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Just Say No to Copyright Term Extension

July 12th, 2014

Howard Knopf is right of course in his objection at EXCESS COPYRIGHT: Just Say No to Copyright Term Extension - Why More is Less: My Views on #TPP.

But I would go further. No copyright on any work should ever be extended beyond that which was in place at the time of its creation.

Not only is it obvious that no such extension of copyright can add any incentive to the creation of the work, but the extension is also actually an act of theft - first from the public whose rights are given away, but also from the creator (and any previous owner) who sold the work for a price based on the copyright term in effect at the time of the sale.

Who are the Authoritarians?

July 10th, 2014

Are the Authoritarians Winning? by Michael Ignatieff | The New York Review of Books is a disappointingly vapid piece by Michael Ignatieff in which he reviews a number of recent books about the global situation.

Authority is just a matter of effective control - which always resides somewhere. Any government is based on a claim of authority and the only difference about a democracy is that the authority is claimed by the electorate. To limit the scope of its authority is merely to reassign that authority to individuals - which in a "liberal" democracy means to the wealthy.

Ignatieff's most telling comment is this: "While the liberal state was never intended to enforce distributive equality, it was always supposed to keep the power of big money from suffocating competition and corrupting the political system."

The opening conditional adverbial clause of that sentence is the key. Contrary to Ignatieff, distributive equality (properly defined) is, in my opinion, the only fair goal for any state or government. Anything else is just the facilitation of theft by attempting to mitigate its consequences. So how is distributive equality to be defined and achieved? My answer is as follows:

First, it does not mean that everyone always has the same access to comfort regardless of effort. And while talent is not earned it may take some time for people to accept that it does not somehow justify increased reward, so I am not going to make having reward independent of talent be an objective at this time. But in the meantime we should at least be able to get majority support for the idea that, although luck might also be a factor, it should not be actively enhanced by the state. So inheritance of property should ideally be out as a source of inequality. Everyone should receive, at an appropriate age, an equal share of the then current national (or eventually global) wealth as their rightful inheritance - perhaps by choosing between either three equal instalments at ages 15,25, and 35 or a single lump sum at age 21. This should be paid for by a combination of 100% death duty with a simple uniform tax on wealth and wealth transfers (including gifts) - to be adjusted as necessary so as to meet the needs for financing the legal system, protection of persons and property, publicly funded infrastructure, and social services for those unable to make a go of it on the basis of their inheritance, as well as to provide the ongoing provision of inheritances to those attaining the relevant age(s). The wealth tax should cover at least all costs of  the legal and property protection systems (including "national" defense). And the transfer tax should apply to all exchanges of property and labour, including gifts. Both should be based on declared values with no item of property to be either insurable or protectable via the law for more than its declared value - perhaps with a forced exchange to the state at the declared value as a possible consequence to discourage under-valuation, and the transfer tax should be applied to the greater of the declared values of the two sides of the transaction. The transfer tax might also include a progressive element based on the total of all transfers to or from an individual over a standard time interval (eg a year, as with current income tax).

This is simple effective and will work.  I will allow 48 hrs yrs for the submission and consideration of suggested changes, but at the end of that period it will need to have been put into effect globally - or I will be forced to express my severe annoyance.

Remember, you have just 48 hrs yrs, so get any comments or objections in as soon as possible!

What if it were true?

June 28th, 2014

Kennan Malik provides a fairly nuanced response to Nicholas Wade's recent book (advocating the idea of cognitive differences between races), and (of course) I think he is right to join those who condemn the second half of Wade's book. But despite the nuanced approach he takes to the first half (about the existence of race as a biological concept) I still think Malik falls into the trap of using incompletely convincing arguments to deny even the possibility of things that we all hope are false turning out to actually be true when he comes down in the end against the possibility of defining "race" in biological terms as "plausible but mistaken".

The problem with saying "those who think that ‘race’ is nothing more than a social construction and those who think it a natural category are both mistaken" is that it presumes to know what *all* of those who think it a natural category actually mean.

