A Compromise in the Ad Wars

Begun, the Ad Wars have.

Long have web users been frustrated with advertisements on the web. They’re intrusive, both on the screen and in your data; annoying; obnoxiously loud; and frequently don’t offer anything we’re interested in. (And when they do, we find the tracking pretty damn creepy.) The annoyance has gone so far that Apple has baked in ad-blocking into the new version of Safari for iOS, which has sent everyone in the advertising and web content businesses into a panic. For instance:


The article linked in the tweet is a good one by Nilay Patel of The Verge, where he explains why ads are important to web producers (as well as how this is really just another salvo in the endless Apple vs. Google match.) There’s also this article in Advertising Age which displays a stunning amount of ignorance from advertisers, though I suppose it isn’t that stunning when this is literally how they put food on the table.

In short, we need to keep the ads there in order to fund the content we want to read. As Patel puts it (emphasis in original):

Those huge chunks — the ads! — are almost certainly the part you don’t want. What you want is the content, hot sticky content, snaking its way around your body and mainlining itself directly into your brain. Plug that RSS firehose straight into your optic nerve and surf surf surf ’til you die.

Unfortunately, the ads pay for all that content, an uneasy compromise between the real cost of media production and the prices consumers are willing to pay that has existed since the first human scratched the first antelope on a wall somewhere. Media has always compromised user experience for advertising: that’s why magazine stories are abruptly continued on page 96, and why 30-minute sitcoms are really just 22 minutes long. Media companies put advertising in the path of your attention, and those interruptions are a valuable product. Your attention is a valuable product.

For better or worse, he’s right. The ads pay, and not well, but they pay enough to keep a lot of publishers in business giving you great content. The problem, though, is that many of these ads are horribly invasive. You first have the ads that completely block the screen and won’t let you continue for ten seconds. Now that doesn’t seem like a long time, but it is when you’re just trying to browse a news story; why wait ten seconds? Just close the tab and go elsewhere. Then there autoplaying video ads, which not only intrude into your music if you’re on Spotify or listening to VLC Player, but can also bother other people; imagine you just got your kid to sleep, you’re looking at something on the laptop, and a video ad plays and wakes the baby up. Or you’re at work, and once just starts playing in the office, going up and down the hall while people are on phone calls or working. It doesn’t even have to be offensive or vulgar; the very act of intruding into the environment beyond your screen is already offensive. Those ads work on TV because that’s the whole point of TV and we’re expecting it; the same expectations do not hold up to the web. And then there are those ads that aren’t there at first, which then appear, expand, and totally move everything around on screen. You know what I’m talking about, whether they’re the expanding banners above the navigation menu or videos that open up in the middle of the story itself. What if you’re going to click on a link, the video moves it all around and you end up clicking something completely different. That’s just frustrating, and the last thing anyone should be doing is making a dirt simple task like browsing the web frustrating. It defeats the entire purpose.

Naturally, this is before we get the part about data tracking and taking up more bandwidth from people’s accounts. Especially for those with slow and not terribly great Internet connections, that’s just downright rude.

I think that’s the really bad part of ads. We’re not terribly concerned (I think; I could be wrong) about simple silent visual ads on the side, or even one at the top that loads in with everything else and doesn’t move around DOM elements as you’re reading. All of us who’ve used the Internet over the past 10 years have dealt with those, and haven’t minded them at all. So in the spirit of goodwill and making the Internet a better place, I propose a compromise.

  1. Advertising will be permitted on websites, EXCEPT FOR THE FOLLOWING:
  2. Any ad that overlays the website and blocks viewing of the content for any length of time
  3. Any ad that plays audio and video without being selected to do so by the conscious effort of the user
  4. Any ad that manipulates the Document Object Model (aka the page or the DOM) to move elements after the page has loaded

Naturally, advertisers and publishers will likely scream bloody murder, as these do a wonderful job capturing our attention — our negative attention — and getting our eyeballs. Taking them away will probably result in a drop in revenue, and will likely result in the industry undergoing a bit of a shift. We’ll be cutting out a lot of advertising for this. Patel notes this at the end of his piece:

And the collateral damage of that war — of Apple going after Google’s revenue platform — is going to include the web, and in particular any small publisher on the web that can’t invest in proprietary platform distribution, native advertising, and the type of media wining-and-dining it takes to secure favorable distribution deals on proprietary platforms. It is going to be a bloodbath of independent media.

[…]

But taking money and attention away from the web means that the pace of web innovation will slow to a crawl. Innovation tends to follow the money, after all! And asking most small- to medium-sized sites to weather that change without dramatic consequences is utterly foolish. Just look at the number of small sites that have shut down this year: GigaOm. The Dissolve. Casey Johnston wrote a great piece for The Awl about ad blockers, in which The Awl’s publisher noted that “seventy-five to eighty-five percent” of the site’s ads could be blocked. What happens to a small company when you take away 75 to 85 percent of its revenue opportunities in the name of user experience? Who’s going to make all that content we love so much, and what will it look like if it only makes money on proprietary platforms?

There are numerous problems with Patel’s analysis. The first is the implicit notion that small sites are entitled to be alive, entitled to getting ad money out of you, and entitled to your eyeballs. This is most certainly not the case. Yes, it’s true that with a lesser amount of ads, many sites might go under. But my response to that is:

So what?

Most of the stuff on the Internet is pure dreck. Lots of sites regurgitate other websites’ stories without adding any actual value or new information; others just churn out nonsense articles that make you ask yourself if you wasted the five minutes reading them. For an example of the latter, check out this “story” from a site called “Neurogadget” on the Microsoft Surface Pro 4. There is literally no substance to the story; it’s 310 ten words basically say, “The first Surface wasn’t great, the second was a little better, the third was really awesome, and the fourth is probably going to be really super awesome.” That’s it; no specs, no data, just a lot of empty fluff.

For an example of the former, take any story from Mediaite (perhaps not fair, as they do cover the media), HuffPo, or any other big or even medium sized website. I’ve seen them, the stories that quote liberally from another story, and basically add nothing more than another way to rephrase the story, and maybe a few links (as this story by HuffPo, which is far from the worst, does.)

