Solving the Raven-Paradox and Improving the Way we do Science

One of the most interesting paradoxes studied by Philosophers, is also one that challenges our entire approach to science and knowledge gathering. Despite its monumental importance, there currently exist no satisfying resolution to this paradox. Which is unfortunate, because by studying this paradox, and learning how to resolve it, we all stand to benefit immensely, both as a civilization, and even in our own daily lives. This is exactly what we shall now aim to do.

The paradox, first proposed ~80 years ago, is known as the Raven-Paradox. A quick walk-through for the uninitiated: Suppose we want to examine the hypothesis that All Ravens are Black. On sighting numerous Black Ravens, but no non-Black ravens, one can then declare that he has seen many Ravens, all of which are Black, and hence, has evidence in support for the above hypothesis.

However, the hypothesis can also be restated as All non-Black Objects are not Ravens, which if true, necessarily implies that all Ravens are Black. On sighting many Red Apples, Green Guavas etc, one can then declare that she has seen many non-Black objects, all of which are not Ravens, and hence, also has evidence in support of the hypothesis that All Ravens are Black. This conclusion appears paradoxical, because it implies that we can gain information about Ravens by looking at Apples, Guavas, and other non-Ravens. Is this really true? If not, how can we explain this paradox?


The most popular resolution to this paradox is the probability-based (Bayesian) resolution. As the proposed solution goes: there are immensely/infinitely more non-Ravens, as compared to Ravens. Hence, the sighting of a Black Raven, confers immensely/infinitely more evidence, as compared to a Red Apple. Hence why the paradox, despite initially seeming to contradict our intuition, is actually in line with our gut.

However, this resolution sidesteps the heart of the paradox, and can itself be easily defeated. For example, suppose we modified our claim to the following: All non-Black Birds are non-Ravens, which necessarily implies that All Ravens are Black. The number of Birds is surely greater than the number of Ravens, but only by a finite amount. Suppose Person-A now observes a billion Green Parrots, and Person-B observes 10 Black Ravens. Does Person-A possess more evidence in favor of the claim that All non-Black Birds are non-Ravens, and hence, All Ravens are Black? According to the probability-based resolution, the answer is yes, but we now find ourselves right back where we started. By what reasoning can we claim that observing a billion Green Parrots provides evidence in favor of All Ravens being Black?

The most consistent resolution to the paradox is arguably a straightforward application of Nicod’s criterion, which says that “only observations of Ravens should affect one’s view as to whether all Ravens are Black. Observing more instances of Black Ravens should support the view, observing white or coloured ravens should contradict it, and observations of non-ravens should not have any influence.” Is this really true? How can we claim that observing a billion Green Parrots does not lend any support to the hypothesis that All non-Black Birds are non-Ravens?


In order to better understand this paradox, it helps immensely to view the world from a different perspective. A 21st century perspective.

Because the world is so big and traveling by foot is so hard, suppose we decide to build a swarm of AI-drones to help us find evidence for/against the statement that All Ravens are Black. Unfortunately, training our drones to identify Ravens is too hard. So instead, we train our drones to take pictures of any and all objects based on their primary color. We have one swarm of drones that take pictures of all Black objects, a second swarm of drones that takes pictures of all Green objects, a third swarm for all Blue objects, and so on. We release these drone into the wild, and a month later, they come back with billions of pictures, organized by the object’s color.

There are too many pictures to inspect exhaustively, so we need to pick our battles most efficiently. Person-A decides to ignore all the other colors, and looks through the pictures of Black objects. In it, he finds various pictures of Black Ravens, which is unsurprising since the existence of Black Ravens is already known.

Does Person-A now have any evidence in support of the hypothesis? Of course not. We already know that Black Ravens exist. Person-A looking through the pictures of Black objects, does nothing whatsoever to strengthen or weaken the hypothesis.

Conversely, Person-B looks at a mix of all the non-Black pictures, and manages to inspect a couple million of them. He finds Red Apples, Green Plants, Blue Parrots, and all manner of objects, but no Ravens. Does this provide us with any (non-definitive) evidence in support of the hypothesis? Of course it does. If a non-Black raven existed, there’s a chance that a drone would have found it and taken a picture of it, and that person-B would have stumbled upon it. The fact that Person-B found only pictures of Apples, Plants etc, but no Ravens, provides us with some evidence in support of the hypothesis.

Our instincts tell us that observing Black Ravens provides evidence supporting the hypothesis, and that observing Green Apples does not provide any evidence of value. However, given a set of experimental procedures described above, we have reached the diametrically opposing conclusion.


It’s important to note however, that this conclusion is utterly procedure dependent. Suppose we use different technology in order to gather our data. Suppose now, our AI drones are capable of recognizing shapes very accurately, but they are incapable of recognizing color. We send out a swarm of drones that take pictures of all Ravens, regardless of color. And for whatever reason, we also send another swarm of drones that take pictures of all non-Ravens, regardless of color. Person-A now looks through all the pictures of Ravens, and finds only Black Ravens. Person-B decides to look through all pictures of non-Ravens, and finds only Red Apples, Green Plants etc, but no Ravens.

In both contexts, the data (and the world itself) remains exactly the same. Person-A is looking at pictures of Black Ravens, and Person-B is looking at pictures of Red Apples. And yet, because we’ve changed the manner in which we gather data, the conclusions are completely flipped. In this new context, Person-A has evidence to support the hypothesis that all Ravens are Black, whereas Person-B has no evidence whatsoever to contribute towards the hypothesis.


An astute reader may note that in both examples above, neither the observance of Black Ravens, nor Red Apples, does anything to support the hypothesis. Rather, it is the absence of non-Black Ravens, that truly supports the hypothesis. Which brings us to our key-point, and true resolution for this paradox: Evidence can only ever be gained through experiments (and analyses) that are most likely to produce results that falsify (or cast doubt on) the hypothesis being tested.

