Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Range Versus Caveman Voting

Range voting is a single-seat voting system that never forces voters to betray their favorite, is immune to vote splitting, and is highly expressive.

This video was initially on the website RangeVote.com. The end of the video shows a link for the next part of the video. For details on range voting, see The Center for Range Voting.

For range voting in brief, see: here

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Duopoly Must Go: An Appeal for Score Voting

Matt Gonzalez has graciously used his blog to host an essay from the folks at the Center for Range Voting/Election Science Foundation. For those that aren’t familiar with Matt Gonzalez, here’s a background:

Matt was the head of the Board of Supervisors in San Fransisco as a member of the Green Party. He also ran for mayor of San Fransisco as a Green. Despite being outspent 5-1 and having the likes of Al Gore come to rally for his opponent, Matt was within 6% of the runoff winner, Gavin Newsome. Matt was also the VP running mate of presidential candidate Ralph Nader in 2008.

The following essay can be found at Matt Gonzalez's blog, As It Ought to Be:

Duopoly Must Go: An Appeal for Score Voting

by Andrew Jennings, Clay Shentrup, Warren D. Smith

Progressive thinkers on all sides of the political spectrum often wonder why the United States seems incapable of escaping a two-party political system. Is it a result of an extreme demographic situation, an urban and a rural America so large and obstinate that they are incapable of cooperation? Does it somehow come from the unique American spirit, a tradition steeped in individualism and adventure? Are the third parties being silently stifled because of their opposition to our incessant march toward rule by large corporations? The answer, in fact, may be so simple that it is right at our fingertips at least once a year. Every time we vote, in fact.

Fifty years ago, French sociologist Maurice Duverger observed that the plurality voting method tends to favor a two-party system, whereas “the double ballot majority system [a.k.a. 'top-two runoff'] and proportional representation tend to multipartism.” Observations in the social sciences are never absolute, but this tendency for plurality voting to maintain two-party domination is so reliable that it has become known as Duverger’s Law.

Plurality voting (a.k.a. “first past the post”), by far the most common system in the United States, is where each voter votes for one candidate and the candidate with the most votes wins, even if he receives fewer than 50% of the votes. Top-two runoff (a.k.a. “TTR” or “delayed runoff”) is just like plurality voting, except that if no candidate receives a majority of the votes, then a subsequent election is held between the top two finishers.
Few would expect the way we count our votes to be the primary factor determining the layout of our political landscape, but the evidence is overwhelming. Beyond the empirical trends to which Duverger referred, mathematical analysis of these voting methods suggests a causal relationship. For instance, a plurality voter who prefers a Green Party candidate will often take the tactical route, casting an insincere vote for the Democrat in order to prevent the Republican from winning. This costs the voter very little, since a minor party candidate is by definition unlikely to win anyway. It seems clear that such tactics keep us locked in a two-party system.

A top-two runoff system differs considerably. To echo Duverger, most of the approximately 30 countries which use this system have escaped two-party domination, even in single-seat non-proportional elections. And as with plurality voting, analysis of the runoff system strongly suggests that this is not a coincidence, but in fact a result of voter psychology and the different tactical incentives at play. For instance, voters in the runoff have no incentive to cast an insincere vote, as there are only two choices. And once the options are narrowed down to two candidates, voters often have a better chance to get to know an otherwise unknown challenger. These factors may largely explain how Green Party candidate Matt Gonzalez was able to come within striking distance of Democrat Gavin Newsom for mayor of San Francisco in 2003 (the margin was less than 6%) despite being outspent five to one, and despite Newsom’s being endorsed by a host of powerful beltway politicians.

Opinions vary as to the relative merits of TTR versus other systems, and the above is not meant as an endorsement of TTR per se. Rather, it is a testament to the extent to which the voting method determines the party composition of a government. It seems clear that if we want to escape the two-party stranglehold, we must adopt a different voting method; specifically one which is not known to also maintain two-party domination.

Many of the modern efforts for voting reform promote an alternative form of runoff, called instant runoff voting (“IRV”), which allows voters to rank the candidates and appears to offer us a way out of our electoral difficulties. Unfortunately, communities and scholars are discovering that the hope IRV offers us for escaping our two-party system is only illusory.

Like TTR, IRV doesn’t fix the spoiler problem: a bloc of voters may get a worse result by supporting their sincere favorite candidate. For instance, in the 2009 mayoral election in Burlington, Vermont, a group of voters who preferred Republican over Democrat over Progressive could have gotten the Democrat instead of the Progressive by insincerely top-ranking the Democrat instead of the Republican. It may seem strange to think of the GOP candidate as the spoiler, but the ballot data shows that a majority of voters in left-leaning Burlington would have taken the Progressive or the Democrat over the Republican in a runoff election, making the GOP more akin to a third party in this particular circumstance — albeit a strong third party.
And therein lies the rub. See, most voters picture runoffs in the context of weak third parties. The thinking goes that if you prefer, say, Green over Democrat over Republican, then you can safely support the Green. If the Green doesn’t make it to the runoff, then your support will simply go to the Democrat. But that is only the first phase of a third party’s growth. Next imagine that the Green Party, freed from the fear of “wasted votes,” grows to encompass more and more of the electorate until it can outlast the Democrats and make it to the runoff. Finally, imagine a third phase in which the Greens have grown enough to not only defeat the Democrats, but to win against the Republicans in the runoff. This third phase represents the greatest hopes for those who see IRV as a way to end the stifling two-party stranglehold on government.