This is not content. This is not information. It’s just noise. I would say that about 80% of the stuff on the internet is just junk, and it deserves to go away permanently. Tell me, what did GigaOm provide that sites like CNET and PCMag did not? We don’t need this noise, and frankly, nobody ultimately cares. It will not be a huge loss to humanity, we will simply move on. (Plus, there is a legitimate question over whether The Awl is short for The Awful.)

Another problem is that GigaOm and The Dissolve went out before the ad blocking controversy began. That means that the current ad environment could not save them anyways, so that part is pretty much moot. Whether or not Apple comes up baked in ad blocking is utterly irrelevant, as they failed anyways. So that tells me that ad blocking, at least the institutionalized form everyone is arguing over now, doesn’t really matter.

But then finally, the last nail in the coffin is that for years, we’ve had great content provided sans ads, and you know what? We still get great content today. The best websites are those that don’t have ads, or a minimal amount. Orion’s Arm is one of my favorite websites, and it doesn’t have ads. Neither does my friend’s blog. Reddit keeps a close handle on ads, and doesn’t let them pop up. Wait But Why does have pop-ups, but they’re easily dismissable, and none of the play any noise.

The best content is usually unpaid, for the precise reason that it isn’t rushed to make some deadline, isn’t done to just be clickbait and get ad money, and instead has passion and thoughtfulness infusing it. If you’re writing something without being paid or compensated by ads, you’re doing it because you really have something to say, something you care about. That makes these things far better, and makes the ad-supported content look kinda terrible in comparison.

So I won’t weep for a loss of these sites. It’ll be the market and consumer demand weeding them out, and that’s a good thing. The clickbait headlines and stories rushed out immediately in order to get advertising clicks have, probably, made our society much dumber. We no longer take the time to think, we must spew something forth immediately, damn the truth! So maybe blocking these kinds of ads will also lead us to slow down, think, actually make decisions and not just blindly throw something, anything, on a page to get those ad clicks.

On the other hand, viewers will probably hate me because there are two things I didn’t block in the compromise: tracking and bandwidth. The latter because every web developer should be minimizing bandwidth usage by default; it’s been a terrible, hateful trend lately to absorb as much bandwidth as possible with cool animations and whatnot, but developers should be designing the most efficient sites possible. As for tracking…well, I’m convinced that by and large, privacy as we know it is dead. The next generation will know nothing of it, and in the long run it’s a lost cause. Big data is here and it will stay. Sure, you can use extensions to block that stuff if you want, but there will always be data flowing around. I don’t consider it something stoppable.

But terrible ads can be stopped. And so can these stupid ad wars, which just illustrate that a huge sector of the web provider industry knows next to nothing about its users.

A Plethora of Links to End 2014

2014 is just about gone, and for the large part, I say: Good riddance. In many ways, 2014 was an awful year for civil liberties, freedom, and for people in general. Yet on the other hand, there are some positive things to report.

One of my 2015 resolutions is to stop posting so much political stuff. I know, I know – I say this almost every month, and yet it never happens. I'm going to try, though, this year, especially since I'm making the effort to make some resolutions. (I'm even going to print them out and put them up on my wall in my bedroom and in my office.) So in honor of that, I wanted to post some last political and semi-political links before the year ended, links that have been sitting on my mind:

THE BAD

2014 was a really rotten year for privacy, civil liberties, and in particular for public-police relations. For a long time I thought of writing up a list of all the issues of police overreach and brutality, but I don't have to. Radley Balko, one of the best journalists on the planet, rounded up 2014's civil liberties violations as a "Let me give some predictions for 2015" post. It's chilling to think that, in the nation that is supposedly the leader of the free world, we have so many horrible things going on – most, but not all, being conducted by state and local governments.

I mean, seizing someone's assets, then charging them with a crime, so they can't pay for their own defense? Arresting parents for letting their kids play without supervision? Claiming that your SWAT team is a private corporation and is thus immune to open records laws? Push for extrajudicial tribunals for people who may or may not commit crimes against a certain class of individuals, tribunals where "innocent until proven guilty" and the rule of law are thrown out the airlock? Punishing people who haven't been convicted of a crime?

These are not the signs of a healthy liberal democracy, they're the signs of a damaged one that needs repair, fast.

One story in particular has stood out to me. As many have defended the police in the recent incidents and stories, one thing they may have failed to notice is that even black police officers feel threatened by the "boys in blue". I think once cops are fearful of other cops, then we have indisputable proof that there is a serious problem. And yet people still ignore it. Read the link above for a maddening, frustrating look at what is wrong with policing today. (That one really grinds my gourd, because I think it will be ignored by most.)

Meanwhile, on the other side of the coin, in 2014 progressives became nattering nabobs of negativity – or, in other words, conservatives. reason magazine highlights how 2014 heralded the return of "Neo-Victorianism", and I'm thankful that Elizabeth Nolan Brown wrote that article because I've been struggling to find the right word for this new trend. It's the trend of using coercion and bullying to enforce a set of social norms, mostly deployed by feminists, it seems. The four major areas are increasing art censorship, a hysteria over sex-trafficking (that trampled over individual rights while simultaneously punishing sex workers, many of whom don't think they're victims and like their jobs, thank you very much), a dragging out of hate speech to absurd lengths that means you shouldn't say anything that could potentially offend anyone at any time, and a trend of treating women as dainty little flowers that need to be coddled and protected rather than being allowed to develop into strong and independent individuals.

It's all rather sickening. It too, is not a sign of a healthy democracy.

And let's not get me started on the various abuses by the NSA. Let's just not go there for once.

The Good

There are, however, some great things to look forward to in 2015 that continue from 2014.

The first is in terms of war and crime. Steven Pinker, a wonderful academic, details in a great article for Slate that planet Earth is actually becoming a very peaceful world. I found the article particularly interesting for the following tidbit:

But the red curve in the graph shows a recent development that is less benign: The number of wars jumped from four in 2010—the lowest total since the end of World War II—to seven in 2013. These wars were fought in Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan, South Sudan, and Syria. Conflict data for 2014 will not be available until next year, but we already know that four new wars broke out in the past 12 months, for a total of 11. The jump from 2010 to 2014, the steepest since the end of the Cold War, has brought us to the highest number of wars since 2000.
[…]
The 2010–2014 upsurge is circumscribed in a second way. In seven of the 11 wars that flared during this period, radical Islamist groups were one of the warring parties: Afghanistan, Pakistan, Israel/Gaza, Iraq, Nigeria, Syria, and Yemen. (Indeed, absent the Islamist conflicts, there would have been no increase in wars in the last few years, with just two in 2013 and three in 2014.) This reflects a broader trend.

