Political Opinions and Other Thoughts

by Axel Boldt

The following topics are covered on this page; if you want to read everything, just scroll down.

General

Advertising

The idea behind a market economy is that the best product will eventually win, in a Darwinian manner. However, it does not work like that in the real world. Usually, the product with the best advertising campaign wins, which makes it very difficult for small companies to compete, even if they can offer better quality. It is in the best interest of a healthy capitalistic system to abolish advertising and replace it by simple informational messages about available products.

The only purpose of an economy is to satisfy the material needs of the people. In theory, at least. In practice, businesses spend a major amount of their time and energy trying to create new needs. So consumers work a lot to earn a lot to buy a lot, stuff they don't really need. And then they die. It's all a tremendous waste. If consumerism was somehow taken away, many people would perceive their lives as void, and that is scary.

Every first time smoker will tell you that smoking tastes awful. Nicotine doesn't even produce a high worth speaking of. Still many people smoke. The only explanation I have is that smoking is presented as "cool" by the advertising industry, at least cool enough to try it often enough to become addicted.

Childhood obesity is not related to hours of TV consumption as was previously thought, but to the number of junk food ads viewed. How can these advertisers live with themselves? The lowest of scum. Ads targeting children are clearly immoral and should be illegal: children are not mature enough to see through the lies.

Moreover, advertising is a very conservative, slowing factor in today's society: If you want to sell a product, you will have to allude to values, feelings, ideas and images that are well-known and well-liked by the majority, thereby reinforcing them. New values have an extremely hard time to enter the mainstream in this climate.
Example: No one would try to sell a car with a picture of a fat woman, since, at this point, only a minority of men prefer these women. Therefore, you see young and slim women everywhere and the beauty ideal can hardly ever change, if at all.

In Germany, advertising by lawyers and doctors is not allowed. It works perfectly well; nobody seems to have trouble finding a lawyer or a doctor.

It is a myth that advertising provides us with free TV, radio, and web sites. The advertising budgets of major corporations are enormous, and everyone who wants to compete with them has to spend at least as much. These costs are of course handed down to us, the consumers. Advertising raises demand and therefore, by elementary economics, also raises prices. Not only do they fill our brains with crap and steal our time, they also make us pay for it.
It thus makes economic sense to avoid products which are heavily advertised. Buying such a product implies financing things you don't want: radio ads, TV commercials, web banners, junk mail and billboards.

Advertising is offensive in at least two ways: philosophically and personally. It is philosophically offensive, because it uses tried and proven propaganda techniques such as omissions, half-truths, suggestive associations and appeal to emotions, but rarely any hard verifiable facts. Its stated objective is to widen the gap between perception and reality. Every serious thinking and perceiving being should try everything to reduce that very gap.

Advertising is also personally offensive. Take your average car commercial: a happy family, driving in some unpolluted landscape without any traffic congestion, everybody is happy, nice music in the background, and the text "Exercise your liberty. Drive Ford" or some such nonsensical bullshit. This ad quite openly tells me: "You are a fucking moron. If you buy a car, you don't care about its price, features, mileage, theft and accident statistics, insurance rates etc.; you will buy it simply because we played some nice music while we showed it to you. In addition, you are way too stupid to see through our little tricks, even though you have probably analyzed many ads like these in fifth grade. Wow, you are so fucking dumb. Now go ahead and buy the Ford."

Many broadcasters and magazine publishers today are in the business of selling attentive audiences to advertisers. This affects the media content dramatically: advertisers like to pay for consumers who are in a positive, optimistic, buying mood. Critical thinking, depressing thoughts, deep story lines: not wanted.

Advertising is an unstable, exploding system: the more advertising there is, the more it is ignored and the more of it is needed in order to get the message across. There is no end. All paid for by the consumers.

My main argument, however, is the following: We use up an unbelievable amount of resources (thereby ruining the environment) without significantly elevating our level of happiness. I blame the advertising industry for that. The one message contained in each and every commercial is: Buy more stuff and you'll be happy!

A ban on advertising could be enforced very easily: simply allow businesses to sue competitors over infractions. The "crime" of advertising cannot be hidden very effectively... Businesses would still be allowed to publish the specifications of their products and services in widely available listings, similar to the yellow pages. Magazines would continue to publish reviews.

If you feel like me, please support the following organizations:

Whenever you are about to buy a product and find yourself remembering an advertisement for it, it's a good idea to choose another product. You don't really want to pay for the incredible lengths this company went to in order to sneak into your brain. This is especially true for branded products, which should be boycotted. Anything that weakens the power of brands, like producing, buying and wearing counterfeit versions, is laudable.

(Back to the table of contents)

Prostitution

Prostitution should be completely legalized, regulated, and treated as an ordinary business, subject to taxes, social security, zoning laws etc.

Laws against prostitution have the sole effect of providing profits for organized crime and stigmatizing the working men and women and their customers. The often very bad working conditions of prostitutes are a consequence of non-existent labor laws and missing collective bargaining rights combined with the impossibility to get help from the police if abused or cheated on. The pimping laws have the effect that every man who lives with a prostitute has to fear overzealous prosecutors.

The effects on public health of legalization accompanied by regular, mandatory and free health checkups (as in Nevada) for all prostitutes are also quite clear. For instance, the incidence of sexually transmitted diseases among Nevada brothel prostitutes is lower than that in the general population. [Note however that the situation of prostitutes in Nevada is rather exploitative; an insider report appeared recently on the web.]

Even in countries where the legal status of prostitutes is satisfactory, such as in the Netherlands and Germany, discrimination and stigmatization continues and accounts for many psychological problems. Often the women are forced to live a double life and to lie to their friends and family about their true occupation. This must stop. Especially the happy customers need to speak up.

In a world where more and more work is being done by machines, computers and robots, both supply and demand of personal services such as prostitution are bound to increase.

Married women should recognize prostitutes as their natural allies. Many women cannot or do not want to satisfy some sexual wishes of their husbands sufficiently often; many husbands don't even voice those wishes. As a consequence, many marriages are held together because the man has an outlet in prostitution, and many other marriages break up because the man does not. It is simply a fact of biology that a well-off fifty-year-old male is attracted to, and attracts, younger women, and will often leave his fifty-year-old wife for a girlfriend unless he can unproblematically buy sexual services from those younger women.

Prostitutes perform an important service in society and should be treated accordingly. There is nothing morally wrong with prostitution: society already allows and encourages the buying and selling of food, shelter, entertainment, compassionate conversations, and medical services. Buying and selling of sexual services is no different. Providing direct pleasure to another human being is noble, not immoral. Good prostitutes are able to fake emotions convincingly, and not even that is immoral: psychotherapists, actors, singers and undertakers do the same.

Some people believe that something as valuable and central to human life as sex should always be given away for free out of love. They forget one thing: food is in fact much more valuable and central to our lives than sex.

(Back to the table of contents)

Bullfights, Rodeos etc.

Every city or business offering the torturing of animals as entertainment should be boycotted.

(Back to the table of contents)

Drugs

Soft drugs like marijuana or hashish should be legalized and treated like alcohol and nicotine. The current drug laws secure the profits of organized crime and fill prisons but have no positive effect.

Laws against soft drugs are not justified since these drugs are no more dangerous than the legal ones. In fact, nicotine is much more addictive than marijuana, and alcohol is much more toxic. It is true that marijuana smoke is slightly more carcinogenic than tobacco smoke, but the average consumption per user is much lower and marijuana can be ingested and is then completely harmless.

The argument that marijuana be an entry drug to harder substances is void: Every junkie will tell you that she started out very early with nicotine and alcohol, not with marijuana. The only danger with marijuana is that it is usually bought from a dealer who also sells hard drugs, which makes the transition easy. That is however not a problem of marijuana itself but one of its illegal status.

The demonization of a relatively harmless substance has the effect that people don't believe any drug information anymore. "Maybe it's all a hoax and heroin isn't that bad after all?"

Specially trained doctors should be allowed to prescribe hard drugs to persons who are demonstrably addicted to them and who would then have to consume them in the doctor's presence. This would have the following consequences:

These proposals will generally be applauded by everyone whose first concern is the reduction of the number of drug-deaths; some people's first concern however is the utter demonization of drugs. There's a simple moral argument against the latter position: the most basic human right is the right to pursue happiness.

I wrote the above text in the late 1990s. Since then, there have been several very positive developments:

(Back to the table of contents)

Mandatory Education before Abortions

Several jurisdictions are now implementing requirements for women to undergo mandatory counseling and education before being allowed to have an abortion. These programs are usually sold as "providing full information about consequences and alternatives, to allow for an informed decision". This is of course bullshit; the sole idea behind these requirements is to create psychological pressure and make abortions more difficult and inconvenient. Proof: None of these "informational" programs inform about the fact that a woman is about 11 times as likely to die from giving birth than from having an abortion. (This factor is even higher in the developing world.)

(Back to the table of contents)

McDonalds and Fast Food

It is really amazing how a single company can do each and everything wrong: Wait! Not everything is bad about them: they provide great places to shit.

(Back to the table of contents)

Medical Research

Medical research is a tremendous waste of time and money. Given that on a global scale, people mostly die from malnutrition, diarrhea, malaria and tuberculosis, all of which can be easily prevented or cured with clean drinking water, food and currently available medicines, it does not make sense to produce ever more drugs and treatments. We are obviously not willing to employ those we have, so why waste resources developing ever more of them? The proper order would be to first spend the money to ensure that the currently available drugs get to the places where they are needed.

People who go into medical research because they want to do some good for mankind are lying to themselves, and deep down, they must know it. Five minutes of clear thought would reveal that they could save many more lives outside of the medical industry. These are unpleasant thoughts however, because intelligent people almost always prefer well-defined, "hard" problems ("How does HIV infect T-helper cells?", "Is there a violence-gene?") to the more important "soft" problems ("How to make sure that people in Ghana have access to and use condoms?", "Why are there children whose only successful role models are criminals?"). "Soft" problems are of course much harder than "hard" ones, and that's why people shy away from them.

The only way to justify the current practices of using the results of medical research is to take the morally indefensible position that first world lives are worth more than third world lives.

An immediate, sensible demand is that poor countries be allowed to manufacture patented drugs royalty free for domestic use. Drug companies wouldn't lose any money since nobody in these countries is able to pay regular prices anyway.

(Back to the table of contents)

Incest

Sex between consenting adult relatives should be legal, obviously. The fact that many people find the idea repulsive is no reason for a general prohibition; I find fundamentalist Christian TV preachers revolting, for example.

Sex among relatives results in a slightly higher probability of producing disabled children. For good reason, we don't outlaw sex among people carrying genetic defects, even if it might result in a disabled child; outlawing incest is wrong for the same reason.

(Back to the table of contents)

Recycling

is a misnomer, and current propaganda about it is misleading all the way.

