28. May, 2013

It’s time again for a rant.

There are people out there who believe that Windows is a “professional” OS.

Okaaaayyyy …

Let’s not bother to discuss what “professional” might mean but I can guarantee you, Windows is anything but “professional.” The reason is quite simple: It’s an OS for everyone. For the average computer user. Professionals use professional tools. They know their stuff, they don’t play with average stuff. You think anything about, say, a Formula One car is average? Even the finish is optimized for weight. Average cars clog the streets, professional cars can haul 400 tons and each tire costs $35’000 alone.

I have a friend who works in a garage. He has a set of tool that costs more than I ever spent on tools my whole life. One day, he had to get nut off. It was already in bad shape from previous attempts by “enthusiastic amateurs”. So he took one of his metric hexagon nut sockets that was one number too small and a hammer and hammered it on. Afterwards, he screwed it loose, forced the nut out of it’s too tight housing and the tool was still intact – barely a scratch. That’s the difference between what local DIY sells you and “professional.”

Windows is optimized to run without complaints. Errors are deliberately hidden from the user since the average computer user simply can’t deal with them anyway.

I turned away from Windows almost 20 years ago and never looked back. Sure, not something that everyone could or should do. Linux still isn’t an OS for the average user (even though we have come a long way – I can almost always set up my twin-monitor system without having to grab a text editor). But then, I need professional tools.

My fellow students wrote 100 page master theses with Word. I remember them cursing all the time. And we were studying computer science. I did mine in LaTeX: 400 pages, 0 problems. Oh, and I had everything under version control. Not that I would recommend it for everyone. But maybe, just maybe you feel like Windows and other M$ products are wasting your time: Have a look at professional tools.

Freak Angels Web Comic

27. May, 2013

Freak Angels is the story of 12 people with very special abilities – telepathy, telekinesis, healing, teleportation, going days without food and water. Six years ago, they were just 17. They were hunted. They were frightened. One was shot. They were scared. Angry.

They broke the world.

This is what happened next.

What I like: It’s a team effort, somewhat rough but fitting. The story is going slow but I found it so gripping that I read the whole six volumes in two days. Somehow, I found myself clicking and clicking and clicking. It’s addictive. Also, the artists aren’t afraid to show bloody violence when it’s necessary. But the violence is always a means to an end, not simply for the fun of it (as in a lot of the mainstream superhero comics these days).

The protagonists, 23 year old, have all developed ways to live with what they did, their guilt. This gives them wonderfully rough sides. They can be flippant in one moment and freak out the next. They struggle with their lives, with boredom, with what they are, what they could be. And all the time, life happens. Below everything is this typical British humor. Things go horribly wrong, lives are at stake and still, there is always this glimpse of hope.

Did you like Akira? Then this is for you.

And hey, it’s free. I paid money for comics that were a lot worse.

What I don’t like: I’m missing a donate button 🙂 I have too many comics already, I really don’t look forward to kill more trees just to give them some well deserved reward.

The navigation sucks. You can move easily between episodes (each 6 pages long) but there is no “next page” button. The buttons 1 to 6 to select the episode’s page are a bit small and at the bottom of the page, so I have to constantly scroll. Other web comics do that much better (Turbo Defiant, Cyantian Chronicles).

There is a quite lot of blood and gore. In a couple of scenes, you see people with their brains blown out, sometimes in more detail than you might like. As I said above, it makes sense but sometimes, I wished they’d tone it down a bit.

And lastly, a couple of small logic holes that made my wince. In a scene one of the Freak Angels takes a dive, comes back up and gets beaten over the head. The water was clear; how did he miss the second hull floating next to his own boat? Or the brains on it? It’s enemy territory after all, he should have been alert. But I didn’t get an explanation (and other noticed it as well), so it keeps bothering me.

How Laws Against Child Pornography Protect Criminals

12. May, 2013

IMPORTANT: This article is about the short-term possession of images with naked children on them, not about the production, rape or abuse of children. It’s about the collateral damage created by founding legislation on (perceived) morality rather than evidence or common sense.

