Sep 242021
 

Yes, you got that right. The title of this blog entry is not a mistake. And no, I didn’t suddenly turn into a relic Cold Warrior from the 1950s.

It is how I characterize Xi Jinping’s commie regime tonight.

It may be a “kinder, gentler” version of communism compared to Mao’s or Stalin’s (at least so long as you are not an Uyghur from Xinjiang province, enjoying your vacation in a concentration, oh, pardon me, re-education camp), but it is nonetheless a regime that does not refrain from the most despicable, criminal acts, including the taking of hostages.

In case anyone had any doubts on the matter…

Within hours after the United States dropped its extradition request and thus Meng Wanzhou of Huawei was released from house arrest in Canada (to her credit, she actually thanked Canada for upholding the rule of law), two Canadians, Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, have reportedly been released by China, finally allowed to leave after three years of captivity, despite the bogus allegations of spying against them.

How else can I describe such a regime other than hostage-taking commie bastards without resorting to obscenities?

Oh, I got it.

Rotten hostage-taking commie bastards.

 Posted by at 10:00 pm
Sep 122021
 

I get it. Our standards change. Live and let live. We abhor racism and embrace differences. We recognize the crimes of the past.

But when the National Archives of the United States of America marks the country’s own Constitution as containing “potentially harmful language”, that’s so far beyond anything I would even remotely consider sane, I don’t even know how to describe it.

This is so far beyond insane, I have no words.

All I can say is that if the goal is to drive as many undecided people as possible into the camp of Trump voters, they found a singularly efficient way to accomplish that ignoble task.

Edit: And yes, I recognize that this is a blanket statement that applies to all Archive searches. Even so, I find it disturbing that this notice appears even for documents such as the US Constitution. The capability clearly exists not to show the notice for certain pages, as it is not present on explanatory pages of the Archives. Displaying this disclaimer so prominently on top of historical documents just sends the wrong message and provides unnecessary propaganda fodder. What’s wrong with a more discreet notice at the bottom? Or simply presenting, like so many sites do, a “terms and conditions” page when a user first connects, which could include this disclaimer? Showing it on every page, prominently over documents of great legal and historical significance is just… dumb. It reeks of “cancel culture”.

 Posted by at 1:21 am
Sep 112021
 

A few hours from now, it will be exactly 20 years since that fateful morning when, instead of going to bed after working through the night (I was very much a night owl in those days), I ended up spending the day glued to the television window on my old PC, running Windows XP and cable TV in a window, courtesy of a long obsolete ATI All-in-Wonder video card combining graphics with an analog TV tuner.

I had no doubt that the events of the day would change the world that we live in. What was not clear was how.

The good news: America’s “war on terror” by and large has to be considered a success. There have been no large-scale terrorist acts on US soil by militant Islamists since 9/11. But that’s pretty much where the good news end.

The bad news: Where should I begin?

First, the misguided occupation of Afghanistan. Yes, I know, hindsight is 20/20 and all that, but it was pretty obvious even back then that it is not possible to do an occupation on the cheap. There is one way to occupy a hostile country: put a sizable garrison in every town and a guardpost at every intersection, maintain order, and respond ruthlessly to attacks on your forces. Now the thing is, not even the USSR was willing to make this level of effort, which is why their Afghanistan venture was a fiasco. As for America, whoever came up with the idea that you can bomb a country into democracy need to get their heads examined.

Second, the criminally insane war on Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. No, Hussein was not a nice fellow. But removing him created a regional power vacuum that the theocracy in Iran was all too eager to fill. The one good outcome of this is that it created a previously unimaginable rapport between Iran’s enemies, namely Israel and the Gulf states. Otherwise, all the Iraqi venture accomplished is a destabilization of the region, the consequences of which we still reap.

