Friday, September 26, 2014

Concerning Politics

Somewhere in Robert Heinlein's Double Star, one of the better novels of one of the best SF authors of the Twentieth century, appears the following comment on the subject of politics:

"It's rough and sometimes it's dirty and it's always hard work and tedious details. But it's the only sport for grownups. All other games are for kids. All of 'em."

I was reminded of it reading something written a little earlier by Finley Peter Donne, an author Heinlein may well have read, a journalist who became prominent in the 1890's through his creation of Mr. Dooley, a fictional Irish barkeep in Chicago. 

Reading through a book of the Mr. Dooley pieces, I found at the end of it some written by Dunne in his own voice. Part of one of them deals with politics in general and the events surrounding the nomination of Grover Cleveland in particular. It is too long for me to be willing to retype it, but I found it in Google Books and here it is. The passage begins with  "But are you convulsed" and ends with a quote from Lord Palmerston.

A commenter offers a link to a more readable version of the piece.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Adam Smith on the Subject of Laptops in the Classroom

There has been a good deal of discussion of late of the question of whether students should be permitted to have laptops in the classroom, with professors concerned that the students might be reading email, checking Facebook, even looking at porn instead of paying attention to the lecturer. The underlying issue is not a new one.
     The discipline of colleges and universities is in general contrived, not for the benefit of the students, but for the interest, or more properly speaking, for the ease of the masters. Its object is, in all cases, to maintain the authority of the master, and whether he neglects or performs his duty, to oblige the students in all cases to behave to him, as if he performed it with the greatest diligence and ability. It seems to presume perfect wisdom and virtue in the one order, and the greatest weakness and folly in the other. Where the masters, however, really perform their duty, there are no examples, I believe, that the greater part of the students ever neglect theirs. No discipline is ever requisite to force attendance upon lectures which are really worth the attending, as is well known wherever any such lectures are given. Force and restraint may, no doubt, be in some degree requisite in order to oblige children, or very young boys, to attend to those parts of education which it is thought necessary for them to acquire during that early period of life; but after twelve or thirteen years of age, provided the master does his duty, force or restraint can scarce ever be necessary to carry on any part of education.
(Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations, Bk V Ch 1)

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Bitcoin, Anonymous ECash, and Strong Privacy

I first wrote about the idea of strong privacy in an article published in 1996, almost twenty years ago, and have returned to the subject several times since. The basic idea, inspired by the work of members of the Cyperpunk mailing list, in particular Tim May, was that public key encryption made possible a world where individuals could make their transactions invisible to third parties. In such a world it would be possible to combine anonymity and reputation by linking the reputation to an online identity but making it difficult or impossible to identify the corresponding realspace identity. 

A key element of such a world is anonymous digital cash, some way of making payments, including payments to strangers, without identifying payer or payee to either third party observers or the other party. What I was imagining was something along the lines worked out by David Chaum, a Dutch cryptographer. Chaumian digital cash is issued by a realspace bank but, just as with ordinary paper currency, transactions are anonymous. The bank does not know who has made transfers to whom, and neither party to a transfer needs to know the identity of the other.

Chaumian digital cash does not yet exist, probably because it requires a realspace bank, a realspace bank requires permission, ideally protection, for the government in whose territory it exists, and governments take a dim view of a technology that would make money laundering laws undenforceable. The nearest equivalent that does exist is bitcoin, one of its virtues being that there is no issuer, hence no need for permission or protection. 

Bitcoin is, in a sense, the least anonymous money that has ever existed, since every transaction is observable by anyone with a bitcoin account. Transactions are shown as between accounts, not between people. But all that is necessary to link a realspace person to at least one of his accounts is to make a bitcoin payment to him and see what account the money goes to.

