Archive for April, 2012

The Crime of Looking at Pictures

April 30, 2012

Every week, it seems, the local paper reports some guy arrested for downloading child porn. It’s disgusting.

It’s disgusting that anyone could get pleasure from images of child abuse. I just don’t get it. But I understand that human sexuality is very complex and manifests itself very differently in different people. Male homosexual attraction is similarly alien to my own make-up, yet I know that for gays, the brain works differently.

But what really disgusts me most about all these child porn busts is government poking around in people’s computers looking for it.

Now, making child porn is properly criminal because it harms the children portrayed (if they aren’t animated or computer generated). And presumably many people looking at it have desires to actually do things to children. If they do the deeds, by all means punish that. But none of that requires government to monitor computers checking what pictures people view.

The values at stake are very important. It’s not just a matter of the right to look at dirty pictures. It’s the broader principle of freedom to read or see or hear what you choose, and to enjoy a sphere of privacy upon which your neighbors, or authorities, may not intrude. These values are crucial for the kind of society we cherish, and only for the most compelling purposes should we tolerate their being overridden.

You might think this is libertarian extremism. But let’s look to first principles. The reason we sign up as members of society and submit to rule of law is to protect ourselves from each other, to resolve the Hobbesian trap of the “war of all against all.” You give up the freedom to harm another in exchange for others giving up freedom to harm you. But we don’t join society to empower busybodies to poke their noses into our private lives looking for things they disapprove of.

Some say if you’ve done nothing wrong, you have nothing to hide or fear from government. That’s not the point. Civil liberties are not to protect wrongdoers, but to protect everyone. And if the state can invade your privacy looking for child porn, what else might it target at the behest of some sanctimonious busybody?

Another recent case involved Scott Ritter, former UN weapons inspector and Iraq War critic. I didn’t like him. But I didn’t like what happened to him either. He was busted for acting lewdly, in an internet chat room, toward what he thought was a teenaged girl, but was actually a cop posing as one.

I don’t want a Saudi style morality police. It’s totally disgusting that we pay cops to spend their time having sleazy online conversations to entrap people like Ritter, or child porn lovers, or to hang out in men’s rooms to seduce vulnerable people into tacky behavior. Such activity demeans the officers who engage in it, and the public institutions that organize it. This soils our society itself, more than anything anybody does alone in privacy.

If police authorities want to target child porn, let them devote their efforts and resources to the makers of it. Poking into private computers and trying to entrap victims can only divert resources from that effort – not to mention the pursuit of all other types of crimes that harm real people.

POSTSCRIPT Added 5/12: The other day, the New York Court of Appeals ruled that merely viewing pictures, without taking possession by downloading etc., is not a crime, at least under state law. Some state legislators promptly introduced a bill to close this “loophole.”

A Glimpse Into Hell (North Korea)

April 24, 2012

Kim the First

Shin Dong-hyuk was bred like a farm animal, in a North Korean prison camp. Guards ordered his prisoner-parents to copulate. He was raised as a slave, to be minimally fed, beaten regularly, and worked to death. A finger was cut off for dropping a tool. He watched a 6-year-old beaten to death for stealing five corn grains.

At age 14, his mother and brother plotted escape, and in fear he ratted on them. Still he was torturted, including roasting over a coal fire and a hook through his belly; plus witnessing their execution.

At 23 he escaped. Somehow he managed to make his way across North Korea (really one big prison camp). It took four years. He suffered more horrible burns crossing an electrified fence. Finally, he made it out to China; and eventually, America.

Shin is the only known person born in North Korea’s gulag to escape to freedom.

Not the most horrible picture I found

North Korea is a nation of about 25 million. The prison camp population is estimated to be 200,000. Not only are people sent there for the slightest infraction, or suspicion of less than slavish loyalty, but whole families join the one-way trip. (Release is unknown; and there is no trial; you just disappear.) But life outside the camps is not greatly better. Severe hunger and malnutrition have been endemic for decades. It is estimated that since 1995, up to 3.5 million have starved to death.

This is not just another dictatorship, nor even a “mere” totalitarian state. This is different. This is Hell.

Neither South Korea, China, nor the U.S. wants to see North Korea implode, landing millions of starving people on their doorsteps. Thus we avert our eyes from the horror; why hasn’t the regime, the whole lot of them, even been indicted for crimes against humanity by the relevant international tribunal? Meantime we give food aid, China supplies electric power and other support, and the Kim regime endures.


