The Comedian and the Cop

Cracked has been a consistent go-to comedy site for me for a few years now. They consistently deliver all manner of good, silly articles, such as 6 Bizarrely Sexual Easter Eggs Lurking in Kids’ Video Games and The 6 Most Terrifying Theme Park Rides Ever Built. Nice, light-hearted fun.

But lately, they’ve been getting more and more serious, and it’s got me worried. Not for the quality of the site, but rather for the state of the world.

One of the articles that first got me concerned was 5 Apologies to the Cops Who Beat Me Up for No Reason, written in response to one of the writers being raided by the police by mistake. I had heard of this sort of thing happening, thanks to the work of Radley Balko, but it had never happened to anyone I knew, or even anyone I had ever heard of. Then it happened to Soren Bowie. I think that was when the possibility of being attacked by the police as the result of a stupid mistake became real for me. I had seen all the cases documented by Balko, but then Soren laid out exactly what happened to him in that gently sarcastic style I love so much, and I began to emotionally understand the terrible reality. If the cops could bust up one of my favorite comedy writers, then they could bust up anybody.

Alas, this was only the beginning of the bad news coming out of Cracked. They gave me 5 Recent Trends That Make It Hard to Trust the Police (later followed by a Part 2), they told me about The 4 Worst Recent Police Fails in America, they described 5 Terrifying Ways Police Can Legally Screw You Over, they talked about 4 Reasons Police Are Starting to Look Like Supervillains (note that they changed the title of that article. They have a recurring problem with changing titles. And also a problem with inaccurate titles, but unfortunately that problem does not affect the titles I just listed). There’s been plenty of bad news about the police, and the comedians of Cracked have been unable to ignore it.

But just this week, it’s gotten really bad. First came this article, 4 Weird Decisions That Have Made Modern Cops Terrifying (the title and the URL on that one both got changed. I believe the original title referenced storm troopers). The takeaway from that article is that cops are utterly alienated from the people and communities they’re supposed to be protecting, so they have no empathy to prevent them from just attacking citizens. Then came 7 Important Details Nobody Mentions About Ferguson (the original title was all about farts… read the article, it’ll make sense). Farts aside, the takeaway from that article is that the cops in Ferguson just cannot stop lying. They have given us no reason to trust them at all, and they keep arresting journalists and shooting people for no reason.

What I’m getting from all this is that cops don’t trust normal citizens like me, that they can’t be trusted, that they wield vast power over us (both legal power and firepower) and they’re hopelessly clumsy in using that power. This is the state of modern police work in America. There’s no getting away from it.

This is intolerable. If this is the best that our police force can do, then we’d be better off with no police at all. I say it’s time to consider abolishing cops entirely.

©olumba: Patron Saint of Free Culture

I’d like to return, for a moment, to one of my previous posts, Escape the Iron Prison. In that post, I touched briefly on the story of Columba (also known as Columcille, or Colm Cille, meaning “church dove”), 6th-century Christian missionary and book transcriber. But the breadth and length of that post made it hard to focus on any one aspect in particular, and I don’t think I gave Columba the attention he deserves. So today, we’re going to learn a little more about Columba, because he was a cool guy.

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:%D0%9A%D0%BE%D0%BB%D0%B0%D0%BC%D0%B1%D0%B0_%D0%90%D0%B9%D0%BE%D0%BD%D1%81%D0%BA%D0%B8%D0%B9_%28%D0%B8%D0%BA%D0%BE%D0%BD%D0%B0%29.jpg
And also the owner of a truly massive forehead.

Unlike lucky folks like us who get to live in the future, Columba had to live in the past, and living in the past had a tendency to really suck. Instead of having far too many books, people in Columba’s day had far too few. The printing press wasn’t due to arrive in Europe for another 800 years or so, and that meant that if you wanted to copy a book, you had to write it all out by hand. This is not the sort of environment that produces an active file-sharing scene. But true fans will be true fans, and true fans copy and share, and Columba was a true fan of the Word of God.