That works as a way of monitoring bitcoin transactions made by a realspace identity. Suppose, however, that we have a world of strong privacy. In that imaginary world my online identity is Legal Eagle Online, selling legal advice which I cannot sell in realspace due to not being a member of my state bar. Legal Eagle makes and receives payments in bitcoins. The online identity can be linked to the account he uses by anyone who makes a payment to him. But as long as I am careful not to use his bitcoins to buy goods delivered to my realspace address,  there is no information linking Legal Eagle to me.

There are proposals to convert bitcoin into a truly anonymous ecash by using mechanisms that, as I understand them, mix coins in between transactions. How successful such projects will be I do not know. Even without them, bitcoin as it currently exists could be used as the digital currency of a world of strong privacy. It is not as good for that purpose as a fully anonymous currency would be, since the bitcoin transactions of my online identity are public. But it preserves the essential feature of such a world, the separation between online and realspace identities.

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Friday, September 19, 2014

Don't Mention Damascus

One of my hobbies is historical recreation via the SCA, a group that focuses on the Middle Ages and Renaissance. My SCA persona is a medieval muslim. I also collect antique weapons, and one of my prized pieces is a small Persian knife made of damascus steel. It's just about the right size to use as an eating knife in the SCA and would be well suited to my persona, but since it is an antique I have been reluctant to risk losing or damaging it.

Some months back, I noticed on EBay a number of sellers in India offering replicas of damascus steel knives. They were not very expensive so I ordered one to see what it was like and found it to be of surprisingly high quality. After corresponding with the maker by email, I asked if he would be willing to make a copy of my antique. He was, so I sent him detailed photos and got back a lovely little damascus steel kard very nearly identical to the one I already had, aside from using silver instead of gold for the ornamental koftgari work and camel bone instead of (I think) ivory for the handle. This year at Pennsic, a two week long SCA camping event, I wore it.

I liked it enough so that I decided to order some more as gifts for friends. I had made my previous payments by Paypal, so attempted to do the same again—only to get back a message from Paypal saying that my payment had been reversed. The message had a link for more information, but it turned out to be broken, to lead to a page that started with "Sorry—your last action could not be completed."

I called Paypal and eventually got to a human being who told me that my payment had been reversed not by Paypal but by a third party. On further inquiry, I was told that the third party was the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and given their phone number. I called them this morning and was told that they had nothing to do with reversing Paypal payments—they apparently exist to deal with complaints about problems with financial services.

So I called Paypal again and this time got through not only to a human being but a competent one. She investigated the matter, and found the explanation.

My Paypal payment included a note intended as information for my records and the recipient. It mentioned "Damascus steel." Damascus is in Syria, Syria and the U.S. do not get along very well at the moment, so the inclusion of the word "Damascus" resulted in Paypal's software flagging the transaction as a suspicious one. That resulted not in an inquiry to me or, I presume, a human being reading the note, but instead in the payment being reversed. I have now resent the payment, this time without any mention of Damascus steel.

Which, in case any of my readers are curious, is the label for two old technologies which produce similar effects, knife and sword blades that show an elaborate and attractive pattern rather like a topographic map.

The top photo shows the replica, the bottom the antique. 




My Cousin the Banana

Prior to about a week ago, I don't think I had ever heard of Neil deGrasse Tyson, who I gather is a popular television personality, but he is now a central figure in two different controversies, both of which have showed up online and so come to my notice.

One of them grows out of the claim, apparently true, that Tyson has repeatedly invented quotes, claimed that other people had said things they had not said. I believe it is true because, in the long comment thread to a G+ post, many people defended Tyson heatedly but none of them offered any evidence that the charge wasn't true. As in some other cases I have seen, practically everyone treated it as an issue of loyalty not of truth. Tyson is, from the standpoint of his supporters, an admirable person, a defender of scientific truth, hence pointing out that he is also a liar is an attack on truth and science.