But this rosy picture starts to darken the moment we take account of two crucial factors. First, it must be noted that each of these three phases is generally a prerequisite for the next. This is explained concisely as follows: as a third party grows, it will become powerful enough to defeat its most similar major party before it will become powerful enough to defeat both major parties. Second, the middle phase is effectively a barrier to the third. It is precisely the scenario experienced in Burlington. In this phase, the Greens defeat their most similar opponent, only to lose in the runoff. For Greens who prefer the Democrat to the Republican, the announced ballot totals will make clear to them that their honesty caused them to get the Republican instead of the Democrat. If even a mere 10% of them decide to cast a tactical vote for the Democrat in the next election, then even a prodigious 10% increase in their popularity by that time will be completely nullified. More realistically, their popularity would increase by less than 10%, in which case the tactical behavior would bring them down faster than they could increase their membership.

Many IRV proponents have argued that such strategy is infeasible and/or inadvisable, since it is likely to “backfire.” We address this theoretical argument in detail elsewhere, but for now let’s put aside contentious theorizing, and turn our attention to empirical reality. Australia uses instant runoff voting to fill each of the 150 seats in its House (has used IRV since 1918). It also uses other methods for other elections, e.g. its Senate is elected with a multiwinner method called PR-STV (proportional single-transferable vote). Australia’s House is two-party dominated; in the elections of 2001, 2004, and 2007 combined, not a single house seat was won by a third-party member. In contrast, quite a few seats in their Senate (e.g. 9 out of 76 in their 2005-2008 Senate and 6 in the 2008-2011 Senate) were/are occupied by third parties, mainly the Greens.

The same trend has been observed with IRV elsewhere, such as the Irish presidency (a near monopoly despite being mostly ceremonial), and in Malta and Fiji (before it was a dictatorship). And it is interesting that San Francisco supervisor Ross Mirkarimi (who helped found the California Green Party) switched from Green to Democrat in early 2010, despite the fact San Francisco now uses IRV, instead of the delayed runoff system it used when Matt Gonzalez made his impressive mayoral bid.

Of all these examples, Australia may be the most pertinent. We noted that their Senate uses STV, while their House uses IRV. STV is a multiwinner proportional system, and it so happens that IRV is actually the single-winner form of STV, so both systems use the same ranked ballot. Thus it is not too surprising that many American election activists see the adoption of IRV as a crucial “stepping stone” to proportional representation via the adoption of STV. IRV gets voters accustomed to ranking the candidates, and puts the basic machinery in place to tabulate those ranked ballots in the specific manner that STV entails. Even IRV proponents who are aware of its tendency for duopoly often support it for this very reason; they want proportional representation. In fact FairVote, the organization most often associated with the push for IRV, was founded in 1992 as “Citizens for Proportional Representation” (and later the “Center for Voting and Democracy”), and it seems that behind the scenes, their pursuit of IRV is a long-term play for proportional representation in America.

The stepping stone strategy might actually make sense were it not for the USA’s rigid impediments to proportional representation, which was made illegal at the federal level via a 1967 law which outlawed multi-member districts. In 1996, congresswoman Cynthia McKinney (who later ran as the Green Party candidate for US President) wrote, but failed to pass, bill HR 2545, which would have overridden that previous 1967 law. She re-introduced a similar bill, HR 1189, in 2001. It failed again. Then she tried again with HR 2690 in 2005. It failed yet again.

This leads us to believe that PR will be federally unobtainable in the USA as long as we are two-party dominated (a Congress dominated by two parties will continue to block anti-duopoly legislation such as McKinney’s). We therefore believe that proponents of PR must find a single-winner voting method which doesn’t maintain duopoly, as a prerequisite to PR. As has been noted, ordinary top-two runoffs fit that description, but they have their own problems, both in terms of voter turnout and the cost and fatigue associated with extra elections. And they can still leave voters justifiably fearful of supporting candidates they sincerely prefer to the apparent frontrunners, in the first round. (As a reminder, voters have no incentive to be insincere in the runoff.)

There are other voting systems that work with a ranked ballot and have several advantages over instant runoff voting (e.g. Condorcet methods), but even more exciting is a simpler class of voting systems discovered in the past few decades, based on an entirely different paradigm: ratings rather than rankings. These systems let each voter consider each candidate separately and assign to each a score or grade.

In his 2008 book Gaming the Vote, author William Poundstone (an MIT physics grad) suggests a voting method called range voting (a.k.a. score voting), in which voters rate the candidates on a scale such as 0-10 or 1-5. When the scale is reduced to 0-1, we effectively have approval voting, which is identical to plurality voting except that there is no limit on the number of candidates a voter may support. A third method, the Majority Judgement, asks the voters to use a few natural-language terms (Excellent/Good/Acceptable/Unacceptable, for example) to grade the candidates and chooses the winner by finding the candidate who was given the highest grade by a majority of voters (the median grade).

