Archives For politics

jail cell

Pretty much every documentary about jails and prisons proclaims that three out of four inmates you’ll see released on your screen will be incarcerated again within five years, often citing many possible reasons as to why. Criminal records keep them from finding legitimate work, lack of an effective rehabilitation program didn’t help their drug habits, their mental illnesses weren’t really addressed and are dooming them to vagrancy and crime, overzealous policing and sentencing that takes a disproportional toll on the poor and minorities, and so on. All of these may be good reasons why so many people studied by the Bureau of Justice Statistics end up in jail and each should be talked about and addressed to drive down recidivism. But the public at large and the politicians they elect have taken this information to mean that our justice system is not only very badly broken, but has become little more than a rotating door for 75% of American criminals, so all sorts of reforms must be promptly instituted to end the constant cycle of incarceration.

Right now, as Congress is trying to figure out how to fix today’s overburdened justice system to make sentencing guidelines saner, and keep people who don’t need to be imprisoned for minor crimes out of jail and into rehabilitation and parole programs, knowing who is in jail, why, and if they’re likely to find themselves back there, is crucial for effective, smart changes. And against this backdrop comes a study showing that the public and the government misunderstood what the data collected by the BJS actually measures and what it means for us. The BJS just wanted to know what happens to prisoners year over year. As they do that, the statistical picture skews very heavily to frequent offenders because they’re the most likely people to be caught in those samples. The analogy the study’s lead author, public policy analyst William Rhodes, likened the difference in his methodology and that of the BJS to trying to build the demographics of who is visiting shopping malls over a week rather than over a year. The longer the period studied, the more accurate gauge you have over long term trends, and the more likely you are to catalog all those people who analysis over much shorter windows of time will more than likely miss.

Looking at records spanning 15 years across the country, indexed by prisoners’ ID numbers, it became very clear that 68% of people who serve a prison sentence do not re-offend, and of all those who do, only one third will re-offend more than once. So the chronically incarcerated who become the focus of BJS reports because they keep on getting caught in the sample again and again, actually represent a little more than a tenth of all prisoners. This means that far from the revolving doors for cons which do nothing to help curb crime, American prisons are actually an effective deterrent from further offenses. That said, the fact that 32% of people who did serve a sentence are ending up back behind bars is a problem which points to the need to address the aforementioned challenges of leaving jail with few resources to get one’s life back on track. For Rhodes, this is a clear indicator that there needs to be an investment in rehabilitating those with the highest risk for return, and considering that instead of having to focus on every prisoner we actually need to work with as little as a quarter of them, that investment is manageable.

This is why statistical literacy is so important. If we didn’t assess whether the methods we have been using accurately reflect long term trends, we’d end up having to take a wrecking ball to all the jails and prisons to truly fix things. Considering how much was spent on building them, it’s a politically and economically painful proposal no one would want to back. No one willing to fix the entirety of a broken system over decades means that much needed reforms would’ve died very slow and painful deaths while more and more prisons were being built on the incorrect notion of having to keep people sentenced for longer and longer stretches of time so they don’t re-offend as the BJS predicts most of them will. Now, we can take this policy advice to focus on reforming the chronic, most dangerous offenders to keep as many of them out of jail for good as possible and rehabilitating minor ones who are only being sent to jail now because the judges and most of the public are convinced that they’ll keep going right back to crime unless they’re jailed.

head in sand

Here’s an extremely uncomfortable truth no one currently running for office in the U.S., or even remotely considering doing so ever wants to publicly admit. There are a lot of voters who really, really don’t like experts, scientists, or anyone well educated in anything other than medicine. In their eyes, any sign of intellectualism is not something to cheer or aspire to, to them it’s nothing more than pretension from someone they’re convinced thinks he or she is better than them and feels entitled to tell them what to do. At the same time, they’re extremely paranoid that they will have something valuable or important taken away from them to be given to all the undeserving moochers on lower socioeconomic rungs than they are, convinced that the American poor have already been living it up with free spending money, free food, and free world-class medical care for decades. So when a politician decides to cozy up to this constituency, his best bet is to start witch hunts against their most nightmarish moochers: government-funded scientists.

In his tenure as the chairman of the House Science and Technology Committee, a haven for a disturbing number of peddlers of anti-scientific twaddle, congressman Lamar Smith decided to do exactly that with his open-ended fishing expeditions into every possible aspect of scientists’ research in his quest to find some grand conspiracies to publicly squash for his science-averse, paranoid base’s delight. In his investigation of climate scientists working for NOAA, he specified absolutely no instances of misconduct he thinks occurred, only asked for ever more raw data to be provided to him, even though the data and the methods used to analyze it have been on the web for years, provided by NOAA to anyone even slightly curious. But data is not what Smith is really after, because he has no interest in the actual science. He and his donors are upset that updated data for atmospheric warming gathered from additional sources after years of looking over more and more observation stations eliminated the “pause” to which denialists cling. Since the only possibility in their minds is that the data is faked, they want evidence of fakery.

