February 24, 2017

Binary Sync

Filed under: Uncategorized — admin @ 1:29 pm

If you’re writing software that works across more than one computer, you often run into situations where you want to sync things. I certainly did, and I came up with a way of thinking about sync that I want to share.

Sync Can Be Easy

Some scenarios are actually easy to sync. For example, if you have associations between any two classes of things, like Contacts and Labels. Imagine a spreadsheet where Contacts are rows and Labels are columns. In each cell, you store a 0 if there is no association, or a 1 if there is.

Let’s also assume that at some point the spreadsheets on both computers have been synchronized. Since that point, they have diverged: some 0s have changed to 1s, and some 1s have changed to 0s. New rows or columns can be thought of as putting 1s where “virtual” 0s were previously in the synced spreadsheet, and deleted rows or columns are thought of a putting 0s in the corresponding cells.

Now, to sync, all you have to do is find out the cells that have changed on either side since the sync, and use the new values. You can actually represent all the cells as bits in a long string and do the sync in just four bitwise operations on all the bits in parallel:

sync = ((original xor versionA) or (original xor versionB)) xor original

And just like that, all the new changes have been incorporated. I’m sure this has been rediscovered again and again by various people, but since I haven’t seen it described anywhere, I’m writing it up here and calling it the Binary Sync.


The binary sync is easy to implement and understand. It works because whenever there is a change from the original, it either happens in one or both copies, there are no other possibilities. It also works for syncing N devices at the same time. However, to use this sync, each device needs to store a copy of the last sync result that was performed.

Although the sync produces a useful result, there is a caveat. The result depends on when you sync. If since the last sync, one device makes a change and reverts it, and the other makes the same change but don’t revert it, then the sync reflects the change. However, if there was an intermediate sync after the change was made, then the sync reflects the reversion. If you want full consistency among N participants, you have to have a consistency protocol in conjunction with the binary sync protocol.

More Complicated Sync

The binary sync is easy to implement and understand, and it works for a great variety of cases to produce useful results. As I mentioned earlier, associations between members of sets X and Y are a prime candidate for this type of sync. This means it’s also good for symmetric graphs (which can be represented as tuples) or directed graphs (which can be represented as triples). Triples can represent predicates in RDF, and many other things. Any time you “add and remove connections” between things, you can use this sync.

Another benefit of the binary sync is theoretical: by expressing non-binary sync in terms of binary sync, you can see the trade-offs in various syncing strategies! For example, operational transformation and modern multi-client sync strategies are designed to handle things like trees where children may be re-ordered besides simply added and removed. All the changes between nodes and edges can be done with the binary sync, but the changes in ordering between edges of a node must be done in some other, separate algorithm.

Even this other algorithm, can sort of be analyzed in terms of the binary sync. For example you can express it as storing an ordinal along with each triple, making it a quadruple. Now two different devices do two different permutations on the order of children of a certain node, changing fourth member of the quadruple of some/all of them. You can do a binary sync and then apply some operation to “flatten” or “project” the quadruples into some canonical ordering.

Beyond Sync

Once you start wanting to synchronize multiple clients editing a single document, you may want to consider simply storing the operations that were done, in order, and then sync will consist of trying to do as many operations as possible until you get stuck. That’s the approach we take at Qbix for arbitrary multi-user “streams” and “messages”.

But if all you want to do is synchronize some associations between contacts and labels, consider binary sync :)

January 22, 2017

The Danger of Drones

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , — admin @ 2:45 pm

As you know, one of the major themes of this blog revolves around the effect that design of technology and control of information has on society. I’m a big proponent of decentralization in computer networks and run a company that’s been working to achieve it, but at the same time I’m always interested in understanding the trade-offs between centralization and decentralization.

When it comes to drones, there seems to be an unprecedented combination. For the first time, autonomous robots with increasing intelligence will have ready access to public spaces. Self-driving cars are another example, but they are expensive to produce. But because of how cheap it will be to produce programmable drones, this can create a serious problem for society.

Our social systems aren’t designed to cope with AI, and many rely on inefficiency on the part of current actors, or “security through obscurity“. When a driver does a hit-and-run, we at least have a lead (the car, the human) and can set up some sort of retaliatory mechanism as a deterrent. Terrorism is largely a problem of technology (e.g. swords vs the gunpowder plot vs 9/11). When drones produced by no-name manufacturers are programmed and dispatched by anonymous individuals, they can wreak all kinds of havoc, without any repercussions. It takes 1 out of 10,000 rogue actors (whether nutcases, terror cells, other countries, etc.) to do something. If Amazon has its way and drones are legalized, whatever framework we adopt, what is to prevent a drone from taking off and doing damage anonymously? Even with zero malicious intent, an increase in heavy drone traffic raises chances of death by impact. But having anonymous drones equipped with bombs or things like this seems like a real danger. It seems to be an arms race that’s coming up faster than the AI arms race that lots of people are concerned about.

And yet there is no way to stop the progress of technology. This is one place where decentralization may not be such a good thing. What can we do?

November 8, 2016

The Alternative Vote

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , , , , — admin @ 12:48 pm

I’ll tell you all what I really think. The problem in this election isn’t Trump or Hillary. The fact that you have only two choices is just the symptom of the problem. The real problem is the VOTING SYSTEM.

The real reason billionaire Mike Bloomberg didn’t run for President was because he was afraid to take more votes from Hillary so his run would make Trump or Cruz more likely to be elected.

The only reason Bernie didn’t run as a third party candidate was that he was afraid to split the liberal vote with Hillary. Many of his supporters are struggling with having to “hold their nose” and vote for her.

So many people are afraid of voting for Gary Johnson or Jill Stein because they’d be “wasting their vote” and helping the other guy they are so afraid of.

ALL THESE PROBLEMS can be fixed by a simple change in the voting system. This change can be implemented state by state, county by county. Want to improve your country? Change your local system to use the Alternative Vote!!!

In the Alternative Vote, you can indicate more than your top preference - you can rank people in order, thereby putting your favorites on top and your least favorites on the bottom. Bernie could run without hurting Hillary. Voting Johnson could be done with a clear conscience. Just put eg 1: Johnson 2: Bernie 3: Hillary 4: Jill Stein and Last: Trump!

This system is already used in Australia, India, etc. In the USA your lack of choice happens because everyone knows they can ONLY indicate their top choice and there is NO WAY to indicate preferences among the other candidates. This leads all this perversion.

Does the Alternative Vote system have some issues? Well it has better statistical properties than our current First-Past-The-Post system, on almost every measure. No voting system is perfect, but if our country used the Alternative Vote we wouldn’t be so divided, hateful of the other side, fearful that voting for someone we truly believe is the best is only going to help the person we really don’t want. It’s sad to see my country so torn over such a simple root cause. All this anguish over the last year and all this money spent, could have been spent on reforming the voting system. It doesn’t take that much. We can start in our local communities, and next time, we can be more united as a country, and have more choice!

June 24, 2016

The New Nationalism!

Filed under: Uncategorized — admin @ 3:41 pm

I often write about the benefits of decentralization, when it comes to computer platforms like Facebook and Google. Today I want to talk about a different kind, that’s happening right now “in the real world”.


Donald Trump ran on a campaign that “we don’t win anymore”, and on starting a trade war with China and Mexico. He spoke forcefully against illegal Mexican immigrants, and “putting a stop to” immigration of Muslims. Now, he is the nominee of the Republican Party for President of the United States. The not-so-secret reason this is happening is because a populist Nationalism has become a growing movement, fed by years of fear-mongering about “the others” – whether it is other countries unfairly trading, immigrants stealing our jobs, or refugees raping/attacking our people. In the USA, this was done by conservative news outlets.

In the UK, there has been a growing nationalism as well. The counterparts to Donald Trump over there would be UKIP and Boris Johnson, who may be next in line for Prime Minister of the UK after Cameron, who has just announced his impending resignation. While certainly more measured than Trump, Johnson’s bravado, hair and general appearance bear a certain resemblance to Trump’s. I think it’s more than mere coincidence.