In his blog post “Three Reasons Possession Of Child Porn Must Be Re-Legalized In The Coming Decade” and the follow-up “Child porn laws aren’t as bad as you think. They’re much, much worse”, Rick Falkvinge offers his point of view why the current legislation regarding possession of child porn in many countries are hurting the victims and protecting the criminals. While I don’t share all his views, I agree with him that the current law hurts more than it helps.

Imagine you talk a walk in the park. You come around a corner and you see someone raping a child. What do you do? You could use your smart phone, make a picture (evidence) and call the police.

Bad idea. If you do this, you’ll go to jail. Why? Because you just produced and distributed child porn.

Let’s take this one step further. Imagine you wear Google Glasses. The moment you notice what’s in front of you, you’re already a criminal. The only way to avoid going to jail in this situation would be to delete all and any evidence that you have ever been there. Probably not what you want. Think about it: To avoid going to jail, you must not collect any evidence that could be used to convict the molester.

Why? Because in a mindless haste to close any loopholes in the laws, they were formulated in such a way that possession of pictures on which children are naked OR abused (whatever that actually means), no matter the circumstances, is punishable with at least a few years of prison. Translation: Even if the judge thinks that you’re 100% innocent, he still has to send you to prison because the law doesn’t give him any leeway.

You might be wondering why I don’t link to the second article by Rick. Simple: The article contains two images which are, under current law, child pornography. If you read the second article, you might commit a crime in some countries. I suggest to consult a lawyer before going there. Even by opening the article in your browser without ever reading it, you’re guilty of producing child porn because your browser downloaded a copy of the images onto your hard disk – that’s what the law says. Again, in some countries, the laws against child abuse do not give the judges any leeway in the verdict, no matter how silly, insane or stupid it would be to apply them in a certain situation.

Interesting situation, isn’t it? To know whether it’s legally safe to go a place on the web, you must not know anything that might there. Ignorance is no excuse in law. Moreover, even court lets you go, your reputation will be shot.

Rumor has it the second image is a very famous picture from the Vietnam war; it shows children fleeing after a Napalm bombing. You can probably buy a copy in your local poster shop. And yes, you have probably seen this image before. I saw it in school, I think. Today, it might get our teacher into jail for showing child pornography to minors. Wikipedia has an article under “Vietnam war” which also contains the image; don’t read that article or you might end up in jail – that’s why I didn’t add a link. On the COPINE Scale, this image would probably be a 10 meaning or a 5 on the SAP scale – if that was found on your computer, the punishment would be in the top range of what the law allows.

If you live in a country where there are strict laws against such images (see links below), you should make sure that your pre-adult children don’t make pictures of themselves in the nude. That’s production of child pornography. If they copy the images on their own mobile phone, computer, laptop, that’s distribution. If anyone ever finds out, they will go to jail for several years. Again, the laws have been formulated in such a way that common sense can’t interfere.

If you live in such a country (like the USA, Sweden or Germany), now would be a good time to make up your mind if that is actually what you wanted.

Related articles:


Human Impact on Earth

10. May, 2013

Most of us know that human life has an enormous impact on Earth (and especially on the conditions that allow human life on this precious world) but it’s one thing to “know” and another to “see”.

Google has released a new service for the Earth Engine which offers a time-lapse of an area of Earth’s surface over the last 28 years, for example coal mining in Wyoming (those structures you see are about 10 km across).

Or Amazon Deforestation, Brazil. The image spans about 500 km.

Next time someone comes up “there is no scientific … global warming …”, you have something to show them.

And there is no scientist who doubts climate change. The only questions left are how much it will change, how much of that change is because of human greed and what the exact consequences will be.


Growing Furniture

9. May, 2013

When Peter F. Hamilton wrote about the Edenists growing space stations out of asteroids by planting an artificial, genetic-engineered egg on it, it was science fiction.

Carl de Smet found a way to make foam form into a chair when heated in an oven. The next step in the design is to make the surface of the chair re-mold itself at body temperature – the chair will deform to adjust to the shape of the person sitting on it.