Really there’s no other way to put it. Smith wants to have private communications between the scientists funded by NOAA to create another Climategate, which denialists are still convinced is an actual scandal despite the scientists being cleared of any wrongdoing, and if he doesn’t find something badly worded when taken out of context, or something politically incorrect, he will be taking something he doesn’t understand — which is likely most of the things being discussed by climatologists — and is being paid by oil and gas lobbies to continue not understanding, way out of context and manufacture a scandal out of that. When the chairman of the science committee which decides on funding for countless basic research projects his nation needs to maintain the top spot for scientific innovation in the world thinks his job is to harass scientists he doesn’t like because his donors’ business may be adversely impacted by their findings, until some pretense to interrogate them comes up, no matter how flimsy, we have a very serious problem. While all abuses of power are bad, abuses by partisan dullards have a certain awfulness about them, as they ridicule when they seem to utterly lack the capacity to understand in the first place

voodoo doll

In another edition of people-can-be-awful news following last week’s post about why it’s indeed best not to feed trolls, it’s time to talk about online harassment and what to do about it. It seems that some 72 social activist groups are asking the Department of Education to police what they see as harassing and hate speech on a geo-fenced messaging app, arguing that because said geo-fence includes college campuses, it’s the colleges’ job to deal with it. Well, I suppose that it must be the start of windmill tilting season somewhere and now a government agency will have to do something to appease activists with good intentions in whose minds computers are magic that with the right lines of code can make racists, sexists, and stalkers go away. Except when all of them simply reappear on another social media platform and keep being terrible people since the only thing censoring them changes is the venue on which they’ll spew their hatred or harass their victims. Of course this is to be expected because the internet is built to work like that.

Now look, I completely understand how unpleasant it is to have terrible things said about you or done to you on the web and how it affects you in real life. As a techie who lives on the web, I’ve had these sorts of things happen to me firsthand. However, the same part of me that knows full well that the internet is in fact serious business, contrary to the old joke, also understands that a genuine attempt to police it is doomed to failure. Since the communication protocols used by all software using the internet are built to be extremely dynamic and robust, there’s always a way to circumvent censorship, confuse tracking, and defeat blacklists. This is what happens when a group of scientists build a network to share classified information. Like it or not, as long as there is electricity and an internet connection, people will get online, and some of these people will be terrible. For all the great things the internet brought us, it also gave us a really good look at how many people are mediocre and hateful, in stark contrast to most techo-utopian dreams.

So keeping in mind that some denizens of the web will always be awful human beings who give exactly zero shits about anyone else or what effect their invective has on others, and that there will never be a social media platform free of them no matter how hard we try, what should their targets do about it? Well, certainly not ask a government agency to step in. With social media’s reach and influence as powerful as it is today, and the fact that it’s free to use, we’ve gotten lost in dreamy manifestos of access to Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat, and yes, the dreaded Yik Yak, being fundamental human rights to speak truth to power and find a supporting community. But allowing free and unlimited use of social media is not some sort of internet mandate. It’s ran by private companies, many of them not very profitable, hoping to create an ecosystem in which a few ads or add-on services will make them some money by being middlemen in your everyday interactions with your meatspace and internet friends. If we stop using these services when the users with which we’re dealing through them are being horrible us, we do real damage.

But wait a minute, isn’t not using the social media platform on which you’ve been hit with waves and waves of hate speech, harassment, and libel, just letting the trolls win? In a way, maybe. At the same time though, their victory will leave them simply talking to other trolls with whom pretty much no one wants to deal, including the company that runs the platform. If Yik Yak develops a reputation as the social app where you go to get abused, who will want to use it? And if no one wants to use it, what reason is there for the company to waste millions giving racist, misogynist, and bigoted trolls their own little social network? Consider the case of Chatroulette. Started with the intent of giving random internet users a face with a screen name and connecting them with people they’d never otherwise meet, the sheer amount of male nudity almost destroyed it. Way too many users had negative experiences and never logged on again, associating it with crude, gratuitous nudity, so much so that it’s still shorthand for being surprised by an unwelcome erect penis on cam. Even after installing filters and controls banning tens of thousands of users every day, it’s still not the site it used to be, or that its creator actually envisioned it becoming.

