Muchas gracias, Eliezer Yudkowsky – an open letter

Dear Eliezer Yudkowsky,

I wish to sincerely thank you for the works that you have written and published, most especially your magnificent work of fanfiction, Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality. It is an enjoyable and engrossing story, and my wife and I found happiness reading and discussing it together.

But that’s not really why you wrote that story, is it? Entertainment is all well and good, but what you really want is to educate people, so that we can actually know and apply those methods of rationality you mentioned. Well, it so happens that your book worked; I did learn something from Harry’s adventures, and I used it to improve my own life.

Earlier this year, I went down to Nogales (the Mexican half) with a friend, on a mission. I was there to have a good time being a tourist, and also to obtain six bottles of Mexican vanilla (my wife wanted some for herself and some to share with family and friends). I had brought with me 20 American dollars. My wife assured me that this would be enough to cover any expenses I would encounter.

Well, as my friend parked his car in Nogales (the American half) and we approached the border, I thought about that money, and wondered if it would be enough, and I remembered Chapter 6: The Planning Fallacy when Harry gives that little lecture about being sufficiently pessimistic and reveals the gold he secretly swiped from his vault. I decided that I, too, wanted to have enough money to buy what I really wanted, and withdrew 40 more dollars from the nearest ATM. I then followed my friend to the moneychanger’s office, where we converted our dollars to pesos, and we crossed the border.

I spent every last centavo, and it was great.

I bought some chocolate in brand names that I’d never seen before. I had a strange and lovely meal in a very authentic hole-in-the-wall restaurant. I bought a locally-knitted jacket for my daughter, and I probably overpaid because I have no experience bargaining, but I could afford the loss. I bought a little silver bracelet for my wife. And I bought six of the largest vanilla bottles I could find. My trip was a complete success.

So, Mr. Yudkowsky, if you ever lie awake at night, wondering if you’ve ever actually succeeded at helping anyone be more rational, remember that you helped me, at least a little. Even now, there sits in our kitchen a vanilla bottle as long as my forearm, and it wouldn’t have been half as big if not for you.

Thank you again, and good luck to you,
Tice

Disconnected and Loving It

A few days ago, I was cut off from the Internet. I could not send or receive mail; I could not read or reply on blogs or on Facebook. I lost my favorite way of learning about the outside world and of communicating with other human beings.

I loved it.

It was a huge relief to not have so many things to stress over. No longer could I inundate myself with bad news and endlessly obsess over the feedback of strangers. I could pick up a book and contemplatively read it – or monomaniacally pore through it and finish a whole novel in an afternoon, something I hadn’t done since the last Harry Potter book. I could speak face to face with people and enjoy the whole range of feedback you get that way. Or I could be alone – truly, willfully alone – and not care about anyone’s opinion, if only for a little while. It was bliss.

Now, some of you are probably reading this and thinking, “So what? I have no problem doing all those nice things, even when I do have easy access to high-speed Internet. What’s your problem?” Well, simply put, my problem is that I am not you. You can hold your liquor, but me, I had to go dry. It wasn’t by choice at first, but I’m glad it happened, and I intend to remain this way as much as possible.

For a while, I was considering getting rid of my smart phone and getting a dumb one; I finally realized that I can dumb down my phone and call it good. I’ve turned off my phone’s Wi-fi and mobile data. As for my computer, I’m rationing my time on it. I can’t avoid the Internet forever, but I can push it away as much as possible, leaving myself free to enjoy life and humanity the way God intended.

So, if you are like me, and you spend too much time in cyberspace, I suggest that you cut yourself off and spend a little time in meatspace. Look up from your phone – you’ll be glad you did.

The Illusion of Guilt

There is a sickness in our minds, and it runs deep. It is a desire to force the facts to fit our opinions, rather than force our opinions to fit the facts. This madness is especially dangerous when the facts in question are related to crimes and justice. Our institutions have a terrible tendency to force people to appear guilty instead of determining whether or not they actually are guilty.

