus as a longhaired guy in sandals, you'd probably draw Mohammed as a guy with a beard and a turban. Duh. And most of the cartoonists here took the task in a tongue-in-cheek self-deprecating way. Like, the one above there. The text says "Hmmm, I can't quite seem to recognize him". A sort of comment on the fact that Mohammed rarely is pictured, so the blondehaired Danish guy can't really pick him out. Disrespectful? Why?

The only one of the pictures that even could be construed as offensive would be the one showing a guy with fanatical eyes and a turban in the shape of a bomb. Shouldn't really be a surprising choice to anybody, as a lot of what one hears about Muslims is fanatical people blowing themselves and others up as suicide bombers in the name of their religion. The drawing captures what mood one might imagine such people to have. Is that some kind of condemnation of all Muslims? I don't see it that way.

I suppose that the people who're so upset probably haven't seen any of the cartoons at all. And probably will close their eyes if they see this posting here.

I'm not religious, but I can imagine the point of a rule against the depiction of some religious figure. To avoid idolatry. I.e. that people start worshipping the picture of something or someone, rather than dealing directly with it. Aha. Well, seems like the opposite happened here. People are worshipping the lack of a picture, and rioting against pictures, and worshipping all sorts of interpretations, rather than just listening to what the man actually was saying. Or maybe he just wanted them to listen to God, rather than starting to worship him, which also sounds reasonable enough. But, again, the opposite is what happened.

Also, check out the Mohammed Image Archive. See, of course it isn't the first time that somebody drew a picture of Mohammed. There are lots of pictures, including some by Muslims, including pictures on magazine covers, in books, on paintings, etc. It is just that none of those created any kind of similar uproar.
[ | 2006-02-03 00:25 | 881 comments | PermaLink ]  More >

Monday, January 30, 2006day link 

 Denmark vs Mohammed
picture I didn't think I would get to see that. Muslims burning Danish flags in the street. OK, maybe because Denmark joined Bush's ill-conceived invasion of Iraq. But that isn't it at all. We're talking about cartoons. Yahoo News
BEIRUT, Lebanon - The controversy over Danish caricatures of Prophet Muhammad escalated Monday as gunmen seized an EU office in Gaza and Muslims appealed for a trade boycott of Danish products. Denmark called for its citizens in the Middle East to exercise vigilance.

Denmark-based Arla Foods, which has been the target of a widespread boycott in the Middle East, reported that two of its employees in Saudi Arabia were beaten by angry customers. Aid groups, meanwhile, pulled workers out of Gaza, citing the threat of hostilities.

The 12 drawings — published in a Danish paper in September and in a Norwegian paper this month — included an image of the prophet wearing a turban shaped as a bomb with a burning fuse. Islamic tradition bars any depiction of the prophet, even respectful ones, out of concern that such images could lead to idolatry.

Danish government officials have expressed regret over the furor but have refused to get involved, citing freedom of expression. The Jyllands-Posten newspaper has refused to apologize for publishing the drawings and has said it did not mean to insult Islam.
OK, maybe it wasn't the greatest idea in the world to ask some cartoonists for pictures of the Prophet Mohammed. But, hey, Denmark is a free country where nobody will get away with taking themselves too seriously. So, if you want to make a funny, irreverant or insulting picture of the Pope, Queen Elizabeth, Jesus, Elvis, George Bush ... or Mohammed, then... so what. Might be funny, might not be.

But a lot of muslims apparently feel that their god gets gravely insulted by Danish cartoons of his prophet with a funny hat on. Which, however much I'd like to respect a diversity of beliefs, I can't really find a way of looking at it that doesn't make me question the sanity of whole lot of people.

I think that what these folks maybe don't understand is that Denmark is a country where the government doesn't control the press. Maybe that's a novel idea. Yes, if the prime minister had made fun of Mohammed, that would have been very dumb, and he should probably apologize, for the sake of good diplomacy. But there's no way he can give an official apology for a cartoon in a newspaper, and he shouldn't. So, now Saudi Arabia has recalled their ambassador, Libia is closing its embassy, Egypt is refusing a loan they otherwise were eager to get, and Danish products are being boycotted.
[ | 2006-01-30 23:59 | 829 comments | PermaLink ]  More >

Friday, December 23, 2005day link 

 French parliament votes to allow file sharing
I was worried that the French government would push through the worst copyright law in the world, making the use of several kinds of open source software an offense with serious prison terms. Now read this article. Seems like it is going in quite the opposite direction.
The French Parliament voted last night to allow free sharing of music and movies on the Internet, setting up a conflict with both the French government and with media companies.