With that in mind, why try to compel politicians and bureaucrats to unmask and prosecute users for saying offensive things on the web, many of which will no doubt be found to be protected by their freedom of speech rights? That’s right, remember that free speech doesn’t mean freedom to say things you personally approve of, or find tolerable. Considering that hate speech is legal, having slurs or rumors about you in your feed is very unlikely to be a criminal offense. You can be far more effective by doing nothing and letting the trolls fester, their favorite social platform to abuse others become their own personal hell where other trolls, out of targets, turn on them to get their kicks. Sure, many trolls just do it for the lulz with few hard feelings towards you. Until it’s them being doxxed, or flooded with unwanted pizzas, or swatted, or seeing their nudes on a site for other trolls’ ridicule. No matter how hard you try, they won’t be any less awful to you, so let them be awful to each other until they kill the community that allows them to flourish and the company that created and maintained it, and allow their innate awfulness be their undoing.

worried monopoly man

Being rich, especially when you’re a member of the much talked about 1%, has its problems to work though and they’re completely legitimate, according to therapists for the wealthy who took to the pages of The Guardian to explain that for one percenters, coming out as rich is a lot like coming out of the closet for gay people. No, that’s really what they really said, no paraphrasing or embellishing for comic effect on my part here. As it so turns out, today’s wealthy suffer from an interesting new strain of what some call affluenza. With rising income inequality being by far the number one concern of many economists, they’re feeling guilty about their wealth and find themselves both isolated from people who won’t dismiss their problems as non-existent simply because they’re flush with cash, and unjustly vilified by the media and political activists for their financial success and good luck rather than celebrated as before. In short, as we are instructed by the immortal words of the late Notorious B.I.G., mo’ money, mo’ problems indeed.

Some of the wealthy are even starting to lash out, demanding what they feel is the proper level of respect from the White House, and fuming about not being given the proper recognition as a vitally important job creating class by the general public, even after they’ve damaged the global economy and had to rely on cheap loans to survive. One venture capitalist even compared the plight of being rich in America today to that of Jews in Nazi Germany. For the nearly all of us, it sounds like temper tantrums of entitled, spoiled children. We have bills to pay and ends to meet every month, they always have money in the bank and paid for their mansions in cash. What in the name of Cthulhu’s sweaty jock strap do these fat cats want from us? To fawn over them or praise them for having money? To nod sagely as they worry whether their beach house would be too ostentatious for the visiting plebes? Why couldn’t they just look at their account total and be happy with what they have? If they feel so bad about being wealthy, why not just donate the sum they deem excessive to pay away their guilt? Where do they get the gall to complain?

It seems that after three decades of being publicly praised as a mighty creator class by supply-side economics proponents, the wealthy have forgotten that American’s relationship with them hasn’t always been so rosy. While since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution stories about how hard work can turn one into a tycoon have been immensely popular, the actual tycoons weren’t, thanks to their mistreatment of workers and blatant bribery of elected officials. They responded with the same red-bating they do today, declaring that only communists could protest inequality and if their workers didn’t like how they were being treated, they are free to go work elsewhere, and if they can’t find a job, well they can start their own businesses, as if that’s a panacea. The simple fact of the matter is that the wealthy don’t have the same interests that those not as well off as them do, and they have the resources to divert the attention of those who govern us from making things better for everyone to making things better just for them. They’ve left us so very far behind that we simply can’t catch up, and the result feels like a professional hockey team is on the ice with high school athletes and is running up the score for its own amusement.

Now, the public doesn’t think that all rich people are evil. It’s true that we’re biologically wired to reject extreme inequality and unfairness, but we also understand that no matter what we do, a certain class striation will always exist and that’s actually a good thing. We want people to make something of themselves, to aspire to greatness and financial security. And we also take why a certain someone is wealthy into account, which is why a seasoned expert surgeon taking home some $500,000 a year, or an engineer who designed and built something groundbreaking and popular are praised as deserving of every penny, while some hedge fund manager who cashed in after the economy took a nosedive is painted as a vulture fattened on human misery. Almost every time income inequality is debated, it’s through a prism of the haves vs. the have-nots and filled with cries about class warfare, but that’s the wrong way to approach the problem because there are two debates to be had. The first is what society finds worthy of huge rewards and why these people are being rewarded. The other is whether there’s truly equality of opportunity that the current have-nots can seize to become wealthy, or at least firmly financially secure.

Right now the situation seems to contentious because the answers to both concerns seem very unsettling. Those with the most cash are hedge fund managers, venture capitalists, and scions of wealthy families. Almost a quarter of the Forbes 500 basically got on that list simply by being born to the right family, and nearly half got a big chunk, or all of their startup capital from family members. Only a third are really, unarguably self-made and that number has been decreasing over the last decade. There our judgment of who deserves this wealth also plays a role, since a number of people on that list are engineers and inventors who got a serious leg up from family, but they’re often skipped over when debating inequality. Likewise, with the skyrocketing cost of college alongside employer demands for long stretches of unnecessary, overpriced education that doesn’t actually get them what they want anyway, and stagnant wages, makes it seem like instead of climbing corporate ladders on our way to financial stability, we’re locked in a race to the bottom, offering ourselves at a hefty discount not to just get knocked off those ladders.

