Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

Posts Tagged ‘ethics

Follow-up: Wordpress and more post-by-email distortions

leave a comment »

Looking at the actual results of the WordPress-spelling issue just mentioned, it seems that all-but-one occurrence of “Wordpress” were indeed turned into “WordPress”—the one that actually was in quotation marks.

This has the advantage that it does allow discussions of spelling and correct quoting of others statements; however, it does so at the cost of an inconsistent behavior, and a behavior that is highly unpredictable. To boot, it does not resolve the overall problem. The correct solution is and remains to keep all occurrences the way that the blogger actually wrote them.

Advertisements

Written by michaeleriksson

January 7, 2019 at 10:53 pm

Wordpress and more post-by-email distortions

with one comment

I have already written about how WordPress distorts quotation marks in “post by email” texts, and why this is idiotic. However, these are not the only artificial problems caused by WordPress. For instance, I have long noticed that line-breaks are often added or removed compared to the display of my HTML original, e.g. in the list entries in my recent blogroll update. Looking at the actual HTML code, I can see that WordPress has simply removed closing paragraph-tags (p) before a closing-listentry tag (li), which is very poor style. Not only does the result indisputably display differently* in my browser, but good code does not rely on implicit closures of that kind.

*Unlike in my original, very preliminary observations, when I first experimented with post-by-email. Then, I had mainly (or exclusively?) seen a removal of tags around the asterisks that I use for footnotes, which indeed did not seem to affect display. (At least in my browser and with the fonts used—there is always a risk that the situation is different in other circumstances.)

Another issue is that I write “Wordpress” (as I attempt here; let us see whether it is changed) with a small “p”, but that this somehow always turns out as “WordPress” (with a capital “P”). WordPress might have its own preferred spelling, but it has no right to impose it on me, especially since the word could conceivably refer to something else in some context (possibly, within a book by Jasper Fforde?). Certainly, there are a few* people who disapprove strongly of such unconventional casing, and imposing something that it disapproves of in such a manner would be doubly unethical—with strong parallels to a recent text on distortion of literary works. Or what about a text (e.g. this one) discussing the spelling, which is now unable to quote the word in variant forms? Or what about an attempt to quote something that someone else said, which simply did not use the preferred-by-Wordpress spelling?

*I am not one of them, but I have sufficiently strong opinions in other areas that I can sympathize and put myself in their shoes in this scenario.

Moreover: What guarantees do we have that no more insidious changes take place (or later will take place)? What if someone decides that words like “nigger” and “fuck” are to be auto-censored*, that all spelling be converted to U.S. conventions to suit the broadest spectrum of readers, or that all occurrences of “he” be automatically replaced by “they” to ensure PC conformity? Also note that there is no notification whatsoever as to what changes have been made, which leaves the blogger the choice between blind trust and entirely disproportionate checks and/or manual corrections.

*In the context of forums, such auto-censorship is relatively common, and often applied in an utterly idiotic manner. For instance, words like “analyst” can be turned into “****yst”, because the filters do not differ between a stand-alone “anal” and “anal” as part of a larger word with an entirely different meaning. (The question aside, whether “anal” is worthy of censorship in any context.) On the other hand, they are typically foiled by variations like “f*ck” or “F-U-C-K”, the censorship of which would be much less unreasonable (but still disputable!) than a plain-text “anal”.

This is all the more annoying, since one of the reasons that I use post-by-email is to avoid the extreme fuck-ups that WordPress causes through its GUI*.

*Cf. e.g. the current state of a text dealing with “Google’s ideological echo chamber”, where a post-by-email malfunction forced me to correct the text in the GUI—with very weird layout results. (Actually, this might be yet another example of consistent idiocy: I used the HR-tag, which has over-time been redefined from meaning “horizontal ruler” to “general content separator”. Because my original posting attempt was cut off exactly where the HR-tag was, I suspect that WordPress has imposed an even further going private semantic of “end of post”, which would yet again be an inexcusable meddling contrary to reasonable assumptions. However, I have made no further experiments with said tag in conjuncture with WordPress.)

The only reasonable solution is to respect the actual words and code of the blogger.

Disclaimer:
In order to avoid additional complications through possible WordPress interference, some of the above formulations are less explicit than they would be in another context, e.g. in that I speak of “paragraph-tags (p)” where I would normally have included an explicit tag example.