Score voting has historically been overlooked, based on the assumption that it would succumb to pervasive tactical exaggeration. But that view was debunked back in 2000, when a Princeton math Ph.D. named Warren D. Smith performed an extensive set of computer calculations which showed the system working extremely well, even with high rates of tactical voting. This is based on an objective “economic” indicator of voter satisfaction with (or “representativeness of”) election outcomes, called Bayesian regret.

This can be understood if we think for a moment about a voter whose preferences are Nader=10, Gore=6, Bush=0. If this voter is sincere, he casts those very scores. But if he is a tactical voter, like those who voted for Gore instead of Nader under plurality voting, how should he vote under score voting? For starters he wants to give Gore a 10, and Bush a 0, to maintain the tactical advantage he sought under plurality voting. But he can additionally give a 10 to Nader, and any other candidates he prefers to both frontrunners, with no fear of negative consequences. (In election theory parlance, we say that score voting passes the Favorite Betrayal Criterion.) Whereas you will recall that with IRV, tactically placing the Democrat in first place absolutely requires a Green voter to place the Green lower than first place. But with score voting, giving Gore a maximum score in no way prevents a voter from still giving Nader a maximum score too. So third parties face no artificial barrier to growth, as they do with IRV.

A simple way to think of it is that a tactical score voter should support the same candidate as he would with a plurality ballot, and then also support all the candidates he likes better. This means that the appearance of being “unelectable” need not become a self-fulfilling prophecy, like with plurality, IRV, and so many other methods. If it turns out that enough voters prefer a minor party or independent candidate to the presumed frontrunners, then he can actually win, even if the voters are highly tactical! Empirical evidence strongly suggests election outcomes will then be vastly more representative of the actual relative support for the candidates.

We believe this has enormous consequences, beyond the obvious opportunity to escape from two-party domination. For instance, the inordinate importance of cash in elections is largely a product of the need to prove electability. Consider exit polling from 2000 in which 90% of Nader supporters claimed to have voted for someone other than Nader. This shows that the number of votes Nader could have received by convincing voters he could be elected (e.g. by having an enormous campaign “warchest” and/or getting the nomination of a major party) was nine times as large as the number of votes he won by trying his best to convince voters he should be elected. Also consider that in the 2008 US presidential election, Mitt Romney spent large amounts of cash from his personal fortune to bus in voters to straw polls with no legal consequence whatsoever, apparently in order to be seen early on as a frontrunner, so as not to be abandoned by tactical voters, who fear wasting their vote on candidates who can’t win.

These may seem like anecdotes, but their prevalence amounts to something greater. Money matters far too much in today’s political process. And efforts to curb that with typical campaign finance reform are inherently unstable, as cheaters will be more likely to win elections, and then just make their cheating retroactively legal, and/or intimidate government officials who dare to try to prosecute them. We believe it may be more effective to try to reduce the inherent importance of cash, than to wage a potentially futile battle to level the playing field. With score and approval voting, a candidate need not prove his electability in order to earn your vote.
In summary, we would be wise to realize that the lack of alternative choices in American politics is unlikely to be repaired without changing to a better voting system, and that instant runoff voting is probably not the answer. We should give serious consideration to voting systems based on ratings, where voters can evaluate each candidate independently, and never fear giving their full support to the candidates they prefer to the frontrunners. While it’s impossible to predict exactly how these systems will play out in practice, the theory and a great deal of empirical evidence make them seem promising, and it’s clear that the systems we have now are not working and it’s time to look outside the box for a voting system that will truly support smaller parties and encourage alternative ideas in our political discourse.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Approval Voting Video

I'm trying out some video stuff. Feel free to let me know what you think. Approval voting as described here is for a single-winner office election. Here are some useful links:

Steven Brams on approval voting: http://bigthink.com/ideas/18726

Approval voting nonprofit: http://www.approvalvoting.org/

Video comparing voting systems: http://www.teach12.com/ttcx/VotingFre...

Voting systems in general: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Single-w...

More on voting systems at The Center for Range Voting: http://rangevoting.org/

The book to read on voting systems is, of course, Gaming the Vote:
 Gaming the Vote: Why Elections Aren't Fair (and What We Can Do About It)

If you're interested in the Commission of Presidential Debates, check out No Debate:
No Debate: How the Republican and Democratic Parties Secretly Control the Presidential Debates

Monday, June 14, 2010

News Flood--Focus on Gaza Flotilla

By now we've all heard of the Israeli attack on the flotilla aid ship set for Gaza. If not, a background can be found here. This attack was carried out in international waters. The flotilla intended to violate the Israeli blockade against Gaza by providing humanitarian aid. Much of what has been presented is a sort of "debate" over self defense. But autopsy reports present a different picture. This story shows evidence of repeated close range shots to the back of the head and to the back. It is difficult to justify this as self defense. It appears Israel is also attempting to use the tactic of information control, but fortunately information is still getting out. As noted in the previous post, US tax dollars help to support the Israeli military in such raids--$2.5 billion in grants specifically for military aid in 2009 alone.