And speaking of places like the Gulf states, this is another one of the unpleasant consequences of 9/11: Perhaps more than ever, the “land of the free”, the United States, loves cozying up with despots and dictators. This was especially prevalent during the Trump era, as Trump seemed unnervingly comfortable with the likes of Putin or MBS, even as he denounced democratically elected leaders committed to the values of liberal democracy.

Thankfully, the misguided military ventures are over. Chaotic last few days notwithstanding, US troops are finally out of Afghanistan. There are very few things for which Trump deserves praise, but his decision to pull out of Afghanistan, his reluctance to start new wars, are commendable.

If only the United States could overcome its internal partisan division, it could again resume its role as “leader of the free world”, a free world that now faces the dual threat of rising authoritarianism in many Western democracies, and the rise of a leader more authoritarian than anyone since Mao in a China that is now an undisputed economic superpower.

But for that, millions of Americans would first have to abandon scary conspiracy theories about a stolen election or a COVID vaccine that is an attack on their rights and freedoms; and other millions of Americans would have to abandon their commitment to impose their increasingly intolerant “woke” values, their “cancel culture” on their neighbors. And their lessons would have to be repeated elsewhere, throughout the Western world. In short, we have to somehow relearn some basic ideas of a liberal democracy, such as the notion that our neighbors whose political priorities differ from ours are not inherently evil, they are not the enemy. Can this happen? Will this happen in an era of social media bubbles, bubbles often controlled by foreign adversaries and their divisive propaganda, turning us against each other?

But before I get too pessimistic, I look at the long term trends. Here we are, in 2021, 76 years after one of the most devastating wars in human history ended with the use of two atomic bombs. When I was a child in the late 1960s, early 1970s, no sane person in the world would have predicted that we would live to see 2021 without another great war, without nuclear Armageddon. Yet here we are, worrying not about mushroom clouds but about climate change, not about Orwell’s totalitarian nightmare but about microplastics hampering efforts to clean up rivers and wetlands, not about famines and “Soylent Green” but about lithium or rare earth production for our batteries and high tech gadgets, not about hostile AI running our lives but about semiconductor shortages hampering the automobile industry.

Still I have to wonder, was 9/11 a wasted opportunity? Could the US and the world have responded better? Undoubtedly, I think.

 Posted by at 1:12 am
Aug 152021
 

I promised myself not to blog much about politics, but this one deserves an entry.

In my all time favorite movie, Cloud Atlas, while reading some decades-old letters, a protagonist remarks: “Just trying to understand why we keep making the same mistakes… over and over.”

I was wondering the same thing moments ago when I came across the cover page of tomorrow’s edition of USA Today:

The editors of USA Today of course knew exactly what they were doing when they elected to use a picture that is almost like a copy of another iconic photo, this one from 1975:

Many think that it is a mistake for the US to exit Afghanistan. I respectfully disagree. The mistake was starting an unwinnable war. Compounded by the mistake of staying there for 20 years, perpetuating a conflict, causing many more deaths. Wasn’t Vietnam a good enough lesson? Didn’t the collapse of the Saigon government teach the US that military occupation cannot build a nation? Was there nothing to learn from the USSR’s failure to pacify Afghanistan? Or for that matter, their failure to suppress the Baltics and the nations of Eastern Europe, which chose to escape the Soviet Bloc at the first opportunity, with their domestic politics often resuming exactly where it left off decades earlier when it was interrupted by the arrival of Soviet troops?

So here we are, 46 years after Saigon, and yet another helicopter departs yet another roof with some of the last lucky few who can thus escape an uncertain future, possibly death, in a besieged city.

 Posted by at 9:52 pm
Jun 082021
 

I am reacting with horror to the killing of a Muslim family in London, Ontario, by a deranged lunatic who mowed them down with his vehicle.

Yumna Afzaal (15), Madiha Salman (44), Talat Afzaal (74) and Salman Afzaal (46).

What drives a man to massacre an entire family, including children, as they are waiting to cross the street at an intersection?

And how do we fix this?

