Saturday, December 20, 2008

Self-described blogger

One brief note here on the (still ongoing) Greek riots.

Why do so many news reports use the following construction about some of the protestors: self-described anarchists.

It implies either that the anarchists are just kidding, that they're fibbing (maybe they're really commies or neo-liberals in balaclavas?) or that they're in some other way not really anarchists.

Alternatively, it could be an attempt to discredit them. You know, maybe they didn't fill out their Anarchist Youth League membership cards properly. Maybe they didn't send the forms off to be approved by the Official World Anarchist Federation.

Or maybe it's one of those reporter tics that get used once and prove infectious. If I had to guess, it started in 1999 in Seattle, when anarchists showed up on the news after a couple of decades of absence. Reporters used the phrase "self-described anarchists" because they were baffled that anyone would use such a descriptor. They had no idea what it really meant. And then it spread, a stupid meme.

Reporters write fast, and we're particularly prone to this kind of crap. Still, it saddens me that after two solid weeks of protest and riots in Greece, I still haven't seen anyone do anything in the mainstream media that goes much beyond the depth of "self-described anarchists."

Saturday, February 17, 2007

But can it do the New York Times crossword?

So, it turns out that the big, scary quantum computer? Was used to do Sudoku puzzles in its first trial run.

Yeah, the code-cracking apocalypse may have to wait a while.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Faith, what is it good for?

So the Israelis and Palestinians are at it again, at the Temple Mount/Dome of the Rock/Al Aqsa Mosque/whatever again this week.

The Israelis are building a new ramp to their site, the local Palestinians are pissed and... ah, you've heard this story before. Riots, rocks and firebombs, stun grenades and bullets. It's a fucking mess, as usual.

An imaginary man in the sky tells two tribes of people not to worship graven idols. Several thousand years later, it's understandable that they would express their idolatry deep faith by trying to kill each other over a few square meters of dirt and rock. The Palestinians - who within living memory have seen homes bulldozed and swiped - are naturally suspicious of any Israeli construction project next to their stuff. The Israelis - who within living memory came from all over the world and resurrected a dead language to create a new nation on what they consider holy land - are naturally mystified that anyone would be so concerned about a mere place.

This time, I'd love to make an atheist's pilgrimage to the site. I want to get within sight of the whole mess and put up a billboard, and this is what it would read:

Dear Assholes,

You are all retarded by choice. If the invisible man in the sky tells you to kill and die over a scrap of land not fit for keeping a goat on, He is evil, and not worth listening to. Go home to your families.

Friday, February 09, 2007

Quantum Leap!

Sorry, I couldn't resist.

Actually, there might be a functioning quantum computer working by next week. A firm in my backyard, in Burnaby, B.C., claims it will demo such a computer next week. If it works, it could mean the end of a whole lot of things.

For example, all Internet commerce.

Theoretically, a functioning quantum computer will be able to perform so many calculations per second that it will be able to (for example) factor very large prime numbers in seconds, instead of in years. Very large prime numbers are the basis for encrypting all the credit card numbers that you and me and everyone we know uses to buy stuff from Amazon. Factor the numbers and you can decrypt all the credit card numbers.

Plus, the computer games would be wicked cool.

The professional nerds on Slashdot are all excited about this. They also know far more than I will ever know about computing, and are spending much time arguing about what it might mean. I say we wait a week.

Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Tory/Liberal attack ads, crazy old ladies

A few days ago, the Tories showed off their newest attack ad.

Two nights ago, I almost ran over an elderly woman, probably homeless, definitely confused, who was walking in the middle of the road at rush hour, in the dark.

These things are, believe it or not, connected by our political system.

Let me explain.

In the beginning, was representative democracy. This was the idea that people would choose their own leaders, instead of having leaders chosen for them by violence, heredity or religious superstition. It was a major leap forward in human society. Because it is a human institution, it almost immediately began to reveal its own set of flaws.

One of the chief among these was the system of parties. The west's first modern representative government, the United States, actually tried to avoid the party system for some time. It was referred to as "faction" and was seen to be a bad thing, an undermining of the basic system of democracy. But, people being people, they clubbed together based on mutual beliefs and interests. Parties and factions are probably unavoidable in any political system, but their influence may be greater or lesser.

Here in Canada, it is definitely greater. Because of the first past the post electoral system, and for historical, cultural and financial reasons, it is a hell of a lot easier to get elected as a party member than in any other way. So anyone who wants to be a political ruler has to join a party. And the parties compete with one another for votes.

This is not, I should add here, because the party members are uniformly cynical, venal, bad people. Unlike some folks whose political orientation, like mine, is outside the norm, I've met a lot of politicians, at the local, provincial and federal level. Most of them are, or were, very idealistic. They have lofty goals, and they genuinely want to make the world a better place. Some of them are stupid, or venal, or nuts, but they're drawn from the sometimes stupid, venal or nutty mass of humanity.