Summary of Turkish Autopsy Report

So why all the fuss over Gaza? Is the poverty really that bad? See the video above and decide for yourself.

The US has refused to call for an international investigation of the attack against the flotilla. Instead, it insists that Israel be able to conduct its own internal investigation. To investigate the US's stance, we should look at how the US has looked at this conflict in the past. So how has this conflict between Israel and Palestine traditionally been reported in the US? Here's an analysis of just that (another source):

Actual Conflict Deaths Vs. Reported in U.S. Media

(Reporting over 100% refers to repetitions in broadcasts)

Actual Children's Deaths Vs. Reported in U.S. Media

The Historical Conflict in a Nutshell
About This Topic

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is one of the world's longest standing conflicts. Many people feel that resolving this conflict is the key to resolving the various conflicts throughout the Middle East. Some observers see this conflict creating Arab resentment towards the "West" and fueling radical Islamic terrorism. Although the conflict generates massive public discussion and debate, there are relatively few (if any) forums that inherently maintain an impartial and non-partisan approach to understanding it. We intentionally expose the massive variations of opinion, narrative and fact, to give our readers the best "big picture" understanding of the conflict and its potential solutions.
PRO Israel/CON Palestine CON Israel/PRO Palestine

The Pro-Israel camp generally base their arguments on the following principles:
a) Israel is the historical "homeland" of the Jewish peoples who have lived there continuously since biblical times.
b) Many Jews believe that they deserve a "Jewish" state because of historical injustices, such as the Holocaust, and because they have international support and recognition through the U.N.
c) The majority of Israelis support a "two-state" solution, creating a Palestinian state alongside Israel in Gaza and the West Bank.
d) Other Israelis support the idea of "one-state", either by annexing all occupied territories into the Jewish state (far right view), or incorporate the occupied territories into one secular democratic state with equal rights for all (far left view).

The Pro-Palestinian camp generally base their arguments on the following principles:
a) The Palestinian people have lived in the area of Israel/Palestine since biblical times. They see most Israeli Jews as foreign colonizers who began arriving within the last 100 years.
b) Palestinians consider themselves a national entity, deserving of the rights of all nations, including a Palestinian state.
c) Many Muslim Palestinians and their supporters see the land as Islamic holy land, and are strictly opposed to non-Muslims owning and establishing a state on Muslim land.
d) Palestinians vary widely in what they see as a just solution to the conflict. They include: the total destruction of Israel; a "bi-national" or "one-state" solution; and a "two-state" solution.
(Ref: Pro/Con.org)

Monday, May 31, 2010

Memorial Day: Another Enabler for War

Speech by Mike Prysner (quotes used throughout post).

"We Were Told We Were Fighting Terrorists.
But the Real Terrorist Was Me."
(US "Shock and Awe" Attack on Iraq, May 2003)
  • Afghan civilian deaths by US troops since invasion: 6,500 (Guardian)
  • Iraqi civilian deaths by US troops since invasion: >100,000 (TAL interview with Lancet author--links study)
  • Serious injuries will be much higher than the death toll.
Terrorists from Saudi Arabia killed some 3,000 people on 9/11. We were told by our government that they did it because they were jealous of our freedom. This was our government's best rationale . . . and we took it. We were angry and we wanted a simple answer. And there it was--a ridiculous, nonsensical, and simple answer. Our freedom was just too enviable.

But there was a reality: these terrorists actually hated us for supplying weapons to Israel to attack Palestine. Bin Laden said this repeatedly (RP--checks with Frontline). The leader behind the attacks according to the 9-11 Commission, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, is repeatedly noted to give the same reason (RP9/11 Commission Report pg 147). When these facts came out in congressional testimony, they were silenced and minimized in the official report. Mainstream media blacked it out (see video).

The US gave Israel a $2.5 billion military grant in 2009. The US provided Israel with over $58 billion dollars in a steady stream of specifically military funds (aside from other aid) for the last 50 years (CRS pg 21). Israel's recent attack on a Gaza aid ship in international waters gives a sample of what these military funds go towards (DN).

Saddam was clumsily linked to Bin Laden by way of repetition in the media. There was nothing else. This had to be awkward for the US since they considered Saddam an ally (see photo) while he was using USA made chemical weapons to kill some 190K Kurds and 50K Iranian solders (SW). But we had to put Saddam back in line when he threatened our access to their oil (SW).

Normally, when the US wants to change the government of another country it does it with a bit less attention. The traditional rational is over trade policy. The US becomes particularly angry if a government wants to nationalize its natural resources--a sure sign the US will put you on its to-coup list (AN, KH).