Kim the Latest

The only truly humane policy would instead be to seal off North Korea and let it collapse once and for all. The immediate repercussions would be frightful, but at least it would draw a line under the agony, instead of prolonging it, and creating generation after generation of Shin Don-hyuks. (I have made this argument before.)

Shin himself now realizes that he grew up as something less than human. Seeing that 6-year-old beaten to death, he felt nothing; nor did he at the killing of his mother and brother. Shin says he escaped physically but not psychologically, and he is trying to remake himself. “Now that I am out,” he says, “I am learning to be emotional. I have learned to cry. I feel like I am becoming human.”

(Shin’s story comes from a Washington Post column by Fred Hiatt, reprinted in the Albany Times-Union, discussing a forthcoming book, Escape from Camp 14, by Blaine Harden; as well as an NPR report.)

Grotesque Injustice

April 18, 2012

In 2007, Odyssey Marine Exploration, Inc. (a serious hi-tech company) located a shipwreck site off the Portuguese coast, and recovered one of the largest treasures ever found, over 17 tons, worth around $500 million. Odyssey had spent millions on the search; millions more bringing the stuff up from the seabed; and still more millions cleaning, stabilizing, and conserving the artifacts and coins. Because they were spread over such a large area, Odyssey said the wreck’s identity could not be determined.

The Spanish government filed suit for the goods in U.S. courts, claiming that the ship was La Nuestra Senora de las Mercedes that sank in 1804, en route to Spain from Peru (then a Spanish colony). Peru also filed a claim; so did descendants of merchants who’d owned some of the cargo.

The U.S. courts ruled for Spain, and the entire treasure has now actually been handed over.

 Odyssey, who did all the work, loses not only the treasure, but all the millions it spent finding, recovering, and conserving it. Spain, having done nothing to earn it, gets the benefit of all Odyssey’s efforts and expenditure. What public interest does this outcome serve?

The wreck was not even found in Spanish waters. There is no line of continuity between the Spanish kingdom of 1804 and today’s democratic government. And anyway, why should Spain’s claim defeat Peru’s? Are we validating Spain’s past colonialist subjugation of Peru? Would a pre-1776 American shipwreck belong to Great Britain?

When I studied property law in law school, back in the Pleistocene era, there was a clear distinction among “lost,” “mislaid,” and “abandoned” goods. Something is “abandoned” if the circumstances show that the original owner has no intention of reclaiming it. In that case, it’s finders keepers. I fail to see why that basic legal principle shouldn’t have applied here. Surely Spain had abandoned this ship; wasn’t still looking for it; had completely forgotten it ever existed until Odyssey found it. (Assuming it’s even the right ship.)*

But I have (of course) a larger point here. What’s really so disturbing about this case is how state interests trump private ones. Here an American court rules in favor of a foreign government against an American defendant. That might be okay if there were a shred of justice to Spain’s claim. But it’s shockingly unjust. And still an American court rules for Spain, screwing an American company.

This is right in line with a whole trend of American governmental actions elevating even dubious foreign state interests over reasonable and legitimate interests of American private citizens. In case after case, the U.S. government has granted foreign requests for import restrictions on old coins, claimed as “cultural patrimony,” and innocent collectors have had coins arbitrarily confiscated in service to these misguided and oppressive strictures.

Another frightening case: an American businesswoman, Diane Huang, is going to federal prison for importing lobster tails in plastic bags rather than cardboard boxes — because of an obscure Honduran law that requires cardboard — which, the Honduran government itself pointed out, is no longer even valid. But never mind. Huang goes to jail anyway.

Ironically, the U.S. government is still pretty good about protecting its citizens overseas, and had Huang been jailed in Honduras on such ridiculous charges, would have worked hard to free her. Yet at home, it’s different.

 The American revolution was fought for one crucial idea: that governments exist to serve the governed. But the principle is eroding, with governments, even in democracies, so big and powerful that private rights are repeatedly thrown under the governmental bus.

A postscript: Spain is now suing Odyssey Marine, for reimbursement of $4 million in legal costs that Spain incurred in ripping off Odyssey’s treasure.

* From what I have read about this case’s legal details, I have been unable to make sense of why Spain won.

Why is there Something Rather Than Nothing?*

April 13, 2012

This is The Question – the great question. Our universe began in a Big Bang, but why was there a Big Bang? Or are such bangs routine events in an eternal multiverse? But if so, why is there such a multiverse?

We could understand everlasting nothingness – a “universe” devoid of matter or forces or even laws of physics – a non-universe, a default state, of non-existence. But why isn’t that what obtains? How could non-existence ever bring forth our universe, so rich with existence? Or else, how could it exist without ever having been started?