There is nothing new under the sun, however. Liberals and human rights activists throughout the world had better be vigilant. History will judge how all this New Nationalism will turn out. For a history lesson of what unrestrained right-wing conservative nationalist rhetoric can lead to, read about the Stabbed-In-The-Back myth that planted the seeds for the rise of the Nazi party a decade later. Back then, the villains were communists, Jews, and “others” who did not belong to the nation.

Peaceful break-ups

England had just voted to secede from the European Union, becoming the first country to ever do so. In a close national vote, 52% of the country lodged an arrow in the heart of the dream of a “unified Europe”. Now there is talk of whether any other countries will follow suit. Almost immediately, the nationalist factions in France and Austria renewed calls for their own referendum. This is especially interesting news for Russia, whose news outlets joined the chorus of voices asking whether the end of the EU has come.

But the UK faces a more imminent danger of staying intact. Despite the name “United Kingdom”, the vote showed just how divided the British public is when it comes to membership in the EU. Scotland, Northern Ireland and Gibraltar overwhelmingly voted to “stay” in the EU, as did London elites, yet were beat out by the “leave” throughout the rest of England and Wales.

Less than two years ago, Scotland held its own referendum on separating from the UK, which lost in a 45%-55% vote. The Scottish National Party, the largest political party in Scotland, has said in their manifesto that it would call for another referendum if the UK leaves the EU. Well, that has just occurred.

If Scotland, Ireland and Gibraltar leave the UK and rejoin the EU, England will become politically isolated even within on its own island. My personal feeling is that, when the next steps play out over the next few years, the primarily English decision to leave the EU may have turned out to the most short-sighted national democratic decision since the Palestinians voted Hamas into power in 2006. Still, it is the will of the People, and at the end of the day, we are talking about large, wealthy nations, so things are probably going to be okay either way.

Adjusting the map

The UK is not made of colonies, nor even countries in its orbit, as the US might consider many Caribbean countries. Rather, it is a United Kingdom of countries that currently enjoy great unity but share an uneasy history of political unificationwars for independence, and cultural imposition. It is closer to the USA in its unity. Yet, unlike the USA, it has peaceful, political provisions for secession. This allows the Kingdom to break up.

Not many people know that the USSR was a federation whose Constitution allowed for secession, and which led to its peaceful break-up and dissolution, following the secession of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus. The EU and UK have provisions for peaceful secession.

On the other hand, when the Constitution of the USA replaced Articles of Confederation, it effectively outlawed secession, transferring ultimate national sovereignty to “We the People” of the entire USA. The largest attempt to secede led to a bloody Civil War to preserve the union. Neither does Ukraine have a provision for a province to secede unilaterally, which is why the referendum in Crimea was never recognized and why and it waged a war for unity in the East despite bootleg referendums of Donbass.

The fate of empires

Over the last several hundred years, England’s colonies around the world gained full political independence, some through violent revolutionothers peacefully. Every empire has countries that hate it after it breaks up. The USSR vilified to this day by Hungarians, Lithuanians, Estonians, and many Ukrainian nationalists, who now want to eradicate traces of Russian cultural influence. Many Kurds, Greeks and Armenians have traumatic memories of the Ottoman empire, the latter two having been systematically attacked and tortured by Turks. But time and distance heals wounds, so the English-speaking countries are great friends today.


Many articles have dealt with the possible economic issues surrounding the Brexit. I wanted to cover the political issues. In short, we are living in a world that would have seemed surreal to liberal democrats trying to build a unified, globalized world. A counter-movement of right-wing nationalism is now leading to possible trade wars and breakups of the EU and UK. This decentralization may not be bad in an of itself, but it challenges the new globalized status quo that we have become so accustomed to in the last 30-50 years. A status quo which represents stability, cooperation, and most of all, the best way to prevent massive war through economic ties. It was, indeed, those economic ties that prevented a repeat of WW2.

We are now entering uncertain times, both economically and politically. We must not merely hope, we must be vigilant. The former US secretary of defense has just written a book warning of nuclear war. On the other hand, the secession of the UK and election of Donald Trump may actually work to normalize relations between Russia both for the US and the UK, putting to an end another dangerous trend: the expansion of NATO’s nuclear bases.

In short, because of the New Nationalism, everything you know about the current geopolitical status quo might soon change.

May 22, 2016

If Steve Jobs still ran Apple

Filed under: Uncategorized — admin @ 2:07 am

What would Apple look like if Steve Jobs was still at the helm?

I pondered this question recently after another iOS bug surfaced rendering all links useless in Safari. It seems Apple’s software, once touted as “It Just Works”, has become increasingly known for bugs and unreliability. Even respected members of the Apple community pointed out with sadness the plummeting quality and major regressions. Witty criticisms from many of the Mac vs PC ads now apply more to MacOS X than to Windows.

For a company with a war chest of $203 billion liquid dollars, it’s strange why more wasn’t done to reverse this trend in declining quality and protect Apple’s longstanding reputation from taking further hits. After having become the world’s most valuable company under Steve Jobs, Apple’s market cap was now being overtaken by its rival, Google.

Under Jobs, Apple developed its iconic status as the undisputed leader in user-friendly interfaces, but since his passing, Apple has gradually become a follower. The company’s knack for user interface design, once considered the pinnacle of user-friendliness, has radically changed in favor of a Bauhaus minimalism with hidden gestures and thin typefaces. User interface experts who once praised it now say Apple is giving design a bad name.

How did this happen?

The Shakeup

Until Steve’s passing, the user interface of iOS, Apple’s fastest-growing and world-changing product, was overseen by Steve Jobs and Scott Forstall. Steve heavily promoted interfaces that felt natural and familiar, by evoking real-world objects, and Forstall shared this mindset. This was part of the “magic” that gave Apple’s software its distinctive look-and-feel, and Steve was very proud of it. The hardware’s design, on the other hand, was overseen by the talented Jony Ive, a big fan of minimalism in industrial design, who successfully turned out hits from the iPod to the iMac to the MacBook and beyond. Ive was an incredible hardware designer who left his mark on the world. But he would soon leave his mark on the software world, too.

Right after Steve Jobs left, the company was reorganized. Google and Apple had just had a big split under Jobs, and the Apple had developed its own Maps product to compete with Google. However, Apple Maps had been a big fiasco and heads were going to roll. Scott Forstall, who was in charge of that project, was fired after refusing to apologize. Jony Ive, who had been at loggerheads with Forstall over the direction iOS design was headed, was placed at the helm of both the hardware and software human interface design.

The New Normal

With both Jobs and Forstall out of his way, Ive moved quickly to remake the software interface in his own image. Everything was to be flat, minimal, and follow the same design ideology as the hardware. Everything else was dubbed skeumorphism, on which an open and public war was declared. Textures would be replaced with translucent layers. Visual controls would be reduced in favor of secret gestures. Everything would be flattened and replaced with minimal text and colors. A single talking point was developed to defend this design direction:

“When we sat down last November (to work on iOS 7), we understood that people had already become comfortable with touching glass, they didn’t need physical buttons, they understood the benefits,” says Ive. “So there was an incredible liberty in not having to reference the physical world so literally. We were trying to create an environment that was less specific. It got design out of the way.”

Jobs himself was publicly named the biggest culprit behind of the old, “kitschy” design that separated the iPhone from everything else. By switching, Apple’s design would become like Android and the new Microsoft phone, whose design Steve Wozniak had just praised over the iPhone. Apple had become a follower of “flat” design.

So, where would Apple be today if Steve Jobs was still running the place?

The Interface

First of all, Apple’s visual interface would still be distinctive today, making both the Mac OS and iOS feel “polished” and “friendly”. Textures would still allow users to quickly distinguish between the content and the buttons. Steve would never allow the iOS interface to “descend” to the same playing field as the other platforms, especially at the cost of a visually painful transition in the app store as app developers played catch-up for years. Steve Jobs knew something that Walter Gropius missed: easy-to-use does not simply boil down to minimalism, it’s about naturally fitting what a person wants to do.