It is a misnomer, because there is no such thing as "recycling". It is all downcycling. If you start with a piece of paper, you "recycle" it, you'll end up with paper of lower quality. You "recycle" again, you'll have still lower quality. And after that, you can't "recycle" any more at all. It's the same with all other materials. Furthermore, this downcycling process eats up tremendous amounts of energy.

Downcycling is not only an insufficient means of preserving resources, but given the way it is advertised, it is detrimental in allowing people to have a good conscience when they put their newspaper in the recycling bin instead of throwing it away. In truth, they should still have a bad conscience. Consumption is the problem and it has to be attacked. We have to learn to live with less stuff. Downcycling is no solution, it only puts sand in our eyes. The major message should be "Use less stuff" and not "Always put your stuff in the downcycling bin".

(Back to the table of contents)

Climate Change

Almost all climatologists agree that the earth is currently undergoing climate change, and that that change is due to greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere as a result of human activity. Except for a handful of contrarians, the only experts disputing this consensus are on the payroll of industries with a vested interest.

Climate is an unstable system, and nobody can predict the precise extent and consequences of the change. Since gambling with planetary systems is a bad idea, prudence requires that we drastically cut down our greenhouse gas emissions.

All this has been known for at least 25 years, a couple of treaties have been signed, but basically nothing has been done. Global greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise. It seems certain that we won't stop burning fossil fuels until all of them have been burned. Apparently, neither nations nor individuals will take concrete actions just to avoid some nebulous future risk.

Many countries will be harmed by the effects of global warming while a few others will benefit. We need a global treaty ensuring that the harmed countries are properly compensated. Every couple of years, a commission would determine every country's cost or benefits resulting from climate change, as well as the degree to which the country has contributed to the problem (taking into account the country's total emissions over time, not just the most recent emissions). These numbers would form the basis for international compensation payments. Such a scheme would create true incentives for the countries to reduce their emissions.

(Back to the table of contents)

Rapists and Child Molesters

I believe that it is almost impossible to cure repeat rapists and child molesters. For these people, sexuality is simply miswired and connected to stimuli that society disapproves of.

While it is easy to say "these people are bad and immoral and if they don't stop their behavior, they deserve to be punished", one should first imagine how difficult it would be for oneself to completely give up one's sexually arousing stimuli. For obvious biological reasons, sexuality is the strongest motivating force in the mind. So I don't see these offenders as very culpable in a moral sense, since they did not initiate the wiring of their sexuality.

How then to deal with rapists and child molesters? Obviously society needs to be protected from them. I can imagine technical devices to do so, maybe a tiny camera affixed to their head to allow remote supervision, along with a device that lets the remote supervisor apply electric shocks. One person can easily monitor a dozen offenders, with the price being a fraction of normal prison/therapy costs.

(Back to the table of contents)

Blood Alcohol Level and Driving

Currently, virtually all countries outlaw driving with a certain amount of alcohol in the blood. This is inappropriate, for the following reasons: Whether a person is fit to drive should instead be determined with a fitness test that involves reaction time, visual acuity and risk estimation abilities. A driving-simulation video game seems to be appropriate.

It would even be possible to build such a video game into every car, so that the car won't start unless you pass the game. Of course, the simulated situations should keep changing for this to work. The games could be regularly updated via radio.

(Back to the table of contents)

Anti-Smoking Campaign

Teenagers have only one purpose in life: they want to be cool; they want to be accepted by their peers. Cigarette commercials play exactly on that need: they portray smoking as the ultimate cool thing, the activity of the in-crowd. They succeed admirably well.

There is nothing more uncool than doing what you're told to do. That's why prohibiting smoking and health warnings on packages are all completely useless. An effective anti-smoking campaign simply needs to tell teenagers that they want to smoke because the cigarette advertising industry suggests that it's cool. Just deconstruct a couple of cigarette ads. The very establishment, hated Corporate America people in suits, meet in conference rooms and discuss how best to portray smoking as cool to teenagers. Once teenagers realize this, smoking cigarettes is dead in the water.

Smoking weed will flourish however.

(Back to the table of contents)

Smoking at the Workplace

Smoking should be forbidden wherever people work. It's a simple matter of worker protection: workplaces have to be free from carcinogens. I'm sure a chemical factory would be closed immediately if the air inside were as bad as the air in a typical pub.

Once this prohibition is in place (as it now is in several jurisdictions), an interesting new business model arises: the smoker restaurant or bar, with waiters and waitresses carrying oxygen tanks or gas masks.

(Back to the table of contents)

Peer Review and Scientific Publishing

The peer review process used for scientific publishing is broken. Reviewers are anonymous and unpaid and have next to no incentive to hand in decent work in a timely manner; reviews are secret.

The process should be opened up in a radical manner; referees would have to publish their signed reports and recommendations. In this way they could receive academic credit for reviewing work, they would have an incentive to file solid reviews, and others could check the reasons for why an article was rejected.

The scientific publishing system, still largely based on paper journals, is broken. The real work is done by authors, editors and referees, all of whom are unpaid. The publisher sells the end result for large amounts of money. The work is then hidden away in libraries and is not made freely available to the public who funded the research in the first place. The internet is largely bypassed. Researchers in poor countries are cut out of the loop entirely.

Both problems can be fixed with one stroke: extend the preprint archive arxiv.org so that

(Back to the table of contents)

Funding Higher Education

In Germany, public higher education is largely free and financed by tax money (except for low tuition started recently in several states). This appears unjust as even people who never enjoyed a higher education have to contribute taxes. In the U.S., students have to pay for higher education, which appears unjust as the poor are locked out or are burdened with high debt afterwards.

The correct way to finance higher education is the one invented and used by the German private university Witten-Herdecke: students don't pay anything until they are finished with their studies and have acquired a well-paying job, at which point they are required to pay 10% of their disposable income to the university for a period of 10 years. In this way the poor and rich are treated alike, those who profit most from the education also pay the most, and the university has a natural incentive to produce graduate well versed for the job market.

(Back to the table of contents)

Retirement Age

Most countries specify a certain age after which a person is allowed to retire and draw social security benefits. I don't see the necessity for this at all. The system could be designed much more flexibly: you may retire at any age, and your monthly social security allowance until death will be calculate based on the number of years you have worked and on your age at retirement. Any actuary will easily be able to figure out the correct formula insuring that the retirement system never loses any money, no matter when you decide to retire. People retiring early means fewer jobless young people; people retiring late means fewer years of benefits: it's all good.

(Back to the table of contents)

Imprisonment

Imprisonment is a senseless and counter productive punishment; it should be abolished except for those who pose a current threat to society.

You put somebody in prison for several years, they lose their job and outside friends and meet several other criminals in a violently charged atmosphere. What do you think they learn during this time? What do you think they will do once they get out? Society spends extraordinary amounts of money on crime school.

Better and cheaper punishments are corporal punishment, forced labor, branding and closely supervised parole.

(Back to the table of contents)

Corruption

In most poor countries, corruption is endemic. Understandably, people who manage to land a government job (and have usually paid for that job) try to get as much money out of their position as possible.

Here's my proposal about fighting corruption: make the offering of bribes legal. Accepting a bribe carries a hefty fine. Anyone who brings evidence about an accepted bribe (say hidden video footage) receives the fine that the corrupt person has to pay.

Many people will want to trap authorities and offer fake bribes; accepting a bribe all of a sudden becomes quite dangerous.

Of course, one somehow has to come up with non-corrupt officials that administer this mechanism...

(Back to the table of contents)

Weapon Exports

It is a scandal that the developed countries continue to export weapons to the third world. The volume has even increased after the end of the cold war, since weapon factories needed new markets. All these weapons will eventually be used in regional or civil wars and are payed for with money desperately needed for infrastructure in those poor countries.

I still can't believe that during the Somalia adventure, no one really asked why these people had nothing to eat but all carried snipers. Who bought those, who provided the money, who sold them, who produced them, and who profited?

(Back to the table of contents)

Salaries, Taxes, and Individual Justice

Most people see their jobs as a burden. Only a small minority can fully identify with and enjoy their occupation, for instance some scientists, athletes, politicians, or physicians. This group of people is, in addition, paid much more than average. I believe this is unjust. Having an interesting, respected, important profession should be reason enough to become a physician say; those who choose these jobs because of the money are the wrong people anyway and we would be better off without them.

Since it is almost a general rule that better paid jobs are also more pleasant, (only exception I can think of: prostitution, see above) and since government dictated salaries don't work, the logical conclusion is to have a much more progressive income tax system.

The current income tax system in virtually all countries is based on fixed tax brackets. But the income distribution changes over time, because of inflation and other factors, and the brackets have to be constantly adjusted. A more rational system, with the very desirable tendency of leading to a more equitable income distribution, is the following: an individual's tax rate is determined based on the difference between the individual's income and the average income of the lower 50% of the population. The larger this difference, the higher the rate, according to some specified formula. With this scheme, rich people, who are typically politically influential, have a direct personal interest in improving the financial lot of the lower half of society. (Note that using "average income" or "median income" in place of "average income of lower 50%" is not as good: the former because extremely high salary outliers disproportionally affect the average, and the latter because the median is not affected by improving the lot of the worst off people.)

(Back to the table of contents)

The Inevitability of a Huge Welfare State

What is the point of technological progress? Why do we keep building faster computers, better robots, more efficient factories? There is only one point to all of this: reducing the workload that has to be done by humans.

There is no question that these projects will become more and more successful: they have already largely succeeded in agriculture, they are currently about to succeed in manufacture, using robots, and before long they will succeed in the service sector as well, using artificial intelligence. Eventually, most people will be dispensible and their work won't be needed anymore. Once this development has become obvious to economists and then to journalists, populist politicians will offer the simple solution: tax all automated labor and distribute the revenue to the jobless masses as permanent welfare payments. Obviously these politicians will be elected. The only other solution would be the socialist one: the means of production are declared property of society at large, and profits are distributed to the new owners, i.e. to the jobless masses. In both scenarios you end up with a huge welfare state.

What will people do if their work is not needed anymore, and their material needs are taken care of? Presumably they will cultivate skills that tend to make them interesting to potential life partners and friends. Study philosophy to be able to engage in intruiging conversations, learn how to cook well, perfect your gardening skills, write engaging stories or video games, discover some interesting new fact in science, learn some foreign languages, etc. Anything that might attract some admirers. Large parts of society will presumably just lazily enjoy life, and there is nothing wrong with that. After all, that was the whole point of technological progress.

(Back to the table of contents)

Taxes and the Common Goods

In a previous section, when focusing on individual justice, I came to the conclusion that income taxes should be more progressive. When I focus on the Common Good, the results are quite different.

Taxes are used in every society for two reasons: financing of common tasks such as infrastructure, education, judicial system, administration, defense and social services on the one hand, and behavior modification (cigarette taxes, booze taxes, fuel taxes) on the other. It is important to separate the two.

