Beavercreek Walmart Shooting

On Tuesday night in my hometown of Beavercreek, Ohio, a man was shot dead by police in a Walmart after calls were made to police reporting a man waving a gun around. The story of a mad gunman could end there as simply another incident of crazed people in the United States using guns to threaten and frighten innocent people. However, our story here, as is usually the case, is not quite so simple.

I don’t think the major issue here is guns. The issue here is the overreach of the police, which as far as I can tell is rather obvious. Ohio is an open-carry state, meaning that all citizens are allowed to openly carry firearms in public. If a person wants carry a concealed weapon, they must receive a license to do so from the state. As long as our suspect was not using his weapon in a way that was threatening, then he was breaking no law. Police, at the time I write this, have refused to answer questions. Of all the 911 calls placed and the surveillance at the store, only a single call has been released, made by an ex-marine who claims that Crawford was messing with the gun and waving it around. Police arrived on the scene and ordered Crawford to put the gun down. At this, reports say he said, “It’s not real,” and did not put the gun down. They shot him dead. Some witnesses offer that police gave him one more order to put the gun down.

Something about the story seemed fishy to me as I read preliminary reports Tuesday night. I am always skeptical of reporting when the people reporting an incident (police) are the people whose reputation is on the line. All information from the crime scene has been closely controlled. The only significant piece of data we have heard since is that the gun was apparently not real, as Crawford stated. It was a BB air rifle picked up from the sporting goods department in the store. As I stated, we have not been able to see any video surveillance, nor have we heard from any witnesses apart from the family of Crawford and the ex-marine who made the phone call.

I should not have to point out that the fact of the matter is that all the evidence available here that might help to show that the homicide here is in fact justified is being presented by the executive branch or a person who is a former employee of the executive branch. Moreover, these individuals should have been familiar enough with weaponry to at least notice that the gun was merely a BB gun when they heard him state that the weapon was not real, even if they had not noticed before. The ex-marine when he saw Crawford messing with the gun could easily have surmised that the gun is only a BB gun.

With the evidence that has been released to date, it seems we have only three conclusions that we can draw: the police acted irresponsibly, maliciously, or they are incompetent. Either the police were trigger-happy and did not weigh the situation with professionalism, they recognized the BB gun and chose to use lethal force without a justifiable threat, or they simply did not recognize the gun as a BB gun and acted as amateurs. These are not comforting possibilities, especially as we are nearing a week without additional release of evidence.

What do I think here? I am not sure. I generally prefer to use Hanlon’s razor, so for now I will wait for evidence to come around. Beavercreek is a largely peaceful, nonviolent community. Active shooter situations simply do not happen, and I am not surprised that police with weapons they rarely get to use acted too aggressively out of incompetence. Police are people just like you and I, but a uniform and a title can change a person. They ought to be held accountable, and even if they did act incompetently, they should not be given a pass simply because they are authority figures. Authority is an imaginary power we vest into certain people for certain reasons. Abuse of that authority, whether malicious or accidental, should not be tolerated. Authority has no greater right than you or I to kill a man. If the police know that a person is not a threat (i.e. is merely playing with a BB gun [however stupid that might be]), lethal force is not morally or legally justified.

Beavercreek Walmart Shooting

Freedom Isn’t Free

I’m going to hijack a phrase used commonly by American nationalists for the purposes of this post. “Freedom isn’t free” to the average American refers to the idea that a primary reason that Americans have the freedoms they do due to the fact that American soldiers die on the battlefield to protect the freedoms of the civilians. I’m not here to dispute this or to agree with it, but I am here to apply this phrase to something rather different.

I’ve written before about how I feel about the idea of freedom. I do not believe that a society with a smaller government inherently has more freedoms than those societies with larger governments. A society that allows oppressive corporations to exist is no more or less free than a society with an equally oppressive government. Freedoms are not about government – they are about the exercise of power over the individual. If anything has the power to influence my decisionmaking, then I lack some amount of freedom in that situation. If the government taxes me less, but my employer also pays me less, then my freedom with my money is neither greater nor lesser – it has not changed. Anyone or thing that exercises some amount of power over another is limiting the freedom of that other person.