The Mac App Store

After being proudly introduced by Steve Jobs on stage, the Mac App Store has been severely neglected by Apple after his death. Such was the extent of the neglect that the company forgot to renew the digital certificate for the whole store last year, preventing most purchased apps from starting with a scary message about being “damaged”. Earlier this year, they did it again, with the following message for developers:

Mac App Store customers running OS X Snow Leopard (v10.6.8) will be unable to purchase new apps or run previously purchased apps that utilize receipt validation until they install the Mac App Store Update for OS X Snow Leopard which is available via OS X Software Update.

Under Jobs, the Mac App store would have received much greater attention. Apple has been releasing great stuff for Mac developers, including Swift and Grand Central Dispatch, but Steve was always focused on making a platform on which developers can actually sell their apps.

The iPhone

Steve Jobs famously defended the form factor of both the iPhone and the iPad when they were unveiled. The original iPhone’s size, he claimed, was perfect for the range of thumb motion. A year after Steve’s death, a larger iPhone was unveiled, with the screen taller but the width remaining the same. This time, video ads showed the same “thumb argument” but now with the larger size being perfect. A couple years later, though, Apple gave in and made larger phones. These days, both versions of iPhone 6 are so wide that one can’t comfortably grip them with one hand and use their thumb as before. Apple’s “thumb commercials” were right about phones being too big to be comfortable, and under Steve Jobs, the width of the iPhone would still be the same as the original.


According to his authorized biography, Steve Jobs never really tried Siri. He was handed the iPhone 4s a day before he retired, and he was less than impressed after playing with it briefly. Sure, Steve would have wanted the iPhone to have a digital assistant, but he wouldn’t let Apple release a mediocre feature that Google and Microsoft would easily compete with. No, not the man who famously introduced Macintosh by letting it say hello. Just to give you one example from beginning to end, here is what I think Steve would have done:

  1. Form a team to find and fork the best open source voice recognition software project, like they did with WebKit
  2. Implement voice recognition entirely on the iPhone, in all languages, eliminating the need for an internet connection
  3. Oversee the design of a new “voice” platform allowing apps to hook a unified spoken “command line” and carry out actions that the user wants, with full access to the context (contacts, calendars, previously spoken lines) and ability to cooperate on different parts of a complex command (like intents / extensions do now).
  4. Direct the iOS teams to integrate all native apps with this command line
  5. Patent the crap out of it
  6. Start integrating it into a voice interface for drivers, patent the crap out of that as well
  7. Introduce it on stage with references to the Star Trek Computer.

Intellectual Property

Steve Jobs was mildly upset when he found out Microsoft released Windows. But when he learned that Android would copy the iPhone’s features, he felt betrayed and ready to go to war:

“I will spend my last dying breath if I need to, and I will spend every penny of Apple’s $40 billion in the bank, to right this wrong… I’m going to destroy Android, because it’s a stolen product. I’m willing to go thermonuclear war on this.”

After his death, Apple and Google settled their patent battle over smartphone technology, ending one of the highest-profile lawsuits in tech. Their joint statement following this amicable outcome also said the two companies “have also agreed to work together in some areas of patent reform.”

The Road Ahead

For the first time in 13 years, Apple’s stock has experienced its first quarterly decline. This has also been the first year that iPhone sales have declined.  Apple is likely to begin using its $200+ billion war chest to acquire overseas companies in new markets, and branch out into cars and home automation. One such acquisition is its $1 billion acquisition of Didi, a Chinese competitor to Uber. Since the company faces a large tax burden if it ever moves the money into the US under the current regime, Apple’s acquisitions will probably continue to come from overseas. However, perhaps one day it will acquire Tesla.

What’s next for Apple? Can the company still make insanely great things? Berkshire Hathaway thinks so – but, notably, not Warren Buffett, who was famously averse to investing in tech companies. It was, instead, two guys he brought on to help manage the company. Who knows what will happen to Berkshire after Warren Buffet?

January 3, 2016

A History of Foreign Meddling and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

Filed under: Uncategorized — admin @ 2:04 am

Welcome to 2016. As many of us celebrate the new year with hopes for a better future, conflicts rage on in the Middle East, Israel, Syria and Ukraine. To achieve a better future, we have to make sense of the past and what’s still going on today.

This perspective is meant to wake you up from the Matrix. Regional differences and struggles that have been going on without huge violence, sometimes for hundreds of years, have been exacerbated by foreign intervention, funneling money and weapons to a region, paying lip service to the actual concerns of the regular people, but nearly always to further their own foreign interests — sometimes perversely and shortsightedly — but that’s just how rich countries come to operate at scale. I will give some examples of foreign meddling, and maybe you can notice a pattern.

Regional Conflicts

I’m sure you have encountered the “Zionists” being compared to “Nazis” without any irony by people passionate about “Justice for Palestinians”. The Poroshenko government in Kiev and the Rada are openly called “fascists” and a “junta” by the Russians, making references to things like Bandera, a Nazi collaborator in World War 2, etc. Assad is called a “brutal dictator without popular support” by the USA, making reference to his human rights violations. But the reality is, all of this is propaganda — it certainly has elements of truth, but ignores comparisons to other countries to avoid highlight a double standard. The “Fascists” label is designed to give legitimacy to any actions by Russia in backing rebels in Eastern Ukraine or unilaterally taking Crimea from Ukraine. The “Assad is a brutal dictator” gives legitimacy for the USA arming “moderate rebels” to fight against and destabilize yet another government. And the slogan, ”Zionism is Imperialism” among others were used by the USSR to justify training and funding the Palestine Liberation Organization.

Do Palestinians have legitimate grievances, as do Greeks, Armenians, Kurds, and many others? Sure. And, if left free from meddling by foreign powers, it’s very likely that Jews and Arabs could have resolved their political issues by now. But this whole “Anti-Zionism” ideology actually hurts both sides, and prevents any local political solutions from happening. If you step back you’ll see it hasn’t worked to help Palestinians for decades, but like any ideology it’s always tried no matter how many times it fails, because it propagates itself as a meme. It is a leftover of a successful operation by the KGB. Ion Michai Pacepa, the highest ranking intelligence defector from the USSR, wrote a tell-all expose in 2003. The KGB trained leaders to put pressure on a government and to topple it — in this case the PLO was funded to topple the government of Israel, after it became clear Israel would not be Stalin’s darling socialist country in the Middle East, as it entered the USA’s sphere of influence instead. Palestine Liberation Organization is also very similar to the Liberation Theology efforts that KGB was pushing in South America. In fact, Arafat and the rest of the PLO made no secret that this was, indeed, their goal. It is only a question of how sincere his change was when they recognized Israel’s right to exist, and met with Clinton.

Nicolae Ceausescu, the head of state of Romania (Communist at the time, part of the Warsaw Pact) met with Carter and vouched for Arafat as someone who would make peace with Israelis, despite his rhetoric at the time. This led to Arafat’s relatively pragmatic “10 point program” , of which section #8 stated:

“Once it is established, the Palestinian national authority will strive to achieve a union of the confrontation countries, with the aim of completing the liberation of all Palestinian territory, and as a step along the road to comprehensive Arab unity.”

Even so, various factions in the PLO would not accept such “moderation” and broke away to form the PFLP and other organizations. Which would mean that America’s blocking of democracy among the Palestinians, all the way to Clinton’s efforts at Camp David, were futile attempts to establish a two state solution with a terrorist organizations who would never accept a Jewish Israel side by side with his state.