For example, they want to do something about homelessness. They would all agree that it is bad that an increasing number of people live on the streets, and sometimes wander into traffic. They have solutions they would like to put into place. But first, they have to get elected.

Getting elected is hard. It takes money. You have to convince a justifiably cynical electorate, or around 50 to 70 per cent of it, anyway, that you are not a total asshat. You have to deal with grotty local reporters and the national media, and annoying, whiny bloggers. You have to shake so many hands that you will certainly get every cold and flu bug going around.

Then, once you are sure you are going to get elected, you have to make sure your party wins. It's no good to just be out in the wilderness, with 10 or 20 seats out of 308. You've got to sweep at least half the fucking game board! More money. Leadership conventions. Internal party politics. Many people have to compromise, and special interests have to be appeased. And that's all before you take power.

Once you go through this for months, maybe years or even decades, you might still remember that you got into politics because you wanted to end homelessness, but you've spent most of your resources, your time and your effort doing other things. Fighting partisan battles also tends to become all consuming. It even seduces other people who aren't even members of the parties with its spectacle. Reporters and bloggers and political junkies. We all get consumed with the game. And we forget about the real-world consequences of the game.

So this is the game: the Tories and the Liberals, the NDP and Greens and Bloc, they all want to help that old woman out of the street. So they raise money, and form national organizations, and hold meetings, and strategize and scheme, and hate one another, because they all know that their plan to help the old woman is much better than the other guys' plans. They run hugely expensive campaigns and viciously undermine one another. And the game is never over. You just keep going around the same board, over and over and over.

Fuck the game.

Humans need systems to get along with each other, sure. But we might want to consider that this system does not work, at least not any more, not for the 21st Century. It's like trying to thread a needle while wearing 20 pairs of gloves. To get at the problems we face, to bring the whole weight of our society behind some great endeavour, we have to go through this bizarre process, which has acreted over the years.

I say, tip over the game board, and start again. Let's make up some new, simpler rules. More direct. More open.

Because I'm tired of living in a world where an attack ad has anything to do with old women in traffic.

Friday, January 26, 2007

Arar's money

Maher Arar just got $10 million from the Canadian government in compensation for the horrible tortures he suffered in Syria for no apparent reason.

The irony? It comes in the same week that the US Ambassador David Wilkins again refuses to let Arar off the US no-fly list, and again says that the US has its own reasons for that. Said magical mystery information was apparently shown to Stockwell Day, and it didn't convince him. I'm pretty sure you could fool ol' Stock with a game of three-card-monte that was two cards shy, so the info must not be that persuasive.

Wilkins, a waste of carbon utter asshat seasoned diplomat, must have his reasons for this. It would be nice if someone would tell us proles what those reasons are...

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Dead dinos and property rights

Sometimes, you just can't rely on the market to do the right thing.

A big fossil controversy, one that will rival the $8 million sale of Sue the Tyranosaurus rex, has sprung up again in Montana. This time, a private collector has found two fully articulated dinosaur skeletons preserved together. The carnivore appears to be a Gorgosaur, a smaller relative of Tyranosaurus. The herbivore is a certopsian, related to Triceratops, but it may be a previously unknown species. There is also a chance that the Gorgosaur was either preying on the ceratopsian or scavanging its remains when they were buried.

So what's the problem? From the AP story.
Mark Eatman, the Billings floor salesman who first spotted the new fossils last summer, says he and his team have deep respect for the science of paleontology.

They also have a bottom line.

"We all went broke digging them up," said Eatman, who hopes to sell the specimens to a major American museum.

The profits would be shared among Eatman, his two digging partners and the ranch couple that owns the fossil.

The problem there is that scienctific journals won't accept papers based on fossils held in private hands. There is no way to guarantee future access to privately held bones, and therefore no way to trust the data. If a future scientist can't re-examine the same bones and write his or her own paper, there's no scientific freedom.

This scientific current of absolutely open access to data and samples sends scientists paddling against the current of Western property law. Scientists, as everyone knows who has spent time with them, are pretty damn socialist and even communalist when it comes to their work. Sure, just like everyone else, they would like to get paid well and have nice things. But the system of scientific openness that is essential for progress is about as profit-driven as a monastery.

Paleontologists would be best served in their work by a property system that used either strict usufruct or some kind of community ownership - in other words, by a libertarian-socialist system. Under usufruct, samples could pass from hand to hand, as one research team was finished another could take possession. Most likely, samples would wind up in public institutions because it would be easier than moving the damn things around all the time. Under community ownership, they would be considered an asset to humanity in general, and the community would have a responsibility to either protect them for science or to give them to some organization that would undertake that job.

Many amateur fossil hunters, those who don't need the money, already abide by the philosophy inherent in the idea of community ownership. Anything that is scientifically important, they give away to museum or university researchers. They are giving it not to one institution, but to science itself.

Whether those property systems would support any other kind of enterprise so well - or whether we'd be able to support any science without a present-day or Lockean property system - is a debate for another time.