Liberty, Equality, Fraternity

Liberté, égalité, fraternité! It’s the national motto of France and in the only important language it means libero, egaleco, frateco. For you English readers it mean liberty, equality, fraternity. For a country that uses emergency powers to suppress free speech it’s an ironic motto to have:

At least 24 activists who advocate for climate change have been placed under house arrest ahead of the highly anticipated United Nations talks in Paris. France used emergency laws that were implemented after the Paris shootings to arrest the green campaigners, the French government confirmed on Saturday. Earlier, the Guardian had reported the news, noting that the warrants delivered to the activists cited state of emergency laws that were imposed after 130 people were killed in terrorist attacks earlier this month.

You have to hand it to France, it sure knows how to milk a crisis for everything it’s worth. The terrorist attacks occurred 17 days ago and the French government is still has a state of emergency in place and is using its fancy emergency powers to lock people in their homes under the threat of imprisonment (or death).

I wonder how long the French government will keep these emergency powers in place and who else they’ll suppress with them. Maybe it can make the powers permanent and use them to silence everybody who disagrees with it.

One thing is certain, freedom is entirely dead in France. The nation is just another giant police state.

One Sword Keeps Another In The Sheath

George Herbert once wrote, “One sword keeps another in the sheath.” Later Robert Heinlein expressed a similar idea in Beyond This Horizon when he wrote, “An armed society is a polite society.” Today many people would argue the idea shared by Herbert and Heinlein is destructive. They argue that peace can only exist when the general population is unarmed but acknowledge the need for weapons to enforce such a prohibition so generally approve of the military and police keeping their weapons. But Herbert and Heinlein were correct, peace tends to prevail when no disparity of force exists.

Force is an appealing option when one enjoys a greater capacity for it than their target. We see this every day with violent criminals. Amongst violent criminals there is a great tendency for targeting easier prey. The criteria that determine how easy a target is varies. If the criminal is physically strong they may see physically weak individuals as easy prey. If the criminal has a gun they may see anybody who is unarmed as easy prey. If the criminal is with friends they may see any group they that is numerically inferior as easy prey. Most criminals see people who are entirely unaware of their surroundings as easy prey. In general criminals target those they believe to have a lesser capacity for force than themselves. Economically this makes sense because the risks of employing violence decrease when your force advantage over your target increases.

But force becomes unattractive when your target enjoys an equal capacity. The reason for this is obvious. Force carries with it the possibility of severe injury or death. That’s what makes force appealing to those who enjoy a sizable advantage. But it also means a target that is on equal footing with you stands a good chance of injuring or killing you. If two renowned swordsmen are both carrying their swords the likelihood of a disagreement between them turning violent is going to remain fairly low. Both of them know drawing their sword will cause an equal reaction from the other and the outcome of the fight may very well include the loss of limbs or life.

This principle remains even on larger scales. A nation only tends to declare war against another if it believes it’s in an advantaged position. When a nation doesn’t believe it enjoys a force advantage it tends to use diplomacy. The United States and the Soviet Union avoided a direct war because both had enough nuclear weaponry to wipe the other out. Napoleon invaded Russia because he believed his military was superior and that would ensure his victory.

One of the reasons I believe stateless societies tend to be more peaceful than ones under statism is because the disparity of force between the people and the State is nonexistent. Iceland’s stateless period, medieval Ireland, the Old American West, and Neutral Moresnet are all examples of stateless societies that tended to be very peaceful when compared to their statist neighbors. Since there was no organization with a great force advantage over everybody else the tendency was for people to choose diplomacy over violence.

The desire to eliminate disparity of force, and therefore reduce the appeal of using violence, is one of the primary reasons libertarians tend to be supporters of allowing individuals to be armed. They recognize that one gun keeps another in the holster. It is also why even libertarian statists tend to support individuals enjoying arms parity with the police and military.

The United States Isn’t A Wealthy Nation

Several of the Bernie bots were sharing more economic ignorance spouted by their preferred presidential candidate. This time it was Bernie saying that the United States is the only wealthy country that doesn’t guarantee health insurance. How can he claim a nation that is tens of trillions of dollars in debt is wealthy? It’s the kind of lunacy only made possible through political doublespeak. War is peace, freedom is slavery, ignorance is strength, and debt is wealth!

