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Archive for the ‘Politics’ Category

Bill S.978: “Ten Strikes Bill”

Posted by Michael Dickens on July 4, 2011

There has been some commotion about Bill S.978:

Makes unauthorized web streaming of copyrighted content a felony with a possible penalty of up to 5 years in prison. Illegal streaming of copyrighted content is defined in the bill as an offense that “consists of 10 or more public performances by electronic means, during any 180-day period, of 1 or more copyrighted works” and has a total economic value, either to the copyright holder or the infringer, of at least $2,500.

You can read the bill itself here; it aims to amend Title 18, Section 2319.

Many people are upset about this bill because it would make it a felony to upload a video of someone singing karaoke, or to show footage of a video game (e.g. for a video game review or walkthrough). This raises some questions about principles and application.

From what I understand about current copyright law, the government does not actively remove copyrighted content on the internet. Rather, the holder of the copyright files a DMCA takedown notice with the site that is streaming the content. I do not believe Bill S.978 changes this fact. There is little danger of a record company filing a DMCA claim against a video of a karaoke party. On the other hand, streaming websites like YouTube may be more prone to preemptively remove videos with copyrighted content in order to avoid lawsuits.

I think it is unlikely that YouTube will remove all of their copyrighted content. There are literally millions of videos containing such content, and YouTube simply does not have a large enough staff to sift through the ever-growing pile of copyright-violating videos.

What, exactly, is the difference between the old law and the new bill? It looks like the only difference is that the new bill makes references to “public performance.” The current law defines copyright infringement as “reproduction or distribution, including by electronic means, during any 180–day period, of 1 or more copies or phonorecords of 1 or more copyrighted works, which have a total retail value of more than $1,000,” while Bill S.978 would ban the reproduction or distribution of “public performances by electronic means, during any 180-day period, of 1 or more copyrighted works.” Current law makes it illegal to upload copyrighted content and this bill would make it illegal to upload a performance of copyrighted content.

I don’t know much about law so I may be wrong, but it appears to me that this does not threaten gamers who want to upload gameplay videos. In fact, uploading videos from copyrighted games is already illegal, but no one seems to be doing anything to prevent it. The only change, then, is that it would become illegal to stream a public performance of copyrighted material.

In principle, Bill S.978 makes sense given current copyright law. However, I think that public performances should qualify as fair use, as they do not harm the copyright holders. Perhaps record companies and copyright holders have a compelling reason why electronically distributing public performances should be prevented, but I certainly don’t know what it is.

Posted in Politics | Leave a Comment »

Diving into Objectivism

Posted by Michael Dickens on August 22, 2010

More and more recently, I’ve been coming across Ayn Rand’s theory of Objectivism. Considering how widely influential it’s been, I’ve decided to look into it. Before I do, I have some preliminary thoughts that I’d like to put out in the world.

Objectivism is a cult. The more I learn about it, the more this seems to be true. The Ayn Rand Institute, which appears to be the definitive organization on Objectivism, has some very cultish properties. Their FAQ includes “Where can I read Ayn Rand’s view on . . . ?” and “Is [the Ayn Rand Institute] or anyone else formally vested with the right to speak on behalf of Ayn Rand’s Objectivism?” (the answer to which, by the way, is “no” because Ayn Rand is the Only True Authority on Objectivism).

I don’t want to learn about a person, I want to learn about a philosophy. For the most part, I couldn’t care less about Ayn Rand. I do think that the context of the development of the philosophy is important, but beyond that it doesn’t really matter who created Objectivism. What matters are the ideas.

I don’t want to learn about philosophy by reading fiction. I read the very beginning of The Fountainhead and it seems like a good book, but I don’t want to learn about Objectivism from it because it’s fictional, which means in the end its whole argument revolves around a made up story. You can make up a story to support any viewpoint you want. I would much rather learn about a philosophy from, oh, I don’t know, a book on philosophy. Like, nonfiction. Like this, or this. With actual straightforward arguments. It seems that such resources do exist, but Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead are by far the most commonly-turned to sources of Objectivist philosophy.

There are two main reasons why I want to look into Objectivism.

1. It looks like a pretty original outlook on the world, and I think new outlooks are always good to learn about. Even if I don’t agree, I like to look at things from a different perspective.

2. It has been extremely influential in recent decades. Knowing about Objectivism is just required to be a part of Western culture. (Okay, maybe I’m exaggerating a little.)

In short, I’m going to learn more about the non-cultish aspects of Objectivism, because it looks interesting. I’ll probably write an essay or two within the next year or so.