The general lesson to learn from this point is that my actions affect yours, and vice versa, even though we may not ever meet. The decisions I make have consequences beyond my own life and my own circumstances, whether I like it or not. This may seem obvious, but most of us do not live our lives as though this were true. Most of us try to live moral lives, though we slip up. We sometimes say things we don’t mean or do things that we regret. We understand how our actions like telling a lie can have negative consequences, but we have been well trained to ignore many of the impacts of our financial decisions. How many of us concern ourselves with who our money is going to when we spend it? Do we consider what corners are being cut when we try to save a dollar by buying our socks or our broccoli from a different company?

It seems to me that the blame for the negative changes in America are largely the fault of average Americans. Though it feels better to blame politicians and big bankers and so on (and they are hardly faultless themselves), they are merely the consequence of a larger problem: us. The fact is that we pushed the facts out of our mind that people were getting rich by exploiting workers and paying them a pittance, by spraying our vegetables with chemicals that slowly kill us, by feeding our livestock grain they weren’t meant to digest and medication to hide it, and the list goes on and on and on. It didn’t take a whole lot of investigation to figure things out, but only now are we beginning to really have a significant reaction about it as a society. Only now is it becoming common talk.

This should come as no surprise if you understand that burying our heads in the sand is a common pasttime of Americans. We were the people who defeated the oppressive regimes! We stomped out the influence of the British, we took in the immigrants and gave them jobs, etc. We have been taught from birth that the American story is unique in that we did not begin as oppressors (right native Americans?), but as the conquerors of the oppressors. American history quite frankly has not had enough questioning of authority built into it. Sure, we have a few examples, but they, for one reason or another, are largely glossed over in the classroom. By the time we leave the classroom, most of us are more than eager to go out and pursue that American dream or we are so disillusioned with the lie of that dream that we give up and try for second best. So few of us think back and wonder how it truly came to be this way.

To begin my conclusion, we may be stuck at the bottom of a dank hole with the boots of the elites holding us down, but we were the ones that started digging. There were no boots holding us down at the beginning, but the promise of lower prices, of cheaper products, of endless entertainment, and so forth enthralled so many of us that we began to dig. We dug deeper and deeper, eventually trading in the shovels we wrought on our own power tools bought on loan from the elites. Eventually we found ourselves at the bottom of the hole. Some of us still believe we can (and should!) find those legendary artifacts of the myth of consumerism, but more still are angry at those who hastened our digging with their power tools and hold us down with their boots. They have forgotten who started it all – it was we who began digging, and with our own shovels no less. The elites with their boots were merely opportunists.

As I’ve said, I don’t mean to justify selfish opportunism, but we’re the ones who rewarded the opportunists by giving more of our money away. We looked at a system that we knew (or should have known) was unsustainable. It sent our money straight from our pockets into a few select individuals, all the while poisoning our neighbors and even ourselves. We even protected that system when it came around to hard times by authorizing our politicians to bail these people out when they screwed up, all while we remain wrecked. It seems rather clear to me that maybe we got what we deserved for keeping our heads in the clouds and believing that consumerism could save us. I think it’s about time we turned away from those myths and stopped rewarding a system and a group of elites for perpetuating that consumerism. I think it’s about time that we try something new – something that heals the soul and mind instead of distracting the body.

Freedom Isn’t Free

Words Matter

I’ve made the comment before, whether in passing or as a basic premise of a belief, that words matter. The words that we use (and especially those of politicians and authorities) shed light on what they really mean, cloaked under what we assume they mean. I do not know when this fully clicked for me, but I would like to draw on a topic I used as the basis for a paper I wrote recently.

At bottom, words seem to be either concrete or abstractions from the concrete. Elsewise put, we have generalities based on more specific definitions. However, we find that the specific definitions in themselves are problematic, because they are arbitrary. They only work insofar as we allow them to do so (at what point does “red” become “purple” or “orange”?). As long as they fit within whatever arbitrary confines we agree to not dispute, we can communicate without much trouble. However, I consider words to be like recordings of music. If go to listen to a symphony, I can hear all the details of the music, because I am witnessing the actual event. However, I can also record the symphony. The best way to record something in the modern era is by digitizing the analogue source. I will probably begin by recording a lossless file of the symphony, but there is something lost in the digitizing process. Even with the most expensive of audio equipment, I will not perfectly depict all the details of the music. This lossless recording is similar to concrete words. However, if I want to make my recording more accessible, I need to compress it down so that people do not need to spend so much time transferring a massive lossless recording. I then create an MP3 file from that lossless recording, which greatly reduces the space needed to store that recording and the time it takes to transfer it. Unfortunately, though, I lose even more of the details of the original event when I do this. You probably notice that this is similar to taking ideas that would be massive if communicated only using concrete words and then creating abstract words that compress those words under the tent of a single word or phrase. You might notice, however unhelpfully, that I utilize an abstraction (a metaphor) to help communicate my idea about abstractions, but I digress.