The United States is at that point where it has stretched itself so thin for so long that it can no longer even keep up the appearance of wealth. Like the man who used an extensive line of credit to buy his mansion that was just foreclosed and Ferrari that was just repossessed, the United States is no longer able to even maintain what it already purchased. A good illustration of this is the transportation infrastructure:

Imagine you’re driving. Maybe on the Kennedy Expressway in Chicago, or down Interstate 95 through New Haven, or I-94 in Milwaukee. Chances are you’ll encounter a truck-swallowing pothole, or lanes strewn with orange cones, or traffic at a standstill. After all, Illinois, Connecticut, and Wisconsin have the worst roads in the nation. And the Highway Trust Fund — the source for most federal spending on roads, bridges, highways, tunnels, and public transit — is almost out of money. Again.


The fund’s primary source of revenue is the federal fuel tax of 18.4 cents per gallon on gasoline and 24.4 cents per gallon of diesel. That tax hasn’t gone up since 1993, and isn’t pegged to inflation. A dollar in 1993 is worth only 60 cents today. If the gas tax had kept up with inflation, it would be 30 cents a gallon today and pull in nearly twice the amount of revenue. The tax brings in around $34 billion each year, but while that seems like a lot of money, it barely scratches the surface of what’s needed to maintain the nation’s highways in a state of good repair.

The federal government spends roughly $50 billion annually on infrastructure, leaving a $16 billion hole in the Highway Trust Fund. Over the last decade, Congress has signed off on a series of short-term extensions to prevent the fund from completely drying up. The one just approved by the Senate would mark the 36th such funding extension for the fund since 2009.

The article argues that the gas tax needs to be increased to pay for infrastructure maintenance. If this was a new problem that arose in a wealthy nation a simple gas tax increase might be enough of a bandage. But the infrastructure has been in decay for decades so the costs of fixing everything is so astronomically high that it’s not even a feasible project anymore:

So what needs fixing? Almost everything. Today, more than 60,000 bridges in the United States are considered structurally deficient, according to the Department of Transportation, and 32 percent of US major roads are in poor or mediocre condition, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers. In its most recent report, the ASCE gave the nation’s overall infrastructure — everything from airports to wastewater — a D+. The US would need to spend an estimated $3.6 trillion by 2020 to bring its infrastructure into decent shape. That’s more than one-third the nation’s entire gross domestic product.

Emphasis mine. The infrastructure is in such a dilapidated state that the federal government would need to steal one-third of the entire nation’s gross domestic product just to bring it up to date in four years. That, ladies and gentlemen, is point where your income can’t even pay off the interest on your debt. And it’s only one of a practically uncountable number of government programs. No amount of additional plunder will allow the United States to get back on its feet.

People saying the United States is a wealthy nation should be laughed at. When they use that claim to justify creating yet another government program that will add more debt they should be publicly shamed. Their names should become common insults. Instead of saying “You’re an idiot,” the new insult should be, “OK, Bernie Sanders.”

The empire is collapsing. No amount of voting will save it, thankfully.

This Thanksgiving

Today is Thanksgiving. Regardless of your views on what the holiday actually means it is commonly used as an excuse for family members to come together. Politicos therefore see this as another excuse to push their personal agenda. Just as they did last year and the year before the politicos are telling people “This Thanksgiving talk to your family about gun control,” “This Thanksgiving talk to your family about the minimum wage,” “This Thanksgiving talk to your family about health insurance.”

Traditionally there have been two topics considered off limits in polite company: religion and politics. This Thanksgiving treat your family like polite company. It’ll ensure your family remains a family and not a bunch of people who hate each other even though they share the same last name.

Cultures Cannot Own Ideas Either

Several of my friends have been passing around the story of the University of Ottawa cancelling a free yoga class because of concerns of cultural appropriation. I ignored it just as I ignore most culture war stories. Especially when the remedy to the cancellation is as simple as continuing the classes without official recognition from the university. But some valuable discussion did manage to rise from the ashes. Namely that ideas aren’t property and therefore cannot belong to anybody:

Yoga, whether you’re a fan of it or not, doesn’t exclusively belong to some group of people who share the same skin color or language or culture or religion — just as classical music or Western medicine or modern physics doesn’t belong to the Europeans. It, like all such ideas, is the common heritage of all mankind. That means of each and every one of us, even those of us who have a genetic background or culture that some people feel aggrieved at.

