August 4th, 2014

Be nice. Work hard.

Be tolerant.

Correlation is not causation.

Internalize externalities.

It’s a democracy; compromise.

Life is only fair on average.

Spend less than you earn. (Other people do; you can too.)

Subsidy is the root of all evil. (Separate post coming on this…someday.)

In One Time Pads We Trust. (All others pay cash.)

Keep Right Except To Pass.

Abstraction is good, magic is not. Remove magic.

Be polite to armed people.

Don’t buy consumer goods on credit.

…but capitalism doesn’t have to.

The poor popular reputation of free markets may be connected to the prevalence of deceptive advertising, especially for consumer goods and services.

Spend just an hour watching TV after midnight, and you’ll be bombarded with ads for penny auctionsinfant life insurance, sports betting (you’ll win thousands), anti-impotence drugs (or is it penis-lengthening? They’re never clear.), etc.

As Michael Caldara said in the first link above, “we don’t hear calls to regulate infomercials, get-rich-quick seminars, and fad diets”, but – perhaps we should?

I’d prefer vigorous enforcement against common-law fraud, but (in my humble opinion; don’t sue me,) these ads intentionally mislead the ignorant and incompetent. That’s why they air when most successful people are asleep.

To many people this gives the impression that capitalism is little more than legalized theft and deceit. A crackdown on these obvious (to me, anyway) cases of fraudulent advertising might go a long way toward improving the reputation of both government and business. Markets only work to society’s benefit, not to enrich those with the least scruples, when the basic rules of honest dealing are enforced.

If that’s too hard, another path would be an organization of ethical businesses that observe a code of honesty (complete with a membership seal).

This is not 100% cranberry juice. It's 100% Juice Cranberry. Which of course is entirely different. :-(

This is not 100% cranberry juice.
It’s “100% Juice Cranberry”.
Which of course is entirely different.

Modern tech makes looking up owners from plate numbers trivial – you don’t need a plate scanner, you just need a camera and Internet connection.

When introduced 100 years ago, plates could have had the owner’s name on them – but that was considered an unreasonable invasion of privacy. Quasi-random plate numbers made looking up owners possible, but intentionally difficult and slow.

Technology has changed that. We accept plates now only because we’re used to them. Unless you think it’s also a good idea to require pedestrians to wear a giant sign with their name on it, it’s time to get rid of license plates.

Cars already have VIN numbers stamped all over them – that is enough. The VIN is printed small and isn’t readable by every passing person.

If you get pulled over for a traffic violation, then the cop can ask for your vehicle paperwork.

I’m going to start making a list of the elements of political dysfunction in the US. (These may apply to other countries as well, but I’m not familiar enough to say.)

From time to time I’ll come back to this post and add more. Maybe.

  • Good intentions
  • Stupidity
  • Unreasoning hatred

These three seem to make up the core of both left and right in the US.

Good intentions are what every normal person has with regard to their political views. Self-interest biases these of course, far more in some people than others. But most non-psychopathic people sincerely believe that society would be best off following their own political views.

Stupidity is also common to us all. Compared to the complexity of the world and of society, we are all stupid – some much more than others. But none of us can really predict the long-term results of the policies we advocate. Every action has direct effects, secondary effects, tertiary effects, etc… without limit. And there is no guarantee, or even reason to think, that the earlier effects will be larger than the later ones.

The unreasoning hatred is of the opposite side – it reflects the refusal to accept that those who disagree may have valid reasons for doing so, may not be motivated by self-interest or hatred, and almost certainly sincerely believe in their own positions.

Then we have the common human failings that affect us all:

  • Refusal to admit when we’re wrong – because of the effect on our reputations
  • Refusal to compromise, even if the compromise would be better than the status quo
  • Refusal to allow experiments, because of the chance that the experiment might prove the other side correct

Not that we’d ever admit these are the reasons for our positions.

I’m sure there’s more I haven’t thought of…

Somehow the very words “Nazi” and “Hitler” have become almost unique synonyms for pure evil.

Godwin’s Law has formalized this – the moment “Nazi” is mentioned in any discussion, rational debate stops and you’re in the territory of moral absolutes.

For example, we can’t complain about over-the-top “Gestapo” tactics when SWAT teams are used for everything from drug raids, to high-profile debacles like Waco, to desperados wielding open wireless routers or rescuing Bambi.

No, we have to call these “Stasi” tactics. Because no matter what the reality, it can’t possibly be as bad as – or even rationally compared to – the Nazis. By definition.