According to Life of Columcille, Columba went to hang out with Finnian, his old teacher, and borrowed a book from him (specifically, a psalter). Columba thought that the psalter was just swell, and decided to make a new copy. Lacking the power to simply Ctrl+C/Ctrl+V, Columba wrote the new copy himself, and what a glorious writing it was:

On a time Columcille went to stay with Finnen of Druim Finn, and he asked of him the loan of a book, and it was given him. After the hours and the mass, he was wont to tarry behind the others in the church, there transcribing the book, unknown to Finnen. And when evening came there would be candles for him the while he copied, to wit, the five fingers of his right hand blazing like five passing bright lights, so that they lit up and enlumined the whole temple.
From Life of Columcille, p.177

My hands do not get nearly that magical when I’m copying books. Maybe I’m doing it wrong.

Anyways, Finnian eventually decided that he wanted his book back, so he sent a young man to pick it up. The youth peeked in on Columba doing his copying, and was apparently quite amazed by it, but Columba didn’t like being peeked on, so he sent a crane to pluck out the youth’s eye. Remember, kids: respect people’s privacy… or else! Not surprisingly, this turn of events pissed Finnian off, so after healing the youth’s eye, he insisted that Columba give up the copy he had made. Columba refused and appealed to the local king to settle the matter. Diarmait heard them out and rendered the following famous judgment:

“To every cow her calf, and to every book its copy.”

Columba refused the king’s judgment, which prompted the king to send in an army, so Columba rallied his kinsmen and fought back. According to the legend, Columba even got God to intervene on his behalf, such that none of Columba’s kinsmen died in the battle, thus giving him and his folk a rather solid victory. Diarmait and Finnian went home empty-handed, and Columba kept his copy (the Catach of St. Columba is believed to be the book in question).

What a story! First, a man of God tries to make the word of God more abundant, but his teacher and mentor refuses to let him do so! He appeals to the king for justice, but the king sides with the mentor, so he appeals to God for help, and he triumphs! What a statement – that God is on the side of the copiers! And it’s worth reading Columba’s defense of his actions:

“I hold that Finnian’s book has not decreased in value because of the transcript I have made from it, and that it is not right to extinguish the divine things it contained, or to prevent me or anybody else from copying it, or reading it, or from circulating it throughout the provinces. I further maintain that if I benefited by its transcription, which I desired to be for the general good, provided no injury accrues to Finnian or his book thereby, it was quite permissible for me to copy it.”

The spirit of Kopimism is strong with this one. We need to tell this guy’s story more often.

And that’s why I’m proposing that we make Columba the patron saint of free culture and file-sharing. I’m not a Catholic, so I don’t know how the official system works for making someone a patron saint, but I think that we don’t need to wait for the Vatican to act on this one. Kopimism already has a gospel (provided here by Christian Engström); it’s time it had a patron saint as well. I nominate Columba.

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Stained_glass_in_Leitir_Beara_church_-_geograph.org.uk_-_856701.jpg
Huh. Maybe his forehead wasn’t so big after all.

What’s in your PC’s diet?

Question for you, readers: would you eat a meal if you did not know the ingredients?

If you’ve got food allergies, the thought is probably enough to make you cringe. There could be anything in that mystery dish in front of you. How do you know it hasn’t got traces of something that will give you hives and diarrhea for the next 3 days? Best not to even touch the stuff. You can’t trust it.

Now, another question: would you eat a meal if you were not allowed to know the ingredients?

And when I say not allowed, I mean Not Allowed. You can’t ask what’s in it, you can’t test what’s in it, and if you try to guess what’s in it, you have to prove you’re not reverse-engineering the food or else you’re liable for infringement. You just have to take the chef’s word that it’s safe… assuming you can trust the chef, of course.

Would you eat this secret food? Would you feed it to your children? Would you even feed it to your dog?

If not, then why are you feeding secret food to your robot?

“I told you I was FORTRAN-intolerant. Now I’m going to have to take a core dump.”