The revenue from behavior modification taxes should never be used to finance common tasks, because otherwise the state gets into a conflict: on the one hand it wants to eliminate the offensive behavior, but on the other hand it wants to maximize the tax inflow. Both goals will suffer. Therefore, money from behavior modification taxes should always be reserved for projects that serve the same purpose as the tax, e.g. anti-smoking campaigns in the case of cigarette taxes and improvements of public transport in the case of fuel taxes.

The taxes that are intended to finance common tasks shouldn't be "punitive" at all; a behavior that is desirable from the perspective of the common good should not be taxed. Obviously, this cannot be achieved completely, but I believe we could do a much better job than we do now. Currently, we mainly tax salaries of employees and profits of businesses. It is however not a good idea to discourage people from working and making money.

Here's my proposal: we remove all income taxes and instead increase the gift and inheritance taxes to 100% each. While you live, you are perfectly free to make as much money as you can and enjoy it fully; once you're dead, your wealth will be confiscated and used for the common good. This way, you can't complain that someone took something away from you, since dead people don't complain (and don't have property rights). There's another positive effect of this scheme: the children of rich people will have less of an advantage in life than they enjoy now; fewer people will be able to live off their inheritance and more will have to actually work for their living. The playing field will be a little more level.

(Back to the table of contents)

Criminal Law Explained

Governments expect their citizens to follow the criminal laws, and even feel justified in punishing citizens who don't, but yet they never explain those laws to the citizens, or even inform citizens about the laws and their consequences. That is plainly wrong.

The penal code should be a thin booklet written in simple language that could be taught in school. It should come with an explanatory manual that gives good reasons for all laws. Why exactly is incest among consenting adults illegal? I want to know.

Lawmakers should be forced to come up with a defendable reason for every criminal law they enact. Isn't that the least thing to ask for?

(Back to the table of contents)


Germany

Asylum Law

In 1993, the German parties SPD, FDP and CDU/CSU agreed to give in to right wing terroristic violence and abolished the most noble part of the German constitution, the article which granted every political refugee in the world an unconditional and directly enforceable right to asylum in Germany.

This article was clearly a consequence of horrible experiences in Nazi Germany, when many Jews couldn't get out simply because no one was willing to let them in.

The perverse provision adopted now, which let the German authorities immediately send back any refugee entering Germany from a "safe" country (all countries surrounding Germany have been declared "safe", of course), would have as consequence, if adopted by every nation, that only the immediate neighbors of crises would let refugees in. This is unjust for two reasons: firstly, those countries are typically extremely poor while Germany is extremely rich, and secondly, they are certainly no more responsible for the crisis at hand than other countries are, so they should not have to bear all the burden.

(Back to the table of contents)

Birth rate and Immigration

The population in Germany is shrinking because of the low birth rate; this causes obvious problems for the social security system ("Rente"). German politicians generally give two answers: more financial support for families to encourage more births, and reduced social security benefits.

Personally, I am happy about the low birth rate, because I think the world population is already way too large. The solution to the above birth rate/social security problem is obvious to me: formulate a decent immigration policy to attract workers from other countries. Such a policy does not currently exist in Germany.

(Back to the table of contents)


USA

Death Penalty

Most advocates of capital punishment concede after some discussion that in the final analysis, the motive for the death penalty is sheer revenge. They hate the killer and therefore she must die. Her dying makes them feel better: a purely egotistical motive to kill. Revenge however has no place in a civilized society and belongs rather in the behavior repertoire of kindergardeners. One of the principal reasons for creating a system of justice is the elimination of acts of revenge. To kill a killer is the ultimate philosophical capitulation of society in face of violence.

The fact that death rows are closely guarded in order to prevent suicides shows clearly that vengeance combined with sadism, and not protecting society, is the underlying motive of capital punishment. Not only do we want her dead, but we want to enjoy ourselves in the process, and we want to determine time, place and manner of the show. However, once we have decided to act like barbarians and let all our darkest instincts surface, why not go all the way? Why stop at psychological torture? Why grant her a nice painless death by lethal injection? I propose that, in order to fully accommodate our desire for revenge, to maximize the deterring effect and to place the highest possible value on innocent life, murderers should be dragged naked through the streets and then slowly tortured to death in public.

Some argue that killing a killer is cheaper than housing her for the rest of her life; others argue the opposite. The question is completely irrelevant: the very discussion shows that society has already acquired the mindset of a killer, namely to think that it can be worthwhile to kill a human being for financial reasons. That is precisely what murderers do, and we have no moral right to punish them if we consider doing the same.

On the side: the US has signed and ratified an international treaty (the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights) which explicitly bans, among other things, the imposition of the death penalty for crimes committed by minors. Nevertheless, the US continued to sentence minors to death and executed them, claiming that this be the democratically expressed will of the American people. This from a nation that demands human rights all over the world. The practice was finally stopped by the Supreme Court in 2005. Mentally retarded people were also routinely executed, which annually got the US into the Amnesty International report about nations violating human rights. The Supreme Court stopped this practice in 2002.

(Back to the table of contents)

Three Strikes And You Are Out

In many states in the USA there are currently legislative initiatives to create "three strikes" laws. Here is a description for the non baseball playing folks: Anyone convicted three times of a crime gets life in prison. The provisions vary as to whether only violent crimes count, whether crimes committed as a minor count and whether the sentence allows for parole or not.

These laws are just about the worst that could happen to the US. Most criminals are active when young and settle down later. With this law, they will settle down in prison, for some thirty years on average. Prisons will turn into nursing homes, thereby wasting tremendous amounts of money, money which is desperately needed for work on the socio-economic root causes of crime in America.

Not to mention the obscenity of putting a sixteen-year-old three-times burglar away for life without parole. This clearly violates the US constitution which prohibits excessive punishment as well as the UN universal declaration of human rights.

(Back to the table of contents)

Campaign Finance Reform

The American political system can best be described as institutionalized legal bribery. Politicians spend a large portion of their time raising funds for their reelection campaigns. Obviously, this results in a general favoring of moneyed interests.

"Campaign Finance Reform" is a very popular goal, but it is unclear how to structure it, since the Supreme Court ruled that any cap on campaign spending would be an impermissible restriction of free speech.

Here is my proposal: any candidate for a public office is given a choice: they can either accept public funds but then cannot use any other money, or they can forfeit all public funds and are then allowed to spend as much as they want. In the second case, they have to file precise statements about the dollar amount spent on their campaign. All competitors in the election will then receive that exact same sum from the government. That way, rich or well connected candidates don't have any advantage any more; choosing the second option is not in their best interest, in fact, it will make them unpopular among voters.

(Back to the table of contents)

Iraq War

The second war against Iraq was not about weapons of mass destructions: the UN had done an excellent job of destroying those in the years prior to the war, and the US had spies on the UN weapons teams and knew the situation. The war also wasn't about fighting terrorism: Hussein was religiously moderate and did not support fundamentalist terrorists; by contrast, today, with Hussein gone, Iraq is clearly the world's center of terrorism training. The war wasn't about "liberating" the Iraqi people: many other comparable dictators around the world are being left alone, or have even been supported (just like Hussein was being supported during the Iran-Iraq war).

So what was the war about? Pure global strategy: the US wanted a foothold in a strategically important region (important because of the oil reserves and the closeness to Israel); they did not want to tolerate a defiant dictator in that region. It was a war of aggression with the aim of regime change. Therefore it was clearly illegal, a violation of Article 2.4 of the Charter of the United Nations, as was pointed out by Secretary General Kofi Annan among others. (The UN Charter was basically authored by the US after World War II.)

I am not surprised that the Bush administration would engage in an illegal war of aggression; they do not consider international law binding, as has been shown subsequently by their brushing aside the Geneva Conventions when dealing with war prisoners. I am however very surprised at the stupidity of it all: apparently nobody anticipated that the Shias, after decades of suppression by the minority Sunnis and supported by Iran, would demand power, and that the Sunnis, with all the infrastructure of the old Baathists, would not yield quietly. You take away Hussein and you get civil war: that much should have been obvious to the strategists.

I believe there is also another, more sinister motivation for the war. Bush wants to divert money from social programs towards his supporters, large contractors and the defense industry. After he pushed through immense tax cuts, the war costs nicely drove up the budget deficit and the public debt. Every billion spent on the war cannot be spend on Medicare. Every helicopter shot down is money in the bank of Lockheed Martin. Bush knows that eventually the budget will have to be balanced, and with the now almost complete taboo on increasing taxes and cutting defense spending, this balancing can only be accomplished by cutting government services. The war is thus an integral part of his long-term strategy of reducing the size of government entitlement programs. He followed a similar strategy as governor of Texas: cut taxes, increase spending on pet projects, and wait for the inevitable cutting of social programs by the legislature.

It is clear that the war cannot be won. The Soviet Union lost in Afghanistan and the United States lost in Vietnam and in Somalia and will lose in Iraq. If people are so determined that they will happily die for their cause, and mothers will happily send their sons to die, then your laser-guided cruise missiles are nothing but pointless expensive toys.

(Back to the table of contents)


European Union

Esperanto

It is clear that the European Union will evolve over time into the United States of Europe akin to the USA. The biggest difference between the two is the language inhomogenity in Europe. Right now, every law and regulation needs to be translated into English, French, German, Spanish and several other languages. Nobodoy is willing to let one language become the standard. This is a ridiculous waste.

There's now a unique window of opportunity where Esperanto could be adopted as official language of Europe, and maybe eventually of the world. It is a designed language with numerous advantages over existing languages: simple and logical grammar, simple and logical pronunciation rules, vocabulary derived from several European languages, helpful user communities all around the world. It is ideal as a second language for everybody. Right now, English is the de-facto second language for everybody, but English is hampered by a ridiculously low level of correlation between pronunciation and spelling. (They actually have national "spelling contests" for kids in the US: they shout out a word and the kids have to guess its spelling.) It misses the whole point of a letter-based script: by hearing a word, one should be able to spell it; by looking at a word, one should be able to pronounce it. English also has far too many words; for almost every concept, there are two words, one with germanic roots and one with latin roots.

(Back to the table of contents)


Yugoslavia

War over Kosovo

At the time of this writing, the war in Yugoslavia has been going on for some 5 weeks, without any tangible results. Here is my solution to the conflict: This plan has the effect of achieving the greatest happiness for the greatest number:

(Back to the table of contents)


World

Dues to the UN

Countries (like the US) which refuse to pay their outstanding UN dues should not be allowed to vote on or veto UN measures. Exceptions for countries in financial trouble.

(Back to the table of contents)

International Tariffs

Free trade between the nations, unhampered by tariffs, is desirable because it leads to the most efficient production of goods. "Efficient" here means "using few natural resources and little labor".

