Game Theory and the fate of a generation

An interesting though came up via Bruce Schneier’s blog that got me thinking, and having trouble educating my pre-teen child, that thought grew on me and now many of his behaviours can be explained by the inability of spotting which game to play in real life.

When I finally had this same conversation with him, a whole model of how much of a failure our society is becoming, appeared clear as day for both of us!

What games do we play?

First, a crash course on game theory, you can skip this part if you already know. Basically, a game is played between two players who can take decisions based on what they think the other player will do, and points are given whether you cooperate or not in conjunction with the other players cooperation or not. For example, if both cooperate, both get 5 points. If one cooperates and the other doesn’t, the cheater gets 7 points and the looser gets 0. If they’re both cheaters, both get 1 point.

Well, since you have no idea what the other will choose, there’s 50% chance that the other player will cooperate and 50% that she will not. If you choose to cooperate, you have 50% chance of getting 5 points and 50% of getting zero. If you don’t, it’s 50% 7 points and 50% 1 point.

Clearly, if you play the game only once, cheating is the answer. There is no reason not to cheat. However, if you’ll have to play the same game with the same player more than once, possibly your whole life, than, well, cheating tires quickly. If you cheat now, the other player will cheat next, and both of you will remain cheating forever, since you know that if you don’t, by definition, you’ll get 0 points and she will get 7. We call this a stable solution, once you get there, there’s no coming back.

However, if both cooperate, both get 5, and as long as you both cooperate, you’ll always get 5. Sure, it’s not as profitable as 7, but it’s close enough. But as soon as one cheats, the other will feel betrayed, and will cheat. We call this an unstable solution. It demands trust on the other player, and as soon as the trust is broken, it’ll be very hard to regain it.

If that made you think about how life treats you, it’s no coincidence. John Nash used that language to describe reality, and he could clearly see reality like better than most of us. When John Nash says that “life is a game”, he truly means it, and he came up with the mathematical notation to prove it, and studied it to great length.

Video Games

In the beginning, there was pong. Pong was simple and fun. Then, the explosion of video games in the 80’s brought a lot of easy and hard games, but in almost all of them you had to work hard to get the prize. Some of then didn’t even had a prize, it was just an infinite number of repetitions, faster and faster, and the real competition was among the players, who got the best score.

The real game, however, was not on the screen, was on the player’s brain. Those games have conditioned people that there is a prize, and there is a task, and they are related. If they perform the task better than a certain threshold, the prize is bronze/silver/gold. It feels really good to get a prize, and that way of making people feel good (or bad) was found a century ago by Ivan Pavlov.

But video games is as much Pavlovian as street games. They’re as innocent and as powerful as any Olympic game on the minds of people. Video games use a different part of the body, the brain, and for that it was much more popular amongst nerds than sporty types. They had found a niche, at least before the 90’s arrived, when a boom of consoles, PCs and 3D graphics made video games mainstream, with every house having at least one type of video game.

That boom had little change in the shape of how the games were teaching children about the world. There was still a task, a reward, and some work to do. Even though, by the end of the day, any task you performed during the game was worthless in real life, what you learnt, that is that you need to perform a task well enough to get a prize, and that the prize is proportional to the hard work you put in, was learnt for life.

Social Gaming

Enter the era of social gaming. Zynga and other Facebook games were made not to entertain, or to give prizes for specific tasks, but to reward the most socially active player. All that, of course, in order to give Facebook a boost in user numbers (and Zynga a boost in fake value), but that not only changed how games were played, but it changed the lessons that we learnt from them.

On a social game, since the objective is to share more than others, you’ll get things for free to share with your friends, who would also get free stuff to share with you. It means that, whoever got the most “friends”, got most free stuff, and progressed faster and longer in the game. What it’s teaching you is that you don’t need to work hard for something, you just need to convince people to give you for free, or even worse, you just need to wait to get it, because it’s the player’s right to receive.

Now, what children are learning with these games is that they don’t need to work hard for anything, because they have the right to be happy, the right to be fed, the right to be given jobs, or be subsided by the government.

If that sounds a lot like reality, well, welcome to the brave new world!

Addiction

So, we know how powerful Facebook is, and much of that came from the games section at the beginning, that forced people to spend more time on Facebook than on real life, and now it’s just an addiction that they cannot get free. The reason why it’s an addiction is the very same why Heroine is an addiction.

Whenever you use a psychotropic drug, your brain goes to a state that is not real. Whatever you feel, whatever you see is not real. You can see good things, or bad things, and that will change how your addiction will continue, but some drugs are more powerful that that. For instance, tobacco changes the concentration that your brain and peripheral nervous system respond to neurotransmitters, and that’s because nicotine is a joker in the land of neurotransmitters. It can trigger more than half of the different types of receptors in your body. Whenever you lower that concentration (by abstaining), your body doesn’t react like you would want, and you have withdraw, which compels you to smoke again.

Most drugs have the same effect, including easy over-rewarding video games. Note that not all video games act like drugs, it’s just the specific class of games where you get more than what you deserve for the amount of work you put in. And that’s the same kind of addiction that people have with films, series, books and anything that will take you away from the harsh reality into a land of dreams where you are more than you can actually accomplish (super hero) or you have accomplished more than you actually worked for it (fantasy and feel-good stories).

The crucial bit here is that, going back to reality is hard, painful and has a deep feeling of loss, since all the “hard work” you put during the game/film/book is gone and worthless. That feeling puts you into a dilemma: now that you lost a lot of time in reality that you could be doing something useful, while other people are already harvesting the fruits of their own works (a younger child playing piano or solving puzzles you cannot), you’ll have to work much harder to achieve the same level. Whereas, if you go back to the game, you’ll get instant satisfaction with very little effort. If you have no responsibilities in your life, the choice is easy.

Conflict

This creates a conflict with the parents because, not only they had to work hard for upbringing their children on the best environment possible, but they’re also seeing their children wast their time on a false reality while not understanding why the parent’s reality is so different from their own.

I played video games since I was very young and still play them constantly, but I simply cannot play social games. They feel wrong, false and demeaning of the very hard work that I learnt as a kid to foster. Moreover, they remind me of the kind of society we live today where children can’t fail.

For example, in Brazil, not enough people were reaching universities because they would fail so many times that they’d drop school and never bother. How do you fix this? Simple, make a law where kids younger than 10 cannot fail. Ever. Well, surprise, they reached 10 without being able to read or write, and that’s the state’s fault, so how do you fix this? Even simpler, pass a law where kids under 15 cannot fail. You get the idea.

This over protection that schools have on kids, society trying to avoid the problems of growing up and taking responsibility until very late, is possibly responsible for the increase in criminality of the new youth and the will of some people to reduce the criminal age to 16. It’s not hard to see that, again, that solution is only going to make things worse by treating children like adults without given them a chance to understand adulthood before it’s too late.

Game playing society

Since social gaming became so mainstream a few years ago, people started noticing how to use that for benefit and profit. Real life games, like fourSquare give you prizes for over-consumption, on the grounds that sharing your personal information is worthless for you, but not for them. Games where you feel you’re giving a worthless commodity (your privacy) for big rewards (a cup of coffee) but in reality the companies are getting the real profit (your private information) is where our society is leading and it doesn’t seem to bother many people.

We are already brainwashed to believe that sharing personal emails with Google is ok, as long as they keep the servers up. We put our credit card numbers on Amazon for the comfort of not having to type them so often on the trust that they will protect your data as if it was their own. We already believe that the cloud is the best place to store your photos, documents and music. While all of that looks free to you, it’s far from. It’s all a game, where you are being cheated while willingly cooperating, but they keep your profit positive (albeit small), so that you feel valued.

We already let our guard down, we’re living in that fantasy where we don’t have to work hard for anything, convinced ourselves that the profit is ours and in this fantasy world, we’re great. Easy pray to an ever relaxing predators. Maybe that will be the end of them… I hope.