The US's prolific modern overthrow record includes: Iran in 1953, Guatemala in 1954, British Guiana in 1953-64, Iraq in 1963, Cambodia in 1955-70, Laos in 1958-60, Ecuador in 1960-63, Brazil in 1962-64, Dominican Republic in 1963, Congo in 1960, Bolivia in 1964, Indonesia in 1965, Ghana in 1966,Chile in 1964-73, Greece in 1967, Bolivia in 1971 Australia in 1973-75, Portugal in 1974-76, Jamaica in 1976-80 Chad in 1981-82, Grenada in 1983, Fiji in 1987, Nicaragua in 1981-90, Panama in 1989, Bulgaria in 1990, Albania in 1991, Afghanistan in 1980s, Ecuador in 2000, Afghanistan in 2001, Venezuela in 2002, Iraq in 2003, then Haiti in 2004 and back in 1991 (See TRN video for excellent coverage). For the history of the US taking of Hawaii, see here: (PS).

See a complete history on the US's role in overthrowing foreign government from NY Times reporter Stephen Kinzer in Overthrow: America's Century of Regime Change from Hawaii to Iraq.

"Racism Is a Vital Weapon
Deployed by this Government."

Racism is a tool used to dehumanize the other side. It also helps to create an in-group versus out-group mentality. For more on dehumanizing, see previous post on the US military training to kill civilians.

"They Do Not Have to Fight the War. 
They Merely Have to Sell the War."
(Powell, former US SOS, presenting WMD argument to UN before US invasion of Iraq)

War is not a natural human inclination. If that were true, drafts would have never been used, our media would not have to sell us the war, and protesters would not be beaten for their opposition (previous post). The government has long known that they must use lies and coercion to make us fight (See video Why We Fight). Here are some examples of lies and opportunism:
  • In 1898, President McKinley wanted the US to go to war with Spain. When the USS Maine exploded (cause unclear), McKinley quickly used this as a pretext for war (USN). The USS Maine was hyped so much as an excuse for war that it is now synonymous with the term yellow journalism.
  • In 1940, a year before the Pearl Harbor attack, Lieutenant Commander Arthur H. McCollum sent to naval commanders what is now referred to as the McCollum Memo. The memo outlined the need to provoke an attack by Japan against the US to raise public support for the war (Memo sec 9-10). Eventually, the US received its overt attack that gave Roosevelt just the public support he needed to attack Japan.
  • In 1964, there were two separate events collectively referred to as "The Gulf of Tonkin Incident." These events were used by President Lyndon Johnson to officially send the US to war with Vietnam. The first event occurred when the US sent the destroyer ship USS Maddox to gather intelligence on the coast of North Vietnam. While there was engagement, no US troops were killed (USN). In the "second event," the US Navy claimed that the North Vietnamese torpedoed and sank two US ships during another patrol. The Federation of American Scientists investigated this after the CIA released documents on the subject. Despite MacNamara's claim that the evidence of the second attack was unimpeachable, the group concluded that the Navy fabricated the entire event (AFP, CQ).
  • In 2001, the US was attacked in New York City. Immediately, the US government attempted to use this attack as a pretext to go to war with Iraq. Obviously, Colon Powell's and the Bush administration's argument of WMD's never attained evidence. But that didn't stop the US from attempting to connect Saddam to Bin Laden and having it numbingly repeated in media (DS). But Saddam had no recent connection to Bin Laden nor al-Qaida (NPR, MSNBC). And yet we are still there. President Obama continues to fund the war in the face of a weak anti-war movement.

"They Need a Public Who Is Willing to 
Send Their Soldiers into Harm's Way."
"Question War" bumper stickers (here).

And yes, supporting the troops is supporting the war. To say otherwise is to have no understanding of the blatant inconsistency. Who fires the rounds if not the troops? The request to kill another comes with it the nondelegable duty to investigate the merits. A government with a track record of lying for its own benefit should immediately make one skeptical of its argument for war.

So how does the US overcome its track record? It targets the youth and the poor.

When it's difficult to find work in order to pay rent, it becomes easier to justify joining the military. There is no mystery that economic hardship makes the job of military recruitment easier (NYT). But is it right to kill others for an unjust cause in order to pay rent?

According to a UN resolution adopted by the US, the military cannot engage in recruitment actions with those under age 18 without parental permission (Doc art 3). Yet, paramilitary JROTC programs exist in schools throughout the US affixing themselves in hallways and lunch halls of students. Deception and coercion used to recruit these students is commonplace, with 6,600 allegations of recruiter wrongdoing in 2005 alone (ACLU pg 19). Recruiters lied to enlistees that the US was not at war and that individuals could simply leave the military if they didn't like their experience (ACLU pg 20). Recruiters specifically targeted poorer schools after recognizing that they had less success getting college bound students (ACLU pg 29)

Some states such as California have what are called Cadet Corps. The California Cadet Corps proudly announces to have settled in over 100 schools throughout the state (CCC-bottom). This presence includes elementary schools.

There are more than half a million kids in over 3,600 JROTC programs across the US. Some 30-50% of these kids in JROTC will join the military (CSM).

"Not Only Do We Have Nothing to Gain,
but We Suffer More."

Every dollar we spend towards the military is used to kill those our government does not like. This subtracts what would otherwise go towards our social programs or paying down foreign debt. See the MLK Beyond Vietnam post for how Dr. King saw wars as an obstacle to fighting poverty.

"Our Enemies Are Not 5,000 Miles Away.
They Are Right Here at Home."

