Archive | July, 2010

Why I love wikileaks

29 Jul

Just recently Wikileaks released 91,000 documents covering the war in Afghanistan from 2004-2010, the Afghan War Diary, which revealed what most of us already knew; we’re not in control. Wikileaks is the bane to authority and power the world over. The US government even tried to destroy it, but failed.  So what are the benefits and dangers of the existence of wikileaks. Do the benefits outweigh the danger?

The benefits I see are clear: The world is steadily getting more and more treacherous for whistleblowers. Despite the Whistleblower Protection Act , sounding the alarm can really be sounding your own death bell. Whistleblowers are harassed by all administrations or corporations, regardless of political/religious affiliation, but this really became noticeable during the run up to the Iraq war. They most visible example of the government going out of their way to destroy the life of a whistleblower, the one who told them the excuse for the war they’d been planing for years was BS, was Joseph Wilson and Valerie Plame.

There was a really interesting segment on NPR’s This American Life last week covering the 1952-53 case of Reynolds vs US. The case is famous for establishing the “State Secrets Privilege” in the middle of the red scare where by the US government can get a case thrown out of court forever just by saying that to try it would “reveal state secrets”. Up until recently judges weren’t even allowed to see if the evidence would reveal anything, they just had to trust the government that they were telling the truth. The problem was, the case was founded on a lie. A B-29 carrying top secret equipment went down killing most of the crew. The widows sued for negligence and wanted to see the accident report. The government claimed “state secrets” and the supreme court agreed with them. Over half a century later that accident report was declassified and it showed that there was nothing in it about the secret equipment. Instead it revealed a laundry list of negligence on the part of the government. The sick thing is that the government lawyers at the time knew this, but they wanted to get their precedent at the cost of the victims’ families. The government has used this free pass to deny justice many times since, and the Obama administration continues to use it to this day.

I see things like this: a whistleblower going to the government to sound the alarm on something is like going to a crooked cop to report a robbery. Chances are the cop is getting a slice. The likelihood that justice will be done is even lower when it’s the government itself that’s doing something wrong. Politicians, almost by definition, are conniving***. As the saying goes “Nobody likes a tattle-tale”. The only time politicians appreciate whistleblowers is when they can use the whistleblower to score political points. To think otherwise is just naive.

So, if the neighborhood cop is in on the crime, and chances of justice are extremely low, what is the only option? Wikileaks. You publish the information and hope that public outcry at the injustice is so that something is done.  (which unfortunately is highly unlikely; most people can’t be bothered to cross the street to vote) It’s sad, but it’s your only option.

So, what are the dangers? Well besides bad PR for authority and possibly some lost revenue for corporations, the most cited danger is that someone might die. This is a very real possibility. I have been trying to find an interview I heard with NPR a year or so ago where somebody from wikileaks, possibly the founder Assange himself, tried to address this very issue. I feel they are better qualified to explain how they feel about the possibility that leaking something might endanger someone’s life. NPR’s Fresh Air had a show on wikileaks that aired July 14th, 2010, you can stream it here. During the discussion it is mentioned that Assange feels that it is very possible that wikileaks might have blood on it’s hands some day as a result of leaking classified information, but that the quest for open government, an end to censorship, and habitual abuse of power is too important to shy away from.

I think wikileaks stresses the importance of principled leaking best:

“Principled leaking has changed the course of history for the better; it can alter the course of history in the present; it can lead us to a better future.

Consider Daniel Ellsberg, working within the US government during the Vietnam War. He comes into contact with the Pentagon Papers, a meticulously kept record of military and strategic planning throughout the war. Those papers reveal the depths to which the US government has sunk in deceiving the population about the war. Yet the public and the media know nothing of this urgent and shocking information. Indeed, secrecy laws are being used to keep the public ignorant of gross dishonesty practiced by their government. In spite of those secrecy laws and at great personal risk, Ellsberg manages to disseminate the Pentagon papers to journalists and to the world. Despite criminal charges against Ellsberg, eventually dropped, the release of the Pentagon papers shocks the world, exposes the government, and helps to shorten the war and save thousands of lives.

The power of principled leaking to embarrass governments, corporations and institutions is amply demonstrated through recent history. The public scrutiny of otherwise unaccountable and secretive institutions forces them to consider the ethical implications of their actions. Which official will chance a secret, corrupt transaction when the public is likely to find out? What repressive plan will be carried out when it is revealed to the citizenry, not just of its own country, but the world? When the risks of embarrassment and discovery increase, the tables are turned against conspiracy, corruption, exploitation and oppression. Open government answers injustice rather than causing it. Open government exposes and undoes corruption. Open governance is the most effective method of promoting good governance.