That said, should we actually make colleges optional for the 73% of jobs that don’t actually use the degrees those who hold them receive, promote and boost vocational schools to handle the job training employers want as a perfectly viable career path, encourage community college to public state university routes for those still undecided about their careers, and generally put the workforce more in tune with the workplace, we can help people feel like they have a better path to financial security. Meanwhile, if we regulate Wall Street’s fiscal snake oil into nonexistence to limit the terrifying financial shenanigans of venture capitalists and hedge fund managers, on top of adopting a policy of refusing any bailouts should they fail, and sticking to it, we can stem one of the top sources of malicious, toxic income inequality today. And for the wealthy who still feel the pangs of their affluenza badly enough to need treatment, their therapists should tell them to either contribute to charity if they’re so guilty about their wealth, start a company to do the sorts of incredible projects we’d all support, like Tesla or SpaceX, or just deal with the fact that when they whine about having too much money, the rest of us just aren’t going to react well to it.

[ illustration by Bill Mayer ]

microtree in glass

How about we run through a few basic statistics about our effects on the world around us? Over the last hundred years or so, we paved nearly 11.2 million miles of roads, built 845,000 dams to divert over a third of all rivers on the planet, consumed over a billion gallons of water, generated and then used 142,000 Terrawatt hours of electricity, and belched 33 billion tons of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. The only things that impact Earth more than human industrialization are supervolcanic eruptions and massive asteroid impacts, which is why environmentalists have been thinking about a bold plan to somehow mark half the planet as conservation areas. While you might think that there’s no place where humans can’t thrive, the fact of the matter is that an amazingly large percentage of Earth isn’t extremely welcoming to humans or practical to settle in the long run. We are still tropical creatures who like mild, warm climates and want access to the world’s oceans, which is why 44% of us live in coastal areas rather than deserts and tundras. As well adapted to this planet as we are, we’re really not as spread out as we often think we are.

Even more interestingly, we’re converging more and more into megacities like Shanghai, Tokyo, Mumbai, New York, and Los Angeles. More than half the global population now calls cities home and the trend is very likely to continue in a post-industrial economy where efficiency is king, and geographic hubs for many professions are still very important. What’s more is that the new trend towards automated vertical farming, which reduces costs, water use, and eliminates the need for pesticides, would also free up millions and millions of acres of land currently used for growing all of our crops. Sure, not all farming can be done indoors and livestock raised for consumption will either still need to be raised the old-fashioned way, or we’d need to create synthetic meat that’s palatable to most people. We may never live in cities contained within skyscrapers for maximum efficiency, but there are a lot of demographic projections saying that 80% of us will be living way closer together on average than we do today, in massive, sprawling cities, and we’re making the necessary preparations already. So while at first glance, it may seem odd to abandon half of all land to become a nature preserve, maybe, just maybe, it will be possible in some 35 years…


When you’re doing studies on controversial and explosive subjects, or even discussing them, a significant uptick in criticism isn’t just expected, it’s practically guaranteed. And few topics have been as politically charged as the legal frameworks around consensual sex, particularly when it comes to colleges. Citing a study which claimed to have found that 1 in 5 women in college will be sexually assaulted, activists have raised a steady drumbeat about the need for heavy hands when it comes to dealing with sex in the courtroom and their proposed methods are not without worried critics. Not only are people worried that some of the proposed laws will be applied with little forethought, creating crimes out of whole cloth, as happened in North Carolina in a bizarre case that has legal experts baffled about the utter lack of prosecutorial discretion, but they are extremely uncomfortable seeing universities using Title IX to turn themselves into police, judge, jury, and executioner when it comes to matters that should be handled by law enforcement. A common joke in comment sections wonders if we’ll soon need to sign contracts before sex.

Against this highly charged background, the AAU released a study of 150,000 students to get a more clear picture of the problem, which was predictably both quickly praised and ridiculed. On the one side, activists pointed to its finding that as many as 1 in 4 women in colleges had some sort of unwanted sexual advances come their way and focused on a statistic that between 59% to 64% of women didn’t think what happened was serious enough to report, or felt that anyone would do something about it as a glaring admission that law enforcement and colleges are just not pulling their weight in cases of sexual misconduct on campus. On the flip side, critics tried to poke holes in the survey’s methodology and extremely low response rates, and their expansive definition of what constitutes sexual assault, which they say clouds the picture, and significantly exaggerates the number and severity of incidents. A more nuanced critique of these viewpoints to the survey by Emily Yoffe, one of the few writers who really know how social research works, even argued that it’s not feasible to paint a clear picture of a complex topic with surveys.

Oddly, one of the things that the critics of the study seem to have missed is that the authors not only acknowledge the limitations being pointed out, but proactively call them out as problems to be studied in more depth and don’t pretend that their report is the definitive last word on what’s going on when college students have sex. They’re rather alarmed that only 19% of the 780,000 students offered to take the survey responded, that the colleges surveyed aren’t a good cross-section of colleges across the nation, and point out that the higher rate of response at selected colleges correlates strongly with more reports of sexual misconduct. This means that less than two thirds of the students they expected to respond filled out the survey, and that those who did were more likely to be victims of sexual assault or harassment than in an ideally representative study. But they don’t seem to be concerned about their broad definitions of sexual misconduct, however, which include everything from forced intercourse, to groping, to kissing while deciding if the subject wanted to have sex or not, which seems like a rather wide net to cast here.