Simply removing all tariffs does not necessarily yield efficient production: it rewards nations that impose few social and environmental costs on businesses, which has nothing to do with efficiency as defined above. A downward spiral towards lower and lower social and environmental standards is clearly undesirable for everyone but the capitalist.

A system of international tariffs which rewards efficiency and does not punish high social and environmental standards is needed. It could be installed by bilateral or multilateral agreements. The key is that a nation is only allowed to levy a tariff against another country's good if the industry in the producing country has a lesser burden of social and environmental costs than the importing country; in this case, only the difference in those costs between the two nations may be levied as a tariff.

Tariffs are never negative, which implies that an industry from a (rich) country with higher "burdens" has a slight disadvantage compared to the native industry when it tries to export into a poorer country. In this way, the internal markets of poorer countries are somewhat protected against industries from richer countries which have access to technology not available locally.

The question remains whether salaries should be treated as "social burdens" in the this scheme. They should: lower salaries do not mean higher efficiency in the above sense and are therefore not desirable.

All comparisons of the various "burdens" should be carried out taking into account the purchasing power of the respective currencies. The daily currency exchange rate is too arbitrary and does not convey the relevant information for our purposes. When using this scheme, it would be best to levy the tariffs in the producing country's currency so that the tariffs would not have to be adjusted whenever the conversion rate changes.

Some international arbitrating agency would be needed to resolve disputes arising from this scheme of tariffs. Once some countries create this agency and sign according tariff agreements, there is a clear incentive for other countries to join: they would then be able to improve their social and environmental standards without jeopardizing their position on the world market.

(Back to the table of contents)

Globalization

Globalization in the economical sense typically means that local markets should be opened to foreign competition and that foreigners should be allowed to invest in local industries. This is considered to be a good thing since it improves global market efficiency. Strangely enough, this definition covers only one half of globalization: the free movement of capital. Why is the free movement of labor not considered? The same argument applies: if labor can move to where the demand is highest, market efficiency increases.

As a first tiny step towards labor market efficiency, it should be possible for two persons from different countries to exchange their nationalities if they so choose. In the spirit of capitalism, this exchange could be linked to a payment from one party to the other. Everybody wins. See Citizenship exchange for more details on and arguments for this proposal.

Rich countries dictate that poorer countries are to enter the world market and concentrate on the export of resources and agricultural goods. It is extremely immoral that those same rich countries ignore the rules of capitalism when convenient. The European Union pays high subsidies to its farmers, resulting in large over-production. To keep the internal prices in the union high, they then pay export subsidies to get rid of the over-production. This drowns the world market in twice-subsidized agricultural goods that poor countries cannot possibly compete with.

The solution is obvious: stop all subsidies and mandate ecological agriculture which uses little chemicals and no gene-modification. Agricultural yields will fall, keeping prices high and eliminating over-production. The playing field on the world market will be level again.

(Back to the table of contents)

Sanctions and Refugees

Economical sanctions against a country that violates basic human rights or international law are a good thing - but just like military action, they tend to hurt those the most who are the least responsible for the situation at hand. Therefore I propose the following: every country voting in the UN for sanctions or military action against some other country has to agree at the same time to accept refugees from that country. The citizens of the rogue country should be encouraged to leave, especially soldiers should be encouraged to desert, and be guaranteed a safe haven somewhere else. They would have to return to their country if and when the intolerable situation there ends. The effects:

(Back to the table of contents)

Rewarding Deserters

The UN were established in the aftermath of the second world war to ensure lasting peace among the nations. The most effective way to do that is to directly attack the logic of army warfare by rewarding deserters.

In every war, deserters are the most moral actors: they follow the more basic and important ethical rule of never killing other human beings and reject the more artificial rule of always obeying orders.

The UN should actively encourage desertion in every war; deserters should get a UN medal of honor and some money and an internationally recognized hero's passport so that they can resettle wherever they choose.

(Back to the table of contents)

World Government

Most people agree that democracy is the best form of government. However, on a global scale, we have a dictatorship of the rich and military mighty countries, both in the UN Security Council and, much more importantly, in the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (this in addition to the places where the real power is located, i.e. in the multinational corporations). It is all the more astounding that virtually no one seriously promotes a democratically elected world government.

Such an institution, elected by the one-person-one-vote rule and provided with the monopoly on legal military force, is the only hope for a peaceful community of nations. If you hit me, I won't hit you back but will turn to the police and the courts instead. We need to achieve this level of civility in the international arena too.

A world government could also mediate between the rich and poor countries of the world. Obviously, the poor countries would have the majority in this government, and that is just, because they have more people. This is how democracy works.

(Back to the table of contents)


Philosophy and Other Thoughts

Justice

One crucial distinction between leftists and rightists is that the former acknowledge that a situation in itself can be unjust, while the latter reserve the label "just/unjust" only for actions.

The fact that a full-time worker in a poor country can barely feed his family while one in the first world who puts in the same amount of effort lives in incredible luxury would not be considered unjust by conservative economists. They would look at the situation locally, asking questions like "Is the poor worker forced to work at that factory?" or "Does the poor worker get the agreed-upon salary?" or "Has the rich worker gotten his advantage by cheating?" and so on, and if they can't find any wrong actions, they will be satisfied and won't detect any injustice. Leftists however see a structural injustice in this situation. The problem with this injustice is that no one in particular can be held responsible, since no single action can be blamed. Moreover, in many situations, the only way to remedy unjust situations is to take unjust actions. Conservatives take the easy way out of this dilemma by altogether refusing to acknowledge that a situation in itself can be unjust.

(Back to the table of contents)

Capitalism and Fascism

A common claim is that capitalism and democracy go hand in hand; you cannot have one without the other. Economical freedom and political freedom are somehow construed to be two sides of the same coin. Instead of giving the obvious counterexamples to these claims, let's look a little bit closer at the structure of capitalistic institutions themselves: businesses and corporations. Strictly hierarchically organized, orders going only top-down in one direction, compliance resulting from fear, completely centralized planning. Does this sound like democracy or fascism to you?

(Back to the table of contents)

Owning Stocks

If you own stocks or mutual fund shares, you partly own some corporations and you are therefore partly responsible for those corporation's actions. You cannot get away with "the CEO made that sleazy decision", because that CEO made that sleazy decision precisely because he wanted to secure high profits for you. In his mind, he was doing exactly what you wanted him to do: fire disposable workers, screw competitors, find loopholes in environmental laws, lie to consumers in advertisings etc. It's all done in order to maximize profits and hence to please the owners of the corporation, i.e., you. You cannot evade this moral responsibility; whatever your corporation does is done on your behalf. Just because there are usually many owners does not mean that responsibility somehow miraculously evaporates.

(Back to the table of contents)

Nationalism in Sport

I find it strange that the winners of sport competitions are always honored with the flag and anthem of their country. Isn't this a completely arbitrary division of people? Where you were born, where you grew up, what your passport says: totally irrelevant for your athletic achievements. People move and borders change, so what happens to be the current nation of the winner does not contain any relevant information at all.

The medal count at the end of the Olympics has got to be the most idiotic thing ever devised. So China has a quarter of the world's people. Obviously it will get about a quarter of the medals. So what? Who the hell cares?

I propose instead a division of people along objective and unchangeable lines: blood type. Each of the four blood types gets its own anthem and flag, and those shall be used at the ceremonies.

(Back to the table of contents)

Marriage

Bigamy is having one spouse too many -- monogamy is the same. Oscar Wilde

Marriage is an obsolete institution. At a time where divorces were impossible and women could not earn a living, marriages were needed to ensure that all women were financially supported. This is no longer the case; there is no need anymore for a government issued license that sanctions only one of the multitude of possible living arrangements.

The reason most people marry today is not financial but emotional: one tries to bind a loved one as tightly as possible. The whole concept of modern marriage is designed to make separation difficult, embarrassing and expensive. Divorce is synonymous with failure. Many people are invited to the wedding ceremony in order to create psychological pressure: "Before so many friends and family, you promised to stay with me -- and now?" In addition, divorce is costly and complicated. The underlying assumption however, that making a breakup difficult will increase the likelihood of a long and stable relationship, is clearly wrong. If the relationship doesn't work out, then it will break, sooner or later. If you're married, it will be later. And more painful. But it will happen.

However, I may be wrong here. Recent psychological research shows that people are happier if they have few options and if there is little possibility of a change. For instance, people sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole adjust better to prison life than those who retain the possibility of parole; the more options a retirement fund offers, the fewer people will contribute, etc. While we all prefer situations with options and hope, these are actually not conducive to our happiness. In this sense then, a truly unbreakable marriage may be a smart move. Today's marriages however are easily disolved. How to get around this? I propose that a couple write a prenuptial contract stating that if the marriage ends for any reason, both partners must burn all their money (or donate it to the Republicans or some other distasteful cause) and must give up all their children for adoption. That way, the couple will have taken the divorce option completely off the table and should live a happier life afterwards.

Personally I find a relationship much more exciting and also more romantic if it can do without any outside pressure whatsoever. Both partners should be completely free to leave every day. They stay together simply because they prefer the presence of the other over absence. And this has to be won every day anew, over and over again. It's great if it works, and if it has worked for a while and doesn't anymore, then it is no catastrophe. All security in matters of the heart is illusory.

At a wedding ceremony, one typically promises to love the partner forever. Such a promise is clearly immoral, since one has no control over one's future feelings. It is as if I promise you that it won't rain tomorrow.

For these reasons, I have a problem with gays who fight for the right to marry their partners. The goal should not be to get even more people into government-approved relationships, but to do away with these approvals altogether. Gays should exploit their peculiar situation and mock the institution much more than they do now. I propose that a group of gay men pair off with a group of lesbians and then stage a huge mass wedding party, complete with official marriage licenses and all, simply to make fun of the whole thing and to collect the tax breaks. Or will the government only issue its license if you promise to have sex regularly? How often? What position? Would Ronald Reagan have been stripped of his marriage license? Questions everywhere.

I recognize however that everyone living in a rich country has an obvious moral duty to marry someone from a poor country to circumvent immigration laws and provide the unjustly disadvantaged with an opportunity to improve their lives and financially support their families. This duty is even more pronounced in the case of older persons whose retirement benefits will be inherited by a spouse: clearly these persons have an obligation to marry a young person from a poor country. (See also Duties Towards People in Poor Countries.)

(Back to the table of contents)

Thanks for not Breeding

There are way too many people around already. In terms of excessive consumption, the real overpopulation is located in the first world, and not in the third. People in the developed countries waste the world's resources and contribute to the world's environmental problems as if there were no tomorrow. You have 5% of the world's population using up 70% of the world's resources, and it's clearly impossible to bring the other 95% up to the same consumption level. The lifestyle in the first world is not generalizable and therefore wrong, according to Kant's Categorical Imperative.

It could and should be called arrogant to believe that one's own genetic material is so perfect that it should be transported into the next generation.