Today, with authoritarian governments in power around much of the world, increasing authoritarian tendencies in democratic governments, and increasing amounts of power vested in unaccountable corporations, the need for openness and transparency is greater than ever. In an important sense, WikiLeaks is the first intelligence agency of the people. Better principled and less parochial than any governmental intelligence agency, it is able to be more accurate and relevant. It has no commercial or national interests at heart; its only interest is the revelation of the truth. Unlike the covert activities of state intelligence agencies, WikiLeaks relies upon the power of overt fact to enable and empower citizens to bring feared and corrupt governments and corporations to justice.

WikiLeaks helps every government official, every bureaucrat, and every corporate worker, who becomes privy to embarrassing information that the institution wants to hide but the public needs to know. What conscience cannot contain, and institutional secrecy unjustly conceals, WikiLeaks can broadcast to the world.

WikiLeaks is a buttress against unaccountable and abusive power.

We propose that authoritarian governments, oppressive institutions and corrupt corporations should be subject to the pressure, not merely of international diplomacy, freedom of information laws or even periodic elections, but of something far stronger — the consciences of the people within them.”

*** Ok, not every single politician is conniving, but the vast majority are. The longer you’re in politics, the more likely you’re conniving. I say that because there is a political “game”. In order to get anything you want in politics, you have to play the game. You have to do a few dirty deeds here and there so other politicians will help you with your dirty deeds. Any white knight that tries to charge into the halls of government quickly finds he is charging into a brick wall. If you don’t play ball then you’re a lame duck. Therefore, the longer you’re in politics, the more successful you are, the more likely you’re conniving. You know the saying: “Politicians are like diapers, both should be changed often, and for the same reason.”

Video games are unproductive?

27 Jul

I’ve heard some people complain that video games are unproductive, a waste of time, rot your brain, etc… Usually these people never really played video games so they don’t understand the allure. To them the term “video games” probably evokes images of a child making Mario hop around a fantasy land doing abstract things that don’t really make sense. From that reference frame, yeah, watching somebody sit in front of a screen for hours doing something you imagine only children do would seem useless and unproductive.

A person like this might say “go read a book, because at least then you learn something.” Well, not all books are non-fiction. Would this person have the same objection to reading a fiction novel, be it romance, mystery, horror, etc? What about watching a movie? Even sports could be considered unproductive is this strain of “logic” is followed. The problem is, the person never really defines what “productive” is.

When asked they might say something like “cut the grass, or building furniture, or painting the fence”, or any number of errands or chores that need to be done. In effect, being productive is anything that achieves an end. In the case of the above listed activities, they are productive in the sense that they take care of things that need to get done. But what if those things are already done? What if the end goal you’re trying to achieve is relaxation, entertainment, enjoyment, or exploration? Well, in that case movies, books, and video games are very productive.

Another problem our hypothetical nay sayer has is that they don’t really understand what video games do. They look at video games in the most superficial sense; they only see colors and mindless motions. What they fail to realize is that the majority of video games are mentally engaging, more so than books or movies. Other types of media are passively consumed, video games on the other hand, require active participation. Often players encounter puzzles or challenges they must think their way through. It’s like the nay sayer’s morning crossword puzzle, but on steroids.

Take the Tomb Raider games for instance:

While on the surface these games might look like just a hot woman jumping around and shooting things, they are actual about puzzle solving. In each level the player must figure out what sequence of actions to complete in order to finish the level. It might require jumping, climbing, pull lever, and fending off an attacker. A player does all this to advance the next bit of story.

Take another genre game, the Real Time Strategy game:

While on the surface it might just look like mindless battles, Real Time Strategy games are all about mastering resource management. Players have to figure out how to gather and spend resources efficiently while trying to attack and fend off other players.

Even shooter games have a mental side to them. While they may just seem like games about shooting things, take Valve’s Half-life series for instance:

A large part of Valve’s Half life series is puzzle solving.  Players have to manipulate objects in order to proceed. In this picture the puzzle is a see-saw. The player has to move heavy blocks to one side of the plank in order to get up on the ledge.  But even some more action based shooters are not completely without mental challenge:

While these games are primarily about quick reactions and steady fingers, it is important to know what equipment is good against what and what weapons to use for various situations.

Our hypothetical naysayer might also feel that video games are very anti-social, that they lock people up in a room alone for hours on end. This might have been true in days before the internet, but it is no longer so. While there are plenty of games out there that are single player only, there is an ever growing list of games that are multi-player. Gaming is now a very social experience. Rock band is the classic example:

Get a bunch of friends together and rock out. The internet has turned games that might physically be played alone and made them social experiences. Any game with an online multiplayer option lets players connect from all over the world and play together. While I was playing Age of Empires 3, I would often get online, meet people, and play with them. We would do this often and some of us even became friends outside of the game, despite never meeting each other in real life. It was amazing; through the game I was able to interact with people from thousands of miles away, people who lived in different countries, spoke different languages, and yet we came together to relax and have some fun. But that’s not something our naysayer considers.

