Free speech and the left

May 29th, 2016

What is going on with the left and free speech?

Decades ago self-described liberals were consistently in the forefront of defending the right to free speech and the first amendment.

Lenny Bruce was the poster boy/martyr for this cause. Liberals defended pornography and communists. They consistently said “the answer to speech you don’t like is more speech” – not controls on speech.

The ACLU became famous for defending unpopular speech, even to the extent of defending the right of neo-Nazis to march though the largely Jewish Chicago suburb of Skokie.

From George Orwell’s 1984 to the Berkeley Free Speech Movement to denunciations of Joe McCarthy, much of the left seemed to define itself as defending freedom of expression.

Mario Savio and FSM - Sather Gate, UC Berkeley, November 20, 1964

Mario Savio and FSM – UC Berkeley Sather Gate, 20 November 1964

But in recent years it seems the situation has turned 180 degrees. The #1 cause célèbre among all my liberal friends is reversing Citizens United. Campus protests demand censorship and “safe spaces”, and aim to drum professors advocating politically incorrect views out of the academy.

And then we have:

Arrest Climate-Change Deniers – Gawker

New Inquisition: Punish climate-change ‘deniers’ –

Al Gore at SXSW: We Need to ‘Punish Climate-Change Deniers’ and ..

Climate “Deniers” Must Be Jailed or Killed | – Acting Man

This all seems a very long way from the impassioned defense of free speech the left (in the US) used to stand for.

What happened? Why?

I asked an insightful slightly left-of-center friend, who said,

“Liberals will care about free speech if and as it fights harm and oppression and advances equality. There are a handful of people who care about free speech as an end in itself, but not many.”

I’m not sure if that’s correct. But if it is, what does that say about the contemporary left?

If the left of the 1940s, 50s, and 60s thought that free speech would advance its goals, helping to undermine the status quo, does it now oppose free speech because it sees itself in a position of power, able to dictate what are and aren’t acceptable ideas?

When and how did that change? Did the fall of the Soviet empire strengthen the left in the west, instead of discrediting it?

I’m confused. But as someone who really does care about free speech, it’s terribly disappointing.

As far as I can tell, the popular image of a “millionaire” in the US comes from the 19th century.


Whether you figure by the gold price or by the CPI deflator, one million dollars would buy between 1 and 2 tons of gold during most of that century.

Here in 2016, a ton of gold is worth about $35,000,000.

That’s inflation for you (which I suppose is why many people today use “millionaire” to mean someone who earns $1M/year, instead of someone with a net worth of $1M).

But gold doesn’t inflate. A ton of gold is a millionaire. A nice visualizable amount.

For a shock, read Francis Wayland’s The Elements of Moral Science (1835; try also here), “one of the most widely used and influential American textbooks of the nineteenth century“.

As Wayland explained, prior to Darwin’s theory of evolution, conventional mainstream Christian morals were based on the idea that Man was made by God, and so had special moral responsibilities.

Darwin knocked that bucket over, and in the process broke the long-accepted rationales for all kinds of legal, moral, and ethical rules. The reverberations from that were still being felt at least into the 1970s, and included socialism, progressivism, communism, the sexual revolution (of the 1920s, not the 1960s one), fascism, bad art, ugly buildings, environmentalism, hippies, flower power, and more. Some of it was good, more of it was bad. Things didn’t really start to settle down until the 1980s in the US, the 1990s in Europe, and still aren’t settled in the Islamic world.

And there are plenty of people – all over the world – who still haven’t made peace with it.

In Asia there wasn’t as much commotion about Darwin because Asian societies tended to take their social rules from non-theistic sources (as the West does now, mostly); Darwin’s revelations didn’t invalidate them.

It is telling, I think, that East and West had more-or-less similar rules (and still do, post-Darwin), despite supposedly getting them from independent sources.

I think that shows the rules really came from social evolution, a la Friedrich Hayek (certain rules tend to make societies dominant). Ironic, no?

Why does almost everyone (even me) feel disgust at disaster profiteering?

On the face of it, that’s the market at work – big needs bring high prices, which bring lots of supply, right? It seems (looking at it economically, not emotionally) the quickest way to get help to those in need. But it disgusts me, too.

My hypothesis is that people instinctively fear that profiteers will engineer a crisis if they can make a profit from it. To prevent that, there’s social opprobrium for profiting from a crisis.

Just a thought.

How to deal with tailgaters

March 29th, 2015

I learned the hard way not to speed up.

Once at night I had a tailgater on a two lane road (no easy way to pass), and, being a nice guy, I sped up to accommodate him.

A mile later, the tailgater turned on his blue lights, pulled me over, and gave me a ticket for speeding. Asshole.

So, now:

1) I get as far to the right as possible (left in countries that drive on the left).

I hope that’ll let them pass. Sometimes it doesn’t.

2) So then I slow down. Gradually (no “brake checking”).

And keep on slowing down. Until they pass me.

Occasionally I’ll have to slow down a lot before they’ll pass me – it’s amazing. Sometimes I end up going 15 miles/hour on a limited access highway! (interstate/freeway/autobahn/etc.)

[I wonder if these people just think it’s normal to drive 16 inches behind the car in front of them – once they finally pass, they look…confused.]

One time, on a small road, I had to come to a complete stop before the guy would pass me!

Guess what – he turned out to be a cop. Once I stopped he, very slowly, went around me and drove away.

A brief overview of history

March 29th, 2015

In the traditional inverse-log focus:

Big bang. Galaxies. Earth. Life. Bacteria. Plants. Oxygen in the atmosphere. Animals. Smart animals. Then fire and cooking. A lot of fighting.

Then agriculture. Soon after, writing was invented around 10,000 years ago. Recorded history begins.

Then wheels. Empires and a lot more fighting. Classical civilization (Greece and Rome) rose and fell. Big organized religions.

Printing press. Perspective drawing. Global travel by sailing ships. Epidemics. First global maps. Securities markets. Corporations. The beginnings of science around 1650, mostly in northern Europe.

18th century: Notions of human rights proposed. More empires. Symphonies. European colonization of Africa and Asia. Newtonian physics. Bach. Beginnings of chemistry.

The great 19th century: Industrial revolution – steam engines, precision machines, factories, mass production, electronic communication. Photography. Railways. The first time substantial numbers of people lived at above bare subsistence level. Periodic table. More empires and wars. European domination of the world. Slavery mostly abolished. Darwin’s discovery of evolution. Classical physics.

20th century: Relativity. Quantum physics. Aviation, cinema, automobiles, radio. Ideological extremism. Nuclear power, electronics, computers, primitive space travel. Rock and roll. Molecular biology. More wars, less empires. The early Internet.

21st century: A majority of Earth’s population lives above bare subsistence, mostly thanks to reforms by the Chinese Communist Party (not communist in anything but name). Advances in cosmology and computer science. Wars, but less so.

And here we are.

Net neutrality and the FCC

March 29th, 2015

This is a letter to the editor in response to “How to Break the Internet” in the May 2015 issue of Reason magazine.

Dear Editor,

There are many legitimate criticisms that may be made of the FCC’s approach to net neutrality. Unfortunately, Geoff Manne and R. Ben Sperry do a poor job of making any of them in their May article.

While I agree that Title II regulation is the wrong approach, net neutrality is an attempt to solve a real problem that requires solution.

What Manne and Sperry miss are two points that have gradually become clear to those of us who have worked on these technologies over the last 30 years:

1 – Internet bandwidth is not, in practical terms, a scarce resource. In theory of course it is scarce, just as the amount of air we can breathe is limited by what Earth’s atmosphere holds. But in practical terms, we are not going to run out.

This took a long, long time for technologists to understand – a huge amount of network engineering development and standardization has focused on bandwidth prioritization and allocation mechanisms.

Almost none of which are used in practice. Because it turns out that it is almost always cheaper to simply add more network capacity (“overprovision”), than it is to implement mechanisms to allocate bandwidth as a “scarce resource”.

2 – Contra Manne and Sperry, at least in the US, Internet service provision is not a competitive industry, but a quasi-monopolistic one. This (as Reason should know) is mainly due to regulations at the state and local level. Having 2 or 3 regulated firms offering service in a given area is not the same as free entry into a market.

If truly free competition in the ISP business were allowed, there would be no need for “net neutrality”; competitive forces would solve the problem.

But we don’t have that. I’d much rather see Federal legislation that truly deregulates the ISP business (taking monopoly power away from states and localities). Until that happens, ISPs really do have quasi-monopolistic power.

ISP attempts to tax content providers based on “scarce resource” arguments are spurious excuses for a money and power grab that is in fact simply rent seeking.

As long as that situation is allowed to persist, we do need some limits on how ISPs may abuse that power.

Thank you, Lee Kuan Yew

March 23rd, 2015


Lee Kuan Yew passed away yesterday.

Much to my regret, I never met him. I did not agree with him about many things.

But he was the greatest single benefactor of mankind in history.

As a direct result of the actions of Harry Lee and his “socialist” People’s Action Party, billions of people were lifted out of abject poverty, through reforms first in Singapore, then copied in China and in much of Asia.

Billions of people.

Today Reuters quotes Lee as saying in 1986 “We have to lock up people, without trial, whether they are communists, whether they are language chauvinists, whether they are religious extremists. If you don’t do that, the country would be in ruins”.

He outlawed long hair on men in the 1970s. Banned the sale of chewing gum. And, of course, many drugs.

Those things don’t fit with my politics. But look at the result. Singapore, once almost a synonym for filth and poverty, today is arguably both the freest and wealthiest country in the world. And – billions of people.

Deng Xiaoping, architect of China’s rise through market economics, based directly on emulation of Lee Kuan Yew’s policies in Singapore, famously said “it doesn’t matter whether a cat is black or white, if it catches mice it is a good cat”.

Lee’s cats caught mice.

And so, despite everything, I mourn Lee Kuan Yew.

And, about our political disagreements? Maybe I’m wrong.

sm lee press conference

Modern times

March 13th, 2015

God said, “I am the Lord thy God, King of the Universe. You shall do as I command, or suffer the consequences.”

Man was unhappy, but resigned.

Darwin said “There is no God.”

Man said “I am free! I may do as I please. I want utopia without effort. I want socialism, and fascism, and communism. There shall be no need for greed or hunger. All children shall be above average. I so command!”

God said nothing, since He did not exist.

Reality said “here are the consequences”.

Man was unhappy. But then, he had always been so.

Movie review – I, Robot

January 10th, 2015

60036238[Yes, the 2004 version; I just saw it.]

For decades, movies about humans vs. aliens or humans vs. robots were thinly veiled parables about racism, xenophobia, loving thy neighbor, etc.

Especially so if one of the main characters is black.

No spoilers here, but at the start of this movie Will Smith’s character hates robots. Hates them for no obvious reason.

But this movie is not about racism or foreigners, or anything even vaguely like that. It is actually about robots.

By the end of the movie, Smith no longer hates robots. But not because he’s learned to be a better person. Oh, no, that is not the reason at all. Because this movie is not about that – it’s about intelligent machines.

I won’t say more – see it. But this movie rejects many standard Hollywood tropes and comes up with something genuinely fresh. And it shows that at least some people in Hollywood (Will Smith, anyway – who is also a co-producer) are able to make movies – even starring black people – about things other than racism. Imagine that!

And it has some important things to say about robots – things that may not occur to you until the next day after you see it.

It’s not an Asimov story – it just takes his robot stories as background. But I think Asimov would have liked it (so will Nick Bostrom).

It’s not a perfect movie, so one star off for that. But see it. 4/5 stars.