It is very easy to ascribe the attack to racism or “white grievance” (his race was not publicized but one press image surfaced that shows him to be of European descent) and chances are, it would not be the wrong conclusion. But if we stop there, we have solved nothing. The problems will persist, more people will die, and our society will become more polarized over time.

That is not to suggest that I know how to solve this problem. But I know what not to do. This is best illustrated by a quote that is often wrongly attributed to Nelson Mandela (it actually comes from a human rights activist named Mohamad Safa):

Our world is not divided by race, color, gender or religion. Our world is divided into wise people and fools. And fools divide themselves by race, color, gender, or religion.

I agree with the sentiment, but I ask a question that, in my opinion, is really the key to it all: How do we convince wise people (or people who think of themselves as wise) not to divide us into wise people and fools?

 Posted by at 6:04 pm
May 302021
 

A few days ago, I posted an old Far Side cartoon about an accident at a virology lab. It was intended as humor, appropriate in light of the announcement that the US government seeks additional information concerning the possible role of the Wuhan virology lab in the pandemic. This investigation was triggered by the revelation that back in November 2019, researchers from that lab became sick with symptoms similar to those of CODID-19, compounded by secrecy by the Chinese government.

I think this investigation is warranted. I do not prejudge its outcome.

I do feel it is important to mention, however, that there is a difference between engineering a virus vs. releasing a virus. The fact that COVID-19 is not an engineered virus was well-established early on. Conclusions can of course change in the light of new information but I don’t think there is much room for change here. It has all the hallmarks of a virus that jumped from animals to humans (which such viruses, I am told, often do) and none of the hallmarks of a bioengineered virus. So I think in light of that it is quite unlikely that the virus was the result of, e.g., a botched bioweapons experiment or worse yet, an intentional pandemic.

Could it have been accidentally released? That’s another story altogether. The mandate of the Wuhan lab, I understand, is to research illnesses such as SARS or COVID-19. This lab produced many research papers over the years warning the world that a much more serious pandemic than the SARS epidemic is possible, even likely. Those papers were prophetic, but largely unheeded. It would be ironic if the same lab was found responsible in the end for causing the very pandemic that it tried to help prevent, and if the Chinese government played a role in suppressing information that, early on, could have saved many lives, they should be held responsible.

But for now, we don’t know if any of this is true. The Far Side cartoon was not intended to imply anything. It is just… funny, and uncannily prophetic. Just like the Wuhan lab’s research papers from years past.

 Posted by at 11:51 am
Apr 282021
 

The CBC just published a very informative article on the history of vaccine manufacturing in Canada, explaining why this G7 country, one of the top industrialized nations on Earth, is entirely dependent on imports when it comes to COVID-19 vaccinations.

It really is disgraceful. Canada’s Connaught Labs, founded in 1914, was at the forefront of global vaccine production for many decades.

But then came the decline. Vaccine production is not always a profitable enterprise. Connaught Labs was eventually nationalized by Pierre Trudeau’s government but then, as far as I am concerned inexplicably, the emphasis for this now Crown corporation was to turn a profit!

Why???

Eventually, it was reprivatized by Mr. Mulroney, who promised that the action will bring “net benefits” to Canadians.

Yeah, right.

The federal government is now investing serious monies to expand capabilities for future pandemics. I can only hope that this lesson is not going to be forgotten anytime soon.

 Posted by at 11:34 am
Apr 282021
 

So the other day, I made a foolish decision: I objected to a self-described progressive activist’s recurring, disparaging use of the expression, “white people”, on Twitter.

In response, I learned the following, thanks to helpful strangers:

  1. I am suffering from white fragility;
  2. As I am a man, I am suffering from male fragility;
  3. I am wallowing in prejudices;
  4. Even if I am not from the US, there are issues in Canada, too, so…
  5. I am a racist;
  6. I am afraid of being called a racist;
  7. I benefit from systemic racism and need to be educated about it;
  8. And finally, this gem: I should shut up and listen.