That "broader trend" being religious hostilities, with "all but two of these countries" having those hostilities being "associated with extremist Islamist groups." I always find myself on a narrow tightrope when it comes to Islamism; on the one hand, I always find conservatives are far too hostile and kneejerk when they want to just fight Muslims and bomb them; on the other hand, I think that many libertarians and leftists slide Islam's problems under the rug and prefer not to notice. Don't kid yourselves, guys: although Christianity has issues, it has largely been tamed and neutered by modernity. Islam hasn't. And Islam has got loads of problems.

But even despite that, the world is far more peaceful than the news reports make it out to be. Outside of the Middle East, we have the conflict in Ukraine – and that has basically been frozen. The drop in oil prices has crushed the Russian economy, so I don't know if Putin will continue to help his "allies" in Donetsk and Lugansk. There are conflicts in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Nigeria, but to be honest I know very little about them.

Meanwhile, Fraser Nelson in The Spectator (UK) reports on how we're winning the war on disease. In 1990, diseases claimed roughly 37,500 years of life per 100,000 people; now they claim only about 26,000 (judging by my eyes on that chart.) Starvation has dropped by over ten percentage points. Infant mortality has plummeted. These are all extremely good news to hear.

The last one is a story on upcoming disruptive technologies, many of which are going to build on 2014 discoveries. I post this one because I have a bit of a quibble with the author, Vivek Wadhwa. Although I think most of his points are relatively sound, inasmuch as I, not being an expert in these areas, could judge them, his section on energy has problems. First, he leads off by saying that fracking is a harmful technology – newsflash, it isn't. Second, he says that solar power will hit grid parity by 2020, which I think is unlikely considering how expensive solar power is. (Seriously, the people I know who study energy saw a similar story by Wadwha and they claimed it hurt their brains.) Third, Wadwha claims that if we have unlimited energy,

we can have unlimited clean water, because we can simply boil as much ocean water as we want. We can afford to grow food locally in vertical farms. This can be 100 percent organic, because we won’t need insecticides in the sealed farm buildings. Imagine also being able to 3D print meat and not having to slaughter animals. This will transform and disrupt agriculture and the entire food-production industry.

Wadwha might be right about unlimited energy and unlimited clean water, but even if he is, the rest doesn't follow. Water isn't the only resource. Why would we grow food locally? It's not necessarily more efficient than growing food on larger farms elsewhere. Secondly, what about the time involved? When Wadwha says "locally," I see the localist woo argument about people growing food in their backyards. But that takes time, and who wants to waste time growing your own food when you can buy it at the store and instead spend your time going to sports events, watching TV, writing blog posts, or going on romantic getaways? Wadwha ignores that, and it hurts, both his piece and my head.

I'm also a little miffed he didn't mentioned Lockheed Martin's new fusion reactor project (more on that later), but I totally agree with him on synthetic meat – which I think will be a huge advance – and he makes good points about 3D printing, finance, and healthcare. In all areas, we're talking about some radical decentralization.

The Awesome

Okay, the last bit. The really cool stuff.

Scientists did some really cool things in 2014. I mean, some really scifi things. Quantum teleportation for instaneous communication, blood based nanites to repair your body, 3D food printers, hoverboards – 2014 was a really cool year for tech.

Meanwhile, the one news item that really made me jump was Lockheed Martin's announcement that in five years they'll have a prototype for a commercial fusion reactor. There are a lot of questions and criticisms of this, with many having doubts – but if anyone is going to deliver a power source that is clean and nearly limitless, it's going to be Lockheed Martin. And I hope it turns out correct, because I think that:

  1. It would provide enough energy to avoid the coming energy shortfalls as our iCivilization keeps getting bigger
  2. It would go a long way towards making climate change a nonissue
  3. It would go a long way towards getting the US out of the Middle East as we wouldn't have to worry about the oil reserves there
  4. It would weaken OPEC, Venezuela, and Russia (yes that's a cheap geopolitical shot but I think it's valid)
  5. A fusion rocket could get us from Earth to Mars in 30 days rather than six months
  6. It could power the warp drive that NASA is working on
  7. As energy is one of the largest input costs, this could make everything cheaper across the board by a considerable factor
  8. Bonus – Gundams.

I'm really hoping that 2015 will turn out to be even cooler.

And finally, for one last speculative item, there's a guy in Nebraska building a warp drive in his garage. Okay, okay, it's pretty far out there, man, but when you read stuff like this:

He turns around and points to the back of his garage door, where a red laser — beamed at the weight and reflected back against the door to demonstrate the movement happening in the case — drifts from its original spot. Slowly, in incremental amounts, the weight is drawn toward the V-shape motor.

You gotta wonder.

People Should Stop Pontificating

My mother has a funny quote: “Opinions are like armpits. Everybody has two, and they usually stink.”

I can’t argue with that. Over the past few years I’ve lived in the DC area and become more involved in public policy debates, philosophical discussions, and politics, I’ve seen this ring true dozens and dozens of time over. Everybody has an opinion. And, with few exceptions, these opinions are generally awful.

I don’t mean they’re awful in that I disagree with them. I don’t mean they’re awful in that they come to the wrong conclusions. I mean that they’re awful because of shoddy reasoning, faulty premises, and often just kneejerk, instinctive responses rather than anything genuinely intelligent. You can be a smart person whom I respect even if we fundamentally disagree on certain points. But I won’t respect you if your logic is rubbish, you resort to fallacies, and you demand others do the research for you.

Why am I saying this? I guess it’s because I’ve been looking at myself in the mirror lately. I have a few posts in my drafts folder about a few high octane topics. One – which I will still likely publish soon – is over the whole “climate march” BS and the “Flood Wall Street” nonsense that went on last week. Let me be clear: I think climate change is happening. I don’t think it is anything to be worried about, and I most certainly do not want the government trying to “fix” it. But do I really have the grounds to be pontificating about climate change, on my personal blog? At most, I think what I can do is point out the absurdities and contradictions in the arguments and actions of the climate protestors, note the evidence we really have, and then just point out the potential consequences of undoing capitalism and trying to embrace some form of eco-socialism (which I personally think would be disastrous.)