Hyperion and Endymion by Dan Simmons

6. May, 2013

A while ago, I completed reading the four books HyperionThe Fall of HyperionEndymion and The Rise of Endymion.

If you don’t want to waste your time, my verdict: Avoid reading these books.

Still with me? Okay, here goes the critique. Simmons manages to create interesting characters that I actually wanted to root for. They are motivated, each by their own reasons. Some things don’t make sense until you read all four books. For example, there is a reason why Het Masteen is so reluctant to share his story but only the fourth book will reveal the true reasons. The story includes time travel but actually in a way which makes sense. It did evoke strong emotions in me – one of the most important goals of any work of art.

That were the good news. My sore points: The books are deeply depressing. Most characters die one way or the other and the survivors aren’t much better off. No happy end. Lots of abusive relationships on top of incredible flaws in logic. There a few highlights and a few good ideas but everything is drowned in incredibly stupid characters that just plod on, fail to prepare even when they have years to do so, they never learn, most of the time, they are just dragged along by events. Whenever it suits the author, the characters are smart and cunning. And when it’s too bothersome, they are as dumb as a post and completely helpless. Raul knew for years that he would have to start on a dangerous journey. How does he prepare? By staring holes into the air. His love vanished for days. What does he do? Nothing. One day, he is woken by his love and sent through hell. It makes sense from a story point of view but I simply couldn’t fit this with the desperate attempts by Simmons to portrait Raul as a survivor type. It’s as if everyone is constantly on drugs.

And the logic holes. Computers abusing the mental power of all of mankind but too stupid to get rid of a little paranoia? Slagging a chrome-coated killer machine from orbit while the protagonists watch from a few meters away – sure, no one gets hurt. Any time the author has written himself into a corner, the Shrike shows up and kills whoever blocks the exit. The thing is a convenient deus ex machina every dozen or so pages. Resurrection in Endymion takes a couple of days – unless the author needs it to happen in a few seconds. Slagging a sphere with 1 AU diameter in a few hours? Sure, why not. Let’s just ignore the surface area and the fact that even the most powerful weapons would take years to burn more than 1% of that area away. Not to mention that the drives used are visible to the naked eye over millions of kilometers, so there is absolutely no way to a fleet to do surprise attacks: The fleet attacking the world sphere would either have to jump so close that the sensors of the Ousters would have noticed them while the crew was still resurrecting or so far away that the defenders had weeks to prepare. I never had the feeling that the author spent more than a few minutes to plan in most of the fights.

Nemes set a trap for Aenea on God’s Grove. Of course strapping the monofilament directly after the farcaster, too close for the group to avoid it, would be too easy. Instead, Nemes installs several complicated traps but no explanation why this might be better. It was probably beyond the authors ability to come up with a believable explanation. Later, Father de Soya saves the day by slagging Nemes from Orbit. He melts the stone below her feet until she is swallowed in the molten rock. Obviously, the author isn’t aware of the physics involved. The protagonists watch this process from a few meters away with no cover whatsoever. Nemes is protected by her chrome forcefield, so a lot of the energy would be deflected, killing anyone close by. “Close” being several miles in this case. How long does it takes to melt rock? How much energy is necessary for this? Nemes can walk on water but not on molten rock. Okay, she has to struggle to keep her shield up. But how about flicking her hand and deflecting a tiny fraction of this torrent of energy to kill anything within a 1 mile radius? That could have been a strong scene but I simply couldn’t follow the story, I was so frustrated.

Other examples. Aenea sacrifices herself and her followers use some form of telepathy to let billions of humans share her torture. Simmons pictures this process in detail over many, many disgusting pages. I just imagine sitting in a café somewhere on Pacem, nibbling my croissant when I suddenly feel as if I was strapped to a steel frame while evil robots use all their skills to inflict insufferable pain on me while the dignitaries of my church watch the proceedings. What would my reaction be? Would I think “Oh my, this is horrible! We must end this!”? Hell no! I would either commit suicide to get these images out of my head or I would be convinced that this was some evil plot by the Ousters and I would do anything to wipe the bastards out.