Now, when I say terrorist, I say so advisedly. It is not simply that the PLO adopted the KGB’s ideas about hijacking planes, or invented the suicide bomber, though these are indeed widely acknowledged acts of “terrorism” for political gain. It’s that this pattern is part of a larger narrative which repeats itself around the world: USSR or USA or Saudi Arabia or Iran sponsor and “fund rebels” on the one hand, and “prop up leaders” on the other. The big losers are always the local population. Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq, Egypt, and going on today: Ukraine, and Syria, which are funded by a triangle of Russia, USA and Saudis, among others (Qatar, Turkey, etc.). The pattern is: a country trains and funds their favored leaders among separatist rebel groups in a country that has left their sphere of influence, in order to involve the other country / ideology in a proxy war, and hopefully replace the rulers with a regime friendly to them. The most effective such leaders are usually ideological (Muhajideen, Muslim Brotherhood, Viet Kong, etc.) who can inspire masses of regular people into a frenzy, but then turn out no better than the regime they replace. (Sometimes the funds come indirectly from the private sector, because of ideology the government promoted for years.) Meanwhile, the opposing countries prop up a existing regime and funnel weapons to them, making the whole region more violent. The terror group is passed off as a “government in exile” of the oppressed people, who wind up being the biggest victims of the conflict, as Ukrainian army batters Donetsk, Assad’s forces shell Darmouk, or Israeli forces attack Gaza. I should mention, though, that Hamas was funded primarily by Gulf states and Iran, not by USA or Russia (if we ignore stealing international aid from the people they claim to represent). The lack of democratic elections in the PLO and the amassing of wealth by Arafat, Mashal, Yanukovich, and others, fits a familiar pattern too.

At the end of the day, if this leads to the collapse of the state, often the situation is worse, in absolute numbers, than it ever was before foreign involvement. The heads of the foreign countries publicly regret it sometimes, after the fact sometimes, after the fact. But even when they promise that they won’t do it, they still go ahead and do it.

The British Mandate

This is a major element in the Israel-Palestinian conflict. In the beginning, when the British made some disastrous mistakes in administering their Mandate in Palestine, the worst being the maneuvering of Amin al-Husseini to the position of Grand Mufti, the President of the Muslim Supreme Council and ultimately resulted in him leading the Arab Higher Committee in Palestine. With a seething hatred of Jews, Husseini is probably the figure most responsible for the breakdown of good relations between Muslims and Jews in Palestine. Had it not been for British machinations, it’s likely that the rival Nashashibi clan been elected to represent the Arabs of Palestine, being both more popular and quite more moderate towards the Jews and willing to work with them. Instead, the resulting conflict provided more fuel to the more violent elements from both Islam and Zionism. The fuse was lit and what could have been a peaceful collaboration in building a country failed:

Samuel tried to establish self-governing institutions in Palestine, as required by the mandate, but was frustrated by the refusal of the Arab leadership to co-operate with any institution which included Jewish participation. - Wikipedia

The point of no return was probably the massacre of Jews living in Hebron in 1929. From then on, the Jews expanded their own paramilitary organization Haganah, which later formed the core of the IDF. The Haganah was the “moderate” Jewish army, as opposed to more violent organizations. The Labor Zionists that were the dominant faction among Zionists, were moderates and abhorred Revisionist Zionism and Menachem Begin, leader of the violent Irgun organization. On the other hand, Husseini gladly collaborated with Al Qassam, a charismatic preacher who personally founded the Black Hand. Both terrorist groups also targeted the British authorities, waging bloody battles and famously bombing civilians. Husseini was later exiled by the British, and went on to join Hitler and exhorting Arabs to kill Jews:

Arabs, rise as one man and fight for your sacred rights. Kill the Jews wherever you find them. This pleases God, history, and religion. This saves your honor. God is with you.

The figure of Al Husseini is perhaps most responsible for the breakdown of Arab-Jewish relations in the region. In 1938, a British Royal Commission of Inquiry headed by William Peel found that the mandate had failed and recommended partition. It would be natural to expect that, after the British troops left, there would be some conflict and population transfer as happened in India and Pakistan. But this was considered the only way forward. In 1947, the United Nations put forth its partition plan for Palestine, a recommendation with a 72% vote in favor, which the Jewish population eagerly accepted but which was rejected by all Arab states, arguing that it violated the principles of national self-determination in the UN charter which granted people the right to decide their own destiny.

The Jewish State

This is where the vacuum left by the British began to be filled with new foreign players, with their own interests. Stalin and the USSR believed that the new Jewish state would be a friendly socialist country and would help speed the decline of British influence in the Middle East. They voted in favor of the UN resolution and helped the Jewish Agency (about to become the Israeli government) purchase military weapons from Chezchoslovakia, allowing the reorganized army to defend a Jewish state.

The day after Israel’s declaration of Independence, three members of the Arab League – Transjordan, Syria and Egypt – took control of Palestinian Arab areas and immediately attacked Israeli forces and several Jewish settlements, sparking a war. United by Pan-Arab ideas, they were drawn in to a civil war that was once again incited by Al Husseini, from his Egyptian exile. His nephew, Abd al-Qadir al Husseini led the Arab Higher Committee’s Army of the Holy War while Syria helped organize the Arab Liberation Army, a force bankrolled by five Arab states, including Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Iraq. Self-determination, in their view, extended only to the Arab residents of Palestine, and the Jews were not viewed as part of the native population that had a right to self-determination after the British mandate. Leading up to the war, the Arab League’s secretary-general said:

“Personally I hope the Jews do not force us into this war because it will be a war of elimination and it will be a dangerous massacre which history will record similarly to the Mongol massacre or the wars of the Crusades. I think the number of volunteers from outside Palestine will exceed the Palestinian population.”

On the other hand, Transjordan’s King Abdullah, who was hostile to Palestinian nationalism, made secret arrangements with the Jewish Agency and Golda Meir to thwart Husseini’s and annex / federate the West Bank with Transjordan. However, learning about this, Egypt and Syria, after seeing that they could not overcome the new Jewish state, formed the All-Palestine government in Gaza, with al Husseini nominally at the head of it.

Ideologies of the war from the Palestinian Jewish side are well-known: various forms of Zionism, religious aspirations about returning to the land, secular socialism etc. and of course the practical necessity of Jewish survival and self-defense. Ideologies from the Palestinian Arab side were quite varied. They ranged from Palestinian nationalism to Pan Arabism, but also Islamic religious ideas about a holy war of a religious character. The former was claimed as the reason to oppose the UN resolution, but the latter two ideologies dragged Arab countries into a conventional military war in Palestine, exacerbating the situation that led to the Nakba — the flight of 700,000, or about 80%, of Palestinian Arabs from their homes in the region, in the ensuing war between Jewish and Arab armies.

The Israeli-Arab war took a terrible toll on the local Arab populations. Out of the Nakba, about 10% were expelled from the towns of Lydda and Ramle, following an order signed by Itzhak Rabin after a brief truce when fighting resumed. This was a tactical maneuver by the IDF, who had run out of steam: from the Israeli perspective, the operation averted an Arab threat to Tel Aviv, thwarted an Arab Legion advance by clogging the roads with refugees, forcing the Arab Legion to assume a logistical burden that would undermine its military capacities, and helping demoralize nearby Arab cities.

The majority of Palestinian Arabs during the war had been anxiously following announcements and news about the ongoing hostilities. Radio broadcasts from the Arab Higher Committee continually urged local residents to leave ahead of the advancing Arab armies. Historian Benny Morris writes:

Arab officers ordered the complete evacuation of specific villages in certain areas, lest their inhabitants ‘treacherously’ acquiesce in Israeli rule or hamper Arab military deployments.” He concluded, “There can be no exaggerating the importance of these early Arab-initiated evacuations in the demoralization, and eventual exodus, of the remaining rural and urban populations.

Contemporary reporting from The Economist and New York Times in 1948 seems to confirm this phenomenon. Arabs who remained in Israel and, thus, acquiesced to its sovereignty, were considered “traitors” to “the Arab cause”, an offense to both Islamic and Pan-Arabist ideology. In this way, Haifa was largely evacuated of 90% of its Arab residents, despite the pleas of the Jewish mayor to stay.