The moral of this story is that words are not lossless. They are highly lossy, even when they are regarded as true. When I communicate abstract ideas (which, of course, all of us are constantly doing), I am relying on the person to whom I am talking to understand, at least to a significant degree, all of the concrete ideas that are encapsulated in my sentence that probably uses almost entirely abstract words. Lawyers, as students of philosophy, recognize these inherent flaws in language. Therefore, a primary reason for the existence of codified laws is to define words used in the laws themselves. It is a reflexive system. This is one of the reasons why court cases are so important – they can be used to redefine what “shall not infringe” or “clear and present danger” actual mean.

At this point, anyone recognizes that a person with an agenda can easily use these facts to illicit ends. This is why I say that words matter – because a lot of the time, they mean something entirely different to those who exist within a certain vernacular or culture. Someone who knows nothing of the US Constitution would simply think I was weird and archaic for saying something about the right to peacefully assemble (why not just say right to gather or right to protest?), but those words mean something to people who have at least a cursory knowledge of the Bill of Rights. Similarly, when politicians give speaches about “national security” and say something about there being a “clear and present danger” and we assent to what those policitians are saying, we are duped. Those words are abstracts that exist within multiple vernaculars – the common and the legal are the important ones here. National security (an Orwellian sounding word) means something different to you and I than it does to the politican (who, almost inevitably, is a lawyer), as does “clear and present danger.” Therefore, when we accept the politicans statements and we hear them in the common understanding, they can happily go about and legally apply those words under the legal definition.

To illustrate the problem again, I will use the Fourth Amendment to the US Constitution, which states,

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

There are several important clauses in this statement. Note what the right of the people is, and note what the operative clause about that right states (it shall not be infringed, but upon probable cause). Therefore, there are two methods that might be employed to weaken this right that in your mind or in my mind means that people have a right to not be searched themselves or have their possessions searched except with a duly issued warrant with probable cause. Therefore, we legally define what “persons, houses, papers, and effects” mean in a way that reduces its scope (done) or we define probable cause in a way that allows courts to authorize warrants for a broad scope of reasons (also done).

Thus, the right of the people to not be searched or have their possessions seized is undermined from within the very legal system that it is supposed to govern. Why? Because language is reflexive. Words only mean something within the context of other words, and so long as we allow those words to be defined by the very people who are supposed to enforce them, we will be subject to a snowballing tyranny.

Words Matter

Dissonance in Life

The modern mind is filled with incredible amounts of cognitive dissonance. We are inundated with incredible amounts of information, especially now in the era of the internet, to the point that I don’t know if our minds can fully cope. I don’t think this idea is particularly nuanced, but I also do not believe it is very common at all (at least in my own experience). I think one of the major flaws of human thinking throughout the millenia is that we tend to view our own systems of logic and reasoning to be inherently perfect. Even those who did not believe them to be perfect at least usually thought they are fairly reliable. However, such a belief is circular. Even my argument here is circular.

For this reason, then, I find that all human reasoning seems to be circular, at bottom. It is remarkably useful, though, and it at least appears to have a rather excellent track record when we test our reasoning against the world around us and against the reasoning of others. I do not consider this to be really a profound statement at all, but it is still quite humbling to know that, regardless of how intelligent I think I might be, my knowledge cannot be known to be truth. My beliefs are likely to be founded on shaky ground that I do not understand (ground which many of us, and in cases all of us, do not understand). It therefore is, I think, imperative to be glad to hear the thoughts of others, and especially those of people who also recognize the inherent uncertainty of human reasoning.