Written by michaeleriksson

January 7, 2019 at 10:31 pm

Those elusive Christian values

leave a comment »

A while back I wrote a footnote on Christian values:

Exactly what is meant with this expression is another thing that can vary considerably, but by-and-large few see them as negative, and what forms the “common core” is almost invariably (including by me) seen as something positive, notably the “Golden Rule” and related values.

This has left me a bit dissatisfied, especially with the problem of widely varying interpretations of the phrase and the knowledge that quite a bit of what Jesus taught is not followed by modern Christian and/or does not meet my own approval*—not to mention the differences between the Old and the New Testament**.

*For instance the idea of “turning the other cheek”, which could result in disaster (but the related idea of forgiveness is potentially a different issue). Charitable acts without strings attached is another thing I find problematic, because the consequences can be negative. Other points, e.g. a negative take on material values, leave me torn: Seeing material things as less important and living in modesty are good things (if not necessarily easy), but extremes like giving everything to charity and living as a monk are a different matter. I see nothing wrong with a degree of comfort; extremes of all types, even apparently virtuous, tend to do more harm than good; and a society without at least some people striving for wealth (and having other ambitions) would be doomed to poverty and stagnation—to the point that we would likely still be living in the stone age and would be unaware of Jesus and his now pre-alphabet teachings… Other yet are things where I could see a benefit in principle, but would be unable to comply. Notably, “love thy neighbor” is a tricky one for a misanthrope…

**Including the sometimes preference of the Old over the New by Bible proponents when it happens to match their ideas or agenda, even though the New Testament should take precedence when it comes to things Christian.

To remedy this dissatisfaction, I today visited a few Wikipedia links and did a few searches—and feel that I got nothing for the trouble.

For instance, the English Wikipedia article appears to be written by someone who has capitulated in face of the problems, spending half the (short) article on listing alleged world-wide “conservative” and “liberal” takes. A part from these being more U.S. centric than world wide, they contain a number of too specific items: How, e.g., is teaching “intelligent design” a (conservative) Christian value? (Even disregarding that many or most Christians, including almost all Swedish, do not believe in it…) How, e.g., is “high, progressive income tax” a (liberal) Christian value? For that matter, this is not necessarily something that even a U.S. liberal Christian would necessarily agree with, let alone see as Christian. The part of the article dealing with the New Testament is truly lazy; the Old is left out..

The German article does a better job , but also notes that “Ein allgemein akzeptiertes, in heutiger Terminologie genau konkretisiertes Verzeichnis christlicher Werte ist daher kaum realisierbar.”*

*The gist being that it is not possible to find a list of Christian values that would be accepted by everyone. I refrain from a direct translation, largely because “in heutiger Terminologie genau konkretisiertes Verzeichnis” is the type of sentence fragment that should be taken out and shot.

Other sources found are mostly similar, contentless, or depict a too personal view to be interesting.

It seems clear, however, that the Ten Commandments and the “Sermon on the Mount” (which includes the “Golden Rule”) are of great importance to any discussion. I will refrain from a more detailed analysis (lacking the time to do the necessary leg work; but also see the first footnote); however, I note that the latter is more likely to contain controversies and differences between supposed and actual behaviors, and that the former is mostly free from controversy once the religious parts are left out and noting that there are allowances for circumstance* in typical interpretations.**

*E.g. in that killing is allowed in self-defense situations.

**A remaining complication is whether a violation occurs already with the thought or only with the action. That we should not sleep with the neighbor’s wife is uncontroversial; if we must keep “naughty thoughts” about her out of our heads, then controversy is hard to avoid. (As the recurring reader knows, I am a strong believer in thoughts not being punishable—only actions.)

Surprisingly little time appears to be spent on “the seven deadly sins” and the opposing virtues, whereas I would have thought them central. While these are quite open to interpretation, many or all could be seen as beneficial for both the individual and society in at least some interpretations. Avoiding sloth, gluttony, and wrath might be beneficial in all reasonable interpretations. As an aside, I have long found these to be more a matter of instructions on how to lead a happy life than e.g. on how to please God or how to fit within society.