But then that raises another question: even if we are not an expert in field X, does that preclude us from giving our opinions on field X? Must we refrain all the time?

I used to look at it as “Well, you can offer your opinion, but it will be weighted less than an expert in field X.” That seemed to make sense. But now, I’m starting to think that people outside a field might, in some circumstances, actually have a more valuable or intelligent viewpoint. But only in some cases. One case was when, for a group political blog, I wrote about an article where a college professor recommended that we get rid of the United States Air Force and roll it’s operations into the Army and Navy. I added on to that with some musing about whether or not we still needed the Marine Corps. Cue tons of angry commentators who said that I had obviously never been in the military and had no idea what I was talking about, but they had been in the Corps for years and knew exactly why the Corps was a necessity in this day and age. Yet, despite this, none of them presented a cogent argument for why it needed to be around. I look at the Corps, and what I see these days is a second Army, albeit one with more aviation assets and supposedly tied to the Navy. It looks redundant, and there is no reason that it’s “unique” features (namely, fast assault) can’t be rolled into the Army and redone there. (Wrong culture was one reason given; okay, then, change the Army culture.) Basically, their arguments were emotional appeals to tradition and patriotism, not logic.

I think that’s a problem when looking from the inside on any issue. You need people who are looking from the outside, who don’t necessarily have “expertise,” both to bring you back down to earth and to bring up things you may not have thought of. How many times have experts been so caught up in the weeds of their profession that they’ve missed the pasture, the river, and the neighboring forest? It happens all the time when I start programming, then I realize that nobody else knows how the heck I’m doing something, so I have to go back and make it easier for them to use. I also see it with scientists, who say “The data is saying X, ergo we must do Y” but they completely ignore A-W and probably Z, then get all pissy when people who aren’t scientists say “No, we shouldn’t.” “But you’re not scientists, you don’t understand!” Well, actually, we do, we just understand a broader context.

But overall, I’m not so confident that people should be voicing their opinions all the time. I’m not calling for restrictions on the First Amendment here; this has nothing to do with laws and regulation. I’m just talking about individual practices. Many look at Twitter and Facebook as “democratizing” the Internet, and think this is a good thing; what I see these days is that a lot of rather stupid, lowbrow people whose ill-thought opinions were restricted to themselves and a few others in their close social circles now have a platform to fling them out there into the world. Worse, a lot of these people have found others who are like them, and have banded together to promote this kind of content. Look at the calls for anti-elitism, anti-intellectualism, and populism. Not necessarily good things. The lowest common denominator now drives our discourse. Rather than actually research the topic at hand, be humble about what you’re putting forward (i.e., open to being proven wrong), and then present an argument based on the evidence, it’s all kneejerk opinionating with very little to back it up but more and more decibels. I mean hell if you can’t even be bothered to look up the basic facts of the subject at hand, you shouldn’t really be talking, just as a courtesy to everyone else.

Was there really a point to this blog post? I don’t know. It is awfully rambling. I guess what I’m trying to say is:

  • I don’t publish things immediately because I like to stop, think about them, and come back to them later…which other people usually do not;
  • There are an awful lot of people out there who really have no idea what on Earth they are talking about but pontificate as if they are serious philosophers;
  • Social media has turned me from a somewhat egalitarian “voice of the people” dude into an almost aristocratic conservative who thinks the peasants should really shut up now because they have no idea what they’re doing;
  • I am not above being one of the idiotic peasants.

So, basically, can everyone just shut the hell up for a little while? You’re all idiots. Myself included.

I’m With Elon: Let’s Colonize Mars

So Elon Musk wants to screw Earth and colonize Mars. Excellent, I completely agree. Let’s get started.

The interview Musk gave to Ross Anderson of Aeon Magazine is fantastic. It’s been a long time since I’ve read such a forceful advocacy for space colonization, which is refreshing. It seems like the cause of space has languished over the past couple of decades while people want to focus on more down to Earth matters. I think they’re forgetting that many of our down to Earth matters could probably be solved by going outward and exploring new frontiers – and settling them!

My reasons are different than Musk’s, are, though. Musk seems to be afraid that, since we haven’t discovered any interstellar aliens in our searches of the night sky, something bad must have happened to all of them:

Musk has a more sinister theory [to the Fermi Paradox, basically –Jeremy]. ‘The absence of any noticeable life may be an argument in favour of us being in a simulation,’ he told me. ‘Like when you’re playing an adventure game, and you can see the stars in the background, but you can’t ever get there. If it’s not a simulation, then maybe we’re in a lab and there’s some advanced alien civilisation that’s just watching how we develop, out of curiosity, like mould in a petri dish.’ Musk flipped through a few more possibilities, each packing a deeper existential chill than the last, until finally he came around to the import of it all. ‘If you look at our current technology level, something strange has to happen to civilisations, and I mean strange in a bad way,’ he said. ‘And it could be that there are a whole lot of dead, one-planet civilisations.’

Personally, I’m more in favor of the Great Filter being life itself. Wait But Why has a great blog post on the Fermi Paradox and all of its implications, and count me as a guy who thinks that life is much harder to happen than Ross Anderson seems to think (going off what he writes in Aeon; it might be he’s just summarizing what others think and that’s not his own opinion.) I don’t look at this as a bad thing; instead, we now have the entire cosmos open to ourselves. We are the Ancients, the Precursors, the Progenitors of life in a barren and empty universe.

But not if we screw it up before we get out there.

I’m not talking about the existential fears that most people talk about. I’m not worried about nuclear war or plague or global warming killing us. To be sure, we have some problems for this century: we need to stamp out religious and ideological extremism that leads to violence; find new and renewable sources of energy to keep powering our civilization; and maybe not build artificial superintelligences in our basements. But I think these (well, to one extent or another) are all manageable. The problem I fear is one of philosophy, political science, and sociology. We need space colonization to overcome the dimming of the (classical) liberal vision.

I’ve been thinking about this topic for a long, long time. Well, over a year, to be more exact, but it’s been fluttering in my head for longer. The problem is that I’m finding it very hard to put it into words why we must colonize Mars – and the rest of space – to preserve classical liberalism and by extension civilization, freedom, and all those good things.