Jaffa, an old city that borders Tel Aviv, actually fought the Jewish paramilitary, and in the end many Arab residents were evacuated. After the war, the Israeli leadership was loath to allow all the refugees to return, having just fought a war against a combined Arab force that aimed to drive them into the sea.  Ben Gurion said:

We must start working in Jaffa. Jaffa must employ Arab workers. And there is a question of their wages. I believe that they should receive the same wage as a Jewish worker. An Arab has also the right to be elected president of the state, should he be elected by all. If in America a Jew or a black cannot become president of the state—I do not believe in the quality of its civil rights. Indeed, despite the democracy there, I know that there are plots that are not sold to Jews, and the law tolerates this; and a person can sell his plot to a dealer on condition that it not be bought by a Jew … Should we have such a regime—then we would have missed the purpose of the Jewish State. And I would add that we would have denied the most precious thing in Jewish tradition. But war is war. We did not start the war. They made the war. Jaffa waged war on us, Haifa waged war on us, Bet She’an waged war on us. And I do not want them again to make war. That would be not just but foolish. This would be a “foolish hasid.” Do we have to bring back the enemy, so that he again fights us in Bet She’an? No! You made war [and] you lost.

Today, Arab Israelis make up half the residents of Jaffa.

Pan-Arab feelings of solidarity also precipitated another large exodus – the expulsion of Jews from Arab countries. While in some countries, such as Morocco and Tunisia, Jews left willingly and often with Zionist aspirations, other countries such as Egypt made it clear that this was a consequence of the formation of the Jewish state. As the UN partition plan was being debated, the heads of the Egyptian delegation warned:

the lives of 1,000,000 Jews in Moslem countries would be jeopardized by the establishment of a Jewish state… if the U.N decide to amputate a part of Palestine in order to establish a Jewish state, … Jewish blood will necessarily be shed elsewhere in the Arab world … to place in certain and serious danger a million Jews.

and Egypt’s UN representative said:

Imposed partition was sure to result in bloodshed in Palestine and in the rest of the Arab world.

In the end, 900,000 Jews left Arab countries, most going to Israel, a quarter going to France, and others going to the USA, etc. While this was not the first time Jews had been expelled from countries, it was one of the most sizable migrations, and a result of the formation of the State of Israel. Just as with Palestinian Arabs, in many cases the Jews and their families were not able to take much with them, and left everything they had built behind.

The Diaspora

While Israel, France, the USA and other countries absorbed and granted citizenship to these newly displaced 900,000 Jews, the Arabs displaced from Palestine did not fare as well. Both populations consisted of people who made a decision to leave, as well as those who were forced to leave. However, the prevailing sentiment among Arab countries was that Palestinians will one day return, and they remained in a state of war with Israel. Refusing to recognize it, they simply referred to the new Jewish state as the “Zionist regime”. This policy would have tremendous implications for the region, the Palestinian refugees, and their descendants. With the exception of Transjordan, no Arab country would offer Palestinian refugees a home on a permanent basis, whether as permanent residents or citizens. Various other countries did, among them Chile, Honduras, El Salvador, Mexico, Brazil, USA, Germany, Sweden etc, and today a combined 1.5 million Palestinians enjoy security and opportunities. Meanwhile, 3 million Palestinians today live in the West Bank, Gaza, Lebanon, Syria, and Kuwait, in various conditions of uncertainty. In Israel, 1.6 million people live as Israeli Arabs and full citizens.

In line with its aspirations, Transjordan peacefully took control of the West Bank after the Jericho Conference where Palestinian leaders recognized Abdullah as their king, and in 1950 formally annexed the West Bank of the Jordan river and became the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. All Palestinians absorbed by Jordan were immediately given Jordanian citizenship. Al Husseini protested from Gaza, but no one listened. The United States extended recognition to both Israel and Jordan on the same day: January 31, 1941. The matter of partition would have seemed to be resolved in a satisfactory manner, with two new states controlling territory of the Mandate of Palestine. From Wikipedia:

The 1950 State Department Country Report on Jordan said that King Abdullah had taken successive steps to incorporate the area of Central Palestine into Jordan and described the Jordanian Parliament resolution concerning the union of Central Palestine with Jordan. The report said the US had privately advised the British and French Foreign Ministers that it had approved the action, and that “it represented a logical development of the situation which took place as a result of a free expression of the will of the people. The major problems of concern to the United States were the establishment of peaceful and friendly relations between Israel and Jordan and the successful absorption into the polity and economy of Jordan of Arab Palestine, its inhabitants, and the bulk of the refugees now located there.

But stability was not to be. While Jordan’s Hashemite rulers were pragmatic, there remained of course Palestinian nationalist factions within the new country that wanted to “liberate all Palestine through armed struggle”. The Palestinian Fedayeen were terrorists attacking Israeli civilians, and Israel responded with reprisals to create deterrence and prevent further attacks. Meanwhile, in Jordan, Abdullah’s son Hussein declared East Jerusalem to be the alternative capital of the Hashemite kingdom, and a program of systematic Islamization and Arabization was imposed, in which Christian ability to buy land was restricted, all Jewish residents were forcibly expelled, 58 synagogues were descrated and demolished, 38,000 Jewish graves were systematically destroyed on the Mount of Olives, and Jews were not allowed to be buried there. Jews were barred from visiting Jerusalem. Thus, both Jews from Jordan and Arabs from Palestine were now expelled and denied the ability to return. Each wanted to retake land they had previously inhabited: Palestinian nationalists wanted to retake all Palestine, and religiously motivated Zionists wanted to take Jerusalem, Hebron, etc. in the West Bank.

The rest of the Arab League condemned Jordan’s annexation, instead considering al Husseini’s “All Palestine Government” in the Gaza as the “sole representative of the Palestinian people”. So what happened with Husseini and the “All-Palestine” government? According to historian Avi Shlaim:

The contrast between the pretensions of the All-Palestine Government and its capability quickly reduced it to the level of farce. It claimed jurisdiction over the whole of Palestine, yet it had no administration, no civil service, no money, and no real army of its own. Even in the small enclave around the town of Gaza its writ ran only by the grace of the Egyptian authorities. Taking advantage of the new government’s dependence on them for funds and protection, the Egyptian paymasters manipulated it to undermine Abdullah’s claim to represent the Palestinians in the Arab League and in international forums. Ostensibly the embryo for an independent Palestinian state, the new government, from the moment of its inception, was thus reduced to the unhappy role of a shuttlecock in the ongoing power struggle between Cairo and Amman.

Instead of a stable resolution, it was this kind of “government” that was favored by the Arab League. In 1952, the Egyptian military overthrew the monarchy in Egypt and established a republic, of which Naguib and Nasser became the first two presidents. Both were pan-Arabists, but Nasser was the most ambitious, establishing the United Arab Republic of Egypt and Syria, in which the Gaza strip was simply annexed. This “republic” was quite authoritarian, dominated by Egyptians and purged Communists and Syrian Ba’athists. Soon afterwards, a military coup in Syria put an end to the unity and restored Syrian independence.


Nasser’s relationship with Israel is a striking example of how ideologies lead countries to sponsor terrorism. Unlike Jordan, Nasser’s government actually sponsored Fedayeen to go attack Israeli civilians, in an effort to show leadership over the Arab world by being the foremost Anti-Zionist state. Despite UN security council chastisement, Nasser ignored the resolution and continued to prevent ships bound for Israeli ports from passing through the Suez canal. The USSR, disillusioned with Israel for leaving its socialist sphere of influence, switched to arming its enemies: Egypt and Syria. Israel, meanwhile, made alliances with France. This led to an arms race where France shipped arms to Israel, and USSR shipped arms to Egypt. Americans completely failed trying to broker a peace agreement between Egypt and Israel, and Nasser rejected all Israel’s proposals for direct talks. The nationalization of the Suez canal in 1956 pissed off the Britain and France, and Israel joined in the military operations against Egypt.

Forced to choose, the USA sided with Egypt against Britain-France-Israel. The USSR came out the big winner, though, as Nikita Khruschev threatened Britain and France with a nuclear holocaust if they didn’t stop immediately. This decisive brinksmanship caused the USSR to gain influence in the middle east, which would play a major role for the Palestinians.