Playing the wrong game

Now we pause to go back to the main theme: why people play a one-off game when they should actually play a rolling game?

100 years ago, justice wasn’t very just. Judge and executioner were often the same person, and people paid a lot more than they should for crimes that they may have not even committed. But as bad as it was, that taught a lesson to most people that the odds of cheating weren’t that great. The price was too high, and they’d see it far too often.

Years pass, people agree that totalitarian regimes are not nice and we come with democracy, republics and other less radical governments. Now, people have rights, inalienable and universal. Governments have to protect people, and people can now be what they want, follow their dreams and collect the fruits of their hard work. And the more educated people get, the more they realise they can get more rights.

In itself, having rights is the right thing to do (pun intended), but there has to be a balance, and the balance is the social interactions. Your rights are the same as everyone else, and you can’t just do what you “want”, but what you have the right to do. Well, clever people can turn those concepts around and they will cheat, and they will profit. Because they have to be protected by law, they will find ways of abusing the system short of breaking the law. If they get caught, the price is high, but since they have more rights than duties, and since justice is less impressive (but more just) nowadays, the feeling of cost and profits are skewed, so people cheat more often that they would if thinking straight.

We can’t have the concept of born rights without having the concept of born duties. You have the right to education, but you also have the duty to follow it through, no matter how hard it seems. It’s the teachers’ duty to do their best to make it more efficient (not easier), but it’s also their right to chose what they think it’s best for the kids. If rights and duty don’t go hand-in-hand, you get a lazy generation that thinks other people have to do whatever they want. Today, children will think that of their parents, what about tomorrow? Will they expect that their children will have to work for them? Or their brothers? It doesn’t add up. They’re not playing a rolling game, but a one-off one.

When you thrown the over-rewarding games into the mix, you get kids learning that they can just be lazy and the world will fix it for them while they get cheap happiness on their tablets. They’re cheating the system that protects them until they turn 18 when the system will just abandon them, and the hard reality will hit them in the face with no preparedness and no warning. Some survive, some don’t. Would you take a chance with your children?

Hypocrite Internet Freedom

Last year, the Internet has shown its power over governments, when we all opposed to the SOPA and PIPA legislations in protests across the world, including this very blog. Later on, against ACTA and so on, and we all felt very powerful indeed. Now, a new thread looms over the Internet, the ITU is trying to take over the Internet.

To quote Ars Technica:

Some of the world’s most authoritarian regimes introduced a new proposal at the World Conference on International Telecommunications on Friday that could dramatically extend the jurisdiction of the International Telecommunication Union over the Internet.

Or New Scientist:

This week, 2000 people have gathered for the World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT) in Dubai in the United Arab Emirates to discuss, in part, whether they should be in charge.

And stressing that:

WHO runs the internet? For the past 30 years, pretty much no one.

When in reality, the Internet of today is actually in the precise state the US is trying to avoid, only that now they’re in control, and the ITU is trying to change it to an international organization, where more countries have a say.

Today, the DNS and the main IP blocks are controlled by the ICANN, however, Ars Technica helps us reminding that ICANN and IANA are:

the quasi-private organizations that currently oversee the allocation of domain names and IP addresses.

But the ICANN was once a US government operated body, still with strong ties with Washington, localized solely on the US soil, operating on US law jurisdiction. They also failed on many accounts to democratize their operations, resulting in little or no impact for international input. Furthermore, all top level domains that are not bound to a country (like .com, .org, .net) are also within American jurisdiction, even if they’re hosted and registered in another country.

But controlling the DNS is only half the story. The control that the US has on the Internet is much more powerful. First, they hold (for historical and economical reasons), most of the backbone of the Internet (root DNS servers, core routers, etc). That means the traffic between Europe and Japan will probably pass through them. In theory, this shouldn’t matter and it’s actually an optimization of the self-structuring routing tables, but in fact, the US government has openly reported that they do indeed monitor all traffic that goes within their borders and they do reserve the right to cut it, if they think this presents a risk of national security.

Given the amount of publicity the TSA had since 2001 for their recognition of what poses a security threat, including Twitter comments from British citizens, I wouldn’t trust them, or their automated detection system to care for my security. Also, given the intrusion that they have on some governments like the case of Dotcom in January, where national security operations in New Zealand were shared inappropriately with the American government, I never felt safe when crossing American soil, physically or through the Internet.

Besides, Hollywood has shown in Scandinavia and in UK that they hold a strong leash on European governments when related to (US) copyright laws, forcing governments, once liberals, to abide to American rules, arresting their own citizens, when content is being distributed over the Internet. It’s also interesting to remember than SOPA, PIPA and ACTA, mainly driven by Hollywood, were all created within closed doors.

So, would ITU control be better?

No. Nothing could be further from the truth. Although, in theory, it’s more democratic (more countries with decision power), this decision power has been sought for one main purpose: to enforce more strict laws. I generally agree that the ITU would not be a good controlling body, but believing that nobody controls the Internet is, at least, naive, and normally a pretentious lie.

A legal control of many countries over something as free as the Internet would impose the same dangers as having it free of legal control, since it leaves us with indirect control from the strongest player, which so far, has been the US. The other countries are only so strongly minded about the ITU because the US won’t let them have their voices, and the ITU is a way to create an UN for the Internet.

In that sense, the ITU would be a lot like the UN. Worthless. A puppet in the hands or the strong players. Each country would have more control over their borders, and that would impact almost nothing in the US, but the general rules would stop being valid, and the US (and other countries) would have to do a lot more work than they do today. One example is the stupid rule in the UK where the sites, including international ones, have to warn users that they are using cookies.

Don’t be fooled, the US government is not really worried about your safety and security, nor your freedom. They’re trying to avoid a lot of work, and a big loss in market in the Middle East and South Asia. With countries (that they like to say are authoritarian regimes) imposing stricter rules on traffic, including fees, taxes and other things that they have on material goods, the commerce with those governments will be a lot more expensive.

Ever since the second world war, the US economy is based mainly on military activities. First, helping Europe got them out of the big depression, then they forced rebellions throughout Latin America to keep the coins clinking and currently, it’s the Middle East. With the climate change endangering their last non-war resources (oil), they were betting on the Internet to spread the American Way Of Life to the less fortunate, with the off chance of selling a few iPads on the process, but now, that profit margin is getting dangerously thin.

Not to mention the military threat, since a lot of the intelligence is now being gathered through the Internet, and recent attacks on Iranian nuclear power plants via the Stuxnet worm, would all become a lot harder. The fact that China is now bigger and more powerful than they are, in every possible aspect (I dare say even military, but we can’t know for sure), is also not helping.

What is then, the solution? Is it possible to really have nobody running the Internet? And, if at all possible, is it desirable?

Mad Max Internet

I don’t think so.

It’s true that IPv6 should remove completely the need for IP allocation, but DNS is a serious problem. Letting DNS registration to an organic self-organized process would lead to widespread malicious content being distributed and building security measures around it would be much harder than they already are. The same is true with SSL certificates. You’d expect that, on a land with no rules, trusted bodies would charge a fortune and extort clients for a safe SSL certificate, if they actually produce a good one, that is, but this is exactly what happens today, on ICANN rule.

Routing would also be affected, since current algorithms rely on total trust between parties. There was a time when China had all US traffic (including governmental and military) through its routers, solely done via standard BGP rules. On a world where every country has its own core router, digitally attacking another country would be as easy as changing one line on a router.

We all love to think that the Internet is a free world already, but more often than ever, people are being arrested for their electronic behaviour. Unfortunately, because there isn’t a set of rules, or a governing body, the rules that get people arrested are the rules of the strongest player, which in our current case, is Hollywood. So, how is it possible to reconcile security, anonymity and stability without recurring to governing bodies?