There are (probably several) perfectly good scientifically meaningful (and useful) concepts which coincide where applicable with the colloquial socially constructed concept of "race". I can't think of any that provides a *complete* classification of humanity into a finite number of subsets but such a classification is not necessary in order for a concept to be useful. Malik has acknowledged one such use in the assignment of medical treatments, and despite the lack (so far) of any convincing evidence it is not inconceivable that there may be statistical links to social propensities and cognitive skills as well. Of course, given our apparent inability to respond appropriately if such links really exist, it may well be inadvisable to look for them, and any claim of their existence would require an especially high standard of proof in order to be taken seriously. In fact, to look for them at all may be harmful and should not be encouraged, and for someone like Wade (who should know better) to claim to have found them on the basis of superficial analysis is just plain evil.

In the meantime though, I think there may well be value in addressing the question of how we should deal with such links in the (perhaps very unlikely) event that they do turn out to exist.

Science and Philosophy

June 26th, 2014

Some late comments on Richard Carrier's blog post re 'Is Philosophy Stupid?' raise interesting questions about the relationship of science to philosophy.

While I have always been inclined to share Richard's view that science (aka "natural philosophy") is actually a branch of philosophy, I am now tempted to question that identification.

To me a "science" is just any teachable method for making successful testable predictions. Although the predictions may be stochastic in nature, the criterion of testability is intended to restrict attention to predictions of a kind (such as "this needle will point into that range on the scale") about which it is almost impossible to imagine any sane person questioning whether the predicted outcome actually happened. (Often in practice we use less apparent predictions expressed in terms of theoretical constructs, but in principle everything should be reducible to counting unambiguous objects or events.)

As such, science is a practice which happens to be useful for achieving practical goals, but so is walking and I don't think anyone would think of walking as a branch of philosophy (even though it might well be a practice that helps clear the mind in support of some kinds of philosophy).

Philosophy is, for me, much harder to define but I think it has to include some beliefs re truth and/or value, and I think there is a subtle difference between making a prediction and claiming that the prediction is "true".

The belief that scientific predictions do represent a kind of truth is a philosophical position, and the stronger position that there are no others has (by what I consider an offensive abuse of language) been called "scientism".

By profession I have been a scientist - but by philosophy I am not so sure.

On the other hand, if science does coincide with natural philosophy then what's left for the philosophy departments is just the non-natural kind (supernatural and unnatural).

Physicists Should Stop Saying Silly Things about Philosophy | Sean Carroll

June 23rd, 2014

Sean Carroll says that Physicists Should Stop Saying Silly Things about Philosophy, but physicists are not the only culprits.

Some of the best philosophers have been at least as critical of "philosophy" as the most strident of physicists. And some of the seemingly objectionable quotes from physicists come in response to the loud claims by some (often unemployed) philosophers that we "need" their expertise for some reason or other. Although I enjoy and see value in the study of how our understanding of various "deep" questions has evolved (or not) over time, I do not need the advice of a professionally trained philosopher to help me decide even moral questions - let alone issues of natural philosophy. In my opinion, the discipline of philosophy would be better served by an attitude common among my mathematical physics colleagues - namely pride in the belief that what we do is "useless" from a crudely materialist perspective but still of great aesthetic value to those who appreciate it.

P.S. I don't think it was fair to elide "completely useless" into "uninteresting or unimportant". And the most famous comment re usefulness was in fact (intentionally) open to a wide range of interpretation since many species of birds would now be extinct but for the interest of ornithologists (even though those birds need neither ornithologists (nor aerodynamicists) in order to actually fly).

What's in a Gift Horse?

May 17th, 2014

Two quite distinct sources in my news and info feed coincidentally raised the issue of looking askance at philanthropy at the same time this week.

On May 11 Nassif Ghoussoub's 'Piece of Mind' on the dark side of philanthropy addresses the issue of possible undue influence by donors on research directions in the higher academic world, and one day later Benjamin Soskis at 'The Atlantic' writes about the importance of criticizing philanthropy in the context of K-12 education "reform".