A very different source gives me an equally different angle, especially with the common U.S. intermingling of Christian and family values. I have been revisiting “Family Guy” lately, which has a (highly ironic!) theme song of:

It seems today that all you see is violence in movies and sex on TV

But where are those good old fashioned values on which we used to rely?

[…]

(Quoted, with some editing, from http://www.lyricsmode.com/lyrics/f/family_guy/family_guy_theme_song_lyrics.html.)

These two sentences* catch much of the Conservative view on the issues, while also explaining much of the attraction of Conservatism. Honestly: Where are those good old fashioned values?

*The first obviously giving only a special case to be taken as representative.

Written by michaeleriksson

November 19, 2017 at 2:42 pm

Disturbing privacy violations

leave a comment »

Some selected quotes from very disturbing news article :

Muhammad Rabbani*, a director of Cage*, convicted of obstructing counter-terrorism police when stopped at Heathrow

*I have no idea what positions Rabbani and Cage take, or whether they are worthy of support in general. No such support should be implied from this post—what I do support is Rabbani’s right to keep his privacy from a government that discards human rights.

The international director of the campaign group Cage has been found guilty of obstructing counter-terrorism police by refusing to hand over his mobile phone and laptop passwords.

The verdict confirms that police have powers in port stops under schedule seven of the 2000 Terrorism Act to demand access to electronic devices, and refusal to cooperate is a criminal offense.

This is a gross violation of the rights of privacy, especially privacy from snooping governments, that everyone should have. Cf. e.g. a previous article on the topic or a similarly themed satire post.

This type of password demands are absolutely absurd, starting with the fact that there is no particular reason why someone crossing the border* of a country should be exposed to deeper checks than someone currently residing within the same country**. The situation is not analogous to a regular baggage check, because what is stored on a device cannot blow a plane up, cannot be used to perform a hi-jacking, cannot be stabbed in the eye of a flight attendant, …

*Or e.g. traveling domestically.

**Rabbani appears to have been returning to the U.K. In other words, even a highly dubious attempt to filter out “unwanteds” based on device contents would have been misplaced in this specific case.

There is, in fact, very little to gain through such checks and there is virtually no legitimate reason why a check should take place—even assuming that the intrusion on the rights of the passengers/citizens/whatnots were tolerable. Barring an even more unethical installation of malware for the purpose of spying on the device owner in the long term, the most that can be achieved in suitably short time-frame is to briefly look at the device owners emails, desktop files, or similar—and this is not something that e.g. a member of a terrorist organization or organized crime should reasonably fall for. Anything that could have been of legitimate interest can be expected to be too well hidden; what can be found is highly private information that is no business of the government’s whatsoever (e.g. who had a vacation affair with whom—not to mention the whole “intimate picture” problem).

No, in order to have a reasonable chance of finding something legitimate (barring unethical malware…), the device would be needed for several hours or a full copy has to be made—which in turn can take hours and possesses extreme risks where private data is concerned (e.g. through inadvertent leaks). With a proficient hider of information, the hours go into days, might require a specialist in computer forensics, and possibly still turn out to be in vain. If in doubt: Should the government have a high hit ratio, the conclusion of those who have something to hide would be to not carry the information past such check-points… (Instead keeping it in one place and e.g. distributing copies per i2p when needed.)

To boot, such demands for passwords can also violate the rights of third-parties or force the device owner to violate contractual obligations. Consider e.g. the case of a work laptop or the utterly insane idea that people traveling past customs should be obliged to give out their social-media passwords.

This is the type of thing where the public should legitimately take to the streets and demand that their rights and interests are respected—very much unlike e.g. the protests against Donald Trump. (Cf. e.g. a recent post.) Even comparing with his country-based restrictions on visitors, this is an outrage: The country-based restrictions serve a legitimate purpose and can have some success in achieving this purpose; this type of snooping, on the other hand, is useless. The former only rarely infringe on the reasonably expected rights of others*; the latter does so whole-sale.

*We can discuss whether entirely free movement should be allowed, but the fact remains that it is not. A great many countries reserve the right to refuse people entry, and even restrictions based on e.g. country of origin are quite common, and this has been the norm historically. The increasingly free movement we see today is as big a novelty as modern day governmental snooping—outside of dictatorships. Exceptions where a reasonably expected right would be violated occur e.g. when a foreigner residing in the U.S. is refused re-entry after visiting his home country. (Which is a possible outcome of Trump’s suggestions, at least according to his opponents.)