If the amendment survives, France would be the first country to legalize so called peer-to-peer downloading, said Jean-Baptiste Soufron, legal counsel to the Association of Audionautes, a French group that defends people accused of improperly sharing music files.

The law would be a blow to media companies that increasingly use the courts worldwide to sue people for downloading or sharing music and movie files. Entertainment companies such as Walt Disney Co., Viacom Inc. and News Corp.'s Fox say free downloading of unauthorized copies of TV shows and movies before they are released on DVD will cost them $5 billion in revenue this year.
In other words, it is a big fuck-you from the French parliament to the government and the media industry. Note that none of this actually has gone through yet, but this is a very good sign that one can't just sneak through crazy anti-consumer laws here without anybody noticing.
[ | 2005-12-23 03:35 | 2 comments | PermaLink ]  More >

Wednesday, December 14, 2005day link 

 The Fatal Book Review
picture Stanley "Tookie" Williams was executed in St.Quentin last night. He was the founder of the Crips gang, and was convicted for having killed 4 people, even though he claimed his innocence. I can't judge whether he actually did it or not. But it is a shame because he seemed to be a reformed man who had become a great activist. The most stirring comment I read is from Doc Searls who just happened to be staying in a house overlooking St.Quentin at the time. Governor Schwarzenegger had denied clemency to Williams, in part for these reasons:
The dedication of Williams' book "Life in Prison" casts significant doubt on his personal redemption. This book was published in 1998, several years after Williams¹ claimed redemptive experience. Specifically, the book is dedicated to "Nelson Mandela, Angela Davis, Malcolm X, Assata Shakur, Geronimo Ji Jaga Pratt, Ramona Africa, John Africa, Leonard Peltier, Dhoruba Al-Mujahid, George Jackson, Mumia Abu-Jamal, and the countless other men, women, and youths who have to endure the hellish oppression of living behind bars." The mix of individuals on this list is curious. Most have violent pasts and some have been convicted of committing heinous murders, including the killing of law enforcement.

But the inclusion of George Jackson on this list defies reason and is a significant indicator that Williams is not reformed and that he still sees violence and lawlessness as a legitimate means to address societal problems.

There is also little mention or atonement in his writings and his plea for clemency of the countless murders committed by the Crips following the lifestyle Williams once espoused. The senseless killing that has ruined many families, particularly in African-American communities, in the name of the Crips and gang warfare is a tragedy of our modern culture. One would expect more explicit and direct reference to this byproduct of his former lifestyle in Williams¹ writings and apology for this tragedy, but it exists only through innuendo and inference.

Is Williams' redemption complete and sincere, or is it just a hollow promise? Stanley Williams insists he is innocent, and that he will not and should not apologize or otherwise atone for the murders of the four victims in this case. Without an apology and atonement for these senseless and brutal killings there can be no redemption. In this case, the one thing that would be the clearest indication of complete remorse and full redemption is the one thing Williams will not do.
And here's Doc's comment:
I haven't read any of Williams' books. I don't know if he has redeemed himself. And I am not a lawyer.

But it seems to me the governor is making a political judgement here, and not just a legal one; especially in respect to George Jackson, a charismatic Black Panther considered by many a martyr after he was shot in prison.

I would find the governor's clemency denial much easier to take if he had confined his remarks to the facts of the case, and said Williams should die, as the courts ordered, for the cold-blooded murder of four people. But he didn't. He gave Williams a fatal book review.

And a shallow one at that. Did the governor read past the dedications?
He's right. That's outrageous. Sent a man to his death because he mentioned a black panther favorably in the credits of his book. A fatal book review indeed.
[ | 2005-12-14 15:46 | 13 comments | PermaLink ]  More >

Saturday, December 3, 2005day link 

  France about to get worst copyright law in Europe?
Cory Doctorow on BoingBoing:
France may soon enact the worst copyright law in Europe, sneaking it through in a legislative session scheduled for December 22 and 23.

Europe's equivalent to the US Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) is a controversial directive called the EUCD. Each EU state is responsible for implementing the minimum set of EUCD restrictions (which are far from minimal!) but each state can exceed the minimum, and the entertainment lobby pushes hard to see to it that they do. They've run amok in France, subverting the lawmaking process with a farcical wish-list of penalties, mandates and software bans.