OK, just to be clear, I am no more concerned about being called a racist than I am about being called a bicycle, on account of being neither. However, this reaction speaks volumes. In this new, progressive world, virtue signaling is key if you want progressives to like you. Saying disparaging things about white people gets you credit. Extra credit if you yourself happen to be white and practice a little self-loathing in public.

I used to have zero patience for my conservative-leaning white friends and acquaintances who were complaining about “anti-white racism” as they marched off to vote, or otherwise express support, for that stable genius, the Orange Person. But in light of this little Twitter exchange, I am somewhat less incredulous and more sympathetic.

No, I am still not rooting for Trumpists and their fellow travelers in other countries. But I do have a point to make, not that I expect the most vocally self-righteous progressives to listen: If you manage to turn someone like me (I am not exactly a stereotypical raging white supremacist) into a skeptic, do not be surprised if you lose by a landslide in future election cycles. Tone it down please. There is no need to turn into enemies people who dare to criticize excessive rhetoric, who see nuances where you only see black-and-white, who present inconvenient facts even when those being inconvenienced by them are not from the conservative camp. Listen to their criticism, don’t automatically reject their thoughtful objections in self-righteous indignation, in the name of ideological purity.

As for the Twitter exchange, I ended up doing something I do extremely rarely, unfollowing, even blocking some people when the conversation began to veer towards personal insults. (Because, you know, if you run out of thoughtful arguments, name-calling always works. Right.)

 Posted by at 10:58 am
Apr 132021
 

Stereotypes hurt people.

Television, sitcoms in particular, often rely on stereotypes. But it’s not always a Bad Thing. When the stereotype itself is the object of ridicule, kind of holding up a mirror for the audience to look into, stereotypes can actually help turn ours into a better society. The Big Bang Theory is a good example: its Jewish (Howard Wolowitz) and Indian (Raj Koothrappali) protagonists mock not Jews and Indians but our prejudices.

But other stereotypes are more troubling. One notable example, discussed recently, is the character Apu Nahasapeemapetilon in The Simpsons: a stereotypical Indian-American running a convenience store, speaking with a funny accent.

Yes, I recognize that the line between mocking people being stereotyped vs. mocking people who stereotype others is a thin one. But I think it is drawn somewhere between The Big Bang Theory and The Simpsons. The Big Bang Theory‘s humor is defensible because it does not dehumanize the protagonists. The Simpsons, sadly, doesn’t fare that well. No wonder Hank Azaria no longer wants to be the voice of Apu.

However, when it comes to the point of a Caucasian voice actor voicing a non-Caucasian character, I think we are going one step, no, make that one giant leap, too far.

You see, I thought actors, you know, act. That is, pretend to be something they are not.

But now you are telling me that a naturally blond actress cannot play a brunette? Or a Jewish actor cannot play a German officer?

Or is this concern specifically reserved for, I don’t know, “race”? Or what’s the new catchphrase, people who are “racialized”? (Whatever the devil that means.) Because somehow, the color of your hair doesn’t matter but the color of your skin makes you… different?

And does it go both ways? Are Indian actors forbidden to play Europeans? Are black actors forbidden to play white roles? In any case, who decides what kind of acting is acceptable, and what crosses the line? Heaven forbid, into the territory of “cultural appropriation”?

In my all time favorite movie, Cloud Atlas, several actors play as many as a half dozen different roles, in different eras and cultures. These include a Korean actress playing, in one storyline, the role of the wife of a 19th century San Francisco lawyer. Another Korean actress, in a male (!) role, plays as a bellboy in 1970s San Francisco. Hugo Weaving plays the role of a sadistic female nurse in early 21st century Scotland, but also the role of an authoritarian Korean politician in 22nd century New Seoul. And so on.