The simple answer is, it’s not. The Internet is a land with no physical barriers, where contacting people over 1000s of miles is the same as the one besides you, but we don’t live in a world without borders. It’s not possible to reconcile the laws of all countries, with all the different cultures, into one single book. As long as the world keeps its multiculturalism, we have to cope with different rules for different countries, and I’m not in favour of losing our identity just to make the Internet a place comfortable to the US government.

Regulating multi-body

It is my opinion that we do, indeed, need a regulating body. ICANN, ITU, it doesn’t matter, as long as the decisions are good for most.

I don’t expect that any such governing body would come up with a set of rules that are good for everybody, nor that they’ll find the best rules in the first N iterations (for large N), but if the process is fair, we should reach consensus (when N tends to infinity). The problem with both ICANN and ITU is that neither are fair, and there are other interests at play that are weighted much more than the interests of the people.

Since no regulating body, governmental or not, will ever account for the interests of the people (today or ever), people tend to hope that no-rule is the best rule, but I hope I have shown that this is not true. I believe that instead, a governing multi-body is the real solution. It’s hypocrite to believe that Russia will let the US create regulations within its borders, so we can’t assume that will ever happen from start, if we want it to work in the long run. So this multi-body, composed by independent organizations in Europe, Asia, Oceania, Africa and Americas would have strong powers on their regions, but would have to agree on very general terms.

The general terms would be something like:

  1. There should be no cost associated with the traffic to/from/across any country to any other country
  2. There should be no filtering of any content across countries, but filtering should be possible to/from a specific country or region based on religious or legal grounds
  3. It should be possible for countries to deny certain types of traffic (as opposed to filtering above), so that routing around would be preferred
  4. Misuse of Internet protocols (such as BGP and DNS spoofing) on root routers/DNS servers should be considered an international crime with the country responsible for the server in charge of the punishments or sanctions against that country could be enforced by the UN
  5. Legal rights and responsibilities on the Internet should be similar (but not identical) as they are on the physical world, but each country has the right and duty to enforce their own rules

Rule 1 is fundamental and would cut short most of the recent ITU’s proposals. It’s utter nonsense to cross-charge the Internet as it is to do it with telecoms around the world, and that is probably the biggest problem of the new proposal.

Rules 2 and 3 would leave control over regional Internet with little impact on the rest. It’d also foment creation of new routes around problematic countries, which is always beneficial to the Internet reliability as a whole. It’s hypocrite to assume that the US government has the right to impose Internet rules on countries like Iran or China, and it’s up to the people of China and Iran to fight their leaders on their own terms.

It’s extremely hypocrite, and very common, in the US to believe that their system (the American Way of Life) is the best for every citizen of the world, or that the people of other countries have no way of choosing their own history. It’s also extremely hypocrite to blame authoritarian governments on Internet regulations and at the same time provide weapons and support local authoritarian groups. Let’s not forget the role of the US on Afghanistan and Iraq prior to the Gulf War, as opposition to Russia and Iran (respectively), and their pivot role on all major authoritarian revolution in Latin America.

Most countries, including Russia and the ones in Middle East would probably be fine with rules 2 and 3, with little impact on the rest of the world. Which leaves us with rule 4, to account for the trust-worthiness of the whole system. Today, there is a gang of a few pals who control the main routers and giving more control over less trust-worthy pals over DNS and BGP routes would indeed be a problem.

However, in fact, this rule is in vigour today, since China routed US traffic for only 18 minutes. It was more a show of power than a real attack, but had China been doing this for too long, the US would think otherwise and with very strong reasons. The loose control is good, but the loose responsibility is not. Countries should have the freedom to structure their Internet backbones but also do it responsibly, or be punished otherwise.

Finally, there’s rule 5. How to account when a citizen of one country behaves in another country’s website as it’s legal for his culture, but not the other? Strong religious and ethical issues will arise from that, but nothing that there isn’t already on the Internet. Most of the time, this problem is identical to what already happens on the real world, with people from one country that commit crimes on another country. The hard bit is to know what are the differences between physical and logical worlds and how to reconcile the differences in interpretation of the multiple groups that will take part on such governing multi-body.

Conclusion

ITU’s proposal is not good, but ICANN’s is neither. The third alternative, to lack complete control is only going to make it worse, so we need a solution that is both viable and general enough, so that most countries agree to it. It also needs to relinquish control of internal features to their own governments in a way to not affect the rest of the Internet.

I argue that one single body, being it ITU or ICANN, is not a good model, since it’s not general enough nor they account for specific regions’ concerns (ICANN won’t listen to the Middle East and ITU won’t regard the US). So, the only solution I can see possible is one that unites them all into a governing multi-body, with very little in global agreement, but with general rules powerful enough to guarantee that the Internet will be free forever.

The American constitution is a beautiful piece of writing, but in reality, over the years, their government have destroyed most of its beauty. So, long term self-check must also be a core part of this multi-body, with regular review and democratic decisions (sorry authoritarian regimes, it’s the only way).

In a nutshell, while it is possible to write the Internet Constitution and make it work in the long term, humanity is very likely not ready to do that yet, and we’ll probably see the destruction of the Internet in the next 10 years.

Sigh…

 

Open Source and Innovation

A few weeks ago, a friend (Rob) asked me a pertinent question: “How can someone innovate and protect her innovation with open source?”. Initially, I scorned off with a simple “well, you know…”, but this turned out to be a really hard question to answer.

The main idea is that, in the end, every software (and possibly hardware) will end up as open source. Not because it’s beautiful and fluffy, but because it seems to be the natural course of things nowadays. We seem to be moving from profiting on products, to giving them away and profiting on services. If that’s true, are we going to stop innovating at all, and just focus on services? What about the real scientists that move the world forward, are they also going to be flipping burgers?

Open Source as a business model

The reason to use open source is clear, the TCO fallacy is gone and we’re all used to it (especially the lawyers!), that’s all good, but the question is really what (or even when) to open source your own stuff. Some companies do it because they want to sell the value added, or plugins and services. Others do because it’s not their core business or they want to form a community, which would otherwise use the competitors’ open source solution. Whatever the reason is, more and more we seem to be open sourcing software and hardware at an increasing speed, some times it comes off as open source on its first day in the wild.

Open source is a very good cost sharing model. Companies can develop a third-party product, not related to their core areas (where they actually make money), and still claim no responsibility or ownership (which would be costly). For example, the GNU/Linux and FreeBSD operating systems tremendously reduce the cost of any application developer, from embedded systems to big distributed platforms. Most platforms today (Apple’s, Androids, set-top boxes, sat-navs, HPC clusters, web-servers, routers, etc) have them at their core. If each of these products had to develop their own operating system (or even parts of it), it wouldn’t be commercially viable.

Another example is the MeshPotato (in Puerto Rico) box, which uses open software and hardware initially developed by Village Telco (in South Africa). They can cover wide areas providing internet and VoIP telephony over the rugged terrain of Puerto Rico for under $30 a month. If they had to develop their hardware and software (including the OS), it’d cost no less than a few hundred pounds. Examples like that are abundant these days and it’s hard to ignore the benefits of Open Source. Even Microsoft, once the biggest closed-source zealot, who propagated the misinformation that open source was hurting the American Way of Life is now one of the biggest open source contributors on the planet.

So, what is the question then?

If open source saves money everywhere, and promotes incremental innovation that wouldn’t be otherwise possible, how can the original question not have been answered? The key was in the scope.

Rob was referring, in fact, to real chunky innovations. Those that take years to develop, many people working hard with one goal in mind, spending their last penny to possibly profit in the end. The true sense of entrepreneurship. Things that might profit from other open source technologies, but are so hard to make that even so it takes years to produce. Things like new chips, new medicines, real artificial intelligence software and hardware, etc. The open source savings on those projects are marginal. Furthermore, if you spend 10 years developing a software (or hardware) and open source it straight away, how are you ever going to get your investment money back? Unless you charge $500 a month in services to thousands of customers on day one, you won’t see the money back in decades.