Copyfighters in France have published a detailed alert in French; what follows is a loose, machine-assisted translation (substantive corrections gladly sought):

* A prohibition on all software that permits transmission [disposition is unclear without greater context] of copyrighted material that does not integrate both a watermark and DRM
* A prohibition on marketing or advertising such software
* These prohibitions include legal sanctions
* DRM mandates for digital radio transmission
* A universal wiretapping system for private communication [This is defined elsewhere as a system to check for, say, music files attached to email messages, and not one that would violate the "secret of private correspondence".]
* Creation of a universal filtering system for all ISPs

Summary in French here, and there's a petition one can sign against it. Very disappointing to see the French government in the pocket of multi-national media companies.

Read a news article here. Note that the law being proposed would make the publishing of free software a criminal offense. The government threatens to sue anybody who openly publishes their source code.
[ | 2005-12-03 12:49 | 16 comments | PermaLink ]  More >

Wednesday, October 26, 2005day link 

 A Danish North Pole
picture BBC:
A predicted thaw in the Arctic ice cover combined with a search for energy supplies is leading to a new "gold rush" in the high north, bringing diplomatic problems in its wake as five countries vie for access to resources.

There are disputes involving all of the five - the United States, Canada, Russia, Norway and Denmark.

The US and Canada argue over rights in the North West Passage, Norway and Russia over the Barents Sea, Canada and Denmark are competing over a small island off Greenland, the Russian parliament is refusing to ratify an agreement with the US over the Bering Sea and Denmark is seeking to trump everyone by claiming the North Pole itself.

That would be kind of fun. The various countries bordering the arctic region are arguing about methods of dividing it up, and, apparently, the method favored by Denmark and Canada, based on the length of their nearest coast line, the North Pole would go to Denmark, as the top of Greenland basically is closest.

Not that there's anything terribly interesting going on at the North Pole. Oh, Santa Clause lives there, of course. So you'll have to be writing your wish list in Danish.
[ | 2005-10-26 01:45 | 8 comments | PermaLink ]  More >

Friday, October 7, 2005day link 

 American Strangeness
Al Gore:
I came here today because I believe that American democracy is in grave danger. It is no longer possible to ignore the strangeness of our public discourse . I know that I am not the only one who feels that something has gone basically and badly wrong in the way America's fabled "marketplace of ideas" now functions. How many of you, I wonder, have heard a friend or a family member in the last few years remark that it's almost as if America has entered "an alternate universe"? I thought maybe it was an aberration when three-quarters of Americans said they believed that Saddam Hussein was responsible for attacking us on September 11, 2001. But more than four years later, between a third and a half still believe Saddam was personally responsible for planning and supporting the attack.

Excellent speech. Why is it that U.S. presidents and vice presidents become really intelligent and sensible people after they've left office, when they had nothing much to say when they were there, or when they were running their campaigns? Well, some of them at least. I'd rather not want to hear what Dan Quayle has to say nowadays.
[ | 2005-10-07 18:07 | 3 comments | PermaLink ]  More >

Thursday, August 18, 2005day link 

 Christopher Walken for President
picture There's a campaign website. Walken 2008. Unfortunately it seems to be a hoax. Or, rather, an elaborate marketing campaign for him playing a senator in a movie.

Disappointing. Although, I don't know what his political views are. But, indeed, he's known for odd and brilliant choices. After I heard that he rehearses his roles by reading only his own lines, in backwards order, without ever reading the other people's lines, I can't help having respect for him. I bet he would come up with an equally crazy, but workable way of being a president.
[ | 2005-08-18 12:47 | 9 comments | PermaLink ]  More >

Tuesday, December 7, 2004day link 

 Vote Rigging Program Story
picture There are some interesting stories breaking on The Brad Blog. In particular the one about a Florida programmer who in 2000 was asked by Tom Feeney, now U.S. Congressman and member of the House Judiciary Committee, to create software that would manipulate the votes in voting machines, while remaining undetectable, and that the software was used in Florida elections. That was while he was working for a company that Tom Feeney acted as lobbyist for, and which at the time also employed a later convicted Chinese spy who installed monitoring components in other kinds of software. There's a number of twists and turns, including the murder of an official who was planning on blowing the cover on some of this. His affidavit is here. All of this probably hasn't been verified yet, so all I can say is that the guy says so, and that the story seems consistent. If it happens to be true, it could be big, of course. The Brad Blog site seems to be overwhelmed most of the time, so I'm pasting in below the e-mail I got, with most of the information, so you can read it.
[ | 2004-12-07 13:55 | 6 comments | PermaLink ]  More >

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