While unwanted intimate contact is always an issue, we do have to at least try and deal with the question of severity of the offense and something that doesn’t necessarily escalate to sex being done while you’re still deciding if you want to have sex with a person doesn’t seem like it should count on par with being drunkenly pawed. And it doesn’t look like the students think otherwise, as noted by the near two thirds majority across the sample size saying that they didn’t feel that what happened merited intervention from a third party. By the standard of the survey, the great majority of us who went to college parties will have at least a few stories of something the AAU survey will qualify as sexual assault, both men and women, and that’s a problem. Muddying the question with a very wide net of what constitutes sexual misconduct means that we simply can’t get a clear answer of how many people are being victimized and how so we can step in to help them, and fix whatever issues exist in college administrations and for law enforcement for them to get justice without over-policing and overly aggressive activism encouraging misleading and downright libelous narratives, as it did in the retracted Rolling Stone story about UVA.

So with all these limitations and issues, did the study find anything concrete? Actually, yes. The numbers basically show that if you’re a college student drinking at parties or bars nearby, your odds of being groped, taken advantage of, or worse, at least once, are between 13% and 23%, and the situation is most dire for freshmen and sophomores, especially women. While the AAU did survey men, it didn’t ask the question of whether they were, as it’s called in legalise, “made to penetrate” and focused only on whether they were penetrated themselves. It’s seems like a really nitpicky point to make, but there are people arguing that it omits numerous cases of rape because there is no statistic for it. And if there’s no statistic for the AAU to collect, we can’t state for a fact how bad the problem is for both genders. This is not a case of who has it worse, but a matter of getting the true sense of the problem. As evidenced by another AAU finding, those in greatest danger overall are actually transgendered students so the issue isn’t cut and dry when it comes to who needs the most help, and the most resources to prevent and cope with being a frequent target of unwanted sexual attention, especially when alcohol is somehow involved.

All this is very much in line with previous surveys on the subject, which found the unsurprisingly strong correlation between heavy drinking and sexual assault, and that students struggling with gender identity are disproportionately victimized. Sadly, many warnings about binge drinking on campus in the context of preventing sexual assault are far too often met with ireful accusations of victim blaming, and colleges seem unwilling to crack down on underage drinking so much so that police reports paint their campuses as dens of sin, debauchery, and crime. Meanwhile, as the parties continue, the definition of sexual assault keeps expanding, and activists keep steady media mentions of an escalating crisis. And so it seems that the AAU report’s main findings will be ignored as we’re not allowed to address binge drinking, or rethink how we define what really constitutes sexual misconduct and who should address it for fear of being smeared as careless and cruel apologists for rape. That’s what happens when activism overshadows the data. What numbers and facts are collected just become another political football to toss around.

heisenberg artisans ad

Almost 200 years ago, British economist William Forster Lloyd was writing about the overuse of common goods and coined the term tragedy of the commons. When people act solely in a very self-interested way with no regard for others, certain scenarios end up making the public worse off and scrambling to figure out why a little selfishness or greed got them in such trouble. Over this past week, one such scenario was perfectly illustrated by the hedge fund manager with an exceedingly colorful history of caring about only what’s best for him at an exact moment, and at the expense of anyone in the way of him making another dollar, as he tried to profiteer from an obscure generic drug with a predatory rate hike. And while Shkreli’s attitude and a social media presence that exudes the vibe of a stereotypical entitled bro who thinks he’s beyond all criticism because he has money made him a poster boy for small pharma profiteering, he is far from the only one doing it. In fact, mini-monopolies are hiking up the price of many rare drugs.

From a cold, logical, game theory standpoint, what these executives are doing makes sense. If you own a monopoly on something necessary, you should try and find the maximum price it will garner because your job is to maximize profits and company valuations. Should the market get upset and push back, you lower the price, as Shkreli was forced to do. Eventually, you’ll find the price point at which you’re making more money while your customers are content. It’s really the same approach as in ultimatum games studied by psychologists. Your best bet is to accept any amount greater than zero when offered to split a fixed sum of cash because no matter how the money is split, you still left the experiment with more than you started. It’s the cornerstone of all game theory variants employed to explain and drive stock and commodities markets. The idea that something should be fair is irrelevant, the only things that matter are numbers, supply, and demand. Small pharma execs were using this logic when deciding on their price hikes, seeing a price increase as simply an opening salvo in a negotiations process with the market.