And we have to invent new terms like “crony capitalism” instead of using the proper word “fascism”; because as soon as you say “fascism” you’re a crazy kook with no sense of proportion.

Not that Nazis weren’t evil – they were every bit as horrible as their reputation.*

But why are they perceived as uniquely horrible? What about Pol Pot, or Vlad the Impaler, or any number of historical conquerors who routinely murdered every single man, woman, and child in a captured city?

The Nazis were indeed evil, but the only thing unusual about their evil was how efficient they were at it and their proximity to the center of Western culture.

I can’t think of another defeated enemy that has become so demonized.

*If you like horror literature, try The Theory and Practice of Hell (Eugen Kogon, 1946). Unfortunately, it’s non-fiction. (Not for the weak of stomach.)

I read today that Pope Francis thinks the global economic system shouldn’t be based on “a god called money”, and that “Men and women have to be at the centre (of an economic system) as God wants, not money.”

Maybe he’s right. Our economic system should be about people – that’s who it is supposed to be for.

We should have an economic system that encourages people to help each other out, and voluntarily give one another the things they need. One that works without threats and coercion, and which makes people want to be nice and helpful to each other.

Here’s an idea I’ll call “smile economics” – it’s based on an economy of “smiles”:

Each time someone does something nice for a stranger (helps them out, gives them something they need, etc.), that person should give “smiles” in return – to show their appreciation of the nice thing. It might be a lot of “smiles”, or just a few, depending on how big the favor was.

(This would be mostly for use with strangers – people tend to be naturally nice to their friends and relatives.)

The people who accumulate lots of “smiles” would be those who are especially nice and helpful to others. Of course most people want to be perceived as nice, so wanting to have lots of “smiles” would act as a social incentive to encourage everyone to be nice to each other.

Now, when someone really wants a lot of help or something from other people, they could offer a lot of “smiles” for that help. Other people would know that they can really help someone a lot, if that person is offering a lot of “smiles” for the help. Because people want “smiles”, and everyone would know that others wouldn’t offer to give away many “smiles” unless they really wanted the help very much.

Here is the best part – even people who are not naturally nice – selfish people – would want to be nice, in order to get “smiles”.

Why? It’s true that nasty people often don’t care what people think about them. But in order to get help and other things they want from strangers, they’d need to offer “smiles”. Probably they’d have to offer even more “smiles” than nice people, because people don’t generally want to help nasty people. So, in the “smile economy”, nasty people would have to to be nice to others, in order to get the “smiles” they need to get the things they selfishly want for themselves. (Because, in this system, they can’t just buy what they want with money – they need “smiles”.)

“Smile economics” actually makes nasty people want to act nice, in order to satisfy their own selfish desires. It actually makes their own selfish interest drive them to be nice to other people! How about that!?

Of course, to do the most good, the system should be utterly universal and work between strangers of all races, religions, and nations, no matter where they are. We want to encourage people to be nice to one another no matter who they are. Anyone who said, for example, that someone in Brazil shouldn’t do nice things for someone in China (or any other pair of countries) would be seen as evil – because wanting people not to be nice to each other is evil. Nobody should ever tell anyone not to be nice to one another.

What do you think?

Addendum – A few people who have read this think it won’t work because people can just make fake “smiles” all the the time (as many as they want) in order to get things. They have a point. So let’s say that everybody gets a certain limited number of “smiles” to spend – maybe eight or ten each day (they can save them as long as they like).

Addendum #2 – In case it isn’t clear, it doesn’t need to be “smiles” that people give as a reward. It could be anything that’s limited in number which other people value – for example pretty marbles (if they’re hard to get), or shiny rocks, or little pieces of gold. Or what the Spanish used to call “pesos de ocho” (pieces of eight). Or Greek drachma, Pakistani rupees, or Thai baht. Japanese Yen would work. Or Bitcoins. I suppose those all have their pros and cons, but it doesn’t really matter.

You get the idea now, I’m sure. Pope Francis is going to love this idea!!

Did you know I invented many of the key technologies used to drive today’s world?

It’s true – I did. All by myself. I ran across this yesterday:

Inventing 2011

It’s a 2011 scribble from when I was inventing deconvolution.

