Highlight This

One of the most annoying tendencies I’ve noticed in some weblogs lately, particularly the political ones, is the “highlighter” style where quoted text is presented as plain black on white, and the weblog author’s own commentary is shown as black on yellow. Yuk! Besides being ugly, it’s conceited; the not-so-hidden message is that everything the weblog author writes is worthy of emphasis, and nothing that they’re quoting is. From both a graphic-design perspective and a reasonable-discourse perspective, the highlighter style is an abomination.

Social Contracts and Leechitarians

Many of the political conversations I’ve been having lately seem to be based to some degree on the fact that I believe something, and the libertarian attack dogs believe its opposite. My belief is, quite simply: freedom doesn’t come for free. Freedom is not, unfortunately, the state toward which societies or economies tend when left alone; it requires eternal vigilance, and maintenance. Power attracts power, so centralization and consolidation of power, oligarchy and monopoly, are the almost-inevitable “end states” unless active measures are taken to keep power distributed. Those measures take many forms – enforcement of rights, government provision of certain public services to all citizens, and other measures such as the Sherman anti-trust act. Together, all of these measures create a system within which competition can occur without undermining freedom. The existence of rules does not preclude competition; ask anyone who ever participated in organized sports.

This system is often referred to as a social contract, but that’s a very misleading term because there’s little about it that’s like a normal contract. For a start, the social contract is not one to one, not quid pro quo. Services such as national defense, law enforcement, or public schools are provided to each citizen (and often non-citizens) without any expectation of repayment from that particular citizen. By legal definition, an agreement so one-sided and lacking in “consideration” for one side is not a contract at all and cannot be enforced.

Another problem that arises from this use of terminology is that people think they’re not bound by the social contract without explicit consent. That would be true in the case of a real contract, but the social contract binds everyone regardless of consent. My response to people who complain about that is: too bad. It’s always too bad; everyone is born into some society’s social contract. It’s still better to be born into a wealthy nation whose social contract is (mostly) democratic and (mostly) capitalist than into a feudal society or dictatorship or theocracy in a poor nation.

All of this brings us to the “something for nothing” crowd who think the social contract should be changed to suit them. They talk about “enlightened self-interest” but they are without exception the beneficiaries of a system based on a more enlightened kind of societal self-interest than their own narrow philosophy would admit. Markets don’t remain free without someone keeping them free. Speech doesn’t remain (meaningfully) free without someone providing the forum. The so-called libertarians want all that freedom for themselves, but do nothing to provide or maintain it for others. They often try to portray themselves as Nietzschean or Randian supermen (and they almost always seem to be men) but that hardly seems apt for people who consume what others provide and yet provide nothing themselves. Such people do appear in Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, but not in heroic roles. The name she gave those who live by sucking others’ blood suggests a new name for those who pursue only their own freedom without regard for anyone else’s.

Political Compass

I just reacquainted myself with the Political Compass, which makes almost the same left/right and libertarian/authoritarian distinctions I’ve been making here. I say “reacquainted” because I’m pretty sure I’ve seen it before, but I didn’t have a bookmark or anything for it. In any case, I decided to re-take their test to see where I supposedly fell in their two-dimensional matrix.

It would probably surprise nobody who’s been reading lately to hear that I came out on the left side of the line…but just barely. I registered much more strongly as libertarian on the other scale. If I can’t be considered centrist it’s because of those latter tendencies, not because of a very slight leftward tilt. On the main graph that puts me pretty close to Gandhi, but that’s partly because so few famous people are plotted on that graph. On a UK-specific graph, I’m apparently very close to someone named Simon Hughes but I can’t tell from the profiles I’ve found so far whether I’d consider that an accurate assessment. Maybe one of my British readers can help to enlighten me.

IRIS Update

IRIS now has a home page at MIT. I also found the grant description at NSF but it doesn’t really say anything that the MIT page doesn’t. The project seems less purely storage-oriented than I’d guessed, which is slightly disappointing to me personally but might actually make it even more interesting to others.

Someboy Else’s Problem…My Mistake

Last night I received email from Steve Silberman, the author of the Wired article I mentioned in Somebody Else’s Problem. In it, he corrected my reading of his article as follows:

I can only think that you must have been reading so quickly

that you skimmed over the following paragraph:

“‘The strongest argument you can make in court against child

pornography,’ Lanning told me in June, “is what it does to the person

in it. We don’t know what percentage of people become molesters, but

we know that looking fuels demand. Every time you download an image,

there is an implicit message left behind: ‘I like this. I want to see

more of it. And when I come back, there had better be something new.’

When thousands of GIFs and MPEGs can be duplicated and transmitted

globally with the sweep of a mouse, the abuse of the original victims

can be magnified exponentially by thousands of netsurfers at a

comfortable distance from the scenes of the crimes.”

…which addresses precisely the point you raised.

In a second message, he went on to say:

there’s a huge difference between understanding that looking

*increases* abuse of the children in the images by fueling demand —

which it certainly does! — and insisting that looking at porn *turns

people who might not have been abusers, had they not looked at the

images, into abusers* — which is the “conventional wisdom” of the

media on this. Very few people claim anymore that watching action

movies turns 1/3 of those who do watch into killers who charge into

the Pentagon firing machine guns, yet if you read 2000 news stories

on child porn, as I did, you’ll see that there is an insistent claim

that looking leads to molestation *by the lookers*, backed up by

“facts” which I believe are bogus, such as the US Postal Inspection

service figures, which are heavily loaded with prior sex-crime

offenders. This has never been closely examined in the media before.