But humans don’t work that way. Even our closest evolutionary cousins will rebel when they find themselves unfairly treated and reject overly generous rewards not to seem too greedy. We act no differently is similar experiments adapted for our minds, and close to three in four of us don’t only reject unfair deals, but will use the rules of the experiment to make sure those who tried to slight us won’t get anything either. In other words, game theory is for machines, not us. We will much rather undermine those unfair to us than settle for whatever crumbs they leave us, even though in theory, those crumbs are more than we had. From an evolutionary standpoint, it’s all perfectly logical. Just like apes, we’re social creatures and so we evolved knowing how to keep our tribes together and in order. Even newborns and little children seem to be wired to be both cooperative and friendly, though of course, this varies from child to child. We don’t like extreme inequality or tolerate being treated unfairly, and by rebelling against those who we feel are just pilfering our resources and mistreating us we keep some sense of societal balance. Unlike that tired, old creationist talking point, for us, evolution favored an innate desire to get along.

When pundits on financial news channels grouse that people are unfairly attacking businesses just trying to make a profit in a capitalistic system, they profoundly misunderstand that it’s not a matter of whether the business is making a lot of money or not, it’s how the business does it. If the main source of income is the best and most popular smartphone ever made, we won’t care how much it makes and what its profit margin is because it’s a product that’s needed, improves our lives, and can be foregone if it’s too expensive. If someone makes millions with a pet sitting company, we also won’t care because it’s a service that helps people and their companions in times of need. But if your main source of profit is off the backs of the sick and the poor, then no argument is good enough to defend your practice. We don’t care about your market share and your need to make a return on an investment. You are gouging a common resource and as far as millions of years of evolution tell our brains, you are an awful person who must be somehow punished. It’s a healthy biological imperative for us, and in fact, those who lack it are diagnosed with a pathology called sociopathy whose only natural social order results in kleptocracies.

Really then, it’s little wonder that the world’s failed states would also have the highest inequality and the most violence. Look who gets to be in charge in those places. In Africa, that’s dictators who live in wealth and luxury, protected by armed guards paid for by aid money they steal and proceeds from illegal trade. In Central Asia, it’s warlords who may or may not wear uniforms of their nations’ armed forces along with an official rank, and who are often famous for corruption, keeping sex slaves, and systematically embezzling their subordinates’ already meager pay. It’s what happens when no one even tries to mitigate the tragedy of the commons and a wealthy or violent enough sociopath gets his way enough times. Not letting someone have a monopoly on life saving drugs, or make billions from gouging the sick and the elderly is not “socialism,” or the complaints of “moochers,” but our brains rebelling at the unfairness they see and trying to bring the inequalities down to something more fair. The markets assume we’re horrible people with a very flexible moral compass, an to an extent, we certainly can be. But we also do have a built-in sense of fairness, and thankfully, we use it against those whose greed shut down theirs.

astronaut on mars

Astrobiologist Jacob Haqq-Misra likes to ask questions about our future in space. If you’ve been following this blog for a long time and the name seems familiar, it’s because you’ve read a take on a paper regarding the Fermi Paradox he co-authored. But this time, instead of looking at the dynamics of an alien civilization in the near future, he turned his eye towards ours by asking if it would be beneficial for astronauts we will one day send to Mars to create their own government and legally become extraterrestrial citizens from the start. At its heart, it’s not a really outlandish notion at all, and in fact, I’ve previously argued that it’s inevitable that deep space exploration is going to splinter humanity into independent, autonomous territories. Even further, unless we’ve been able to build warp drives to travel faster than light and abuse some quantum shenanigans to break the laws of physics and communicate instantaneously, colonists on far off worlds would eventually become not just different cultures and nations, but different species altogether.

However, the time scales for that are thousands to hundreds of thousands of years, while plans for an independent Mars advanced by Haqq-Misra are on the order of decades. And that’s very problematic because the first Martian colonies are not going to be self-sustaining. While they’re claiming their independence, they’re being bankrolled and logistically supported by Earth until a time when they can become fully self-sufficient. Obviously that’s the goal, to travel light and live off the land once you get there, but laying the basic infrastructure for making that happen in an alien wilderness where no terrestrial life can exist on its own requires a lot of initial buildup. And under three out of the five main provisions of what I’m calling the Haqq-Misra Mars Charter, the relationship between the colonists and Earth will be parasitic at best, violating international laws on similar matters, and ultimately restricting the colony’s growth and future prospects.

For example, under the charter, every piece of technology sent to Mars is now Martian property in perpetuity and cannot be taken back. What if this technology is software updated by a steady internet connection used for communication between the two worlds as NASA is planning? Will some Martian patent trolls start suing Earthly companies for not handing over the rights to their digital assets? Not only that, but if a Martian pays for this software, he or she is in violation of a trade prohibition between the planets. That’s right, no commerce would be allowed, and neither would input on scientific research that the Martians feel infringes on their right to run their world as they see fit. In other words, Earth is expected to shell out cash, send free technology, write a lot of free software stuck in legal limbo, and keep its opinions to itself. This does not sound like setting up a new civilization as much as it sounds like enabling a freeloader. Any even remotely plausible Martian colony will have to pay its own way in technology and research that should be traded with Earth on an open market. That’s the only way they’ll be independent quickly.