This, religionists say, is the dead end materialism must bump against: why is there something rather than nothing? They have an easy answer: God. But of course that bumps up against the equivalent question: why is there a god rather than no god?

So are we all in the same conceptual black hole of getting something from nothing? Well, not quite the same; at least for the universe its existence is a certainty.

And we do have an answer – sort of – for why it exists. Lawrence Krauss, a prominent science writer, in his recent book, A Universe From Nothing: Why There Is Something Rather Than Nothing, does claim to explain it.

 His answer lies in quantum mechanics. Existence, before we even talk about matter (i.e., particles), plays out upon quantum fields. Fields are the underlying “fabric” of the universe; most simplistically, a field might be analogized to the checkerboard upon which checkers is played. The field configuration governs how particles behave, and even what particles there are. A field hosting no particles at all – i.e., nothingness – would be called a “vacuum state.” However, says Krauss – this is the nub of his argument – the laws of relativistic quantum field theory tell us that vacuum states are unstable. Such a state of particlelessness cannot persist, but must devolve into something else. Thus particles (i.e., matter) must exist.

In the face of this, Krauss says, theologians and some (non-scientific) philosophers respond by moving the goal posts – redefining “nothingness” from the scientific understanding (sketched out above) to some sort of idealized (and more profound) nothingness. They can always say that nothingness as defined by science is not as empty as their nothingness, so science could never be right.

David Alpert – a philosophy professor – reviewed the book in The New York Times. Quite simply, he says, Krauss is wrong and the theologians and philosophers he faults are correct.

To see why, you have to step back one level. Krauss would be right if the quantum field paradigm he invokes were indeed a fundamental property of – I want to say “existence” here, but really need a broader word that takes in both existence and/or nonexistence, whichever one of them obtains. Quantum fieldism may indeed be a fundamental property of our existence but, as Alpert says, a true nothingness alternate would be not vacuum state fields, but no fields at all.

 In other words, just as God believers merely push the problem back one level – with no answer for why there is a god, or where he came from – Krauss likewise has no answer for why there have to be quantum fields.

But even supposing he did – being able to trace quantum-mechanical laws back to some still deeper property X embedded in existence/nonexistence – as Alpert observes, shouldn’t we then ask, why X rather than not X? Is there a last such question? Or is it an infinite regression?

So it’s not enough to explain the cause of existence. You’d have to explain why that cause obtains. And then why that explanatory factor itself obtains. And so forth. Dare I whisper, “first cause”?

I thought Alpert’s review was fair until the final paragraph, where he says that religion concerns important human issues, but “all that gets offered to us now, by guys like these, in books like this, is the pale, small, silly, nerdy accusation that religion is, I don’t know, dumb.” (His emphasis)

 Oh please. The humanistic concerns Alpert invokes are simply not at issue here. But Krauss was endeavoring to answer the greatest cosmic mystery, by applying to it our best scientific understanding. Surely that’s a worthy endeavor. If Krauss hasn’t provided a fully satisfactory answer, it’s a lot better answer than religion has ever offered. (“Turtles all the way down”?) And though quantum mechanics may be counter-intuitive in many respects, yet it has so far withstood the test of scientific falsification through experiment. Religion never has; it’s just fairy tales. Which of the two can be called “silly”?

Even though he does oversell his argument, at least Krauss is on the right track. The universe is not some woo-woo construct of occult origin, conjured up by some imaginary conjurer (from outside the existence he conjured). No – it is natural, not supernatural; the very notion of non-naturalness is incoherent. And if it’s natural, it’s explicable. The explanation may still be way beyond us, but it must lie somewhere along the lines Krauss talks about. Someday, we’ll get it (and it won’t be from theologians).


Warning: This post contains highly abstruse metaphysical bloviating. Also discussion of quantum mechanics, which I cannot claim to understand. Then again, as physicist Richard Feynman said, “if you think you understand quantum mechanics, you do not understand quantum mechanics.”

The Supreme Court and Health Care

April 8, 2012

When the Supreme Court ruled that Cherokee land couldn’t be ripped off, Andrew Jackson supposedly said, “The judges have made their decision; now let them enforce it.” President Obama didn’t go quite so far in dissing the Court, but came close in suggesting it would be somehow illegitimate to overturn Congressional legislation. Isn’t that exactly what we have a Supreme Court for? The Administration has now clarified that, yes, the Court does have authority to hold laws unconstitutional (Marbury v Madison, 1803). And Obama once taught constitutional law. Shame on him.