Since that assumption drives public policy and the allocation of

scarce resources for protecting kids, I believe it deserves very

close examination.

Well put. There’s little I can say in response except that I apologize. The problems of demand for child porn driving actual abuse/exploitation, and of indifference in US media to problems (including those we create) abroad, are very real, but clearly Steve is already aware of that and was not the appropriate target for my tirade. Thank you, Steve, for setting me straight in such a thoroughly professional way, and for writing so incisively about the issue.

P.S. Steve mentioned that he found my site through Google. I didn’t ask what search terms he use, because I really don’t want to hear that my site can be found by searching for “child porn”.

Toys That Scream

Looks like EMC CEO Joe Tucci is moonlighting as a toy-safety advocate. Way to go, Joe!

Welcome, IRIS

InfoWorld is reporting that NSF has awarded $12M to a project called Infrastructure for Resilient Internet Systems (IRIS), which seems to be a distributed filesystem based on distributed hash tables. This is very exciting, and even more so because it looks like someone who really knew what they were doing has managed to assemble an all-star cast to work on it. In the discussion on Slashdot, I went into a little more more detail about the projects these folks have already worked on.

It does seem kind of odd that the people working on PASIS at CMU don’t be on the team, because those folks are top-notch too. It’s even stranger that there’s no mention on the NSF web page yet.

Fibbertarian is Too Polite a Term

Derk Lupinek has apparently taken my advice that, if he can’t live up to basic standards of decorum here, he post his arguments on his own site. I can see why he felt the need to do so, because he’s reached a new low in distortion and misrepresentation of my views and must have realized that I would not tolerate it here. Hospitality has limits.

The list of untruths is so long that I’m not even going to bother enumerating them. Suffice it to say that, at just about every point in his article where he says “Jeff believes…” or “Jeff says…” or anything similar, he’s lying. Go ahead and check the original thread to compare for yourself what I said vs. how he presents it.

Congratulations, Derk. You’ve managed to slither even lower than Den Beste, and do a better job demonstrating the moral bankruptcy of your ideology than I ever could have. It’s too bad you didn’t feel up to answering what I really said, and felt the need to construct a convenient straw-platypus instead.

Brin Strikes Again

David Brin, who is not only one of my favorite fiction authors but also an insightful thinker about social/economic issues, has published the text of his recent keynote speech to the Libertarian Party National Convention, called Essences, Orcs and Civilization. It’s a good antidote to the sorts of shallow, self-centered, wilfully ignorant thinking I’ve been fighting lately in the

Fibbertarian Economics thread. Brin’s comments about markets and social contract – remember, this was to a capital-L Libertarian audience! – are particularly relevant.

Icewind Dale II

This weekend, while my fight with Interplay over my missing Baldur’s Gate CD continues, I’ve started playing Icewind Dale II. Don’t ask why I keep playing the sequels when I never played the originals. ;-) Here are some initial impressions:

  • The game design – i.e. the “in-the-RPG-world” experience – is excellent. I like the fact that thinking is as valuable as fighting. I’ve had to negotiate with a balky merchant and fix a broken crane and get all manner of valuable information by talking to people the right way, and that’s fun. Even the battles are more enjoyable when there are factors like placement and effective use of spells/missiles and tactical withdrawal to consider.
  • The user interface – i.e. the “in-the-real-world” experience – is terrible. There are way more steps required than there should be to do things as simple as transfer an object between party members or quaff a healing potion. There are no warnings, even for obvious mistakes. There’s no visual indication that a character lacks proficiency in the weapon they’re wielding, even though doing so carries a significant penalty. If you tell a character to use a missile weapon for which they have no ammunition, they happily rush forward to attack with bare hands instead. There’s no warning when you accidentally attack a member of your own party. Apparently little consideration was given for people who don’t consider memorization of every single rule and modifier to be an enjoyable part of the game…which brings me to my next point:
  • The game can be just plain overwhelming. There are so many races and classes and sub-races and sub-classes and skills and “feats” and weapons and spells and things to worry about, it actually detracts from the game experience. I just recently – well into the second part of the game – realized how important it is to tell your characters to rest occasionally, because they don’t heal otherwise. Of course, there’s no visual indication that a particular place would or would not be safe to rest; you have to try it and see. I’m still wondering whether my party’s operating under some hidden handicap because they haven’t eaten since I started…or maybe they’ll all just keel over and die without warning. I’m beginning to understand why Dungeon Siege advertised the absence of RPG micro-management as a feature. Fortunately, the documentation – both in-game and printed – seems quite comprehensive.
  • There are some definite glitches in game balance. Even at the easiest level, the ratio of monsters to healing potions seems worse than it should be. Enemy spellcasters always seem to have perfect aim and timing, and your characters never make saving throws against them; your own spellcasters are more of a danger to their allies than a threat to their friends because their aim is always off and the enemy always makes their saving throws. Non-player characters who should be neutral instead seem surly or arrogant or unaccountably hostile. Most egregious of all, certain powerful and fast-moving monsters will deliberately target the weakest member of your party and cannot be distracted. They’ll persist to the detriment of their own chances for survival or escape, just to make sure that you lose someone. That serves no useful purpose with respect to realism or game balance; it’s just the designer’s way of being a sadistic jerk.

That all sounds rather negative, I know, but it helps to consider the relative importance of various aspects. The game-play is by far the most important thing, and that’s well done even if the interface and other issues make the result less satisfying than it could be.