To return to my thoughts on cognitive dissonance, I believe that the modern society (primarily in the West, with which I am most familiar) is based on an ideal that is almost utopian in thought and militant in action. To preface, I have to mention that I am a major believer in technology, in learning, and in modernity. As much as I enjoy fantasy books, I also very much like to work with computers and to drive a car and have modern medicine. Given that, I also think that we should be careful with technology. Technology should not be an end in and of itself – it should serve the greater good. (I also believe that because we all, in our participation in the economy, enable the use of technology to increase production, should all benefit similarly from that increase in production. That is another topic for another time, though.) I grow concerned that we use the tool for its own sake rather than to benefit from it somehow. Whether that is because we naturally like bright screens or we like sitting around and not doing anything active, it is something we must recognize as detrimental to human health and happiness.

Being constantly hooked into the system, we are susceptible to cursory understanding of things, and therefore are likely to experience cognitive dissonance. We know that television is harmful to our health, but we also love to read culture articles raving about how great House of Cards is. To create a dissonance where we want to avoid television because it is harmful but we want to watch because it’s just so good seems to create almost an anxiety (or perhaps guilt) in people. Understanding that advertisements are meant to sucker us in, and then happily humming along to tune to the advertisement we just heard, is, I think, a form of cognitive dissonance. We recognize the purpose of an advertisement and many of us are able to rebuff it, but we still allow the advertisement to achieve its purpose. The same things are used in politics constantly. When we willfully participate and legitimize a political system we know is corrupt, we create a dissonance that makes us feel entirely helpless. Others happily participate and indeed feel like they are making a positive difference (and hopefully they are!), but often they have to push those feelings of helplessness aside. Perhaps I am wrong about many people, but I think for a significant number, these examples of cognitive dissonance are reality and they are huge problems.

I don’t myself know if the society is so corrupt that there is nothing to be done. Perhaps; perhaps not. I have found that rooting out cognitive dissonance in my own mind is highly encouraging and has helped me to be happier with the world we live in. At some point I would like to post also about my thoughts on human happiness, but I think that I will also save for another time. I do truly encourage you to begin to search for evidence of cognitive dissonance in your life and try to remove it. Being consistent in my mind and in my life has helped me to both be able to analyze the elements of society I encounter, to be a better person, and to simply be happier – a very human, very ethical goal.

Dissonance in Life

Intellectual Property and Privacy

For a long time I have been worried about the quickening pace of the decay of privacy in the modern world. At a ever-increasing rate, we seem to be losing the amount of information that we generate to governments and corporations and other groups. Perhaps my idea here is not original, but it occurred to me today that perhaps there is a connection between our loss of control over our intellectual property and the tightening of the clutches around the intellectual property of those same governments and corporations.

I believe that capitalism, like most economic-political systems before it, rewards selfishness above all. Because most people are not intrinsically perfectly selfish (anyone who has taken an economics course might find the humor in that phrasing), those few who are closest to being perfectly selfish find themselves kings of their respective hills made of cash. I don’t believe this is a particularly difficult position to defend, because it is the profit motive (selfishness) that capitalists believe is the driving force that causes all economic agents to work towards an idealistically perfect conclusion. Those who are the most selfish (those who place the highest priority on the profit motive) will inevitably be those most interested in attaining and retaining wealth.

That people have a varying array tendencies regarding selfishness is a huge problem for capitalism, and it explains why the economic elites (those whose profit motives are higher priorities than for the rest of us) seem to be looking to grab at the private property of the working class. What is most ingenious about this is that they are simultaneously tightening their grip around their own property. For instance, the latest FCC proposal that people have been in an uproar over is not really about net neutrality. The issues regarding the so-called “fast lanes” is merely a red herring. The true purpose of the new regulations are to quickly usher in new restrictions on whether content can be blocked. If you look at the commission documentation, the FCC repeatedly writes that no “lawful” content may be blocked. This sounds good, yes? Until we realize the purpose of this. The implication that no lawful content may be blocked is that content deemed unlawful may be blocked. These new FCC regulations are merely a strange Trojan horse for SOPA/PIPA. And they will win this time, because now the media are playing their game. Moreover, while free speech remains largely intact at present, how can we trust that it will remain so in the future? How can we trust that the government and the ISPs will not block information that is in any way dissenting or damning?