The Resistance

The PLO was established by Nasser in the aftermath of the failed United Arab Republic. It was through this organization that “Arabs of Palestine” came to be known as “Palestinians”. Despite most of the Palestinians already living in Jordan, the aim of the PLO was to become “the sole representative of the Palestinian people”. Its stated goal was the destruction of the state of Israel, called “liberation of Palestine through armed struggle”. The basic idea in the PLO’s ideology was that Zionists (without distinction) had unjustly expelled the Palestinians from Palestine, and established a Jewish state in place under the pretext of having historic and Jewish ties to Palestine.

Much like the “All Palestine Government” in Gaza, the legitimacy of the PLO as the “sole representatives of the Palestinian people” was established by jockeying of foreign governments. Egypt, with their USSR allies, threw all their weight behind the new organization. Syria, on the other hand, still considered Palestine as part of their historic land, and said as much to the PLO in the 70s.

Hussein, on the other hand, was interested in keeping the West Bank territory, including Jerusalem, under his control. The PLO under Arafat represented the majority Palestinian population in Jordan, created a “state within a state” in Jordan, and tensions grew between the Egypt-USSR-backed PLO and the Western-backed Hashemite government. These tensions culminated in Black September, a civil war that began in September 1970 and lasted 10 months. External governments, including the British, refrained from coming to the aid of the Jordanian crown, because they were under the impression that Palestinians would take control of Jordan. It was only to the poor discipline and lack of central coordination that the PLO lost. Although Hussein described the civil war “life and death” for Jordan, after winning he reacted quite moderately, signing a five point plan for Palestinian factions to honor Jordanian laws. More radical Palestinian factions, however, the PFLP and DFLP refused, and continued the civil war in order to prevent any peace agreement between Jordan and Israel. This led to the expulsion of the PLO from Jordan the following year. In 1972, King Hussein of Jordan floated the idea of the United Arab Kingdom, a federation that would have given the Palestinians the whole West Bank, unity with Jordan, and control of Jerusalem. Israel rejected the proposal straight away, as that would have meant giving up their territory and Jerusalem. But it is interesting that the PLO rejected it with extreme language, and continuing to call for the overthrow of the Jordanian crown.

It’s not that the PLO did not want to unite the West and East banks of the river. They simply wanted one thing first: to rid Palestine of the Jews and their state. If it meant destroying the Jordanian government in the process, they’d do it. One PLO spokesman said:

The Palestinian people does not exist. The creation of a Palestinian state is only a means for continuing our struggle against the state of Israel for our Arab unity. In reality today there is no difference between Jordanians, Palestinians, Syrians and Lebanese. Only for political and tactical reasons do we speak today about the existence of a Palestinian people, since Arab national interests demand that we posit the existence of a distinct “Palestinian people” to oppose Zionism. Yes, the existence of a separate Palestinian identity exists only for tactical reasons, Jordan, which is a sovereign state with defined borders, cannot raise claims to Haifa and Jaffa, while as a Palestinian, I can undoubtedly demand Haifa, Jaffa, Beer-Sheva and Jerusalem. However, the moment we reclaim our right to all of Palestine, we will not wait even a minute to unite Palestine and Jordan.

The USSR under Khruschev got adept at training and funding a number of liberation revolutionaries to effect regime change, such as Che Guevara and the liberation of Cuba. The highest ranking KGB defector, Ion Mihai Pacepa, described the training and funding of Arafat and the PLO in several prominent articles. Given the collaboration of USSR and Egypt, at the time, such a collaboration make sense. More evidence is that Arafat put a $1 million bounty on Pacepa’s head when he defected. Pacepa’s activities unraveled the intelligence network of communist Romania, and revealed the dealings of Nicolae Ceaușescu, its leader. It was Ceaușescu who introduced Arafat to Jimmy Carter as a potential peace partner for Israel. However, US policy, as formulated by Henry Kissinger in 1975, was that the United States:

will not recognize or negotiate with the PLO as long as the PLO does not recognize Israel’s right to exist and does not accept Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338.

Most of the anti-Zionist narrative we hear today is the result of refinement and promotion by the PLO, and its various factions. The distinctiveness and nationhood of Palestinians is affirmed as the ultimate basis for their claim to “all of Palestine.” By contrast, Jews are depicted as “European invaders” who, while sharing a common religion, are not even a nation. In anti-Zionist circles, Jewish ties to Israel are delegitimized through, for example, the Khazar theory of Ashkenzi ancestry that has been generally debunked through genetic studies as well as historical reality. The nationhood of Jews is routinely denied, especially citing Shlomo Sand’s book, The Invention of the Jewish People. To Muslims around the world it sounds reasonable: Judaism is a religion, the Palestinians are a people. To Jews, on the other hand, who have kept their national identity throughout their diaspora, wherever they lived, that sounds preposterous.

What constitutes a national identity is a large subject for another time, but I will say that there is no larger “nation” that Jews are a part of, whereas Palestinians are often described as, and readily admit, being part of a larger Arab nation. One of the purposes of nation-states is serving a sovereign nation, and providing a home for its members.

Today, we have ideologies on both sides which carefully curate the narrative and the materials one is exposed to. Among Israeli historians, the Zionist side reads Palestine Betrayed by Ephraim Karsh, the Anti-Zionist side reads The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine by Ilan Pappe. Both have been criticized as being biased, with Benny Morris somewhere in the middle.

The takeaway

The history of the Jewish-Arab conflict is long and detailed. Books like this one by Mark Tessler present a relatively balanced account of both sides. But it is under-appreciated just how much meddling by foreign powers became the dominant factor, filling the power void after the end of the British colonial influence. Today, millions of Palestinians are stateless in many different countries, and Anti-Zionism still provides an excuse for every country except Israel to continue this situation indefinitely.

The term useful idiot is a term for people perceived as propagandists for a cause whose goals they are not fully aware of, and who are used cynically by the leaders of the cause. All of us are generally guilty of it in one form or another. But when we study just how much foreign meddling caused the local people involved to suffer, we realize how the phrase “X are Nazis” might be a symptom of that. The hardest part is realizing that lofty concepts like “Justice” and “Liberty” have in fact been hijacked by rich countries, centers of ideology, to motivate regular everyday people like us into taking up arms instead of living side by side. Perhaps in 2016 we can wake up and actually start to take a hard look at the role of foreign meddling on *both sides* of a conflict, and what does to the regions involved.

November 30, 2015

On Effective Altruism and Utilitarianism

Filed under: Uncategorized — admin @ 2:43 pm

The Effective Altruism movement has been growing lately, focused on helping educate people on how they can do the most good for the world. This combination of empathy and evidence is great to see. But I wanted to write a post addressing the philosophical values underpinning the decisions we choose to make, and discuss the issues involved in utilitarian thinking.

The questions in utilitarianism arise from the opportunity cost of doing one thing versus another. Sure, some costs are relatively easy to estimate - vegging out on your couch for days watching TV will not likely lead to a lot of good for others (except possibly if you are actively doing research). But since even great investment firms don’t always know which entrepreneurs to back, how are you supposed to know whether your current entrepreneurial efforts won’t pay off more in the long run by reinvesting what you earned into building your own business?

At the other end, perhaps the focus on individual contribution is a bit arbitrary as well. This is also a focus of libertarians who are methodological individualists - who say only individuals act, not organizations, and eg paying taxes to have a government agency pay for schooling is always less efficient than a charity that funds private school admission for poor students. But who says? That’s quite an extreme position.

Who says you can do the most good by earning money and donating it? Perhaps if they hired someone else to make the money they’d make more and donate more correctly. Maybe you’re better off getting out of the way and letting someone else make the big bucks.

Who knows, maybe your company when led by someone else can do even more good? Maybe you should step aside after you’ve built it?

Perhaps giving your time and money to educate a kid or invest in someone else’s work will go further because they’ll earn more money?