So after Aenea has sacrificed her life, most people are either dead or cases of PTSD. I can’t see how her followers could survive the emotional backlash of their actions. And the rest of humanity will be in a mindless rage. Well, the Core will be done for, once and for all: Most humans will be dead and the rest will be mentally unstable. Victory!

More examples? There is no way to get supplies close to the Tombs or get Father Duré out? Are you kidding? We, on Earth, today, can communicate with satellites in orbit, no problem. I guess being able to put space ships into orbit means you can no longer do that. Why? Simmons doesn’t know either. Why not take a comm laser along for a dangerous journey? Or a powered parachute? Or a mirror? Or tell someone to have a look after a few days, just in case. Their ground-surveillance satellites are probably not advanced enough to make pictures of the ground. Yeah. Whatever.

It would be barely bearable if this was published as fantasy: The technology is based more on magic than physics. In a few places, the author starts to paint an advanced, future civilization but it’s always sketchy at best. Space ships don’t make something science fiction.

My conclusion: Frustrating. Avoid.


Justice with Michael Sandel

5. May, 2013

Justice, even more than money, is a key motivator for people. This is true for simple experiments, like the Ultimatum Game, and big topics, like the global financial crisis of 2007/08.

Michael Sandel teaches political philosophy at Harvard University and he routinely attracts thousands of listeners.

Sandel asks questions like “If you had to choose between (1) killing one person to save the lives of five others and (2) doing nothing, even though you knew that five people would die right before your eyes if you did nothing—what would you do?”

Or: “The tickets for my lectures are free but you have to get them because so many people want to attend. Now some people have started to pay money for someone to stay in line for them so they can attend for sure. Is that ethical?”

You can find videos of his lectures on the web site above. Here, I’ll collect a couple of important quotes from an interview he gave to Sternstunden (Swiss Radio and TV).

Most important point: Adding a financial incentive changes the meaning of a social practice. This is in contrast to the common belief that economics is neutral towards ethics.

Note: This is a loose translation how I understood him, not what he actually said.