We (Indian, American, African, Oceanian, anyone else) are entitled to use it, to adapt it, to merge it with other ideas. There’s no improper “appropriation” here because there’s no “property” here in the first place.

After this the author does some backtracking and tries to justify patents and copyrights. His inconsistency towards the end of the article don’t invalidate the beginning of the article though. Ideas are not a finite resource that can be exclusively held by a single individual. You can copy an idea but that doesn’t deprive the originator of it so the act cannot be called theft.

Most instances where I’ve seen accusations of cultural appropriation made were when somebody was making use of an idea that originated in another culture. Sometimes the usage is malicious and meant to mock the culture but more often than not the usage is innocent. In the former case I think an accusation of the user being a jackass suffices and in the latter I think the usage should be encouraged. Adopting ideas from other cultures tends to have the effect of forwarding the adopter’s view of the culture they’re drawing from.

For example, I participate in Japanese martial arts and part of that involves adopting Japanese cultural ideas not directly related to the combat styles themselves. Several of those ideas are themselves adopted from Buddhism. Buddhism in Japan came from China, which adopted Buddhism from India where the religion originated. So I’ve adopted cultural ideas that were adopted from cultural ideas that were adopted from cultural ideas. If I am guilty of cultural appropriation, and I have been accused of it by one person, then I am merely continuing a trend of cultural appropriation that spans back into prehistory. With all of that said I feel as though I’m a better person because of it. My overall understanding of the world expanded because I adopted ideas from another culture.

I use myself as an example because I am the person I know best. But most people I know who had adopted ideas from other cultures have become better people because of it. A lot of people I know practice yoga and feel they are better because of it. Seeing their enjoyment of life increase leads me to believe they are correct. Many of my friends also practice various forms of meditation, which clearly do not have roots in European culture. Again they feel it has made them better people and I agree. In addition to becoming better people these friends of mine tend to have a more expansive worldview. That fuller worldview tends to make them less xenophobic and if there’s anything the world needs it’s less xenophobia.

The idea that one’s ability to adopt ideas from other cultures is dependent on what culture they were born into is another attempt at monopolizing ideas. Cultural appropriation belongs on the same shelf as copyrights and patents: fiction. While there are certainly valid grounds for criticizing people who adopt a cultural idea for the sole purpose of denigrating the culture they should be based on the person being an asshole. On the other hand people who adopt ideas from other cultures should be encouraged because it will only help expand their worldview and very well may help to different cultures come together. Above all though we should recognize that cultural ideas aren’t a special exception to the illegitimacy of intellectual property.

Don’t Ask An Astrophysicist About Economics

Neil deGrasse Tyson has reach almost messiah levels on the Internet and it’s easy to see why. He’s a brilliant man who managed to avoid the social awkwardness many brilliant individuals suffer from. But he’s an astrophysicist, not an economist. He made this very clear during a recent interview:

It seems really easy to delude ourselves about the state of space now, right? We look at a company like Mars One and say, “Oh yeah, totally, that seems possible. A reality show would definitely fund a mission to Mars.” Or even SpaceX, we’ve looked at that company with wide eyes and only now question them after a very public failure.

The delusion that relates to private spaceflight isn’t really what you’re describing. They’re big dreams, and I don’t have any problems with people dreaming. Mars One, let them dream. That’s not the delusion. The delusion is thinking that SpaceX is going to lead the space frontier. That’s just not going to happen, and it’s not going to happen for three really good reasons: One, it is very expensive. Two, it is very dangerous to do it first. Three, there is essentially no return on that investment that you’ve put in for having done it first. So if you’re going to bring in investors or venture capitalists and say, “Hey, I have an idea, I want to put the first humans on Mars.” They’ll ask, “How much will it cost?” You say, “A lot.” They’ll ask, “Is it dangerous?” You’ll say, “Yes, people will probably die.” They’ll ask, “What’s the return on investment?” and you’ll say “Probably nothing, initially.” It’s a five-minute meeting. Corporations need business models, and they need to satisfy shareholders, public or private.