Written by michaeleriksson

September 25, 2017 at 10:14 pm

Children vs. parents vs. the government (circumcision)

with 2 comments

Yesterday, I came across a blog post on calls for a ban on circumcisione beginning with “The loony Left is at it again.”—surprising, because while the Left is often loony, circumcision is a very real evil (I will expand on this side-topic below) and something which I would expect at least the Libertarian right to strongly oppose.

Upon my protest, the author replied that:

The issue is not circumcision; it’s whether some Left-wing (or Right-wing for that matter) Moon-bats know better than parents and should be allowed to intervene in child rearing. Just look around and see the results. We are in the 5th decade of the Progressive experiment to have Social workers and other government agencies take over the responsibilities of raising our children. Object failure with kids coming out of school who cannot read, teenage pregnancies and abortions at all time highs.

Government does very little right. Suggestion that we continue to cede parental rights to it makes no sense.

While there is more than a grain of truth in this comment, it also contains several missteps. Seeing that these missteps reflect an attitude I have seen on a number of occasions, I will try to straighten them out:

  1. The core issue is the rights and best interests of the individual (in this case, the child—not the parents!) and how to protect these.

    In many cases of government intervention, rights and interests of the individual are infringed upon. This is the case e.g. when highly inefficient and unduly time consuming schooling is opposed on children, when boys are put on Ritalin just for being boys, or when schools are abused for indoctrination; this is the case e.g. when hard-earned income is stolen (typically through taxes), when “affirmative action” destroys equality of opportunity and prevents companies from hiring the most suitable candidates, or when marriage and family is turned from something a man can be proud of into a divorce-trap of alimony payments and unfounded accusations of domestic violence or sexual abuse.

    Here, however, we have something else entirely, namely the government protecting the rights of the child against the misdeeds of the parents. (Notably, unlike some other cases, e.g. where social workers take children from a sub-optimal environment to put them in a down-right poor one, this is not an issue where the risk of incompetence in the handling of individual cases is a concern.)

  2. Parents have obligations towards their children, but their actual rights (from an ethical POV) are highly limited: A child is not a possession. Arguments based on parental rights are therefore almost always fundamentally flawed: It is, for instance, wrong to argue that a parent (or government!) should have the right to perform religious or political indoctrination. (However, an argument based on undue legislation preventing parents from fulfilling their obligations can still be valid.)

    Indeed, in many cases, we have a conflict between two parties (parents and government) who do not have rights and who have different opinions as to what is in the child’s best interest. The question now becomes one of the lesser evil (or, occasionally, greater good)—parents or government. As the poster correctly remarks, the government is very often the greater evil; further, supporting the parents has the advantage that damage can be limited: The typical individual parent, if incompetent, will only do damage to 1–3 children; the government can screw up an entire generation. Cases like circumcision (cf. above and below), however, are of a different character.

Why is circumcision something that children should be protected from? It has no known benefits, but can have medical side-effects—including infections after the operation or reduced sexual pleasure as an adult; in rare cases, penis-loss or even death follows; and there are speculations about psychological trauma (however, I would generally urge to caution when allegations of trauma are raised, until considerable proof is presented). Further, it is a permanent alteration of the body and thus a decision that should be made by the individual for himself at a time when he is sufficiently mature to do so. Further yet, unless there is compelling evidence of benefits, the “natural” state should be given preference, as it is less likely to bring unforeseen problems. (Note that there are some alleged, but unproved, benefits, including claims about a reduced transmission of STDs; however, apart from the lack of proof, these would be relevant in cases of poor hygiene and insufficient use of condoms. A far better solution, then, is to address hygiene and use of condoms.)

To make a brief compare-and-contrast:

  1. Tattoos are similar: Permanent alteration with no benefits and some risk of medical complications—a decision to be made by the individual.

  2. Vaccination: Does bring some risks, but also considerable benefits (if restricted to those vaccinations that are medically sensible). Further, the non-positive permanent effects are negligible or non-existent. The case for vaccination is, therefore, far better.

  3. Amputating a limb to avoid possible death (e.g. due to gangrene): This decision is sufficiently large (including severe permanent damage) that it should be left to the adult individual; however, unlike circumcision, it cannot be. By the nature of the situation, the decision has to be made within a highly limited time frame and unless the child is already old enough to make at least a semi-informed decision (in which case his opinion should be given due weight) some constellation of parents and physicians must take the responsibility. The case for the parents making the decision is far better than for circumcision (however, it does not automatically follow that “amputate” would be the right decision in any given case).

  4. Corporeal punishment (on a moderate level): No permanent bodily damage is done, the risk of medical complications is very low, and there could be (this area is insufficiently researched, but there is considerable anekdotal evidence and general plausibility) benefits in terms of effective child-raising. Psychological damage, in turn, seems to arise not from (moderate) corporeal punishment, but e.g. from unfair or gratuitous punishment and emotional punishment. Corporeal punishment is then more justifiable than circumcision. (Under the mentioned constraints and with some reservations for future research.)

A few interesting reads on the topic:
http://www.circumcision.org/studies.htme
Sexual_effects_of_circumcisionw
Medical_analysis_of_circumcisionw
http://www.menweb.org/histcirc.htme

Written by michaeleriksson

May 29, 2011 at 12:10 pm

Lack of consistency between ethics and actions—“You would do the same!”

with one comment

It is far from uncommon to be met with the argument “You would do the same in that situation. [Implicitly: Therefore, there is nothing wrong with doing so.]” (with many variations) when discussing the ethics of a particular behaviour. This post is mostly intended as standard answer to give to those who follow this, in my eyes, highly naive line of argumentation.

I argue the following:

  1. That someone else would also act in a certain manner in a certain situation does not make that action ethical—it can equally point to human fallability. Speaking for myself, I make no pretense of being infallible, and I readily admit that it is easier to preach than to practice.

  2. Such hypothetical situations can be dangerous; in particular, because there is often a great difference between what people say that they would do and what they actually would do. (For a number of reasons, including lying, honest misestimation, inconsistent actions and opinions from event to event, considerable dependency on circumstances, and the possibility that an unthinking “auto-pilot” action takes place.)

    In contrast, the use of well-formulated ethical dilemmas asking for what is right and wrong (not “What would you do?”) can be a valuable guide.

  3. Similar dangers arise from the fact that behaviour in specific situations will vary from person to person. For the same reason, “You would do the same.” is often even an incorrect argument, and certainly not generally convincing.

    Individual opinions on ethics are perfectly legitimate, and unavoidable, but more abstract reasoning can make them smaller and less arbitrary.

  4. There is typically more than one side to any issue and merely focusing on what one party would do cannot generally lead to a conclusion about what is right and wrong.

    A specific example: Picture yourself on an aeroplane with all engines malfunctioning. As one of two passengers, you have the opportunity to grab the one parachute and survive—or you can give the parachute to the other passenger and take a (hypothetically) 10 % chance of surviving the emergency landing. In this situation, the “You would do the same!” argument may seem plausible to you—but now picture yourself in the shoes of the other passenger instead…

    Note in particular the Golden Rulew.

  5. Case specific reasoning can easily create an inconsistent “system” of ethics, with analogous situations being treated very differently based on unimportant circumstances and superficially differences, and where broad and general rules are replaced by a large set of detailed regulations. Compare the following hypothetical rule sets:

    It is wrong to steal, unless considered necessary in order to avert a danger to life and limb or damage which is disproportionally larger than the damage caused by the theft. In the latter cases, due care must be taken to minimize the damage to the owner.

    It is wrong to steal, unless the theft is of a boat to rescue someone drowning, but only if there is no other means to save him; or of a chainsaw to cut someone out from under a fallen tree, but …; or of …, but …; [and so on ad nauseam].

  6. Humans are generally far too driven by instinct and egoism for them to be considered (naturally) ethical, and ethics is therefore best agreed upon in advance, from an abstract and disengaged “ivory tower” POV, and not left to the individual in the moment. (Where “ivory tower”, in this specific use, should not be taken to deny the value of previous practical and personal experiences of various sides and issues—quite the contrary.)

I stress that the above is directed at those who look for ethical justification or try to divert criticism—not those who are willing to admit to ethical fallability or to egoism. (Nor those who can give an ethical justification by other means.)