Your three year old child prefers books lying on the floor. You prefer the books organized on shelves. There is no rational reason to choose one scheme over the other, yet you use your power to enforce your preference. You clearly have no moral right to do so. "Might is right."

Do prospective parents never fear that one morning they'll wake up and realize that they do not particularly like their child? Or that their child wakes up and realizes that it does not particularly like them? You can't divorce your children. Some shared genes and a vast power difference does not always make a good basis for love.

Suppose doctors tell you that your child is going to have trisomy 21 (mongolianism, Down's syndrome), a very common genetic defect. Trisomy 21 people are among the happiest humans, but severely handicapped, and yet you will have to care for the child all your life, then put it in an institution when you get too old. Do you abort the child?

Do you know how your personality will develop over the next 15 years? Do you know how your partner's personality will develop over the next 15 years? Can you guarantee that your changed self will still love your changed partner in 15 years? If not, what are you going to do: stay together so that your child has a fake family experience, or break up so that your child has a true non-family experience?

Planned Parenthood offers cheap vasectomies and sterilizations.

If you feel the need to care for a child, you should look into adoption, especially adoption of sick children and children from poor countries. That way you're doing real good and reduce suffering in the world, without contributing to the problem. The problem, the central problem of our time, is overpopulation.

(Back to the table of contents)

Abortion

The main argument of abortion opponents is short, elegant and logical: "human life begins with conception, killing a human life is murder, so abortion is murder and therefore forbidden." By comparison, the typical babbling of abortion proponents is utterly incoherent: "if you don't like abortions, don't have one; it should be a woman's choice; it's her body; don't force your morals on others etc." They completely avoid the central question: is abortion murder, yes or no? If not, why not?

The debate, therefore, is clearly won by the abortion opponents, but only because the abortion proponents refuse to argue properly, on ethical terms. Here are my arguments in favor of abortion:

(Back to the table of contents)

Gays

Most of my friends are male; with a couple of notable exceptions, most females seem to find my thinking foreign. I often wanted to be gay, but unfortunately I found myself to be wired normally. Everything about gays seemed cool: their elitism, the avantgarde rejection of traditional modes of living, their smartness, their richness, their being hated by religious morons.

Some of this admiration has since evaporated. I am appalled by the vigor with which gays demand government approval for their relationships in the form of marriage licenses: the avantgarde joining the boring mainstream. Instead of getting straights out of the military, they fight to get gays into the military! When a Republican hammers homosexuals in public, gays whine "Discrimination!" -- why not simply hammer back on the idiot and his infantile religious beliefs? Many gays also show a fixation on externalities (such as body shape, dress, interior design etc.) which I lack completely and which bore me to no end.

I am completely dumbfounded by the widespread societal disapproval of homosexuality, and don't understand at all where it comes from. As a male, every single male homosexual makes me happy: less competition for me.

(Back to the table of contents)

The Importance of Sex to Males

Most species exist as males and females and reproduce by having sex. The reason is that reproduction via sex involves the random mixing of genetic material in every generation, which allows for more variety, faster evolution and better adaption to a changing environment. The young are born by the female, so the male is really only needed to have sex and mix the genes. That's biologically the only point of males.

Now this is all quite abstract, but you can easily make it very concrete: ask any male friend of yours what he would prefer, amputation of both legs or amputation of the penis. So far, I have always received the same answer. And usually the answer comes very quickly.

Complete chemical castration, extinguishing all sexual thought and desire, is a different matter though. I think if you paid me $1 million I would go for it. It would be a nice serene life.

(Back to the table of contents)

Vegetarianism

The mere act of quickly and painlessly killing an animal is not a big crime: it is not afraid of death, cannot anticipate death and therefore has no reason to complain. Its friends and family have a reason to complain, and that is the extent of the injustice. That however is not what happens to animals in modern industrialized husbandry. Many of them are separated right after birth from their mothers, live out their lives in factory barns without ever seeiing daylight, endure a long, frightening and stressful transport and then a terrifying scene at a slaughterhouse. Being killed is the best thing that ever happened to millions and millions of creatures every day. No matter what system of ethics you subscribe to: reducing unnecessary suffering is always one of the first rules. The suffering of animals raised for food is patently unnecessary; vegetarianism is the inescapable conclusion.

(Back to the table of contents)

Education Improved

Here are my ideas to improve school education and teacher training:

(Back to the table of contents)

The State of the Web

is a poor one. What you see is homepages which are nothing but blinking collections of links, colorful graphics, ad banners, commercial hype, more links, more graphics, a photo, and everything under construction of course.

Here's my personal HTML style guide:

My WWW Reader's guide:

(Back to the table of contents)

Library Surfing

Everyone seems to be talking about "surfing the internet" these days. People want to put internet access into schools, you see internet seminars popping up everywhere etc. However, there's really not that much to be found on the net. Generally, it is incredibly overhyped. You have good computer and internet related information, you can easily try out weird political arguments, there's some fringe stuff to be found and you can keep in touch with people sharing your hobby. That's about it.

The vast majority of knowledge and literature is stored in our [university] libraries and won't be digitized for quite some time to come, if ever. We need to teach people how to "surf a library", because surfing the internet is trivial in comparison.

Freshmen here at UCSB get a non-mandatory 1-hour library tour; the internet seminars are about 7 hours and extend over several weeks. The priorities are wrong. It should be working knowledge for every student

All of this can be done with a decent academic library (using interlibrary loan, if need be), and most of them can't be done with the internet.

Why not have a "Library Hunt" just like the "Internet Hunt"? The person who gets the answers first wins a cookie or something.

(Back to the table of contents)

Free Software

Free software is now of an amazingly high quality. Hardly any commercial text editor can compete with emacs. Gcc is one of the best and most widely ported C and C++ compilers around. Linux supports more hardware than any commercial Unix and is actively being ported to other platforms, quickly becoming the most popular Unix. The GNU Hurd is the most technically innovative modular and microkernel-based operating system on the market while Microsoft, IBM and Apple only use these buzz words in their ads without producing much that actually deserves the name. TeX is a typesetting software that can be used to create extremely high quality technical documents and is essentially the only choice for scientific typesetting. The Internet, by and large, is run on free software: the web server apache, the email server sendmail, and the DNS nameserver bind are all market leaders by wide margins in their respective domains; in fact, the busiest web site (www.yahoo.com) and the busiest FTP site (ftp.cdrom.com) on the Internet both run FreeBSD, a free operating system. Google runs on Linux. Octave is a free replacement for the numerical software matlab. The GIMP matches and surpasses photoshop's image manipulation capabilities. The chess programs gnuchess and especially crafty win easily against the vast majority of human players.

(In an earlier version of this rant, I mentioned MuPAD, supposedly a free computer algebra system just as powerful as Maple or Mathematica. It turns out that MuPAD, while gratis, was never truly free in the liberty sense. The makers of MuPAD have recently removed all gratis versions. This shows that we should never settle for gratis software: it has to be free software that gives you the source code and lets you modify it.)

User support for free software is generally much more snappy than that of commercial programs. Newsgroups, FAQs, WWW homepages, and even personal email to the author are available on a regular basis. Usually bugs will be fixed instantly. If not, the end user can try to fix them themselves, because they always get the complete source code for the programs. Having the sources liberates the user from being dependent on the program author.

You don't read much about these achievements in the media. I suspect it's because there's no advertising money to be expected from free software, so why praise them? (One more argument against the financing of journals by advertising here...) We should write more letters to the editors of computer magazines asking why they refuse to include free software in their reviews.

The successes of the free software movement suggest that one basic assumption of capitalism, namely that quality can only be created if a profit motive is involved, is wrong -- they forgot about enthusiastic volunteers creating a culture where one's worth derives from what one gives and not from what one owns. The neo-liberals love to repeat their lies: "You always get what you pay for" or "There's no free lunch", never supporting them with any evidence. High quality free software proves them wrong. GNU hackers of the world, unite!

(Back to the table of contents)

Lies

I can't believe that parents keep telling their children deliberate, outright lies (e.g. about Santa Claus, or where babies come from, or where dead grandpa went, or that one can achieve anything if one tries hard enough etc.). How are children expected to grow up to become critical citizens in a democratic society (which constantly involves distinguishing truth from lies) if the most trusted people early on feed them lies? What in the world are these parents thinking?

(Back to the table of contents)

Fiction considered dangerous

We constantly have to guess what other people think or feel or how they will react. This is relatively easy in everyday life, but much more difficult (and important) in those rare and important situations: you're falling in love, you want to break up, you want to apply for a new job, you need to tell your kid that she has cancer, you need to console a friend whose father has died etc.

The only way we have to predict what others will think and feel and do are stereotypes: simplified models of what people of a certain type typically do in certain situations. Stereotypes aren't bad: they're often the only thing we have. We usually use our stereotypes without being aware of it: we call that "acting intuitively".

But how do we acquire stereotypes? Many important situations are exceedingly rare in real life. How often have you fallen in love? Maybe 10 times? That is no data collection to write home about. But you have easily seen a thousand fictional movie and TV scenes of someone falling in love. That's where you got your stereotypes about how people falling in love are supposed to behave. Your brain is not smart enough to distinguish between those 10 real scenes and the 1,000 unreal ones: it's all mushed up into one big stereotype. Those 1,000 unreal scenes were written by authors who don't have any more experience with the matter than you or me: they just made that stuff up. Your stereotypes about these central matters of life are thus largely built on scenes that were made up by people; there is no reason to believe that they resemble real life. Your whole internal model of people is poisoned by fiction. The more fiction you consume, the less you can trust your intuitions.

(Back to the table of contents)

Blackmailing Done Right

In general it is not difficult to blackmail an entity that has money, by threatening to bomb, distribute poisons etc. They will usually pay (they are insured after all), and you will get caught during the handing over of the money.

There is only one proper way to relieve them of their money: order them to drop it out of a plane in small used bills over the favelas of São Paulo.

(Back to the table of contents)

The Strongest Beliefs

What are your strongest beliefs? Statements that you are completely convinced about, that are beyond any doubt? Are there any such statements at all?

I'll work with the following definition: you are completely convinced (CC) of a statement if you would agree to the following bet: you will receive $10 if the statement is true, but you will be slowly tortured to death if the statement is false. The bet will be decided by a fair, sympathetic and all-knowing judge, no pettifoggeries.

Here's a list of my CC statements:

Statements that, for me, don't rise to CC status:

(Back to the table of contents)

The Case against Breast Implants

There are two different situations in which the appearance of the female breast is important: From this it follows that for women with small breasts the optimal strategy is not to buy breast implants, but to wear "wonderbras" and other clothes which let the breasts appear larger in scenario 1, while not lowering the odds in scenario 2.