A government has a much longer horizon over which it can make investments. This is how it’s always been.

SpaceX may not be the company that manages to get privatized space exploration off the ground but not for the reasons he gives. Expense and danger have never been major hinderances to entrepreneurs. Oftentimes the State will cite dangers as its reason to hinder an entrepreneur but our history is riddled with people who took tremendous risk in the name of being the first to develop a new technology. With that said, most entrepreneurs don’t blindly rush into danger but make a best effort attempt to identify and mitigate risks. SpaceX is a great example of this. Recognizing the potential dangers rocketry imposes SpaceX has been investing resources into designing an ejection system for astronauts in case something bad does happen (something, I might add, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) never bothered with).

But Tyson’s biggest mistake was claiming there’s no return on investment. He fell into the common trap of assuming just because he can’t imagine a return on investment one must not exist. Successful entrepreneurs are successful because they realized a return on an investment others did not. Space offers up tremendous returns to the right entrepreneur. Astroid mining, zero gravity manufacturing, tourism, and an environment that allows a lot of research to be more easily performed are just a few returns available to entrepreneurs who get into space. Mining alone could be a huge return simply because moving large amounts of raw materials through vacuum and dropping it down near where it’s needed is easier than transporting the same amount across a planet.

I think his claim that government has a much longer horizon is also in meaningless. The longest horizon in the universe won’t accomplish anything noteworthy without creativity. Governments are terribly uncreative. Unless something may expand a government’s ability to expropriate wealth it tends to have little or no interest in pursuing it. What makes entrepreneurs valuable is their creativity. An entrepreneur by definition is somebody who used their creativity to come up with a new good or service. A successful entrepreneur is somebody who came up with a good or service people wanted. Because there is nothing obviously worth stealing in space it’s unlikely governments will invest any notable resources into exploring it. It may, however, attempt to tax any goods or services an entrepreneur creates in space. And entrepreneurs will try because there is a great deal of potential value in space.

Space exploration is, amongst other things, an economics problem. I wouldn’t doubt Tyson’s input when it came to the physics involved in space exploration but I’ve seen no reason to believe his knowledge about economics comes close to his knowledge about physics.

The Dumb Smart Gun

Remember the Armatix iP1? It was a supposed smart gun that utilized a wrist-mounted authenticator to allow the gun to fire. The gun, as far as I know, never mad it to market. While the inability to bring the gun to market causes anti-self-defense advocates to blame the National Rifle Association (NRA) it turns out the real problem was likely technical. As it turns out the NRA actually had the chance to perform range tests on the iP1 and were left wanting. Here is a list of technical failures exhibited during the NRA’s testing:

Does the Armatix operate perfectly? Well, no; we found it to be troubling at best. NRA’s tests, conducted with staffers trained by Armatix, found a number of very serious problems:

  • The Armatix pistol initially required a full 20 minutes to pair with the watch, even with the aid of an IT pro trained in its use. Without pairing, the Armatix functions like any other handgun, capable of being fired by anyone.
  • Once paired, a “cold start” still requires a minimum of seven push-button commands and a duration of 12 seconds before the gun can be fired.
  • While the gun holds a maximum of 11 rounds (10+1), the best our experts could manage was nine consecutive rounds without a failure to fire (and that only once). Three or four misfires per magazine were common, despite using various brands of ammunition.
  • […]

  • The pistol must be within 10 inches of the watch during “start up.” This slows and complicates the use of the pistol if one hand is injured or otherwise unavailable.

This is uncommon for a version one release although the fact the authentication system doesn’t prevent the gun from firing until it has been paired makes the entire system rather pointless. I would have thought such an obvious mistake wouldn’t have made it to a range test. The fact it did makes one wonder what other obvious mistakes were made.

Immigrants, Jellybeans, And Fear Mongering

Even though evidence indicates the Paris attackers weren’t Syrian refugees a lot of assholes have been exploiting the tragedy to forward their xenophobic agenda. One such meme created by these xenophobes goes something like this:

If i gave you a bag of 50,000 jellybeans and told you 100 are poisonous, you wouldnt accept them right? Then why would we accept 50,000 refugees if some of them are bad?