In a close parallel, I have heard the dangerous variation that ones “true” ethics, what one truly believes to be right and wrong, would only be revealed in a time of need. This, of course, makes a mockery of the concept of ethics—and is often hypocritical: It amounts to saying that the speaker never violates his ethics, never commits a wrongful act, but only adapts his understanding of right and wrong. A more self-insightful approach would be to realize that he is not perfectly moral, that he is human, that he occasionally does things that he should not do.

Written by michaeleriksson

November 8, 2010 at 4:18 am

Unethical ToS and similar documents

with 2 comments

I am one of the rare exceptions who often actually takes a look at the contents of the ToS and related writings, before I sign up for a service. The result of this is, more often than not, that I choose not to sign-up… Such is the character of the typical ToS.

A particular annoyance is the common combination of claims that use of a service implies acceptance of the terms, that the terms are subject to regular change, and that it is the responsibility of the user to regularly re-visit/re-read the terms. While the first two, alone, may be acceptable, the result of combining them with the third is unconscionable—and, likely, a deliberate attempt to make sure that the users do not know what they agree too at any given time. Notably, it is not practically possible to keep up-to-date with all the services of today, re-reading the entire documents after each update is a disproportionate amount of work, and there will almost always be some window of unawareness after every change—even for those who do try to keep up (or else every single use would require re-reading the ToS).

With some over-simplification, we have two occurring cases:

  1. The user has entered some kind of formal or semi-formal association, including having provided contact information or having a fix account which he logs into. In this case, it is very obviously the responsibility of the service provider to use these mechanisms to explicitly make the user aware of the changes. Doing so is cheap and easy—and since the same mechanisms are typically used to force various forms of advertising down the users’ throats, they are within what the provider must consider reasonable.

    Not doing so? That is based on the wish to not inform the user of changes to his disadvantage. Notably, I have repeatedly received on-paper messages from e.g. banks along the lines of “Our ToS have changed. If you do not consent please object within two weeks. The new ToS can be reviewed in our locales.”—where it would have cost nothing to just quote the changes in the letter…

  2. The user is not formally registered, but e.g. an ordinary visitor of a website. In this case, the most reasonable interpretation is that the ToS simply do not apply, that they have not been brought to the users attention in a manner that is sufficiently obvious to be binding.

Between these, there are obviously various mixtures and variations. Most (not necessarily all) will be invalid for reasons deducible from the above.

Generally, deliberate attempts to make the users not read these documents are common. Consider e.g. the common practice of putting parts of the text in near unreadable all-caps, the use of fine-print or footnotes for vital information, or the absurd practice of putting a text that should fill a long HTML page in a minuscule and entirely unnecessary text area. This if the text can, at all, be found: Even today, it is not entirely unheard of that e.g. the ToS are so well hidden that the user has to deliberately search for them, should he wish to view the contents.

Among the many other evil tricks, we have the in-the-ToS clause that allows the service provider to abuse the users data in more or less anyway he sees fit—something which should always be solved by a separate, explicit query as to whether the user is in agreement. (Further, something that is usually sufficiently irrelevant to the service it self that a “no” should not have any effect on the users possibilities to use the service—in particular not, when he is actually paying for the service.) We have the “we may spam you” clause, the “we may irrevocably delete your contents or terminate you account on our whim” clause (as opposed to e.g. a “we may block your contents/account pending a clarification on our whim”), the “no matter what we do wrong, you have no rights to indemnification” clause, the “if someone hacks your account, you bear the full responsibility” clause, etc.

Some of these have some justification at least some of the time; however, the way they are formulated (and, typically, applied), the balance between legitimate interests is tipped far beyond what is conscionable and ethical. In fact, at least in Germany, it is relatively common that even the ToS of a major off-line business (a bank, a telephone provider, whatnot) are found to be in violation of the applicable laws—typically, in my impression, not through oversight, but through a deliberate attempt to trick the users into believing that they have less rights than they actually do have. I even recall one instance when Amazon tried to rule out my legal right to return a mis-order by pointing to, believe it or not, statements on their help pages… (Which, even had they conformed to the law on this point, would not have been legally binding in any way, form, or manner.)

Written by michaeleriksson

April 29, 2010 at 11:39 am