Examining pictures of known-Black Objects, or known-non-Ravens, can never produce any falsifiable result. Hence why these analyses can never provide evidence to support the hypothesis. Rather, examining pictures of known-non-Black Objects, or pictures of known-Ravens, can indeed produce potentially falsifiable results. Hence why these approaches can produce evidence in favor of our hypothesis. One can easily imagine yet more experiments – for example, a 3rd experiment which sends all drones to take pictures of Ravens in one country alone, and a 4th experiment which divides up the drones amongst many different countries all around the world. Even if they yield identical data, experiments like the latter are much more likely to produce a falsifying result, and hence, the data obtained from those experiments should give us far more confidence in the hypothesis.

As surprising as it sounds, evidence and knowledge comes not from the data itself, but from the combination of data and the manner in which it was collected. Contrary to popular perception, the data cannot simply speak for itself. In order to support a hypothesis, we have to conduct experiments which are most likely to provide falsifiable results. Only the results gleaned from such experiments, hold any weight whatsoever. Examining data derived from non-falsifiable or biased experiments, is nothing more self congratulatory confirmation bias.

The above conclusion is not just intellectual masturbation, but can be practically used to improve the way we do science. If we want to support the hypothesis that All Ravens are Black, simply finding millions of Black Ravens or Green Apples, is not going to support our hypothesis. If someone comes to you and provides millions of such pictures, but refuses to say anything else, you should tell him that this information is absolutely useless. Putting blind faith in data, and ignoring the process by which it was generated, is precisely what leads to unreliable scientific results like the replication crisis, biased industry-funded research, or the popular belief that “you can always find a study that supports what you believe”.

Thankfully, scientists are starting to learn this lesson the hard way. Psychology researchers, bitten hard by the Replication Crisis, are now pushing for their peers to preregister their research plans before collecting/analyzing data… to specify, in as much detail as they can, their plans for a study … procedures, measures, rules for excluding data, plans for data analysis, predictions/hypotheses, etc… and they post those plans in a time-stamped, locked file … accessible by editors and reviewers”. Such measures are well overdue, but they shouldn’t simply be optional. They should be an absolute requirement. Not just in Psychology research, but in any and all scientific research. And in an ideal world, all exploration of knowledge. As can be shown from the Raven paradox above, such experimental controls are just as important as the resulting data itself.

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Philosophical Proof for the Human Soul

As a lifelong agnostic, I never thought that I would find myself arguing for the existence of “souls”, much less claiming that I’ve found proof through Philosophical reasoning. And yet, as I consider the alternative, I find myself unable to accept any other conclusion. If we were to assume that human consciousness arises purely out of physical phenomena, the logical conclusion that it leads to is simply far too absurd.

In order to understand why, let’s first assume the contrarian proposition, and see where that leads us.

Assumption 1: Human consciousness arises from purely physical phenomena.

This is something I myself have long assumed on the basis of Occam’s Razor. There is no proof of anything supernatural, so there is no reason to believe that it exists. Hence, human consciousness must necessarily arise out of purely physical phenomena, such as electromagnetism, quantum mechanics, gravitation, and such. Physical phenomena which give rise to the behavior of our neurons, which in turn give rise to our consciousness. Physical phenomena which we may not fully understand as yet, but are physical phenomena nonetheless, with no “supernatural” “mystical” or “other-worldly” properties.

Assumption 2: Any physical phenomena can be functionally simulated in a computer.

For example, the behavior of neurons, and the interactions of groups of neurons. The simulation may be completely hypothetical with no real-world analogue (eg, a solar system with only the Earth and the Sun). The simulation may not exactly match what actually occurs, or will occur, in reality. However, we can still simulate any physical phenomena at a functional level. The same way that a simulated dice-roll is functionally equivalent to a physical dice-roll, even though they differ in outcome. The same way that NASA is able to functionally simulate the trajectories of its rockets, even though it ignores the precise behavior of each individual atom.

Where physical phenomena is concerned, we can in theory simulate something that is functionally identical, for all relevant purposes, to something that occurs in reality. Philosophers allude to this when they talk about Substrate Independence, but more on this in the following section.

Assumption 3: A computer simulation can be just as conscious as a human being.

This assumption naturally follows from assumptions 1 + 2, and it’s one that a large number of philosophers subscribe to, as a natural conclusion to the principle of Substrate Independence. A computer simulation can be just as capable of experiencing pain and suffering, similar to what we experience. Perhaps Humanity will never be able to accomplish this due to practical limitations, but in theory, it is possible. Even if it’s impossible to precisely simulate a specific person’s brain, we can still mimic all the physical phenomena that give rise to our consciousness, in order to produce a brand new computer-simulated consciousness.

Assumption 4: It is immoral to subject conscious beings to torture and suffering, without justifiable cause.

The race, gender, and physical makeup of the conscious being is irrelevant. Even if we assume that some conscious beings possess greater moral worth than others, depending on their level of consciousness and past/future actions, it is still morally reprehensible for someone to subject an innocent helpful conscious being to torture and suffering, purely for personal amusement. If someone is engaging in such behavior, it is appropriate to condemn and imprison them, just like how we condemn rapists, murderers and terrorists.

Assumption 5: The fact that a computer simulation can be conscious, is independent of the CPU speed of the computer.

A computer that is running on a very slow CPU, is just as capable of generating consciousness as a computer running on the latest and greatest CPU. The former might take exponentially longer to achieve the same results, but it is just as capable of running any simulation that isn’t dependent on external run-time-inputs and interactions. Any and all interactions that are required for consciousness can be baked into the simulation itself, in order to produce an executable that runs identically on extremely slow CPUs.