The second controversy comes from Tyson having given a talk defending GMO foods. Here the outrage comes from betrayed supporters, people who thought Tyson was a good guy on their side and discovered that he was instead defending the forces of evil, aka Monsanto. An entertaining and persuasive defense of Tyson's position points out that people who "don't want to eat a tomato that has fish DNA" are coming to the issue a little late. "... tomatoes and fish share around 60% of their DNA already, so it’s too late to avoid that mashup. ... Would you eat grapes with human DNA? Too late. Humans share around 25% of our DNA with grapes. We share 50% of our DNA with a banana."

The piece does a good job of responding to other arguments against GMO crops as well, but that was the line that struck me, hence the title of this post.

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Thursday, September 18, 2014

Scottish Independence

I am, on the whole, in favor of it for reasons that have nothing much to do with Scotland. Both the right of secession and smaller countries strike me as good things. The one big exception is that countries often put up trade barriers against each other, and big markets are better than small.

That exception vanishes for small countries that are part of the European Union, since it provides them access to a large free trade area. So the critical question for a region of a member state considering secession is whether the E.U. will let it in. Given that the U.K. has made it reasonably clear that if it loses the vote it will accept the outcome, I think it is almost certain that an independent Scotland will be permitted to become a member of the union.

A precedent that will matter to the inhabitants of Catalonia, Brittany, northern Italy, any region where there is significant pressure for independence.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

A Modern Conceit

One of my hobbies is cooking from very early cookbooks, including one big one from the tenth century. Recently I had an online exchange with a friend who had made a fermented drink from a recipe based loosely on—which is to say sharply modified from—a period recipe. When I asked why she didn't use one of the period recipes from the same source her response was that she would rather have something that tasted good than something that was historically authentic.

There are  some things which moderns do better than people in the past, such as curing diseases. But I know of no reason to believe that cooking is one of them. As evidence against that conceit, consider traditional cuisines such as Chinese or Indian. They are different from modern western cooking, but if they were strikingly inferior they would not be as popular as they are. For more examples of things we aren't better at, consider Jane Austen's novels, Bach's music, Donne's poetry, or the jewels of the Sutton Hoo Treasure.

It's true that we have access to some ingredients not available to a medieval European cook, most notably New World foodstuffs such as peanuts, potatoes, and tomatoes. But in the particular case I am discussing, the alteration in the recipe consisted of adding an ingredient that we know the author of the original had access to, since he used it in an unrelated recipe. My friend's unstated assumption was that either she or whoever online had created her recipe knew more about the making of fermented drinks than someone who had much more extensive experience making them than most moderns have. Because modern people know more.                       

I have no objection to making things that are not historically authentic—most of what I cook and eat isn't. But the argument struck me as an example of an error I have seen before in a variety of other contexts. Hence this post.

Another example that I have encountered repeatedly is the Columbus myth, the belief that the difference between Columbus and those who argued against his voyage was that he knew the world was round and they thought it was flat. It is a widely believed story, but it is not only false, it is very nearly the opposite of the truth. A spherical earth had been orthodox cosmology ever since classical antiquity. The difference between Columbus and his critics was that they knew how big around the earth was, they knew how wide Asia was, they could subtract the one number from the other, hence they could calculate that he would run out of food and water long before he got to his intended destination. Columbus, in contrast, combined a much too small estimate for the circumference of the earth with a much too large figure for the width of Asia in order to convince himself that the difference was a short enough distance to make his planned voyage possible.

Why is this wildly ahistorical account so widely believed? Because it lets moderns feel superior to all those ignorant people in the past. 

I could offer other examples of the same pattern, beliefs about people in the past inconsistent with the historical evidence, based on and supporting the unstated assumption of our superiority to them. It is the same motive that makes men believe they are superior to women, women that they are superior to men, Americans that they are superior to foreigners, Frenchmen that they are superior to everyone. Feeling superior feels good, and the less likely you are to confront the people you feel superior to, the easier it is to maintain it. 

Men often meet women, women men, Americans foreigners, Frenchmen non-French, which can be a problem. Believing in your superiority to people long dead is safer.