I look at the growth of government over the past century and I see it as expansion turning inwards. There is less for us to go out and explore, now. We no longer have a frontier, a Wild West where the government’s arm is distant and individuals rely on themselves. It seems very romantic, because it is very romantic – and of course, there were problems. Colonization uprooted and destroyed indigenous cultures all over the world, caused pain and suffering by bringing diseases, bloodshed, and slavery. The Wild West was not as dangerous as the Western movie genre made it out to be, but there was racism, crime, and an eye for an eye mentality in some parts. My point, being, though, was that as there was a frontier, there was an argument for freedom. Government could not expand inwards on people because there was somewhere to expand outwards.

But then the 20th century came. By now, there was nowhere left to expand to. The only uncolonized parts of our world are the Artic, the Antartic, and the bottom of the oceans – the first two being extremely inhospitable and undesirable, the latter uninhabitable until somebody decides to invent SeaQuest in the real world. (Get on that, Musk.) Now, the expanding mass of government ran up against a solid wall, and as it hit this wall it folded back in on itself and expanded back towards its center. Now it was expanding on top of itself, layering itself upon itself, burying beneath itself the seeds of liberalism and freedom. Where else could it go now but onto its own people?

We lost the frontier. On top of that, we continued to multiply. I hate thinking in this manner, but the law of supply and demand comes back to haunt me. We have all these people now, and we keeping having more, and I wonder, as supply goes up, does demand go down? It used to be you could know everyone in your community. Now, do we just look at others as statistics? Not even fully autonomous human beings? Do we think everyone around us is a p-zombie? It seems very crass on one hand – how can we apply supply and demand to people – and yet very conservative on the other – here I am talking about community and how the modern era has increased the distance between us and yadda yadda yadda. Not being that sort of conservative – or really, any conservative at all – it’s hard for me to put this into words.

Unfortunately, I don’t have to. From China, we have a couple of videos and stories of how low human life is valued:

Then there was the toddler who was run over by two vehicles and ignored by scores of passersby before finally receiving help. Again, this is from China.

These are just the two things that come to the top of my mind. I don’t know if it’s because there are a lot of people in China, if there’s something deeper in Chinese culture, or if these are really bad examples. But that is what I think of when I see rising population. Is this something we can overcome? Is it bound to happen?

Then there is the issue of running out of work for people. I know many scoff at the idea, but there is some concern of “technological unemployment”. My friend Travis Thornton has blogged about this subject before. Now personally I am all in favor of a post-scarcity economy, and I think it’s absolutely delightful that we’re heading towards one…but are we going to need a new thing to give us meaning? Why can’t that thing be a settled, terraformed Mars?

The moon terraformed, covered in blue seas, green forests, and whispy white clouds.
I have to admit, a terraformed Luna would look cool.
TerraformedMoonFromEarth“. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

I realize these thoughts are not entirely coherent or cogent. Like I said, I’m having difficulty putting what I’m thinking and feeling into words. That’s why I’m doing this blog post, to solicit feedback and comments and see if I’m on the right track. But essentially, what I see is that, to preserve classical liberalism, individual freedom, and a culture of the same, we need to start colonizing planets. We need to go with Musk and start doing this right now. It doesn’t necessarily have to be Mars. We should also colonize the Moon (though terraforming it would be a waste of time I think, since it doesn’t have enough gravity to hold on to an atmosphere, unless you paraterraform), and we should probably also build O’Neill and McKendree Cylinders. Eventually, we might even terraform Venus, build Banks Orbitals and a Ringworld (okay, fine, we can have one Halo off in the corner for all the first person shooter types) and then from there…

The galaxy will be our oyster.

But not if we get stuck here. It’s not the asteroids that will kill us, or the threat of alien invasion, or potential nuclear war or grey goo or artificial superintelligence. If anything does us in, it will be the banal overlayering of bureaucratic, authoritarian government, run by busybodies and people of little vision. Humanity needs a new frontier, and there are many out there: uninhabited, barren, lifeless, ready for us to come. We need that frontier to rekindle our spirit of freedom, and get us moving again. Take the germ of liberalism, and spread it across the stars.

That’s my vision for the future. And that means I’m right there with Elon Musk. Let’s go to Mars.

Going After Gluten: Tackling Fads & Annoying People

I like to call out bullshit on the Internet. One article of BS, I think, is the increasing trend of people to say they are “sensitive to gluten.” Although there’s been a lot of talk about this, and I have met a ton of people who said they are sensitive to gluten, where the science is concerned (so far), it appears that gluten sensitivity is mostly in your head. The evidence for this? A study by the scientist who originally concluded in a previous study that people were sensitive to gluten, which may have set off this whole thing.

I’ve heard people say that erasing gluten from their diet has led to all sorts of wondrous things, which always sets my sensors off. Whenever something gets blamed for a ton of problems, I get skeptical. Whenever a lot of people suddenly go crazy over something like this (i.e., not pop culture like a band or a TV show) I get skeptical. And in this case, I really do wonder if it might be harmful for everyone else in society. For instance, will people start demanding that government impose a gluten ban? If you had asked me that even a year ago, I would have said “Doubtful,” but seeing the craziness going on in society today, I’m not so sure. In most cases, there doesn’t seem to be a solid reasoning process going on, and that’s not a good thing.

The other thing that also puts me on alert is the defensiveness people get whenever I post something skeptical about gluten sensitivity, or when I bring up in conversation that I think it’s mostly bunk. Whenever I see someone getting defensive about things like this, my mind immediately starts thinking “ooh, cultish behavior.” Even if it’s not entirely fair (and it really isn’t fair in 90% of cases) my mind still does that. But sometimes it can really piss people off.

One article I posted on my Facebook wall was titled “Science Proves Gluten Sensitivity Isn’t Real, People Are Just Whiners“. Yeouch. That’s already taking a hard edge. I got into it with one guy about it (who got pretty defensive and upset about the article, and continued to be when I also posted the above PBS article) and then just let it be. Then someone else commented on it, asking why people had to attack those who claim they are sensitive to gluten (ok, my paraphrasing) as “whiners”, why reading “a few idiot articles online entitles people to look down on others’ health problems”, and “why does it hurt so much that there are some people avoiding gluten”. I wanted to write a response, but instead I thought about it, because I think she brings up good points.