  • The world has become more rich but the money is distributed unevenly. In recent years, the gap has widened and this places many difficult questions about justice.
  • The widening gap forces politicians to decide what a just world could be. It’s a necessity to discuss these questions in public life.
  • Taxes are collected to benefit the common good and to alleviate inequalities. If some people move their money to low-tax states, they’re opting out of the civic responsibilities. This isn’t only unjust, it’s also problematic because it allows to most rich and influential members of a community to “outsource” some of their duties (while they still very much want to control said community).
  • Justice and democracy are connected. It’s unfair when many people work hard and invest a lot of effort but some of them get a better pay. If this gap widens, it undermines the public spirit, the feeling that “we’re all in the same boat.” This feeling is one of the pillars of democracy. When the public spirit is undermined, democracy erodes.
  • Is it OK when a funds manager makes more money than a teacher? The market theory of laissez-faire says yes. But what if the results of a funds manager are purely luck? What if monkeys can beat them? Or a 64-year old housewife?
  • Financial incentives were created to make people invest in the common good – this is the philosophical basis for the appeal of incentives. Does a funds manager, who makes 1’000 times more money than a teacher, also contribute 1’000 times  more to the common good? If this can’t be proven, how can someone argue that the hedge funds manager deserves to keep all his income?
  • Book: “What Money Can’t Buy” ( Questions from the description: “Should we pay children to read books or to get good grades? Should we allow corporations to pay for the right to pollute the atmosphere? Is it ethical to pay people to test risky new drugs or to donate their organs? What about hiring mercenaries to fight our wars? Auctioning admission to elite universities? Selling citizenship to immigrants willing to pay?[…] how can we prevent market values from reaching into spheres of life where they don’t belong? What are the moral limits of markets? Without quite realizing it, Sandel argues, we have drifted from having a market economy to being a market society. Is this where we want to be? how can we protect the moral and civic goods that markets don’t honor and that money can’t buy?”
  • An important discussion that didn’t happen in the last decades is where the market benefits the common good and where they corrupt non-market values worth caring about.
  • Many countries don’t allow to sell organs on the free market. Reasons: Pool people could be forced to sell their organs to the rich. It’s doubtful that a pool farmer from India would sell his organs voluntarily if that’s the only way to pay for the education of his children. Or how about making children just to butcher them for their organs? But there is a second reason: Do we want people to think of their bodies as a collection of spare parts than can be sold for a profit? Wouldn’t that degrade a human person? Also, there are always risks when donating organs: Something can go wrong during the operation (scars, infections, death), if you donate a kidney, you only have one left which creates a greater risk for you later.
  • Markets only work when they are free. We always need to make sure they aren’t driven by forces like extreme poverty or would this debase/corrupt an important ethical value?
  • In Iraq and Afghanistan, more mercenaries from private companies served than US soldiers. There was no public debate whether we actually wanted this. Rousseau argued against this practice because it’s like outsourcing a civic obligation. This undermines national security, civic duties and democratic values.
  • Public Theater in New York plays Shakespeare in the Park. It’s a free Shakespeare play in the Central Park. Rich people pay homeless to stand in line which perverts the intent of the event: It’s to allow poor people to enjoy high-class culture. It puts a price tag on a free commodity. It also changes the audience and hence the public character of the event.
  • Something similar happens in Washington, D.C. Companies offer to stand in line for tickets for Congress hearings or important decisions of the Supreme Court. This means lobbyists can make sure they will have a seat in the law making process.
  • Both examples corrode democratic values; the latter one is just more obvious. But in both cases, commons, owned by all, are price tagged by a few and forced into a market system that the majority doesn’t want and which benefits only a few – if at all.
  • Laax offered visitors of their skiing resort VIP passes which allowed owners to skip past waiting lines. Half of the people asked for their opinion didn’t like this; they said it was part of skiing to wait in line. The other half found it OK. Notable: Laax only offered only 10 such passes each day and that one of them was only CHF 30,- more than the standard pass. According to M. Sandel, this is a slightly different situation: Slopes aren’t public areas. You’re paying for access anyway.
  • Airports offer fast lanes for passengers who pay extra for their ticket. Part of the service is early boarding and more room for hand luggage. This is OK since the airline sells a service and amenity. But how about the right for a quicker security check? Boarding early is a commodity – in-flight safety isn’t.
  • These examples show how market values/practices (in contrast to moral values/practices) have become more important in the last 30 years.
  • Politics should have a discussion about the moral limits, the question where markets belong and where they don’t, where they display, undermine or destroy moral or social values.
  • In the last 30 years, a pseudo religion has grown around the holy market. The core belief is that markets can define what’s fair and right for the common good. M. Sandel thinks this is a mistake. There must be an important relation between market and morals: Markets are tools. They don’t define justice nor the public good. They are useful to organize production processes and to distribute goods and one can discuss what democratic goals they serve. But they are just instruments. Therefore, the use of markets must be controlled by moral values and legal considerations.