You can guess which of these roles were criticized by some. “Yellowface” we were told, as if Cloud Atlas had anything to do with Hollywood’s racist past from many decades ago. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Rather, what that movie told me with its choice of actors and roles is that skin color, this so-called “race”, matters as little as the color of your hair or your eyes. It means nothing. We are all members of the one and only human race. And just as a blond actress can play the role of a brunette or a male actor can play in a female role, a black actor can play as a white person while a person of European descent can credibly play a Korean. Because these superficial differences in appearance mean nothing.

The suggestion that a white actor cannot lend his voice to an Indian character in a cartoon is preposterously backward. It seems designed to maintain racial discrimination. It, to use that fashionable phrase again, promotes and preserves racialization, instead of helping us progress towards a post-racial society in which all human beings are judged by the strength of their character, and the color of their skin matters no more than the color of their hair.

 Posted by at 4:17 pm
Apr 122021
 

My all time favorite movie is Cloud Atlas. I know, others have not reacted to this movie quite as powerfully as I have, but for whatever reason, the movie “got me”. (The fact that I first saw it during my first ever visit to the Middle East, in an Abu Dhabi hotel room, just a few days after flying over the war-torn Iraq-Iran border region while enjoying British Airways’ business class hospitality, may have had something to do with it.)

The movie has many memorable quotes. Banal, you might say, but even banalities sometimes reflect profoundly on our reality.

On particular quote echoes in my mind today as I witness, day after day, even in my relatively close circle of friends, the “relativization” of facts in our post-truth era. A key character in the movie is interviewed by an archivist just before her scheduled execution. To put her at ease, the archivist reassures her: “Remember, this isn’t an interrogation or trial. Your version of the truth is all that matters.” The protagonist, looking deeply in the eyes of the archivist, responds: “Truth is singular. Its versions are mis-truths.”

Yes, it should be that self-evident. Truth is singular. A and ¬A cannot simultaneously be true: A ∧ ¬A = 0 always. It is elementary formal logic.

But in our increasingly Göbbelsian 21st century, formal logic no longer matters. Instead, we have “alternative facts”. Instead, everyone feels entitled to question, even deny, facts that conflict with their Weltanschauung.

Yes, I said Göbbelsian. No, I am not trying to serve as an example of Godwin’s law by needless comparisons to Nazis. Rather, it is a recognition that the legacy of Göbbels, the evil genius of modern communication, continues to reverberate nearly a century later, as various actors push their versions of the truth. Göbbels taught us how to “sell” alternative facts: blatant lies are easy to falsify, lies by omission are much harder to catch.

A pluralistic society thrives on differences of opinion. Good people whose priorities differ may come to different conclusions based on the same set of facts. But when there is disagreement over the facts themselves, society breaks down. And that’s what we face today. The facts have now become matters of opinion.

I could name a number of issues from climate change to gender roles where the facts should be indisputable but they aren’t. But my concern transcends any specific topic. I simply worry that if we all retreat into our alternative facts bubbles, consensus or compromise become impossible. Where that leads, I don’t know but it is deeply worrying.

 Posted by at 12:11 pm
Apr 102021
 

Black lives matter. No argument there.

But, unfortunately, so does messaging. Dr. Göbbels knew this. The communists also knew this, hence their emphasis on “agitation and propaganda”. But, truth to tell, unlike the Third Reich, the left always sucked at it. That’s why, in Kádár’s Hungary, for instance, instead of being content with a regime that delivered a solid system of universal health care and a consistently high quality public system of education that included free tertiary education, we joked about living in the “happiest of the barracks”, took the regime’s successes for granted without acknowledging them, and grumbled daily about its numerous shortcomings.

The political left seems to be intent on continuing this tradition. Their messaging sucks.

A few days ago, I grumbled about the Mayor of London who proclaimed that there are too many white men in science and engineering.

Not too few women. Not underrepresented minorities. Not the need to increase the appeal and accessibility of science and engineering professions to women and minorities. Nope. Too many white men. The resulting backlash was both predictable and completely unnecessary.