But perhaps the biggest allure to video games is the escape. It’s a chance to immerse yourself in another world for a while; but unlike a book or a movie, or anything else you passively consume, video games allow you to take an active role in that other world, shaping it, living in it. They let you engage with that world in a way nothing else can. (except for perhaps for roleplaying games) They also give you the satisfaction of instant results. You see immediately if what you’re doing works or does not. You get the feeling of importance, or making a difference, of being somebody special. Yeah it’s an illusion, but at the end of the day it’s a great escape from life as usual.

Kinder Chocolate kid is scary

20 Jul

Kinder Chocolate is one of my favorite chocolates. It’s extremely hard to find in the states and every time I visit Europe I stock up on it. Well today I was lucky enough to find it at a World Market store in town. The Kinder Eier are not sold in the US because the small parts inside the plastic shell that you assemble toys with are seen as a choking hazard. I wonder if European babies are choking on the toys too, or if American children are just stupid. Or perhaps the US government saw this commercial and decided to ban them, I wouldn’t blame them:

Either way, as I was noming on my delicious kinder chocolate sticks, I noticed the kid on the package:

Could they have found a more Aryan kid? I mean, just look at him, he’s like master race perfect in every way. Light blue eyes, right blond hair, and teeth that are too perfect to be real. I ran the kid’s face through Symmeter to calculate it’s symmetry; it scored 98.17% symmetrical, and this was just from a picture I took of the picture. Just looking into his eyes is kinda creepy, they’ve got this real intensity to them.

I know Kinder Chocolate is a product of Germany, but come on, not everybody in Germany has blond haired blue eyes and the complexion of snow white. Perhaps if this were a Swedish or Norwegian chocolate, maybe, but darken this kid up, he’s creeping me out.

<nom nom nom>

Facts don’t matter?

13 Jul

Ideally in a debate there are two sides, one makes a claim, the other tries to refute that claim. Both sides try to avoid logical fallacies and use objective, nonpartisan facts to determine in a claim is valid or not. If the evidence does not support the claim, then the side that made the claim admits they were wrong and everybody moves on. It would be wonderful if the world followed that model, but one look around the modern political/religious landscape will show you that this is not the case. No, today facts are growing increasingly more irrelevant to a debate. As much as we all like to think of ourselves as rational, intelligent adults, open to changing our views in light of evidence, research suggests that we are actually likely to become more strident about our beliefs when presented with contradicting facts.

Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler, two of the political scientists conducting the research, call this the “backfire effect”, when a person strengthens their belief in a false claim when presented with facts that challenge their beliefs. It’s unfortunate, but it makes sense. Nyhan points out that this is a defense mechanism people employ to avoid cognitive dissonance. There was a great conversation that aired today on NPR’s Talk of the Nation which had Brendan Nyhan as a guest. Check it out.

My question is this: If presenting a misinformed person with facts only strengthens their misinformed beliefs, then how can there be any discussion? How can you change their minds? Is there just no talking to them? If a person is going to believe what they want to believe, no matter how strongly the evidence might contradict them, then does it just boil down to who can get the most people to the polls on election day? How can we have a stable society if reality is no longer an issue in our decision making? I am reminded of the story of King Canute. He placed his throne on the beach and commanded the tide not to come in. Despite his royal edict it did, just as it always does. Moral of the story: reality doesn’t give a damn what people say.

You don’t understand free speech!

12 Jul

A minute ago I learned on the BBC international news broadcast that a court in Russia has ordered a group of artists to pay a fine and face possible jail time. Their crime? They did an art exhibit on censorship which included pictures of Mickey Mouses’ head superimposed on Jesus’ body. They were found guilty of “inciting religious hatred” and the exhibit on censorship was censored. I feel like I could explode right now. They had some orthodox clown on the radio saying how he supports freedom of speech, BUT, you can’t insult other people. That’s not fucking freedom of speech!!!!! No! You DO NOT support freedom of speech you tyrannical asshole! Freedom of speech means people can say whatever they want (no matter how offensive) as long as they are not infringing on other’s rights! If I wanted to paint a homosexual orgy painting with all the major religious figures engaging in sodomy, then I can draw it! It is my right!

“Inciting religious hatred” is like imprisoning a rape victim because her short skirt was “inciting lust”! The artists have the right to draw those paintings! They are not criminals! If a bunch of orthodox nut cases start rioting, then THEY are the criminals. They are the ones out in the streets breaking property and hurting people, not the artists exercising their freedom of speech. Look, there are not many things in this world that are black and white issues, but free speech is one of them. Either you support it or you don’t. Either you support the right of other people to offend you or you do not. It is the foundation upon which progress is built. I have a sick feeling most people don’t support this radical idea of free speech. Fine, take it away, watch the world delve back into the dark ages. Perhaps when enough people have suffered, when enough blood has been shed, perhaps then you’ll finally understand the importance of free speech and why generations before us died to protect it.