One area where this tendency manifests is in the way cops interrogate suspects. The Reid Technique is currently popular among American law-enforcement agencies as a way to get suspects to confess. It is a powerful technique, with a proven track record of getting people to confess to crimes that they could not possibly have committed. FalseConfessions.org describes how this can happen on this page. Here’s a typical example:

Martin Tankleff had just turned 17, when he found his mother brutally murdered and his father clinging to life after being attacked. After calling 911, he was immediately taken to police headquarters and underwent harsh interrogation by homicide investigators. He was told that his hair was found in his mother’s dead fingers and that his father awoke from his coma to identify young Martin as his attacker. Although he was never Mirandized and maintained his innocence, police finally convinced Marty that he must have blacked out. Confused and scared, Marty came to believe his interrogators that he blacked out and committed the crime. Although not one bit of forensic evidence linked Marty to the crime scene, he was convicted and sentenced to fifty years in prison. After serving close to 18 yeas, his conviction was finally overturned in 2007. (see www.Martytankleff.org)

A recent scientific study, reported here by the Star, concluded that it was extremely easy to get people to believe themselves guilty of a crime: 70 percent of participants in a study were persuaded that they were guilty of a crime, with only minimal suggestions from the researchers. To make matters worse, some of the fooled participants became so convinced of their own guilt that they could not be re-persuaded to believe themselves innocent, even when the researchers revealed the ruse! The scientists prematurely ended the study, frightened of their terrible discovery, but the techniques they used remain common practice in police departments all across America. In fact, the Reid Technique was first developed in 1942, so we have several decades’ worth of false confessions on the books. How many people have already died, wrongfully convinced of their own guilt? I can only guess.

It’s worth noting, as Brian Gallini does in this paper, that the Reid Technique was based off of polygraph techniques – the so-called “lie detector”, which happens to be based on a pack of lies. Gallini observes that the polygraph’s credibility was already in question in 1942, so the Reid technique was in trouble from the start, and yet it has become common practice, in spite of evidence that it does not work! And speaking of the polygraph, that one hasn’t gone away, either: California is now requiring paroled sex offenders to take the test. Apparently, it is too much to ask that our governments refrain from using methods that routinely incriminate innocent people.

The Reid Technique and the polygraph are not alone in the government’s arsenal of methods for conjuring up guilt. Let us not forget that our forces are fighting a War on Terror, and to fight such a war, they must sometimes use “enhanced interrogation techniques” to get critical information out of terrorist suspects. Torture, in other words. But does torture work? There is precious little evidence in its favor. There are many who claim that it is effective, but, as former FBI agent Ali Soufan notes in this op-ed, they have a track record of lying. The US Army’s own field manual on intelligence interrogation notes that “the use of force is a poor technique, as it yields unreliable results, may damage subsequent collection efforts, and can induce the source to say whatever he thinks the interrogator wants to hear”. Alas, it is that final property of torture – that it can induce someone to say whatever the interrogator wants to hear – that makes it so useful to its practitioners. When you want to force the facts to fit your opinion, waterboarding people into submission seems like a great idea. (For a good examination of this mad way of thinking, read this piece by Major Anthony Milavic.)

There is one other information-gathering technique that I wish to discuss: mass surveillance. This one stands out from the others I’ve mentioned because it’s so much less personal, and it doesn’t appear to force anyone to lie. And yet, it suffers from the same failures as torture, polygraphing, and Reid Technique: it’s terrible at getting the truth and great at creating the appearance of guilt.

In defense of the first assertion, consider this post from WashingtonsBlog, in which the author notes (among other good points) that even before the 9/11 attacks, there was plenty of mass surveillance going on, and plenty of data being gathered about the people who would eventually carry out the attacks, but none of that data was able to prevent the attack. Why not? The author quotes from this piece by Nassim Taleb: “Big data may mean more information, but it also means more false information.” Perhaps this is why the NSA’s bulk metadata collection program has failed to prevent even a single terrorist attack.

As for creating the appearance of guilt, we need look no further than the strange case of Brandon Mayfield:

But there’s another danger that Snowden didn’t mention that’s inherent in the government’s having easy access to the voluminous data we produce every day: It can imply guilt where there is none. When investigators have mountains of data on a particular target, it’s easy to see only the data points that confirm their theories — especially in counterterrorism investigations when the stakes are so high — while ignoring or downplaying the rest…

Mayfield had converted to Islam after meeting his wife, an Egyptian. He had represented one of the Portland Seven, a group of men who tried to travel to Afghanistan to fight for al Qaeda and the Taliban against U.S. and coalition forces in a child custody case. He also worshipped at the same mosque as the militants. In the aftermath of 9/11, these innocent associations and relationships, however tangential, were transformed by investigators into evidence that Mayfield wasn’t a civic-minded American, but a bloodthirsty terrorist intent on destroying the West…

FBI agents broke into Mayfield’s home and law office. They rifled through documents protected by attorney-client privilege, wiretapped his phones, analyzed his financial records and web browsing history, and went through his garbage. They followed him wherever he went. Despite all this, the FBI never found a smoking gun connecting him to Madrid. They did, however, find Internet searches of flights to Spain and learned that he once took flying lessons. To FBI agents already convinced of his guilt, this was all evidence of Mayfield’s terrorist heart…

While it may seem like there were a freakish number of coincidences here, when the FBI was confronted with evidence that demonstrated Mayfield’s innocence, they twisted it to support their original theory of his guilt. With no evidence that Mayfield had traveled internationally for years — his passport had expired, and the last record of foreign travel was during his military service in 1994 — the FBI simply concocted the theory that he must have traveled overseas as part of this terrorist conspiracy under a false identity…

Because of mistakes made by the FBI — they left shoe prints in the carpet of the Mayfields’ home and broke in one time when Mayfield’s son was home alone — Mayfield concluded he was under surveillance by federal authorities. Paranoia set in. When driving, he would look to see if someone was following him home or to the office. The FBI took his skittishness as more evidence of his guilt.