Meanwhile, self-righteous warriors of the progressive left declare people like J. K. Rowling a public enemy. Shouldn’t someone with her storytelling prowess be enlisted as a friend and ally? No… deviate in the slightest from the unwritten standards of leftist orthodoxy, and you are labeled a backward, hateful somethingophobe. Like the California university professor who dared to mention a common Chinese expression in his lecture on communication: “na ge” (那个), a common pause word. Oh, how the righteous pounced! This insensitive white professor must be secretly a racist white supremacist! How dare he utter a word that sounds like, well… dare I write it down? Or do I, too, have to fear repercussions from the thought police if I dare spell out the infamous N-word in its entirety? The incident drew criticism from Chinese students and comparisons to Mao’s cultural revolution, and they were not wrong.

Then there are these calls to “defund the police”. The first time I heard this expression I was perplexed. Sure, I know there exist crazy anarchists who want no uniformed authority whatsoever on our streets, but I was also certain that this was not the meaning that the expression was intended to convey. And I was right. The original intent is to divert funds away: let the police do policing when they must, but use the funds wisely, to prevent those cultural and socioeconomic circumstances that lead to situations that need policing in the first place. Makes sense, right?

But that’s not the message that a call to “defund the police” conveys. Many who are rightfully angered by police excess want to, well, literally defund the police. And now their voices are amplified beyond reason, seemingly representing mainstream progressive attitudes. Needless to say, that’s all their opponents need to spread fear and concern among their followers: Look, they tell you, these leftist idiots, these commie anarchists want to leave your streets unprotected from thieves and murderers! They want to turn your country into a failed state like Venezuela!

So yes, black lives matter. And I know what you mean. You mean “Black lives matter, too.” You mean “Not only white lives matter.” You are not suggesting that lives other than black lives matter less.

But when you just say, “black lives matter”, you hand a propaganda victory to your opponents on a silver platter. Even stereotypical rednecks, those undereducated and unintelligent “deplorables”, can retort easily with “but I thought all lives matter!” and gain the moral upper hand.

I happen to support many (most? all?) key progressive ideas. I do think black lives (also) matter. I do believe it is a good idea to attack socioeconomic problems at their roots as opposed to just policing the consequences. I understand that words can hurt, dehumanize, and contribute to systemic racism. I do agree that we must do better to involve women and minorities in science and engineering professions.

But, dear progressives, when I look at your messaging… continuing a century-old tradition, you remain your own worst enemies.

 Posted by at 7:25 pm
Mar 152021
 

The cartoon series The Simpsons is into its 32nd season this year. It has been picked up for at least another two seasons by Fox.

The Simpsons depicts a “typical” American family of five: Homer the breadwinner, with only a high-school diploma, holding a dead-end but secure job as a safety inspector at the Springfield Nuclear Plant, Marge the housewife, mother of three children and the three kids, two of them school-age, one still a toddler. The Simpsons live in a detached house in a suburb and own two cars. They are not rich, but they do have disposable income: Homer spends his evenings gulping down beer as Moe’s Tavern, Marge never seems to have a problem paying for groceries.

In other words, The Simpsons live the American dream: a comfortable North American middle class lifestyle from a single income.

A dream that, as lamented in a recent opinion article in The Atlantic, is no longer attainable.

This, I think, really explains it all. The polarization of American politics. The emergence of extremism. The appeal of slogans like “Make America Great Again”. The “we have nothing to lose” attitude that led many to vote for Trump, despite their misgivings.

And it is by no means a US-only phenomenon. Income inequality may not be as bad in Canada as it is in the US, but the middle class is not doing spectacularly well here either. Europe, too, is not heading in the right direction.

Lest we forget the lessons of history, this is precisely what provides fertile ground for totalitarian ideologies like fascism and communism. When liberal democracy fails to deliver on society’s most basic promise, the ability to provide a life as good as, but preferably better than your own for your children, people turn to other ideas. That was just as true a century ago as it is today.