There are some instances where mocking and calling people out forcefully are in demand. When you care about someone personally and they make self-destructive decisions, it might help. (Note I said might.) When someone wants to impose policies to the detriment of individuals using force, say, by replacing capitalism (the economic system of people being left alone to make their own decisions and persue their own self-interest, and which also led to the greatest rise in prosperity in human history) with socialism (the economic system of the central government owning the means of production and imposing its decisions on the people, and which also led to the one of the highest death tolls in human history), I think it’s fair to call such people “tyrants,” “wannabe mass murderers,” and other such names, because let’s face it, that’s the end result of their ideas. On religion, I’ve always held that we shouldn’t necessarily try to embarrass people in public, but in private, if someone says something that is either on its face absurd or deeply offensive, you should call them out on it and basically say “This is why you look like an idiot.” And no, you’re not being rude; they are, for demanding you believe something that is patently absurd and has no evidence. That is rude to any intellectual person.

But what about erasing gluten from your diet? I’ve thought about it…and it just doesn’t rise to anywhere near the same level. When the gluten sensitive start a campaign to ban gluten and use government to meddle more in our diets, call me. I’ll be there to denounce it. But for now, I can’t get that upset. I still find it personally annoying when there’s someone who claims they have this sensitivity and forces us to revolve all lunch plans around them (unless we order separately or it doesn’t affect our decision model much, and most people I know don’t make themselves the center of attention), but how annoyed can I really get? Calling people “whiners” for personal dietary choices is unfair and inappropriate. As long as they’re not harming you, you shouldn’t be using that kind of language. Maybe you think it’s silly – you can definitely say it in that way – but they’re not whiners. That’s just being unnecessarily mean. You don’t have to eat a gluten free diet, you can go off and choose what you want to eat. That’s the point of a free market society: individuals being allowed to make their own decisions. You make yours, they make theirs, you respect each others’ choices, we’re all good.

Usually, when people say they are hurt, I have the Stephen Fry response. Not here, however. In this case, I am being a jerk, somewhat, over a rather unimportant issue that doesn’t directly affect me. That’s just unnecessary and rude. I won’t actually apologize for posting the article, as I think it was actually fairly detailed and really informative. I do wish the authors had chosen a less hostile headline, though. I also hope I didn’t cause too much serious discomfort by posting it, and I will try to be more attentive in the future.

But for pete’s sakes, don’t get me started on those raw vegans. Holy crap…

Not Iraq. Not Gaza. Not Ukraine. This is #Ferguson, Missouri.

Featured image from Radley Balko’s Facebook page. I didn’t see any prohibitions on sharing, but I will take it down if requested.

The above scene is not from some third world country. It is from Ferguson, Missouri, where a young black man was gunned down by police.

Here’s another picture, from another friend’s Facebook wall:

Ferguson Police 2

 

These are not Army soldiers. This is a local municipal police department in a city of 21,000 people. Why on Earth would they need cops with full body armor, gas masks, and assault vehicles? Maybe this can be some explanation (taken from Twitter):

Meanwhile, the local government has completely shut reporters out of the city:

Journalists encountered a threatening response from police as they tried to cover the protests in Ferguson, the Missouri town that has been upended by the police killing of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager.

While there was a spate of looting on Sunday night, Monday’s demonstrations were peaceful. Protestors faced tear gas and rubber bullets from officers trying to break their ranks up. At the same time, police told local media to get out of the area.

This is not America. This is the purview of a third world tinpot dictatorship, not the leader of the free world and the greatest democracy in the world. Period. They do not need to be stomping people just laying on the ground, or engaging in illegal chokehold manuevers to kill a man who was only selling untaxed cigarettes. Or getting a warrant to conduct a horribly invasive anal probe eight times for “drugs” on the flimsiest of evidence. Or firing dozens of rounds through a van full of children. Or any other terrible acts by police.

Slowly, over the past several years, the police have been transformed from a law enforcement agency to a sort of Russian style “Internal Troops” division. Do we really want to import Putinism over here to the United States?

It is past time for Americans to wake up to this and demand action. Demand that police face the full consequences of their actions. Demand that “paid administrative leave” be ended. Demand the mindlessly stupid War on Drugs is declared over, and demand that out of control cops are reigned back in. Demand that cop cameras be used everywhere, and can’t be altered or lost by the cops they cover.

This madness needs to end. We are the nation that leads the free world. Time to act like it.

 

RIP, Robin Williams: Let’s Stop Suicide Being An Avenue to Peace

Like many people around the globe, Monday night I was stunned to hear that Robin Williams had died at 63. Of all the celebrity deaths that have happened in the past five years – and it sure seems like we’re killing them off at a good pace – Williams actually hit me hard. I mean, jeez. This is Robin freaking Williams we’re talking about. He’s been around as a funny man for ages. I admired the man, loved his work, thought he was one of the greatest actors of my age.

And now, he’s gone. Forever.

More than the cold hard fact that he is dead, though, was how he died. The sheriff’s initial report said it was suicide by asphyxiation. Williams didn’t die from disease, or an accident, or natural causes, or – heavens forbid – foul play. No, he died by his own hand, apparently to relieve whatever pain or discomfort he was going through in his life.

Williams is not the first person in my life who has chosen suicide as a way to alleviate pain.

When I was a kid, I had one friend who was my greatest friend of all. Out of respect to his family, I will not go into many details; for this story, let us call him Richard. Richard was kind of an odd duck, but he was funny, lively, and had a great imagination. He was also one of the closest friends in my life, and in many ways shaped who I am today. But in addition to this, Richard had…issues. For some time, doctors were putting him on mental medication, for reasons I could not discern. He always complained about the doctors, had arguments with them, and to be honest to my eyes I didn’t think there was anything wrong. The only issues I could ever see was that he would have low energy, or sometimes walk around and mutter strange things. But to be honest, that could describe anybody over the age of forty, so I didn’t really pay it any mind.

After awhile, he started to get better. During the latter part of my adolescence, we were two guys who weren’t part of the social mainstream in any way, but we functioned and we continued. We had fun, we talked about serious topics, even played D&D (once) and Halo (a lot). I really thought Richard was on the up and up, and soon he would be going off to college and becoming a nuclear engineer in the military.

I was 18 when I heard the news. I was driving home from my summer job as a contract archivist. I pulled in the driveway, up to the garage door, when my mother comes running down the stairs, the phone in her hand, crying hysterically. She told me that Richard had shot himself, that he was dead, and I should probably go see his family.