The big misunderstanding, I think, it’s that this model no longer applies, so the initial question was invalid to begin with. I explain.

Science and Tecnology

300 years ago, if you were curious about something you could make a name for yourself very easily. You could barely call what they did science. They even called themselves natural philosophers, because what they did was mostly discovering nature and inquiring about its behaviour. Robert Hooke was a natural philosopher and a polymath, he kept dogs with their internals in the open just to see if it’d survive. He’d keep looking at things through a microscope and he named most of the small things we can see today.

Newton, Liebniz, Gauss, Euler and few others have created the whole foundation of modern mathematics. They are known for fundamentally changing how we perceive the universe. It’d be preposterous to assume that there isn’t a person today as bright as they were, but yet, we don’t see people changing our perception of the universe that often. The last spree was more than a hundred years ago, with Maxwell, Planck and Einstein, but still, they were corrections (albeit fundamental) to the model.

Today, a scientist contents in scratching the surface of a minor field in astrophysics, and he’ll probably get a Nobel for that. But how many of you can name more than 5 Nobel laureates? Did they really change your perception of the universe? Did they invent things such as real artificial intelligence or did they discover a better way of doing politics? Sadly, no. Not because they weren’t as smart as Newton or Leibniz, but because the easy things were already discovered, now we’re in for the hard and incremental science and, like it or not, there’s no way around it.

Today, if you wrapped tin foil around a toilet paper tube and played music with it, people would, at best, think you’re cute. Thomas Edison did that and was called a Wizard. Nokia was trying to build a smartphone, but they were trying to make it perfect. Steve Jobs made is almost useless, people loved it, and he’s now considered a genius. If you try to produce a bad phone today, people will laugh at you, not think you’re cute, so things are getting harder for the careless innovators, and that’s the crucial point. Careless and accidental innovation is not possible on any field that has been exploited long enough.

Innovation and Business

Innovation is like business, you only profit if there is a market that hasn’t been taken. If you try to invent a new PC, you will fail. But if you produce a computer that has a niche that has never been exploited (even if it’s a known market, like in the Nokia’s smartphone case), you’re in for the money. If you want to build the next AI software, and it marginally works, you can make a lot of money, whether you open source your software or not. Since people will copy (copyright and patent laws are not the same in every country), your profit will diminish with time, proportional to the novelty and the difficulty in copying.

Rob’s point went further, “This isn’t just a matter of what people can or can’t do, is what people should or should not do”. Meaning, shouldn’t we aim for a world where people don’t copy other people’s ideas as a principle, instead of accepting the fact that people copy? My answer is a strong and sounding: NO! For the love of all that’s good, NO!

The first reason is simply because that’s not the world we live in and it will not be as long as humanity remains human. There is no point in creating laws that do not apply to the human race, though it seems that people get away with that very easy these days.

The second point is that it breaks our society. An example: try to get into a bank and ask for investment on a project that will take 10 years to complete (at the cost of $10M) and the return will come during the 70 years that follows it (at a profit of $100’sM a year). The manager will laugh at you and call security. This is, however, the time it takes (today) for copyright in Hollywood to expire (the infamous Mickey Mouse effect), and the kind of money they deal with.

Imagine that a car manufacturer develops a much safer way of building cars, say magical air bags. This company will be able to charge a premium, not just because of the development costs, but also for its unique position in the market. With time, it’ll save more lives that any other car and governments will want that to be standard. But no other company can apply that to their cars, or at least not without paying a huge premium to the original developer. In the end, cars will be much more expensive in general, and we end up paying the price.

Imagine if there were patents for the telephone, or the TV or cars (I mean, the concept of a car) or “talking to another person over the phone”, or “reminding to call your parents once in a while”. It may look silly, but this is better than most patent descriptions! Most of the cost to the consumer would be patents to people that no longer innovate! Did you know that Microsoft makes more money with Android phones than Google? Their contributions to the platform? Nothing. This was an agreement over dubious and silly patents that most companies accepted as opposed to being sued for billions of dollars.

Conclusion

In my opinion, we can’t just live in the 16th century with 21st century technology. You can’t expect to be famous or profit by building an in-house piece of junk or by spotting a new planet. Open source has nothing to do with it. The problem is not what you do with your code, but how you approach the market.

I don’t want to profit at the expense of others, I don’t want to protect my stupid idea that anyone else could have had (or probably already had, but thought it was silly), just because I was smart enough to market it. Difficult technology is difficult (duh), and it’s not up to a team of experts to create it and market it to make money. Science and technology will advance from now on on a steady, baby-steps way, and the tendency is for this pace to get even slower and smaller.

Another important conclusion for me is that, I’d rather live in a world where I cannot profit horrendously from a silly idea just because I’ve patented it than have monopolies like pharma/banking/tobacco/oil/media controlling our governments, or more than directly, our lives. I think that the fact that we copy and destroy property is the most liberating fact of humanity. It’s the Robin Hood of modern societies, making sure that, one way or another, the filthy rich won’t continue getting richer. Explosive growth, monopolies, cartels, free trade and protection of property are core values that I’d rather see dead as a parrot.

In a nutshell, open source does not hinder innovation, protection of property does.

Anarchy and Science

If the world needed more proof that rational thinking is off the menu when concerning humans, we now have a so-called anarchist group attacking science. Bombs, shootings and sabotage, with one single goal: to stop science destroying our lives once and for all.

If you didn’t get it, you’re not alone. I’m still trying to understand the whole issue, but the more I read, the more I’m sure it’s just humanity reaching record levels of stupidity. Again.

Anarchy

First of all, the actions don’t make sense in the realms of anarchy. For ages, anarchism has been a non-violent banner. The anarchist is not tame, but a pacifist. Anarchists fight for freedom of everything, mainly from violence and oppression. Since every state, no matter controlled by whom, is oppressive, anarchists fight the very existence of any central form of coercion.

Bakunin once wrote:

“But the people will feel no better if the stick with which they are being beaten is labeled ‘the people’s stick’.” (Statism and Anarchy [1873])

This clearly means governments that base their choice on the people, such as democracies. For an anarchist, a democracy is as bad as dictatorship, as even in its purest form, it imposes the will of the average citizen onto the majority of the population. (If you thought it was the other way around, you clearly don’t understand democracy!).

In essence, anarchy is all about a long and non-violent migration to the total lack of central government, leaving the people (organised in local communities) to decide what’s best for themselves. If that works or not on a global level, I don’t know. But two key words pop out: non-violent and lack of central power.

Science

In Peter Kropotkin’s own words:

Anarchism is a world-concept based upon a mechanical explanation of all phenomena, embracing the whole of Nature–that is, including in it the life of human societies and their economic, political, and moral problems. Its method of investigation is that of the exact natural sciences, by which every scientific conclusion must be verified. Its aim is to construct a synthetic philosophy comprehending in one generalization all the phenomena of Nature–and therefore also the life of societies (…) [source]

Thus anarchy, as science, is the art of finding the best answer by an iterative and non-violent method, without centralised powers dictating what the answer should be, but finding the answers by experimentation and verification, where everyone should come to the same conclusions.

Science has no central power and doesn’t provide support to any government or controlling body. There isn’t any scientist or organization in the world, nor ever has, that can dictate what scientists believe or can prove. The scientific method is the most democratic method of all, where every one can repeat the same experiments and reach the same results, otherwise the hypothesis is plain wrong, and there is nothing anyone can do to force it to be true.

Science has been used by governments to impose lifestyles, borders and general ignorance, yes. Science has been used to develop unfathomably powerful bombs, yes. And used over and over again to control and dominate countries and continents, yes. But that was never a merit of science, but of governments. Every major blame on science is, actually, the people. Describing how science has made our lives better, would be boring and redundant.

The blame?