Posted in Philosophy, Politics | 2 Comments »

Death Penalty: A Look at the Numbers

Posted by Michael Dickens on July 25, 2010

One of the most controversial issues right now is the death penalty. It is unique among popular political arguments in that arguments may rely heavily on either the numbers or on philosophical points. The numbers are often overlooked in favor of the philosophical points, and even when people do address the numbers they often get them wrong.

Finding statistics regarding the death penalty isn’t too difficult as long as you have an internet connection, or access to a library. There are plenty of helpful websites out there with tables of statistics — even the clearly biased ones can be useful. The government has what is probably the most reliable and least biased data, but it’s a lot harder to sift through.

I did some research and put together some of the most important numbers.


Supporters of the death penalty argue that it is a deterrent to crime. What do the numbers say?

Every year from 1990 until today, states without the death penalty have had lower murder rates, with an average reduction of about 25%. This appears to show that the death penalty is not an effective deterrent, but correlation does not imply causation. It’s possible that states with higher murder rates are the slowest to ban the death penalty.

A more accurate statistic would be one that looks at the crime rate of a state before and after it abolished the death penalty, i.e. did the crime rate go up?

Not a whole lot of states have abolished the death penalty. Some of them abolished it too long ago for there to be easily-accessible statistics, and others abolished it too recently for the data to be worth anything. The only really prime states are Massachusetts, North Dakota, and the District of Columbia.

This table contains useful statistics. Data is from this site. The table gives the average murder rate from 1960 to 2008, the average murder rate before abolition of the death penalty, and the average murder rate after abolition.

This still doesn’t take into account other factors that would contribute to changing the murder rate. The second table shows the ratio of murder to violent crime; a higher ratio means that murder is disproportionately represented among violent crime. If the death penalty does act as a deterrent from murder, then the murder rates should go up more than the violent crime rates, so this ratio should increase. It’s possible that there are other factors that affect murder rates and not other forms of violent crime, but this ratio can still serve to remove some of the bias.

Execution of Innocents

One of the main arguments of opponents of the death penalty is that innocent people are mistakenly executed. What do the numbers say?

The Death Penalty Information Center has a list of executed people who are suspected to be innocent. This list is not concrete, and was criticized by Ward A. Campbell.

In the United States, 139 people have been exonerated while on death row. This list has been criticized.

Wikipedia has its own list of wrongfully executed people, although few people on the list were conclusively innocent.

Conclusion: Information on the execution of innocents is inconclusive.


The California Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice did a study on California’s death penalty and produced a report. It found that

. . . [C]onfinement on death row adds $90,000 per year to the cost of confinement beyond the normal cost of $34,150. Thus, just the enhanced confinement costs for the 670 currently on California’s death row totals $63.3 million. This figure increases each year as the population of California’s death row grows.

These figures do not take into account the additional cost of a trial ending in a death sentence, which are estimated to cost approximately $1 million more. However, it is necessary to put the above numbers in context. As the CCFAJ report explains, California has one of the least efficient justice systems and inmates in California on average spent much longer on death row than in most other states. The costs of capital punishment will almost definitely be lower in other states.

A Kansas State study confirmed the increased costs:

[T]he estimated median cost of a case in which the death sentence was given was about 70% more than the median cost of a non-death penalty murder case. That figure was $1.2 million compared to about $740,000.

These are three of the most important statistics regarding the death penalty, and the relevant context. When you see statistics, remember to consider exactly what they mean. Correlation does not imply causation.

If there are any other subjects around capital punishment that you’d like to see the statistics for, let me know and I’ll see what I can do.

Posted in Ethics, Politics | 2 Comments »

Top 10 Reasons Why Gay Marriage Should Be Illegal

Posted by Michael Dickens on June 3, 2010

Normally these satirical arguments are funny but not very persuasive. These arguments, however, very pointedly address the flaws in most of the arguments against gay marriage. But perhaps I’m taking it a little too seriously. I’ll just let you read the list.

01) Being gay is not natural. Real Americans always reject unnatural things like eyeglasses, polyester, and air conditioning.

02) Gay marriage will encourage people to be gay, in the same way that hanging around tall people will make you tall.

03) Legalizing gay marriage will open the door to all kinds of crazy behavior. People may even wish to marry their pets because a dog has legal standing and can sign a marriage contract.

04) Straight marriage has been around a long time and hasn’t changed at all; women are still property, blacks still can’t marry whites, and divorce is still illegal.

05) Straight marriage will be less meaningful if gay marriage were allowed; the sanctity of Britany Spears’ 55-hour just-for-fun marriage would be destroyed.

06) Straight marriages are valid because they produce children. Gay couples, infertile couples, and old people shouldn’t be allowed to marry because our orphanages aren’t full yet, and the world needs more children.