Liberals keep bleating that the Court is partisan (click here for a typical example). Alan Chartock, head of the local NPR station, loves saying the justices are “bought and paid for.” Shame on him.

Here again we see refusal to accept that opponents are acting out of sincere conviction as to what’s right. Of course, it’s only the conservative justices who are partisan or “bought and paid for.” The liberal judges act according to their liberal philosophy; why can’t liberals accept that conservative judges act according to their conservative philosophy? And that it’s an honest and legitimate point of view?

I recently discussed here Jonathan Haidt’s book, The Righteous Mind, and linked to William Saletan’s Times review. Saletan deemed the book a wake-up call that liberals need to hear, showing how they fail to understand the conservative mind, and that conservatives actually utilize a broader spectrum of moral ideas than do liberals. Predictably, Saletan’s review provoked a flurry of furious letters from liberals, arguing basically that those conservative moral principles are not moral at all. As ever, they don’t see legitimate or sincere disagreement but, rather, virtue against vice. Shame on them.

It’s said we have a government of laws, not men. But men (and women) make the laws, and interpret them. The Supreme Court is made up of human beings too, whose decisions are affected by their human differences. I don’t always agree with them (the latest, on strip searches, I hated; the Obama administration supported it), but I solemnly respect the process, in which they struggle with hard issues and strive for what they see as the right answers. And they have to justify their answers in written decisions whose quality of argument is closely scrutinized. The judges are judged, and will not sacrifice their reputations to serve someone else’s agenda. That’s the virtue of the Supreme Court, and it took humanity a long time to develop institutions like this, that do give us a society of law. Those who attack the institution’s integrity play with fire, and undermine one of the bulwarks of our way of life, at a time when there is already too much cynicism about governance.

If Obamacare is struck down, it will be because it’s an unprecedented stretch of federal power. Quite simply, if even in this constitutional republic of purportedly limited government, it can force you to buy a product you don’t want, then what limit is there on the government’s power after all? And this liberals don’t think is at least a legitimate issue?

 Our health system is fubar, and unfortunately Obamacare will do little to fix it, and may well make it worse. Do you know about the “Center for Consumer Information and Insurance Oversight” created by the bill – a monster new bureaucracy to rule on requests for mandate waivers, with no accountability. Surely a recipe for influence peddling, political manipulation, and special interest corruption. Already it has doled out billions worth of waivers for labor unions while rejecting requests from business organizations. (Talk about “bought and paid for.”)

My review of The Righteous Mind noted the key problem afflicting American health care – it doesn’t function like a market where providers have to vie for customers through price, quality, and service. Most people don’t have to shop around, and the system in fact makes shopping around impossible. Even with insurance, we actually often wind up paying part of the tab, but just try to find out in advance of a procedure how much you’ll pay. And when the bills arrive, they are an incomprehensible mess, and the amounts don’t pass a sanity test. No competitive business could get away with such high-handed nonsense. (Oh, I forgot. The free market is evil. Sorry.)

Meantime, our whole concept of health insurance is cockeyed. As Haidt’s book observed, you don’t make a claim on your car insurance for a routine oil change. Insurance was invented to protect people from rare catastrophic costs they couldn’t afford, by pooling risk. Applying it to all health care just serves to screw up the market.

And it gives us the idea that our health care is something we basically shouldn’t have to pay for. But why not? Isn’t it fantastically beneficial? Someone in my family takes a medicine that literally makes the difference between a crappy life and a happy life. And modern health care gives us lives twice as long as a century ago. Isn’t all that worth paying for – paying quite a lot for?

Of course, it does have to be paid for, by someone. Why do most of us think it should be someone else?

Or is paying one’s own way another of those quaint conservative moral values that liberals disdain?

A Tale of Two Countries

April 5, 2012

Mahinda Rajapaksa was elected president of a democratic Sri Lanka in 2005. He thereupon logged a huge achievement: winning, once and for all, the war against a brutal separatist movement by the “Tamil Tigers” (Tamils are an ethnic minority) that had wracked the country for decades.


True, this took a bloody military campaign, with civilian casualties. But once it was done, and the country pacified at last, Rajapaksa had a tremendous opportunity to capitalize on the achievement by making national reconciliation and reconstruction the priority. This would have earned the nation’s everlasting gratitude. Instead, success went to his head, and he chose a different path: consolidating total control for himself and his brothers (two cabinet ministers and the parliament speaker), making himself a detestable poster boy for the old adage about the corrupting effects of power.