Assumption 6: Anything a computer does can be functionally replicated by a human being writing 1s and 0s in a massive ledger.

As a software engineer who’s helped design Intel processors in the past, I can personally vouch for this “assumption” myself. Every single computer software can be broken down into “assembly instructions”, each of which is so simple and primitive that it can be executed by a human being writing 1s and 0s on a ledger. The precise timing behavior of computers-vs-humans might differ, but the functional outcome is identical. Anything a computer can do, a human being with a lot of time and space can also execute.

Conclusion: A person writing 1s and 0s in a massive book, in a “wrong sequence” over an extended period of time, should be found guilty of atrocities such as torture and murder.

Such a person should be condemned to the same extent that we condemn rapists, murderers and terrorists. Not for planning a crime, but for actually committing one. Such a person should be imprisoned for life, and in extreme cases, subjected to the same contempt that we show towards people like Hitler and Stalin.

However, this conclusion should be rejected as being absurd on its face. A man writing 0s and 1s in a private ledger should never be accused of committing atrocities on par with a murderer’s. A man writing 1s and 0s in a private journal should never be sentenced to life imprisonment for having committed moral atrocities. The idea that such a person should be found guilty of committing a crime, and should be subjected to punishments because he wrote the “wrong” sequence of 1s and 0s in a private journal, is simply absurd and should be rejected.

However, this conclusion flows naturally out of the earlier set of assumptions, so the only way to reject this conclusion is to reject one of the underlying assumptions. Out of all the assumptions presented, the weakest assumption by far is the very first one. All the others are supposed by solid logical reasoning, whereas the first assumption is merely supported by Occam’s Razor and the absence of evidence.

Hence, if we are to reject one of the assumptions presented, the only reasonable option is to accept that physical phenomena, such as the firing of neurons in our brains, is a necessary but not sufficient condition for consciousness. That in order for consciousness to occur, other “supernatural ingredients” are required as well. Supernatural ingredients that human beings can never simulate. Supernatural ingredients that for millennia, people around the world have referred to as “souls”. If we are to reject the conclusion that people should be condemned and punished for writing the “wrong” sequence of 1s and 0s on a private notebook, the only way out is to accept the existence of the Human soul.

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The Real Truth about NYC’s Elite High Schools

A couple days ago, the NYTimes published an op-ed proclaiming “The Truth about NYC’s Elite High Schools”. The truth, according to them, is the following: NYC’s elite high schools are a bastion of bias and discrimination. In order to remedy this, they need to abandon their current test-based entrance system, in favor of one that more resembles the Ivy Leagues’ and the way they evaluate applicants “holistically”.

Let’s explore these claims for a second. Are NYC’s elite high schools truly so dysfunctional and unfair as to warrant overhauling? It’s hard to believe such a claim when you consider the following:

Three quarters of Stuyvesant students are first or second generation immigrants. And the bulk of this is made up of poor immigrants, struggling to make a home for themselves in a foreign land. In contrast, a mere 15% of students at Harvard are first generation college students. The number of foreign students at Harvard is only slightly higher at 20%, the vast majority of whom are from wealthy and powerful families overseas.

Half of Stuyvesant students come from families poor enough to qualify for free/subsidized school lunch, meaning that their families make ~$44,000 per year or less. In contrast, the median Harvard student boasts a family income of $170,000 per year.

Stuyvesant and Bronx Science, two of the most prestigious schools in NYC, also qualify for federal funding on account of their large number of low-income students. In contrast, a mere 16% of Harvard students are recipients of federal Pell Grants.

And despite this stunning breadth of socioeconomic diversity, Stuyvesant is also one of the most successful high schools in the country. Boasting a 100% graduation rate, average SAT scores of 2170, and 4 nobel laureates among its alumni. Whatever the school is doing, it’s working. It takes in some of the poorest and least privileged students in the city, and churns out successful graduates with bright futures. And it does all this in the most objective and meritocratic manner possible, without any form of quotas or special treatment. The children of poor immigrants are held to the exact same standards as the children of millionaires.

In contrast, the admissions process for getting into Harvard is one of the most opaque and subjective imaginable. It rewards those with impressive family connections. It rewards those with parents who also belong to this exclusive club. It rewards those with families that are rich beyond compare. It rewards those who are wealthy enough to afford an impressive array of made-for-college extracurriculars. It rewards those who fit into the mold of glib, attractive, extroverted salesmen, and punishes anyone who doesn’t.

And the results speak for themselves. Stuyvesant is home to some of the most vulnerable, and disadvantaged students of our society. Harvard, on the other hand, is home to the preppiest and most privileged kids in the world. Stuyvesant is an engine of social mobility, whereas Harvard is a vehicle for the transfer of power and privilege from one generation to the next.

And yet, we’re being told that the Stuyvesant admissions model needs to be scrapped and overhauled, into something that looks more like what Harvard has. That we need to remove a system that is purely objective and meritocratic, and replace it with a system that is prone to all forms of subjective biases. That a system that consistently gives poor first generation college students their first shot at upward mobility, needs to give way to a system that demonstrably rewards the rich and powerful.

The critics might have a few valid suggestions. NYC’s elite high schools should use tests based on middle school curriculum that all public schools follow. They should do more to make these tests, and their prep, accessible to everyone. This would better give everyone a fair and equal shot at admission.

But looking at the big picture, it’s clear that the admissions system used by NYC’s elite schools has proven itself far more successful than anything put into practice by the nation’s elite universities. It’s time we pressured Harvard to take a page out of Stuyvesant’s book.

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Forget Basic Income – We need Guaranteed Employment

I’ve long been a champion of Basic Income. As we head towards an uncertain future where automation and offshoring becomes the norm, we need more safeguards to protect the most vulnerable members in our society. Instead of paternalistic welfare programs, full of bureaucracy and central planning, the idea of putting money directly in the pockets of those who need it the most, and letting them utilize it as they best see fit, is impeccable.