07) Obviously gay parents will raise gay children, since straight parents only raise straight children.

08) Gay marriage is not supported by religion. In a theocracy like ours, the values of one religion are imposed on the entire country. That’s why we have only one religion in America.

09) Children can never succeed without a male and a female role model at home. That’s why we as a society expressly forbid single parents to raise children.

10) Gay marriage will change the foundation of society; we could never adapt to new social norms. Just like we haven’t adapted to cars, the service-sector economy, or longer life spans.

Re-post this if you believe love makes a marriage.
PostingID: 102351114

Posted in Humor, Politics | 2 Comments »

The Unspoken Truth About Big Government

Posted by Michael Dickens on May 21, 2010

Protesting big government is a rather common political theme. The issue seems to be bipartisan: all of us have heard both Democrats and Republicans (not to mention Libertarians!) speak about the evils of big government. No one wants a government that’s too powerful, because that could lead to tyranny.

This may be true in theory, but reality is quite different. I seldom hear people speak of how government needs more power, and yet the talk of how government is too big seems ceaseless. Actual political philosophies, however, tend to differ. In theory we oppose big government, but when it comes down to making actual policy, the Democrats are in support of welfare and social programs while the Republicans support military spending and stricter legislation regarding abortion. Only Libertarians and anarchists truly oppose growth in government.

Why is it, then, that people’s true desires so often go unspoken? A likely reason is the clash of theory and reality. In theory (and in reality as well), a bigger government is harmful. But in reality, a bigger government is often necessary. Some things simply cannot be accomplished — or at least never have been before — without some sort of federal action. It would be wonderful if we could get along without any government, but we can’t. At least, not with the sort of society that we have now. If we lived in tribal communities, as we did twenty thousand years ago, we could get away with near-anarchy.

But do we really want to resort to tribal communities? I don’t think so. In the civilization we live in, it is often necessary to increase the size of the government. But it is never couched that way. Big government is generally understood to be a bad thing; people may want a bigger government, but they never say they do.

This issue seems to come down to simply how you phrase your opinion. People may want a bigger government, and it’s no huge secret, but they never explicitly say it. Instead, they talk about how the government needs to regulate business, or create more economic opportunity, or something like that. This is simply another way of saying that bigger government is a good thing.

Most of us do believe that, at least sometimes, big government is a good thing. All I ask is that we admit it to ourselves.

Posted in Politics | 1 Comment »

Lowering the Voting Age: You’re Missing the Point

Posted by Michael Dickens on March 23, 2010

One of the most prominent arguments against lowering the voting age is that young people will vote irrationally. They might vote for radicals. Or Muslims. Or even *gasp* atheists. Proponents of a lowered voting age respond that most youth are unlikely to vote irrationally; most will simply follow the ideologies of their parents, and anyway, people who don’t know anything about voting probably won’t vote anyway. And these proponents are completely missing the point.

It does not matter whether young people are likely to vote for radicals, Muslims, atheists, or whichever group of supposedly crazy people you want. They live in this country and many of them pay taxes, so they get the right to vote. And this means that they have the right to vote for anyone. Would you make it illegal for adults to vote for radicals, or for Muslims, or for atheists? Or if you found that, for instance, women were more likely to vote for radicals, would that justify making it illegal for women to vote? Absolutely not! The right to vote means that you have the right to vote for whoever you want, even if it is not a rational choice. If you want, you can flip a coin to decide who to vote for. That’s your right as a taxpaying citizen. The fact that you can make intelligent decisions is not what gives you the right to vote. What give you the right to vote is that you must live in this society, under this government, and so you get a say in this government’s decisions.

Anyone who says that youth should not vote because they will vote a certain way, or anyone who responds by saying that youth will just vote for whomever their parents vote for, has the mind of a tyrant. It seems perhaps more than merely curious that Joe Citizen wants to prohibit youth from voting because of their potential tendency to vote for radical candidates — the candidates that he personally does not like. Joe would hardly say that youth should not be allowed to vote because there is a chance that they will vote for his candidate. No, it’s always the other candidate that is the “irrational” choice. Why not just make it illegal to vote for anyone besides the candidate that you personally like best? One man’s irrationality is the next man’s reason. No matter what a person’s reasoning is, they still have a right to vote as long as it is out of their own free will. “They will vote irrationally” really means “they will vote with different reasoning than mine.”

Perhaps I am exaggerating. After all, Joe Citizen has no problem with letting other people his age cast their votes into the ballot. But Joe is holding a double standard. If someone votes for a particular option or candidate, there must be a reason. Maybe adults are united in disagreeing with young people’s reasoning, but that does not make their reasoning wrong. In a democracy, any sort of reasoning is correct.