By “robot”, I actually mean your computer. And what is food for a computer? Software, of course! The code is what makes it go. Now, code is not exactly like food, but it is vital to your machine; it won’t run without it. And what is in this vital code? Chances are, you don’t know and you’re not allowed to know (according to this Wikipedia article, Windows still dominates desktop systems, and even OS X commands more share than Linux). Your computer is running off of secret sauce, and you have little hope of ever knowing what problems there might be with it.

So with this in mind, I think it’s time to take a fresh look at the old “open source” issue. Instead of asking, “Is open source better?”, we should be asking, “Why is closed source even legal?”

The fact is that closed source is a real danger to us, just as much as food allergies. Bugs and flaws in our software leave us vulnerable to attack from crooks and spooks, and trying to hide the source doesn’t slow them down at all (noted security expert Bruce Shneier has addressed this topic over and over and over – there’s no security in obscurity). Closing and locking the source only prevents honest people from finding and fixing the bugs. In addition, closed source software also creates a “lock in” effect, in which the vendor can essentially hold users hostage, because the users stand to lose so much data or productive capacity if they switch products. Monopolies of this kind are very lucrative, which is why closed source software persists, but they are inherently hostile to users, and they do not deserve any of the legal protections they currently enjoy (such as copyrights, patents, trade secrets, and end-user license agreements).

People who try to sell products to you, but insist on keeping secrets concerning the very products they are trying to sell you, are not worthy of your business. Don’t eat food if you don’t know what’s in it, don’t fund an agency if you don’t know what it’s doing, and don’t run software if you can’t see how it’s written. Open source is the only way to go.

“My teeth wouldn’t look this bad if I had just used FLOSS!”

Lies Are Bad

In my last post, I noted that Alexander Baker had a rather odd view (in my opinion) of the value of honesty. Quoting from this post:

Is the plagiarist wrong simply because plagiarism is dishonest? No. Lying is only wrong when done to deprive another person of property. Deceiving a robber about the location of your valuables is virtuous.

This acceptance of dishonesty caught me off guard. But it turns out that Baker is hardly the only one arguing such a thing. Here’s Murray Rothbard arguing something very similar in The Ethics of Liberty:

We have therefore affirmed the legitimacy (the right) of Smith’s either disseminating knowledge about Jones, keeping silent about the knowledge, or engaging in a contract with Jones to sell his silence. We have so far been assuming that Smith’s knowledge is correct. Suppose, however, that the knowledge is false and Smith knows that it is false (the “worst” case). Does Smith have the right to disseminate false information about Jones? In short, should “libel” and “slander” be illegal in the free society?

And yet, once again, how can they be? Smith has a property right to the ideas or opinions in his own head; he also has a property right to print anything he wants and disseminate it. He has a property right to say that Jones is a “thief” even if he knows it to be false, and to print and sell that statement.

We can, of course, readily concede the gross immorality of spreading false libels about another person. But we must, nevertheless, maintain the legal right of anyone to do so. Pragmatically, again, this situation may well redound to the benefit of the people being libelled.

The thought that keeps running through my head as I read these statements is this: What is WRONG with you people!?

Of course, I’m reacting out of anger, not rational disapproval. But I think I at least have a good reason to be mad. I don’t like being lied to, and here these guys are, saying that lying is not wrong! What gives?

Giving my opponents the benefit of the doubt here, it seems to me that they’re arguing that lies do not necessarily cause harm. Thus, while lies may be disgusting and immoral, we shouldn’t automatically treat them like crimes. Alexander even goes so far as to offer a situation when lying could be considered just and moral.

But I think these guys are missing something. I think that they are missing the fundamental nature of lies. To me, the important point is this: lying is for enemies.

Consider our friends in the animal kingdom. They lie to each other, and they do it quite often. A crab spider, disguised as a flower, is lying to any nearby insects about its true nature. And why not? It’s not trying to cooperate with the bugs, it’s trying to eat them, so open and honest communication would not serve the spider’s agenda in any way.

Picture taken by Jeffrey C. Oliver, 2000
“Sorry, pal, but you should have read the fine print more carefully.”