$700 billion was used to bail out the US's richest companies in 2008 (PP). This does not count the over $150 billion dollars in annual subsidies that the US government gives to US corporations (FPIF). This is despite the fact that between 1998 to 2005 2/3 of all US corporations paid no federal income tax (TP). These tax evaders include such giants as Exxon Mobile and General Electric despite their billions in income. 

See full speech: (Part 1, Part 2, Transcript) Ignore:[A6Y7PQK2FJG7]

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Facebook & Comedy Central Cave to Pressures on Depicting Muhammed

The Associated Press story above describes how the Pakistani government banned Facebook over the Everyone Draw Mohammad Day Campaign. The government has also answered by blocking YouTube (Guardian). This campaign came about after an artist from Seattle created a poster advertising the campaign. She did not expect it to be taken seriously, but it was. A Facebook group for the day soon formed and shot up to 100K followers. (CSM) Now, however, the group no longer comes up in searches. It appears Facebook has deleted the group. There is a replacement group that is still generating members (at around 1,000 at the time of this initial post). Similar groups have followed. Some members have changed their profile pictures to depict Muhammad. Numerous  groups have also formed to oppose Everyone Draw Mohammed Day.

However, Facebook retaliated against at least one user. It deleted his account after merely describing how science provided a better explanation for how the world worked than a deity (Interloper). This particular user lost four years of photos, messages, and contacts. A screenshot of the conversation shows the user didn't type any obscenities or slurs. A large number of users report Facebook deleting their accounts over Muhammed comments and postings. Users accuse Facebook of deleting many of their Muhammed pictures as well. (Examples of "offensive" pictures above. There are also harsher pictures that more forcefully try the issue.) The fact that Facebook has done all this is interesting considering its CEO Mark Zuckerberg identifies as atheist (WSJ).

If Facebook did remove the original group (not too improbable), it wouldn't be the first time pressure from Muslim groups was successful. But there may be some question to the cause of the page's removal. The author of the group, "Andy" did an interview with CNN and MSNBC (see above) using his Skype account for anonymity. The Jewish Business Magazine later did an interview with "Andy." He informed them that a man calling himself Ali Hassan hacked into his Skype account (likely the same one used for the news interviews). The hacker also claimed to know the author's home address though did not state what he would use the information for (JBM). It looks like the hacker also destroyed the creator's WordPress blog dedicated to the event (Blog).

The incident that pushed this recent movement was a South Park episode where the plot centered around presenting Muhammed in order to save their town. The episode satirized the censorship situation by hiding Muhammed in a mascot suit. This is despite a previous episode where  Muhammed was allowed to be shown. (See above left with Jesus cartoon) Interestingly, the episode sparking the controversy (above right) is also no longer available. See SouthPark website here. (See season 14 episode 5) Note that this is not a contract issue since more recent episodes do not have that warning.

The inconsistency is interesting. Because South Park did show Muhammed in a 2001 episode, but it refused to show him both in a 2006 episode (Cartoon Wars) and in the recent 2010 episode. The 2001 episode didn't follow with any protest and somehow slipped under the Muslim radar. (See summary of episodes in video above)

What makes the protests more serious is the death threats. These death threats refrain some from giving the support they would otherwise provide (See Simpsons intro screen caption from Squirt and Whale s21e19). And death threats were exactly what the creators Trey Park and Matt Stone received (Guardian). One website making a threat said they would be made to be like Van Gogh,  a Dutch film maker. Van Gogh was shot to death in retaliation after making a documentary on the abuse of women in Muslim countries. His attacker, Muhammed Bouyeri,  stuck a five page note into Van Gogh's chest with two knives (Ind). The note forced the documentary's script writer Ayaan Hirsi Ali into hiding by threatening her life (Ind). Ayaan had already fled Somalia to escape its subjugation against women and the stiff penalty for criticizing Islam (Guardian).

Part of the grounding for this controversy is from cartoons published in Danish newspapers during September 2005 (see above). Death threats and murder plots against the cartoonists followed after the publication (JP). Westergaard, the drawer of the Muhammed bomb cartoon, was attacked in January 2010 in his own home. The attacker had an ax and knife. He swore at Westergaard and chased him to his panic room. The attacker then went at police with the ax, but was shot down in the leg (Politiken).

Police arrested two individuals this month of May for firebombing the house of Mohammad cartoonist Lars Vilks (though unsuccessfully). Another man headbutted Vilks less than a week before this attack while Vilks was giving a controversial talk (NP, Video).

Republications months later incited vandals to set fire to Danish embassies in Iran, Lebanon and Syria. Not all Muslim leaders supported this reaction, however (DN). A mix of hostile and nonviolent protests also resulted in dozens of deaths (CNN, NYT--others besides these). One man attempted to murder editor Roger Köppel of a Berlin newspaper after reprinting the cartoons. Security within the building captured the assailant Amir Cheema with a large knife (Wiki ref to German Spiegel piece--family members claim German police killed Amir before trial rather than suicide).