(Back to the table of contents)

Mass equals energy

Einstein's equation E = mc2 is often illustrated with a nuclear explosion: if you take the mass of the bomb before the explosion, and the mass of all the remnants after the explosion, you get a difference, that difference being exactly equivalent (via Einstein's equation) to the energy liberated by the explosion. But the equation is much more fundamental than that: each time you burn some fuel to extract mechanical or thermal energy, you also convert a tiny bit of mass into energy. The mass of the remnants after the reaction is always a little bit smaller than the mass before, the difference being exactly equivalent to the energy liberated. Admittedly, the mass difference is very small, but the point stands: you are converting mass into energy each time you start your car or light a cigarette.

I don't actually believe that we are "converting" mass into energy. Instead: there is nothing but energy; "hard matter" doesn't really exist. All the fundamental particles, electrons, quarks etc., are point particles and have no size. So how could they have mass? They are really nothing but bundles of energy. The equation E = mc2 does not give the amount of energy you can extract from a given mass--it tells you the mass of a packet of energy. Of course, there are also packets of energy that don't have mass, e.g. photons.

(Back to the table of contents)

Evolutionary Psychology is Crap

I was enamored with evolutionary psychology for a while. All sorts of behaviors of males and females are so easy to explain if you postulate that all behaviors ultimately aim to find the best partner and to maximize the prospect of offspring. I'm now convinced that the field is completely worthless. All they do is collect data and then come up with some evolutionary story to explain the data after the fact. The thing is, you can come up with such a story for virtually anything. Maybe some other, better story could have explained the opposite outcome? If evolutionary psychology were a science, then they would formulate their hypotheses first, and then proceed to test them. Here are three straightforward falsified predictions that follow from evolutionary thinking:

(Back to the table of contents)

The Kid who created our Universe

When looking at the developments in physics and computer engineering over the last hundred years and extrapolating for another 500 years or so, it seems pretty likely that physicists will have a complete mathematical theory of all physical processes by that time, and the computers will be powerful enough to run a simulation of a whole universe based on these equations. Scientists will be extremely eager to develop such an emulation in order to check their theories and to learn about the effects of slightly altering the parameters. The age-old question "Is this the only possible world?" could finally be answered.

Such a simulation would be started at the big bang and would then proceed with accelerated time. If the equations are correct and the simulation is good, life will eventually appear, inside the computer's memory. A tremendously exciting experiment, and more and more scientists will want to repeat it to check out their own pet theories. Eventually, universe simulations will become cheap enough to put them on every pupil's desk, for educational purposes.

Of course, you already see where I'm going here. It is pretty likely that we ourselves, right now, are sitting inside just such a simulation on some school kid's desk. The remaining problem is how to contact the kid who created our universe. Let's just hope that he didn't smoke anything.

Appendix: Let's quickly estimate the probability that we are sitting inside such a simulated universe. In the worst case, a computer that simulates a universe in real time takes up about as much matter and energy as the simulated universe contains. In that case, the total number of civilizations in all the simulated universes is of about the same order of magnitude as the number of civilizations in the real universe (since scientists will not stop before they have at least one simulation running which is big enough to generate at least one civilization, even if that means zoning off ever larger unused portions of the real universe for their huge computers), and the likelihood that we ourselves are simulated is therefore about fifty-fifty. If it turns out to be possible to simulate a universe with significantly less matter and energy than the simulated universe contains, then the likelihood becomes much bigger. All this assumes that the simulated universes look very much like the real universe, but this need not be the case. After all, once we know everything there is to know about our universe, "creative cosmology" will be one of the few remaining sciences.

Simulating universes creates a host of interesting ethical questions. Clearly, once there's life in your simulation, you are not allowed anymore to switch it off permanently. However, temporary interruptions are fine: the inhabitants of the simulated universe wouldn't even notice. What if you see that there's needless suffering in your simulated universe--are you allowed or even required to intervene? God might have asked Himself this question from time to time.

(Back to the table of contents)

The Future of Mankind

Clearly we will build truly intelligent machines eventually. These won't be programmed in a logical way like chess computers; they will be "self-booting" and will acquire their knowledge and intelligence by learning, just like human toddlers. At one point these robots will get smarter than humans, and they will then construct even smarter machines. Stephen Hawking believes we might keep up by improving our biology, tinkering with our genome; to me it is clear that that won't work: tinkering with a highly complex system that isn't fully understood is always more difficult than building from scratch.

The robots will either displace us (like we displaced the Neanderthals), or they will keep us around (like we keep dogs around). Maybe our best hope is to form a symbiosis of some sort with the robots for a while (like the dogs do with us). It really doesn't matter that much in the long run: they are the ones who will do stuff; we will be onlookers at best. They will be the next evolutionary step.

You may not like that scenario; nervetheless, it will happen without any doubt. I give it 150 years at most. Your great-grandchildren will see it happen.

(Back to the table of contents)

End of the World in 10 Years

I have an idea for a novel. Here's the beginning: One day, people notice a novel white spot in the night sky. Astonomers train their telescopes on it, and after a while they realize that it is a large star, racing towards the solar system, having been expelled from its original location by a supernova explosion. A couple of months later, with the spot in the sky already noticeably bigger, NASA publishes its projections: with 99.9% probability, the star will hit and completely destroy the solar system in 10 years' time.

Actually, I'm not too interested in writing that novel. Instead, I want to know what would happen in the following ten years, how would people react? It's ultimately a question in mass psychology. Here are a couple of thoughts:

(Back to the table of contents)

All is Math

The best theories we have of the universe, Relativity Theory and Quantum Field theories, are highly mathematical. Surely there's a single theory underlying all natural phenomena, and it too is mathematical, and maybe we are even capable of finding it eventually.

Traditionally, we see these mathematical theories as descriptions of reality: the mathematical entities stand in a one-to-one correspondence with the entities of reality, and the theory is such that the mathematical entities behave just like the corresponding entities of reality. But what if there's only the mathematical theory, no correspondence, no reality beyond the math? A consistent mathematical theory whose solutions show an extremely rich behavior, that's all, that's the universe.

But mathematical theories are purely abstract, just ideas, you can't touch them! How could they give rise to the hard stuff around me that I can touch? Well, you may not be able to touch a mathematical theory, but one feature of a theory can easily "touch" another feature, once the concept of "touching" is properly defined in the context of the theory.

There are lots of consistent mathematical theories out there, obviously. And I want to claim that they are all created equal. It's not that some consistent theories describe reality while others are just nice ideas: instead, each and every consistent mathematical theory gives rise to its own universe of sorts, with most of these universes being utterly boring. Right now, as we speak, we are lucky enough to experience the feeling of being part of the solution of an exquisitely complicated, elegant and exciting mathematical theory.

(Back to the table of contents)

Infinity is Big

Currently, the best available astronomical data suggests that the universe is flat, meaning it doesn't have any large scale curvature built in. While it is mathematically possible that a flat universe could be spatially finite, most researcher nowadays believe that the universe is in fact spatially infinite and contains infinitely many stars (most of which we cannot see because light originating from them hasn't had enough time to reach us).

Infinite space with infinitely many stars. Wow. Consider the consequences: the probability that a given star has a planet that can support life is presumably pretty low, but if you have infinitely many stars, you also have infinitely many stars with life-sustaining planets. The probability that a given planet looks like the earth is admittedly extremely low, but if you have infinitely many planets, you will have infinitely many planets that look like the earth. The probability that on such an earth-like planet somebody hacks together a cheesy web site containing weird opinions is certainly very very very low, but if you have infinitely many such earth-like planets...

(Back to the table of contents)

Free Will

Science often overturns widely held and intuitive beliefs. We believed to be important, the center of it all; yet now we know to be nothing but mutated apes sitting in a corner of some galaxy that is just one of many billion similar ones. Likewise, it is fairly obvious that the Earth cannot be a sphere because then the people on the other side would fall down, yet some strange scientists keep telling us otherwise.

A widely held and intuitive belief is that of free will. Being a human involves constantly making decisions; it is obvious to us that we could have decided otherwise, that we were free to do so, in fact that we are free to behave in any way we like.

I am convinced that this intuition is false. There is no room in physical law for free will. There is, however, room for probabilistic information processors, and that's precisely what we are. We take in information, we have some other information stored, we have some hard-wired goals and a reasoning apparatus, and using all that we make decisions and act on those decisions. "Freedom" is the name for the internal state of a probabilistic information processor while it is processing information and coming to a decision. Our freedom is the freedom of a chess computer before it has made its move.

Some people believe that doing away with free will is dangerous since it also gets rid of all moral responsibility. Yet that is not true. A chess computer that decides to make a move that turns out to be bad will be punished with a strong refutation; if it is smart enough it will learn from this and won't make the same mistake again. A probabilistic information processor who knows that it will be held responsible for the consequences of its decisions will tend to behave responsibly.

(Back to the table of contents)

Religion

I reject Christianity mainly because of the character of the Christian God. He forbade Adam and Eve to eat from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil without any reason; I consider knowledge of good and evil (ethics) to be a very worthy pursuit. God supposedly created us in His image, yet He often gets upset with humans and engages in widespread and indiscriminate punishment (Noah's flood, destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, plagues of Egypt). This points to a certain self-hatred of God. God often plays devious mind games on humans (Abraham and his son; Job). He is extremely arrogant (when Job with perfect justification complains about the injustice of his punishment, God essentially replies "did you make the world, or did I?") and jealous (he wants all humans to believe in him and only in him, the First Commandment, but why would he care?). He is sloppy: after having won the bet with the devil about Job, he returns the former riches to Job, but neglects to resurrect Job's children and servants: he simply gives him new ones.

The messages of the old and the new testament are almost completely opposite. The only admirable messages I can find in Christianity are the teachings of Jesus: love everybody, especially your enemies, don't retaliate, don't judge, live poor. Just like the prescriptions of Communism, these are important ideals but unrealistic because they don't take human nature into account.

God claims to punish those who don't believe in Him, and reward those who do. Even if I wanted to, I could not believe that there is a pink elephant outside the door. I can imagine it, but I cannot make myself truly believe it. My beliefs are simply not under my control. God punishing me for my beliefs or disbeliefs is fundamentally unfair.

Even the character and some of the teachings of Jesus are questionable. He urges his disciples to drop everything and follow him, without any concern for the welfare of the families left behind. At one point he is hungry and gets angry at a nearby bush for not bearing any fruit. He then prays to God to destroy the bush as punishment, claiming that everything a believer asks for in prayer will be fulfilled. (He does not explain how contradictory requests of believers are to be resolved.) He equates adulterers and divorcees, apparently wishing to force people to stay in unhealthy and unhappy marriages for life. He never speaks out against slavery or torture (nor does anybody else in the bible).

When meeting a self-proclaimed Christian, it is always a good idea to ask "So, you must really look forward to your death, right?" After all, Christians believe that they will spend eternity in a blissful union with Jesus, God and the angels. Beats taking out the trash, doesn't it? Yet, strangely, Christians seem to cling to life just like anybody else.