He lived down the road from me, so I walked. I was just stunned. To this day, one of the things that really stuck out in my memory was that I didn’t shed a single tear. Instead, I just walked down the road with my mouth wide open, my body shaking in a silent scream. I was just so empty. I thought something was wrong with me. But no, I realized afterwards, there was nothing wrong with me. This was just how I was dealing with it.

I didn’t see his body until the service; I just saw it taken out on a gurney, wrapped inside of a bag. He left behind a note, a rather cryptic one, and all that was left was to pick up the pieces. I remember talking with somebody – I can’t remember who – that I was really surprised. “He was doing better,” I said. “Why would he do this?”

“Sometimes,” this other person said, “It’s when they’re coming up from the depths that they decide to do this. Because when they’re really down, they can’t get up the energy to pull the trigger. It’s only when they get enough to do it, that’s when it happens.”

I’m paraphrasing, but the basic point stands. You may think they’re doing better. You may think they’re “all right.” But nobody knows what truly goes on in the hearts and minds of other people. What you get, at best, is an edited simulacrum. So take the time to talk to people. Take an hour of your time and really understand them. Listen to them. Be there for them. If you truly care, then they are more than worth an hour of your life. My friend was certainly worth an hour. Hell, he was worth an entire month. I would have gladly taken that time to talk to him about his issues.

These people are trying to find peace from all their pain and suffering. That’s all. It’s not selfish, cowardly, or anything at all like that. In the state they are in, they are suffering deeply, and they need peace – and when they get to this point, suicide is the only option that occurs to them.

So do that. If someone you know is depressed, or worse perhaps suicidal – or even if they don’t appear to be at all – take a moment. Talk with them. Maybe take an entire hour, or more. Just talk with them, let them know you’re there and you want to help. That’s all. I didn’t do that because I didn’t recognize what was happening. Don’t share the same regret I feel today.

Your Life Is Worth An Hour

Above picture from the Facebook page “Your Life Is Worth An Hour“.

The Cult of Death Is Building A Temple in Canaan

I wanted to get a few things off my chest about Israel and Palestine, based on some really idiotic conversations I see going around. I want to preface these statements by making it absolutely clear that they are my opinion only, and do not represent nor reflect on anyone else (employer, sports team, country, etc.) Unfortunate we have to put those disclaimers in, but that is the society we live in.

I’ve been seeing a lot of cheering from those on the right towards Israel, which quite frankly disgusts me. It makes me want to vomit. It’s disgusting and abhorrent. No one should cheer the deaths of people, especially women and children. Nobody should applaud when missiles rain down and blow apart houses. A reasonable response to this could be “Good luck Israel,” or simple statements of support, but instead I am seeing “Yeah, go Israel! Fuck yeah!” and “Wipe out those subhuman savages!” No, really, this is typical rhetoric now being tossed about.

Just in case anyone says “Nobody actually says the Palestinians are subhuman savages” I present to you @CSunnyDaay and @secondthenfirst. Yes, these people do exist out there.

I don’t support Hamas, and I don’t support Hamas’ indiscriminate missile flinging into Israel. That’s not the solution to their problem. But here’s the thing: most Americans (and other foreigners) cheering on Israel don’t even bother thinking about the other side of the equation. They just think “Oh, these bad people are firing missiles at Israel! It’s self-defense! That’s it!” But they never bother to ask why the bad people are firing missiles, they just assume they are intrinsically evil creatures from Mordor.

Let’s examine why. Israel, over the course of decades, kicked the Palestinian Arabs out of their homes (though the initial blame lies with Britain, which decided to just mandate things.) They then forced these people into small areas, locked down running water and electricity, forced them to only get supplies from the Israeli government (which in turn could shut down the supply lines at any time), walk in and bulldoze people’s homes without warning, shoot them without warning or due process or anything even remotely like that, and then have the gall to build tons of Israeli settlements within the territory they’ve already set aside for the Palestinians! And then, when all that is said and done, the Israeli government drops bombs on hospitals, homes, shelters, just blows things up from the sky. And they have the gall to wonder why the Palestinians turn to support Hamas and their (largely ineffectual) rocket attacks?

If you corralled a bunch of red-blooded Americans into an area and shut down basic services and lobbed bombs and shells at them, after removing them from the land they used to own, do you think Americans would sit for that? Or do you think Americans would find a way to fire back?

The stupid, it burns.

Israel has been fighting this war essentially since 1948. It has taken on different forms, but the same thread of conflict has run through it all. You would think, by now, they may have wisened up and realized what they’re doing isn’t working. The US tried this before too. It’s called Vietnam. Our attacks there only galvanized the Vietnamese people to support the Viet Cong more, and they did – to the point where the VC forced us to leave and then destroyed the US-backed Republic of South Vietnam. What the heck does the Israeli government think this will accomplish? Do they really think that if they drop just another load of bombs out of the sky, that the Palestinians will finally be convinced that Hamas’ way is the wrong way and will stop?

Of course, I don’t think that’s what the Israeli government thinks at all. Like most governments, it wants votes, and like many people, a lot of Israelis want blood. Not all of them, but a fair amount, and current Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu represents those who do. And I think Netanyahu wants the conflict as PM because he can blame any problems in his government on the Palestinians. I’m not sure what those other problems are, I am not an expert in Israeli internal politics, but it has been a long lasting and celebrated political tactic to find an “Other” you can demonize and pin all your problems on.

Again, I’m not supporting Hamas. The Palestinians are stupid for supporting Hamas. Do they really think that more rockets raining down will fix their problems of no jobs, crushing poverty, lack of medical care, food, running water, and electricity? Do they really think the Israelis are going to soften and change their policies if their families are blown up? Yet I can understand – though not support – why they support Hamas. Most Palestinians probably feel they have no hope, that there is no alternative. (Sure, there’s Fatah in the West Bank, but Gaza and the West Bank are almost two different entities at this point.) When you have no jobs, no supplies, and there are bombs falling out of the sky, what’s left to do but die for Allah?

The point I’m trying to make here is not that Americans are supporting the “wrong side.” I wouldn’t want them to support Hamas either. The point is that many Americans are completely leaving out half of the equation here. They’re ignoring why the Palestinians in Gaza are doing what they’re doing. If you’re going to jump into a conflict, you need to understand why that conflict is going on, who the players actually are, who the players’ peoples actually are, and then what incentives are going to make each side stop fighting – both the incentives they publicly state and the incentives that we know, deep down, that will cause both sides to knock it off. But, like most foreign policy issues, Americans never bother to actually understand or learn the arguments, they just want some prewritten soundbite to utter that makes them feel all good and patriotic.