Double standard for Atheists

11 Jul

Earlier this afternoon I was mowing the back grass (something I hate with a passion) and a thunderstorm was rolling in. I knew from emergency broadcast messages flashed across the TV that a little ways away from me was experiencing severe thunderstorms and even a tornado. Well there I was in 100f/38c degree weather, holding on to a big metal machine in the back yard and the thought occurred to me, “What if I get struck by lightning and die?” Well, for one I wouldn’t have to worry about finding a job/new place to live/ friends; guess that would be the silver lining.  On the other hand, I have no doubt some might say “Ah ha! SEE! Look what happens to an atheist!!! God struck him down!” Of course to them they would see this as a sign, proof that not only a god exists, but that his son was Jesus, born of a virgin to come and save you from your sins.

You see, there is a double standard for atheists. Being in the minority, everything must go perfectly for us or else someone tries to label it as a sign. My atheist bumper stickers on my car for example: should I be involved in an accident people would no doubt try to link the accident to my atheism; as if my misfortune was a direct result of not believing in their god. Or take Christopher Hitchens’ throat cancer: as soon as the news became public the religious started frothing at the mouth about a death bed conversion. Almost 30,000 people get throat cancer each year in the US alone. No big deal, but the moment an outspoken atheist gets cancer, Ah HA!

You see, the problem for the atheist is that the whole conversation is rigged so they can’t win. Bad things happen to all people everyday, regardless of their religious views. However, to the religious, when something bad happens to a fellow believer they rationalize it away. “Oh, god was punishing you for something.” “This is just a test of your faith”, or the ever classic cop out: “God works in mysterious ways”. Yet the moment something bad happens to a non-believer, bingo! Proof positive that you’re a sinner and god is getting his vengeance. You can’t win with these people. Don’t even try to reason with them. They’ve put all reason out of their head. They’re completely wrapped up in a little something called “Confirmation bias”. This is an extremely important concept that many people fall victim to, so take note:

Confirmation bias refers to a type of selective thinking whereby one tends to notice and to look for what confirms one’s beliefs, and to ignore,

not look for, or undervalue the relevance of what contradicts one’s beliefs.

We’re just entertaining ourselves

11 Jul

This is just an observation. We’re revolving around the sun, stuck on this planet, entertaining ourselves. What do I mean by that? Well sports are a prime example. Today is the world cup final. The winner will be decided until the next world cup final in four years. All sports are like this. Every season teams are put together and they battle it out to decide the champion, then they do it again. It’s like two prison inmates playing a game of checkers over and over again, each one declaring themselves the “world champion” at the end of every game. Ok, so that’s a crude example. Actual sports are a lot more complex with statistics, strategy, etc, but I hope you get what I mean. Basically we create drama as a way of keeping ourselves entertained. Sports are one way to create drama. One could say that sports are ultimately pointless (and as a nerd with no physical ability, I’m tempted to do this) but that would be misunderstanding the point of sports. It’s not to determine the champions, it’s to create artificial drama as a way of keeping us busy.

When we’re not busy with sports drama, we’re busy with war drama. Yes, wars are horrible things and they’re fought for a number of real reasons; but as bad as they are they keep us entertained. (And by “entertained” I don’t mean “oh wow, this is fun!”) War creates drama, something to do, something to struggle against with an end goal in mind. Then at the end of the war we make movies retelling the drama experienced by people in that situation. Every war gives writers, movie makers, and video game producers new material.

When real stories are not enough we invent new ones. We take elements of the real world, mix them up, alter them, and create new stories. The sci-fi genre comes to mind. How many video games/movies are there about saving the world, or saving the universe? They’re fun an all, but the themes start to get repetitive.  You, the lone hero, must battle against impossible odds to save the universe from some looming threat, yada yada yada.

So this is the perfect reason why we need to drastically increase the budget for NASA. We need to leave our solar system, meet other species, and kill them.

Just kidding, though space isn’t called the “last frontier” for nothing. It would certainly give us more material.

Well I can’t think of anything more to say on this topic, so I guess I’ll end here. Again, this was just an observation of the big picture, not a judgement. Please don’t misunderstand me, I love the stories we come up with. (Well, not Twilight) The human imagination is extremely powerful, and we create some great stuff. I guess I was just elaborating on that saying “there’s nothing new under the sun.”

All the more reason we should leave our solar system and conquer! For the emperor!!!

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