I’m a little unfocused in this post, at least partially because I haven’t written in a while and I have a lot of thoughts, but also because I am convinced that this intellectual property stuff is bigger than it seems. There might be big benevolent players in the game (I believe that Google, Apple, Facebook, and a few others are actually on the right side for now), but eventually that might change. As long as there is greater wealth to be found from the quiet pilfering of people’s private information, there will be new temptations for the powerful. Such temptations rarely remain just so.

Intellectual Property and Privacy

Centralization of the Internet

The question of whether or not we can trust the technology sector has become increasingly more a part of our daily conversation in the United States and across the world, especially with the information we now know about their supposedly non-complicit place in the NSA’s PRISM program. I feel like the question is loaded, and I think that if we look at it with the right details in mind that we can get a reasonable answer as to how we should handle personal privacy.

Consider how important it is to you that your data is your own. How important is your anonymity on the web? What would happen if suddenly everyone knew everything in your cloud storage platform of choice? What if everyone could read your webmail? These are the foundational questions. For instance, I want people to be able to attach my name to the pieces I write on this blog, or else I would not use my real name and I would not tie the blog to my personal social media profiles. However, I definitely do not want people to be able to see all of my data. I protect my documents for personal projects, for school, my photos, my videos, and all of those sorts of things behind what I usually hope is a secure, encrypted platform. I consider my ability to choose what other people know about me and what I think to be vital to my freedom and my personhood. As we decide how we will handle our personal data (be it paper or digital), we must think through these questions.

Because I value my privacy as much as I do, I want to protect my data, no matter what. How should I go about doing so? Firstly, I want to explain what we should not do. Consider webmail and online storage. How many people pay for email anymore? I certainly don’t. We have become so used to email being free that at this point we balk at the idea of paying even a nominal fee for the service. It is a service, though. Gmail is not an cheap service. How does Google go about making the service worth offering? We know that they offer ads on Gmail. I personally do not have a problem with that. There are some allegations that they sell data to the government or private entities. I find that proposition less than likely, but I am willing to at least consider it as possible. So knowing what we do about Gmail (insert Hotmail, Dropbox, or any other “free” online service offered by another party), how should we conduct ourselves if we want to remain private?

The wonderful thing about the internet (and to some lesser extent, the web) is that it is ad-hoc. The internet can exist with or without Google, with or without ICANN, with or without most any powerful agency that we currently think about almost immediately when we consider the subject. The problem, though, is that the way we use the internet is becoming more and more centralized over time. Nearly everyone uses a free webmail service. Nearly everyone uses Facebook, uses Twitter, etc. The internet was narrowed into what we know as the web, and it is continually becoming smaller as the services we use become more and more centralized. With the centralization of power individuals lose power and lose freedom. Regardless of how good I think Google might be now, it would be difficult to argue that their vast power over internet will not become a trouble over time.

Thankfully, the centralization of the internet is not so far along that we cannot combat it as individuals. Moreover, the internet is a wonderful platform that is inherently mostly anonymous. We can generally be actively involved on the internet without repercussions in the offline world (if you know what to do). As I understand it, though, there are a few problems with the idea of moving towards a more ad-hoc network. Firstly, it will be painful. We are used to the power of expensive software made cheap through theoretically infinite supply used by users that number in the millions (recall that cheap or free software is often paid for through advertising). A small amount of advertising revenue per person multiplied across a body of millions (or even billions) very easily pays for the labor required to build and maintain these services. So we, as ad-hoc users, will have to pay in terms of cash or in terms of quality, at least for the time being. Similarly, there is the problem of cash. The tech sector is experiencing a massive boom, but whence does that money come? Advertising and the sale of private data, which is exactly what we are trying to prevent. So either we will have to begin paying for our software through other means, or we will have to rely on cheaper or volunteer software. Finally, some things seem to be best or most efficient when centralized. Can you imagine a non-centralized Facebook? How would such a protocol work? While doable, it would be among the more difficult problems to work through.