That disgusts me.

Addition

After conversing with some folks on social media, it appears to me that some clarification is in order. Two points.

First, some have said that Israel has done all it can, and now the ball is in Hamas’ court. That’s fair. While I can understand the sentiment behind a lot of antipathy towards Israelis, having the Israelis come in and basically kick the Palestinians out, the Palestinians need to accept they’re not getting it back. They are never going to destroy Israel and get their all-Palestinian state. They may be able to secure a federalist solution, at best, but they’re never going to kick Israel out. While Hamas will never come to that conclusion willingly – it would mean they would lose all their support as their raison d’etre would be violated – they need to accept that. So these folks are right, it is time that Hamas recognized Israel’s right to exist (as much as any “state” has rights; only individuals can really have rights), and stop the rocket attacks on Israel. The Israeli strikes still won’t lead to the Palestinian people moving against Hamas, but Israel has its hands effectively tied.

Second, some people have taken this post to mean that I support Hamas, that I don’t think Israel has a right to exist, and that the Israelis shouldn’t be allowed to defend themselves. Nothing can be further from the truth. I don’t support either side in this mess. What I am writing against is the frothing, mindless support from some folks on the right for the violence in Gaza. For the people labeling Palestinians as subhuman savages and calling for more death, more bombs, more killings. That is what I am writing against. That is the point of this piece. For what it’s worth, I’m not even sure I care anymore about the conflict itself. I just want it to end. I just want the violence and death and destruction to stop. Is that so bad? Is it so bad that I criticize people who want this to continue? Of course, I shouldn’t expect any reason or intelligence on this issue. Almost more than anything else, this issue runs high on tribalism, to the point where nobody will bother even understanding the argument being made, they will just arbitrarily label the person good or evil. It is the Cult of Death I am fighting against, and the Temple they are building is the ritual chanting for more ordnance to fall. The Cult of Death is not Israeli. It is not Palestinian. It is, regrettably, American.

That is not supporting Hamas. That is not being anti-Israeli. It is being anti-death and anti-war, nothing more.

Update

The spate of attacks on my piece in social media has led me to read a lot more articles about Gaza than what I normally do. This one in particular has me all kinds of confused. Just what is really going on here?

Me and the Angry Atheist: I’m On a Podcast

I am so terrible at selling myself. It’s almost embarrassing.

In any case, earlier this week I had the pleasure of joining the Angry Atheist on his podcast, the Angry Atheist Podcast. You can check it out here.

Looks like I’m moving up in the world. And yes, I do apologize to those Angry Atheist podcast listeners who have come here expecting something interesting…I’m kinda not.

The Force Is Still Strong With the Star Wars Expanded Universe

A not so long time ago, in a boardroom not all that far away…

So the news is out. The Star Wars Expanded Universe – all the books, games, comics, etc beyond the movies and the Clone Wars show – is essentially being put into storage. It will still be available, printed, and even to be used by authors and creators in the “new” timeline. Already, some fans are complaining hard about this, feeling they’re being Force choked by this decision. Things like “I invested years and lots of money into this!” are getting bandied about.

These complaints are really childish, and I actually think this is a good decision for Disney to make.

First, why the decision is good. While I certainly have my favorites from the EU canon – the X-Wing series, Young Jedi Knights, anything by Timothy Zahn, and I, Jedi all stand out – we must face the fact that a great majority of the Expanded Universe is, to put it frankly, bantha poodoo. I said as much back in January, and I just want to reiterate it more now. The Courtship of Princess Leia is as schlocky as they come, and The Crystal Star is…well, perhaps the less said about it, the better. There are many horrible Star Wrongs in the EU. In no way, shape, or form should J.J Abrams and the crew working on the next trilogy be beholden to them. I’m glad they won’t be!

But then, that’s the thing, isn’t it? The EU was always secondary canon. Even though it was canon – unlike, say, Star Trek, which basically said that it’s “extended universe” was not canon, no way, no how – it was always secondary to the two film trilogies and later on Clone Wars. (Ugh.) So even they technically were not really Star Wars. And for the vast majority of people who have watched the movies, they aren’t, because they’re not the movies. How many people read Star Wars novels? I’m sure it’s a large number, but it is nowhere near as large as the many who have watched the movies and never delved into the EU.

Now, why the complaints, in most cases, are pretty childish: because this decision in no way takes away from your enjoyment of those stories. We are dealing with a fictional universe, and you know where fictional universes live? In your mind, and in your heart. And nothing that Disney can do can take them away from those places. Sure, they may not exist in the same timeline as the new movies…however, fiction loves alternate timelines, so there is nothing saying you can’t just push the old EU to a different timeline and enjoy that. People are doing it with Star Trek, why not Star Wars?

Fact is, the Star Wars universe is one you make of it. I myself have completely disavowed anything from New Jedi Order onwards and most of the stuff set between the Exar Kun saga and the earliest “Last Days of the Old Republic” type material. (KOTOR, KOTOR II, The Old Republic, etc – all that stuff doesn’t exist for me, because it is all hilariously dumb.) Does that mean that content doesn’t exist for other fans? Of course not.

I really think fans need to get over themselves. Saying “the death of the EU hurts” is almost pathetic. Having your dog die hurts. Having a friend or family member hurts. Losing a job hurts. A company making a change in what novels it will accept as a backstory to a movie series doesn’t hurt, and if does you may be overly attached. Sorry if that sounds harsh, but come on. I love fiction as much as the next guy, and I love writing it and yes I do get attached to things sometimes, but at the end of the day these are all stories that exist in your mind. (Well, until Heinlein’s pantheistic solipsism is proven correct, that is…)

It’s whiny, entitled bullshit. I see this all over the ‘Net on all sorts of topics, and when it comes to something as silly as this – yes, “silly” and Star Wars do go together in this case – it just makes me sad. Sad that people are wasting their time on this. Move on, you have more important things to do. The Expanded Universe you love will always be there for you, forever.

(And before you say “But Jeremy – shouldn’t you have more important things to do than write a blog post like this?” why yes, yes I do. Which is watch the rest of Gundam Unicorn.)