  • Markets are great to distribute goods like TVs, cars, etc. They are dangerous when applied in the context of family life, health, public life, raising children, education and national security.
  • Only by discussion these questions, we can find out where markets are useful.
  • Theory of Justice by John Rawls, shared by Jürgen Habermas, based on Immanuel Kant: We can’t agree what is a good life, what are virtues and how we should value goods. Therefore, we have to find a way to decide matters of justice and what’s goodness without being biased by our prejudices. It’s one reason why the law and the government should be neutral towards gender, religion, sexual orientation, etc.
  • One reason for this is to avoid endless discussions about what’s “good”. Pluralistic societies don’t want to force values on other people when they don’t share the same view.
  • Unfortunately, there is no way to define justice when members of society have contradicting views: 1. There is no way to make law while ignoring the underlying moral controversy. 2. Trying to do so creates hollow politics, it leads to public discussions without depth nor goal. Technocratic discussions don’t inspire and therefore, people are frustrated. They feel that politics isn’t paying attention to the big questions. That’s why people should stand up for their moral and even spiritual beliefs and discuss them in public.
  • It’s impossible to separate justice from the public good.
  • Political parties try to avoid discussing moral issues because of the controversies.
  • We will have to come up with ways and places where we can discuss our moral views and values, justice in the civil society, social movements, the media and higher educations.
  • Young people should be raised to be able to discuss complicated ethical questions.
  • There is always a danger that a group takes control of such discussions. But democracy is always a risk. There simply is no way to avoid that the majority will get it wrong. To solve this, no decision can ever be fixed and frozen once and for all. It must always be possible to revert it later.
  • To teach philosophy, M. Sandel always invites students to discusses with him. It not only raises the attention of the students, it also allows to include current topics in the discussion. That’s how political and moral philosophy always worked: By dialogue, discussion, by challenging assumptions.
  • Some philosophers write books that are technical, abstract and even obscure. While it’s important that they exist and tackle their topics, an equally important part of philosophy must care for the world and society. This is especially true for moral and political philosophies.
  • Sandel himself is sometimes confronted with the problem that tickets for his lectures are sold on the black market. He uses this as a topic to kick off a discussion with the students.
  • In a kindergarten  the caretakers found themselves always waiting for parents to pick up their children. To improve the situation, they fined the lazy parents. But this backfired: Since the parents considered this as a “service fee”, even more parents were late. Important issue here: Adding a financial incentive can change the meaning of a situation.
  • In the kindergarten example, the parent felt guilty. When the financial incentive was introduced, the expectation was that demand drops when the price rises. But parents suddenly felt like they were paying for an additional service.
  • Many economic experts believe that this doesn’t happen. The reason for this is that it’s correct for material goods. A Flat-screen TV behaves the same, no matter at which price it’s being sold. The price doesn’t change the product. But money can change the behavior of products which depend on certain attitudes and norms.
  • Example: Speech of the father of the bride. He can write the speech himself or download it from the Internet or buy a professional to write one for him. One could argue that a good speech makes the father sleep better, it’s not embarrassing for the bridal pair. If you’re president or premier minister, then it’s not a big deal since everyone knows that these people don’t write their own speeches. But let’s assume the father gives a deeply moving, emotional, warm speech. Everyone is moved to tears. And later, people learn that he bought that speech online for $149. How would you feel if it was your father?
  • Example: Spiderman cake for birthday party. During the party, the mother confesses that she didn’t make it because the child didn’t like the design – it wasn’t “Spiderman” enough – so she bought one. Who is at fault? Would it be good if the mother had taught her son to value the work that went into her cake? Or was it wise to give in, depending on the age of the child? In this case, the decision probably had no negative impact. But let’s assume this was a project from the Mother and the other siblings to bake a cake for their brother. After much work, he doesn’t like it and asks to buy a “real” Spiderman cake. It’s easy to imagine that this could be negative for the family relations. The important question is which values, virtues and morals are involved and how buying a professional cake could corrupt them.
  • An example where people refuse the market is the municipality of Wolfenschiessen in the canton of Nidwalden in Switzerland. For 25 years, they are debating whether they should allow a terminal storage for nuclear waste in their area. 1993, a poll by Bruno Frey (PDF, German) showed that 50.8% were willing to accept such a dump. Offering a considerable financial compensation reduced acceptance to 24.6% (page 10). Without compensation, people felt it was their civic duty to take this burden. But the money smelt like a bribe. They were willing to accept a risk for the public good but they weren’t willing to sell the safety of their families and children.
  • It’s important to return economics to its roots. In the times of Adam Smith (18th century), the lecture was named “ethical and political economics”. The many great economists were always thinking how society can benefit best from economics (note: Karl Marx was a philosopher, not an economist). Before the 20th century, economics was always part of philosophy. Only recent decades, it has given itself a semblance of being stand-alone and neutral.
  • The most important things money can’t buy: Love, family, friends.

Related links: