Wednesday, April 30, 2008

9/11- terrorism - game theory

After a storm of media attention surrounding Jeremiah Wright, Barack Obama's pastor, Obama has formally denounced Wright's "inflammatory and appalling remarks . . . about our country." Yet, we must be careful here, for those who blindly condemn rational, motivated criticism of their country are not patriotic, but simply foolish.

A number of Wright's claims have been grouped together as equally outrageous and anti-American which actually have quite different status. In particular, consider the claim that HIV was engineered by the US government to eliminate people of color and the claim that US foreign policy was partly to blame for the events of 9/11. To pick some reports at random, these claims can be seen grouped together as of equally outrageous and anti-American status here, here, and here.

Yet, the two claims are quite different. The claim that the US government engineered the AIDs virus is contradictory to the best scientific theories about the origins of HIV. Furthermore, the claim is entirely unconstructive: certainly, if some party did deliberately engineer the HIV virus, they should be brought to justice, but doing so would not help the supposed 42 million AIDs sufferers. The AIDs epidemic will be addressed by finding a cure or at least a vaccine, an entirely different endeavor than bringing conspirators to justice.

Contrast this with the claim that US foreign policy was partly to blame for the events of September 11, 2001. This claim is not "outrageous," or even anti-American, it is a necessary presupposition of a rational response to terrorism. Why? The answer is simple, and comes from Game Theory. Game Theory provides a framework for rational decision making in situations of conflicting interest. Yet, the analysis of strategies depends upon a crucial assumption: the rationality of one's opponent. If one does not assume one's opponent is rational, his behavior must be taken as indistinguishable from chance, and no theory about his motivations or future actions can be constructed. Of course, the actual situation in the Middle East and the quagmire of foreign policy within which the US is ensnared there is far to complex to formulate within the apparatus of Game Theory. Nevertheless, the same principle applies: if we do not consider terrorists rational, we cannot form any theory about their behavior, and thus we will not ourselves be able to combat them rationally.

However, all those associated ideologically with the 9/11 terrorists have repeatedly cited US foreign policy as the motivation for that and similar acts. If we ignore the claims of these groups, we are rejecting valuable information about how to understand and combat them. Furthermore, we are treating them as wholly irrational. The opposing theory seems to be something like this: Muslims are simply motivated by irrational hatred toward the US. Yet, this is not a theory which can guide action constructively. It eliminates the possibility of diplomacy or diplomatic manipulation, our most powerful tools for adjusting the behavior of foreign groups toward the US. It mandates only war, and a war with no success conditions, for there is no enemy to defeat, only forces of nature (random / irrational agents) to be eradicated. Thus, it is a necessary precondition for effectively responding to the dangers of terrorism that we acknowledge the causal role of US foreign policy of the events of 9/11.

Note here that this point is entirely separate from condemnation of that foreign policy. We may decide, for example, that despite the fact that it contributed to causing the events of 9/11, nevertheless the relevant foreign policy was justified, well motivated, and in general efficacious. Condemning the foreign policy and acknowledging its causal role in 9/11 are two entirely different things.

It is of some interest to note here that only one candidate fulfils this necessary precondition for rational foreign policy, furthermore, his assesment that the appropriate response here is to apply the single oldest and most tested moral principle in history was met with general condemnation by his Republican peers.

With Obama's condemnation of Wright, it appears that all viable candidates for presidency have now publicly proclaimed their own irrationality, their refusal to apply the basic precepts of decision making to our foreign policy, and their denial of the most simple and widespread moral principles. Here is where America deserves condemnation; here is where the most insulting and truly anti-American behavior can be found.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

yearning for zion

On the basis of a single phone call, child protective services and some rather overdressed sheriffs raided the Yearning for Zion Ranch near Eldorado, Texas. Again, on the basis of suspicions surrounding the phone call, 416 children were removed from their parents and put in state custody. It's awfully difficult to see this behavior as conforming to the watchwords "innocent until proven guilty." True, if the well being of a child is at stake, we may wish to act to protect the child first, and confirm the danger second. However, I find it awfully difficult to believe that the average circumstances of these 416 children are improved by their being in state custody rather than with their parents. A former FLDS member reports that charges of forced and early marriages are greatly exaggerated, and, supposedly, among those whose children were removed from the compound (and from them) were a divorced single mother and several monogamous couples.

Current best guess for the origin of this single phone call is a 33-year old Colorado woman with no connection to the FLDS, but who had used the phone number previously, and who had impersonated abused children over the phone previously as well. Now, it is of interest to note here that in the phone call which prompted the raid, the caller named "Dale Barlow" as her abuser. But "Dale Barlow" was already known to authorities as he was on probation. Furthermore, he was known by authorities to be a resident of Arizona, rather than Texas.

I think the comparisons to the Waco Branch Davidian complex raid in 1993 have been overly quick. Nevertheless, there are two disturbing similarities between the incidents, whatever their differences: 1) in both cases, peaceful alternatives to a raid were not adequately explored before force was decided upon; 2) in both cases, authorities seemed ready to accept outrageous accusations more readily simply because the group in question lived in isolation and practiced a minority religion. Furthermore, in both cases, authorities did not bother to research the details of said minority religion, although this would have helped them to conduct raids in a less damaging and more constructive manner.