 Posted by at 10:52 pm
Feb 272021
 

Today’s “what on Earth were they thinking” moment arrived in the form of a statue:

Yes, a golden statue of Donald Trump.

Apparently, it’s not a joke. It is a bona fide prop for this weekend’s CPAC (Conservative Political Action Conference).

Apart from the blatantly obvious (even to heathen nonbelievers like me) reference to the Bible and its admonition concerning the Golden Calf, there are also the more modern-day comparisons to personality cults, such as those of Joseph Stalin or Trump’s BFF Kim Jong Un.

How could the party of Abraham Lincoln and Ronald Reagan sink this far, this quickly?

Just how badly broken is the American body politic for us to witness this… this abomination?

The mind boggles. I’ll leave it at that as I really have no answer and no coherent thoughts as I continue to stare at this deeply disturbing image.

 Posted by at 12:24 am
Feb 062021
 

In recent days, especially in light of the sudden drop in vaccine deliveries in Canada, I saw a lot of criticism aimed at the Canadian government and its perceived failure to secure vaccine supplies or vaccine manufacturing in Canada.

Reality is a little bit more nuanced. Manufacturing a 21st century vaccine is not exactly something that can be done anywhere. The fact that Canada doesn’t presently have the expertise or infrastructure is lamentable but that’s the result of a decades-long trend, not the decisions of the past several months.

Meanwhile in Hungary, Orban’s government is criticized for telling people that they will be vaccinated with whichever vaccine is available at the time; if you don’t like the vaccine being offered, you’re sent to the back of the line. A bit harsh, to be sure, but this is a bleeping global health emergency. Orban’s government may be criticized for acting in haste when they approved the Chinese and Russian vaccines (although the Russian vaccine seems effective; the Chinese vaccine is probably also fine, what is questionable is the ethical shortcuts they took with the testing and approval process). But acting in an authoritarian fashion when there is a global health emergency is precisely what even the most liberal, most democratic governments are expected to do. Orban can, and should, be criticized for undermining the country’s democratic institutions, its press freedoms, its judicial independence, its constitutional principles, but not for acting decisively when decisive action is needed during a pandemic.

 Posted by at 6:29 pm
Jan 242021
 

Let me begin with a simple statement: I am not a parler.com fan.

But free speech is not about the freedom to publish things we all like. It is about the freedom to publish things we hate. Things that we find disgusting, revolting, reprehensible.

Of course, there has to be a line drawn somewhere. It is one thing to publish a racist rant about the inferiority of some human beings. It is another thing to call for genocide. Somewhere between these two is (or should be) a clear bright line: criminal “hate speech” is speech that calls for violence, speech that instructs readers to commit a crime.

Arguably, parler.com crossed this line multiple times when it failed to remove posts calling for violence against lawfully elected or appointed public officials, when it called for a violent uprising against the lawful government of the United States.

So what is my problem, then? Simple: I am alarmed by the idea that we are outsourcing the (legitimate, necessary) policing of the boundaries between free speech and criminal speech to corporations. Not just social media corporations like Facebook and Twitter, but also to corporations that provide fundamental Internet infrastructure, such as Amazon’s AWS.

As private corporations, these companies are of course well within their rights to deny their platforms to anyone, for whatever reason. But is this the world in which we wish to live? Where private corporations manage our fundamental communication infrastructure and decide who can or cannot communicate with the public?

This does not bode well for the future.

When the commercial Internet emerged, Internet Service Providers asked to be viewed by the law much like telephone companies: common carriers, that is, who are responsible for providing an infrastructure, but are not responsible for the content. (The telephone company does not become an accomplice by providing the service through which criminals arrange a crime.) But social media blurs this line, since these companies become the curators of user-supplied content, which they prioritize, filter, and use for advertising. And companies like AWS must be mindful of the content supplied through their infrastructure, since there are repercussions: letting an AWS VM spit out spam, for instance, can cause other service providers to block a range of AWS IP numbers affecting a large number of well-behaved AWS users.