However, it’s worth recognizing the political infeasibility of such a proposal. There are too many people who are morally repulsed by the idea of someone sitting at home, playing video games all day, and collecting enough money from the taxpayers to lead a livable-life. It offends their moral sensibilities, and feeds into their fear of society collapsing into a nihilistic moocher dystopia.

Such concerns are misplaced in my opinion, but it’s worth acknowledging how they can and will poison any substantive policy discussions on Basic Income. Hence why we need something that is conceptually similar, affords the same safety net provided by Basic Income, but is more politically palatable – Government Guaranteed Employment.

Imagine a government mandate that anyone who so desires, is guaranteed a job by their local/state/federal government at a livable wage of say $12/hour. What exactly would they be doing? That’s left completely at the discretion of the local government agency. They could be asked to clean the city streets and parks. They could be asked to drive Taxis/Ubers on behalf of the state. They could be trained and promoted to specialized jobs in administrative roles or construction projects. They could be subcontracted out to other companies like McDonald’s/Walmart that are in need of low-skill labor. Heck, they could simply be made to sign up for TaskRabbit, in order to help other local citizens, and help the State recoup some of the costs of this program.

Regardless of precisely what the government chooses to do, everyone wins.

The unemployed who would otherwise be destitute, would instead get a guaranteed job at a livable wage.

The state, instead of just giving out welfare checks with no strings attached, would have a pool of labor that can be directed towards projects that improve infrastructure and overall quality-of-life.

The taxpayers get the satisfaction of knowing that no one in their society need suffer under poverty, but also that everyone benefiting from government “assistance” is working for their wages, in ways that contribute to the local economy and infrastructure.

With the looming tides of automation and globalization, our society is certainly going to become increasingly wealthy on aggregate, but there will inevitably be those who find themselves left behind. We as a society have a duty to help them, but it is perfectly reasonable to expect them to continue to work and contribute back to society. Government Guaranteed Employment is the perfect bridge that connects both ideals.

Related Links:

The looming dangers of Automation

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Too Big To Fail: A Call for States’ Rights

In the wake of the 2008 crisis came the realization that our financial system is teetering on the brink, at the mercy of banks that are too big to fail.

A lesson that’s hardly surprising to Software engineers who have known for decades that “God Objects”, entities that are far too widely encompassing, produce intractable and unwieldy outcomes.

And now, in the wake of Donald Trump’s election as President of the United States, perhaps it’s time we admitted the same about our Federal Government.

Due to historical debates around Slavery and Abortion, the rallying cry of States’ Rights has long been the call sign of conservatives. But there’s no reason it has to be. The principles behind this philosophy are intuitive, non-partisan and widely held in a variety of fields.

First, there’s the issue of risk. Putting all your eggs in one basket is almost never a good idea, whether we’re talking about retirement savings or political governance. It creates far too much risk. In a diversified portfolio, the bankruptcy of a few securities can be easily weathered. But not so in a portfolio that’s concentrated in a single stock. In a diversified financial system, a few small banks can go out of business at any time, still leaving behind a financial system that’s robust in the face of random failures. In the financial system of 2008 however, a single Lehman is sufficient to push the economy to the brink of collapse. In a political system that’s decentralized across numerous entities, no one need fear the impact that a single Trump/Clinton can possibly wreck.

Then, there’s the issue of power. Or rather, the effects of having too much of it. Like the old saying goes, Power Corrupts. Few things are better at moderating behavior than the prospect of facing repercussions. A small regional bank may have to treat their customers with respect and reverence, in order to ensure their continued success. But a megabank like Goldman can get away with murder. The President of Switzerland may have to moderate his dealings with other nations, but the President of the USA can build a 3000 mile wall on a whim. Centralizing too much power into a single entity is sure to produce behavior that no God-fearing person would otherwise embark upon.

And finally, and most importantly, personalization. If there’s one thing to be learnt from the past few elections, it is that America is a country divided. The people of Texas are worlds apart from the people of California, and adopting a one-size-fits-all federal government is and always will be a slap in the face to half the country that rejects it. The people of Texas shouldn’t have to abide by an Obamacare policy that is forced upon them by Californians, and the people of California shouldn’t have to abide by mass-deportation raids or abortion-bans forced upon them by a Trump Presidency.

For far too long, we have tried to shoehorn people from vast swaths of the continent, into a single federal government. We have tried to force the same set of federal policies down the throats of both rural Montana and urban New York. We have tried to create a forced coexistence that has lead only to acrimonious fights and disputes. Perhaps it’s time we accepted that there are irreconcilable differences between the states. Differences in culture, world-view, economy and political ideals. Differences that defy a single Federal Government administration.

Perhaps it’s time we considered returning to an America envisioned by the founding fathers. One where each State is sovereign to the greatest extent possible. One where the Federal Government is more akin to the European Union in charter and mission. One where States’ Rights allow Californians and Texans to forge their own unique paths, without having to be locked in endless political battles and alternating Presidents that neither find palatable.

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Dangerous Ideas

In communist China, those deemed to be promoting dangerous Capitalist ideas were subjected to severe crackdown under the Cultural Revolution.

In Catholic 16th century Europe, those who promoted radical ideas that undermined mainstream Judeo-Christian beliefs, were locked up as heretics.

In America during the Red Scare, those suspected of endorsing Socialist ideas were subjected to McCarthy hearings, casting pallor over their ideological purity and loyalty to country.

Events that might have been centuries and continents apart, but tied together through a single common thread. A shared belief. The worry that certain ideas are dangerous. That certain ideas, if left uncensored, will make the world a worse place. That such dangerous ideas need to be combated by any means necessary. That one of the most effective ways to do so, is by punishing and persecuting the idea’s proponents, so as to send a message to anyone else who might dare to speak up.