If some scientists are idiots, it doesn’t mean the whole science is. If governments abuse of the power, and science provide that power, it doesn’t mean science is to blame, but governments. If some bishops should burn in hell, it doesn’t mean religion is to blame, but what people make of it. The climate change fiasco, the US national health program criticisms and the whole “God Particle” boom in recent religious people has shown that people are still complete ignorants and prejudicial when evaluating external information.

Pen and paper have been much more harmful to the world than science, and over a much longer period. Pride and honour have wiped out entire civilizations for millennia, well before science was such embedded in our culture. Barons, kings and presidents don’t need science to destroy our lives, but it just happen to be available.

So, science and anarchy have two major points in common: non-violence and the lack of centralised government. Why on Earth would an anarchist group gratuitously attack scientists? Because they are not anarchists, they are just idiots. I truly hope this is an isolated incident. If anarchists of the world lose their minds like these ones, the only hope for humanity (in the long term) will be lost, and there will be no return.

Further reading:
Anarchy Archives
Anarchist science policy

Tough decision

Peter wasn’t the most eclectic person, especially when the subject was musical styles. So it was a surprise for him when the alien that had landed in his livingroom (over all other places on Earth) started telling him that they were going to erase from the minds of all people, any memory of the best songs of every band that has performed on Earth.

This was an odd domination plan, to be honest, it looked more like some intergalactic prank, but hey, they’re aliens, right? You can never predict what aliens will do to your planet until they finally arrive and do, well, whatever they do when they arrive on new planets. And this was no exception.

According to the little alien, that was the first time that anyone from his species had landed on Earth and it was his duty to initiate Earthlings into the galactic customs. Peter tried to argue that Earth was on this very galaxy and that is not part of our customs, but the little alien did not reconsider. After all, it’s not like Earth is a central planet or anything.

The more Peter tried to argue, the more he was convinced that the alien was not fooling around. He was actually quite serious, stating that this is the norm for the initiation of any planet into the galactic fellowship, something that all other planets had done, too. There was no escape. The little guy got into his spaceship (or whatever that was, it didn’t look like it could fly in space but Peter was no rocket scientist), and disappear in mid-air, just as quickly and mysteriously as he had shown up.

There was one last thought that Peter should consider until the next morning (GMT), and it was that a single human could stop the initiation ceremony by killing himself. It was like an escape clause in the galactic contract. Either one being sacrifices himself (not killed by others) in the name of the fellowship, or all humans would have the best songs of all bands erased from memory. Forever.

Peter put the kettle on and sat on the dirty sofa of his small London flat. Was that a dream? Nope, he was well awaken, as proved by watching Rupert Murdoch on the telly. He was not drunk or intoxicated, so that shouldn’t be it, either. The kettle popped. He got up to get the tea bag and saw a business card laying on the kitchen sink, written: “You have until midnight of today, Peter. To kill yourself in the name of the Fellowship, tear this card in half.” Ok, now that was the confirmation he was waiting for. It was definitely not a dream.

But what is the problem with it? They’re not erasing all songs, just a few. The best ones, yes, but according to which criteria? For him, Bohemian Rhapsody, Lazy and War Pigs were the greatest songs ever, but there were people that liked Abba, and Beatles and, even those that did like Queen, could prefer Under Pressure instead. How is that even possible to choose? Peter put the tea bag in the cup and poured water in it. The vapour lifted the bitter smell of green tea, that would have to brew for a few more minutes until perfect.

Ok, so they can get the average of all favourite songs, or maybe a top500 list and remove duplicate songs per band. But that still doesn’t have all songs of all bands. They must have a way to traverse all songs in history, including those that were never recorded by humans. But how can they judge quality on them if no one knows they exist? So, they must have a different way to measure quality, an algorithm to judge by rhythm and choice of instruments and scales. Something that can be applied to virtually any audio signal to analyse the quality to a given set of standards, human standards. They must also understand perfectly the auditory system in humans, and human emotions, to know precisely what is good and what is just ok.

In that case, it doesn’t matter what he did like, but it was songs that were practically and theoretically good, no, the best! Wow, that changed things to a whole new level. All the songs he liked were just a handful, but all good songs, ever? That’s a different story. Erasing all good songs is much worse than erasing a single band from history, now matter how good this band is. It’s erasing everything that is good, and keeping a mediocre culture, it’s reducing the cultural richness of humanity to what shows on television or youtube. It’s making a sad world even sadder!

That is something he could not allow to happen! In his own mind, he was now beginning to believe of himself the same he though about the greatest band in the world. It’s better to lose the best band, than the best song of all bands, and him, well, it was better to lose him, even for himself, than to plunger humanity to even lower standards than today!

Peter looked at the tea cup, it was ready. The last green tea he’d ever have. He threw the bag in the sink and gave it a good sip. Burnt his tongue a bit, but no worries, that tongue wouldn’t care in a few minutes anyway. Got the card, and sat at the sofa, with the tea cup in one hand and the card in another. One more sip. This one was perfect, no burning. He put the cup away, held the card with his two hands and started ripping it apart, very slowly. Hearing the sound if it was making his hart stop, or at least beat slower. Much slower.

When suddenly it hit him. No, not death, Lady Gaga.

With the quality TV is these days, Murdoch and Lady Gaga is pretty much all you see without cable, and she was in all her glory (or whatever that is) on the screen. Peter had a revelation. Since the only way to precisely define what is good music is through a set of experiments outside the human mind, based on auditory and emotional systems, as well as the components that music is built from, it was, therefore, impossible to find a good song from Lady Gaga. QED.

Not just Lady Gada, mind you, a lot of what has been produced lately, pushed by the media companies including television. There was so much rubbish in the arts that it’d be impossible to find good music in more than half of what was produced in the last 3 decades! And, to not ignore alternative science, if they consider opinions, there would be a lot of songs that people wouldn’t even know exist.

The card was half-ripped, his tea was still warm. He put the card back where he got it from, sat on the sofa and finished his tea with the knowledge that, whatever that was, dream or bad trip, it was over. When he finished his tea it was Paris Hilton on the telly, doing something stupid, as usual. Peter felt somehow good watching that, knowing that those girls have saved humanity’s art history!

Copy cat

Shaun was yet another physicist, working for yet another western country on yet another doomsday machine. Even that being far from the last world war, governments still had excuses to spend exorbitant amounts of money on secret projects that would never be used, just for the sake of the argument. It never matters what you do in war, but what’s the size of your gun, compared to the rest, and in that, his country was second to none. Not that anybody cared any more, or that anybody knew of that, since his country has never gone into a proper war in its history, but well, with these things, you can never be to sure, can you.

But I digress, Shaun, yes, the physicist. He had been working on his own project for nearly a decade now and had re-used the old pieces of the LHC in a much more miniaturized version, of course, but in essence, it was capable of creating elementary particles and at the same time entangle them. After the initial explosion, instead of losing the created particles into oblivion (what would be the point in entangling them in the first place, uh?), he actually converged the entangled particles back into atomic form. The idea was to create a clone army, or sub-atomic bombs, or whatever could be done to put fear in other countries. You know how scientists are attached to science-fiction, and Shaun was no exception.

In the beginning he wasn’t very successful, and it took him nearly 5 years to produce a pair of atoms with their quarks and gluons entangled on the other side. While you could easily make atoms entangle in normal lab conditions using lasers, at the moment you turned your machines off, they would go back into their natural state. But in this case, the effects were much more lasting. In recent years, he managed to create whole molecules that were virtually the same, stable for months, even years. Copy cats.

But what he didn’t expect (who would) was that his experiments were also touching the adjacent m-branes of parallel universes. It was hypothesised in the past that some forces could leak to adjacent universes, like gravity, and though that wasn’t widely accepted, it was very hard to prove it wrong. The problem is, until today, nobody had reached energy densities so intense as to actually make a remarkable effect on the parallel universes. Shaun did.