And of course there’s the provision that no human may lay claim on Martian territory. However, should the colonies lack a sufficiently strong armed forces, their ability to enforce this provision would be pretty much nonexistent. Sovereign territory takes force projection to stay that way so what this provision would be doing is creating an incentive for military buildup in space as soon as we set foot on Mars. Considering that the top three space powers which will be capable of a human landing on another world in the foreseeable future currently have strained relations, it is not something to take lightly. Runaway military buildup gave us space travel in the first place. It can change the world again just as quickly. And I can assure you that no nation in the world will be just fine with heavily armed extraterrestrial freeloaders with whom they can’t engage using a lot of resources these countries have to provide on a regular basis to keep them going. There’s not going to be a war for Martian independence that Haqq-Misra wants to avoid, but there may be one of Martian annexation. And probably a fairly short war at that when the troops land.

Now, all that said, after a century of colonies, terraforming attempts, and several generations of colonists who know Mars as their home, I can definitely see the planet turning independent. It’s going to have the self-sufficiency, economy, and culture to do so, and that culture isn’t going to be created ex nihlo, as Haqq-Misra is hoping to force by declaring astronauts Martians with the first step on alien soil. They will be speaking with Earth daily, many will identify with their nations of origin and their cultures, and it’s all going to take a long time to gel together into something a future researcher can call uniquely Martian. And what it will ultimately mean to be a Martian will be shaped by two-way interactions with those on Earth, not by forced isolation which could give megalomaniacs a chance to create a nation they could subjugate, or utopians a chance to build an alien commune with the consequences that would entail, while people who could help give a group of critics a means to be heard, are legally required to stay out of the way. But the bottom line is that we need to learn to thrive on Mars and spend a great deal of time there before even thinking of making it its own autonomous territory. It will happen, just not anytime soon.


Imagine that every time you had to buy a lock to your house, you had to send a key to some far off government office which could use it to enter your house at any time. Whoever it sent would not be required to have a warrant, or may have obtained one in a secret procedure you’d have no right to challenge, or even talk about with others, and can make copies of anything you own, liable to be used against you in whatever investigations sent him there. And what if a greedy or desperate government clerk in charge of people’s keys sells them to gangs of thieves who now have access to your house, or mandated that all locks should be easy to pick for agents since a key sent in by a person could be fake or misplaced? Sounds like the plot of a dystopian novel in which a dictator tries to consolidate newly found power, doesn’t it? And when questioned, could you not see this despot justifying such overreach by claiming it was your protection and it would only be used for catching and convicting the worst sort of violent and perverted criminals?

Well, a similar situation is currently happening in the tech world as governments demand that a system designed to keep your private data secure from prying eyes comes with a backdoor for spooks and cops. The data about your comings and goings, your searches for directions, your medical data, your browsing habits, your credit card information and sensitive passwords, they want it all to be accessible at the click of a button to stop all manner of evildoers. Just listen to a passionate plea from a New York District Attorney designed to make you think that encryption is only for the criminally malevolent mastermind trying to escape well-deserved justice…

This defendant’s appreciation of the safety that the iOS 8 operating system afforded him is surely shared by […] defendants in every jurisdiction in America charged with all manner of crimes, including rape, kidnapping, robbery, promotion of child pornography, larceny, and presumably by those interested in committing acts of terrorism. Criminal defendants across the nation are the principal beneficiaries of iOS 8, and the safety of all American communities is imperiled by it.

Wow, terrorists, pedophiles, rapists, kidnappers, and more, all in one sentence. If he only found some way to work in illegal immigrants, we could have won a game of Paranoia Bingo. Notably missing from his list of principal beneficiaries of better encryption, however, are those trying to keep their banking and credit card information safe from the very defendants he’s so very keen on prosecuting. Who, by the way, vastly outnumber the defendants for whom having some sort of an encryption defeating backdoor would be a huge boon for committing more crimes. If your primary goal is to stop crime, you should not be asking for a technical solution which would very quickly become the primary means of committing more of it. Computers will not understand the difference between a spy trying to catch a terrorist sleeper cell and a carder trying to get some magnetic strip data for a shopping spree with someone else’s money. A backdoor that will work for the former, will work exactly the same way for the latter, and no amount of scaremongering, special pleading, and threats from the technically illiterate will ever change that fact.