In general, someone who had to work hard to overcome many obstacles deserves more respect than someone to whom everything was freely given. By this measure, God does not deserve any respect: he never had to overcome any difficulties whatsoever; he woke up one morning, found himself to be all powerful and all knowing, and proceeded to create the universe and mankind. Big deal. Furthermore, considering the natural disasters and atrocities of history, it is clear that his creation was a piss poor job.

I reject Buddhism on three grounds: its fundamental premise "Life is suffering" does not agree with everyday experience, the infantile notion of reincarnation does not have a shred of evidence behind it, and the concept of Karma was obviously invented to make people behave. (There is however a benign and abstract reading of the reincarnation and Karma doctrines that I agree with: everything we do, everything we set in motion, every thought we put in other people's minds has consequences beyond our lifetime; the matter making up our bodies is constantly recycled to become part of other bodies.)

I'm not sufficiently familiar with other religions to criticize them in any meaningful way. In general I'm an atheist in the sense that I strongly believe that no personal creator-god exists. [I do however find the programmer-created-simulated-universe scenario quite likely.] I am also certain that no all-knowing, all-powerful and all-good being exists: the tsunami put an end to that notion.

My own religion is a blend of some ideas from Spinoza, Buddha and Teilhard de Chardin. For me it fulfills all the tasks of a religion: it makes me feel good, it makes me behave, it provides a frame of reference. The central idea is to deemphasize our individuality and instead to consider ourselves as part of one big system, the universe:

All is one.

The old Greeks postulated atomism: the world is composed of indivisible parts called atoms. Teilhard de Chardin provided an important addition to this theory: there is only one atom; the universe itself is indivisible. Whenever you try to separate one part of the system from the rest, you inevitably make mistakes at the boundary.

One could regard the brain's neurons as individuals, but it is much more fruitful to treat them as interacting and mutually dependent parts of a whole. In a similar sense, I want to regard humans (and all other intelligent beings) as the brain cells of the cosmos. It is incorrect to say that human scientists are starting to understand the cosmos: rather, the cosmos is becoming self-aware.

Once one takes this perspective, one immediately feels a deep sympathy for all beings and the whole system. The left hand may not feel the pain of the right hand, but it will surely never hit the right hand and will help it along whenever it can. Jealousy becomes impossible: no brain cell would ever complain that some other brain cell found the answer first.

One can even argue scientifically that human beings cannot be strictly well-defined individuals: the set of atoms that make up your body is constantly changing, and the matter that you are is different from the matter that you were. Not even your thoughts are truly yours: they are influenced by countless ideas of others you have read and heard. And from the viewpoint of Quantum Mechanics, the history of the universe is nothing but the time evolution of a single giant wave function subjet to Schrödinger's equation; that wave function encodes everything there is to know about the universe, all in one single self-interacting entity.

The truly big heart loves every single quark in the universe. Like the mystics, I see all particles as vibrating, spinning and quivering with ecstasy.

Our task (and the meaning of life) is to keep improving our institutions, knowledge and technology, with the goal of approaching the remote logical end point of a good, omniscient and omnipotent entity, akin to Teilhard de Chardin's omega point.

(Back to the table of contents)

Duties Toward People in Poor Countries

If you were lucky enough to be born into a rich country, your passport is by far the most valuable thing you own. It shelters you from war, political unrest and famine, and gives you access to a health care system, clean water and air, decent infrastructure, education and job opportunities that with small effort allow to live a life of luxury. Compared to the vast majority of people in the world, you spend your whole life bedded in pink cotton candy. You enjoy these privileges by virtue of your noble birth alone, you didn't do anything to deserve them. It is a caste system on a global scale: a moral outrage.

The cockaigne is surrounded by fences and high walls, to keep out the poor and downtrodden. Clearly you must help people over these walls.

There are a number of simple ways to do this. If you feel a need to marry, you should always look for marriage partners in poor countries. As a result of the marriage, your partner will get the opportunity to obtain a valuable passport. Furthermore, if your partner is younger, they will inherit your retirement benefits which would otherwise go to waste.

However, marriage helps only one person. It is possible to help many more, by assuming fatherhood of children of single mothers in poor countries. Such declarations are accepted as valid by most countries (unless the true father steps forward, an unlikely event) and the children then get a right to your passport, ensuring a bright future.

Lastly, you can adopt children (or, in many jurisdictions even adults) of poor countries who will then be able to receive your country's passport.

It is your duty.

(Back to the table of contents)

How to Live Your Life

Don't take yourself too seriously. You aren't that important. In everything you do, you are replaceable, and indeed you will be replaced pretty soon.

Whatever your job, chances are that you do more harm than good. In one way or another, you are probably contributing to the growth of consumption, to the widening of inequalities between nations or people, or to increased demands in the world of work. Just because someone pays you doesn't mean that your work is desirable from a global perspective.

Try to leave as small a footprint as possible: sit still, think, don't buy stuff, save your money, write a will benefiting some charity, don't procreate, prepare yourself for death, retire early, kill yourself when the time is right. Thank you.

(Back to the table of contents)

Exiting in Style

Death is no big deal really. Do you like to go to sleep at night? Sleeping is nice, isn't it? Death simply means that you go to sleep and you won't wake up anymore. I have no problem with that prospect whatsoever.

Dying is a different matter though. Realistically, most of us face a slow death in a nursing home, with slight dementia and various slow growing cancers encroaching. Towards the end, you won't even be able to tell where it hurts anymore.

The only rational alternative is a well-planned suicide. This is a perfectly noble way to die: the human being takes charge, makes a decision, and acts. Unlike a leaf that floats in the air, passively tossed around by the wind, until it finally falls to the ground.

When you have decided that the time is right, sell your belongings and give away your money to charity. Then have your best friend organize your last couple of weeks. This party is of course to be financed by credit cards, consumer loans and loan sharks: the only way to permanently win in life is to die in debt and without possessions.

Planning ahead makes sense: life insurance policies will pay in case of suicide if taken out at least two years before the event (in the U.S. at least).

The last party is going to be the best party of your life. Whatever you fancy will be present: friends, women, drugs, food, music, tropical setting etc. The idea is that all your life you can look forward to those last couple of weeks.

The exact manner of suicide is of course a matter of taste. I suggest slowly increasing doses of heroin; each dose increase will cause a new type of ecstasy. In the end you will die with a smile on your face: the last moment of your life will have been the best one.

(Back to the table of contents)


Inventions, Technology and Science

The Ultimate Monitor

All current photos, monitors and TV screens suffer from the same two problems: they do not display three-dimensional scenarios and they do not let the viewer focus on arbitrary things. Instead, the viewer has to focus on the screen itself and only those things that were in focus when the picture was taken will appear sharp.

That is primitive. A monitor should act exactly like a window, and this is possible: every pixel on the screen should not simply be a light bulb that shines light in all directions, but instead should be replaced by a whole sheaf of individually addressable thin light beams which point in different directions. These beams probably would have to be implemented as low power lasers to prevent diffraction effects. A picture is then given by specifying a light color and intensity for every addressable beam of every pixel sheaf. Hopefully, the eye is easily fooled and not too many beams per sheaf are needed.

To save energy (and computation power in the case of scenes that are rendered on-the-fly), the display could track the viewers eyes and switch on only those light beams actually visible by the viewer.

With a screen like that, the viewer will get a full three dimensional impression (without any special glasses), will be able to move the head slightly to get a better view of some details, and will be able to focus on everything they choose. Just like looking through a window.

(Back to the table of contents)

Free Transmission of Telephone Messages

The telephone system offers essentially two ways to transmit messages, even internationally, without paying money: Requesting a collect call is free (dial 0130-0222 inside Germany and 1800-COLLECT inside the US) and ringing the phone bell is free. If you request a collect call, the operator asks you for your name; this name will be transmitted to the other party for free (of course, the other party has to reject the collect call, otherwise it will get expensive). You can encode a short message in your first name. For this to work, you'll have to establish a catalog of first name - message correspondences in advance with the other party. You can also encode a message in the time of day you request the collect call, e.g. if you call in the first thirty minutes of an hour, everything is ok and they can reject the collect call, but if you call in the rest of the hour, something went wrong and they should accept the call. This is especially useful if you want to stay in touch while traveling.

In order to encode messages in the telephone ringing, you start again with a (rejected) collect call, and then you call the other party's number and let it ring a certain number of times, according to the message you want to transmit. The other party knows that they shouldn't pick up the phone immediately after a collect call but should count the rings instead. Again, a catalog of messages has to be established in advance.

(Back to the table of contents)

Lenses

Snail's eyes simply consist of a bunch of light-sensitive nerve cells without any lenses. Obviously, snails can only distinguish light and dark in different directions but they cannot make out any objects.

Our noses and ears are just as primitive as snail's eyes. It's all but impossible to make out the precise location and shape of the emitting object. What we need are portable odor lenses and sound lenses.

(Back to the table of contents)

Zoom Glasses

The one big defect of our eye is that it doesn't have a built-in zoom feature. This needs to be rectified, and quick. Everybody wants it. We need glasses that allow zooming. How to do this without two large heavy lenses? I suppose we can just use very high pixel camera and digital zoom.

(Back to the table of contents)

Universal charger outlet

Pretty much everybody in the world has a cell phone, lots of people have mp3-players and cameras. All these devices need to be charged, so everybody needs to carry chargers for all these devices. In addition, if you travel internationally, you need an adapter to deal with the different outlet types.

All this is ridiculous. We need an internationally standardized low-voltage outlet that can be connected with a simple cable to all these devices. No chargers anymore, just one cable.

(Back to the table of contents)

Perpetuum mobile

You've heard the physicists claim that a perpetuum mobile is theoretically impossible. I believe they are wrong. All you need is a nice strong rope. Simply tie our galaxy to some other galaxy with the rope. Since the empty space in the universe is expanding but the rope is not, the remote galaxy will pull at the rope, thus performing mechanical work. This work can easily be converted into electrical energy with a generator. Voilà: free energy, courtesy of the universe. (To make sure that we don't run out of rope, we'll just convert some of the surplus energy into matter to make more rope.) If we tie enough galaxies together like that, we should be able to generate enough energy to avoid the entropy death predicted by the second law of thermodynamics, since that law only applies to closed systems, not to systems with an unlimited supply of energy.

(Back to the table of contents)

Video Goggles With Motion Detector

Video goggles are now sold everywhere: you can attach them to your laptop, video iPod or DVD player and watch in privacy, on a reasonably large virtual screen, while lying in bed, sitting in an airplane, etc.

It seems obvious that we need video goggles with a little motion sensor built in (just like the iPhone). Then the laptop would know when I move my head, and it could always display the proper portion of my desktop, giving me a virtually infinite desktop. That would be much better and cheaper than three LCD monitors standing side by side. Even better would be a goggle that tracks eye movements, so one could look at a huge screen without having to move the head.