If the parallel universe was, like ours, sparsely populated, with a only handful of pseudo-sapient species, he’d probably have hit empty space. But the universe he found was nothing ordinary. In fact, Shaun’s own experiments for years had created a special condition, in which the aforementioned universe became aware of our own. I explain. His experiments, the entanglement of particles not always worked, as I said earlier, and the less they worked (ie. less matter on this universe), the more they leaked into the adjacent universe.

A door to your own room

In a lovely evening of spring, such as today, with daffodils and tulips blossoming, and the warm spells finally arriving, Shaun would normally be working. 30 storeys below ground. He would see none of that, or care for that matter. His new molecules (DNAs this time) were working at an alarming rate. He managed to duplicate an entire gene last week, and his team was now running loads of tests on the results. It required a lot of energy to create molecules enough to run all tests, but his lab had unlimited supply of everything.

With all his team elsewhere, Shaun was busy trying to expand his technique to achieve the whole sequence of a virus. That made the machine run at wild energy levels (quite a few Pev), and the whole thing destabilized for a moment, and stopped. Fearing he made the surrounding city go dark, he checked all energy inputs, and they were all fine. Trying to measure a few currents here and there, Shaun looked for his multimeter and, oddly, it was on the workbench, not where he’d left. Not surprised, somebody must have used it and not stored properly, it happens. With his multimeter in hand, he started checking all currents and they all look fine, apart from the 17th onwards, that the polarity was reversed.

That was odd. Seriously odd. As if his machine was actually providing energy back to the power plant, only that it was impossible (it was no fusion chamber!). Without a clue, Shaun went back to his desk, left the multimeter by the lamp and reclined his chair, looking in the infinite. The infinite, in this case, was his shelf rack. Everything was blurred, but a remarkably familiar yellow blur caught his attention, and his eyes focused for a moment, and clear as day (though it was never day in his lab), that was his multimeter. Exactly where he’d left, with the dangling red wire over the black one.

He looked back at the table, and sure enough, his multimeter was there, too. Obviously, that one was someone’s else, but just to be sure, he got his own, and started comparing them, finding the same imperfections, the same burnt mark, the same cuts. His head was not working any more, he went back where he found the other multimeter and started looking around, looking for clues. It could very easily be a prank, but his head was not thinking. It was in discovery mode.

Obsessive as he was, he started noticing differences to that part of the room, compared to what it usually was. Almost like the room was displaced in time, with that part a few hours, maybe days, back. And he started putting things in their own place, tidying up as a mechanical task to help him think. When he was satisfied with the place, he turned around and jumped so high backwards that he hit his head on a red pipe that was hanging from the ceiling. It was Shaun, looking back at himself, smiling.

“Hello”, said the other Shaun. “…”. “Yes, I see, you’re in a bit of a shock. That’s understandable, I um, let me help you with the concept.” Shaun said nothing.

“See, you are a very interesting specimen. We’ve been monitoring your experiment ever since we detected the leakage from your universe to ours. Generally, we wouldn’t ourselves believe in multiple universes, but as things were clearly leaking from your universe, we had no other alternative.” Shaun was still speechless. “As you probably have guessed by now, this part of the room is in our universe. Actually, the working part of your experiment has been inside our universe for quite some time. More specifically, ever since it started working…”.

“Hey!” Shaun opened his mouth for the first time. “You can’t possibly say that you guys did all the work!” – without even knowing who were they, but that was too big an insult to let that one pass. “Oh, no, you got me wrong, Shaun. No, you’re absolutely right, you did everything. We just provided our universe to you.”. Shaun was speechless again.

Compromise

“Understand, we’re in a somewhat different level of technology than you. In some cases, much more advanced, in others, much less.”, the other Shaun continued after a pause, probing for any offence that he could have made. “In practical matters, we’re much more advanced. Our universe has been extremely kind to us. We have a very dense population throughout our known universe, it’s actually hard to get to know all the cultures yourself, we just don’t live long enough. The fact that your universe has been leaking energy has boosted our physics so much, that we managed to halve the energy consumption of all our technology and at the same time, more than double our energy production levels!”, Shaun would not let that one pass… “Lucky you, we have nothing of that…”

“I know! Very well indeed! And it’s in that respect that you guys are so much more advanced than us. Your theoretical physics is so advanced, your mathematics so robust, that make our feeble attempts in model our universe a pre-school matter.” – “Ha!” said Shaun, “our mathematics is broken, Goedel has proven it and Turing re-proved. Our theoretical physics is still fighting over string theory and the alternative and we’re getting nowhere fast!”.

“On the contrary, Shaun. Your universe is limited, so your mathematics can only reach thus far. Your theoretical physics is considering things that we never imagined possible. Our universe is lame next to yours, the challenges that you face are the most delicious delicatessen for our theoretical physicists. There is an entire community, the fastest growing of all times, just to consume the material you guys generated three centuries (of your time) ago!”

The other Shaun was breathless, smiling from ear to ear with a face like a dog waiting for you to throw the stick. There was a deep silence for a few moments. Shaun was afraid that someone would enter through the door and he would have to explain everything, and he was not sure he could, actually. He was still holding the last tool he was going to put somewhere safe. He looked at it and considered that that tool was not actually in his own universe, but somewhere else. Yet, it was there, on the same room.

“So,” – a pause – “how come you are… me?”, “Well, I’m not you, obviously, I’m just represented as you in this piece of our universe. I wouldn’t fit this room otherwise.”, “Oh, I get it.” lied Shaun. The other Shaun continued “You see, your studies has allowed us to extrapolate you idea and re-create your own universe inside our own. This room is just the connection point, if you go through that door” – and pointed to an old door that lead to the emergency exit – “you will continue inside our version of your universe.”, “Wait a minute, how much of our world have you replicated?”, “World, no, not just Earth, everything.” – a long pause, with wide open eyes. After a blink: “you mean, galaxies?”, “Yes, yes, all of them. Your universe is quite compact for all it has to offer, and we were firstly intrigued by that, but then we understood that it was necessary to have the constraints you have, and well, an important feature to generate such high quality theoretical physics.” “And we decided to lend an unused part of our universe so you could not only teach us by broadcasting your knowledge, but also running tests on our own universe.” “Most of your experiments are now part of our day-to-day life, from vehicles to communication devices to life-saving machines.” “You, Shaun, has made our lives so much better, that it was the least we could do.”

Anthropocentric

“Is there anyone living in this version of our universe? I mean, human … hum … clones?”, “No, no. We thought that would be improper. We do try to live in it, just for the curiosity, actually. There are some holiday packs to travel the wonderful places your universe has to offer. It’s nothing we don’t see in our own, but you know, travel agencies will always find an excuse to take your money, right?” and finished that sentence with a grin and almost a wink. His human traces were very good, almost as if he was observing for far too long, making Shaun to feel a little bit uneasy…

“Actually…” – the other Shaun continued – “maybe you could help us fixing a few things on this side of the universe. Make things a bit more suited to the people from our side, what do you think?”. With the rest of the team deep in tests, it’d be weeks before they would even consider going back to the main lab, and nobody else would dare to enter there, after the several claims (in the private circle that knew him) that his lab would produce a black-hole that would consume Earth and everything else.

Shaun decided to go in, at least to explore the very convincing copy of his own world. Going up the emergency exit, he found the lift all the way to the top, as expected. Outside, as expected, the early rays of the spring sun casting long shadows on the trees and buildings. The nearby cattle farm was empty, though. When the other Shaun noticed Shaun’s curiosity, he added, “Ah, yes, you see, we decided not to include mammals, as they could eventually evolve into sapient beings and we’d be altering the history of our own universe. We didn’t want to do that!”. Shaun thought it was sensible.

For several days, Shaun has listened to all complaints about his own universe and how would that fit into their own physiology. Animals were turned green to photosynthesise, trees would reproduce by multiple ways at the same time, genetic combination of more than a pair of chromosomes were allowed, as was normal in this new universe, and many of the landscapes were altered to fit the gigantic stature of most of its inhabitants. Some parts were left untouched, or the travel agencies would lose a huge market, and some were shortened and simplified, for the less elaborate, but still pseudo-sentient species.