There is a point of these drawings and of this article. One should never have to fear criticizing or satirizing any idea or religion. Indeed, the mythologies within religions are absurd and are fertile ground for such satire. (See a previous post on the absurdity of the geographic concentration of religions.) Religion is also often used to rationalize violent and abusive behavior. This last reason alone should justify keeping it within poking distance.


See End of Faith for a more critical look at religion by Sam Harris. See also Ayaan Hirsi Ali's autobiography and her criticism of Islam:

The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason     Infidel

Sunday, May 16, 2010

How the US Military Trains Soldiers to Kill Foreign Civilians

"I went down to the market where all the women shop. I pulled out my machete, and I began to chop. I went down to the park where all the children play. I pulled out my machine gun and I began to spray."  Stieber's commanding officer ordered him and the rest of his platoon to recite this chant.

This is an interesting interview of Josh Stieber. Stieber was within the same platoon on the ground as appeared in the recent Wikileaks video. Stieber, however, withdrew under a conscientious objector status shortly before that attack.

This interview does a nice job focusing on the cognitive barriers the US military uses to prevent soldiers from raising moral protest. Stieber volunteers himself as an example. He experienced extreme resistance after refusing to kill Iraqi civilians. His background is conservative Christian. This may be striking considering this background is generally considered inclined to be more favorable toward the US military.

The way Stieber deals with cognitive dissonance is particularly telling. Instead of continuing to rationalize his belief, he changes his mind. This is remarkable considering his background and the social pressure within the military. The interview begins below. . . .

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Anand Defeats Tapalov in 2010 World Chess Championship (Video Analysis)

That time has come once again for chess enthusiasts--The World Chess Championship. This title has been around since 1886 when William Steinitz won the first championship. Interestingly, there was some dispute over the managing of the title from the early 1990s to 2006 when two rival championship titles were introduced. But it soon went back on track for this being the sole title for official best chess player in the world.

The championship consists of 12 games where a win is one point, a draw is 1/2 point, and a loss is zero points. If there is a tie after 12 games, play continues with fast time controls. Standard time controls for tournaments are game in two hours for the first 40 moves and then a one hour extension once move 40 is played. A five second delay is normally included before each move. If you run out of time, you lose.

Below is a series of video analyses for the game. Before you tell yourself that you can't follow complicated chess games, know that the reviewer in the video explains the game very simply and intelligently. He focuses on main ideas, uses few computer analysis branches, and has great visuals. The videos below were created by jrobi whose blog can be found here, website here, and YouTube here.

This tournament was particularly exciting. The player listed first in the video has the white pieces. Enjoy the games . . .

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Wikileaks Founder Assange Decries Abusive Information Burying in the West

Wikileaks launched in late 2006 with the mission of bringing to light hidden information. In this talk, Assange describes how this burying of intelligence by the West sets precedent for other countries. This tactic by the West provides justification for other countries to hide abuses in power.

Wikileaks became well known after its recent leak capturing a helicopter shooting into a crowd of people in Iraq (above). The video shows two Reuters journalists being gunned down in a crowd. There is some evidence that individuals may have had AK-47s but at this point in time this was common in Iraq. The calm demeanor shows the lack of hostility. There was also never any return in gunfire. The begging by the helicopter pilot for the wounded reporter to touch a gun to justify shooting him is telling. The pilot then guns him down along with his rescuer. Two school children in the vehicle are hit with bullets in the exchange.

Another note is that YouTube initially froze the counter of the Collateral Murder video, though it is clearly unfrozen now (over 6.6M views). YouTube also refused to give Sunshine Press (Wikileaks) any of the awards popular videos normally get. These accolades help videos get more views. This abusive treatment was obvious because while the original video rose in popularity, it was the copied and re-uploaded videos that were making the top videos page. Viewers were clearly afraid the original video was going to be taken down and wanted it to be preserved. Obviously, YouTube's attempts to stifle the video were not enough. Its contents quickly became too large for even the mainstream press to ignore. Though, they did do their best to rationalize the military's actions.

The organization is planning the video release of a larger attack against a crowd of people in Afghanistan. The talk by Assange mentions a few other examples of the releases by Wikileaks. The organization also released a CIA report aiming to raise support in Europe for the Afghanistan war  and a report by the US government to undermine Wikileak's integrity and shut it down. The US report sites for justification the many stories embarrassing to the US government that the organization leaked.

Wikileaks does not accept support from government or corporations in order to maintain its integrity. It provides a service that few if any other outlets are able. If you are interested in supporting their cause, please donate.

Update! 5/18/10: Excellent Video interview with Assange on SBS Dateline here.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

The Geographic Concentrations of Religious Belief Should Give Pause

Despite the geographic concentrations of religion, this does not cause believers to step back. Does the kind of God you believe in really have anything to do with your religion's merits? Or is this an example of a localized bandwagon fallacy? The peculiarity that Dawkins points out does a good job answering this question.