It’s not just predators who lie, of course. Prey lie, too. And why not? If a creature is trying to eat you, do you have any obligation to give it an honest account of your true nature?

But Rothbard and Baker are not talking about predator-prey relationships between animals. They’re talking about human relationships. And not just any human relationships, but peaceful human relationships, the sort that we’d like to permit under any circumstances. In situations like these, there should be no enemies. I may not be friends with everyone, but I seek to be an enemy to no one, and I consider that to be a reasonable standard for all people. If someone lies to me, or lies about me, then my default assumption is that they are an enemy to me, and therefore they are an active danger, requiring appropriate response.

The nature of lying becomes more apparent when you look at the sort of lies that people defend. Crosbie Fitch has a particular lie that he likes to use as an example: “There are no Jews in this house”. The implication, of course, is that the liar is speaking to a Gestapo officer or some other anti-Semite, and is concealing the existence of Jews in order to protect their lives. Now tell me this: would you say that the liar has a friendly relationship with the Nazis they’re lying to? Of course not! They’re enemies with the Nazis, and they’re acting like enemies by actively obstructing the Nazis’ efforts to achieve their goals. We say that the lie is just because the liar is justified in treating the Nazis as enemies (hardly a controversial position, to be sure). But in a situation where the questioner is not worthy of being called an enemy, would we still justify the liar?

Now, having said all that, I must concede that there are many, many, many circumstances when punishing a liar is simply not possible, let alone desirable. If I actually had to enumerate when you could and should punish a liar, my position might not be so far from Rothbard’s. But I still think that Rothbard and Baker are far too cavalier about lies and liars.

The fact is that, as humans, we rely on each other. We need the knowledge that other people have, so we count on each other to tell the truth. Thus, we are generally justified in ostracizing liars simply because they lied, even if the lies had no effect. And if the lies did in fact cause measurable damage, then the liar has to pay. Rothbard is right in noting the problems that can come from libel laws (and he’s quite right to reject any right to “reputation”) but he’s wrong to reject libel laws entirely. Lying hurts, and lies are bad, and any society made of humans is going to recognize that.

A very long disagreement with Alexander Baker

As I’ve mentioned previously, there’s a split in the libertarian movement right now, over the subject of “intellectual property”. Some are against it, some are for it. One of the voices in favor of intellectual property rights (specifically in the area of copyright) is a fellow named Alexander Baker. He writes a blog called Intellectual Space, subtitled: “The Libertarian Theory of Intangible Property”. Here’s his brief explanation of his own blog:

Intellectual Space is a praxeological examination of property rights for intangible objects. I initially began thinking that a rigorous philosophical approach would support the anti-IP position prevalent in libertarian circles. The opposite has occurred.

This is an interesting challenge for me. Alexander Baker appears to share many of the premises I have, yet he arrives at a very different conclusion from mine, and he insists that it is the result of a rigorous philosophical approach. This indicates to me that something, somewhere, has gone wrong. Perhaps we do not share certain as many premises as I thought. Perhaps our logic has gone wrong somewhere. Perhaps we’re just miscommunicating, and we do not truly differ in opinion. Whatever the case, there is a problem somewhere, and this long post is my attempt to tease out that problem and fix it.
Continue reading

Lightening the mood

Well, folks, it seems that J. Neil Schulman has noticed my antics and decided that enough is enough. After I described to him how I pirated his book, and then compared him to the villains from Tron, he responded… by adding me as a friend on Facebook.

How about that.

I happily accepted. And not as a joke, either. I actually like this Schulman guy. To see why, I recommend that you read this post of his: Mere Anarchy. That post is the sort of thing I wish I had written, but I don’t need to write it now because Neil already did. So yeah, I loudly disagree with Neil on some things, but I agree with him on other things, and I don’t wish to overlook that.

So thank you, Neil, for taking the high ground and extending an olive branch. I’ll probably continue to disagree with you on some things, but when I do, I hope I don’t forget this time, when I spoke to you like an enemy and you still asked to be my friend.