Nobel Prize-winning chemist Dorothy Hodgkin honoured - Telegraph

May 12th, 2014

It's nice to see Google continuing to honour female figures in science.

Nobel Prize-winning chemist Dorothy Hodgkin is the latest such, and it is no adverse reflection on Dr Hodgkins that her status as the only female British Nobel Prize winner might have been taken a couple of years earlier by another British female crystallographer, Rosalind Franklin, but for the rampant and unrepentant vivism of the Nobel committee and the unfortunate early death of Dr Franklin (who would have surely taken the place of Maurice Wilkins in 1962 had she not died at the young age of 38 - just 4 years before the DNA structure was acknowledged).

Critical Economics Goes Viral

May 1st, 2014

There's been plenty of critical analysis of modern capitalism especially since after the latest crash so the I am curious to see why Thomas Piketty's version is getting so much attention.

Does Net Neutrality need Usage Based Billing?

April 30th, 2014

It may not be surprising that many of those shocked by recent news reports of a threat to 'Net Neutrality' are the same ones who object most strongly to 'Usage Based Billing', but it is nonetheless a bit odd.

After all, if people paid for internet service on the basis of how much of it they used then they would be in a much stronger position to object if the services they want (as opposed to those their ISP wants to sell) were provided at a reduced speed.
I have said before that I wouldn't mind UBB if it was done on a pay-as-you-go basis rather than imposed via effective entrapment by billing after the fact for use that the consumer is not in a good position to effectively monitor, and that was largely because what I want is mostly niche products - not in great quantity but with high unthrottled data rates for what I do want.

But in the long run there may be light at the end of the tunnel - opening out into a world of universal free unlimited bandwidth. How can this be? Well right now the infrastructure of our connectivity is by fixed cables, phone wires and optical fibres, but once there are enough wireless-capable smart and fast devices distributed around us then perhaps a peer-to-peer wireless network might be able to compete effectively with the current service providers - at least for those needs where the latency introduced by multiple short hops might be sufficiently offset by lots of distributed local caching (as in bitTorrent?). Of course, live phone calls and videoconferencing (and interactive gaming?) might never be freed from the need for an industrial-strength provider to handle the long hops. Interestingly it seems to be exactly the mass media products that ISPs now want to give preferential treatment which would be most effectively dealt with via the P2P alternative, so let's hope that someone like Netflix is able to keep that option open.

Are Climate Claims for Burning Renewable Trees a Smokescreen?

April 30th, 2014

This article (series) in The Tyee brings up, and actually slightly confounds, two important questions.

One is the issue of carbon "credits" in advance of the sequestration that they are purported to buy. This points up what to me has always been the second and fatal flaw in the whole carbon credit business which is the fact that it virtually begs for abuse. (The first but perhaps not quite fatal flaw being the idea of giving away free initial emission permits to current heavy industrial emitters)

The other question is about long term sustainability independent of the economic pricing and incentives issue, namely just is it possible to generate combustible biomass at the same rate it is consumed? Or is this just the beginning of a process of burning up every scrap of tissue on the planet just as the pre-coal use of wood as a fuel led to the destruction of forests all over the world and in some places like Easter Island has probably already been a cause of civilizational collapse.

Militant Ideology

April 25th, 2014

Ahmed Humayun at 3quarksdaily writes of The Shadow of Militant Ideology over Islam. He thinks that "it is clear that the greatest danger of militant ideology is posed to Muslims living in Muslim majority societies", but although that may well be true of specifically Muslim kinds of militancy I think it is a mistake to see the militant tendency as a specifically Muslim problem. The present situation in the Ukraine is surely evidence otherwise, and the danger it poses is global.

P.S. I was drawn into commenting at 3QD by Humayun's use of the term "muslim lands" which commenter 'joe mooney' correctly objected to as an "unfortunate term which speaks to a narrow tribal, mindset that is exclusive". The problem with "lands" is that it is so often used to imply exclusive ownership by an ethnicity or religion, often in the sense of something which must be held on to permanently at all costs, and so itself becomes one of the strongest emotional components of a militant ideology.