And now, in the midst of an increasingly turbulent world, we’re starting to see whispers of the same ghosts appear once again. We’re starting to see citizens in one of the most (supposedly) enlightened and progressed societies in the world, calling for the economic persecution and ostracism of a (idiotic) political candidate, his endorsers, and even the colleagues of his endorsers.

Let’s acknowledge one fact at the outset: to compare the magnitude of persecution experienced by the victims of the Cultural Revolution, to what Peter Thiel is experiencing, is simply absurd. Despite anything Peter Thiel might be going through, most people would swap places with him in a heartbeat.

And yet, the essence of the comparison still stands. The magnitude of persecution being heaped upon Peter Thiel might be trivial compared to the Russian gulags, but the general principle behind both remains the same. That certain ideas are dangerous, and anyone who endorses such dangerous ideas is worthy of punishment.

Some might argue that what Peter Thiel is experiencing is not persecution, because there is no government actions involved. No one is suing Peter Thiel in court, nor is anyone threatening to physical harm him in any way. And yet, such arguments miss the point entirely. Persecution isn’t, and has never been, limited to government activity or physical threats. For centuries, Jews, Roma and Blacks around the world have been persecuted by the societies and citizens around them. The worst of these featured physical violence, but even when they didn’t, the economic and social persecution endured by these victimized groups was horrendously damaging. Blacks who were denied entry or service in all varieties of Private Sector activities, found themselves economically marginalized. Individuals who were subjected to ostracism and exclusion found their lives dramatically altered, and the very threat of such social persecution kept many more from speaking their minds.

To think of human beings as animals, capable of experiencing suffering only when physically harmed, degrades the very essence of the human condition by ignoring the economic and social needs that every one of us yearns for. To claim that the economic and social persecution endured by its victims is not persecution at all, is a slap on the face to millions who’ve experienced its cold pressing grips.

But let’s return to the original premise that we started this journey on. The premise that certain ideas are so dangerous, that they need to be censored by persecuting its proponents. Does such a premise truly hold up? If you believe in the ideals of Free Speech, the answer is clearly no. Every western citizen has had the axioms of Free Speech drilled into their heads as kids, but why do we believe in Free Speech? Why do we support, the First Amendment? If ideas such as racism, sexism and bigotry are so dangerous, why do we guarantee legal immunity to their proponents? Why not simply lock them up in prison, as is done in other countries? Why not outright ban these dangerous ideas?

The Catholics banned the questioning of Judeo-Christian values, because surely no one can doubt the word of God. The Communists banned the advocating of Capitalist ideologies, because surely no one can defend the exploitation of the proletariat by the bourgeoisie. Why not take a page from their book and carve out exceptions in the First Amendment for ideas that we know incontrovertibly to be false?

If you’re a supporter of Free Speech at least, the answer goes back to the Marketplace of Ideas. One where ideas spar with one another, and in the long run, false/bad ideas find themselves supplanted by superior alternatives. One where dangerous ideas will automatically find themselves discredited and bankrupt, without the need for censorships, personal attacks or persecution.

Consider the example of Flat Earth beliefs. Some people through history long labored under the illusion that the Earth was flat, like a coin. With time, this belief found itself supplanted and replaced by the belief in a Spherical Earth, which then found itself supplanted by the belief in a Oblate Spheroid. Today, if I went around the country telling everyone who would listen that the Earth is flat, no one need bother persecuting me, or attacking me personally. The idea itself has lost, has been made bankrupt, and no degree of persecution is required to ensure the primacy of the Spheroid Earth belief. The Marketplace of Ideas has succeeded in weeding out false ideas, and supplanting them with superior ones, all without any need for persecution.

To quote a Justice of the Supreme Court, “But when men have realized that time has upset many fighting faiths, they may come to believe even more than they believe the very foundations of their own conduct that the ultimate good desired is better reached by free trade in ideas — that the best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market, and that truth is the only ground upon which their wishes safely can be carried out. That, at any rate, is the theory of our Constitution.”

Perhaps such belief in the Marketplace of Ideas is misplaced. Perhaps such idealism is hopelessly naive, and human beings, as foolhardy as we are, are doomed to be entrapped by attractively false ideas. Perhaps our belief in the Marketplace of Ideas, is itself one such appealing and false idea. If so, disregard everything you’ve read in this essay. Perhaps our blind trust in the First Amendment is misplaced, and the Catholics, Communists and McCarthyites were onto something after all. Perhaps some ideas are so dangerous, that the only rational approach is to fight them by persecuting anyone who attempts to spread them.

But I don’t think so. I believe that the Marketplace of Ideas really does work. That to quote Lincoln, you can fool all of the people some of the time, or some of the people all of the time, but not all of the people all of the time. That the benefits to society of having Free Speech and a Marketplace of Ideas, where anyone can participate without fear of backlash, far outweigh any of the downsides. That when faced with dangerous ideas, we should focus our efforts on attacking the idea, not the person. That far more than fearing dangerous ideas, what we really have to fear is an environment that strives to censor them.


Related links:

A tale of two bigots

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Columbus the Clown

For millennia, people thought that the Earth was flat, like a coin. That if you sailed too far to the east or west, you would simply fall off the side of the earth, into the void. Into this age of ignorance strode Christopher Columbus, boldly proclaiming his visionary insight of a spherical earth. One where if you sailed west from Europe long enough, you would eventually reach Asia. His critics decried these predictions as the ravings of a madman, and told him that he would fall off the (flat) face of the earth, and plunge into nothingness. But he didn’t let the naysayers stop him, and in the face of all opposition, sailed off into his expedition. And that is how America was discovered.