Perhaps robots can do a better job than you.

With more and more technology and automation, it really does seem like there are diminishing returns from a growing class of people, and demand for their labor is falling. Perhaps the best thing people around the world can do is use condoms and prevent overpopulation in their respective areas. The data behind the demographic-economic paradox suggests this will happen as soon as we bring technological and economic prosperity to the poorest areas, which aligns nicely with altruistic goals.

From a purely utilitarian calculus, is it better to have as many kids as you can if you can maximize the Quality-Adjusted Life Years? What if you could have less kids but they’d all have a higher quality of life? Isn’t that better than having a society crammed with poor kids, who as the article points out are nearly as happy as the rich? Is it really additive? Or are we risking an ecosystem crash that can suddenly lead to greater misery?

In short, we don’t really have all the answers. I’d advise erring on the side of admitting we don’t know what we could do to an ecosystem and not try to rape externalities to satisfy unchecked population growth and growing demand. Ecosystem collapse may be the thing that crashes your QALYs down, and even if after the whole mess your sum was still higher due to sheer population numbers, I question the additivity.

Finally the problems come down to this: what is the definition of should?

I believe there is a hidden premise that many people omit when they say should. It is a ternary relation:

A should do B if A wants C to happen

Without individual goals, there is no should. This can be most readily illustrated in the following dialogue:

“You should do B”
“Why should I do B?”

The degree to which the original speaker is willing to answer the question, they are a moral relativist. Usually there are reasons for why we do things, and those reasons – just like everything else in our conversations – are relative to shared goals and beliefs.

As for the responsibility of the individual, my own simple answer and the motto of our company is:

People live lives. Companies create products.

Yes it is a bit ordinary and not as catchy sounding as “don’t be evil”. But it at every point make it clear who has responsibility to do what. When you are working for a project, you create a repeatable product and drive down costs through maximizing re-use. When you are off the clock, you live your life and honor your relationships, which are deeper than just “I don’t know you from a hole in the wall.” In the marketplace, there are less promises and moral obligations than in an intimate relationship, where shared goals are formed.

Remember – poverty is already going down around the world. The biggest issue we can face today is an ecological disaster caused either by us or an outside factor. Given the history of life on Earth, we can say that the probability of an outside event exceeding what we’ve seen in the last 10,000 is slim. However, our own population growth in the last 200 years is staggering and unprecedented! We should worry about collapse of various ecosystems that we put pressure on.

At the very least, in my opinion, these prominent utilitarians should be aware of the Doomsday Argument and stop focusing on mere additivity of QALYs. Perhaps the best thing we can do is hand out free condoms to everyone on the planet.

August 11, 2015

An open letter to Lawrence Lessig

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , , — admin @ 2:21 pm

I believe in the power of technology to change the world, and I thought I’d respond to Lawrence Lessig’s unconventional bid for US President. Here is my letter.

The idea of using the Presidential election for a referendum on citizen equality is great. It is a great platform to draw attention to this overall issue. However, how do you plan to achieve citizen equality in a representative democracy? Fiddling around the edges by “getting money out of politics” may be as wishful as people asking for non-proliferation of AI, drones, or big data. Instead, I want to suggest that the mechanism of voting, itself, is the problem.

Put simply, there is good reason to believe that transparent, publicly overseen polling with true random samples is far superior to voting. Voting favors those who get a higher turnout, or special interests who can spin more campaign dollars. It wastes money as people take a day off (why don’t we have an app for this?) and super PACs spend oodles of money on feverish campaigns. If you want one issue, how about replacing voting with polling. Our government should establish a publicly overseen bureau of public opinion, something that can be done gradually and proven out. It would be actually achievable, unlike a reform that the Executive branch could never do on its own.

Polling would actually get people’s opinion, and gradually reduce the need for representatives at all, representatives who bicker and don’t represent their own constituents because they want to get re-elected or sacrifice their campaign promises in order to gain favors for their pet issue. Polling is a far superior tool that is mathematically shown to reveal what the public really favors. If it was in place, we would have long ago put in place reforms that 90% of Americans favor, such as ending the war on drugs, sensible gun control, etc. And we’d get a government that really represents the American people.

Replace voting with polling. That will achieve true, mathematically proven, citizen equality.

December 18, 2014

A response to libertarians and anarcho-capitalists

Filed under: Uncategorized — admin @ 12:34 pm

I recently called into a libertarian radio show to discuss my views, and after the call, one of the hosts, Christopher Cantwell, wrote a very thoughtful piece discussing what I said. This is my response to that. As he rightly pointed out, it’s difficult to solve anything meaningful in a 5-10 minute phonecall to a radio show, and so I think this format is much better for that sort of thing.

My overall point of view is this: people maintain lots of different types of organizations. A state is an organization, and so is a city, a company, a co-op, and so forth. These organizations have to be run somehow. The government of a state is analogous to the management team of a co-op: the state “owns” the land, the government is set up to manage the organization.

In a co-op, people may vote for a board, which then votes in policies, which may not be unanimously favored. If you don’t like the policies, you should be free to move out, but as an ancap I doubt you’d argue that people should be able to stay in their apartment without paying rent, violating a “no pets” policy, and not expect to encounter any force. You wouldn’t call rent “theft”. But, when it comes to a larger organization such as a city or state, you call the taxes theft and nearly any law enforcement illegitimate.

Why the special pleading in the case of states? My contention is that the main difference is just one of scale and switching costs. The state as an organization is just too big and it is just too expensive to move to some other states, similar to how it’s hard to leave facebook and not see all those photos from your friends anymore. That doesn’t mean facebook can be run in a way that makes everyone perfectly happy and free to do whatever they want.

Let’s look at other possible reasons you might bring up. The “Lysander Spooner” argument that you didn’t sign a contract with a state but you did with a co-op when you moved in. Well, actually, when your parents or whoever cane physically moved to the state, or set up a business interacting with people living there, etc. they did in fact make numerous agreements and covenants. So at least for businesses paying taxes to their city, I think the situation is quite analogous to, say, a store paying rent to a mall and complying with its policies. You can always NOT run a business in that city or state. Secondly, I doubt you would argue that if you were born in an apartment and inherited it from your parents without ever signing a single agreement with the co-op, the co-op therefore has to let you have the apartment completely for free, never evict you and take pains not to restrict your freedom in any way by requiring you to follow policies the rest of the people signed. Why is that? You didn’t sign any contract but somewhere you realize that the co-op is a community and your de facto guarantees and protections are extended by the co-op itself. For practical reasons, it is more a question of being within their jurisdiction, than signing an agreement. Perhaps one day technology will obviate the need for jurisdictions in more areas of life. It already has done that in some. But until then, for practical reasons, we have jurisdictions and organizations with overlapping jurisdictions make agreements between each other about how they will handle their internal matters. Now, the reason this “inheriting” happens much more often in a state, is the scale of the state. You are simply less likely to live your whole life in an apartment until your parents leave it to you, than you are in a country. And frankly, if the States of the US all required you to sign documents when traveling between them or establishing a business within the state, it’s likely that the “contract difference” would be completely eliminated.

You may say that the state has a “monopoly in violence” but in fact, in many parts of the world, it does not. In the USA, the federal government is arguably the organization whose laws trump state law (in view of the 10th and 14th amendments this is debatable). And yet it’s very rare that federal law enforcement officers or bureaucrats would be the ones dealing with you if you were arrested on the street. The organization using force locally is the city, and each city is a separate organization from every other city. You are subject, in fact, to overlapping jurisdictions of your county/city, state, and federal governments. Some corporations may hire armed guards. Some county sheriff may arrest you and put you in a county prison as a completely local matter. So there is no monopoly of force in the USA at least. However you want to organize society, someone will always be enforcing some laws enacted by some organization or in accordance with some agreement between organizations. Whether it’s an armed guard in a building, or a police department of a city.