And so, instead of national reconciliation, we see continued stomping on the Tamils, sure to stoke renewed ethnic tensions; dogged cover-up of human rights violations in the military campaign and its aftermath; persecution of political opponents (the commanding general in the war, Sarath Fonseka, who ran for president against Rajapaksa, was thrown in jail on murky charges); suppression of free speech and press freedom; and even the frequent “disappearing” of regime critics and human rights advocates.

Is this all too predictable? We’ve certainly seen this movie before. Yet it doesn’t have to be this way. (Indeed, nothing like these abuses of power were seen in Sri Lanka even while the war was raging, and one might have expected a “siege mentality” and accompanying transgressions in the name of security.)

Thein Sein

In nearby Myanmar (Burma), Thein Sein (born the same year as Rajapaksa) became president in March, 2011 – not freely elected, as Rajapaksa first was, but installed by a vile military regime that has ruled with an iron fist for decades. And Thein Sein has set about methodically dismantling it.

While we can’t yet be absolutely sure that Thein Sein is really on the level (or that the next film won’t be The Empire Strikes Back), it appears that he is putting his nation firmly on a path toward democracy and openness. His government has released political prisoners, relaxed press censorship, and has now held a free election. Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel prize-winning pro-democracy activist, and her political party had won a national election in 1990 but the military regime had simply ignored the results and she was under house arrest for most of the next two decades. This time, released from detention, she won again, a sweeping victory, and is being allowed to take her seat in parliament together with a sizable number of her followers, also elected. They are still a minority in the parliament, but this looks like the thin edge of the wedge. Apparently Thein Sein sees democratization as the only way forward, out of the economic and societal cul-de-sac that military repression has meant. He wants his country to join the modern world.

Power does have its allure; I get that. All human beings have egos. But there isn’t just one way to satisfy an ego, if you have some imagination.

 You have two basic choices: you can cling doggedly to power till the last, and end up as an object of loathing: Qaddafi, Assad, Mugabe, Suharto, Mubarak, Putin, alas the list goes on, and Rajapaksa seems intent on joining it. Or you can end your days basking in the glow of veneration as a national benefactor: Washington, Ataturk, Mandela, and now, hopefully, Thein Sein.

The choice is yours. Choose well.

Steve Jobs Revisited

April 1, 2012

When Steve Jobs died, I posted an appreciation, saying I loved him.

I’ve now read Walter Isaacson’s authoritative biography, and I still love what Jobs did. But as a human being – not so much.

It can be hard for rich, powerful, and famous people to keep their bearings, especially when those things come early, before one can get a solid grounding in life. Steve started Apple at 21; and the syndrome was compounded by his having been adopted, a source of enduring psychological issues for him.

Yet it isn’t true that all rich and powerful people are bastards, or that you have to be a bastard to get rich and powerful. His status enabled Jobs to give vent to his uglier proclivities, but that didn’t help him accomplish what he accomplished. To the contrary, my reading of the book tells me he could have succeeded even better by treating people better.

In fact, he’d probably still be alive if he hadn’t been such a jerk. By incredible luck, his pancreatic cancer was found early enough to be cured surgically. But Jobs squandered that luck by rejecting medical advice and trying to treat it himself with diet and other quackery, allowing the cancer to spread. And facing death did nothing to modify his obnoxious personality. He was the Patient from Hell. At one point he refused an oxygen mask because he declared its design inelegant.

But if Steve Jobs was no paragon of virtue in the human department, of course that wasn’t his big story. It was his role as a maker of things; and in that he was very much a paragon of virtue.

In discussing capitalism and markets, I keep coming back to the key point that critics don’t get. It’s not mainly about making money. It’s about making products. And Steve Jobs really really got it. He was the greatest poster boy for it, ever.

Jobs liked making money; he wasn’t in business to lose money. But, in his mind, what he was really in business for was to make products. More – to make great products. That was the raison d’etre. Profits were necessary chiefly because without them, Jobs would have been unable to do what he wanted.

At every stage of his career – revolutionizing desktop computing; animated movies; the music business; the telephone; tablet computing – what motivated Steve Jobs was never money, nor even worldly success. It was to make things people would love, that would change their lives for the better. Do that, and profits will take care of themselves.

True, not every business can change the world with revolutionary products. Very few can. Yet the same basic ethos should infuse the production of even the most humdrum consumer goods. They should exist to make people’s lives better, even if only by the tiniest bit. Why else call them “goods”?! If you’re in the pencil business, make good pencils. If you’re Steve Jobs, make great ones.

Perhaps Steve Jobs is a conundrum – a man who often treated individual humans abominably, yet was driven by a passion to do good by millions of human beings he never met. In that, he succeeded beyond fantastically. And for that, I love him still.