In a rational society, we should balance (1) the moral imperative to protect the well being of children against (2) the moral cost of replacing expectation of innocence with that of guilt and (3) the practical cost of using government resources to act upon mere suspicions of guilt. In order to balance this equation, we must consider the evidence involved. The higher the costs in terms of (2) and (3) the stronger the evidence needed to support a claim that action is necessary to uphold (1). On the basis of the information available in the public sphere, it certainly appears as if this equation was not properly balanced in the Yearning for Zion case: the practical cost in terms of resources was enormous, the expectation of guilt rather than innocence has been applied to every single adult member of an entire community, and the evidence that children were being abused continues to be scant, to say the least. Again, this is only on the basis of evidence available in the public sphere. Nevertheless, if the government expects its citizens to support it as it prosecutes entire communities / religions wholesale, it should should provide them with the evidential justification for its actions.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

net neutrality

Virgin CEO calls net neutrality "bollocks."

boycott Virgin:


common dreams

i power

the inquirer



running and chasing,
always urgency and fear
and desperation

in labyrinthine hotels
the like of which none has seen

Friday, April 18, 2008

why video looks crappy

Technological developments are driven by practical necessity. It is no surprise, then, that technology for recording an artform, and technology for displaying artistic works, operate in lock step. When these two become out of sync, the quality of works created in the earlier format becomes less readily apparent.

Consider, for example, the case of video. When video recording technology first became widespread in the 80s, during the VHS / Betamax wars, video playback was heavily affected by tape condition, which deteriorated with repeated use. As a consequence, both mainstream movies, shot on film and transfered to video for the home market, and independent movies, shot on and marketed directly to video, were subjected to the same degenerative process. Obviously, many qualitative differences remained, yet certain basic parameters of visual quality (grain, depth, range of color / brightness, etc.) are distorted to the extent that many of the failings of the newer technology are masked.

As playback technology developed, however, and DVDs gained ascendency, the playback media no longer suffered degradation with repeated play. Furthermore, resolution increased and the failings of the newer technology when reproduced at home became more readily apparent.

The consequence of this, of course, is that when we watch on dvd a movie originally shot on video, the distance between its quality and that of better financed productions is more easily apparent than at the time of the movie's production.

guillermo habacuc vargas

Did he merely hold a street dog captive for three hours, or did he deliberately starve it to death in the name of art?

Set aside for the moment the possibility of the former and the gross irresponsibility of internet "news" sources in reporting otherwise if that were the case, and consider the latter possibility . . .

. . . is this an act worthy of condemnation?

Towards an art exhibit in a country where thousands of dogs die on the street on a yearly basis, in an age when human life is carelessly tossed after unnecessary wars, from inhabitants of a country which cannot honor its own treaties, which imprisons 100,000s for victimless crimes, which itself has violated the most hallowed international rules of conduct, come condemnations of the death of a single street dog.

[1] Judge not, that ye be not judged. [2] For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again. [3] And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother's eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye? [4] Or how wilt thou say to thy brother, Let me pull out the mote out of thine eye; and, behold, a beam is in thine own eye? [5] Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother's eye. [6] Give not that which is holy unto the dogs, neither cast ye your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under their feet, and turn again and rend you.

Matthew 7: 1 - 6.

The death of animals is not at the same level of contempt as the death of humans. To hollow the lives of animals irrationally diminishes the value of human life. If the act of killing an animal has the same status as killing a human, then surely the other acts we (acceptably) perform towards animals should also have the same (acceptable) status for humans. These include, of course, holding captive, forcibly removing the sexual organs, performing (fatal) scientific experiments upon, slaughtering for food, raising in cramped and unpleasant quarters for the purposes of slaughtering for food, keeping chained in cages for our viewing amusement. The important point here is that animals and humans are de facto not morally equal because they are not treated equally. To appeal in one moral area for equality is to appeal also for that equality in another area.

But surely, even if allowing a dog to starve for art does not have the same moral status as allowing a human to starve, we can condemn it? On what grounds? That suffering of dogs simpliciter is wrong? Surely, then, our efforts would be better spent helping those dogs living on the streets of central and south america? (But perhaps this was the artist's point? - but surely then working towards saving living dogs would be far more constructive than condemning him for making this very point?) Surely our efforts would be better spent liberating the 50,000,000 captive neutered dogs in the US before protesting the change in quality of life of a single free dog which died after only a day of captivity? Or is the life of the "happy" slave the one we endorse for dogs? Again, this only helps the standard to seem more palatable for humans.

Note: the point here is not that killing a dog or allowing it to die is a "good" thing, but rather that the effort and emotion expended upon protesting this one event indicate a profound lack of respect for the dignity of human life on the part of the protestors. The undesireable actions [murder, torture, suppression, enslavement, etc.] perpetrated upon human beings in a systematic fashion in this age are simply too numerous to justify any energy whatsoever geared towards defending the "rights" or "well being" of animals. Such an action is not only profoundly hypocritical, but undermines the defense of human rights which should be our first priority.

Monday, April 14, 2008

book xii, proposition 17

Given two spheres about the same centre, to inscribe in the greater sphere a polyhedral solid which does not touch the lesser sphere at its surface.