Karl Polanyi Explains It All

April 17th, 2014

Interesting observation from someone who wrote in 1944

Contrary to libertarian economists from Adam Smith to Hayek, Polanyi argued, there was nothing “natural” about the free market. Primitive economies were built on social obligations. Modern commercial society depended on “deliberate State action” by and for elites. “Laissez-faire” he writes, savoring the oxymoron, “was planned.”

via Karl Polanyi Explains It All.

Don't Call Me Mama

April 17th, 2014

Radia Perlman is another woman with a major place in the history of computing - whose spanning tree algorithm greatly facilitated the creation of the internet. This interview with Rebecca J. Rosen in 'The Atlantic' includes a number of interesting points, but what strikes home the most for me is at the end where she talks about the questions of luck and priority.

'Parts of Speech' are Mutable

April 17th, 2014

Why? ...more »

ThinkProgress Supports the Brandeis LIE

April 12th, 2014

Progressive media are generally approving and maybe even right that it's not a question of censorship. But Ophelia Benson is right about the offensive and dishonest wording of the Brandeis announcement.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali's courage in the face of unspeakable abuse and her resolution to protect others from the same thing may be marred by identifying the source of the abuse both too broadly (all of Islam) and too narrowly (not including similar tendencies in other religions). And she may well be wrong in other ways as well. But there isn't an educated person on this planet who doesn't know damned well that she reviles Islam and seeks its transformation by "defeat".

I don't know if I would ever offer her an honorary degree, but I hope that if I did I would never make the egregious claim that I hadn't known her opinions when I made the offer.

...more »

On Keeping One's Head Down

April 5th, 2014

While the predictable reaction to Brendan Eich's appointment as CEO at Mozilla does make one wonder why they made it, it also raises the question of whether either that reaction or the response was appropriate.

One could argue that publicly taking any potentially unpopular political position should be considered as disqualification from any future CEOship of an enterprise that depends on a broad base of customers and contributors, but that would both limit the available talent pool and unfairly restrict the political lives of potential candidates.

Those who take pride in a "progressive victory" here should consider how they would react if the shoe was on the other foot.

Return of the Excluded

March 18th, 2014

Middle that is.

Why should there be only two choices? asks philosopher Barry C Smith in an article/interview at the Institute of Art and Ideas, and I agree that the binary nature of logic may be as much a reflection of how our minds work than an absolute aspect of reality. But his examples are odd.

There are certainly mathematical propositions that are neither provably true nor provably false (from standard axioms by first order logic), but just being unproved (like his Goldbach Conjecture example) does not guarantee being one of those. Also on the other side he identifies acid vs alkaline, and being Carbon or not, as true binary situations in the real world. But pH varies continuously from one extreme to the other and some large molecules may behave as acid in some configurations or contexts and alkaline in others, and it seems quite conceivable (in principle) that in a suitable (but possibly impracticable) intersection of electron and neutrino beams a C14 nucleus might undergo a series of stimulated beta emissions and absorptions with oscillations fast enough that due to quantum uncertainty one could not say whether at any one instant it was either Carbon or Nitrogen. Indeed it is likely that the identity of any particle, no matter how stable cannot really be said to be absolutely this or that if we take account of all possible real and virtual quantum phenomena.

The limits of reason are also explored at AIA in a video (which might be interesting but tl;dw), and Michael Potter discusses the origins and limits of modern logic, including both the "linguistic turn" which seems to be about the attempt to define a perfectly rigorous formal language and the philosophy of ordinary language that is sometimes called "linguistic analysis" (which strikes me as pretty much the opposite so it's no wonder simpletons outside the field get confused - perhaps that's why they do it!).

But when it comes to the "origins" bit he describes Frege's "polyadic quantification logic" as "enormously more powerful than anything ...since Aristotle" - which I would say undervalues Boole (and others of his ilk).

Interestingly Boole's wife helped in his work and considered it to have been influenced (via her uncle George Everest) by ideas about logic from Hindu philosophy. She also wrote this and was an early proponent of both cooperative learning and what illiterate educators now call "manipulatives" (even though what they really are is manipulable).