If you’ve never been out with a large group of teachers, and I don’t mean five or six of them, I’m talking about 30 or 40 people, a word of caution. Teachers can drink so much that sailors would caution them to slow down and maybe have some water instead. The wildest parties that yours truly has ever witnessed were teachers’ nights where the people who have to deal with some of the worst local bureaucrats and your kids, put even the rowdiest frat boys to shame. But why do teachers need to let loose so badly on a regular basis? Well, it’s mostly thanks to standardized testing, which is ruining their profession and their students’ learning potential. How? Well, let me hand it over to John Oliver’s model monologue on the subject, vetted by all the teachers I know, and confirmed to be absolutely, spectacularly dead on when it comes to this painful subject…

To sum it up, standardized tests are given far too much, they’re written very poorly and with no sense of how to ask age appropriate, or sometimes even sane questions, graded by a random group of people recruited on classified sites according to a senseless standard, are pushed by clueless politicians and their appointees, and exist primarily for the benefit of testing companies, because they sure as hell haven’t improved education one iota. In fact, they did the opposite. If you ever dealt with anything in the world of education or academia, you’ll hear that if you teach your students well enough, there’s no reason why they shouldn’t pass a standardized test that’s supposedly measuring their educational milestones, or why you should focus on teaching to the test in the first place. But that only works when the tests are sane and appropriate, and you are not tying numerically impossible and ridiculous benchmarks to both student grade and teachers’ pay. When you peer inside the process, it quickly becomes apparent that the politicians and the test makers haven’t the faintest clue what they’re doing and when you point our their abject and borderline malicious incompetence, they resort to political invective about teachers’ unions.

To her the politicians tell it, the tests are fine, the benchmarks are fine, it’s those dang teachers who won’t get with the program because [insert list of imaginary teacher pay and benefits you’ll see on right wing shock jock blogs here]. But you see, most teachers care and most of them do want to help the kids. However, as those on the front lines, they see that the current tactics are not working and that in many other places in the world currently outperforming Americans on all sorts of educational benchmarks, standardized testing is nowhere near as prevalent. Why? The schools in other educationally high achieving countries get better funding, teachers get not just better education, but better pay and more autonomy because they just spent six years learning how to develop minds and are hired and treated as professionals, and the schools track pupils into possible career paths of interest early to give them a jump start on their future. The notable exceptions are Asian schools where students live and die by the test, but even there, there are far, far fewer than some 130 tests over the course of 14 years we currently have in the U.S.

So how exactly are students around the world doing better? Partly, many live in countries where schools have strict national standards and more equal funding across the board, the population is more homogeneous, and income inequality is less pronounced. This is important because the biggest achievement gap in education often boils down to poverty. And sometimes there’s good old fashioned cheating involved. Chinese students who are supposedly doing far better than all of their American counterparts are actually hand picked to be the only ones who count towards the country’s score on international achievement tests. While the rest of the countries taking the test count pretty much everyone, China insists on grading only its best and brightest. If the U.S. pulled the same trick, it would dominate the rankings since American students account for close to a third of the top performers on such tests. However, the problem still remains that for all the testing that was supposed to help identify and fix gaps, all we’ve successfully done is hand over tens of billions of dollars to testing companies because the average student is still performing at an exceedingly mediocre level that has now fallen on colleges to fix with an expensive remedial circuit of classes that nobody actually wants to teach, much less teaches well.

And there are even more bad news there as standardized tests are ruining even that as well. It may be disheartening to hear that after finally making it through the testing gauntlet before you finally get to college, you need to take yet another set of standardized tests to see if you need a few remedial classes. It gets worse when you’re told that you do in fact need them because the tests you took have the predictive power of a coin flip regarding your performance. Yet again, a test written by companies for a profit with little clue what to actually test points to a problem we’ll need to fix and when it does, politicians demand even more testing, more money, more classes, and oceans upon oceans of useless data. The more conspiratorially minded might even call the No Child Left Behind Act a stealthy giveaway to testing companies, but in reality it’s a symptom of a political culture in which a politician is supposed to be an expert in everything and have the appropriate media-friendly solution to every problem. Instead of actually parsing the issues, the lawmakers demand improvement and accountability, then help pass laws requiring both with no clue how to implement them. In come lobbyists who sell them a fanciful bill of goods with which non-experts can’t argue, while the experts who can, lack the political pull to be heard.

As a result, the current American education system stretching almost into graduate school, is a product of the blindly ambitious leading the powerful but ignorant, pulled to the side by a snake oil salesman or two who sense that they can make money on the whole thing, all while telling us that they only want to help. But let’s be honest. Yes, the politicians at the top want to help as do those below them, I’m sure. However, the testing companies only give a damn about quarterly returns and profit margins, and because those politicians who want to help have no background in education, or have been out of it for so long they only have the faintest recollections of what it means to teach someone, are often clueless, they easily let profiteers sway them to pursue not the right course of action, but the one most profitable for the companies hiring the lobbyists. It’s a vicious circle. Ignorance breeds more ignorance because it doesn’t know any better. And as it runs schools into the ground, neither will the students whose formative educational years have basically been reduced to little more than filling in little bubbles with a number two pencil…