As I move forward with this line of thought, I think it is important how difficult these ideas will be to realize even in a theoretical sense. The ideas I am puzzling through require going back many years and redoing much of the infrastructure we have built up over the years. However, I think the goal is a worthy one. If we want to have any amount of individual power and personal freedom, we have to end this dangerous trend towards the centralization of data. My data is my own, and it should remain that way. Similarly, your data should remain yours. I am not comfortable with the idea that we should trust an entity that I think is good to store my data. As benevolent as I think Google is (and I really do think they have been benevolent to this point), I do not know what might happen in a few years or decades. I am not willing to leverage my privacy in that way. If we want to have any semblance of a free society, we must reverse this hemorrhaging of personal power and freedom. My data, the things I produce, are part of who I am. I own that.

Centralization of the Internet

Why I Can’t Trust the State

I’m taking a quick break from coding to write briefly about some thoughts I have had buzzing throughout my mind the last several days. I have made it at least implicitly clear in my writing and in my tweets that I believe there is good evidence to think that a significant portion of human thought is based on connotation and that without an equally significant effort in analysis, that connotation will rule our thoughts. I am quite certain that we cannot escape that. (Or, at least, I usually can’t.) I may write more on that specific idea at another time, but please keep it in mind as you read on.

I frequently relabel my different beliefs because they are rather fluid. I am always changing my political beliefs, specifically, because humans and the societies they create are so vastly complex. I find it an egregious error of pride for someone to claim that they have all the answers in politics (e.g. politicians). I am moderately certain that I have been following some sort of an illustratable trajectory, though, so I will try to explain that pithily. From my upbringing onward, I have made pit-stops in neoconservatism, neoliberalism, modern liberalism (of the FDR variety), and lately I have been reanalyzing my ideas. As I learn more about the institutions of society, I become increasingly aware of how language is used and how connotation is used against people. Those with knowledge (who are generally identical to those with power and money) are able to sway the public mind with mostly-truths (denotatively) that have totally different meanings to the rest of us. The fact that this is even a possibility is troubling, and it is therefore incumbent upon those of us without knowledge to be highly skeptical of what a person with knowledge in power (i.e. someone who has something to gain from manipulation of the truth) might say.

As an example, consider the advertising industry. An advertiser is either part of a company or is hired by a company that has a product or service to sell. In order to sell the product, the advertiser should appeal to the potential buyer somehow. They are in a position of knowledge, and therefore power, because they know the details of the product or service (both positive and negative). We are therefore hesitant to trust advertisers. We read reviews from people who have nothing to gain from our purchase of that product. We want independent verification. We are naturally and understandably skeptical, as we should be.

With these thoughts in mind, I firmly believe that we, humans existing in a society, should be highly skeptical of the words spoken and written by those in the upper echelons of our societies. When you examine the backgrounds of the people in power, you find a vast number of qualities in common among those people. Let me give you some adjectives: lawyer, millionaire, Ivy League, the list goes on. The specifics, while troubling, are not the point. The point is that our State is only barely indistinguishable from something rather oligarchical or plutocratic. (I wouldn’t say aristocratic – the cool kids club here isn’t only open to those born to wealth.) As a body primarily consisting of lawyers (skills in language), as a body primarily consisting of people with similar backgrounds (therefore, often similar goals), I believe we have good reason to be extremely skeptical of the State (specifically the United States “federal” government).

I do not believe I need to explain why we ought to be skeptical of those who are moneyed. People who are vastly wealthy often became that way by some form of exploitation. (Does the CEO of a company really do hundreds of times more work than the other people in the company? I don’t think so.)

The conclusion I think that is fair to draw from these thoughts is that authority is something about which we should be explicitly skeptical. If we can endeavor to reduce subservience to authority and instead pursue what I think is fair to call real freedom, I think our societies can truly become something quite enviable. Encouragingly, I think a lot of the tech industry is based on some of this sort of thought. As an example, Mark Zuckerberg may have made out with a lot of wealth, but his employees get significant restricted shares in Facebook as part of employment. In that way, Facebook, to a tiny degree, becomes partially their own, and they become less subservient. A more interesting case would be Mondragon.

To summarize, then, be skeptical of those in power. Remember that power corrupts, and that it corrupts absolutely. Remember that if we are all truly created equal, then we have equal freedom. With equal freedom, I think that happiness and the power of innovation can soar to heights unknown to previous civilizations.

Why I Can’t Trust the State