But now, we have service providers that police political content. Even attaching labels like “the factual accuracy of this item is disputed” is questionable: Who disputes it? How can I trust the objectivity of the fact checkers who attach such labels? But things get much worse when Facebook or Twitter altogether ban someone like Trump from their respective platforms, or when AWS kicks out parler.com.

I am not questioning the judgment behind these individual cases. I am not questioning the necessity behind the decisions. Rather, I am questioning the haphazard, arbitrary, opaque process that lead to these actions. How can the same process that, say, led to Trump’s lifetime ban on Twitter still permit religious extremists, dictators and worse to spread hate or promote acts far more criminal than anything Trump has done?

There has to be a better way.

And I think there is a better way. Now is the time, I think, for this industry to create a nonprofit council that establishes and manages standards, adjusted if necessary to take into account applicable law in different jurisdictions. The institution should be arms-length, with secure funding, so that its decisions would not be swayed by undue influences or funding concerns. The process should be entirely transparent. And companies, especially social media and cloud computing infrastructure companies, should abide by the standards set by this council.

The alternative is just unacceptable. I don’t care how well-intentioned Facebook or Twitter or Amazon are, I do not wish our freedom of expression in our digital future to be opaquely managed by for-profit corporations.

 Posted by at 1:47 pm
Jan 172021
 

Coups d’état don’t succeed without support from the armed forces. That’s a historic given.

So when strangely clad “warriors” wearing fur hats and tattoos storm the Capitol Building in Washington DC, the sights are unsettling, people may die, but the stability of the United States government is not in any way in question.

But what happens when the troops who are supposed to prevent it from happening again themselves come under suspicion?

Just read the headline from the following Associated Press news release from minutes ago:

Defense officials fear possible inside attack at inauguration, will have National Guard troops vetted.

Just how the bleep do you vet over 20,000 troops hastily sent to Washington in less than 72 hours?

And what will that vetting do to their morale?

I am beginning to feel truly frightened.

 Posted by at 9:50 pm
Jan 162021
 

I am reading an interdisciplinary paper, published in Frontiers in Conservation Science, about the likeliness of a much more ghastly future than usually predicted: A future characterized by deteriorating environmental conditions, mass extinctions, a collapsing ecosystem threatening human existence.

The concerns are real. The warnings should be heeded before it’s too late.

But… But, having read the article, I cannot escape the feeling that the authors themselves practice some of what they preach against.

They mention the “weaponization of ‘environmentalism’ as a political ideology”, rightfully expressing concern that as a result, environmental groups are often viewed as “terrorists” in many parts of the world. But then, later on, among the suggested remedies they list “the empowerment of women”.

Now I may be very fond of the idea of empowering women (I am) but I have to ask*: what does this have to do with climate and the ecosystem? Are women inherently better at being environmentally friendly? Do they have special abilities to understand climate science better than men? Or is it, heaven forbid, an actual example of someone, well-intentioned I am sure, sneaking in a desirable political goal by “weaponizing environmentalism” for ideological purposes?


*I could ask similar questions about “strict regulation of markets and property acquisition, reigning in corporate lobbying” (which appeared in the same sentence). While I may sympathize with reducing corporate influence by constraining campaign financing (I consider near unconstrained financing one of the core reasons behind the current democracy crisis in the United States), what on Earth does it have to do with climate or the ecosystem? I would also like to remind the authors that regimes that had strict regulations of markets and property acquisition, such as the socialist regime in which I grew up, have a terrible environmental track record: and yes, they tended to treat environmental groups as terrorists, insurrectionists or worse, precisely because such groups acted independently and refused to be controlled by those governments.

 Posted by at 1:11 pm