Shaun was feeling very well, like a demi-god, changing landscapes and evolution at his own wishes, much like Slartibartfast. How fortunate was him, the only human – correction – the only being in his universe (as far as he knew) to play with a toy universe himself.

Inevitable causality

After meeting with leaders of the populations of the alter-universe, receiving gifts and commendations (and a few kisses from the lasses), it was time to return to his own universe. Shaun felt a bit tired, but after drinking a bit of their energetic beverage, he blasted back to alter-Earth in his new hyper-vehicle, to his own alter-lab. In there, only alter-Shaun was there to say goodbye. A handshake and a wink was enough to mean “I’ll be back, and thanks for all the fish”, which Shaun has taken as a warm gift, rather than a creepy resemblance.

But as soon as Shaun stepped up into his own universe, he noticed some things were out of place. After being in an alter-universe for so long, it was only natural to misplace normal concepts, but some things were not normal at all, like a 10 meter high corridor leading from his side of the room. Normally, It’d be no more than 2 meters and there was a very good reason for that: humans are not that tall!

He ran through it to find a huge door to a huge lift. In the lift were a few people still discussing what had happened. “It was definitely not that big! We must have shrunk!” said one, “No, that’s not possible, that’s Hollywoodian at best!” said the sceptic. Shaun took the lift up to the ground level, and ran to the farm nearby, fearing the worst.

And the worst happened. The cows were green, and the houses huge. Being a bad theoretical physicist himself, and not being able to count on the alter-physicists for theoretical matters, Shaun hasn’t taken into account that his machine was a duplication machine, of entangled particles. That means, for the lay to understand, that whatever happens to one, invariably happens to the other, no matter in what part of the universe, or in this case, in the multi-verse, they are.

That, thought Shaun, would take a bit more than a few days to fix… but he know how, and he was looking forward to fix it himself!

Unnatural

It’s funny to see how people judge events to be unnatural without any basis, or even defining the word natural. In its most basic meaning, natural is something that happens in nature, excluding any man-made achievements. For some reason, we like to think of ourselves as living outside nature, which beats me. We also have the super-natural, which are the things we can’t explain.

For us humans, being outside of nature, has a strong powerful feeling of superiority. We learnt to protect ourselves from the rain, and with time, we managed to protect ourselves from tsunamis. This feeling of loosing battles but winning the war has powerful consequences on the mind of men. This superiority, though, is a fake feeling of safety, since nature (aka. non-humans) always play neutral, and humans always play harsh. If nature had feelings (Gaia and other non-sense), we’d be doomed.

That puts us in three categories, according to a human eye: what’s below us (nature), us, and what above us (our myths and technologically advanced aliens). This relation is far from correct, but that doesn’t stop us seeing the universe with these eyes, and most importantly, basing our beliefs on it. Most original religions put nature on top of men, like Norse, Greek, Roman and indigenous mythology. But, in the eyes of science and technology (even well before Christ) that has changed, substantially.

Single-God based religions put men on top of nature. That thought would be impossible to conceive for pre-historic cultures, but with the advent of technology, humans started feeling superior, super-natural. But there were still things they couldn’t explain, so instead of removing religion altogether, they just removed themselves from nature. That common sense is what made religions evolve from the native form to the super-human form, where God made men, and only men, on its own image. The most obvious form for God to take, then, was the human form.

Modern Times

With time, men learnt the power of its own creation. Religion was used to destroy entire civilizations, many times over. More recently, however, with the greater separation between state and religion, it became unfashionable to blame horrendous crimes on religion alone, so the role of religion changed from the main cause, to a role model. If you can’t tell God made you kill that entire village, you can say that God teaches us that what they do is wrong, so wrong, that they deserve to die. Problem solved.

But more importantly, and with the advance of atheism (reaching up to 10% of the population, according to New Scientist), especially in key positions of the world (rule-makers, money-makers), religion had to change its form and take a whole new meaning to people. I’m an atheist, I can’t say I’d do anything for God, but I can say I’d save a child from starvation. So, religion or not, people are still willing to go to extreme lengths to do something right. All you need to do is to define what’s right and wrong, no matter what religion (if any) you follow.

It’s fun to blame wars on religion, but that’s not the point. Never was. Einstein worked on nuclear physics in the US knowing the government would use that to make atomic bombs, and he still did it. Would it be worse doing it for the Germans? Maybe. Ultimately, our behaviour, with or without religion, has to do with what we evolved to do: fight. And fighting is not about striking first, but calculating the risks.

There is a theory, which I like very much, is that this transition in religion happened for socio-political reasons. Not just control over people, but advice and care that wouldn’t otherwise reach remote places. Like the bans on pork meat for the Jews, during times were it was generally unsafe to eat it anyway (still is). Or tales about how people in a immoral city burned to death. I try very hard to teach my son about moral issues, but nothing is as powerful as “burned to death”. I end up doing some extrapolations, nothing of that sort, but I see the power in it, and for that, it served its purpose very well.

As modernised as religions got during the last centuries, most of them still have things of the past that they can’t loose, no matter how weird it sounds. Catholics sill trying to convince people against contraception, Jews still having to eat food blessed by a rabbi, Muslims still having to wear burqa and stone their women, and so on. Different people will read this and laugh at different parts, but each one accepts their own prejudices as if it was the obvious truth.

When I was a boy I got beaten by my friends (yes, friends) because I said I didn’t believe in God. I must have said something like “for me, Jesus is just like any other guy.”, for three or four friends, of different Christian factions, to beat me up and sent me home bleeding. Normally, the universal bullying is to say “your mother is like…”, but if any of them had said: “your mother is like any other gal”, I would have said, “yeah, ok, your point is?”. But in this case, it hit a deeper and irrational feeling in all of them, at the same time. It was as fast as instinct.

Homosexuality

Most religion will say out loud that homosexuality is down right wrong. Simple as that. What they won’t do is to explain why. Unlike most other fears and prejudices, I cannot fathom where on Earth did they get that from.

It’s not like it doesn’t happen on nature, plenty of animals have homosexual relationships. Some of them even change sex during their lifetime to re-balance the population. But if a human being do it, it’s unnatural.

It’s not like it never happened in human history. Old civilizations are full of homosexuality, soldiers being encouraged to love each other so they could perform better in battle in Roman and Greek times, and since then there is a rich history of same-sex relationships throughout European history that would make anyone blush.

It’s not like it’s going to change the world or anything. Men and women still have sex, and well, we’ve passed the 7bi people mark years ago! If anything, we should encourage homosexuality, as birth control, much more effective than abstinence.

There isn’t any context that I can think of where it would be unnatural. Both in the sense of not happening in nature, or not happening to humanity. Where does it come from? Can anyone explain to me, even with religious arguments (other than God doesn’t like it)? I truly need to know this one.

New taboos

But it’s not all about loosing old stupid taboos, it’s also about creating new ones. Today it seems natural to not enslave the population of a village, or to allow women to vote. It’s also impossible to think about paedophilia without turning your stomach inside out. But that was not always like this. Greek society was perfect because there was a huge number of slaves outside of society to keep it going. Women were rarely allowed to rule or even express their opinions, and as to child-adult relationship, well, it depends on what you consider to be a child. If 14 years old is a child for you, well, they got married (with full status) much earlier than that not too long ago.

Even more recent, it seems that the world is changing a lot on labour laws, making it very hard for companies to sack incompetent employees, or to refuse a job applicant with fear to be discriminating a growing list of minorities. It seems that the majority of people belong to at least one minority group. For instance, I changed countries, moved to England, and here I’m a foreigner. We’re far from minority, especially in England, but people still take great care when talking around me not to offend me.

That would never have happened during Roman times. When in Rome, do as the Romans do, right? Well, not here. In England, you’re allowed to ride motorcycles without a helmet if you’re using a turban for religious purposes. In Scotland, the police apologised for taking a picture of a dog puppy on top of a police hat (cute picture, actually) to promote their new phone number because that offended a few Muslims.

Paedophilia is another interesting topic, and one that shows that taboos can grow to unimaginable power in just a few years. It is possible today to be arrested on your 18th birthday because your girlfriend is 17. Not that it happens often, but if her father is a radical, and where he lives is radical (say, Texas), then, I wouldn’t be surprised if it did happen.

I wonder if we should add these taboos to the bible and the quran. That would make it easier to force the whole world to follow these simple, but important moral guidelines, even when some countries’ legislations say otherwise. It’s also easier to write a story to illustrate, and later extrapolate from it, than come up with a set of definite rules about something. For instance, if you have two stories: one that tells the tale of John, who was crucified for having intercourse with a 14 y.o. girl, and another of a young brave men that was absolved for having a 17 years old girlfriend, but just because he was 18. Each religion will extrapolate slightly different, but all of them will punish paedophiles and none of them will be allowed to punish the 18 y.o. boy. Simple, efficient.

Unnatural

It may be cynic, but in my concept, everything is natural. There are good things, and bad things (depending on your point of view), but bad things are also natural. There’s nothing more natural than death. Even Wikipedia seems to be at a lost on defining unnatural.

As Arthur C. Clarke put so eloquently: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic“. Magic, super-natural and deities are all different views of what’s too complicated for our pitiful minds, but still nonetheless, natural.

The act of defining what is natural is an act of prejudice. Is to separate what I like from what I don’t. What’s like me from what’s not. Is life what breathes? Or what photosynthesise? Or what reproduces? Or what is capable of intelligence? It might be just as well something so radically different to what I’m used to that I can’t even comprehend, much less name it.

What we call Nature is, actually, just a very tiny subset of the Universe, which, according to the most recent theories in cosmology, it just a tiny subset of whatever’s beyond it. Nature is a very anthropocentric concept, one that we grab so strongly, and restrict it to our needs so irrationally, that it becomes meaningless.

Unfortunately, that behaviour is absolutely natural. If we weren’t selfish, fighters and a bit stupid, we wouldn’t have survived. That’s nature at its most basic form. And the fun part is that we’re not destroying Nature, or our planet. We’re destroying ourselves (and a few other life forms as a side-effect). Nature, or the Universe, or the Multiverse, will linger.

My conclusion is simple: stop using the word natural, or moral, or good. Use “I agree“, or “I like“. It’s much more sensate, correct and a lot less likely to create prejudice.

Hypocrisy in Hollywood

Paralegal‘s Peter Kim sent me this nice info-graphic about a short history of the media industry in Hollywood, and I thought I would share with you.

I’m not a Lawyer, but his site seems to have some good bite-sized information about copyrights and other law terms that we should all know if we are to avoid The Big Brother in our society. Most of it obviously only apply to the US, but as we all know, US law has been extended to the world far too much. British hackers being extradited to US, European citizens getting harassed by US media companies and Asian companies being shut down by the mighty power of Hollywood.

There are other info-graphics on the site that are worth looking at. Thanks for the tip, Peter.

In the future…

In the future, people will be able to project three-dimensional films using holograms. These holograms could be placed among us, rather than at a stage, to give us a much better sense of reality and emotions than it is possible on a theatre or cinema.

When this technique gets common place, it’ll be possible to use it in the classroom. Actors would re-enact events in history, and children will be able to live the moment, rather than just listening to stories. The teachers, then, will have a much more fundamental role in teaching. They will comment on what’s happening, rather than merely serve as a narrator.

Holographic teaching has numerous advantages. Seeing the streets of London in 1666 on fire, running for your life is much more vivid than just chalk traces on a blackboard. Seeing Jews suffering on German camps, being a Jew on a German camp (minus the physical harm, of course), gives us a much better tool to avoid this in the future, and to do it to other people.

In the future, children will be able to live the credit crunch, the Syrian civil war, how the international community helped, and provoked, several conflicts in the Middle East and Africa. How people in the poorest parts of this world live without clean water or food, and how their parents die of unimaginable diseases and it falls on them the responsibility of raising a family, by the age of 4.

Children won’t be listeners, any more, they’ll live the moment, feel the pain, and learn that this is not acceptable, under any circumstances, for any living bean: Humans, animals, aliens.

However, you don’t have to wait for that glorious future to fix society. If things continue how they are, it is very likely that this future will never come to pass. If there is one constant in human history is the force of self-destruction. The more humans we have (we passed the 7bi barrier long ago), the stronger this force is.

There are several ways any of us can help save the world. The single most important you can do is to teach your children that ruthless selfish behaviour is not accepted, that the ends don’t justify the means, and that people deserve freedom to live and think for their own. Other things involve going to the most affected areas and work to revamp those cultures (not just bring food and water), help re-structure their governments (on their own terms) and work with your own government to stop invasive manoeuvres and third-party destructions for their own benefits.

A simple start is to help Avaaz. They do most of the bureaucracy, they go into the countries, they empower people, they turn rogue legislations around and, more importantly, they warn you before it’s too late.

Signing to their mailing list will give you a much better view of the world. You don’t have to donate money to help, just by signing the petitions, showing you care, is already a good start. The best part is that they will always ask you what’s the next step. How much effort they have to spend on this or that, and how much (and which) technology they have to develop to help their – our – cause.

I’m following Avaaz for a few years now, probably since its foundation, and I have to say that, not only they surpassed my expectations on what they could do with the world, but also on clarity, openness and use of technology and resources. They’re not a charity, they’re an activist group, and a very good one at that. If you were looking for something to support to help change the world, Avaaz is a great start.

Eventually everyone wants to be AOL

After a good week battling against SOPA, it’s time to go back to real life, to battling our own close enemies.

As was reported over, and over, and over again (at least in this blog), Google is dragging itself towards a giant dominant player it’s becoming, much like Yahoo! and AOL in previous times.

Lifehacker has a very good post about the same subject (from where the title of this post was deliberately taken), around Google+ and the new Search+ (or whatever they’re calling that), and how the giant is loosing its steam and trying so solidify its market, where it’ll comfortably lay until the end of its days.

True, Google has a somewhat strong research department, and is working towards new TCP/IP standards, but much of it was done by Yahoo! in the past, towards FreeBSD, PHP and MySQL. Yahoo! actually hired top notch BSD kernel hackers (like Paul Saab), MySQL gurus (like Jimi Cole and Zawodny) and the PHP creator, Rasmus Lerdorf. And they put a lot back to the community. But none of that is true revolution, only short reforms to keep themselves in power for a bit longer.

The issue is simple, Google doesn’t need to innovate as much as they did in the past, as did Yahoo! and AOL. Even Microsoft and Apple need to innovate more than Google, because they have to sell things. Software, hardware and services, not only cost money, and time, but they age too rapidly and it’s not hard to throw loads of money at a project that is borne dead (like Vista). But Google get its money for free (so to speak), their users are not paying a penny for their services. How hard it is to compete with that model?

Like Google, Yahoo! had the same comfort in their days. They had more users than anyone else, and that was the same as money. They did get money from ads, like Google, only not as efficient. And that put them in a comfort zone that it’s hard not to get used to, which was their ultimate doom. This is why, after 25 and so years failing, Microsoft is still a strong player. This is why Apple, after being in the shadow for than 20 years, got to be the biggest Tech company in the world. The must innovate at every turn.

Yahoo! displaced AOL and bought pretty much everyone else because they’ve outsmarted the competition, by doing the same thing, but cheaper and easier. Google repeated the same stunt, on Yahoo! and is beginning to age. How long would that last? When the next big thing appears, making money even easier, Google will be a giant. An arrogant, slow and blind giant. And natural selection will take care of them as quick as it took of AOL and Yahoo!