It is only by singling out states for special treatment over every other type of organization that one can make accusations and ivory-tower pontifications of the type libertarians make, and I want to explore the real factors behind the difference. I think you’ll find that, if “the state” was removed, then this wouldn’t get rid of use of force, or any of the other “bad” things. It would just take another form. For example, in tribal Scotland, highland clans weren’t any less violent than a unified Kingdom was internally. In fact, violence around the world has been going down on every scale (millennia, hundreds of years, decades) “despite” larger and more sophisticated states forming.

In view of this, using morality as our guide isn’t always guaranteed to give any consistent answers. Is copyright protection morally good or bad? Even libertarians are divided on that. How about owning land? What is “ownership” anyway? It is an expression of property rights, as determined by the rules and laws involved. These vary from place to place, and just like the expression “human nature” - when you get down to it - the more universal you want your statement to be the less traits you have to require in common. There is no “universal law of property” that covers all contingencies the same equally. There are issues of religion (eg usury), shared use (eg easements), risk (eg fractional reserve requirements) time (eg adverse possession) liability (eg bankruptcy protection) practicality (eg predatory lending restrictions) and much more.

In fact, the whole distinction between “negative” rights (freedom From) and “positive” rights (freedom To) is spurious. In the jungle they are respected exactly the same. Human civilization is all about establishing frameworks for ensuring some degree of guarantee and assurance of various conditions that people have come to expect. These days we have drinkable water running to our sink and emergency rooms that by law must try to save our life regardless of ability to pay. All these things are the result of progress, a gift you receive just by virtue of being alive now and not 2000 years ago. Previous generations have spent a lot of resources to get it to you. Those people are no longer on the planet and therefore your notions of paying everyone for their contribution doesn’t apply here. Billions benefit from the intential and sometimes accidental innovations and wealth creation of the past millions. It is a free gift. You take these for granted and divide them into “positive rights” and “negative rights” and look for morality as the sole guide to how to structure today’s organizations. I simply observe what is happening and want to focus on maximizing outcomes such as overall health, wealth, satisfaction, happiness and actual freedom. I worry about questions like, what kinds of things can organizations do in order to achieve these goals? Both at the level of a state or a school. While we’re at it protecting property with courts, is there a limit to the enforcement of property rights or are they absolute? On the Laffer curve for taxation does zero wealth redistribution really achieve the best, or even close to the best, outcomes? Look at the first-order effect welfare had on poverty, before the diminishing returns. Having a safety net also makes everyone more free to take risks. They are able to afford switching costs that otherwise would restrict them from making informed choices, rendering their freedom in name only.

There’s plenty to think about there, in fact these have always been the major subject of political and organizational innovation. In some of my other posts I tackle these kinds of questions.

We can all get caught in our favorite political philosophies, but history has shown one of the most dangerous types of people is someone in power who puts their ideology before the lives and welfare of their fellow human beings. So keep an open mind, and don’t think your political philosophy is the “only” and “best” way to run things, at any cost. No one is perfect, and “we are all stupid, just on different subjects.”

November 14, 2014

My thoughts on Net Neutrality

Filed under: Uncategorized — admin @ 2:11 pm

Over the past few years my work in Qbix has put me at the crossroads of internet and politics. I welcomed the opportunity to discuss and debate political issues and philosophy with many people — friends, radio hosts, and so forth — and in the process this helped me better understand my own political philosophy and articulate my views.

I am neither Libertarian nor Republican, nor Democrat. I guess the closest terms I’d apply are Liberal, Minarchist, Distributist, and Realist. I care that arguments are made in good faith and supported by facts. I don’t rely on using the political system to solve most of our problems, and I think I live in a country whose general population’s ability to influence public policy has greatly diminished. We can see, for example, that 95% of our representatives in Congress have just been re-elected despite a dismal 14% approval rating just prior to the election. What does that say about our democracy?

The Net Neutrality Debate

Anyway, now that our electorate has spilled a lot of ink regarding Net Neutrality and 3 million comments were sent to the FCC, the issue remains. The current Chairman of the FCC, Tom Wheeler, was a former venture capitalist and lobbyist for the Telecom industry. Obama placed this man to head up the FCC, perhaps partially because of his personal efforts in raising money for Obama’s campaign – this kind of stuff happens at all levels of government. And the current fight is currently over whether the FCC should reclassify broadband Internet service back as a Common Carrier Utility rather than an Information Service. Some Telecom companies and Billionaire mavericks warn against this, while Net Neutrality advocates say it’s a bunch of fearmongering. I think the problem is something deeper — it’s the fact that corporations have gotten so big and centralized that we as a population need to argue about one-size-fits all policies that are then imposed on everyone.

“Net Neutrality” is a term that one side uses to dress up a bunch of complicated policy decisions, and not all those 3 million people writing comments to the FCC understand the implications, if anyone really does at all. It’s a marketing term, same as “Right to Life” and “Right to Choose”, that casts the opposing viewpoints as straw people. Meanwhile, the actionable proposal is to reclassify Broadband Internet as as a “Common Carrier”, undoing its earlier reclassification by the FCC as an “Information service” – which the FCC expected would speed up Broadband adoption in the US. One issue is whether that reasoning applies anymore, and if not, why not. Another issue is whether rules that apply to telephone networks, which carry conversations between people, should govern the transit of Internet data, which can be sent by one site (such as Netflix) to millions of customers at once. But the real issue here is the size of the participants involved, and the amount of data on the Internet they handle.

Earlier this year, we’ve seen merger taking place between AT&T, DirectTV, Comcast and Time Warner. Over the last two decades we’ve seen something similar happen in the banking industry, where “too big to fail” banks merged to be even bigger. Say what you want about politics or the free market, but it’s pretty obvious that the more top-down these companies the run, the more one-size-fits-all solutions we will be debating, and the more unintended consequences might arise from the fallout of either decision.

General Principles

As for myself, I think that we would fare much better if our governments were set up differently. Analyzing all the different political debates, one theme has emerged for me over and over again – government does well when its role is limited to ensuring people’s minimum expectations are met. These expectations vary from place to place and increase with better technology – for example, Romans had aqueducts, while most of us have come to expect running tap water that’s safe to drink, and would be up in arms if we didn’t have that. Along with access to safe drinking water, the UN has recently proclaimed internet access to be a “fundamental human right.”

But as with any guarantees and free things, there should be a limit on how much something can be consumed before the consumers have to pay for resources. Let’s analyze that issue without resorting to an easy-to-defeat straw man. Basically, we can think of free things (free food on a cruise, etc.) as an egalitarian layer which delivers goods and services only up to a certain point — usually this point is a reasonable one that would satisfy many consumers. For example, if a person started eating all the food, stuffing it in their luggage, throwing it overboard, etc. then at some point the cruise operators would approach the person and either ban them from consuming any more resources (”by force”) or give them the option to continue doing it, but pay. This doesn’t mean the lower level wasn’t free to consumers – only that it was limited.

What’s nice about this free layer is that it’s provides safety net for people down on their luck, and also lowers the barrier for new entrants and trying new ideas. Yes, the markets are distorted by the guarantees and resource transfers, but there’s also quite a bit of data to show that we get a lot of bang for the buck and also leads to better resource allocation in society.

But it’s only free up to a point. In my opinion, a company sending 34% of the internet’s traffic shouldn’t expect the same treatment as a company that’s hosting a small website. It’s pretty obvious that Netflix is setting up special peering agreements with tier 1 providers such as ComcastVerizonAT&T. Net Neutrality isn’t about this, and it shouldn’t be. It’s about “the last mile”, which the FCC admits is basically a duopoly.

The Takeaway

So the real issue here is one of mergers, giant corporations, and lack of competition. This leads to top-down solutions that are then debated in a political way. Many libertarians are especially conflicted in this debate since a free and neutral Web has obviously shown to produce a lot of wealth and innovation, and yet the size of the corporations is now causing debate whether “free market” should be meant in the Adam Smith sense or the strict Laissez-Faire sense. By contrast, my position is clear even in this case. In my opinion, we should have been seriously considering distributism and and implementing an unconditional basic income.

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