Or at least that’s how the popular narrative around Christopher Columbus goes. There’s only one problem. It’s all a steaming pile of horseshit.

Let’s ignore the fact that America was first discovered by early Humans from Asia, tens of thousands of years ago, when they crossed the Bering Straits and settled the entire continent. Let’s ignore the fact that the vikings had in fact discovered and settled portions of America, one thousand years ago, far before Columbus. Let’s instead examine the myth of the Flat Earth itself.

People have in fact known for millennia that the Earth was spherical. This was deduced from something as simple as watching ships sail off into the distance. In fact, not only did people know that the Earth was spherical, they even had remarkably accurate estimates for how big it was. Philosophers from millennia past in Greece and India had calculated the circumference of the Earth, to within a 1% margin of error. Which is precisely why no one attempted to sail Westward from Europe to India. Those in the know were smart enough to figure out that the distances involved were far beyond the capabilities of ships in those times.

Columbus on the other hand, thought differently. Disregarding the opinion of experts, he figured that the Earth’s circumference was only 15,000 miles, and that the Canary Islands were only 2,300 miles away from Japan. Here’s the punchline: his estimates were a joke. The mainstream consensus turned out to be remarkably accurate, and his was off by an order of magnitude. If his plan to sail west from Europe to Asia had actually played itself out in any realistic manner, he would have died on his expedition, in the middle of the ocean, wondering why he had yet to reach his destination.

Thankfully for Columbus, his expedition didn’t actually play itself out in any way he had expected. There turned out to be an entirely unanticipated continent in the middle of his journey. A continent so unanticipated that when Columbus reached it, he thought that he had actually reached the (East) Indies in Asia. Hence why the native people of the Americas found themselves named “Indians”, despite being tens of thousands of miles away from India, a place they never even knew about.

And yet, there are some who would defend Columbus, despite his incredible track record of idiocy. “He had the courage to follow his dreams and risk his life, and thanks to that, changed the way people looked at the world.” But such arguments are completely missing the point. Celebrating Columbus is celebrating a man who disregarded the (correct) warnings of people far more knowledgeable than himself, risked his life and that of numerous others on an idiotic and false premise, and managed to survive and achieve world renown only through monumental luck. Celebrating Columbus is like celebrating lottery winners. Yes, they had unbelievable amounts of bravery, showed great courage, refused to back down in the face of overwhelming odds, and eventually did very well for themselves. But ultimately, they were also clowns.

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The Corruption We Abide By

Senators and Congressmen are forced to spend hours every day, making phone calls to the rich, listening intently to all their problems, promising them actions, and eventually, begging them for money.

Presidential hopefuls, the leaders of their party and charismatic figureheads with supporters numbering in the millions, travel halfway around the country in order to meet with billionaires who can give breath to or crush their dreams, with the swish of a pen.

Even the President is not immune. The most powerful man in America is forced to spend his time traipsing through dinner parties and round-panels, all in the name of raising money and pleasing wealthy donors. The leader of the free world, reduced to a cash pinata at parties for rich kids.

We all know it, so why don’t we just say it out loud. Our democracy is corrupt. In the very definition of the word. All those countless hours spent rubbing elbows and pleading with the rich, is going to have exactly the effect anyone would expect – cronyism. All that infrastructure that the RNC, the DNC, and every political campaign has built around fundraising, is going to produce exactly the result that even a child can predict – favoritism. The trials and tribulations of the rich and famous, matter a lot more than what you or I have to deal with. The marketplace threats that corporations and their lobbyists brave, matter a lot more than any dangers that you or I might be worried about.

All votes are equal. But some votes are more equal than others.

We moan endlessly about how all politicians are corrupt, but never look in the mirror and ask ourselves why we’re continuing to support a system that’s systematically designed to reward those who’re corrupt, and weed out those who aren’t. We throw little fits of rebellion every now and then, electing “anti-establishment” candidates like Obama, only to throw them back into our corrupted political cesspool, and then wonder why nothing ever seems to change.

A wise man once said that to understand why someone behaves the way he does, look at his incentives. A politician can only remain a politician if he wins elections. The prerequisite to him winning elections, is having a war-chest full of cash. And the only way for him to have a war-chest full of cash, is to bend to the will of the rich and powerful.

As long as that doesn’t change, our political system will continue to be hopelessly corrupt.

We whine incessantly about how much we hate Washington and crooked politicians, but perhaps it’s time we stopped whining and started acting. Simple solutions already exist. It doesn’t even involve “suppressing the free speech” of billionaires or corporations, or restricting their political activity in any way. It simply involves giving the rest of us a voice in the conversation.

The Fair Elections Now Act is a bill in congress that would give every American a $25 voucher, which she can then give to any political candidate of her choosing. Along with matching funds, this would instantly create a ~$10B majority-funded campaign-financing pool, dwarfing the current pool of $3B that politicians raise from the rich and powerful. It would create a public pool of funds through which honest politicians would be able to mount successful election campaigns, without having to kowtow to the wealthy. It would give every American citizen a vote in the political fundraising process – one in which he’s currently disenfranchised.

The bill hasn’t been defeated. It has not even been debated or discussed. It has just quietly sunk into obscurity – with both the media and our politicians perfectly willing to let it die quietly in the night.

And it isn’t alone. There are numerous bills, proposed by both Democrats and Republicans, that have attempted to do very similar things. The American Anti-Corruption Act, and the Grassroots Democracy Act are a few such examples. Numerous people have also led efforts to popularize these ideas, and bring them to mainstream attention. These ideas and proposals may not be perfect, but at least they are attempting to ignite a conversation and improve upon our currently dysfunctional system.