It is arguable that these youth’s potentially foolish voting decisions will affect the whole country. That’s true, but so will YOUR decisions. They have just as much a right to invoke folly on the nation as you do to invoke reason on it.

Posted in Politics, Rant | 3 Comments »

An Argument Against Lowering the Voting Age, and Why It Stinks

Posted by Michael Dickens on March 21, 2010

Inspired by this page.

A common argument against lowering the voting age is that it isn’t a burden to wait a few years. Denying youth the right to vote isn’t the same as denying women or racial minorities, according to opponents, since in a few years young people will grow up and be able to vote. Why go through the trouble to lower the age to 16 when after two years they’ll be able to vote anyways? Were it that simple, then perhaps, but it isn’t.

Would it be acceptable to limit the right to vote to those with a certain income, reasoning that it is a flexible standard, those will less income must only work harder or wait till they too make enough to vote? No it wouldn’t.

This author is correct in his conclusion, but I do not like his supporting logic. His analogy to income is somewhat different. Simply increasing your income is not guaranteed, and requires hard work; aging is guaranteed and in fact requires very little effort. Still, though, saying that it isn’t a burden to wait a few years is a rather terrible argument. What if people were not allowed to vote from ages 25 to 30? They only have to wait “a few years” to get through that period. But besides the complete pointlessness of the restriction, it would be wrong. People aged 26 to 30 are completely capable of voting and they must live within the system and pay taxes. The same logic applies to people aged 14 to 18, or 16 to 18, or whatever lower voting age we would use (I rather like 14).

The original author stated, “Denying youth the right to vote isn’t the same as denying women or racial minorities, according to opponents, since in a few years young people will grow up and be able to vote.” The main problem here is that denial should not be the default response. The default response should be enfranchisement. Any time someone living within the system is not allowed to vote, there must be a very good reason for it. Young children, for instance, would be too easily persuaded by malicious people to vote for one candidate or the other. But what about older children? They live in society, so they should get a vote. It’s that simple. It is an injustice to prevent someone from voting unless there is a very good reason for it. Therefore, opponents of lowering the voting age should not be arguing that it’s not a big deal; rather, they should be arguing that it is a big deal, because people under 18 are incompetent.

Posted in Politics | 9 Comments »

Article of the Day: Sam Harris on Sarah Palin and Elitism

Posted by Michael Dickens on March 7, 2010

This political article is from a couple of years ago, but it is still relevant, and I quite like it. I don’t have a lot to say about it, but I do agree with much of what is said. Elitism is underrated.

Posted in Article of the Day, Politics | 1 Comment »

Legally Blonde 2: Red, White and Blonde

Posted by Michael Dickens on January 3, 2010

Yes. That movie.

Brief plot summary: Elle Woods (blonde Harvard Law graduate) is getting married and wants her dog Bruiser’s mother to be there but Bruiser’s mother is in a cosmetics testing facility to Elle goes to DC to pass a law banning cosmetic testing on animals.

Rant: This movie completely ridicules the best system of law that the world has ever known. (Okay, I’m exaggerating.) Elle makes a big speech about how dogs shouldn’t be tested on. For cosmetics, I generally agree. Sometimes testing on animals saves lives or helps to legitimately improve lives, in which case it is acceptable. But I don’t see cosmetics as worth it for the potential suffering of sentient animals such as dogs.

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Ethics, Politics, Rant | Leave a Comment »


Posted by Michael Dickens on December 17, 2009

As much as some people may not like it, gay marriage will eventually be nationally legalized simply because of how our society works. Let’s look at America’s recent history. African Americans were enslaved for hundreds of years, and continued to be prosecuted even a century after they had achieved freedom. But eventually they got their equal rights. Oppression of women is perhaps the longest-standing oppression of a single group of people: it lasted for over two thousand years (and many more thousands of years by some counts), but today women and men stand on the same ground.

And that is exactly why gay marriage will not stay illegal for much longer.

In America and throughout the Western world, minorities have been moving closer and closer towards equality. Simply because of the way our society is structured, it is inevitable that gay marriage will soon be legalized. In fact, look at the arguments used against gay marriage. They are the very same arguments that were used fifty years ago to oppress black people. “They’re different”, “it is unnatural”, “God hates them.” Sure, not all of the arguments are the same, but a surprising majority follow along the same lines. “Marriage is a sacred institution between one man and one woman” is not really so different from “black people do not have the mental capacity to survive on their own, and so are better off as slaves.”

Posted in Ethics, Politics | Leave a Comment »

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