(Back to the table of contents)

Ventilator on Water Bottles

Wandering the ultra hot streets of New Delhi one day, I realized that what's needed to cool off is a water spraying bottle with ventilator. Since plastic water bottles are ubiquitous, all we need is a fixture that's screwed on top of such a bottle, with a spraying nozzle and ventilator, both mechanically operated by a handle. It should also have a straw opening, so that one can still drink without having to remove the fixture. To keep the turning ventilator blades away from the handle, it's probably best to have the ventilar rotate in a plane parallel to the plane of handle operation.

Optionally one could attach the whole fixture to a fabric sack for carrying the bottle, with attached carrying straps. Occasional moistening of the fabric will then cool the bottle by evaporation.

(Back to the table of contents)

Legal Online Gambling

In most countries, online gambling is illegal. There is an obvious huge demand though, especially in China and in the U.S.

Option trading is basically gambling on future prices, and many use it as a substitute for gambling. The problem is that right now, you can only bet on tomorrow's price of a given stock or resource; for gamblers, the time resolution needs to be much smaller to keep the adrenaline flowing.

So I propose option trading with much smaller time resolution. It should be possible to bet on the price of gold ten minutes from now, for instance. It's clearly legal, and it would satisfy most gamblers. There's even a conceivable real-world use, for instance when traders want to insure against price fluctuations while performing a complicated transaction.

(Back to the table of contents)

Asian Artificial Language

The East Asian languages are fucked up because of their inane systems of writing, with different symbols for each concept. For every concept, one needs to learn two largely independent things: the pronunciation of the word and the (stroke order of the) corresponding character(s).

The phonetic system used in Western languages, once properly implemented, is clearly superior: for every concept one needs to learn only the pronunciation; the spelling can then largely be deduced. Similarly, when reading an unfamiliar word, the pronunciation of it can be deduced from its spelling.

However, Asian languages are much more elegant than most other languages in their almost complete avoidance of grammar. There is really no need to distinguish between "I", "me", "mine", between "give" and "gave", or between "dollar" and "dollars"; everything can be unambiguously deduced from the context: "He yesterday give two dollar I." All these grammatical rules one has to learn when studying a language like German are pointless icing on the cake.

I think we should combine the advantages of the phonetic spelling system of Western languages and the lack of grammar of Asian languages and create an artificial language with clean phonetic spelling and Asian approach to grammar. This would then represent the simplest way to communicate and could eventually become a second language for every person in the world.

(Back to the table of contents)

Maximizing the Placebo Effect

Traditionally, western medicine treats the placebo effect as an annoyance, something that is to be worked around in order to find the truly effective treatments. Elaborate double blind studies are designed to eliminate the placebo effect when studying drug effects.

This is of course completely mistaken. The goal of any treatment is to cure the disease, and if the placebo effect can help, all the better. We need research about how to maximize the placebo effect. Eastern practices and the medicines of prescientific people will surely be helpful here, since they often employ the placebo effect exclusively. Reassuring rituals, encouraging speech, behavior modification suggestions, some psychoanalysis etc. will all have to play a role.

(Back to the table of contents)

Global Medical Database

Anyone who has ever worked in a hospital knows that more often than not, doctors don't know what's going on. They don't have a clear diagnosis, try this treatment, and then the other one, and in the end they hope that something works. Furthermore, every doctor has a couple of favorite diseases and drugs that they keep falling back on. As they get older, they gain some experience and forget some details of rare diseases they learned in school. The whole system is extremely unsatisfactory.

We need a global medical database on the internet. If you enter the characteristics of a patient and a bunch of symptoms, it should give you the possible diagnoses, with associated probabilities. It should suggest tests to distinguish between those diagnoses. Then it should suggest drugs and treatments, the cheapest and most effective for the current condition. Whenever a doctor has administered a drug, they enter the symptoms, treatment and outcome into the database, so that it can be updated in real time. No doctor can possibly have all this data in his head.

The job of a doctor then changes drastically: their first duty is to cleanly describe all relevant symptoms in a format the database understands. Their second duty becomes to maximize the placebo effect, as described above.

(Back to the table of contents)

Electronic nose

Every smartphone needs a universal electronic nose, a device that can detect the signature of the chemicals in the air. Apps could then be written to warn of poisonous gases, diagnose diseases from breath, sweat, urine or feces, measure pollution levels in the air, test the freshness of food, determine the ingredients of a meal, warn allergy sufferers, etc.

(Back to the table of contents)

Satiation index

The only way to lose weight is to consume fewer calories than you expend. The problem with this simple strategy is that you will experience highly unpleasant hunger feelings, and therefore few people can sustain it for long. I assume that different foods, even with the same calory content, differ in their tendency to produce these hunger feelings; in other words: they have a different ''satiation index''. Someone should come up with a validated and reproducible definition of such an index, and then it should be printed on all packaged foods, just like calory contents are today.

(Back to the table of contents)

Database of Mathematics

Chemists have developed a nice system to uniquely refer to chemical compounds (InChI) which makes it easy to query databases; biologists have universally applied systems for naming species (Linnaeus), enzymes (EC), protein structes (PDB) and genes (Gene Ontology). Nothing even remotely comparable exists in mathematics.

Mathematicians often redefine concepts with slight variations (for example, the notions of 'ring', 'algebra' and 'compact space' do not have universally accepted definitions). When reading a mathematical article or book, one always has to check the particular conventions used by the author. Worse, there are no databases that one could query in order to find out whether a given statement has already been proven.

Mathematicians should get their act together and fix these shortcomings. A formal language needs to be specified (which shouldn't be a problem, given that mathematicians invented the concept of formal language) and an extensible list of "contexts" should be provided (e.g. Gödel-Bernays set theory, first-order Peano arithmetic etc.). Every newly defined concept must provide a context and receives a unique identifier; the concept's definition can refer to the identifiers of other concepts in the same context. Furthermore, every concept definition may provide a list of suggested common names. In addition to definitions, the database should also be able to store theorems, again with identifier and common name.

Once a universally accepted formal notation and definition database exists, journal editors could require all authors to refer to these definition and theorem identifiers in their articles and submit their new definitions and results to this database as a condition of publication.

It should be possible to query the database for any specific concept or theorem, or for a list of known theorems connecting two or more concepts. Ideally, the database frontend would incorporate some limited proof intelligence, so that it could detect that a query theorem is equivalent to a theorem in the database, or is a simple consequence of combining several theorems in the database.

In the long run, mathematical papers should be written in a semi-formal language so that computers with access to the math database can automatically check the correctness of all proofs (similar to the Mizar project).

(Back to the table of contents)

Facemasks

A very useful low-tech device is a cloth facemask (similar to the ones worn by surgeons when operating). In Japan, people are polite enough not to shake hands and to wear a facemask whenever they have a cold. All societies should do the same. It is the only way to reduce the incidence of colds and the flu, two incurable viral diseases which have nothing to do with cold temperatures. Many more people die from the flu than from Aids.

(Back to the table of contents)

Locomotives with Water Cannons

In Germany, about 1000 people commit suicide every year by standing on a track in front of a running train. This often causes psychological trauma to the conductor; it also inconveniences many passengers because the train cannot continue and the track has to be shut down for a period of time. Obviously, everyone has a right to commit suicide, but not in this manner. The technological solution is obvious: equip locomotives with water cannons and shoot the suicidal people off the tracks. This might possibly be combined with radar sensors so as to automate the process.

(Back to the table of contents)

Everyday Mirrors

Bicycle helmets sometimes come with little mirrors attached, so that the cyclist can see what's behind him. Why only for cyclists? I want a small light mirror that attaches to my eyeglasses for everyday use. Maybe the interesting stuff always happens behind me; how could I know?

(Back to the table of contents)

Mesh Network of Cell Phones

Most cell phone calls don't leave the city, and in pretty much every city there's a person with a cell phone every couple of yards. In this situation, cell towers aren't needed to transmit calls, and calls should therefore be free. The phones should talk directly to each other, establishing a mesh network (like the one-laptop-per-child machine does), and calls should be routed through that network.

For this to work, every cell phone needs to know approximately where it is, so that calls can be forwarded in the right direction. But I don't think GPS is necessary; regular cell tower triangulation should be sufficient.

Obviously not every cell phone owner has to participate in this mesh network, but those who don't won't get the benefit of free calls.

(Back to the table of contents)

Breaking Into Computer Systems

To break into a company's computer system, one can proceed as follows: buy a couple of USB sticks, load them with hidden self-booting malicious bot software, and drop them in the company's parking lot. Sooner or later, an employee will pick one up, plug it into their computer, and the compromise is established.

To break into private people's computers, the weakest link seems to be the wireless router. These typically run outdated operating systems that are never updated, and have an open port for administration. If there's a tiny bug somewhere in the router's software, one can enter the router via wifi. Once you own the router you have complete control of the traffic flow to and from the connected computers.

(Back to the table of contents)

Turing Test Improved

Alan Turing, in his 1950 paper "Can a machine think?", proposes to rephrase the question as "Can a machine simulate the input-output behavior of a human, as judged by a human?". This latter question can readily be answered with the Turing Test: A human test person and a computer both try to convince a human judge that they are human. The judge, based solely on two separate fixed-length interactive conversations with the contestants carried out over keyboard and monitor, announces at the end of the conversations which contestant he believes to be human. A computer is said to have passed the Turing Test if it is able to win about half of these contests, with different randomly selected judges and test persons.

I argue that the Turing Test is not very useful in practice, does not properly capture "thinking capability", and Artificial Intelligence researchers should not strive to build a computer that can pass it. This is due to the following three objections:

I propose a replacement for the Turing test, henceforth to be called the Boldt Test. The Boldt Test answers the question "Can a machine produce as interesting an input-output behavior as a human, as judged by a human". The setup is rather similar to the Turing test except that both contestants try to produce an interesting conversation and the judge decides at the end which conversation he considered to be more interesting. (The conversation that he would prefer to continue is defined to be the more interesting one.) A computer passes the Boldt Test if it is able to win about half of these contests, with different judges and test persons.

The above objections against the Turing Test are readily answered by the Boldt Test:

From a research perspective, the Boldt Test is more fruitful than the Turing Test because it does not present a dead end: once a computer passes the Turing Test, it is impossible to improve it further since it is unreasonable to expect that a computer could ever win substantially more than 50% of Turing contests. By contrast, computers could easily surpass humans in Boldt Tests, at which point they would start to compete against other computers or against aliens. In addition, it is also possible to have two computers compete against each other in a Boldt Test with a human judge even if they haven't yet surpassed humans in thinking capability. This is impossible with the Turing test.

(Back to the table of contents)


Random Rants

(Back to the table of contents)


Last Change: 17-Jan-2013.
By Axel Boldt, 1995-2012.
This material is in the public domain.