Unfortunately, without the Republicans-vs-Democrats, conservatives-vs-liberals prize fight, such efforts have simply petered out for lack of excitement. The politicians and their lobbyists are perfectly happy with the status quo, and what incentive could they possibly have to shake up a system that is working so well for them.

But things aren’t as hopeless as they may seem. They never are. When the Obama administration botched the rollout, public outcry was so vehement, that the President personally made fixing it his top priority. When the Republicans passed a bill that would have made deep cuts to Medicare, public outrage was so severe that their plans were scrapped almost immediately. When we as voters demand something strongly enough, we get it. The only question is: Do we care enough about political corruption to make it a priority?

We’ve been protesting crooked politicians for decades. We’ve been turning desperately to anti-establishment candidates, one after the other, in an effort to clean up the stink in Washington. Perhaps it’s time we stopped searching for a messiah, and started fixing the rot in our foundations.

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Why I’m never buying HTC again

I’m not a tech blogger, much less an activist. I usually never write reviews about tech gizmos. I just buy devices that I think will be useful, and if my expectations aren’t met, I just quietly move on to some other product.

But after the experience that I’ve had with HTC over the past month, I simply can’t help but shake my head and attempt to put my thoughts on paper, in an attempt to convince myself that I’m not going crazy, and the world is not really as ridiculous as HTC has led me to believe it is. Enjoy.


Bought a brand new flagship tablet from HTC, soon after the device launch. It’s been treated carefully, in excellent condition, when 1.5 years later, it stopped being functional. After being in heavy use for 20 minutes, the display and sound would go berserk, and stop working. At that point, the only thing I can do is to power the entire device off, let it cool down for a couple hours, and hope it works again eventually. Through trial and error, I was able to figure out that light reading and web surfing was fine, but running any multimedia apps, such as games, is impossible to do for more than 20 minutes without the device crashing.

I called HTC support, followed all their suggested steps of factory-resetting the device, to no avail.

I called HTC support again, opened a ticket and mailed the device in to them for diagnosis. Using mail-tracking as they recommended, using my own shipping materials and money, all of which came out to ~$20. A week goes by, and they eventually contact me and tell me that one of the parts on the device is defective, which is what is causing the problems. They tell me that they will have to charge me $100 to fix it.

I bought the device brand new, 18 months ago, for $350. It’s bad enough that HTC sold me a faulty device that stops working so soon, and put me through all this inconvenience, but they also want me to pay an additional $100 just to get it in working condition.

Fine, I’ll go ahead and do it. I give the customer service rep my credit card number. She tries it, and after 5 minutes of me waiting on hold, tells me that their payment system is down and they cannot process my payment today. I ask her if I can pay online, and she tells me that because of my situation, it will have to be over phone. She tells me she will call me back the next day.

One more day goes by, and she calls me again. I give her my card details again, after another period of waiting, she tells me that they are still not able to process it. Apparently it’s because my shipping address is different from my credit card’s billing address. I tell her that’s expected; I use a different billing address on all my cards, and offer to give her my billing address. However, she tells me that HTC’s system literally doesn’t allow her to enter in a different billing address, to process the payment.

Fine, let’s just change the shipping address, and use my billing address as both the shipping and billing address. That’s inconvenient for me, because I’m not currently staying at my billing address, but at least it will allow them to process the payment. She puts me on hold for another few minutes. Eventually, she returns and tells me they can’t do that either. Their system literally doesn’t allow her to change the address, while the service ticket is open.

Ok fine. Let’s close the ticket, change my address, open a new ticket, process the payment, and initiate the repair. She puts me on hold for another few minutes. After a while, she informs me they can’t do that either. The system automatically forces the device to be shipped back to my house, if they close the ticket. I’ll then have to wait a week for it to arrive, and then send it all the way back to them again, just to get it repaired.

Can’t you just close the ticket, open a new ticket, and put the device under the new ticket, without going through this entire song and dance of shipping the device all the way back to me, and having me ship it back again? No. The answer is no.

I ask her if I can talk to her supervisor. She refuses to transfer me to her supervisor. I ask her if I can talk to a someone from the tech team. No, she refuses to transfer me to anyone. I’m not allowed to talk to anyone except her. I ask her if there’s anything she can do to resolve the situation. No. I ask her if she can at least acknowledge that there is some problem in their system. No, there is no problem at all. Everything is working exactly as intended. Because my billing address happens to be different from my shipping address, there is no way for them to process my payment, and there is no way for them to change the address associated with the ticket without shipping the faulty device all the way back to me, and this is exactly how the HTC customer support system is intended to work.

Look, there has to be some kind of backdoor, or human override, or someone I can talk to, or some way to get this issue resolved, right? The answer is no. There is literally no way for them to process my payment in any way. There is no way for them to skip the payment either, on account of their dysfunctional system design. Literally the only thing they can do is to ship the device all the way back to my house, have me change my address to match my billing address, and then ship it all the way back to them again. There is no other way for me to get my 18 month old faulty $350 tablet repaired. And this is exactly how their system is intended to work.

In case I need to say this out loud: I have no plans of ever buying from HTC again.


Update: After having my tablet shipped back to me, I sucked it up and sent it to them all over again. This time around, instead of charging me $100, they have decided to charge me $240 to get the exact same problem fixed. After spending multiple days trying to contact them on the phone, I was unable to get any rational explanation on why the cost of repair suddenly jumped from $100 to $240. Given that I have no plans of spending $240 to get my 1.5 year old $350 tablet repaired, it looks as if my device will never be in good working condition again. I just wish someone could have told me this multiple months ago, and saved me all the countless phone calls, emails and USPS trips that I’ve had to make, for absolutely no reason. Thank you HTC.


Ticket number: 116242879644

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We Need Cruel and Unusual Punishment

Imagine yourself shipwrecked on a desert island, with thousands of other people. You’re forced to build a society from scratch, and as part of that, you need to figure out how to design a criminal justice system.

What are some goals of this system that you may have?

  1. Prevention: The system should prevent criminals from committing crimes repeatedly, and hurting other innocent civilians.
  2. Punishment: It should make the guilty party pay for his crime, and hold him accountable for his actions.
  3. Deterrence: The above punishment should be severe enough that it deters other would-be-criminals from following their base desires.
  4. Rehabilitation: It should rehabilitate the criminal and help him become a positive member of society.
  5. Minimal long-term consequences: The legal system shouldn’t be too burdensome to society, and it should also allow the convict to fully live the rest of his life, after he has finishing paying his dues.

Suppose you decide on a prison system, similar to what we currently have in the States. You have a criminal who has been convicted of violently raping and murdering an innocent girl, and in accordance with the above principles, you throw him into prison. 6 months later, your prison psychologist comes to you with a prisoner report. She tells you that the prisoner genuinely regrets his actions, that he has been rehabilitated, and is of no further danger to society. What do you do next?

Do you release him from prison? After all, he has been rehabilitated, and is of no further danger to society. Prevention and rehabilitation have been accomplished, and wouldn’t be served by keeping him in prison any longer.

But what about punishment? Is it really fair that someone can rape and murder an innocent girl, and the only punishment he endures is a year in prison? Do you want to live in a world where your daughter’s murderer can be released and allowed to fully enjoy life, after just 1 year in prison?

And what about deterrence? If people know that no matter how horrid the crime, they can and will  be released after serving a small fraction of prison time, what impact would that have on the behavior of others who’re contemplating committing similar crimes?

Clearly, the idea of releasing a rapist or murderer after a mere year in prison repulses us, both instinctively and philosophically. We need to punish criminals for their acts, and the punishment should be severe enough that it deters others as well.

But what is the alternative? Should we continue to lock up the convict for the duration of his sentence, long after he’s been rehabilitated? And what about the long term consequences of imprisonment, both to society, and to the convict himself? Even putting aside the societal costs of providing for someone for decades, consider the effects of locking someone up for 20 years, in the prime of their lives, before finally releasing them into a strange world that they are completely unprepared for, and have to face completely alone. It’s no wonder that so many convicts feel so out of place in the real world, that they repeatedly relapse to a life of crime.

What if there was an alternative to both of the above dystopian outcomes? What if we could punish someone in a way that was harsh enough, that people would agree that they’ve paid for their sins. What if we could punish someone in a manner severe enough, that other would-be-criminals are deterred from committing similar crimes as well. What if we could carry out this punishment in a manner that didn’t cripple the convict’s future, and also minimized the costs to society.

Sounds too good to be true? It shouldn’t be. Such a punishment does indeed exist, and has been put into practice by countries like Singapore for decades. It’s the practice of caning.

It’s a form of punishment that  is very painful… by design. It’s painful enough that even hardened criminals fear it. It’s painful enough that it can serve as a very effective deterrent. And yet, it doesn’t cripple the convict’s long term potential in any significant way. Someone who has been caned can make a full recovery within a few weeks, and resume his normal life. As a one time punishment, it compresses all the unpleasantness of a longer-term-jail-sentence, into a very short burst of pain, after which both the convict and society can move on. When dealing with someone who has been rehabilitated and no longer poses a threat to society, it fulfills all the other goals that a criminal justice system is supposed to accomplish, in the most effective manner possible.

And yet, such a punishment will never fly in America today. Given our current societal norms. People decry caning on the basis of it being a “cruel and unusual punishment.” But what does that really mean? Instead of carelessly tossing around that term, as though it’s supposed to end all debate, let’s critically analyze it for a second.

What exactly does it mean for a punishment to be “cruel“? Does it mean that the punishment is too harsh? If you think caning is too harsh, let me ask you the following: Would you rather spend 20 years in prison? Left to rot, away from the world, family and education? Being denied the prime decades of your life? Finally released into a world you can barely recognize, filled with strangers whom you barely know? Or would you rather face a few strokes of the cane, after which you’re allowed to move on with the rest of your life? I personally would choose the latter in a heartbeat. The idea of being locked up for the entirety of my 20s and 30s horrifies me much more than short-term pain. And yet, that’s what we do routinely, every single day.

So what does it really mean for caning to be overly harsh and cruel, when clearly, convicts would choose some degree of caning over longer-term prison sentences? Do we consider caning to be cruel because of its long term consequences? Clearly this is not the case. As discussed above, long term imprisonment has crippling effects on a person psychologically and socially, whereas caning avoids both of those. Even if the medical effects of caning were to come into question, we could always reduce the severity or frequency of the caning, to ensure that the long term effects are minimal compared to that of imprisonment. We could even replace caning with some other form of “discomfort” that is specifically designed to be painful and unpleasant, but not impair the convicts in the long term.

Which brings us to the last argument against such forms of punishment… that it’s “unusual.” Of all the arguments, this seems like the flimsiest. If you go to Singapore, the controversy against caning, would be considered highly unusual. If you go to Europe, the death penalty would be considered highly unusual. If you go to an aboriginal tribe, life imprisonment would be considered highly unusual. If you talked to the founding fathers, the idea of women and Blacks being allowed to vote, would be considered highly unusual. The idea that we should ban practices on the basis of them being “unusual,” seems like the worst reasoning imaginable.

Let’s face facts: Our current system of mass incarceration is horribly broken. It’s time we took stock of what our goals truly are, and how we can best achieve those goals. In order to prevent repeat offenses, and rehabilitate criminals, short term imprisonment can and does indeed make sense. But in order to truly punish and deter criminal behavior, and do so in a manner that imposes minimal long-term costs on both society and convicts, it’s time we started considering other forms of punishment.

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