There is a saying, which some attribute to Cardinal de Richelieu: “Qu’on me donne six lignes écrites de la main du plus honnête homme, j’y trouverai de quoi le faire pendre.” Translated: “If you give me six lines written by the hand of the most honest of men, I will find something in them which will hang him.” (Hat tip to Cory Doctorow for telling me about that quote) In other words, it’s easy to make people look guilty. And if six lines aren’t enough, then collect six hundred, or maybe six million. That is what mass surveillance offers: enough noise to cherry-pick any data we want, and invent guilt in any target we choose.

This all has to stop. We have tens of thousands of people being wrongfully convicted, and millions of people being pointlessly spied on, all because our institutions refuse to admit that they can be wrong. I don’t know how to put an end to all of this, but I know we need to do it, and as soon as possible. It is time to stop supporting the illusion of guilt.

I’m Back!

Greetings, netizens! I have returned!

You might have noticed that this little blog of mine was missing for a spell. Why? Because I was trying to become a teacher, and teachers are not allowed to have personal lives. Have a picture of yourself holding a couple drinks? You’re fired. Or how about a photo of your beau touching your (clothed and covered) boob? You’re fired! And God help you if you’ve got any naked photos. In light of these and similar concerns, I thought that my frank political posts might be a real liability to my intended future career, so I hid them away.

Well, I’m not trying to be a teacher anymore (the reasons why being a story for another time) so let the posts run free! I’m here, I’m opinionated, and I want you all to know it! Let freedom (and verbosity) ring!

Hello again, world. It’s good to be back.

Infringing Tropes, Part 3: An Eyewitness

Since my last post, I have come across a page written by someone who was an eyewitness to the events: The Edge of the Creative Commons, by Brent Laabs. He validates my criticism and also offers some additional information about when and why the change from BY-SA to BY-NC-SA happened. Well worth reading.

I’ve submitted this as a story to Techdirt, and I’m contacting others. Let’s see if I can make a fuss over this.

Addendum: Did TV Tropes violate their own license?

In my previous post, I noted that TV Tropes used to be available under a BY-SA license, but then they changed to a BY-NC-SA license. I consider this a bad move, of course, but after I finished my post, another thought occurred to me: what if it’s illegal?

To understand why this would be illegal, you’ve got to know a few things about Creative Commons licenses and how they work. First off, they are supposed to be irrevocable. Consider the following excerpts from the BY-SA legal code:

Subject to the terms and conditions of this License, Licensor hereby grants You a worldwide, royalty-free, non-exclusive, perpetual (for the duration of the applicable copyright) license to exercise the rights in the Work…

The above rights may be exercised in all media and formats whether now known or hereafter devised. The above rights include the right to make such modifications as are technically necessary to exercise the rights in other media and formats….

Subject to the above terms and conditions, the license granted here is perpetual (for the duration of the applicable copyright in the Work). Notwithstanding the above, Licensor reserves the right to release the Work under different license terms or to stop distributing the Work at any time; provided, however that any such election will not serve to withdraw this License (or any other license that has been, or is required to be, granted under the terms of this License), and this License will continue in full force and effect unless terminated as stated above.

The code is long and boring to read, but the parts I just quoted seem pretty clear that the license lasts as long as the copyright. This doesn’t mean that TV Tropes can’t re-release stuff under the BY-NC-SA license, but it does mean that everything is still covered by the more liberal BY-SA license. This is why All The Tropes has the right to take all of TV Tropes’s old stuff and repost it under the BY-SA license. So, at the very least, it is misleading for TV Tropes to imply that none of their current content is covered by BY-SA.

But there’s a deeper problem than that. It comes down to a question of “ownership”. The Creative Commons legal code notes that the “Licensor” reserves the right to release the Work under different license terms. So the question is: who is the proper “Licensor” for TV Tropes’s content?