Why Study Philosophy? - A Not Stupid Answer

March 18th, 2014

Hangers-on at the edge of academic philosophy often challenge the lack of respect for their purported discipline in a way that undermines both the respect they want to encourage and the employment prospects that they presumably hope to enhance. Here however is something much better(though I suppose some metaphysicists might not be so keen on it).

Metaphysics is an illusion that besets philosophers and philosophically-minded scientists from generation to generation, which it is the task of good philosophy to dispel. But although periodic fumigation is recurrently necessary for intellectual health, what else is there for philosophy to do? What can it achieve? In the sense in which the sciences have a subject matter, it seems, philosophy has none. In the sense in which the sciences construct theories that are confirmed or infirmed by experiment or observation, there are obviously no theories in philosophy. In the sense in which the sciences make discoveries about the world around us, philosophy clearly does not. So what is its task?

We must challenge the thought that philosophy aims to contribute to human knowledge of the world. Its task is to resolve philosophical problems. The characteristic feature of philosophical problems is their non-empirical, a priori character: no scientific experiment can settle the question of whether the mind is the brain, what the meaning of a word is, whether human beings are responsible for their deeds (i.e. have free will), whether trees falling on uninhabited desert islands make any noise, what makes necessary truths necessary. All these, and many hundreds more, are conceptual questions. They are not questions about concepts (philosophy is not a science of concepts). But they are questions that are to be answered, resolved or dissolved by careful scrutiny of the concepts involved.

Here "scrutiny of the concepts" is intended a bit more strongly than just "clarification of the language" but does not stray into the territory of claiming to establish what concepts really do mean as if that were something more than just what we are meaning when we think of them.

But I do have some quibbles.

For one thing I would have preferred to see some mention of the value of just addressing questions without necessarily expecting to ever fully "resolve" them (either by answer or dissolution).

And concerning the philosophy of science he says

At a more specialised level, philosophy is a technique for examining the results of specific sciences for their conceptual coherence, and for examining the explanatory methods of the different sciences – natural, social and human. The sciences are no more immune to conceptual confusion than is any other branch of human thought. Scientists themselves are for the most part ill-equipped to deal with conceptual confusions.

Though I might balk at the "any" in the second to last sentence (since there are some branches of "human thought" which are so conceptually confused as to be embarrassing to anyone associated with them), my only real concern is with the last, where "for the most part" is, I suspect, an extrapolation from a very biased exposure to actual scientists (in particular dominated by those who are keen on talking to people outside their own discipline). It is not so much the apparent insult to scientists that concerns me though, but rather the presumption by omission that philosophers are better-equipped.

Indeed, the claimed uniqueness of philosophy occurs more explicitly elsewhere as well.

At a very general level, it is a unique technique for tackling conceptual questions that occur to most thinking people

Actually it includes a collection of techniques and strategies that can be called "unique" only if you define philosophy to comprise all thought about "conceptual" questions regardless of whether it has occurred in the mind of someone publicly identified as a "philosopher". Which is fine, but perhaps changes the interpretation of "study Philosophy" from what was intended.

Hacker's last three paragraphs are great and point to the real practical utility of training in the subject - which is more to provide facilitators who may help us understand one another than to send arbitrators to tell us who is right.

But in the end, isn't the best reason for doing anything just "because we enjoy it"?

via Institute of Art and Ideas:IAI TV.

Is My Harris Prize Slipping Away?

March 8th, 2014

Oh dear!
Both the number of people who share my view (and arguably express it better than me), and my inability to quickly convince everyone else, in the long discussion thread on this post at Ophelia Benson's blog makes me fear that Russell Blackford too might miss the uniquely devastating brilliance of my demolition of Sam Harris' thesis (for which the most successful argument as judged by Blackford will earn $2000 - and $20000 more if Harris himself concedes the point)
...more »

The Solution To Climate Change?

March 2nd, 2014

ThinkProgress asking Is The Solution To Climate Change In Vancouver? is for me a sad reminder of how the political party that I supported totally misused my contributions. Thanks a bunch BillT and CarolJ