In fact I’ve invented so many common technologies that I’ve forgotten about most of them. A few that I do remember are:

Technology Concept Implementation Notes
Dither ~1974 As a child playing with circuits.
FIFO queues 1978 1978 I called them “circular buffers”; never heard of terms “FIFO” or “queue”.
Remote Desktop[1] ~1980 I was going to do it for the TRS-80 (Models I and III) and call it “Guest/Host”.
Web prefetch ~1984 Well, prefetch for web-like services, anyway. Pre-fetch the results from each of the 6 or so menu options on CompuServe Information Service (CIS), to save download time on your 300 bps modem.
Key splitting ~1990 Split a key into N parts, of which M (M <= N) are needed to use the key.
Google Earth 1990 1991 I started a company to do it. We were going to use CD-ROMs, because they hold so much data. Sigh.
Internet-controlled thermostat 1997 From my notes: “Thermostat with Internet interface so you can remotely set and test (and read history?) via Internet (or POTS); for travelers.”
Superresolution ~1999 Motivated by early digicams with lenses that could resolve more detail than the sensors of the time.
Deconvolution ~1999 2011 For lensless imaging. Dropped it when I discovered it required far more bits of ADC than available in real sensors (or even real photons).
Camera orientation sensor ~2001 Gravity sensor in digital camera detects if it’s being held in landscape or portrait orientation, then sets a bit in the image to display it properly.

Of course, I don’t claim to have been the first to invent any of these things.

The astute reader will note that all these invention dates are all long after these technologies were already well-known. That’s because I re-invented them independently (having never heard of them). The chance to do that is one of the perks of having little formal education.

I’ve often thought that more than 99% of what any individual learns during a lifetime is lost when they die – only the tiny fraction of 1% that gets written down, successfully taught, or copied, benefits anyone else. It’s a terrible waste.

And this shows that even for that tiny fraction of 1% that is written down, many people (perhaps most?) end up having to re-discover it from scratch, either because that’s easier than understanding someone else’s explanation, or because it’s too hard to find out that someone else already has solved the problem.

Makes you think a bit about the meaning of “obvious at the time the invention was made to a person having ordinary skill in the art“, doesn’t it?

[1] I did have a little bit to do with inventing RDP (the first invention, that is), but that wasn’t till the 1990s…

Perhaps it had to come to this…

December 18th, 2012

From Techdirt, 2012-12-17:

China Tries To Block Encrypted Traffic
from the collapsing-the-tunnels dept

During the SOPA fight, at one point, we brought up the fact that increases in encryption were going to make most of the bill meaningless and ineffective in the long run, someone closely involved in trying to make SOPA a reality said that this wasn’t a problem because the next bill he was working on is one that would ban encryption. This, of course, was pure bluster and hyperbole from someone who was apparently both unfamiliar with the history of fights over encryption in the US, the value and importance of encryption for all sorts of important internet activities (hello online banking!), as well as the simple fact that “banning” encryption isn’t quite as easy as you might think. Still, for a guide on one attempt, that individual might want to take a look over at China, where VPN usage has become quite common to get around the Great Firewall. In response, it appears that some ISPs are now looking to block traffic that they believe is going through encrypted means.

A number of companies providing “virtual private network” (VPN) services to users in China say the new system is able to “learn, discover and block” the encrypted communications methods used by a number of different VPN systems.

China Unicom, one of the biggest telecoms providers in the country, is now killing connections where a VPN is detected, according to one company with a number of users in China.

This is the culmination of at least 35 years of official concern about the effects of personal computers.

I’m old enough to remember. As soon as computers became affordable to individuals in the late 1970s there was talk about “licensing” computer users. Talking Heads even wrote a song about it (Life During Wartime).

The good guys won, the bad guys lost.

Then, even before the Web, we had the Clipper chip. The EFF was created in response. And again the good guys won.

Then we had the CDA, and then CDA2. And again, the bad guys lost and the lovers of liberty won.

In the West, the war is mostly over (yet eternal vigilance remains the price of liberty).

Not so in the rest of the world, as last week’s ITU conference in Dubai demonstrated.

I say – let them try it. Let them lock down all the VPNs, shut off all the traffic they can’t parse. Let’s have the knock-down, drag-out fight between the hackers and the suits.

Stewart Brand was right. Information wants to be free. I know math. I know about steganography. I know about economics.

I know who will win.

Reshaping DNA

May 30th, 2012

This is perhaps the most unintentionally spooky ad I’ve ever seen.

…China asked us to examine the DNA of their workforce and reshape it for the future.

I’m quite sure they don’t mean that. But just the thought is quite creepy.

It’s from the May 19 2012 US edition of The Economist:

Annie Keegan has a posting on about textbook quality that has been getting a lot of attention lately. It’s worth a quick read.

She bemoans the quality of (US) K-8 math textbooks, and blames it on rushed and underfunded development schedules caused by the greed of a quasi-monopoly of “educational publishers left after rabid buyouts and mergers in the 90s”, plus squeezed budgets.

Of course this is true in a trivial sense – the textbooks are in fact horrible, publishers do try to maximize profits, budgets are always less than one would wish, and the textbooks are indeed “there’s no other way to put it—crap”[1].

But she completely misunderstands the causes. And this misunderstanding is likely to lead to more of the same problems, instead of solutions.

Keegan writes:

At one time, a writer in this industry could write a book and receive roughly 6% royalties on sales. The salesperson who sold the product, however, earned (and still does) a commission upwards of 17% on the same product. This sort of pay structure never made sense to me; without the product, there’d be nothing to sell, after all. But this disparity serves to illustrate the thinking that has been entrenched industry-wide for decades—that sales and marketing is more valuable than product.

First, the 6% royalty on all sales of the book is not comparable to the 17% commission on an individual sale to a single school. The salesperson only earns commission on what she sells. There are many salespeople who split that 17% of the book’s total sales, but only one author who collects all of the royalties.

And I don’t think Keegan would complain that a bookshop earning a 40% markup on a book is an indication that retailing is somehow more important than authorship.

Second, the “the thinking that has been entrenched industry-wide” does not decide how “valuable” each contribution to making a book is. There could never be any consensus on that.

Instead, compensation is based on supply and demand – if more people want to be textbook authors, that increases the supply and reduces the pay. If less people want to sell them, that decreases the supply and increases the value of salespeople. If Ms. Keegan thinks salespeople have a better deal, perhaps she should become one – this is how the market shifts labor (and other resources) from less-valuable to more-valuable purposes. If she prefers to remain an author despite the (supposedly) lower pay, that’s her choice, and that choice shows that, to her, being an author (with lower pay) is better than being a book salesperson (with higher pay). She ought not to complain if she is better off — by her own standards.

But none of these misunderstandings get to the heart of why the books are “crap”.

The books are not crap because of the publisher’s greed and the limited budgets.

People who make televisions and plumbing supplies and instant noodles are greedy humans, too. And the people who buy them always wish they had more money to spend than they do. Yet these things aren’t crap.

School textbooks are crap because, unlike televisions and plumbing supplies and instant noodles, the people who make the decision to buy them (administrators and school boards) are not the same people who use them (students and parents).

These two groups of people – buyers and users – have different priorities. The quality of content is foremost for the users of the textbook, but the buyers are easily influenced by other things – fun trips to “educational seminars”, fancy lunches paid by salespeople, kickbacks of varying forms and legality, etc.

In the end, publishers must supply what buyers want, or face being replaced by other publishers who will. What students and parents want is relevant only insofar as it influences what buyers want. Even if a publisher were to have high standards, ensure adequate budgets and schedules, etc. to produce a high-quality product, this would only mean that their expenses would be higher than those of publishers who concentrate only on what sells books.

This problem cannot be solved by changing how publishers work or how school boards and administrators buy textbooks. Buyers will always do what is good for buyers and sellers (publishers) will always do what is good for sellers – increasing budgets simply means they will do more of it. This is an iron law of nature.

The only solution is to make the buyers care more about the wishes of the users – parents and students.  As long as students are assigned to schools without choice, administrators have little reason to fear losing students and the funding the comes with them – it’s easy to prioritize (and rationalize) their personal interests as buyers over the interests of users. School choice forces administrators to care about losing dissatisfied students and parents – and so to demand quality textbooks.

Like pushing on a string, changing what suppliers offer does not change what buyers want.  Buyers will simply find other suppliers with less scruples. You can only pull on a string – change will happen only when buyers demand better quality from publishers, and that can happen only when buyers and users have the same interest – quality textbooks and quality education.


[1] Of course the whole issue with math textbooks is moot because math doesn’t change; there’s no reason to update math textbooks in the first place. If you’re a school, my advice is to find a good math textbook that’s 100+ years old (and therefore out of copyright) and use it.

But book salespeople won’t take you on fun trips if you do that, so while this advice is best for your students, it might not be best for you as an administrator. Which is my larger point.

(Some will say that math doesn’t change but teaching methods do – I agree, but for the very same reasons that textbooks are “crap”, they don’t change for the better.)