If TV Tropes, LLC, is the proper “owner” of the content in question, then they do have the right to relicense their stuff, although I question the ethics of doing so. But I don’t think they can call themselves the “owner” of most of their content! Their current administrative policy is to take “irrevocable ownership…with all rights surrendered” of everything they receive, but some of their older administrative pages say nothing about that at all! In other words, TV Tropes simply cannot claim to own the copyrights on anything submitted to them before they changed their policy, which happened in November 2013. If TV Tropes does not own that stuff, then the contributors (and there are a lot of contributors) still have the rights to it, according to the Berne Convention. They gave TV Tropes permission to use it under the BY-SA license, but that doesn’t include the right to relicense their contributions under the BY-NC-SA license! Did the legions of contributors ever explicitly give TV Tropes permission to relicense their work? If not, then TV Tropes is violating the BY-SA license, and by so doing, they lose their rights under that license, meaning that they lose the rights to use the work at all! Their relicensing the content to BY-NC-SA is a massive act of infringement, and they had better pay up – or else!

Of course, it’s been nearly a year since TV Tropes started claiming irrevocable ownership, and over two years since they started marking everything as BY-NC-SA. Why hasn’t anything bad happened to them yet? I believe it is because of the inherent weakness of Creative Commons licenses: they rely on copyright for their power, and copyright is not a tool for the masses. Copyright is now, as it has ever been, a tool for the few to oppress the many. Expecting it to come through in our favor is a foolish proposition, and everyone who does so (including Creative Commons) has made the fatal mistake of believing hype over substance.

But perhaps I am being too pessimistic. Time will tell. In the meantime, I intend to probe this issue further, and see if we can’t actually use these licenses to put some pressure on TV Tropes. Maybe I’m a fool, but I know that large organizations live and die by the words on paper, and there are cases on the books of the lowly bringing down the haughty using the law. Wish me luck.

P.S. For a good bit of reading on the trouble with copyright, check out this essay: ‘Balanced’ Copyright: Not A Magic Solving Word, by Alan Story (and some good follow-up on Techdirt). I’ll have to give that essay a more thorough reading later, but for now, let me just say that I fully agree with Alan Story’s suggestion to “burn Berne”.

Fork TV Tropes – use All The Tropes instead!

All of you who are reading this are probably already familiar with TV Tropes, the great wiki of the elements of fiction. It’s a fun resource, and a powerful time sink. But there’s a problem with it, and from my vantage point as a free culture fanatic, it’s a big problem: the license.

TV Tropes uses Creative Commons’s BY-NC-SA license. This license means that you can copy and modify the content however you want, but subject to these four conditions:
1. You must give proper attribution to the content creator (BY)
2. You must not use it commercially (NC)
3. You must make your content available under the same license (SA)
4. You must not add any DRM to what you make (this is standard in all Creative Commons licenses)

Now, conditions 1 and 4 are great by me, and condition 3 wouldn’t be so bad, except for condition 2. That’s actually a very profound restriction, dictating how someone can use the information. While conditions 1, 3, and 4 just tell you what you must do when you use it, condition 2 tells you how you must use it. This is a broad restriction, and not a very helpful one.

Smarter folks than myself have written a lot about the potential harm in non-commercial restrictions. The good folks at Freedom Defined have put together an excellent page: The case for Free use: reasons not to use a Creative Commons -NC license. I also recommend the following post: Why The NC Permission Culture Simply Doesn’t Work.

But there’s an even better argument against the NC provision, especially since TV Tropes is a wiki: the most popular wiki of all doesn’t use it! Wikipedia’s license is BY-SA, commercial reuse fully allowed. It doesn’t seem to have harmed Wikipedia at all, and it makes Wikipedia’s content more useful to the world. Curiously enough, TV Tropes used to be available under the BY-SA license, as this archived page shows. Why did they change? I can’t say for sure, but I suspect it was because they wanted more control over the submissions they were getting. Wikipedia notes here that TV Tropes even changed their terms of use to demand total ownership of user contributions.

Well, some folks weren’t happy about the change, and they decided to do something about it. Taking advantage of the freeing nature of the BY-SA license, these folks took TV Tropes’s stuff and forked it, creating a new tropes wiki: All The Tropes (also available on Wikia). All The Tropes offers folks a place to give and receive truly free content when discussing culture, creating a repository of knowledge and opinion that’s available for anyone to use for any reason, commercial or not. There is no top-down control, nor top-down censorship, and they even use better software to run their wiki. Seriously, check the place out.

So, the next time you want to discuss some incredibly overused cliche, or some element of fiction that seems to be everywhere you look, or some magnificent moment in fiction that was just so awesome, forget the control freaks over at TV Tropes. Go to All The Tropes instead. Choose freedom. You’ll be glad you did.