Dawkins, an evolutionary biologist, is most known on this subject for his book The God Delusion:
The God Delusion

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Propaganda Insists on Cutting Entitlement Benefits to Reduce Debt

We are constantly told that the solution to reducing our debt is to get rid of Medicare, Medicaid, and S-CHIP; cut welfare for the poor; and reduce entitlement benefits in general. Yet, there is always money for extraordinary war spending. There is always money to bail out corporations while we turn a blind eye to anti-trust law. From 1998 to 2005 we let two-thirds of all US corporations get by with paying no income tax by allowing them to use offshore tax havens. We refuse to do bulk purchasing discounts for pharmaceuticals. We assure there are huge subsidies available for oil, coal, and nuclear to push aside cleaner energy opportunities. And how many of these dirty sources of energy are found near the homes of the rich? The list goes on.

But the media and government demand that the poor and middle class step up first to sacrifice themselves. This forces them to fight against each other while the top 1% celebrate their unimaginable wealth. That fight conveniently distracts them from the real thieves and gluttons. In ludicrous rhetoric the middle class and the poor are told to throw their tax dollars up to the top 1% and to wait so that it may magically trickle back down for some greater benefit. And so the middle class and poor look up patiently at the millionaires and billionaires. But, of course, their money does not trickle down.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Michael Shermer Presents a Perception and Reasoning Clinic

It's amazing how we let our error prone brains get the best of our perception. But there's more than just being cautious with our perception. We frequently receive information or perform acts that don't match with our current thinking. This creates a phenomenon called cognitive dissonance--an uncomfortable need to resolve the conflict.

One way to resolve cognitive dissonance is to change our position so that it matches with the new behavior or information. But who wants to be wrong or change our personal identity? Instead, we often elect to rationalize the difference. This frequently takes the form of cognitive errors/biases. What are these cognitive errors? One teacher wrote a song about them. And it goes a little something like this . . .

Here's Michael Shermer's classic, Why People Believe Weird Things. Note the added section of why smart people believe weird things:
Why People Believe Weird Things: Pseudoscience, Superstition, and Other Confusions of Our Time

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Master Lock Responds to Lock Bumping Technique

Reminder: Don't break into people's personal belongings.

I'll eventually do a post on picking, which is what's appropriate when bumping isn't workable. But why pick a lock when you can just hit it? Bumping is an interesting concept when you think about the inside of a lock. This is applicable for a class of locks called pin tumblers (more complicated versions may use the same idea on other types of locks). These pin tumbler locks are found on common doors, shelves (cam locks), padlocks, and other usual places.

The first step is to make your key so that the valleys between the teeth are at the lowest point. This allows the bottom pins to hang low when the key is inserted. Keys have what you might call a combination of levels that operate as a sort of password for your lock. Here, your "password" would be 11111 as there are typically five pins and thus five valleys. The low cut assures that none of the pins interfere with the sheer-line (where the yellow core part meets the green hull of the lock). There is a light clockwise or counterclockwise tension that you put on the key as you strike it at the base (called the bow). This tension keeps the top pins in their new position. The energy from the striking device to the key to the bottom pins to the top pins transfers the same way pool balls react. This is why the top pins shoot up the way they do while the bottom pins stay low.

For a basic look at locks, I recommend:
Visual Guide to Lock Picking (2nd Edition)

If you're REALLY interested, then you have to go with THE book:

Locks, Safes and Security: An International Police Reference Two Volumes 

There are also many sites devoted to lock picking tricks. The most organized group is probably The Open Organization of Lock Pickers (TOOOL).

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Birth Control Pill Turns 50

The pill was originally approved by the FDA in 1957 for treatment of miscarriages and menstrual disorders. Three years later it was approved for birth control (1). Its landing was not quiet. Comstock (Victorian Style) laws passed in the 1870s still had residual effects. The head of a Planned Parenthood, Griswold, was arrested in New Haven, Connecticut just a few years after the pill's release. Her crime was giving out information to married couples on how to prevent pregnancies. The US Supreme Court decided 7-2 for Griswold under the right to privacy (2).

The pill has come a long way. The most salient observation to pill users is probably change in mood until a good match is found. Newer pills have lower levels of hormones than their ancestors. These lower levels have even observed reduced risk in certain cancers (pretty cool). Still, an elevated risk for heart attack is present among smokers, particularly those over 35. The incidence for smokers over 35 without using birth control is 88 per 100,000 per year. For oral contraception users in that demographic, the rate is 485 per 100,000 per yer.

Nonsmokers over 35 and smokers under 35 not using oral contraception have a risk of about 10 per 10,000 per year whereas their risk while using contraception jumps to roughly 40 per 10,000 per year (1). Many references use rates such as relative risk. But I think giving the actual numbers says more about the real risk, especially when they're low. Even the highest risk group here only has a risk of about .5% per yer compared to .1% not using the pill.

[Described Above] An interesting practice is using monophasic (same level of hormones) pills without taking the sugar pill breaks. This continuous use prevents menstruation and cramps (who wants those?). It is generally very rare to experience a pregnancy when no menstruation is taking place. For some, that news may not be enough. The anxiety of not having a period to know whether pregnancy has occurred may be rectified by using a pregnancy testing kit. Keep in mind, even having a period is no sure sign of having avoided a pregnancy (though obviously highly indicative). Some pills have been designed especially for continuous use. The most popular is probably Lybrel.

Above is a very simple description for how the pill works.

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