This meme just goes to show, once again, that humans are naturally bad at risk assessment. The Foundation for Economic Freedom address this issue by pointing out some much scarier numbers:

I like jelly beans and numbers so I did a back of the envelope calculation. In the US there are about 15,000 murders per year. Most murderers kill only one person. Even serial killers kill only 2.8 people on average. Thus, 15,000 is also approximately the number of murderers in a year.*


The current US population is 322 million, so there are .0023 murderers per capita, or 2.33 murderers per 1,000, or 116 murderers per 50,000 people in the United States.

Put differently, about 116 American babies out of every 50,000 will grow up to murder someone. (Perhaps the NYMag should rerun its poll?). In contrast, only 100 of the 50,000 jelly beans were poisonous.

People tend to worry about situations where large numbers of people die at once more than situations where one or two people die even when the latter occurs frequently enough where the total number of dead is higher than the former. This is why a lot of people are scared to fly but think nothing about driving from home and work everyday.

Another problem people have with risk assessment is worrying about things they know nothing about more than things they understand well even if the latter is far more dangerous than the former. That is why many people are scared of allowing in Syrian refugees, a group of people they know little or nothing about, even though no terrorist acts have been perpetrated by a Syrian refugee in the United States and domestic terrorists have killed more people than Middle Eastern terrorists. In fact that brings up another interesting situation few people worry about:

WASHINGTON — In the 14 years since Al Qaeda carried out attacks on New York and the Pentagon, extremists have regularly executed smaller lethal assaults in the United States, explaining their motives in online manifestoes or social media rants.

But the breakdown of extremist ideologies behind those attacks may come as a surprise. Since Sept. 11, 2001, nearly twice as many people have been killed by white supremacists, antigovernment fanatics and other non-Muslim extremists than by radical Muslims: 48 have been killed by extremists who are not Muslim, including the recent mass killing in Charleston, S.C., compared with 26 by self-proclaimed jihadists, according to a count by New America, a Washington research center.

Overall, since 9/11, there have been 48 people killed by non-Muslim extremists. Meanwhile over 1,000 people have been killed by police this year alone. Yet most people would rate the threat of domestic extremists higher than the risks of domestic police. Why? Because few people actually know any domestic extremists and most people believe the vast majority of police officers are good guys.

I could play with numbers all day in an attempt to generate fear of anything I personally dislike. But I feel my time is more productively spent explaining risk assessment so those of you reading this can avoid falling into scary number traps.

New South Wales Bans Possessing Knowledge

3D printers have ensured gun control laws will continue to become less enforceable. How can a government enforce a ban on something anybody can download a schematic for and print in their own home? It can’t. But that’s not going to stop the government of New South Wales from trying:

Possessing files that can be used to 3D print firearms will soon be illegal in New South Wales after new legislation, passed last week by state parliament, comes into effect.

Among the provisions of the Firearms and Weapons Prohibition Legislation Amendment Bill 2015 (PDF) is an amendment to the Weapons Prohibition Act 1998 stating that a person “must not possess a digital blueprint for the manufacture of a firearm on a 3D printer or on an electronic milling machine.”

The maximum penalty is 14 years’ jail.

The provision does not apply to any person with a licence to manufacture firearms or the police.

‘Possession’ is defined as “possession of a computer or data storage device holding or containing the blueprint or of a document in which the blueprint is recorded” or “control of the blueprint held in a computer that is in the possession of another person (whether the computer is in this jurisdiction or outside this jurisdiction)”.

Enforcing this would require knowing every file on every person’s computer and knowing every purchase every person has made. Even banning 3D printers or requiring they be registered wouldn’t make this law enforceable because schematics exist for 3D printers that can print 3D printer parts and be built at home.

With that said, this is yet another law that should encourage people to utilize strong cryptographic tools. Ensure every data storage device you possess is encrypted. Only access websites through encrypted connections. And use anonymity tools like Tor to download any potentially illegal data (which is all data). Laws against possessing information requires the authorities be capable of finding out whether or not you’ve learned something. So long as you can conceal that from them they cannot enforce such prohibitions.